Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Euston Manifesto

The Euston Manifesto - Home

We are democrats and progressives. We propose here a fresh political alignment. Many of us belong to the Left, but the principles that we set out are not exclusive. We reach out, rather, beyond the socialist Left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment. Indeed, the reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values.

I've just signed the Euston Manifesto--do thou likewise (if you agree with the version of unrepentant liberalism represented on this blog).

In spite of the incompetence and corruption of the Bush regime, and popular disapproval, it is unlikely that Democrats in the US will benefit unless progressives commit to a reasonable, coherent political agenda and disabuse the American public of popular myths about liberalism.

In the US, the Left's agenda was set during the Vietnam era and remains inextricably linked with the anti-war movement and the cultural revolution of the period. To most Americans, Liberalism means playing Dove rather than Hawk in both foreign and domestic policy, denigrating America, and buying into the romantic cultural relativism that was popular amongst privileged undergraduates during the late '60s.

That is not what Liberalism is all about. The core value of Liberalism is the liberation of individuals from constraints imposed by race, sex, class and all unchosen circumstances that limit their options. I, and many other Liberals believe that, as a matter of empirical fact, the most effective way to achieve these ends is through social engineering, stringent, rigorously enforced government regulations prohibiting discrimination and a big government tax-and-spend welfare state. But whatever works is fine with me.

These ends are however inimical to cultural relativism. Traditional societies are racist, sexist and tribal--they severely restrict individuals' options on the basis of unchosen characteristics and circumstances of their lives. Such cultures are defective and the aim of Liberals should be to liberate individuals from them rather than to preserve them. These ends, moreover, license interference in the affairs of sovereign states. When dictatorial regimes violate the rights of their citizens or conduct genocides, intervention is warranted. War is a last resort but if that is the only way to stop such regimes from beating up on their citizens, so be it.

Some on the Left will take this as compromise, as Centrism, or even crypto-conservatism. Not. The aim of Liberalism is to promote individual wellbeing by eliminating poverty, expanding individual options and liberating individuals from the constraints imposed by defective cultures. If this means dismantling defective cultures and waging war against oppressive regimes then so be it. There is no compromise possible when it comes to individual wellbeing, no compromise or surrender when it comes to the promotion of the welfare state.


Sanpete said...

It would probably be wrong to expect much from a manifesto, but I find this hard to follow. And, as is so often true, the points that are clearest seem rather trivial. Maybe I'm being too sour in my response, but this document rubs me the wrong way.

What does it mean to make no apology for tyranny? If I oppose the invasion of Iraq because I think Saddam Hussein is better than the likely results of the war, is that making apologies for tyranny? If I consider seriously the idea that the repressive rule in China is more practical in terms of human concerns there than the alternatives at the moment, am I on the wrong side of the "firm line" referred to? Or should I favor and promote the immediate overthrow of the repressive government in favor of instant liberal democracy? Judging from the manifesto's "elaborations" on Iraq, it was permissible to oppose the war, so I'm not at all clear on what the firm line is. Abstract support for democracy? I really doubt there is any firm line of practical consequence here.

What is the nature or foundation of the universal human rights referred to? Are they positive or natural? I see no good evidence for the latter, and don't understand how the former are binding in the way described. (I don't see any good evidence for any objectivist moral reality, even that usually taken to underly preference utilitarianism, i.e. that human satisfaction or the like has objective value, or that we have a nonsubjectively based obligation to promote it, or whatever. I agree broadly with J. L. Mackie on these points. This metaethical stance does seem to matter some in practice, and the manifesto doesn't seem to take that into account. Objectivist metaethical beliefs seem to me to fit in the same intellectual category as religious faith, something we feel it might be good to believe in even if the evidence is against it.)

What notion of equality is at issue? Does full equality entail the assimilationist ideal HE favors?

How do the backers of the manifesto envision the emphasis on unions and fair trade going together? Unions tend to be very conservative in regard to economic shifts, and also very local in focus.

