Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Rehabilitation of Ebenezer Scrooge

The badness of Ebenezer Scrooge is summed up in this little exchange with Marley's ghost:
"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's."

"Business!" cried the ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business."
In On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One's Own Business: Toward the Political Rehabilitation of Ebenezer Scrooge, philosopher Jerry Gaus defends Scrooge's attitude as exactly what is required in a liberal society.
The main criticisms of liberal society that have emerged over the last hundred years have all objected to its “live and let live” morality. James Fitzjames Stephen criticised John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, insisting that the principle “let every man please himself without hurting his neighbour” was “subversive of all that people commonly regard as morality.” To the conservative, a society’s morality is, first and foremost, about ensuring the virtue of its citizens, and so what others do with their lives is the business of everyone; thus the traditional conservative insistence that pornography, prostitution or homosexuality is indicative of an unsavory character. “There is,” Lord Devlin pronounced, “a general abhorrence of homosexuality. We should ask ourselves in the first instance whether, looking at it calmly and dispassionately, we regard it as a vice so abominable that its mere presence is an offence. If that is the feeling of society,” he concluded, “I do not see how society can be denied the right to eradicate it.”
Gaus deals with three different types of society: conservative societies, which enforce traditional norms of behavior on all their members, and two others he calls the Great Society and the Multicultural Society. Advocates of a Multicultural Society think diversity is good because all cultures are equally important, so the more we have the better. Advocates of the Great Society don't much care about good and bad, they simply think we should tolerate anyone who isn't troubling the rest of us:
This indicates the sharp contrast between the Great Society and the Multicultural Society. The Multiculturalist accepts that we live in a diverse society, but she insists that we should learn to appreciate other cultures and our differences. And we should appreciate them, it is said, because each has value. Indeed, some go so far as to insist that each culture has equal value. Charles Taylor is somewhat more careful. The proper attitude, he says, when approaching another culture is only a presumption that it has equal value. Perhaps after study we will conclude that it does not; but we ought to approach all cultures assuming that they have equal value to our own. Taylor is especially critical of those who are insensitive to the value of other cultures.
But to Gaus, multiculturalism has some troubling similarities to conservatism:
Multiculturalism thus seems the most open attitude to difference, endeavoring to understand it and appreciate its values. It might thus seem that multiculturalism is as far conservativism as one can imagine. Surprisingly enough, in an important way the two are very close. For multiculturalism also accepts that we need to live among those of whom we approve and whose lives we value. But this necessarily limits the plurality of society: while we can appreciate the differences of both Asian and European literature, it seems quite impossible to insist that we all appreciate and value Larry Flint’s particular blend of prose, photography and art. So that must be beyond the pale.
Thus both conservatism and multiculturalism get caught up in valuing different ways of life and telling people which they ought to prefer, which to Gaus is equally dubious whether it is done by Puritan ministers or left-wing anthropologists. Both can stray into the dangerous territory of telling other people what they ought to think.

Gaus uses feminist attacks on pornography as test cases of his view that other people's thoughts are none of our business. The basic feminist argument against pornography is that it encourages men to think of women in horrible ways. To Gaus this should not matter, because in the Great  – i.e. liberal – Society,
we live among and with people whom we do not like and of whom we often think badly, and we cannot claim a right to be conceived of only in ways we approve. 
We simply have to accept that some of our neighbors will hate and despise us and construct our institutions so as to keep that from doing too much harm.
But feminists make a second claim: the viewing and selling of pornography is the business of all women because the conception of women propagated by pornography undermines the public status of women and so their civil rights. If feminists are right about this the Great Society is impossible; at bottom their claim is that one cannot be a full juridical person in a society in which many others hold negative or dismissive conceptions of you. If this is so, a society in which citizens are public equals is only possible if we all appreciate each other and hold non-dismissive conceptions of each other. But this multiculturalist ideal is only plausible if we restrict the range of acceptable ideas, giving a less than equal freedom to undesirables— those who demean their fellow citizens. This list of demeaners is extensive, including racists, women-haters, men-haters, many fundamentalist Christians, militant atheists, Nietzscheans, militant vegetarians, animal rights activists . . . [very long list] . . . . In one way or another each of these groups present images of others that those others find offensive and demeaning, and which seek to lower the public status of the target group. To be sure, some of these attacks are of marginal importance from a “social perspective,” but they are no means marginal to those who have to live with these dismissive conceptions. And if the group “viewers of pornography” is large and influential enough to undermine the social status of women, then a good number of these other groups are also sufficiently large and weighty to undermine the public status of their favourite target. But the existence of a free society among strangers depends on the possibility that, despite these challenges to our preferred self-conceptions, an equal civil status is possible. And that, once again, brings us back to the possibility of at least minimal moral autonomy. If such autonomy is impossible, or if we live in a society where most have not achieved it, then what my neighbour thinks of me will be my business, and the regulation of her thoughts and conceptions of me will be a legitimate concern of mine.
From Gaus' perspective the activities of "social justice warriors" revolve around the idea he singles out: that we cannot have a free and equal society unless "we all appreciate each other and hold non-dismissive conceptions of each other." Thus it is not enough for society to allow gay marriage; everyone must think this gay marriage is great and LBGT people are awesome. Legal equality of ethnic groups is inadequate or even a distraction; what we need is to abolish racism.

I would much prefer a world with less hate. I have spent my adult life shunning hate and pursuing compassion, to the best of my limited spiritual abilities. But I am not at all on board with this program of abolishing hate and prejudice at any cost, because I do not accept that we have any right to control what other people think. This was the reason I reacted so strongly against the attacks on Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, after he donated money to the campaign against legalizing gay marriage in California. Nobody could find a bad word to say about Eich as a colleague or boss, or point to a single example of him engaging in anti-gay or any other sort of prejudice. That being so, to my mind what he actually thinks is nobody's business.

