an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘human rights

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt

 

Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

On free will and libertarianism 3: freedom and politics

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Canto: So I’ve tried to establish my claim that free will just doesn’t exist, which will of course be rejected by those who are obsessed with the notion, who go on at length about freedom from government, the ‘system’, conformism, gender norms, religion, taxation, and so on. Of course, it would be highly unusual to hear any humans asserting their freedom from being human. We all seem to recognise that we’re stuck with that constraint. So, what is it, to be human?

Jacinta: Well I’m not sure if you’ve succeeded in convincing me about a complete lack of free will. It may be a product of complexity – that’s to say, we just don’t know what all the determining factors are, they’re so mind-bogglingly complex that the sense that we’ve made a particular positive or negative decision through the processes of unconstrained thought is probably the best explanation we can make in many circumstances. Isn’t that more or less the compatibilist argument?

Canto: Well, maybe, but I don’t think we’re the best judges of our own decision-making processes, just as, evidence shows, we’re not the best judges of our own abilities, our sex appeal, and so forth. For obvious evolutionary reasons, we’re inclined to think better of ourselves than others think of us. It helps us to keep afloat. But let’s turn now, for a while, to political libertarianism. First, it’s based, it seems to me, on the concept of rights, which is rather recent, though undoubtedly useful in trying to outline for individuals the needed conditions for a fruitful life. 

Jacinta: Inauspicious beginnings, as we’ve discussed before, but perhaps coming of age as a useful guide with the Universal Declaration. But there’s an obvious problem with basing our ethical and political values on individual liberty when we’re clearly the most hypersocial species on the planet. 

Canto: Yes, and that hypersociality has involved the development of somewhat coercive hierarchical state systems such as the feudal system in its various forms throughout Eurasia. These dominance systems, however, have been phenomenally successful for the spread of our species and for our own overall dominance of the biosphere. 

Jacinta: And a domination based on control of land has since morphed into a dominance based on markets. But it’s much more complicated than that. State control has integrated people in terms of language, customs, religion and so forth. As we’ve already pointed out, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, our jobs, our education, we didn’t create any of these as individuals but acquired them as part of an organisational structure that existed long before we came into being and will continue long after we pass. Isn’t all this rather problematic for libertarians?

Canto: Yes, I’ve pointed out before that libertarianism is really a product of the success of the state system, of hypersocial civilisation. The individual, who is in many respects the product of all this social construction, has been so benefitted by it that she feels she owes it all to her own striving, somewhat like the ungrateful offspring of an all-giving mother. 

Jacinta: Who’s she, the cat’s mother? But it’s interesting that a lot of disadvantaged people, really quite poor people, are stridently anti-government. Look at so many Trumpet types. His buffoonish incompetence predictably led to dysfunction in every sector of government, to the total delight of his supporters. Would you call these people libertarians?

Canto: Well I doubt if they would call themselves libertarians or have much idea of what the term meant, but I’m sure many of them would be in the category of those who rarely or ever vote, who would see, and suffer from, the inequities of society, which are of such a complex nature that one of the easiest targets for their ire would be government. After all, those in government aren’t poor by their standards.

Jacinta: “Don’t vote, it just encourages them”. Yes, these are people without easy connections to big business, higher education, or political clout. Constraints on free will, you might say?

Canto: The politics of resentment, as you realise that particular avenues don’t seem to be open to you, and you might not have even known those avenues existed until it was too late. So these people shouldn’t be labelled as libertarians – their plight is too complex to be pigeon-holed in such a way. The ‘real’ libertarians base their position on the evolution, over the past few centuries, of the concept of rights. They’ve taken the Universal Declaration, based squarely on the individual…

Jacinta: Having at last, in the 20th century, expanded on the ‘man’ part.

Canto: Yes, and they’ve run with it, especially with regard to restraints on individual freedom which affect others, from freedom from taxation to freedom to drive dangerously crappy cars, own hand-guns or go about unmasked and unvaccinated during a pandemic.

Jacinta: Not to mention freedom to exploit others in employment. Doesn’t the USA have about the lowest minimum wage rates in the WEIRD world? Not to mention low rates of what they call ‘unemployment insurance’, which is taxable and of limited duration. “Stop scrounging off the government, get out there and get exploited like us…”

Canto: Yes, we love USA-bashing. But of course libertarianism is far from an exclusively US ideology, anyone can indulge in it. But it does seem to rely heavily on individual freedom as a right, and since free will is a myth, IMHO, that’s a bit of a non-starter. But here I want to talk about rights. I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a great advance, not because of its promotion of rights particularly, but because it was a first attempt to be fully global about the conditions for human flourishing. These conditions will always need to be tweaked, because humanity is evolving. Rights are a useful human construct but we need to be aware of their fundamental artificiality. This artificiality can hopefully be more easily uncovered when we note that they’re based on the individual, an entity that simply doesn’t exist outside of the society or culture that brought it into being. You can, of course, isolate a human being, just as you can isolate a chimp, a bonobo, an elephant, a dolphin or a crow, but you cannot understand or explain or define any of these creatures without understanding the species, sub-species, culture or community they belong to. If we were to talk about the ‘rights’ of a crow, for example, we would have to talk about the conditions required for a crow’s flourishing. And it’s those conditions that really matter, not the crow’s ‘rights’. So ‘rights’ talk is really a way of talking about something else, something much more important. 

Jacinta: So… let me be clear about this. Have you just demolished rights as a fundamental concept?

Canto: Haha, well I’ve just tried to establish, or promote, a more fundamental concept, which goes back in history well before the concept of rights. Aristotle used the term eudaimonia, though whether it was his invention, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter really. Think of it as the conditions for flourishing – whether for a human, a guppy or a tardigrade. They all need their own species to keep on keeping on, as a species. 

Jacinta: Ah, but group selection is a myth isn’t it?

Canto: No, not group selection. The individual, being part of a group, or species, seeks to mate with other members of that species, which is not a sacrifice for the group, far from it. The individual is in some very strong sense motivated to replicate itself through reproduction, which indirectly benefits the species.

Jacinta: So these conditions for flourishing take into account individuals as individual members of something larger, a culture, a species, etc? 

Canto: Yes precisely, that membership of a larger whole, which for humanity has become a more global, hypersocial whole than ever, due to our capacity for destruction – nuclear arsenals, destruction of habitats, greenhouse gas emissions, the production of waste and so forth – makes a mockery of the individual’s claim to freedom of action, when they simply can’t and don’t exist outside of that hypersocial, productive and destructive community. We just need to understand what has made us human, and it’s not what libertarians seem to think it is. And that’s really fundamental. 

Jacinta: Well that’s interesting. Libertarianism really seems to stand and fall on rights, unless there are some types of libertarianism that take a different tack. 

Canto: Yes I’m not really sure if I want to explore the topic any further.

Jacinta: Haha well then that’s all for now. 

References

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/

the anti-bonobo world 1: the BHT

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 14, 2022 at 8:09 pm