Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What is Justice? Bentham, Kant and Aristotle views

In an interview by Nigel Warburton (NW) of Michael Sandel (MS), MS says justice is giving people what they deserve, an idea that goes back to Aristotle. But who deserves what and why? There are three answers to 'What is justice'? First, the utilitarian answer of Jeremy Bentham which says justice means maximising happiness. Second, Immanuel Kant says that justice is a matter of respecting human dignity, certain categorical duties and rights. Third, Aristotle says justice means giving people what they deserve, where what they deserve depends on their virtue and depends on sorting out hard questions about the good life.

MS said Bentham says morality and legislation should all be about maximising the balance of pleasure over pain. For example, suppose the majority has a very intense dislike of a minority religion and wants to ban it. In principle, follow Bentham. If the majority is big enough and if their hatred of the religious group is strong enough, then the “happiness principle” says the right thing to do is to ban the religion.

Or, to take a contemporary example, to ban the wearing of burqas. If huge majorities dislike seeing women wearing burqas on the street, does that justify banning the wearing of the burqa? It’s true that those who would like to wear it would suffer some unhappiness according to the utilitarian calculus, but it’s outweighed by the greater happiness of the majority. MS thinks that’s an example of what goes wrong with the utilitarian calculus. The problem is precisely its failure to judge the quality and the moral significance of the preferences.

MS says Kant rejects the utilitarian idea that morality is a matter of maximising happiness, or for that matter, seeking after any particular set of consequences. For Kant morality means respecting persons as ends in themselves, not treating persons only as means. So from Kant’s point of view, utilitarianism treats persons as mere means to the happiness of the majority or the collective. He thinks that’s wrong. He thinks there are certain categorical duties and rights—and in particular the duty of respecting persons as bearers of dignity—that override utilitarian considerations.

NW asks whether Kant and Kantian ethics would support a notion of there being human rights that are inviolable in some sense? MS replies: Yes, Kant believes human rights are inviolable and they can’t be overridden in order to make the majority happy. In many ways this Kantian idea underlies much human rights discourse today—the idea that there are universal duties we have to human beings as rational beings, as he put it. And this requires that we treat human beings with respect, regardless of who they are, or what they’re doing, or where they live. But how do we identify what universal rights we have and what it means to respect them. Kant thought the reason duties and rights are categorical and universal is that we can arrive at them by abstracting from all of our particular interests, values, ends and purposes in life. That is, if we subtract all the differences between our interests, values and so on, what we’re left with are those interests, values etc that we all share. That’s what makes them universal: we arrive at them regardless of who in particular we are. But that way of defining and deriving rights comes at a cost. It requires us for purposes of justice to abstract altogether from the particular conceptions of the good life that we have. For example, in Germany today, there is a widespread sense that this generation of Germans is morally responsible for righting the wrongs of their grandparents’ generation: the generation of the Nazis and the Holocaust. And in many ways contemporary Germans have lived up to this moral responsibility. But how is it possible for one generation to be morally responsible for the wrongs of their grandparents’ generation?

If, following Kant, you think that moral responsibility is the product of our will—‘I’m responsible for what I’ve done or chosen freely’—then it’s very difficult to make any sense of the idea that I have some special responsibility (that not everyone in the world has) to right the wrongs of my grandparents’ generation or my history or my country. And all of the debates we have in the world today about public apologies for past wrongs, or reparations for past injustices—those are very difficult to make sense of without some notion of solidarity and responsibility for the past, for a community that extends across time. And this is very difficult to reconcile with the Kantian idea that moral responsibility arises from the exercise of my will, my freedom of choice, my action.

MS talks about the idea of taking pride in Americas past. Can I take pride in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution, or in Abraham Lincoln getting rid of slavery? Now, my forebears weren’t in the United States at that time, they were immigrants to the United States much later. Insofar as it’s possible to take pride in one’s country or one’s past or one’s people, it must also be possible to bear a moral burden for the wrongs of that people.

MS talks about how one understands community and individual identity. There is a view of individual identity that says my loyalties and my sense of belonging are all a matter of choice—I choose them and I can choose to renounce them. MS think that’s too narrow an idea of identity, I’ve described that in the past as the ‘unencumbered self’— the idea that the only moral ties that matter are ones that I have incurred through an act of my own will. I think that that picture doesn’t enable us to make sense of a wide range of moral and political obligations that we commonly recognise and would find it very difficult to do without.

In many ways the criticism that MS just made of Kant was the criticism that Hegel made of Kant in the 19th Century. Hegel looked back to Aristotle, because in Aristotle we find the idea that human beings are by nature political beings, that we can’t live a full human life except as members of a political community. So this leads us to the third tradition of thinking about morality and justice: Aristotle’s idea that to think about justice, we have to think about the meaning of the good life and of virtue.

NW asks: So for Aristotle what counts? It’s not maximising pleasure, it’s not a good will, so what is it?

MS: He gives the example of flutes. Suppose we’re distributing flutes, who should get the best ones? His answer is: the best flute-players, the best musicians. You might think a utilitarian would agree—the best flute player will make the best music and that will make all of us better off, listening to good music. But no, that’s not Aristotle’s reason. His reason is ‘That’s what flutes are for—to be played well.’ His is a teleological reason. And it’s connected to the idea of honour. Part of the point of having musical performance is not just to generate good music, it’s to honour those who possess excellence as musicians.

Now, the flute-playing example might seem trivial, but Aristotle’s real point is to invite us to think about political offices and honours—how should power and authority be distributed in a political community? And his answer to that question follows the example of the flute. Those who possess the relevant virtues to the greatest extent should have the greatest political power and influence—which he says means those who are the greatest in civic virtue, those who are best at deliberating about the common good.

