Happy New Year!

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year, and thank all those who have shared, read, and commented on this blog. I truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss interesting topics with awesome, intelligent people.

Also, please listen to this wonderful rendition of Mingus`Moanin` as it is great and certainly fitting for an atmosphere of celebration. 🙂

 

 

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The Activism of William Marsden – Piety and Partiality

In many ways William Marsden was an average 25 year old man living in Vancouver. He had a girlfriend, a small circle of close friends and worked as an administrator for a non-profit organization that supported the homeless within Vancouver, but while William was charming he had the distinct ability to irritate those who he was close with, while being adored by those who barely knew him.

On March 12th 2014 it was William’s birthday and his friends took him out to a pub on West Broadway. His two closest friends, Zoe and Linus were there, along with his girlfriend Alex. While Linus knew that William became exasperated when he received gifts he had found a classic Rage Against the Machine t-shirt which brought him back to his early teenage years; he and William had bonded while listening to Rage’s Evil Empire.

About an hour after William arrived, Linus cornered William while he was getting a drink and handed him the shirt. William looked down at Linus’ hands in disgust and said “I don’t need more shirts. This money could have been better spent by providing funds to my charity or another good cause.”

Linus explained “I recognize that, but you are an important friend in my life, and I wanted to show that by giving something to you.”

William reluctantly took the shirt and said “I will take the shirt this time, because it means so much to you, but you should really consider how money can best be used when you are spending it.”

Linus had no reply as there was no point in arguing with William on this subject. He was just happy that William had eventually decided to take the shirt.

A little later in that year William was at his weekly Yoga class when he realized that he had to do something drastic in his life in order to meet his image of himself as a person who was devoted to the betterment of mankind.

That night he sat down with Alex and said “I am moving the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because my expertise as an administrator would be of far more value there than it is here in Vancouver. While the homeless in Vancouver are suffering my work would do far more good in the Congo. I want you to come with me so that we can share this enriching experience together.”

Alex knew that activism was important to William`s life but she was dumbstruck that the man she had spent nearly two years with could so nonchalantly ask her to give up her budding career as a lawyer, and leave all her friends to pursue activism in the Congo. She did not know what to say. All that she could manage to get out was “I don`t know what to make of this. I deeply care for you, but you are asking me to sacrifice all of my ties to support your commitment to a very specific cause.`

William responded `I was hoping you would understand, but I am afraid my suspicions were right and you just don`t get how important my going to the Congo is. Clearly you are no wiser than those fools who do not buy their shoes from TOMS. I will go without you if you are not willing to come.“

Alex replied “If you value your purity as an activist more than our relationship than this should have ended long ago.` Alex then stormed out of William`s apartment before he could say anything.

Without a second thought William began packing up his things for the Congo. He wondered where he would live in the Congo, but that was a challenge that he could figure out later. He had avoided the temptation of being distracted from his true quest by a romantic relationship, and for that he was proud.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

After reading this story most people would come to have mixed feelings about William. He is clearly very pious and cares about making the world a better place, but these commitments prevent him from being a good friend or romantic partner. What are we to make of this? It seems to me there are a few things that we can take away from this.

One thing that we can take from this is the Berlinian point that the good of general benevolence towards the human race is at odds with the particular goods of romantic love and friendship, as William is unable to secure both goods in life, but ultimately must choose to place priority over one set over the other.

In addition one other point we might take away from this story is that there is something deeply problematic about failing to recognize that there exists numerous goods in the world that place commands on us. William’s action shows that he does not think that romantic relationships or friendships place a command on him, and the only God or good that he must serve is that of doing whatever he can to best help mankind.  This is made clear as William does not see his choice as one between competing and incompatible goods, but as a rather obvious choice. Consequently, William’s vice is that he does not recognize the wide range of goods that exist in the world and that call him. Instead he is so mesmerized by the good of efficient activism that he does not recognize that he is sacrificing all sorts of valuable goods for this one particular good.  One offshoot of this point is that we not only can we bewitched by evil, but we can also be so bewitched by the appeal of particular goods such that we fail to recognize the validity of the claims of other goods.

One further point we might take away from this story is that people who are moral saints like William may not be desirable as friends or lovers, even if in some overall sense they have a positive influence on humanity.  This is similar to the point that Susan Wolf makes in her essay “Moral Saints,” but I do not have a copy of that work on hand and it has been so long since I have read it that I cannot speak to the exact similarities and differences.

Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions:

Do you agree with my assessment of William?

Do you find William admirable or contemptible?

Is there anything else we can take away from this story?

