Tag Archives: respect

More Meaningful Consultations: A Comment on the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations

The incoming administration promises to reinstate the tribal consultation mandate. More can be done to meet the standard set by the RESPECT Act and make consultations more meaningful.

Federal agencies are required to consult with Native American tribes (and with Alaska Native Corporations) on infrastructure projects — highways, dams, or railways, for instance — and on permits for mines, pipelines, and other industrial development projects when they affect tribal lands and interests. Consultation policies and practices vary from agency to agency, but in all cases these consultations are supposed to be “meaningful.” What makes them so needs to be carefully spelled out.

“To promote robust and meaningful consultation,” the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations promises to reinstate the Consultation mandate put in place by the Obama administration and “ensure that tribal consultations adopt best practices consistent with principles reflected in the RESPECT Act.” The Act in question is H.R. 2689, which languished in the House after being introduced by Representative Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona in the 115th Congress. The Act sought to establish, among other things, this Sense of Congress:

effective, meaningful consultation requires a two-way exchange of information, a willingness to listen, an attempt to understand and genuinely consider each other’s opinions, beliefs, and desired outcomes, and a seeking of agreement on how to proceed concerning the issues at hand; and consultation can be considered effective and meaningful when each party demonstrates a genuine commitment to learn, acknowledge, and respect the positions, perspectives, and concerns of the other parties.

The Act sets the bar for everyone involved. It describes meaningful consultation as deliberation among equals, a good faith undertaking to seek (but not necessarily reach) agreement together. It places more emphasis on recognizing different perspectives and positions than on reconciling them. It highlights a genuine and joint commitment to listen and develop understanding of each party and of the issues. Meaningful consultation will go well beyond mere transaction — or information exchange — to encompass learning and collaboration. Rooted in mutual respect, consultation can be both a dignifying encounter and an adventure.

The standard the RESPECT Act sets for meaningful consultation is worth reaching for right now, even if it remains to be seen whether Representative Grijalva will reintroduce the bill and whether the 117th Congress will make it law. Here are a few areas where work might begin.

  • Information ethics should develop with information systems.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office study of 21 Federal agencies discovered an information gap: agencies simply do not have accurate contact information for the appropriate tribal representatives. To remedy the situation, the GAO recommends that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council develop a plan for establishing a central federal information system. While centralization might serve the FPISC goal of administrative efficiency, it can also raise significant issues around security and trust. Sharing control of data and data governance with tribes might help alleviate such concerns.

Information systems are already evolving to accommodate new collaboration technologies (like channel-based messaging and videoconferencing) to support consultation. Best practices still need to be identified and shared; and, just as importantly, inequities need to be addressed. As noted in the Biden-Harris plan, rural areas and reservations are disproportionately underserved by high-speed internet. It will take significant investment in broadband and 5G before new applications can be brought into the mix.

Where information technology can help consultation in other ways — with topological, geological, and archaeological reviews — other ethical considerations arise. Centering the discussion on shared data and published scientific information can help temper conversation and prevent powerful outside groups from exercising undue influence, but the model also has its limits. When scientific understanding appears to be incommensurate with tribal knowledge of the land, waters, and regional history, respectful consultation will strive to give both due consideration.

  • Dialogue will determine the value of information.

The text of the RESPECT Act itself could be amended to reflect its own sense of what makes consultation meaningful. The Act aims to “ensure that meaningful Tribal input is an integral part of the Federal decision-making process.” In this caption and throughout the Bill, the effect of the word “input” is to cast tribes as information sources, not full-fledged participants. Gathering or recording tribal input is only the first step at building dialogue, where information acquires meaning.

The colorless, technocratic term “input” appears to have found its way into the legislative lexicon via the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (Section 204), which calls upon agencies to “permit elected officers of State, local, and tribal governments…to provide meaningful and timely input.” Five years later, Executive Order 13175, still the touchstone for tribal consultation policies, moves beyond granting tribes permission to mandating “an accountable process to ensure meaningful and timely input.” This order does not, however, contemplate ways federal agencies might be accountable to their tribal counterparts, as they would be in a cooperative undertaking.

No surprise, then, that sixty-two percent of tribes surveyed by the GAO “identified concerns that agencies often do not adequately consider the tribal input they collect during consultation when making decisions about proposed infrastructure projects.” This finding appears to indicate that agencies cannot consider all by themselves the input they collect. Due consideration will take building “meaningful dialogue” — as a 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation puts it — through “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration.” It is best undertaken jointly.

