Monday, October 3, 2011

On Politics and Principles

Regular readers know that I'm a great fan of Neil Sinhababu, but I really think he's terribly wrong in a post he titled "What Philosophy Can Save You From" last week, in which he argues that the way to avoid the various traps people might fall into in politics -- such as emotional manipulation from professional experts -- is to keep your eyes on the bottom line, which he insists consists of core principles:
What's of fundamental importance in the world, and what good people are really trying to advance through involvement in public life, doesn't have a proper name like "Obama", "Bush", "Reagan", or "the Republican Party." It's described by more general terms like "the greatest happiness for all" or "helping people" or (according to views I think are wrong) "obeying God" or "property rights" or "the revolution." If you don't try to sort out what you care about at this level, the emotions that tie you to politics may attach to politicians and tribes and not the things that are described in well-reasoned principles. And then the things that motivate you won't be the things of real value. Maybe you'll do the right thing accidentally -- that happens often enough. But you'll be very easy to lead astray.
I've been known to get very excited about particular politicians. But if I'm doing it right, I'll be able to subordinate my feelings about them to the thing my utilitarian views tell me is most important -- the greatest happiness for all.
I'm fully, completely, and totally against this view of politics.

First of all, most of us don't actually have "well-reasoned principles" to apply to particular cases. Sinhababu is a philosopher, but most of us aren't -- and we're not ideologues, either. Establishing a hierarchy in which "well-reasoned principles" are the best basis for politics is, in my view, awfully risky if one is concerned about full participation for all, including those unable, untrained, or just uninterested in formulating or adopting such principles.

Second, I'm sympathetic to Arendtian concerns about the mismatch between absolute principles and the intensely particular world of human affairs.

Despite all that, I have no real objection to anyone who chooses to base their own political choices on some sort of first principles. But I also have no objections to those who base political choices on something else, including that most common basis: affiliation with and advocacy for some in-group or groups.* That would include, by the way, political party as the relevant in-group. Of course, our choices of which groups to affiliate with politically is in itself an intensely political decision, whether or not we perceive it that way -- we choose whether to be "gun owners" or "Iowans" or "left handed" or "Polish-American" or "conservative" or "urban" or "suburban" or "bowler" or "small business" or "podiatrist" or "Protestant" or "Star Wars fan" or whatever, even when all of those are descriptively true (okay, I made up an odd mix, but you get the idea).

Nor do I have any problem with those who make political choices based on raw emotional impulse. You like Barack Obama because he seems like a nice person to you, and that seems like a good reason to support a politician? Fine; I might caution you about accuracy of impressions filtered through the media and campaigns, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it.

Now, could those non-principled bases for political action lead to errors? Sure: it's politics! You don't get to know in advance what the "correct" choice is. Sinhababu is worried that emotional attachment to a "tribe or politician" may lead to poor choices, choices that don't conform to one's deeper values -- but that's irrelevant for those who don't have those principles (or whose principles include loyalty to a group), and at any rate it's, again, a hopeless standard, because there is no way to avoid errors in politics.**

The reason I care about all of this gets back to the very beginning, when I was mentioned the possibility of being "uninterested" in principles. More to the point, I worry about those whose principles are not strongly enough held to entice them into political action, because I do share what I see as Madison's concern: that it's one thing to establish a republic in which all citizens are empowered to act equally, and quite another to figure out how to entice them to actually get involved. That's the crisis of 1787; not just that the mechanics of the Articles were broken, but that republicans had always assumed that only a virtuous people could make a republic work, and as 1776 gives way to 1787 it's increasingly clear that the people were to be corrupt, not virtuous. In my reading, Madison's leap is to essentially jettison the assumption of virtue and try to use self-interest to entice people back into public action. That's why Madison's Federalist essays are so radical: he's overturning not only centuries of assumptions about the mechanics of republics, but far more critical assumptions about the citizens of republics. Madison makes self-interest -- not well-argued principles -- the entryway for political participation precisely because he's seeing all around him the lure of private happiness, rather than the appeal of public happiness. Now, I think Madison certainly still cared about virtue, but he chose to hope that once people entered politics (usually for self-interested reasons) that they then would enlarge their views and eventually (perhaps, or at least potentially) learn virtue.***

So what worries me is that over two centuries on we still have a residue of contempt for the plurality of things that actually get real-life citizens to enter into public affairs, and that we should fight hard against that residue -- because the far more real danger isn't that people will enter political life and then make poor choices, but that they won't enter into public affairs at all.