We reject without qualification generalized prejudice against America. Um, OK. Two-state solution, against racism. Right. What about mom and apple pie? For truth and freedom of ideas too. Fine.

I can't tell from the manifesto why the line against patent protection and intellectual property is drawn where it is. Why not do away with all patents?

Besides being against international law, which the invasion of Iraq arguably was as well, what is the argument against terrorism that isn't an equally good argument against war in general? Which produces more civilian casualties to achieve similar goals, conventional war or terrorist campaigns? Why the emphasis on civilians? Are they more valuable or "innocent" than combatants? Shouldn't the goal always be to do the least harm possible while achieving the end of war, whatever the tactics? We take the special evil of terrorism as an article of faith in the West, but intellectually that faith seems poorly founded to me. Poorly founded perhaps because it's very much in our narrow self-interest, given our overwhelming conventional military power. Is it illiberal of me to bring this up?

The section on "critical openness" seems to just say that neoprogs should criticize those who disagree and and pay attention to those who agree with them, regardless of of label. Not a very vigorous openness. In general, the tone of this manifesto is somewhat self-righteous and, despite the rhetoric about creative doubt, more assured than it seems to have a right to be. It seems to tip over into a muffling political correctness when it assimilates criticism of Jewish effects on national and international politics with bigotry. The two obviously overlap, but they aren't entirely coextensive.

The core of liberalism, as HE expresses it, is negative, liberation from unchosen constraints. This may be based in a belief that the positive aspects of happiness will take care of themselves when such constraints are absent. This seems doubtful to me. Unchosen constraints make us who we are and provide the ground on which we can have liberty of some significant kind. There must be more to the core of liberalism than the negative, or it's very incomplete as a political program, at its core.

H. E. said...

You've obviously read the manifesto more carefully than I have--I really haven't looked at the details that carefully. I'd have preferred something more along the lines of an affirmation of general principles without an attempt to provide details.

Unchosen constraints make us who we are and provide the ground on which we can have liberty of some significant kind.

I don't get this. If unchosen constraints make me who I am I'd rather be someone else. I also don't see how constraints provide a ground for liberty. What seems true is that if I were universally indifferent, if I had no preferences, I wouldn't have liberty of any significant kind. More options wouldn't do me any good. But preferences, even if they're largely unchosen, aren't constraints.

Maybe I'm just a satisficer--the absence of constraint is good enough for me. I also don't see why a political program should be more "complete." There may be more to the good life than simply having the widest possible range of options but I don't see why a political program should deliver that more--or that it could.

Sanpete said...

In that last paragraph I was mixing together (not so clearly) a couple points about this:

The core value of Liberalism is the liberation of individuals from constraints imposed by race, sex, class and all unchosen circumstances that limit their options.

One point was maybe just a quibble about the notion of "all unchosen circumstances that limit their options." I'm not sure what that means, but maybe it's beside the main point anyway. I'd be more interested in sorting it out in the context of assimilationism, where a similar formulation is used by HE (if I remember well).

My other point was more pertinent. Maybe the core of what differentiates Liberalism from other ideologies is something like this negative value of liberation from constraints. But by itself this isn't enough to guide us politically. Equally or maybe more essential is some positive value to guide us in deciding what constraints are the ones to remove, among other things. Some idea of the general welfare (or the "good life"), of the options and goods that matter and how to promote them. So we have roads, schools, farm supports, courts, a military, and so on, all of which impose some restraints (not least through taxation) in order to promote more important options or goods. Maybe we sometimes consider the positive values that guide us here universal enough not to require an explicit political program, but they surely must underly one, and sometimes they do seem to become issues. (A chicken in every pot vs. minimal government, etc.)

