Thursday, June 30, 2016

Political Pragmatism: Taking Policy Results Seriously


The American Constitution was ratified in 1789. Nearly 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed in the interim. Of those, a paltry 27 saw actual amendment ratifications successfully pass. Round up combined attempts to an even 11K and you get a success rate of 0.00245454545%. Perhaps you think that's a figure to be proud of, but then there's peskiness like this to contend with. But even if you defiantly ignore the populist will, just getting to the "Amendment Proposed" stage requires a two-thirds majority vote from the House and Senate. Contrastingly, Germany has 50 Constitutional amendments under its belt, and this is if we only start counting from 2003 onwards. That's 50 successful amendments in less than 13 years for Germany, while the last successful amendment ratification in the U.S. took place 24 years ago as of my writing this. At one point Scalia calculated that it can feasibly take 2% of the entire U.S. population to block an amendment that's spiritedly backed by a supermajority. America; Home Of The Same.

The point? There are people who subscribe to forward-looking ethical theories but oddly insist on having political sacred cows. I can only infer that they've not adequately politicised their consequentialism. The reasons for this will differ. In the worst case, they will have failed to do so quite deliberately. Political identity wins out because the sacredness-conserver is not a consequentialist to begin with. Then again, many members of this group are oblivious to the fact that they have implicitly snubbed a systematized theory of ethics in favour of political identity. More on them later.

In the near worst case, we have a more informed group concluding that a nifty ethics/politics merger finds itself outside the bounds of good taste. For this not-quite-worst group, the merger is not poor taste, it's just nowhere near good taste. Flagrant politicization of consequentialism is not out-and-out Political Heresy, but it is suggestive of Political Indecency. The group keenly reminds us that good (or just comparatively better) outcomes can be brought about inadvertently, and policies shouldn't be crafted to control for things like blind luck. Politicising happenstance is just not civically kosher, in their eyes. Besides, humans have inalienable rights (haven't I heard) and the merger would overlook the inexorability of such rights, in some cases. Can't have it.

The near-worst group's enduring presence reaffirms how beginners only abstractly champion the consequentialist cause, up until the literalness of outcomes-over-praise hits them where it stings. Someone like me gets written off due to my unglued insistence that Politics is really nothing more than Applied Ethics, and that there is wisdom in brashly merging the ethical with the political. Axiological clarity demands it.

The challenge: Point me to a Political Principle that's worth preserving indivisibly, even when it fails to improve on, or when it directly or indirectly worsens, any of these (three) formulations of human and non-human welfare.

In my thirteen+ year stint on the internet, I've seen many who regard ethical/political mergers as being in full-blown poor taste. That's the absolute worst group; a mindset perceiving the amalgam as not just "not good" but acutely "bad" so "let's not go there". Enter non-overlapping magisteria takes on the moral and the political.

Of course, the anti-merger view is itself an ethical injunction, unwittingly slithered into value-neutral political discourse. Proponents of backward-looking ethics have far more wiggle room here, but I'm not even trying to dissuade them in this post anyway. Their particular mental acrobatics are an aside for now. I'm after fellow consequentialists' acrobatics in this post.

The rejecter offers reasons that prop-up anti-merger convictions. These inevitably narrow down to condemnatory attitudes. Still, the attitude is presented as an amoral condemnation of the merger, and while this is hilariously paradoxical in its own right, it's doubly hilarious when you see the rejecter trying to pass himself off as an advocate of outcome-minded ethics.

Hilarity and duplicity aside, the non-overlapping magisteria group's inability (unwillingness?) to pick up on the contradiction is what leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The doublethink is bipartisan and rears its head across the political spectrum. Cringeworthy oft-sayings include:


"You can't legislate morality!" (unstated premise: it's immoral to do so!)


"You don't bring your religious /irreligious/anti-theistic views into the voting booth" (it's immoral to do so!)


"You can't impose your sense of right and wrong on society at large" (it's immoral to do so!)


"Just live and let live" (it's immoral not to!)


"Politics is corruption, that's no place for morality" (it's immoral to mix morality and corruption)


"You worship your way, I'll worship my way" (it's immoral to nudge me into worshipping your way)


"You raise your children how you see fit, I'll raise mine how I see fit" (it's immoral to... form the CPS?)



You get the picture. They're like, non-prescriptive prescriptions y'all!

Except they're not. They can't be. Our utterances are either descriptive or prescriptive, be they political or apolitical. Every descriptive statement is non-prescriptive, and every prescription is non-descriptive. Pushback against this gets you the civic equivalent of being told that social nonjudgmentalism is a virtue, that falling short of social nonjudgmentalism is a vice, and that this can be identified and relayed to offenders without a third party's judgment doing the relaying. It's being told that someone is successfully squaring the circle and dammit pipe down if you disagree about it being sufficiently square-ish & circle-ish.

While the personal may not be political (most of the time), the moral certainly is.

Denying this is also a dead-end when you consider how consequentialists cannot have implacable views when it comes to specific acts, specific laws, specific constitutionalist rituals or specific proceduralist norms... when analysed independently of (seamlessly varying) context. The roadblock is amplified to the extent that adherence to axioms is bound to be outcome-undermining at best and outcome-dismissive at worst.