Capitalism, Commodification and Social Practises

One very common critique of capitalism is that capitalism encourages problematic forms of commodification that degrade social practises. This degradation of social practises occurs as practises that are supposed to operate according to non-market logic, begin to operate according to the logic of the market. For example, the development of commercial surrogacy indicates this trend as a couple, or an individual, will pay a woman to give birth to a child for them, just as they would pay someone to do their dry cleaning. This degrades the social practise of pregnancy according to some as pregnancy is a form of labour that is uniquely directed at care for one’s own child. To sell or buy this labour as a commodity is to fail to understand that the proper end of the labour of pregnancy is not monetary profit, but care of the child. It is an objectification and commodification of the labour of pregnancy.

Another similar argument points out that the transformation of the vocation of the artist into a job as a result of capitalist development can also cause problematic forms of commodification. The practise of the creation of art is at its ideal when it is directed towards the uncompromising creation of beauty, rather than towards the market logic of gain or profit, but if one is dependent for one’s subsistence on the creation of art than the point of your artistic creation will be infected by the desire for gain. In this case you are not creating for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of survival, and consequently when being an artist becomes a profession and thus one’s source of subsistence it can degrade the practise of artistic creation.  Somerset Maugham put this quite eloquently in Of Human Bondage when he says:

“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art.”

Many may disagree with either or both of my examples and suggest that neither of these forms of activity have a proper end, and that just as there is nothing wrong with practising law to support oneself, there is nothing wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for this reason.

I myself am unsure of whether there is anything inherently wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for the sake of survival or mere gain for that matter, but the expansion of commodification to all practises is problematic, for the alternative reason, that it threatens to destroy the multiplicity of unique goods in the world. As commodification extends more and more practises are transformed into practises that run according to the logic of the market.  The trouble with this kind of social transformation is that it makes practises that operate according to non-market principles more marginal.  By making these non-market practises more marginal the move towards greater commodification hampers elements of the human spirit that find their expression in non-market practises. For example, the commitment to scholarly research is hampered in a market society as research is turned into a deliverable that must be produced to receive an income, rather than as something that tries to better understand the world.

Our nature as humans is multifaceted and complex. We are not just clever beings who can pursue their interest in the market. Instead we are being who have a nature that reaches out towards many objects including truth, friendship, romantic love, beauty and athletic excellence, to mention a few.  Consequently, when our practises become dominated by the singular logic of the market we are rendered less, rather than more free as the practises within our society offer less of an opportunity to express and develop many of our most fundamentally human capacities.  Market mechanism may express certain elements of the human spirit such as rational self-interest, a certain form of inventiveness and discipline, but market practises do not fully reflect our nature, and thus practises that run according to non-market principles are a necessary bulwark of freedom in any capitalist society.  Consequently, while the commodification of practises may not be inherently wrong the general expansion of market principles into nearly all practises is problematic as it hampers certain valuable elements of the human soul.

Of course some may doubt the essentialist conception of human nature I have put forth, but while essentialism is frowned down upon for many historical reasons the idea that humans have a multifaceted nature that reaches out to many distinct and diverse goods seems deeply plausible. This notion seems plausible as in our lives we often find ourselves drawn to different and conflicting forms of value in the world that reflect different parts of ourselves. For example my capacity for human attachment and intimacy draws me to friends and romantic relationship, while my more general concern for others draws my concerns towards the realm of the political.

The Canadian Political System: Expedience, Efficiency and Democratic Legitimacy

Canada has a democratic parliamentary system which concentrates power in the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet. While the Canadian system of government is deeply imperfect much of the dysfunction does not originate within the system itself, but with a failure to understand what is required to make this system operate in a fair and judicious manner.  Canada has pursued a combination of policies including party discipline and single member plurality voting which exacerbate the lack of limitations that are placed on the Prime Minister and the governing party, and this has led to laws being created that reflect the interest of the ruling party rather than the public good. In order to ensure that proper democratic governance occurs in Canada it is necessary to remove either party discipline or replace single member plurality voting with proportional representation and ensure that our citizenry and politicians are more public spirited and willing to cooperate.

Canada has a Parliamentary system in which the leader of the parties that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at the Federal level becomes Prime Minister. Although there are rare  exceptions to this where the leader of a party that merely wins the plurality, as opposed to the majority, of seats within the House of Commons does not end up being Prime Minister as the Governor General has allowed a collection of other parties to form a coalition government and choose a Prime Minister to lead that government.

Canada does have a Senate, but it is appointed and its role is mostly symbolic and while it can force the House of Commons to review legislation, and provide “sober second thought” this power has rarely been exercised.  The Senate is broadly viewed as a useless institution in its current form, and there is a mix of proposals to either abolish it, or reform it to make it an elected, representative body.