I'm not sure that liberation from constraints is the core of the difference, though. (Well, I'm not even sure what is trying to be defined, a type of liberalism that already exists, or the ideal kind that ought to, or something else.) Many, maybe most conservatives (in the usual usage) embrace the goal of liberation from constraints imposed by race and so on but have a different take on how those constraints should be removed, or what lack of constraints amounts to. Perhaps these conservatives, who may oppose affirmative action and other governmental social engineering (in this context at least), and who may oppose laws favorable to unions, are still Liberals in the relevant sense?

The manifesto seems to take as the core of its liberalism genuine democracy (not as clear an idea as it seems to assume), universal human rights, and unions. It seems to go back to pre-Soviet socialism for its bearings. HE seems to stick closer to the classical idea of Liberalism represented by Mill and to regard the other points as at most elaborations. Mill, of course, theoretically founded his Liberalism on the principle of utility, which at least has a positive form.

If cultural relativism isn't compatible with true Liberalism, I wonder if metaethical subjectivism is. If not, Liberalism seems to require a fiction. I don't think that's the case, but metaethical subjectivism does require a somewhat different understanding of human rights than seems to be represented in the manifesto.

H. E. said...

I should have been more careful about "liberation from constraints." Obviously it's not feasible to liberate people from all constraints because some come about as brute facts of nature and, more to the point, some are necessary to avoid impinging on other people's liberty, so of course we need courts, cops and the military.

The cut between political liberals and conservatives in the ordinary sense I think is between those, like me, who see the government as the great liberator, or as an imposer of constraints. It's an empirical question whether big government of the traditional tax-and-spend variety on net opens up more options for the population over all or imposes more constraints, and which way you go, I suspect, depends on your preferences and where the shoe pinches for you.

So let me work this out. If you're a rural white male who has a preference for hunting, gun control pinches; if you like driving your SUV, high gasoline taxes pinch. If you're a Manhattan cliff dweller who doesn't own a car and has never even thought of hunting, you don't feel the pinch here.

More generally, here is a really nice article from the American Prospect that includes some interesting demographic info about which groups are most likely to support Democrats. Two of the most reliably Democratic constituencies are blacks and unmarried working women. Why? Because for them the state is a liberator that opens up more options. Without government intervention, women are restricted to a narrow range of pink-collar jobs; without government intervention blacks face discrimination not only in employment but in housing and access to credit as well. The state may constrain members of these groups in some respects, but for them it liberates far more than it constrains so they gain.

But suppose you're a business owner. The same regulations that create wider job options for blacks and women narrow you scope when it comes conducting your business: you can't hire whom you please. Beyond this, you also have to comply with other government regulations concerning minimum wage, safety standards and the like. All this pinches.

But consider another reliably Democratic constituency: union households. Unions aim to see to it that workers aren't forced to work for low pay under lousy conditions. The regulations that constrain employers liberate employees.

We're all trapped, constrained and hemmed in for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The question is whom do we see as restricting our options primarily: private individuals, in their capacity as employers, landlords, loan officers or whatever, or the state? The answer to that question determines whether you're liberal or conservative.

Boofykatz said...

Ohhh mah gawd - HE posts a liberal corrigendum and some dork decides that a right wing apologia is required. Spit. Instant Liberal democracy? If you could do it, Sunshine , you should; but nobody is gonna whip your ass if you cannot.

Sanpete said...

I like that analysis, but the focus on negative liberty still seems too narrow to explain what liberals stand for.

I would add to the reasons that it's not feasible or desirable to liberate people from all constraints that some constraints are helpful in either increasing one's liberty overall or in promoting some other good. We are taxed and sometimes forcibly moved from our homes to build roads, not because not building roads impinges on the liberty of others (as we normally think of it) but for positive reasons of promoting greater overall liberty and other goods. We insist that children be educated, whether they or their parents want it or not, not only to protect our liberty (by keeping them from turning to crime, for example), but also to promote their and our welfare in broader, more positive ways. (I believe a broader version of this point can be applied to the argument I saw here favoring assimilationism.)