  • Consultation still falls short of consent.

The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes that states “shall consult and cooperate with the indigenous peoples” to this clearly-stated end: “in order to obtain” Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. A 2010 State Department Announcement of US support for the Declaration fails to take into account the subordinating conjunction “in order to” and the purpose it unambiguously indicates, allowing only that the US understands the Declaration “to call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders.” Instead of securing informed consent, as required by UNDRIP, the consultation process becomes a way of reserving discretion.

From the tribes’ perspective, as summarized in a 2017 study, consultation is merely box-checking unless undertaken with the aim of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent or at least reaching compromise. The Biden-Harris plan takes a step in this direction, promising to “uphold leasing and right-of-way regulations that strengthen tribal sovereignty and ensure tribal consent on tribal lands.” The plan makes no mention of the UN Declaration, however, and it remains to be seen how far this deference will extend.

Consent places front and center issues of self-determination, of autonomy and, in the context of government-to-government relations, sovereignty. One test of respect for self-determination comes when tribal leaders withhold consent or say “no,” as the obligation to obtain consent clearly implies the right to withhold it. Efforts to overlook or sidestep that obligation altogether are bound to diminish confidence that consultations will be appropriately heeded and outcomes will be just.

This serious shortcoming — which cries out for remedy — need not be a fatal flaw. “No” might signal a standoff or it might offer an opportunity to articulate and explore alternative plans. Good faith, constructive disagreement can test unexamined assumptions, illuminate unseen risk, and bring new interlocutors to the table. Agreeing to disagree need not mark the end of negotiation; it can indicate that parties will acknowledge differences, respect the distance they establish, and rejoin the dialogue.

Though consultations do not satisfy the human rights obligation to secure free, prior, and informed consent and do not necessarily yield agreements, they can help agencies take tribal interests into account and help tribes gain better understanding of (and some say in) decisions that affect them.

On a practical level, starting consultations early and returning to them throughout the life of a project can prevent conflict and costly delay further down the road. Just as importantly, consultation can help agencies gain much-needed perspective on emerging risks and complex problems, from economic and energy policies to food security and environmental protection.  And taking steps to improve tribal consultations might also raise the bar for other public consultations, making government a little more responsive to all citizens.

Ultimately, however, consultation will be meaningful only to the extent that all parties so find it.

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.

Austin and Asking

Ask is a verb: to ask is to do something or, usually, to do a number of things. To ask is, first and almost always, to address someone, even, I’d say, when you are wondering aloud to yourself (“what’s it all about?” or “what’s wrong with me?” or “why do I put myself through this?” If they are not simply outbursts or exclamations disguised as questions, these are often indirect and emotionally-charged ways of asking, “what am I going to do?”). To ask is to do other things as well: to inquire about something, someone or some state of affairs, to request clarification or permission, or to make a demand (as the French verb demander reminds us.)

Turning the verb into a noun — talking about “the ask” — confuses the address and runs roughshod over this whole range of human activity and human relationships that asking might involve.

Sometimes that’s deliberate. It allows people to pretend they aren’t giving an order when they are, or to present an order as an institutional requirement, to deflect questions about power and authority or just make it impossible for people to say no, as they should be able to do if you are genuinely asking them to do something. (Always take no for an answer might be another rule of asking; but I can easily think of exceptions, as when, for instance, we demand respect or claim rights. Those are obviously special cases.) There are all sorts of ways besides these in which talking about “the ask” as opposed to asking skirts questions of power, surrenders authority and takes authority from others. It’s a big drain.

I’m trying to take things in exactly the opposite direction: I want to talk about asking as an exercise of power, and the verb “ask” as an exercitive. (It seems it would be easiest to do that in cases where we are making a simple demand — e.g., “I ask that you remove your foot from mine”.)

I’m borrowing the word “exercitive” here from J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, where Austin comes very close a number of times to talking about what we do when we ask, close enough to encourage my own thinking in this direction. He makes some intriguing remarks about asking as an illocutionary act that “[invites] by convention a response or a sequel,” and in this context he differentiates asking to from asking whether you will or asking yes or no and the different responses they invite.

Unfortunately, when Austin directs his attention to the verb “ask” near the very end of his lectures, in a discussion of his dictionary “fieldwork,” he gives very little guidance.