OK, I think I'll quit there. One of these days I need to talk about the angels in Fed 51, but I've written enough for now, and I need something to save for a slow news day!

*Indeed, I'm tempted to define away Sinhababu's first principles into a group advocacy: he doesn't really advocate for utilitarian principles, but instead advocates in favor of what-utilitarians-should-support. But that's probably not only cheating and overly clever, but also wrong, so I wouldn't really go that far.

**I'm tempted here by two arguments. One is that I'm likely to avoid certain types of errors through group affiliation politics; if my only question is "Is it good for the Jews?", then I may still be wrong about what's actually good for the Jews, and I may also accidentally support some monstrous policy because I overlook its implications outside of the Jews, but it's at least got to be a heck of a lot easier than figuring out whether a policy meets utilitarian (or, say, Randian) principles. The other is that it's all illusion anyway, since most of us most of the time are unlikely to actually understand our own reasons for choosing a candidate or policy, and quite good at manipulating our own arguments to justify why our choices conform with whatever we think of as our core principles.

***OK, I know, I'm oversimplifying the idea of "virtue" here. Sorry.

[Update: Please be sure to see Sinhababu's response. Also, as long as I'm here, the comments on this one were well worth reading through -- thanks to all]


  1. I really like the title "What Philosophy Can Save You From," but I largely agree with you. I've seen the primacy of certain principles cause pain one would never expect. I've also seen people so sure of their principles that they won't give an opponent or opposing idea a hearing.

    Your point that 'it's politics! You don't get to know in advance what the "correct" choice is' is the best argument against decision-making based only on principle. There's so much in politics that doesn't fit into a hierarchy of principles, like the ability to communicate and lead well.

    But what I like best in Sinhababu's column is the reminder to question why we like or support a politician. Questioning is the best part of philosophy--it sure isn't reading philosophy books. (Said a former philosophy major)

  2. Madison describes the group interests that exist in any society. But there’s nothing natural or inevitable about our two-party political system -- it exists in large part because of how our electoral system is designed. So yes, people are free to be mindless partisans for Team Red or Team Blue, but we’re also free as a society to change the laws so as to lessen this tendency.

  3. Yes, but....

    I'd prefer it if people's partisanships were more the product of their issue positions, and less the other way around. At issue for me is representation, in two ways.

    First, how is a politician supposed to represent voters when those voters are expressing only tribal loyalties, rather than some kind of consistency in their thoughts? As an example: somebody comes up to you at a town hall and says that they're a pro-choice, environmentalist, raise-my-taxes, cut-defense Republican. Since much of the interactions with anybody new involve figuring out what that person wants, what is our representative supposed to make of this person?

    Secondly, overall democratic representation. If partisanships are just inherited or the products of fairly random events/influences, then people's positions on issues could change without much reflection of that in the positions of the parties. If, however, partisanship reflects some real issue commitments, then the various mechanisms of the parties to determine nominees and platforms and such translate those wishes into policy (eventually). And, moreover, the unaffiliated get a chance to hear competing views for the future and make relatively informed decisions.

    Fortunately, I think our system DOES allow for partisanship to be a DV. (In other words: my concerns aren't raised too high by our current system) The parties have evolved, and their memberships have changed, particularly in the last 50 years. However, I have to say that the parties we had from, oh, 1910-1950 aren't my cup of tea. Not from an APSA report, responsible parties perspective, but from a representational one. It's not clear to me how the parties really represented their constituencies in that period. The elected officials did, but the parties were not adding much to the system of single-member districts.

