Monday, March 19, 2012

The moral philosophy of hierarchy

Eric Hoffer philosophizes on The True Believer. Bob Altemeyer studes The Authoritarians. Corey Robin investigates The Reactionary Mind. Each author uses a different method to investigate a different facet of the opponents of progressive and revolutionary egalitarianism. All progressives seem to have a difficult time understanding our opposition. Who wouldn't want a better, happier society? Who wouldn't conceive a better, happier society as one that was better for everyone? The opposition seems so intellectually perverse that many cannot resist the temptation to explain the opposition as pure sadism (as Orwell does in 1984) or descend into the most labyrinthine conspiracy theories (e.g. the 9/11 "Truthers"). But the reactionaries and authoritarians, who disproportionately claim the everyday true believers, can be simply explained as the logical, almost-inevitable conclusion of the most prevalent human theory of justice: the theory of just deserts.

The moral theory of just deserts firmly locates the institutions of society as the mechanism by which individuals get the status they deserve according to their moral qualities, good or bad. The shift in this philosophy between the feudal era and the capitalist era is a shift from seeing moral qualities as primarily hereditary to seeing moral qualities as a result of individual "merit". The idea, however, that there is a distribution of moral quality in the population remains firm, and the proper function of society is still to discern this moral quality and appropriately reward it. A society might perform this function poorly, and will probably always make some mistakes, but a society that does not have as its primary function the discernment of virtue and vice and the distribution of status on that basis is just not a society.

I mean something specific by "status": a person has a higher status to the extent that he or she determines what is fundamentally good for those with lower status. This notion of status is different from esteem or respect (though one might well esteem hold those with higher status). This notion status is different from a relationship founded on expertise: for example, my physician's notion of what's "good" for me is purely instrumental; he* assumes we already agree on what is fundamentally good, i.e. good health, and he merely advises me on how to implement that agreed-upon good. The role of status in a "hierarchy" is more fundamental: it not how to implement an agreed-upon good; it is those above determining and imposing fundamental goods on those below.

*My actual physician happens to be male.

According to a deserts theory of justice, a fundamental good must be imposed. Absent imposition, individuals always act according to what they believe to be good. An immoral person must be, by definition, either a person who is mistaken about what is good, or a person who cannot act according to their correct notions of what is good. Immoral people cannot act on the true good on their own; they must be subordinated to their moral superiors. Because the moral inferiors cannot not do it on their own, it is the necessary function of moral superiors to mete out what their moral inferiors deserve.

Fundamental goods must also be objectively determinable. A subjectivist conception of morality grounds moral decisions in the subjectively conceived benefit of the actor, and all sane, non-neurotic* people always act in what they believe to be their individual benefit. To impose a good as a good (and not just admit to naked exploitation) requires that we can objectively determine what is good and thus hold that dissenters are mistaken about a matter of truth. Even the most committed "Machiavellian"** must believe, I think, that the qualities of will, ruthlessness, and lust for power are objectively good; by possessing these qualities, he not only can gain power, but it is objectively true that he deserves to gain and exercise power. Without the concept of an objective good, superiors in a hierarchy cannot effectively rationalize the exercise of their power.

*Neurotic people, I am convinced, are those who have an irreconcilable conflict in what they consider beneficial. Neurosis is, however, better placed outside the sphere of politics.

**In the popular sense of "Machiavellian". There is some controversy over whether
The Prince expresses Machiavelli's actual views or if he was writing ironically.

***It's possible that the moral justification of hierarchical social relations is entirely insincere, that those above (or perhaps just those at the very top) do not see themselves as acting in any sense of the good beyond superficial desire. I don't such absolute insincerity is viable, but that's a topic for another essay.

The relationship between an objectivist moral theory of deserts and hierarchical social relationships works both ways. Not only must a hierarchical society be founded on an objectivist deserts theory, but also an objectivist deserts theory demands a hierarchical society. Physical law by definition cannot mete out any justice; what physical law actually requires (e.g. that at all times we must accelerate towards the center of the Earth at ~10 m/s2) or prohibits is ipso facto placed outside moral consideration. We can divide into virtue and vice only that which physical law permits but does not enforce. If you believe that there are objective truths about fundamental goods, and that those who conform to those goods ought to be rewarded and those who contravene those goods ought to be punished — i.e. that justice demands that people get what they deserve in actuality, not just in theory — then there can be no other option than to try to privilege those who are morally superior, and thus themselves deserve reward, to mete out these deserts on those who are morally inferior.

The objectivist theory of deserts is pervasive in human thought, going back to the first recorded philosophy. Some, with some justification, go so far as to say that any theory that is not objective, and does not include deserts, is simply not a moral theory.

A objective deserts theory of justice starts with our treatment of criminals. A criminal, especially a violent criminal, is a bad person and justice demands he or she be punished. To treat a criminal as someone in need of extra help or assistance is the acme of injustice. It doesn't matter whether or not punishment actually deters crime (it's pretty clear that it does not); if we do not punish criminals, our society simply fails in its first, fundamental job.