The Prime Minister is the center of executive and legislative authority within the Canadian state. He or she holds a large degree of executive authority like the President in the USA, but the Prime Minister also selects the Cabinet, usually from the pool of elected Members of Parliament (MP), and has traditionally been allowed to control the Cabinet, which holds a large degree of legislative authority. Consequently, there is no strict separation of executive and legislative authority. This means that a Prime Minister in Canada can not only determine which people are predominantly responsible for deciding which laws are proposed, but also can determine the nature of the law being created.  Bills created by the cabinet do of course have to achieve a majority vote within the House of Commons, and be approved by the Senate, but still we can see how much power lies in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Currently in Canada, and for the majority of our past, we have had “majority governments.” This occurs when the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons wins a majority of the seats. While there are votes where MPs are allowed to vote according to their own conscience, these votes are a rare exception as opposed to the norm; MPs are expected, unless otherwise told, to vote the party line in any area that affects budgets. This is known as “party discipline.” If a MP does not vote the party line they may have to cross the floor and sit as an independent or join another party.  Consequently, in a majority government situation the Prime Minister is essentially able to pass any laws he wants over his term in office. Thus, in the situation of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more of an elected constitutionally limited monarch than anything else, as he can pass any law he wants and the only things that are holding him back are resistance of his own party or the courts overturning legislation on constitutional grounds.  Consequently, gridlock is rarely a problem in Canadian politics. Instead the problem is the development of extremely partisan policy that can develop because of the sheer authority of the governing party and their leader.

A further complication within the Canadian system is the use of the single member plurality system of voting or “first past the post.” In this system MPs are elected to represent geographic constituencies and the candidate with the plurality of votes within the constituency wins the race and receives the seat. This compounds the problem of party discipline because if a MP is forced to vote with their party, they are not fully able to represent their constituencies’ interests. In addition the regional popularity of political parties means that often the distribution of seats in the legislature does not reflect what people voted for. For example, the NDP may get 15% of the vote in one province, but receive no seats in this province because in no one constituency were they strong enough to get a plurality of votes.

So, in the Canadian system we see a situation in which there is substantial centralization of power in the Prime Minister. The problem with this as noted above is that there have not been many checks on his or her authority throughout Canadian history. But the failure to understand the nature of this system is indicated by the use of single member plurality voting and party discipline in conjunction with the centralization of power in the Prime Minister. In itself there is nothing wrong with a strong political leader, party discipline, or single member plurality voting, but taken together they magnify the worst flaws of the Canadian system. When you have a Prime Minister with a large degree of authority who can control what policy is proposed it only makes the problem worse when he or she can control what his party votes for and the distribution of seats within the legislature does not actually reflect what people voted for.

In this sense, Canada has two plausible options within its existing system, neither of which seems to be on the horizon, which could at least help correct the problem of the excessive authority of the Prime Minister. One approach would be to get rid of party discipline, such that policy would have to be created that would only get votes if it was in the interest of constituencies. This would limit the power of the Prime Minister by forcing him to create laws that were more reflective of the public good.  Likewise if party discipline is to be maintained it probably makes sense to go to a form of proportional representation in which the distribution of seats in the legislature actually reflects the popular vote. It is very rare for a party to get the majority of votes in Canada, but they often get the majority of seats, and so if the distribution of seats reflected the popular vote this would ensure that the Prime Minister and his party would have to cooperate with others and make policy that was in the interest of a majority of Canadians, rather than in the interest of the party and their supporters.

Some Canadians are very apprehensive about the notion of limiting the power of the Prime Minister as minority governments (governments in which the governing party holds less than half of the seats in the House of Commons) in Canada have often been ineffective and rife with gridlock.

It is certainly expedient to keep the current Canadian system as is, as the system makes it very easy to pass laws, but unless we see the point of democratic governance as expedience we might want to demand more from our politics.  In a strictly procedural sense the laws passed within the current system are legitimate as the process through which they are typically passed does not violate any rules of the system. But in another sense they seem illegitimate in that if laws do not reflect the overriding public good or at least the interests of a majority of citizens, they do not honour the spirit of democratic governance, as democratic governance is supposed to guarantee that the public good is served by ensuring policy serves the interests of the majority of citizens. This is of course a substantive as opposed a procedural conception of legitimacy, but that does not mean we should pay no heed to it.

This raises the question of what kind of democratic governance would meet the bar of this substantive conception of legitimacy in Canada. I think either of my proposals would, provided that the citizenry and MPs began to exhibit a greater degree of public spiritedness, and willingness to collaborate as this would ensure that law would be developed that took into account more than one’s party’s interests.  However, some might argue that such a system is too imperious, and that we should try to develop systems that create substantively legitimate democratic governance by only relying on people to act on their enlightened self-interest. While it is in principle possible that a system based on enlightened self-interest could generate law that meets this substantive conception of legitimacy, the history of Canada and elsewhere seems to suggest otherwise as systems based on enlightened self-interest typically create factional politics and policy. So we ought not to hang on to the desire to have a political system that can operate by only asking of its participants that they act in their long term self-interest. This means that those of us who accept the substantive conception of democratic legitimacy described above need to recognize that in order to meet this notion of legitimacy in Canada, politics will have to ask more of its participants than enlightened self-interest; instead, it will have to ask them to act as citizens.