  4. Establishing a hierarchy in which "well-reasoned principles" are the best basis for politics is, in my view, awfully risky if one is concerned about full participation for all, including those unable, untrained, or just uninterested in formulating or adopting such principles.

    Why exactly is "full participation for all" a "concern" when you've defined "participation" to include action in no way informed by intellectual or moral judgment. For whom? To what end? Why do "all" need to "participate" (whatever that means) in order for popular sovereignty to function in the pessimistic Madisonian format? Certainly neither Madison nor his contemporaries were very greatly concerned that "all" people were seen to "participate" if "participate" meant voting, organizing, paying attention to political debates, and so on. If participate means participate in the state in the largest sense of the term, as the entire culture-state rather than merely the political/electoral system, then we can define approaches to politics along different lines entirely. The other choice seems to be a kind of apolitical politics for a de-humanized humanity, full of sound and fury, and you know the rest.

  5. Matt G.,


    Matt J.,

    On your first point: I disagree with your view of representation. See e.g. here and here

    Which also leads into your second point. In the unlikely event that everyone is a tribal partisan, then party politicians will represent them by being tribal partisans and they won't be constrained on issues and that's OK, because their constituents don't care. But in fact, people do care about issues, so it's OK.

    I have to think about your 1910-1950 point, though. My general sense is that we don't know enough, but I could be wrong about that, too.


    Fair enough, but I'd be very careful about designing a system so that it requires extensive knowledge of "the issues" in order to function politically.

  6. I'm a philosopher, and I agree with you, too. Besides the political considerations you highlight, there's something philosophically important that Sinhababu is getting wrong: ethics is simply not directly continuous with political philosophy. As a utilitarian, he's affirming that there's at base one thing that's good -- that we can clearly know what it is -- and that we can (in principle) use that knowledge to help attain it. However well or ill that works within ethical deliberation, it's not helpful in political deliberation. An ethical theory that has nothing to say about intractable disagreement between competent individuals can maybe survive, but it can't work as a theory of politics.

    Of course, this isn't just a utilitarian error. Aristotle also thought that personal virtue was intimately connected with the success of the polis. That view is directly related to some of his most repulsive views: in particular, that only the people who have the leisure to be full-time amateur politicians and scholars -- viz., wealthy aristocratic male full citizens who accept the social conventions they live under -- even have a shot at a worthwhile life. Obviously Sinhababu rejects that claim. And "the greatest good for the greatest number" could plausibly be promoted via each group promoting its own perception of its own good. But if each of us is supposed to deliberate politically solely on the basis of our perceptions of the greatest good for the greatest number, we're going to get either nowhere or possibly to a quasi-benevolent dictator.

  7. Excellent post and discussion.

    I'm pondering Couves' point. In my own life, I can see that I've picked up some issue views simply by being a self-identified Democrat - that is, essentially for tribal reasons, because the people heavily concerned with those issues are part of my tribe.

    In principle, if I lived in a multi-party political system this would never have happened. I would choose a party based on the issues that I really care about, and remain independent (or indifferent) about other issues.

    But does it really work out that way? My impression is that multiparty systems tend toward coalitions of parties that are fairly stable over time.

    So if your core issues put you in the center-left coalition, you are still sort of stuck with the other parties in that coalition. Even if, in principle, you don't care about their issues, and might even lean mildly the other way.

    (Loosely related, but what the hell are parties like Britain's Lib Dems or Germany's Free Democrats even *for*? They seem to wander back and forth between Tories and Labour / right and left coalitions, which may give party leaders dealmaking power, but what makes anyone else vote for those parties?)

  8. Wow, I'm usually on board with JB's counterintuitive, anti GooGoo, pro pol positions, but here I think it's pretty misguided.

