Monday, June 26, 2006

Possible Worlds or the Common Good?

American Prospect Online - Party in Search of a Notion

The Democrats need to become the party of the common good. They need a simple organizing principle that is distinct from Republicans and that isn’t a reaction to the Republicans. They need to remember what made liberalism so successful from 1933 to 1966, that reciprocal arrangement of trust between state and nation. And they need to take the best parts of the rights tradition of liberalism and the best parts of the more recent responsibilities tradition and fuse them into a new philosophy that is both civic-republican and liberal -- that goes back to the kind of rhetoric Johnson used in 1964 and 1965, that attempts to enlist citizens in large projects to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits...The common good is common sense, and the historical time is right for it, for two reasons...By 2008, we will have lived through seven-plus years of an administration that has done almost nothing for the common good, that has unleashed the most rapacious social Darwinism we’ve seen in this country for at least 80 years, and that has catered to its interest groups far more, at once more obsequiously and more arrogantly, than even the Mondale-era Democrats did. Americans are, and will be, ready for something very different.

I'm taking an algebra course at our local community college these days, ostensibly because I need to learn enough math to read the literature in economics Ifor a research project on preference--and with only 2 years of high school math and none in college I have a long way to go. But the real reason is that I just want to learn math--partly because I just plain like it and partly because, bizarre as it may seem, I want it to be the case that I could have gone in for science--I want there to be a relatively nearby possible world where I am a chemist, a dentist or a veterinarian.

I have a powerful intuition that my actual well-being depends in part on the way it is for my counterparts at nearby possible worlds--the way things almost might have been for me. When I go through a check-out line or order something over the phone I am always struck by how easily it could have been me working at a boring job, trapped in a confined space scanning groceries or stuck in a carrel taking phone-orders, doing boring, repetitious tasks and living a lousy life. I escaped that kind of life by a fluke, by the skin of my teeth--the possible worlds where I am a supermarket checker or customer service representative, a data entry operator, waitress or bank teller, are only a hair's breadth away. What drives me morally, and politically, is my interest in making these worlds more remote by seeing to it that people, particularly women, have a wider range of opportunities and so a better chance to avoid those lousy jobs.

Other people seem to be driven by the same intuition the proximity of nasty possibilities. They contribute to disease charities not only because they imagine that they may get cancer or heart disease but because they have a sense that they easily could even if they actually don't. They contribute to charities that benefit crippled children because, even if their kids are healthy, they know that they could easily have had a crippled child. They recognize that worlds where they or their children are sick or crippled are close by and contribute to help out their nearby counterparts.

Anecdotal evidence at least suggests however that most don't notice their counterparts who are poor or who are stuck doing drudge work. They don't look at Walmart women and shudder, as I do, with the realization that they escaped that work and that life by the skin of their teeth, by pure dumb luck. In part it's a lack of imagination: they can't imagine what that life would be like--8 hours a day behind that check-stand in a noisy, ugly place, constantly exposed to the public, scanning that stuff, over and over and over again, with no way out, no way to achieve, nothing interesting to do, nothing to learn, nothing to figure out, making $8/hour, and then heading home to cook, clean and go to bed until it starts over again. In part it's the wildly unrealistic idea that people have a fair opportunity to avoid those bad lives and that they, regardless of their life circumstances, would have done better--and that is just false.

I don't trust sentiments about the common good--particularly given that many people simply cannot imagine what the lives of many of their fellow citizens are like and how little opportunity they have to escape. Politically, people vote for what they take to be their own interests, and the interests of people like themselves. To the extent that they are concerned about people who are less well off they regard that as the business of charity--pitching coins into the Salvation Army kettle or buying Food for All cards at the supermarket checkout. And even then their charitable efforts only extend to starving children and the destitute--not to the miserable women scanning their groceries.

Maybe I have a different take because I got beaten up. After high school, when I worked as a clerk-typist for a local bus company, I reflected and realized that by rights I belonged there: I was just a high school graduate (barely) with a D+ average and only 2 years of math--my qualifications were the same as, or worse than, anyone else's in that office. Every day when I came home my mother cheered me on and pushed me to go back: "Who ever heard of a girl that doesn't work?" Every day she, and the women I worked with told me "Who do you think you are," in those words and in other words. What makes you think that you can, or should, be doing anything other than this job? And I knew that they were right--the only thing that set me apart was that my mother had money and managed to buy me into an expensive college that specialized in nurturing rich underachievers.

So that I believe is the solution: to get it across to people how narrowly they escaped living rotten lives and the extent to which their escape was a matter of pure dumb luck--the luck of being born middle class, of being white and of being born on one side of the border rather than the other, the luck of having opportunities and second chances that most people don't get. This is the liberal political equivalent of Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God": we are, all of us who are reasonably well off, suspended by a hair over that modal pit, separated by the narrowest logical space from the innumerable unhappy lives we might easily have had but for pure dumb luck. Who do we think we are?


Boofykatz said...

Excellent - this really strikes a chord. Of course I see this in a deterministic light which I doubt you share, but the brute fact of dumb luck from a human viewpoint remains. I'm not convinced by possible world modal logics - perhaps I don't understand them sufficiently well - but who is to say that a possible world that is close in one respect may not be necessarily distant in another? If there are an infinite number of possible worlds how are we to divide them into finite subsets?

H. E. said...

Of course I'm a determinist. Why not? As for how you assess the distance of possible worlds that's a tough and interesting one--the locus classicus for discussion is David Lewis Counterfactuals

Boofykatz said...

Thanks for the link.

Boofykatz said...

I'll have to buy the wretched book now.. thanks a bunch!

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