I would correspondingly expand the analysis of the difference between liberals and conservatives (in the most common political sense) to take account of positive goals. Liberals generally trust government to promote their goals more than conservatives do, both in preserving liberty and in terms of positive welfare. How I see this is no doubt tied to how government and the alternatives affect me personally in terms of all my goals, or more directly to how I perceive that. (It has been widely remarked that a large portion of Bush's base may be voting against its own economic interest, but they don't see it that way, partly because of the influence of seemingly unrelated things like religious ties that lead them to be more accepting of what morally conservative leaders tell them even about economics.)

I'll be interested to see how the rest of the series in the American Prospect goes. If the demographics over the next ten years turn out as the authors expect, sharper definition of democratic goals may be just the thing. However, it's worth keeping in mind that some of the muddiness that exists now is no doubt a realistic reaction to getting beat up for being too well defined as liberals in the past. That's less of a problem now in part because of the muddiness the authors are hoping to get rid of. We have a Democratic congressman in Utah who you'd often have a hard time distinguishing from a Republican, and whose views aren't all that clear to me. But if he were a hair more clearly liberal, he'd not be in congress at all. But that's Utah. Hopefully it will be different elsewhere.

As for the elections this fall, I don't think Democrats will be able to be very well defined on Iraq just because there are genuine differences, reasonable ones, between them (despite some claims by party leaders that they're united on this). They can no doubt get some benefit from pointing to how boneheaded Bush has been in running the war, but they'd better have something else to focus on when it comes to positive goals. Another problem facing Democrats in being less muddy is that some of what needs to be done, particularly undoing the inane tax cuts, isn't going to be popular. But I'll read the series to see what the authors think should be done.

H. E. said...

You're considering "constraint" in a narrower sense than I intended: constraints don't have to be a consequence of intentional agency. If the roads are bad (visit Kenya sometime!) then everyone is operating under constraints: they can't get where they want to go in a reasonable time or, for practical purposes, at all; businesses can't operate efficiently, etc. So building roads, at the cost of imposing constraints on some people, removes constraints on lots of people for a net increase in options overall.

For kids even Mill agrees paternalism is warranted. Forcing kids to go to school, constraining them for a short period of their lives when they can't make reasonable decisions for themselves, liberates them from constraints later on--in particular, the narrow range of jobs to which they'll be restricted if they don't get training and credentials.

The distinction between positive and negative liberty doesn't fly given this latitudinarian understanding of constraint. On this account, all liberty is "negative" and consists in the absence of constraints--or if you want to put it "positively" the availability of options. Money, the conventional proxy for welfare, is precisely a ticket to options. If I don't have it I can't travel, get stuff I want, avoid work I don't want to do, etc. I suspect that with enough ingenuity the case can be made that wellbing is precisely the absence of constraints--or if you prefer, having lots of options. Highly controversial, but I'd argue for it.

The conventional distinction between positive and negative liberty I think turns on the notion of intentional interference, either by the state or private individuals who misappropriate my property or violate my person. But I don't think that that notion is morally significant because I'm a pure and unadulterated consequentialist, skeptical about the notion of natural rights and not terribly interested in the notion of moral responsibility. I suppose in my picture the moral universe is populated by infinitely greedy individuals whose good consists in having the widest possible scope for action and the acquisition of goods and ethics, consists in adjudicating between their conflicting interests in order to produce the greatest overall scope of options for everyone.

I don't know the recipe for distribution much less how to cook it up but that's the picture I'm suggesting.

Scott said...

You appear to be more of an optimist than I am. I feel that given the widest possible scope for action, most people would opt for the acquisition of goods, and that the acquisition of ethics wouldn't even enter their minds.

As for the difference between liberals and conservatives, I always go back to a definition I once heard of the difference between Democrats and Republicans -- Republicans want to legislate social values and are laissez-faire when it comes to business, Democrats want to legislate business, but are laissez-faire when it comes to social values. Each party believes in freedoms and constraints, but in opposing venues.