    My education was in philosophy, and my interest in politics is secondary to my interest in philosophy. But I'm still very engaged in politics. And in practice, what that looks like is pretty Madisonian. I have the same kind of in-group affiliations, compromised issue positions, and favorite politicians as somebody who doesn't start from first principles. (I like to think I have a more rigorous foundation for these fallen positions... I'm aware how tenuous that assumption is.)

    But just because A and B resemble each other in practice doesn't mean that having a foundation is not a superior way to engage in politics. There's nothing there to resist the in=group affiliations w/out it...

    One final point: The republican party. Q.E.D.

  9. I was listening to Michael Savage ranting the other night; he was off on some alleged new policy out of Britain whereby children would be put in some national registry if they were witnessed using offensive language in school. Savage was in a rage over this (perhaps somewhat apocryphal) story, as were no doubt his mostly conservative listeners.

    Conservatives hate that sort of thing, because while the left-wing Great Society crowd sees it as "something something Government bringing order something something", conservatives are mortified that the woman entering our child's name in that database is some biddy whose own child/grandchild is a dullard kid in our own charismatic (and now tagged) child's room.

    In the vast expanse of an unchecked Great Society, the opportunities for self-interest to masquerade as "social interest" are legion. The example in the paragraph above is surely just the tip of the iceberg. This, I think, is the essence of political conservatism in the 21st century, irrespective of the epic stupidity spewing from Fox News or right-wing radio.

    One wonders, then, how anyone who recognizes this fundamental, selfish motive driving a Madisonian system would be a liberal today, where the power of the state is turned over to myriad 'public' entities, run for 'the public good' by unidentifiable, but doubtlessly selfish, actors.

    Frankly, Sinhababu may have the best explanation for the persistence of traditional liberalism in the face of the negative of selfish actors in government systems: the right wing is just viscerally repulsive.

  10. Although I basically agree with the philosophical point here, I just don't get where James Madison was talking about "participation." In Federalist 10, he's looking for "proper guardians of the public weal" who would "refine and enlarge the public views," precisely because those views were more likely to be narrowly self-interested than enlightened or virtuous. He seemed to think that differing interests were inevitable, and you didn't need to encourage people to express these. The goal was to achieve something approximating the public good by taking people's pre-existing, factional views and "passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

    So, right, Madison understood that politics wasn't likely to be a contest among well-reasoned principles. But I don't get that he saw the point of the US constitutional design as facilitating anything resembling "participation" as we understand it today. (Relatedly, the "crisis of 1787" that brought that design into being wasn't about "virtue" in some classical sense, it was about state governments being too easily captured by the debtor classes. For the Framers, "virtue" meant, at least in part, "making sure that bondholders don't get stiffed." That's why the new Constitution ordered the states not to "impair the obligations of contracts.")

  11. Jeff,

    We're always going to disagree on the history, but I'm pretty sure it's not entirely relevant to the claims that I make, anyway. I'm trying to remember the sources I used (beyond the Fed Papers)...William Lee Miller's book, and Wood (Creation), mostly, but I think there was something else. I have a working paper I never got into publishable shape where I put together the argument for Madison's views, and I'm comfortable with it, but certainly open to being told off by, you know, real historians.

  12. We can see how little light is cast on the vast range of human experience and behavior by outdated formulations of the social sciences.

    A 21st Century view of the interaction of philosophy and politics would go more like this.
    Each and every person of the billions of people on earth makes choices in thought and action at nearly every conscious moment of their lives. These thoughts and actions create Human History, and are also the data to be analyzed by other social sciences, psychology, philosophy, politics, economics and others.

    Human thought and action can usefully be analyzed by any one of these sciences in particular cases, yet for overall understanding all the sciences need to be understood as occurring simultaneously and over-lapping each other -- as they actually occur in the thoughts and actions that make up our lives!