Face it, there's no such thing as an "amoral condemnation" of anything in the political world. Even when you're engaged in an otherwise purely factual dispute and are about to accuse your discussant of intellectual dishonesty, you are ascribing value to intellectual honesty itself. You can't do this in an amoral way. Treasuring correctness, awareness, knowledge, veracity... all under the guise of doing something amoral, or non-axiological, has folks falling short of (you guessed it!) intellectual honesty.

And if you believe that intellectual honesty is irreversibly self-justifying, you will understand how your dishonest interlocutor must have been (1) factually/amorally confused about his reasons for dodging or misunderstanding the facts you unleashed upon him, (2) was not intellectually dishonest after all, just ignorant or mentally disabled or too emotionally retarded to grasp what you said and how it undermines his stated belief.

When you step into the voting booth, you are not engaging in intrapersonal glass-house wish-fulfillment. You are, in no uncertain terms, imposing your values on society. Assuming you're not just there for a pisstake, or an ironic throwaway vote, you are there to be an imposer. A roundabout imposer, sure, but directness/indirectness is as irrelevant to final impact under democratism as it is in apolitical philanthropy. So impose those values you hold dear. No apology needed, as prescriptions are non-divorceable from follow-through on values like truth-appreciation. With this, our moralities are inextricably tied to our particular political ventures.

Not to lose sight of the crucial point; that political principles are indistinguishable from political ideologies. This holds regardless of the particular set of principles under review. Appealing to "the principles" and the need for internal consistency comes across as high-mindedness because the folk continue to fall for sanctimonious applause lights. How I wish they'd stop.

It should be uncontroversial to hear that a set of political principles is just codeword for an unimpressive and probably clannish political ideology. Trying to undo this by thinking of those principles as something else or something more is nakedly disingenuous. I remain confident that all of us would rigorously investigate the causal-chain behind our beliefs, and think more level-headedly about the policies we have heretofore supported, if we accustomed ourselves to a phlegmatic abandonment of any principle the moment it produces results even minimally inferior to those practiced elsewhere. For this heuristic to come naturally to the broader public, sobering anti-rhetoricians must make their presence known. If Joe Public gets trained to spot the differences between the rhetorician and the conversationalist, or the differences between the pseudointellectual provocateur and the intellectual lightweight/middleweight/heavyweight, our most strenuous hurdle will have been overcome. Sadly, I'm not aware of any influential figures who haven't been taken in by rhetoricians and who then went on to equip Joe Public with the same falsity-detection tools. This will have to change if there is to be any hope of reaching a stage where framing debates along incendiary Political Identity lines is seen as intellectually passé. As it stands, identity-driven conceptual frameworks continue to animate online participants unlike any alternative. Keyword searches on Political Identity labels numerically outperform keyword searches on moral category labels, by orders of magnitude. Something to abscond.

Only by aggressively politicizing your forward-looking ethical system can you legitimately balk at "the divisiveness of politics" and similar factionalist woefulness failing to get at the crux of disagreement. It's analytically restraining. Some have even called it the mind-killer (at worst) or hard-mode (at best).

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In the midway case, ideology weakly lingers. The merger is given some consideration and lingerers budge here and there, albeit reluctantly, when pressed by the telic ethicist who doesn't shy away from being heatedly political. Overall, the group clutches to original political dispositions. Perhaps social (tribal?) gesturing plays a role too. Subsequent efforts to have them budge more are met with rhetorical manoeuvrings (i.e. "It's not sacredness, it's consistency!") or handwavey dismissals of outcomes' significance. The concept of inalienable rights is understood as farcical, but the group's acceptance of this relaxes nothing come crunch-time. Policy debates turn laborious, with unintuitive counterevidence being groaned at, especially when fresh out of the political lab. If your pet policy worked for centuries (due to, say, the era of industrialism being the right place and time for said policy) and waned gradually (see: postindustrialist and futurist shifts, organizationally speaking), your policy needs to go. UBI, unthinkable less than 50 years ago, is now on the table. Even when it possesses the most methodically sound procreation disincentives, UBI still violates cherished "Pay your way through life" purities. Choosing it will feel wrong, for rural mindsets more so than for urban ones. No matter how wrong it feels to you, evidence abounds that UBI is better suited for anticipatory ethics than any alternative proposal. Handling mass unemployment under techno-futurism in societies via UBI can only seem unfair if you reject the politicization of a future-minded ethical system. Austerity need not apply as your feelings, values and attitudes morph into Sunk-Cost Fallacies around policymaking.

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In the best case, there are no ideologues in sight. Any hesitation to merge is born of epistemic concerns and is nonideological. i.e. "We currently don't know for certain whether Yield signs are all the rave compared to Stop signs, so let's not meddle with a functional traffic system by swapping all Stop signs for Yield signs". This is a respectable position, if somewhat crippling. Yes, uncalculated risk-aversion can be crippling, as can imperfectly calculated risk-aversion.