A rough generalization, but still one that has some truth at its heart.

Sanpete said...

If you include positive freedom when you speak of lack of constraints then I'm happier with your meaning, but that's a peculiar way of speaking, to me, at least. Vaguely reminds me of the effort to describe evil as privation of good. Not very intuitive, and ultimately not very satisfactory. I actually don't think of the distinction between positive and negative liberty in terms of intentional interference, but then I usually don't restrict the terms to a political context. Negative liberty as I usually think of it also includes lack of severe disease, famine, accidental interference from other people and other "natural" or unintentional interference that we don't think of as normal. (Gravity is normal, paralysis isn't.) Positive freedom, on the other hand, goes beyond lack of interference to positive ability to do or attain something. Government has an interest in both, I think. My ability to read has both positive and negative aspects, and it's useful to consider them separately. But I probably don't fully appreciate your reasons for wanting to do away with the distinction.

Mill recognized the indirect but crucial moral significance of intention, in that it affects consequences.

You're something of a provocateuse, so I'm not sure how to take the comment about infinite greed. On its face it doesn't seem a good description of moral agents (despite what Scott says, which seems to coincide more with what you say than what I perceive in people). You seem to have been influenced by Harsanyi and others who have tried to use the tools of economics to understand morality. Some of what little I know about them makes me think of the old joke about why the boy is looking under the lamp post for the quarter he lost 20 feet away, "Because the light is better here!" I see the usefulness of the mathematical tools of game theory applied to morality, but I think they tend to draw us to unrealistic assumptions about the human condition because those assumptions are easier to analyze. In particular, they seem to tend toward a view of self-interest and rationality that is fairly narrow, that of so-called "economic man." Actually, there are probably other reasons as well for this tendency, going back to the old distinction between prudence and morality, and what has become an effort to assimilate the two, or at least define morality in relation to prudence, narrowly construed. (That may be too sketchy to follow.)

The idea that people's good consists in having the widest possible scope for action and acquisition seems to make no distinction between a means or condition (maybe also an end) and our ends in general. We all not only value the ability to act and acquire, but also value having accomplished things and the actual possession of goods. You might argue that well-being results from options (in some broad sense), but that it consists in merely having options is another matter. Or oddly put. Are you speaking of realized options, which we normally consider no longer options but facts, as "options"?

I believe I saw in your blog a discussion of the negative returns offered by some kinds of increased options, such as a wider (or at least more numerous) array of goods of a type to choose from. Does "widest possible scope of options" really get at what you have in mind? "Optimal options"?

If you're inclined to metaethical skepticism, as you seem to be, then it seems the only reasonable foundation for morality is whatever goals we happen to have (which does reduce morality to prudence, but not necessarily any narrow kind of prudence--I suspect Mill regarded utilitarianism as based in what might be called an enlightened prudence, one that in one extreme doesn't distinguish one's own well-being from that of others, that this was the larger point of chapter 3 in Utilitarianism). Sometimes our goals would conflict, sometimes they would coincide and reinforce each other. Ethics is classically most concerned with the conflicts, but the other cases are equally important politically, and morally in the broad sense of seeking the good.

H. E. said...

I'm skeptical about the distinction between positive and negative freedom because I don't see any principled way of making it and because, related issue, it's easy to fudge in distinguishing mere non-benefits from positive harms. So, apropos of a discussion of discrimination in employment, for example, a guy I know argues that discrimination isn't a harm because if I'm locked out of a range of jobs it just means that I fail to get the benefits they provide.

I don't buy this: for the most part work isn't a benefit at all but just a means for avoiding greater harm--the harm of destitution or the harm of having to do worse work. The distinction between normal and abnormal constraints is also easily fudged. If I have to spend my day behind a cash register in Walmart, that's a perfectly normal situation but it restricts my freedom in a very severe and damaging way.

