Tag Archives: human dignity

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

Darwall and the Emperors’ New Clothes – A Reading Note

I’ve been nodding my head enthusiastically as I make my way through Stephen Darwall’s account of the second-personal character of moral obligation. The Second Person Standpoint anticipates and articulates questions I have to address when it comes to what I’ve been calling the power of asking. It’s as if someone has drawn a clear a map of a path I am preparing to walk. But the other day I came across the following passage about the Edict of Milan that threw me and still has me puzzled. It reads like a costume drama, with characters from the 4th century garbed in 20th century philosophical robes: wardrobe by Austin (“felicity conditions”), Strawson (“resented… and blamed”) and Falk (“guiding… not goading”).

Consider the demands a king or an emperor makes of his subjects, for example, the Edict of Milan, which the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius promulgated to stop Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. If Constantine and Licinius resented violations of this demand and blamed violators when they lacked adequate excuse, then in interpreting them as addressing (and so guiding) their subjects by second-personal reasons and not goading them, even by rational coercion, we must see them as having been committed thereby to regarding their subjects as capable of recognizing the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing and of guiding themselves by it. The normative felicity conditions of a command that can generate genuine second-personal reasons include the addressees’ capacity for such a practically effective recognition. Qua second-personal address, the edict presupposed subjects’ aptitude for this second-personal relation, specifically, their capacity for reciprocal recognition and acceptance of their responsibilities to the emperor and, as well, their capacity to discharge their responsibility through this recognition.

Notice the way Darwall carefully stages this example and hedges the history here with a conditional (“if Constantine and Licinius”) and such carefully wrought turns of phrase as “in interpreting them as addressing” and “we must see them as having been committed.” If we remove all that apparatus, I wonder, does this amount to anything more than saying that in issuing an edict, Constantine assumed his subjects would be able to recognize its authority and follow it? I supposed it’s fair to say Constantine expected compliance, and Darwall is just getting at what’s behind that expectation. But then what makes the Edict of Milan different from any other edict or law promulgated and enforced by any ruler or regime? Why single it out?

I see the point about Constantine committing himself to his subjects’ “capability to recognize the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing”. We are asked to believe that issuing the edict carried “presuppositions of second-personality” that would have committed Constantine to the “the equal dignity of persons and to morality as of a form of mutual accountability” — had they only been “fully worked clear.”

I’m just not sure there’s much historical specificity to the historical example here; and the anachronistic language makes matters worse. I don’t think Darwall would want to argue that the “aptitude for second-personal relation” somehow became particularly prominent or recognizable in 313 (the year the edict was issued). Nor does he seem to suggest that that aptitude – or the presupposition (if not the explicit recognition) of that aptitude on Constantine’s part – has any historical specificity at all.

Just a few moments before this, Darwall has admitted that “for most of human history, it has seemed to people that any justified order is quite incompatible with the kind of moral equality that many readers of this book, at least, might be willing to take for granted.” But for Darwall people in all historical periods seem to enjoy equal moral standing; you and I and a 4th century peasant, soldier or the Emperor Constantine himself. This is admirably egalitarian, but I am not so sure it makes for very good history. At the very least it suggests that Darwall doesn’t seem to regard the dignified stature of mutually accountable second-persons itself as a historical construct – something that emerged, let’s say, with the modern subject or early modern ideas of subjectivity, or something that could pass away with certain institutions or practices.

Darwall wants to argue that we have this dignified stature (in part, at least) because we are capable of recognizing ourselves as second persons within a moral community. Apparently we have always been so capable (and, I take it, always will be). For most of human history, we just haven’t fully known it or taken appropriate measures to demonstrate it, or, at least, we haven’t realized and reflected our mutual dignity and equal accountability in political institutions or a social order.

In the next chapter, Darwall will identify “tensions within early modern voluntarism” – in the work of Locke, Pufendorf and Suarez – “that lead in the direction of morality as equal accountability.” It seems philosophy will change and take new directions but human beings qua moral beings don’t, or don’t have to. We already are members of the moral community. We may not come into the world fully clothed in our dignity, but the world gives it to us. The moral community of free and rational persons, equal and mutually accountable, populates history in all periods, in the 4th century as well as the 21st, even though for most of human history there were no “justified relations of authority,” institutions or political order that explicitly recognized, supported or protected it.