When leftover wavering around mergers is not grounded in genuine uncertainties over data and moral know-how, it will be misguidedly impulsive; down to people not thinking in adequate detail about the relationship between ethics and politics. Think about it appositely and the merger is fair game. Politics = Applied ethics. Northing else.

This relationship is intended to be symbiotic. The moment it's not, one of two things will have gone awry; (1) the political side isn't pulling its weight, usually because established players prioritized non-moral agendas over moral ones, (2) the moral side isn't pulling its weight, because the outcome-minded members of the citizenry are too morally shy (or just too disinterested) to force the moral hand and combine the two disciplines, as is commonly the case.

Acknowledge that a persuasive pitch in favour of the merger can be made and nothing within policymaking is seen as nonnegotiable. People begin to understand that a Constitution is valuable in terms of what it has done for its citizens lately, and all is right with the (analytic) world.

Few political commentators/analysts/junkies consciously unleash themselves from legalistic restrictiveness around moral assessments, regardless of their spot on the political spectrum. Despite the dismally low ratification rate mentioned at the top, populist disregard of constitutional nuts and bolts in the case of, say, National/Public Healthcare, is clear as day. Much like with the supposed moral rightness of voting itself, vested interests appeal to Constitutional Might when it's convenient, only to overlook it, downplay it, or point out how "times have changed" the moment the same Constitution's supposed inerrancy turns inconvenient. So why only 27 amendments? Because rotted-corpse Founders willed it? Well, some of them did anyway. Talk about backward-looking. All I hear is Because God Willed It. Likeminded consequentialists shouldn't hear anything else.

I'm here to unapologetically call every last Constitution in the world a pig, and to urge readers to wipe some of that superfluous lipstick off of it. This can be mistaken as me saying "Constitutions are useless because they're totally modifiable". A misunderstanding that seems wilful, so I won't bother with it. Constitutions are useful in spite of being adjustable. The less adjustments over time, the less usefulness in mileage. To prove how wrongheaded I'm being with all this, opponents point to brutalist despotism wherein fewer checks and balances result in havoc and gulags. To prove how wrongheaded they are, I point to counterfactuals of my own. If you're going to deify the Founders, note that Jefferson wanted laws to expire every 19 years, because "The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead". Deify that.

Finally, I propose a fresh and captivating terminological differentiation between The Leftist and the left-winger. This delineation is idiosyncratic and has nothing to do with clashes between the center left and the radical left. That's immaterial for now. Rather, it's about consequentialist versus non-consequentialist influence on difficult political questions. A longstanding tug-of-war taken beyond the micro, thrust into the macro. Gov't officials shoot down a hijacked plane and kill hundreds of faultless passengers/civilians in the process. It's the morally appropriate thing to do, because governments are in the (scalar) business of preventing more harm whenever shit hits the fan.  Governments are not in the business of protecting imaginary natural rights of innocents when doing so comes at too high a cost to welfarist concerns. Move the target from static non-consequentialist rights-theory to the demonstrable benefits of ethnic profiling, and the committed Leftist is made squirmy by the exact same calculative pronouncement. The left-winger, meanwhile, nods along to it with ease, understanding that profiling is a cost/benefit question like any other, not an isolated "right vs. wrong" question aiming for sanctimony. The Leftist is unconditional in his support for Leftism. The left-winger supports left-wing policies conditionally.

Same goes for differences between The Rightist and the right-winger. The Rightist has non-welfarist sacred cows to maintain, come hell or high water. The right-winger, though not entirely friendly to the demandingness of impartial consequentialism embraced by the left-winger, still finds himself closer to it than to some non-consequentialist, egoist or Social Darwinist baseline.

For those who identify somewhere amidst (what I'll call here) the Worldwide Conventional Left, examples of That Which Is Nonnegotiable include Equality, Democracy, Integration, Universal Human Rights, Anti-War, Anti-Globalism, Anti-Imperialism, Minority Rights, Reproductive Rights, Privacy Rights, Labour Rights, Positive Liberty, Torture Prohibitionism, Capital Punishment Prohibitionism, and perhaps a special nod to recent transgender noise making the rounds.

For those who identify somewhere amidst (what I'll call here) the Worldwide Conventional Right, there's the unwillingness to surrender some or most of the following; Property Rights, Firearms Rights, Religious Rights, Just Desserts, Retributivism, National Sovereignty, in-group loyalty, Exceptionalism, nuclear familialism, Negative Liberty, Pro-Life/Forced Birth, obligations to fellow citizens over distant foreigners, and perhaps the resurgence of nativism and identitarianism.

Common nonnegotiable mainstays shared by the conventional left and right: Freedom of Speech/Expression, Industrialism, Trade, Innovation, Conservationism, Preservationism, consanguineous dictates on interpersonal obligations.

The takeaway: Each of these is 100% negotiable when reliable indicators point to better things coming everyone's or most everyone's way, if one or more of them is momentarily or permanently displaced.

Every. Last. One.

There is no consequentialism in action without the looseness of Political Pragmatism.

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Note: This doesn't mean that dwelling on politics is the best way to make a difference. Political discourse and political activism is often a time-sink. It just means that, whatever time you do devote to the political should be understood as you doing ethics in the macro.