In Lecture XII, Austin includes ask among the Expositives — verbs “used in acts of exposition involving the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and references.” (Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “the expositive is the clarifying of reasons, arguments and communications.”) This is how Austin himself uses the verb “ask” throughout How To Do Things With Words: he often introduces an argument with “we may ask,” “we must ask,” “we should naturally ask,” “we are now asking,” “it may be asked at this point,” and so on. The lectures themselves can be read as an exercise in expositive asking.

Item 3a. “Ask” listed among the expositives in the final lecture of How To Do Things With Words

Ask is one of an “enormous number” of expositives, Austin says, which “seem naturally to refer to conversational interchange.” The verb is, however, listed here all by itself as item 3a, a subset of the little group that includes inform, apprise, tell, answer, and rejoin. Why not include it with the others? It appears that ask is a special case of some kind, its own item.

Based on my reading I can’t say exactly what kind of item Austin considers it to be. I’m not sure anyone can say for certain. The text of How To Do Things With Words is reconstructed from Austin’s lecture notes, auditor’s notes and a few other sources. According to Urmson, who edited the first edition of the lectures, “there is no definite key to [this list of expositives] in the extant papers.” (I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the second edition to see if Austin’s later editors have added anything more on this point. Update 6 Feb 2015: I checked; they do not.)

There’s enough in these lectures to suggest that we need to go well beyond the confines of item 3a even to make sense of asking on Austin’s own terms. Austin readily admits that expositives might be “exercitives…as well,” if they “involve exertions of influence or exercise of power.” The distinctions aren’t sharp. Things can get fuzzy. So “asking me to” do this or that is close enough to ordering (“order” tops Austin’s list of exercitives) that it can sometimes cause confusion: “sometimes you are not ordering me”: you can’t, because you “are not in the appropriate position to do so” and don’t have “the right,” but it sounds as if you are because you are “asking me to rather impolitely.”

Consider, for example, someone who approaches you at a nightclub and says “Dance,” and another who asks, “Would you like to dance?” Both are asking you to dance, but the first sounds as if he is ordering you to dance, and he’s in no position to do that.

Bugs Bunny’s playful response subverts Yosemite Sam’s order to dance. Sam has a gun, so he can coerce a dance, but as the comedy here demonstrates, he doesn’t have the authority or intelligence to order Bugs Bunny around.

Of course things can go to the other extreme, and Austin is interested in situations like these: for example, someone who approaches you in a nightclub, clicks his heels together, bows gracefully and, upon rising, asks “Would you care to dance?” or inquires whether you might do him the honor of listing him on your programme du bal for the evening.

The things that have to be in place, the conditions that have to obtain for you to order me, are not the same as those that obtain when you are asking me or when we are having a conversation about what to do. It helps to be polite, but good manners are not all there is to it; and as we see in the example of the bowing gentleman at the nightclub — or Austin’s own example of the offended man who challenges another to a duel by saying “My seconds will call on you” — every form of courtesy has its season. Genuine respect and the authority it confers on others (and some measure of empathy as well) are the appropriate kinds of deference when it comes to asking: we are, after all, trying to share power, not just seize it.

To the Edge of the Gap with Satya Nadella

It’s hard to believe that the people around Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella did not prepare him for a question about the pay gap at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, and even harder to believe that they would advise him to tell women to stop asking for a raise and place their “faith,” instead, in “karma.” Nadella must have gone off script, or lost his talking points on the way to Phoenix. He tried to backpedal on Twitter later in the day, but by then the damage was done.

There is a transcript of the mess here. Nadella starts by talking about the inefficiencies of “HR systems” and ends up endorsing a corporate caste system, in which karma determines station. He advises talented women that the arc of Microsoft universe is long, but bends toward justice: they should keep the faith, keep working and just keep quiet about the whole equal pay thing.

Today, he’s repented, in an email to Microsoft employees: “if you think you deserve a raise, just ask for it.” He’s also committed, he says, to closing the pay gap at Microsoft. The trouble is, telling women they should “just ask” for raises may indicate that the CEO has found a formula that will allow him to remove his foot from his mouth, but it isn’t going to solve the problem.

In fact, research by the organization Catalyst — which I’ve written about in another post — shows that while the system may reward men in roughly the way Nadella describes, giving them “the right raises as [they] go along,” it does not so reward women; and when women ask for raises, their requests go unmet. It’s hard to have faith in a system like that.

The whole incident brings me back, of course, to my ongoing interest in the power of asking, which is the power in question here.

“Just ask” sounds like permission; but permission does not necessarily entail power. What’s fascinating about the Catalyst research on what happens when women ask for raises is that it clearly shows that the power of asking is a power we have to confer on others: it’s the power we give the other to make claims (or demands) on us.