As I say, I’m puzzled by this, and not sure exactly where it’s heading, or if Darwall will work the problem out in this book. History here appears to trace an arc of gradual enlightenment, with the moral community of equally dignified and mutually accountable persons finally coming into its own and creating appropriate institutions, philosophical constructs and orders – from the Edict of Milan right up to the present, I guess, when things are almost fully worked clear.

“It Is Claiming that Gives Rights Their Special Moral Significance”

This passage from Feinberg’s “The Nature and Value of Rights” (here’s a Google books link ) helps me to frame and think further about what I said in my previous post on John Ruggie and respect, so I want to set it down here as a kind of postscript.

Where I used the word “demand,” which carries some sense of asking (like the French demander), and talked about respect as something we “ask” of others, Feinberg settles on the more legalistic “claim,” and most writers follow him. I can probably do the same and allow his work to inform what I have to say about “the power of asking.”

Claims are, after all, a kind of asking, a crying out (cf. Latin clamare); they call for an answer, and I think this becomes tolerably clear later on in the same essay, where Feinberg talks about “valid” claims; and in the passage below, where Feinberg offers the thought that  that “‘human dignity’ may simply be the recognizable capacity to assert claims.”

I would probably want to flip that point around or jostle it a little, to emphasize the role of recognition and the critical role second persons play in recognizing the dignity of first persons. If “it is claiming that gives rights their special moral significance,” then it’s fair to suggest that “moral significance” is something mutually created by those who make claims and those who recognize them, or at least recognize another’s capacity to make them.

Even if there are conceivable circumstances in which one would admit rights diffidently, there is no doubt that their characteristic use and that for which they are distinctively well suited, is to be claimed, demanded, affirmed, insisted upon. They are especially sturdy objects to “stand upon,” a most useful sort of moral furniture. Having rights, of course, makes claiming possible; but it is claiming that gives rights their special moral significance. This feature of rights is connected in a way with the customary rhetoric about what it is to be a human being. Having rights enables us to “stand up like men,” to look others in the eye, and to feel in some fundamental way the equal of anyone. To think of oneself as the holder of rights is not to be unduly but properly proud, to have that minimal self-respect that is necessary to be worthy of the love and esteem of others. Indeed, respect for persons (this is an intriguing idea) may simply be respect for their rights, so that there cannot be the one without the other; and what is called “human dignity” may simply be the recognizable capacity to assert claims. To respect a person then, or to think of him as possessed of human dignity, simply is to think of him as a potential maker of claims. Not all of this can be packed into a definition of “rights”; but these are facts about the possession of rights that argue well their supreme moral importance.

Machines and Monsters or Thriving Markets?

If you haven’t yet read it – and I admit I am late on this, as I am on nearly everything else – have a look at John Cassidy’s profile of Bridgewater hedge fund manager Ray Dalio in the July 25th issue of The New Yorker. Cassidy exerts most of his energy trying to figure out whether Bridgewater, which has bragging rights as the world’s richest and biggest hedge fund, is a Fountainhead cult, a Maoist re-education camp, or just a big bond-market player that happens to be run by a super-rich sociopath with intellectual “pretensions.” I was most struck by the passage where Dalio is “rambling” about how “everything,” or “almost everything,” is a “machine.”

“Almost everything is like a machine,” he told me one day when he was rambling on, as he often does. “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.” His constant goal, he said, was to understand how the economic machine works. “And then everything else I basically view as just a case at hand. So how does the machine work that you have a financial crisis? How does deleveraging work—what is the nature of that machine? And what is human nature, and how do you raise a community of people to run a business?”

I’ve talked about this view of nature, “the life cycle,” and the world as a machine in another context. Its philosophical heritage stretches back at least to the 17th century. But in Dalio’s case it’s hard to decide whether this is a considered view, informed by careful reading and thinking, or just some immature posturing, intended to create the impression that Dalio is an amoral übermensch. It’s not even clear how seriously Dalio takes himself: is everything a machine or is everything “like” a machine? The distinction is a crucial one, but Dalio wants to have it both ways.