I agree: it would be better to talk about the "widest possible scope of options" because that's what I mean. Though I think this might lead one to underestimate the badness of lacking options--being stuck behind that checkout counter isn't merely the absence of some good, it's absolutely, bloody awful.

About the means end issue--I'm toying with the idea that actually having a good is just the limiting case of having the option of getting it, that is of possibly having it. Some possibilities are "closer" than others--a la Lewis, the possible worlds at which they're realized are closer to the actual world than others. So my taking a trip to France is a near possibility--I have the means to do it but won't--whereas being a movie star is a very remote one. Now my notion is that more possibilities as such contribute to wellbeing commensurate with the closeness of the possible worlds at which they're realized. So actually having x contributes to degree 1, say, whereas having x at a nearby possible world contributes to degree .9, etc.

Now people I've flown this by think it's a crazy intuition. But it's still a gut level one for me that even if a bird in the hand is worth more than one in the bush, a bird in the bush is still worth something, and a sufficient number of birds in nearby bushes can make me better off than a bird in the hand. Dead serious. When I pick someone up from the international terminal I see flights on the screen departing to exotic places all around the world, mostly places I don't particularly want to go, the rest to places that I won't go because I don't want to take the time or spend the money. But I feel wonderful just knowing that I could right then and there buy a ticket and go to any of these places: my powerful intuition is that that wealth of nearby possibilities, possibilities as such, contributes to my wellbeing.

H. E. said...

The difference, Scott, is that in legislating "values" Republicans seek to impose constraints on activities that don't constrain others, whereas the constraints on business Democrats impose provide more options for others and, we hope, expand overall options.

The kinds of constraints social conservatives favor diminish overall options: restricting access to recreational drugs, for example, closes off options without opening up any other ones. Whereas restrictions on business practices, e.g. on employers' right to hire and fire as they please, opens more options and more fruitful options for job applicants and employees.

I'm not at all optimistic--everyone, including me, opts for the acquisition of goods, where goods include not only SUVs and gadgets, but leisure time, high art, and other edifying things.

Sanpete said...

I'm sure you're right that having unrealized options contributes to well-being, in various ways. I'm not sure what the best way to weigh them is. (I doubt that you'd want to consider most near possibilities, especially those you don't intend to pursue, as having anything like 90% of the value of a similar realized option, even if it's 90% probable you could easily attain it--that seems too high.) I'll bet there's someone who's figured out a reasonable way of assigning values to such things.

You must also be right about the bird in the hand being outweighed in value by enough birds in the bush, assuming one wants more birds, the birds in the bush are easy enough to get, etc.

I'm still not getting the idea of "the widest possible scope of options" as the chief measure for maximizing well-being. There are so many options that are of no worth to an individual, and this includes options of various extremes that would give the widest scope. Having one really good option would be worth more than having a vastly wide array of undesirable options. Even having more than a few really good options may not be so good. There has to be a better way of getting at what you have in mind. The best combination of options would probably include a variety, but they would have to be of value to the agents involved.

I don't see much problem with making the distinction between positive and negative liberty, or at least not any unusual problem that doesn't arise with other complex but useful distinctions. I recognize that there are various ways of using it, or various versions of it, with varying uses. It's no more problematic than the distinction between liberal and conservative.

Non-benefits and harms must be considered in a normative framework. If in employment it's normal or expected that certain benefits accrue if you do your job well, not to receive them after doing well is a positive harm, relative to that standard. What is normal can be fudged, but it's nonetheless essential to refer to it.

The distinction between normal and abnormal constraints can be judged in various lights. When you say working at WalMart is both normal and severely restricts freedom, you're using two different notions of what might be considered normal, or, more aptly, normative. I don't think that makes the distinction between positive and negative liberty unprincipled. It just shows there are different principles by which it can be used. if you can't agree on the framework by which to judge what's normative, then the distinction won't settle anything, but neither will anything else.

i agree that for many of us, employment isn't a benefit in the sense that we would chose it for its intrinsic goods (apart from the pay, I mean). For some lucky ones it is a benefit in that sense. Some people actually like working at WalMart, find it fulfilling. Some find teaching philosophy more restrictive of freedom than working at WalMart. You might argue that these facts are due to distortion or suppression of the nature of some people, but that's at least as tricky an argument as the distinction between positive and negative freedom.