We confer that power when we recognize the other’s status as a second person, or — to put it another way — when we recognize in them an authority equal to our own.

Respect that authority, and we are mutually accountable to each other. Disrespect or disregard it, and we deny others the status of persons, make them instruments of our will or means to our ends. We dehumanize them, or fail to acknowledge them as fully human.

Of course, respect of this fundamental order is not something Nadella can institute at Microsoft by tweeting about “bias,” emailing his apologies or by executive fiat. But a good place to start the broader conversation about closing the pay gap (at Microsoft, in the tech industry or throughout the business world) might be to see it, and approach it and address it as a basic power gap that only true respect for persons can bridge.

From Aping to Asking

Joseph Jordania offers a clever but not entirely satisfying answer to the question posed in the title of his book Who Asked The First Question?

“The first human being.”

Did asking questions make us human? Maybe not exactly, or at least that can’t be the whole story. But to be human is to ask questions, and clearly the ability to ask things of each other — to request clarification, to invite others to join with us in some activity, to make offers and claims or demand reasons — is at the very core of human social life; and in primate cognitive evolution, asking or the power to ask must represent a significant turn toward the human.

A 2004 study of chimpanzee gesture sequences by Liebal and Tomasello suggests that apes do not request clarification in the way we do, from infancy, to help the other convey meaning or in order to negotiate meaning collaboratively. Asking for clarity, we recognize the other, show that we appreciate the role she is playing in trying to communicate with us, and we make meaning together; and just as importantly — and on a more basic level — we commit to the project. It’s not language use that differentiates us here; it’s the commitment (though I would not be surprised if these turned out to be indistinguishable and inextricable). The so-called “speaking” bonobo Kanzi will play with toys or participate in the preparation of food, but so far as researchers can tell, Kanzi lacks understanding that he is doing these things together with you: he is not jointly committed with you to the activity, does not recognize your role or support you in it.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

For Tomasello and his colleagues, our amazing ability to co-create meaning or even to coordinate through request and reply isn’t what ultimately sets us apart. The first human may have asked the first question, but the power of asking and language use itself is “not basic; it is derived.” “An adaptation for participating in collaborative activities involving shared intentionality” is the more fundamental evolutionary step, write Tomasello et al. in a 2005 paper on human cognitive evolution. “At some point — perhaps heralding the emergence of modern humans some 150,000 years ago — individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage.”

Early human life, in this view, does not look so nasty, brutish and short, or at least not so nasty and brutish; and Tomasello is aware that he’s running against the prevailing “Machiavellian” account of human evolution. He offers a “Cultural account” of human cognitive evolution that “emphasizes … the importance of collaboration, cultural historical processes, and strong reciprocity based on social norms.” Putting the emphasis on collaborative give and take instead of on winner-take-all competition may not make sense of every step in our evolution, but it helps Tomasello bring into focus an important aspect of human cognition. Specifically, he argues that it was through collaboration (not competition) that we became highly skilled at reading and sharing intentions.

Although intention reading may be helpful in competitive interactions, it is not absolutely necessary — since in competition I care mainly about what you do. That is to say, in competitive interactions, the interactants do not have goals about others’ intentional states; the situation is that we both have the “same” goal (e.g., both want that piece of food), and the key thing is that I anticipate what you will do next. In contrast, collaborative interactions require interactants to have goals about others’ intentional states so that the requisite shared goals and plans may be formulated. Thus, in collaborative interactions, we are faced with the so-called coordination problem from the outset: to get started, we must somehow coordinate or negotiate so that we end up with a shared goal…Then, in addition, to collaborate effectively, we must mesh our action plans at least some of the way down the hierarchy — and this requires some communication about those plans, at least to some degree ahead of time.

“The motivations and skills for participating in this…’we’ intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children’s developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.” In other words, we are hard-wired for soft sharing skills — born to collaborate. At only 14 months of age, infants “begin to understand full- fledged intentional action – including the rudiments of the way people make rational decisions in choosing action plans for accomplishing their goals in particular reality contexts and selectively attending to goal-relevant aspects of the situation.”

This kind of understanding leads to some powerful forms of cultural learning, especially imitative learning in which the observer must perform a means-end analysis of the actor’s behavior and say in effect: “When I have the same goal I can use the same means (action plan).” This analysis is also necessary before one can ask why someone did something and whether that reason also applies in my circumstance (“rational imitation”).  Without such analysis, only simpler forms of social learning are possible.