NW: I’m just thinking about the flute example. Obviously there’s an intuitive appeal to the idea that the greatest musician should have the greatest instrument. But at the same time you could think that the person who could afford to buy it should be the one who rightfully owns it. It’s not as if there’s a redistribution of goods according to talent. If there were, the world would be such a strange place, where only the people who had the most subtle taste buds are the only ones who are allowed to eat gourmet food and so on.

MS: Well let me see if I can make this more intuitively plausible, even taking the last example. If we saw a wealthy person at the finest restaurant with very subtle foods, a top Michelin-starred restaurant, and it were a person who had utterly no taste at all but just a lot of money to spend. Imagine he were ploughing through the food and the caviar and the fine wines as if it were McDonalds to him, we might say there was something wrong here, something misaligned.

Let me make it even more plausible. If we have a Stradivarius violin—the type that offers the richest, most complex sound of any violin ever produced—and it’s up for auction. One of the bidders is one of the world’s great violinists, say Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman. And the great violinist is bidding against a very wealthy collector who can’t play the violin at all but wants to display this Stradivarius violin on the wall over his fireplace as a prestige conversation piece. Suppose the wealthy collector wins the auction by outbidding the greatest violinist. Alright he’s got a right to the violin—he won the auction. In that sense he has a right to the violin because he paid the most for it. But wouldn’t you say there’s been some kind of injustice here? A great Stradivarius does not belong inert on the wall of a rich man’s house, it belongs in the hands of a great violinist who can play it as it was meant to be played.

NW: You wouldn’t want a law saying only great violinists could own Stradivariuses would you?

MS: I don’t think I’d make a law of that kind. But if it became a persisting problem that the great Stradivarius violins were being bought up by private collectors, I might favour some policies that would subsidise the purchase of Stradivarius violins to make them available to great violinists who would perform with them.

NW: So we’ve moved from utilitarianism, which emphasises maximising happiness, through to the Kantian approach which makes some things absolutely right or wrong and where people have inviolable rights, and then we’ve got to the Aristotelian approach which stresses that if we want to understand social practices and even objects, then we have to understand what they are for. And if we understand what it’s for, we might have to adjust society to allow that use for which it has been created to be realised better. It seems to me from the way you’ve been talking about this, you favour the third approach.

MS: I would put it this way: the third approach, this Aristotelian idea, is indispensable. We can’t make sense of our debates about justice without drawing, to some degree, on this third, Aristotelian tradition. And the reason I think this is important and worth emphasising is that most of our debates today involve contests between the first two approaches: the utilitarian idea and the rights idea. For example, debates about torture.

There are those who say yes you should torture a terror suspect to find the ticking bomb. That’s a utilitarian idea—numbers count, consequences count. As against Kantians who would say ‘No there are certain universal human rights and certain things are just wrong—torture is one of them, regardless of the consequences.’ So we’re very familiar with the debate between utilitarian and rights-oriented views. I think what we neglect often is the Aristotelian strand.

Take the torture debate. Some would say on utilitarian grounds that you should torture the terrorist suspect if you need the information desperately and you can’t get it any other way and many lives are at stake. But then put to the utilitarian this question: suppose the only way to get the information from the terrorist suspect is not to torture him but to torture his innocent 14 year old daughter. Would you do it? Even most utilitarians would hesitate. Why? Not because they don’t care about numbers, but because there’s a deep moral intuition that the girl is innocent, she doesn’t deserve to be tortured. Whereas a lot of people who would say torture in the original ticking time bomb situation is justified—many of them are resting that thought on the idea that ‘Well he’s a pretty bad guy anyhow, he deserves rough treatment, he’s a terrorist.’ So this idea of who deserves what and why, and what does this have to do with the virtue of persons is at play often without our realising it, in many of the arguments we have.

So what I’m trying to do is to show that in many of the debates we have about justice, not only utility and rights but also questions of desert, virtue and the common good as Aristotle understood them, are in play and indispensable today.

source: (accessed 27th January 2015)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What to do about Terrorism? Should news media publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

Terrorism is defined in the Terrorism Act 2000. (1)

Jonathan Powell was on Andrew Neils' Daily Politics on 8/1/15 with Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam foundation and Douglas Murray - the day after Charlie Hebdo Paris shootings. Nawaz said that the Charlie killers and others seek to create civil war between Muslims and non-muslims throughout Europe. Muslim liberals need to speak up to reform Islamic Blasphemy laws. Murray said the Hebdo killers were seeking to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws on the free west. For a decade, the UK media has been cowed by the threat of Islamist violence into not publishing cartoons of Mohammed. Murray says . Terrorism works. UK media should publish Mohammed cartoons on front pages (Powell agreed) en masse at a particular hour - to 'share the risk'. But before doing so, UK Government should protect UK media from attack by Islamists. When gunmen shout 'Allah Akbah' - it is everything to do with Islam, said Murray. (2,3)

In other news, concerning the Charlie Hebdo attack: the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten will not print Prophet Mohammad cartoons. They say "We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo's," Jyllands-Posten said. "We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation." "Denmark's other major newspapers have all republished cartoons from the French satirical weekly as part of the coverage of the attack which killed 12 people in Paris on Wednesday 7/1/15." (4)

Buzzfeed summarises other news organisations views about publishing  / not publishing the M cartoons. (5) have a petition calling on UK and USA news organisations worldwide to publish the Charlie cartoons. (6)

Stephen Fry calls on news organisations to publish. (7)