Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.

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The Love of Travel and the Relationship between Fortune and Happiness

Most people in post-industrial societies will espouse a love of travel; they desire to go to see faraway places and encounter unique authentic cultures. This love of travel in many cases expresses a genuine desire to understand what it means to be human, but in other cases it expresses a problematic dependency on circumstances outside of one’s control, for one’s happiness.

For many, travel is something that allows them to widen their perspective as they encounter artifacts of the past, and cultures distinct from their own. In these cases travel is surely an enriching force as it helps people to transcend their parochial perceptions of what the good is, and forces them to contemplate what is truly valuable. When directly encountered with a culture that does not value monetary success, the North American Yuppie is forced to question how important monetary success is in their life, and in some cases their current assumptions regarding what is valuable may further develop and grow because of their contact with the other culture.

On the other hand, for some, travel becomes so central to their lives, that they begin to live for travel, and are unhappy if they are not able to travel for an extended period of time. This is deeply problematic as it signifies that one’s happiness is dependent on one’s ability to travel. There are two particularly troubling aspects of this dependency on travel for happiness. Firstly, it reveals an excessive valuation of travel. While traveling is certainly a pleasant experience in the grand scheme of things we can live incredibly rich, fulfilling lives without traveling. Modern technology allows us to easily learn about other cultures and the past without travelling. Furthermore, if travel is valued by a person because it allows us to recharge, than we should be able to find other practises that allow us to recharge, and gather the energy necessary to take on the responsibilities of ordinary life. Travel does not provide us with anything that is fundamental to a well-lived life that we cannot get from other sources, and thus it makes little sense to be upset that we are unable to travel.

The second reason why a person’s dependency on travel is problematic is related to the first, although it is distinct. This second reason is that dependency on travel for happiness reveals an excessive dependency on factors outside of one’s control for one’s happiness. In Letters from a Stoic, the Roman Philosopher Seneca says we show the disorder of our souls when we perceive our happiness as dependent on circumstances outside of our control. For Seneca, a person with a well-ordered soul realizes there is no point in getting upset over circumstances that are out of their control and thus their happiness is unaffected by fortune. I certainly would not go as far as Seneca in saying that a slave can live as happy of a life as modern member of a post-industrial society, but Seneca is surely right to point out that making one’s happiness entirely dependent on factors outside of one’s control signifies a defect of character. A person with a well-ordered intellectual and emotional constitution will be able to be happy even when circumstances do not go in their favour. Consequently, making one’s happiness dependent on the ability to travel is deeply problematic as this makes one happiness dependent on something outside of one’s control, as the ability to travel is conditioned by one’s income and expenses, which despite the myths of rugged individualism, are substantially outside of the control of the agent. Therefore, the person whose happiness is dependent on being able to travel is displaying a vice that prevents them from being able to be happy when circumstances do not go in their favour.

I do not mean to denigrate those who love to travel. I love traveling myself, but when we make our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control we expose ourselves to being destroyed by the world. There certainly may be a danger of making our happiness dependent on sources that are not threatened by fortune, as certain important goods like friendship and love depend on making our happiness dependent on circumstances outside of our control, as loving someone, or developing a friendship, always risks the possibility of betrayal or rejection. But nonetheless I see more of a problem with making our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control in post-industrial societies, as we tend to connect our happiness with anything and everything that is outside of our control (technology, entertainment, income). Consequently many of us need to learn to make our happiness less dependent on such factors, when the goods in question are not particularly pertinent. Making our happiness dependent on eating particular kinds of food, watching a sitcom, or having the new IPhone, reveals not only that one has superficial priorities, but that one can be deeply damaged by a simple change in fortune.

Some Thoughts on the Distinction Between Moral Rights and Legal Rights

Often it is said that if the law does not condemn an act all have a right to engage in that act. While this statement is correct in the sense that all citizens do have a legal right to do anything that is not condemned by the law, this statement is problematic as it fails to distinguish between moral rights and legal rights and thus encourages us to think of all rights as having a legal character and therefore that anything permitted by the law is permitted in general. Thinking of all rights as having a legal character impoverishes our ethical vocabulary and damages our capacity to explain why we find acts deeply objectionable.

To begin with I would like to clarify my distinction between legal and moral rights. One has a legal right to do something when the law does not condemn performing that act. Contrastingly one has a moral right to do something when an act does not violate any morally salient duties. This is of course an extremely simple distinction, and one that glosses over much of the complexity of rights, but the basic point is that moral rights are wider than legal rights. Most legal rights will have a basis in moral rights, but there will be many moral rights and correspondingly violations of moral rights that will not be touched by the law. For example one may have a legal right to deceive one’s friends for personal gain, by presenting a false picture of oneself, but one certainly does not have a moral right to do so, as it is deeply unethical to deceive one’s friends for personal gain, as this invalidates the entire basis of the relationship of friendship, which is trust, honesty and intimacy. Consequently, there are cases in which our legal rights as citizens and moral rights as ethical agents are distinct.