That is how, to riff on the horrible pun I’ve chosen for the title of this post, we manage to do more than simply ape the behavior of others; we learn by analyzing and asking. We can learn recipes and social rituals, make tools and share techniques, build bridges and launch sea voyages. We can inquire whether another’s reasons match our circumstances, and when we make that effort at rational imitation, we have only just begun to tap the power of asking. In order to ask why someone did something, after all, we must first see them as someone who has reasons: we ascribe rationality to them and to ourselves. You are someone who acts with reason, for reasons, and so am I. We are mutually accountable, so we can demand (or ask) that we bring reasons for our actions.

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.


Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.

“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.

Is Respect Really All That Simple?

Last week, John Ruggie addressed the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, where a “new global architecture” for corporate sustainability was unveiled and celebrated. Ruggie started out by talking about the special challenges — the “problems without passports” — that the world’s “tightly-coupled” systems present, and the inadequacy of our “largely self-interested politics” to address them. This was not, however, the brief he’d been given, so he had to move on; and I hope he’ll have more to say on the topic in the future. Instead, Ruggie had been asked, he said, “to say a word about respect,” and — not surprisingly — he took the opportunity to talk about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how the framework helps companies meet their obligations to respect human rights.

I have been asked to say a word about respect, specifically about respecting human
rights. Its meaning is simple: treat people with dignity, be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders. But while the meaning is simple, mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice: companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights. This is where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights come in. [pdf.]

Fair enough, but I found myself pausing here, and wondering whether the meaning of “respect” is really so simple as Ruggie makes it out to be, or at least whether “treat people with dignity” is sufficient guidance.

I understand that Ruggie’s intention here is largely rhetorical: we all know what respect means, but we need more than fine words, declarations and definitions. We need practical and consistent ways of acknowledging, checking and demonstrating human rights commitments — “systems” like the UN Guiding Principles.

Still, there are good reasons to start unpacking — and challenging — this simple definition, if only to ward off misconceptions.

First, to say that “[to] respect” human rights means “[to] treat people with dignity” (and leave it at that) invites confusion, because it passes the semantic buck from respect to dignity. If we are to treat people “with dignity” — if that’s our definition of respect — then we had better have a good working definition of dignity to govern or temper our treatment of others.

Of course, the word “dignity” is a staple of human rights discourse, so we’ve got to make allowances for shorthand here. If we don’t — if we want to take the long route and spell things out — we will most likely find our way back to Kant’s moral theory. I’m not going to attempt a summary here except to say that for Kant, dignity imposes absolute and non-negotiable constraints on our treatment of other people. Our dignity derives from our moral stature as free, rational and autonomous agents — ends in ourselves — and cannot be discussed in terms of relative value (or usefulness, or any other relative terms). It must be respected: in other words, dignity imposes strict and inviolable limits, absolute constraints, on how we treat others and how others treat us.

Most obviously people may not be treated merely as means to our ends; and that caveat is especially important when it comes to business, where, for starters, people are valued and evaluated as priced labor or “talent,” in terms of services of they perform or as “human resources.” To respect the dignity of people — “be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders” — is to recognize them as persons (or ends in themselves) and not just mere functions in an efficiency equation.

This is hasty pudding, but suffice it to say that in the Kantian idea of dignity there is the suggestion that respect follows from our recognition of others as persons: this is an idea suggested by the word “respect” itself, which comes from the Latin respicere, to look back, to give a second look. Every person deserves a second look — or I should say, demands it. Recognition is something we demand of others and others demand of us.

I like to put it this way: respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing we ask of each other. How we respond to this demand will depend in all cases upon whether we understand that our dignity as persons makes us mutually accountable or answerable to each other in the first place. So before we can talk about how we “treat” others — before we jump, with Ruggie, to considerations of behavior — let’s take a couple of steps back, and make sure that when we talk about respect we are also talking about recognition as well as accountability.

Of course all of this may be implied in Ruggie’s definition, and I wonder if recognition and accountability are just other ways of saying that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights. My concern is that when you gather business leaders at the UN and tell them that to respect human rights is to treat people with dignity, you may leave them with the mistaken impression that dignity is something they have the power to confer on others, rather than something that makes them answerable to others. Dignity is not something the mighty can grant or deny the meek, and respect is not another word for benevolent gestures companies might make toward communities, workers and other stakeholders. Where people stand, business must yield.

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.


Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.