Everybody is a hater. To crusade against haters is, therefore, to crusade against all of humanity. Most of the social justice warriors who fling around accusations of hate and prejudice hate all sorts of people, starting with southern conservative white men. The usual dodge they employ to excuse themselves is that hatred of those in power is something completely different from hatred of the weak. This is nothing but the old Bolshevik argument against enemies of the people, dressed up in hippy clothes, and I am not having it. It reeks of the Gulag. In practical, political terms fulminating against welfare queens or gypsies is a little different from raging against Wall Street tycoons, but to hate any group of people is still dangerous both to the whole society and the souls of those doing the hating. The Bolsheviks who embraced murdering aristocrats should have known that one day the knock on the door would be for them. In less apocalyptic terms, I have often noted here that when left-wing student protesters push for limits on other's people's speech, those limits always end up being used against the protesters themselves. The only way to insure that you are always free to say what you think is to guarantee that everyone has the same freedom.

Yes, there is something cold-blooded and theoretical about Gaus' argument. It is of course impossible to completely separate how we think and feel from what happens in society. "Society" is nothing but the actions and opinions of people. What others think of us does matter, and no legal regime can protect us from the effects of being widely despised. Simple psychological tests show that even people who think they are anti-racist prefer to work and socialize with people who look like themselves. Anti-discrimination laws can only do so much in the face of entrenched prejudice. Removed from the theoretical plane and put back into a real social context, the notion that we should all strive for indifference is both impractical and a little gross.

Yet to me the alternative of policing each other's thoughts is worse. If something beyond non-discrimination laws is needed to rectify racial and gender imbalance, let it be numerical quotas or some other system that imposes no burdens on what anybody thinks or feels.

I understand that what other people think matters to us; I suppose that by writing here and in lots of other ways I try to influence what other people think. But to me the idea that you get to tell me what to believe is unutterably awful. This has led me to think hard about what we can and cannot ask of each other. I think we can absolutely ask others to treat us decently, and to moderate their public speech. But I do not think we can demand that they approve of us. I do understand that the need for approval is great, and that to be despised is awful. I understand why people crusade for approval of their lifestyles and identities. Great, go for it, persuade whoever you can persuade. But be very, very careful about condemning the others, even in your own thoughts.

8 comments:

G. Verloren said...

Gaus' argument seems to boil down to complaining that tolerant people are intolerant of intolerant people.

There must always be a line drawn somewhere. The question is where you choose to draw it. You can either base your objections on arbitrary grounds such as religion or ethnic identity or tradition or other irrational things, or you can choose to object to demonstrably harmful behaviors.

It is impossible to not object to anything, short of attaining some form of Buddhist enlightenment and total detachment from the world. It is likewise equally impossible to "construct our institutions so as to keep (our neighbors hating and despising us) from doing too much harm". Institutions do not exist within vacuums - they are an extension of the cultural values of the people who construct them.

You can't have a society in which your laws and institutions forbid something without that inherently being a rejection of the prohibited behavior. You can't forbid murder without creating the implicit understanding that murder will not be tolerated. Protecting the murder-intolerant segments of society from those who would seek to murder them inherently means objecting to murder, and by extension to those who value or champion it. Pure "hands off" coexistence between murder-tolerant and murder-intolerant cultures simply is not possible, because the values of one party or the other must necessarily be infringed.

So what ultimately matters is choosing which values to infringe upon, and why. Obviously we reject murder because it is demonstrably harmful both to individuals and to society as a whole. There is a strong rational argument to be made against it. The same kind of reasoning is why we regulate businesses, why we place certain restrictions on freedom of speech, why we create laws, and why we tax the populace and put the proceeds towards public services - we seek to protect people from the predations of their neighbors, and to promote general wellbeing among all.

And so it needs to be for all our choices regarding which values to embrace and which to reject. When we draw the line, it need to be because we have a rational wish to limit harm and to promote the public good. And when people try to draw the line in improper places, wishing to object to things on irrational grounds, we need to refuse to allow it.

David said...

On the basis, I admit, of one read of your post, I get the impression that Gaus is effectively positing two kinds of people: the Gausians, who operate under a ferocious and austere self-discipline to avoid making any negative judgments on anyone, and the rest of the people, who happily go along their regular ways, judging people they don't like and expressing all sorts of preferences and hates and hostility-venting, until the world comes full circle and the hate gets turned on them and they get what's coming to them, just like the Bolsheviks.

Can I be in the second group, the group that's like, alive?

David said...

Oops. By your post, I meant John's.

David said...

And, if we must be Gausians, how will I get that warm, special feeling I get when I denounce @pithom as a vile racist? And how will you (@John) know the joy of issuing that First Blast Of The Trumpet Against Them As Would Keep Others Off The Grass? And how will we experience that portentous, high-minded dread that comes from knowing that we're going to suffer what's coming to us someday, and that it's so richly deserved? I mean, really! Let's have no more of this Gaus stuff!

John said...

I think the key point of Gaus' argument is this question: can you have a democratic society made up of groups that despise each other? If not, what are we going to do about it? Our current answer is, "fudge," which is our answer to all sorts of philosophical questions. And maybe that is good enough. But I still think it is important to raise this flag whenever anyone's program boils down to "the rest of you should all change your minds and adopt my way of thinking."

David said...

Maybe, but Gaus' answer seems to be, "I'm going to take all your toys away."

David said...

I mean, it's been years since I've heard of a philosophy so utterly joyless.

After all, if someone's program boils down to, "the rest of you should all change your minds and adopt my way of thinking," we can have the fun of denouncing that person as a fascist. Unless we're a Gausian, in which case we have to mind our own business.

John said...

Touché.