When someone says that all have a right to do anything that is not prohibited by the law, this can be taken in one of two ways. In the first sense this means simply that a person cannot be punished by the law for doing something that is not condemned by the law. In this sense this statement is clearly correct. In the second sense, this statement means that no one can be criticized from a moral perspective for doing anything that is not condemned by the law. In this second sense we see the erasure of the vocabulary of moral rights as distinct from legal rights, and the reduction of the moral to the legal. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in post-industrial societies to think in terms of this second sense of the statement that all citizens have the right to do what is not condemned by the law. We can see this with the way that people who critique someone’s legal, but ethically questionable actions are met with righteous indignation, and the idea that we should not pass judgment on someone if they have not broken any laws. I don’t mean to suggest that this tendency is totalizing as there are still many who strongly distinguish between moral rights and legal rights, but there are tendencies among certain groups in post-industrial societies to reduce what is morally permissible to what is legally permissible.

The tendency to conflate legal rights and moral rights is problematic as it impoverishes our moral vocabulary and understanding. If we think in this way we still know that murder, rape and theft are problematic activities. But we cannot explain why we admire the loyal, trustworthy friends, over the calculating two faced false friend, because if what one has a moral right to do is the same as what one has a legal right to do, than from the perspective of moral rights the two faced false friend and the honest, loyal trustworthy friend are the same, for we have just as much of a right to be a false two faced friend as a honest, loyal, trustworthy friend.

A person who lacks the vocabulary of moral rights independent of legal rights will likely have the sense that being a two faced false friend is wrong, but they will not be able to explain that the two faced false friend is ethically problematic because he violates the duties inherent in the relationship of friendship. Consequently, he or she will be stuck and have a hard time justifying her moral intuitions and perhaps begin to cease believing in them. If such an attitude becomes widespread in our society we are surely in trouble as much of what enriches our lives are acts and relationships that while not actively regulated by law, are nonetheless structured by particular moral rights and obligations, so in order to keep these practises healthy and secure we must ensure that our ethical vocabulary and understanding of moral rights does not deteriorate.

It should be noted that I am in no way suggesting that morality is rights-centric and can be reduced to a set of rights and correlative duties, but rather I am merely suggesting that rights language is a part of morality. There are certainly many reasons why particular acts that are not prohibited by law are unethical and problematic beyond the fact that one does not have a moral right to perform a particular act. For example, I may not have a moral right to ignore my friend’s phone calls when we are having a dispute, but this is not merely problematic because I am deceiving my friend. It is also problematic because it reveals that I am a coward, and cowardice is certainly a vice. So, while I am using rights to ground my discussion here, I am not suggesting morality is rights-centric.

Uniqueness and the Desire to Distinguish Oneself

The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is highly regarded in the popular culture of post-industrial liberal democratic societies.  It is repeatedly said that all people are unique and that they should be able to express their uniqueness. Consequently, this desire drives us to adopt our own unique personal lifestyle and tastes. Furthermore while this desire has taken on a particular form in post-industrial liberal democracies, it seems to be tied to the general human desire to distinguish oneself, whether it be through excellence or uniqueness. In this entry I will claim that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is at once something that moves us to live a more fully developed life, and at the same time is something that can drive us to lead a superficial, impoverished life.

This desire to distinguish oneself through uniqueness is at once a desire that is deeply problematic and something that pushes us to lead more fully developed lives. This desire allows us to live more fully developed lives because it drives us to engage in a richer set of practises, than the conformist engages in. The person who is driven to distinguish themselves by being unique will engage in many valuable practises that the conformist will not. This can help us to lead more fully developed lives because as someone engages in a wider set of practises they will develop greater self-knowledge than someone who merely conforms. This greater self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but it also equips someone to live a richer life as they begin to realize what is fundamentally important in the development of their life.

However, it should be noted that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique can become problematic when someone lives their life as if the point of their life is merely to be unique.  The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is a valid desire, because the desire can often lead people to lead a fully developed life, as I explained above.  But when someone begins to live life as though the point of life is to lead a unique life they are leading a deeply impoverished life. In such a case they are not focusing on living a life that embodies their reflective perception of the good life, they are focusing on being unique for its own sake. This is why everyone dislikes “hipsters.” “Hipsters” desire to distinguish themselves by being unique, but rather than putting value on leading a life that embodies their reflection of what the good life is, they try to lead a life that is unique even if it is impoverished.  The elitism of the hipster is superficial, because they think they are better than others as their tastes are unique, which is a pretty terrible reason to think that one is better than others.

The preceding commentary reveals the  way in which our desires to distinguish ourselves is at once something that can drive us towards the highest goods, but also something that can direct us to lead a life of petty elitism. Thus, we should not merely eschew the desire to distinguish ourselves, as it truly can help us to lead richer lives, but we must be mindful of the negative possibilities of this desire. Treading this middle path is full of hazards, but it is surely our best choice, as we often learn about the good through our desire to distinguish ourselves.