    The thoughts and actions we borrow and create to define our personalities, in the science of psychology, are not separate from the thoughts and actions we borrow and create to define our explanations, in the science of philosophy. And neither are separate from the thoughts and actions we borrow and create to define the persons and groups to whom we give honor, respect and status to in the sphere of the science of politics, nor are they separate from our borrowings and creations of economic values, in the field of economics, and the borrowing and creating we use to physically create goods and services to fulfill those economic values.

    When the full multiplicity of every person's thought and action is taken into full historic view, the historians of the 21st Century will then be able to track and properly assign all these vagaries of individual action and "ethics." Joe and Betty made political choices based on how candidates looked on TV, with this and that results in these cases. Tim and Sue made political choices based on philosopher X's system of ethical ecstasy for the greatest number, and they had such and thus results in some other cases.

    And then the arguments can really begin.

    So that's the very shortest summary of 21st Century philosophy I've attempted so far, it really needs more lengthy and friendly treatment, as I've attempted to provide elsewhere.

  13. I agree, the Madisonian history is not relevant -- or at least not essential -- to the claims at issue here. (Also I'm not a historian, strictly speaking.) I guess what I meant to do was pose a question, i.e. is "participation" some kind of poli-sci term of art that I'm misunderstanding, or does it mean just what it sounds like conversationally -- people getting involved in politics through parties and rallies and so forth? Madison doesn't strike me as having been fond of participation in that sense, but it may be that by 18th-century standards he was assuming (if not advocating) a high degree of participation and trying to figure out how to make the best of it.

  14. Jonathan, I agree completely. The problem with inventing a perfect democracy is that the universally engaged and enlightened electorate is a utopian fantasy.

    Rick, good points. The Liberals are now in coalition with the Tories because the Tories agreed to enact some of the Liberals’ policy objectives. The Liberals also have a role in governing (they control several ministries) and have a veto they could use (or threaten to use) if the Tories might do something they really can’t live with. If you’re a Liberal Party voter, that seems like a pretty big win to me.

    But we don’t need to have a multiparty system -- we can just reform our current system. For example, states could have a single unified primary ballot, blunting the power of narrow partisan interests in selecting party nominees. There’s no reason people should be forced to vote for only one party’s candidates in the primary.

  15. Great post!
    The roll that you were on at: "That's the crisis of 1787..." Should be picked back up! You quit WAY to early. Can you expand on what you are referring to for the students in the room? Or do you have to send us off with a reading assignment?

  16. I am getting the feeling that you are somewhat underestimating the radicalism of Sinhababu's position. It seems to me to be radically rationalist in a very stereotypical philosophical way. For example, the point he is making about "emotional attachment" is not that these things can lead to errors, but that such attachments are irrelevant to the truth of ones position (they offer no rational reason to hold any specific view).

    So when you say:

    "Now, could those non-principled bases for political action lead to errors? Sure: it's politics! You don't get to know in advance what the "correct" choice is. Sinhababu is worried that emotional attachment to a "tribe or politician" may lead to poor choices, choices that don't conform to one's deeper values -- but that's irrelevant for those who don't have those principles (or whose principles include loyalty to a group), and at any rate it's, again, a hopeless standard, because there is no way to avoid errors in politics."

    You are kinda missing what I think his position is about. Contra this, he wmight claim that:
    1. All people have these kinds of principles.
    2. That both principles are fallible (i.e. can lead to error) is irrelevant to their status of being rational. Only because you cannot avoid error in politics does not mean that one way of doing it might avoid error to a higher degree (just because you might miss the ball sometimes does not mean that any way of swinging the bat makes sense). And since tribal attachment would support positions regardless of their truth (in this case, their relation to first principles), such attachments can never be a rational reason to support a certain position (i.e. they will only support a position that conforms to your own principles by chance). Now claim 1. is very very strong, but it might just amount to a claim that all people are moral or rational.

    I dunno if I like this view, it does strike me as a bit naïve. However there might be some rather annoying consequences in denying it.

  17. Neil,

    Thanks back! I updated above with a link; I'll respond over there, I think.


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