It’s unfair, I suppose, to expect coherence and rigor from ramblings. And yet Dalio’s express goal – “to understand how the economic machine works” – deserves to be taken seriously. He’s betting the future of his firm on it; it’s key to his success. And it’s not just an offhand remark. As Cassidy explains, this mechanistic outlook is of a piece with Dalio’s crude social Darwinism.

He regards it as self-evident that all social systems obey nature’s laws, and that individual participants get rewarded or punished according to how far they operate in harmony with those laws. He views the financial markets as simply another social system, which determines payoffs and punishments in a like manner.

There’s nothing self-evident about any of this; and to track “all” social systems back to “nature’s laws,” whatever those are, is merely to admit one’s ignorance of social arrangements and social history and to confuse metaphors. The confusion, moreover, is not just Dalio’s; it’s general, and it fails us every day.

When, like Dalio, we regard the economy as a “machine,” and markets as a “social system,” we are inclined to put the system first and relegate people to the status of beneficiaries or collateral damage. The system does not serve human priorities. Instead, we put aside those priorities to keep a dysfunctional system running. The system “determines payoffs and punishments”; the system is the ultimate arbiter of our lot in life. We’ve already surrendered.

But we don’t have to. Umair Haque put up a postyesterday called “How Our Economy Was Overrun by Monsters and What to Do About It.” It offers a reminder that the market is a social construct – our construct, something not just hedge fund managers but human beings from all different places and all walks of life make and remake every day. And what we’ve created, says Haque, are monsters of opulence and greed, rather than markets that work for people and help us thrive. This is not just a moral reproach and it’s not (at all) an anti-capitalist rant. It’s simply about getting priorities right, and putting human prosperity before the efficiencies of a dysfunctional machine.

Ron Paul Didn’t Just…No, He Didn’t

For a brief moment yesterday, I thought that Ron Paul had introduced one of the most brilliant and important pieces of legislation in the past decade, maybe in the past two or three decades.

That turned out to be my misreading. Paul’s American Traveler Dignity Act is a single paragraph, carefully crafted response to the stupid, abusive and bullying practices of the TSA. And I like that it puts the emphasis where it belongs, on human dignity – which is exactly what airport security takes away from the people it is supposed to protect, even if there is no touching of junk or x-rated x-ray imagery. Take off your shoes, take off your belt, stay in line, take orders, don’t joke, show your papers, give us your keys, give up your toiletries, answer the question, empty your pockets: submit.

The text of Paul’s Dignity Act (H.R. 6416) reads as follows:

No law of the United States shall be construed to confer any immunity for a Federal employee or agency or any individual or entity that receives Federal funds, who subjects an individual to any physical contact (including contact with any clothing the individual is wearing), x-rays, or millimetre waves, or aids in the creation of or views a representation of any part of a individual’s body covered by clothing as a condition for such individual to be in an airport or to fly in an aircraft. The preceding sentence shall apply even if the individual or the individual’s parent, guardian, or any other individual gives consent.

But that wasn’t exactly the way the bill was advertised, and this isn’t the language that got me excited. “Ron Paul,” wrote one blogger, “has introduced a bill saying the government can not do to us what would be illegal for us to do.” This turned out to be a paraphrase of something Paul himself said when summarizing the bill on Wednesday evening. “The bill I’ve introduced… It’s very simple. It’s one paragraph long. It removes the immunity of anybody in the Federal government that does anything that you or I can’t do.”

Now that would be a great act. Imagine a bill that stated, simply, that the Federal government and its agents cannot do anything citizens cannot do. Or, more precisely, that the Federal government and its agents are subject to the very same laws to which you and I are subject. That would be the equivalent of saying that the law applies equally to citizens and those elected to govern their affairs. The bill would have a great leveling effect, introducing what is, without exaggeration, a revolutionary idea – that all are equal before the law, that citizens can stand toe-to-toe with the people who govern them, and that government is no longer the refuge of tyrants and scoundrels.

But would anyone in Congress ever support such a revolutionary bill? As of this morning, just two Republicans, Walter Jones (North Carolina) and and John Duncan (Tennessee), had joined Paul as co-sponsors of his act. It seems unlikely anyone in the current Congress would want to support anything so radical as the measure I thought Paul was introducing.