On liberal vs. conservative, many conservatives believe that the areas they wish to constrain freedom in do indeed involve constraints on others, i.e. the unborn, the general population that is forced to live in an immoral environment, etc. It is debatable whether legal access to recreational drugs opens more or better options than it forecloses. This is just to say that many conservatives quite reasonably refuse to cede the ground you assume for liberals here.

H. E. said...

I'm still not getting the idea of "the widest possible scope of options" as the chief measure for maximizing well-being. There are so many options that are of no worth

OK--this is the official program I'm toying with: S's contribution to x's wellbeing is a function of (1) the proximity of the world at which S obtains and (2) the proximity of the world at which x prefers S. So if S actually obtains and x actually prefers S then S's contribution to x's wellbeing maxes out. The contribution of a state of affairs, S' that actually obtains but which x doesn't prefer depends upon the proximity of the possible world at which x does prefer it. A symptom of proximity would be where S' figures in x's actual preference-ranking so typically if chocolate is second best to vanilla in x's actual preference ranking but rocky road is way down, the world at which x prefers chocolate is closer than the world at which he prefers rocky road. But not necessarily because the notion of proximity I want concerns what we'd intuitively think of as "how easily one could come to prefer" something. So, initially, Mr. Darcy is way down on Elizabeth's preference ranking of suitors, but the world at which she prefers him is very nearby indeed. Given her character, she'll either love him or hate him: being indifferent to him is further away.

Same line on non-actual states of affairs. Ceteris paribus they're worth less than actual ones but what they're worth depends on the proximity of the possible world at which I prefer them. The extent to which they contribute to my wellbeing depends upon not only how close they are but on how close the worlds at which I want them are. I'm pretty keen on going to the south of France and going there is a nearby possibility: since the world at which I prefer to go is nearby, that option contributes significantly to my wellbeing. The possibility of going to New Jersey is also nearby, but the world at which I want to go there is remote so the contribution of that option to my wellbeing is close to the vanishing point.

That anyway is where I want to go though I haven't gone very far in working it out and, admittedly, the devil is in the details. I'll pass for now on the non-benefits/harms issue (but I'll think about it and get back later)

On liberal vs. conservative, many conservatives believe that the areas they wish to constrain freedom in do indeed involve constraints on others, i.e. the unborn, the general population that is forced to live in an immoral environment, etc. It is debatable whether legal access to recreational drugs opens more or better options than it forecloses. This is just to say that many conservatives quite reasonably refuse to cede the ground you assume for liberals here.

There's no reason why access to abortion should be part of the liberal agenda, much less a central issue: the view one takes on this depends on metaphysical commitments. The question of whether fetuses are persons whose interests ought to be taken into question has nothing to do with the liberal/conservative divide. A liberal, as I understand it, could consistently take any position whatever on the abortion question--depending on his metaphysical views about what counts as a person.

However the suggestion that being forced to live in an immoral environment could count as a constraint on freedom hit me like a ton of bricks. If there's no principled way to exclude this anything gets in--so my sneezing would constitute a constraint on you since it would deprive you of the option of being such that H.E. didn't sneeze. Intuitively this isn't merely a trivial restriction on your freedom--it's no restriction at all.

Off the top of my head I'd guess that the cut between those states of affairs that count when it comes to determining the scope of my options and those that don't tracks the distinction (vexed!) between intrinsic and extrinsic properties. If so there are certain states of affairs I might want but which are still s.t. if unavailable the scope of my options in the relevant sense is still not diminished. So Camilla may want to be queen but the fact that she isn't eligible for that status doesn't restrict her freedom. If she gets to live in the Palace, has all the genuine, non-Cambridge perks that go along with being queen, that's all that matters. Properties like being queen that depend on the existence of institutions and conventions are a subset of extrinsic properties as well as being such that H.E. sneezes and living in an "immoral" environment. If that's the cut then being forced to live in an "immoral" environment, doesn't count as a restriction on my freedom.