But there must be gradations of punishment. Those who rape and murder children are, of course, the most morally inferior people we can imagine. We, their obvious moral superiors, must impose on these morally inferior a lifetime of torture in prison. (Death is, of course, far too good for them.) Not only is their happiness irrelevant, but society demands that we impose as much suffering as we can stomach meting out; that we do not simply break them on the wheel is not a measure of our compassion but a concession to our squeamishness. But of course not all criminals deserve such thorough suffering. Someone who kills his or her lover in a fit of jealous rage is still our moral inferior, but we do not believe he or she deserves the most thorough suffering. The burglar, pickpocket, embezzler, or shoplifter again are our still our inferiors, but they certainly deserve less suffering than a murderer, and perhaps can be fully redeemed into the ranks of the morally superior.

But if there are gradations of punishment, then why must our moral evaluations stop at the courthouse and the prison? If we're going to separate morally inferior criminals from morally superior citizens, why not grade the citizens themselves according to their virtue? Surely the lazy and improvident do not deserve the same material prosperity as the industrious and thrifty. Surely those who welsh on their debts do not deserve the same trust as those who pay them. Surely those of crudity and triviality do not deserve the same artistic recognition and control as those of refinement and sublimity. And surely the foolish do not deserve the same privilege over laws and institutions as the wise.

The political philosophy of egalitarianism must entail the moral equivalence of all human beings. People are obviously physically different (I know of no egalitarian social philosophy that advocates a reductive Harrison Bergeron caricature of physical equality), so any notion of egalitarianism must entail moral equality. Moral equality entails that there is no moral difference to which to attach deserts. Under any true moral egalitarianism, the notion that people ought to get what they deserve becomes entirely incoherent. Even if a society has a de facto hierarchy, with those "above" effectively wielding coercive power over those "below", the lack of a de jure moral justification for the hierarchy still subverts the moral sensibilities of deserts.

The advocates of progressive social and political philosophies must, I think, confront this moral dilemma head-on. The left's greatest intellectual and philosophical weakness is its equivocation between moral egalitarianism and moral hierarchy. A progressive political philosophy can pick hierarchy, which makes its critique of the existing system essentially claim that the correspondence no longer obtains between moral virtue and socio-economic status. The argument cannot be that those above are immoral simply by virtue of being above; to deny the notions of social superiority and inferiority is to deny morality itself. The argument must be not that society is stratified into the 1% and the 99%, but that the 1% contains too many of the wrong sort of people.

If you are going to embrace hierarchy, then the political strategy is obvious: get together with the 1% like you (whom you must believe, of course, are the acme of virtue), and convince the other 98% to legitimatize your own moral superiority, by persuasion and force of arms. The bourgeoisie succeeded in doing so, convincing (and forcing) the people to believe that the nobility and monarchy were corrupt and immoral, and that they themselves were in fact the acme of social virtue. The professional-managerial middle class did so in the West after the Great Depression, convincing the people that the capitalists were corrupt and immoral, and that the professionals, managers, academics, and bureaucrats were the acme of virtue. The Communist Parties did so, convincing the people of Russia and China that the Tzar and Emperor (and the disorganized and weak bourgeoisie who immediately followed them) were corrupt and immoral, and that those who had a correct scientific grasp of Marxism were the acme of virtue. Perhaps by doing so we are making progress; perhaps there really are correct ways of organizing a hierarchy, where those who really are morally superior legitimately command those who really are morally inferior. Or perhaps, as the song goes, it's just "out with the old boss, in with the new boss."

If, on the other hand, you're going to embrace egalitarianism, then you have to deal with the problem of criminality, or, more precisely, with the popular belief that real criminals deserve punishment. To discard the notion that there are moral gradations in the non-criminal population is to fundamentally undermine the moral gradation between the criminal and the non-criminal. This is not to say, of course, that egalitarianism entails that we permit others to go around killing people willy-nilly. If you're going to deny that laziness deserves some sort of social or economic punishment, that there are no "lazy" people, just those who prefer leisure to material goods (and why shouldn't they?), then there are no criminal who deserve punishment, just those who prefer violence to peaceful coexistence. There are good reasons why we cannot tolerate certain kinds of violence, but to remove the notion of moral condemnation is to remove the notion of deserving punishment. But the egalitarian must put the response to criminality on a completely different philosophical foundation than the notion of deserts, and must sell that new foundation.

Half measures will not work. You cannot be half hierarchical (towards criminals) and half egalitarian (towards everyone else). As the old joke goes, "We've already established what you are, we're just haggling over the price." Once you permit the concept of any personal moral gradation, the argument becomes over how to sort people in those gradations. Those below must therefore deserve less than those above, and it must be the task of those above to impose those deserts on those below. Once you deny the concept of personal moral gradation, you cannot call any person morally inferior. There's no in between.

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