Mill made some such cut in formulating the harms principle, didn't he--distinguishing those actions that were self-regarding from those that weren't? Ok, I have to think about it. Thanks. This one is serious.

Sanpete said...

I think I see more of what you're getting at now, though still not why you use the term "widest scope of options" to refer to it. Why "widest"? I don't know enough about how people use the concept of possible worlds to know if there is some advantage in using it over more common ways of weighing the value of options. In part (1) is there some advantage in speaking of the proximity of a possible world over speaking of the probability of an option coming about? In part (2) there seems to be both an element of probability that one will prefer something and an element of possible strength of preference, which may need to be treated separately. Does the possible world idea bring something to this that would be missing from other, more conventional means of analysis? Maybe you don't know yet.

I believe the biggest problem with applying the harm principle has always been trying to decide what constitutes significant enough harm to others that an act will be considered not self-regarding. I'm sure there are many, many papers that try to work out a good method--papers I haven't read. My own rough idea is that whether something is a self-regarding act in the relevant sense is always a matter of degree. Pretty much all acts that harm oneself also harm others to some degree or other, sometimes very severely, as it often true with drug use and suicide. To apply Mill's principle we must weigh the indirect harm to others against the importance of letting people be free to do as they wish in some particular case. Understood this way, Mill's principle gets muddied up quite a bit, but I don't think it's a very attractive (reasonable) principle otherwise.

Sneezing (assuming you're not contagious) is a more purely self-regarding act than swearing in public, or being a coarse, creepy person to live next door to, or indulging in nude strolls or sex acts in your own front yard. There is a continuum of how much your primarily self-regarding behavior impinges on others, and there are various ways to try to deal with it. Part of deciding where to draw lines is deciding what is harm to others. Some people don't feel harmed by public obscenity, some do, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides about the harms. What liberals often regard as conservative meddling in the affairs of others, conservatives often regard as trying to prevent harms to themselves and the public in general. This comes up in many contexts you might have mixed feelings on: offensive speech ("yo mama's a @!$@!"), hate speech, laws requiring minimally clean yards (for aesthetic reasons), noise ordinances, etc.

Sometimes the difference between liberals and conservatives in these matters is in judging what is harmful, and how much, rather than whether the harm principle is the right one to apply.

I read the final installment of the American Prospect series you linked to. I do like the ideals, very much, for the most part, but I kept thinking "pie in the sky." Actually, I thought that the authors would probably argue that since over 90% of voters in the relevant groups like pie, and a similar number like the sky, pie in the sky is an ideal platform. I have two main worries. One I already mentioned. That polls show lack of definition is a problem for "progressives" (the fact that the L-word is avoided is telling in this respect) doesn't show that definition will be less of a problem. The authors do consider some data to support the idea that the voter groups of interest will respond well to a clear liberal program, but I regard that data, and its interpretation, with suspicion. Most of it is gathered by liberal groups, who may well have slanted things, and it doesn't show what would happen if the ideas were presented in a context where they would be subjected to vigorous attack as too liberal (among other things). That being too liberal doesn't rank highly on reasons for rejecting liberals these days may be partly due to the fact that liberals have been careful not to seem too liberal, thus the muddiness. How many members of the groups these authors are after would vote for Russ Feingold?

The other big problem is how to pay for the wonderful programs. Taxes need to be raised just to balance the current budget; that will be hard enough politically. How high do the authors want taxes to be raised? Some of these are very, vastly expensive programs. I worry that it would be suicidal to go with the agenda they suggest, because it would necessarily fall far short in practice. Maybe a curtailed version would work.

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