Some thoughts on Perfectionist Politics

Perfectionism is the doctrine that the state legitimately can, and should use, coercion to improve the character and lives of the citizens and residents who are subject to it. For the Perfectionist it does not matter if an adult citizen or resident recognizes that a quality is valuable, and wants to develop it in themselves. Rather, it is the state’s duty to use coercion where necessary to ensure that people develop these valuable traits. So at its core we might say that the essence of Perfectionism is that statecraft is soulcraft, in that state policies do not just need to support liberty, equality or justice, but rather ensure that people become better human beings. There are many forms of Perfectionism, ranging from liberal varieties that see it as a fundamental objective of state policies to support the development of autonomy in their citizens, and more non-liberal or illiberal varieties that emphasize that the state should use state policies to encourage temperance, good judgment and aesthetic refinement among other things.

Now, as a firm supporter of egalitarian liberal principles of justice, I find Perfectionism to be a troubling doctrine. It very much makes sense to me say that a just state would use its coercive authority to ensure genuine equality of opportunity and that every citizen and resident has the resources to live a fulfilling life, including the resources required to contribute to the political, social, economic and cultural life of the society. However, it in itself it does not seem to me to be the duty or role of the state to use policy to ensure that its citizens and residents have certain character traits. It is often remarked that this hesitance is due to the fact that liberals are relativists and don’t believe that any way of life is better than any other. However this is quite clearly not the case as I certainly believe that certain ways of life that are not harmful to equality of opportunity and egalitarian liberal principles are superior to others. But nonetheless, the question of what ways of life are best is a separate question from the question of what reasons can be used to justify the use of state coercion to pursue a certain goal. An obvious example of this is that thinking that aesthetic appreciation is intrinsically valuable does not require that one think that state power should be used to ensure that people develop their abilities for aesthetic appreciation. So, this is clearly not an issue between relativism and skepticism and moral objectivism, but a question of what purposes a state can pursue through coercion and which it cannot. The Perfectionist says that a state can use coercion to make a person better while the non-Perfectionist says that this is illegitimate.

I will argue that while there seems to be a stark contrast between the Perfectionist, and the non-Perfectionist that non-Perfectionist policies tend to have to be justified in terms of Perfectionist beliefs. Thus the issue is not one of whether we should be Perfectionists or non-Perfectionists but instead what kind of laws or policies can be justified. I will argue that “Indirect Perfectionism” can be justified because it is requirement of justice, but “Direct Perfectionism” cannot be so justified.

It should be noted that for the sake of this entry I will only be talking about policy that pertains to adult citizens and residents. Policy concerning children, due to their vulnerability, and lack of ability for consent and fully reflective judgment necessarily must be dealt with in unapologetically Perfectionist terms; state policy regarding the health and education of children must ensure that coercion is used to ensure that children develop positive qualities and good health.

One example of a seeming non-Perfectionist policy is the requirement that all citizens and residents must have access to a certain set of monetary and non-monetary resources in order to live a decent life. This policy does not seem to mandate any particular way of life. In fact it is compatible with a diversity of modes of life. But if we ask the question why a certain set of standard resources is required for a citizen to live a decent life, we ultimately enter the territory of perfectionist values. The only way to say that a certain set of resources is required to live a decent life is if we have a sense of what a valuable life would be and are looking to ensure that all have equal access to living this sort of life. Thus, there are perfectionist beliefs here as we must take a stand about what kind of lives are decent, and what kind are indecent, and this requires us to think about what makes a life intrinsically worthwhile. We cannot thus avoid the question of what makes a life worthwhile when we are thinking about many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies as sometimes the only way to say that someone has a right to access a certain thing is to suppose that the thing that they have the right to access is so valuable that access to it must be provided for all. Same-sex marriage offers a case in point here. The move to support same-sex marriage has been generated largely based on the principle that because marriage is an intrinsically valuable part of life, and therefore same-sex couples should not be excluded from accessing this part of life. Consequently, many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies that support equal access to opportunities or forms of life are dependent for their justification on Perfectionist beliefs about what practises, and traits are intrinsically worthwhile.

Now, when access to an opportunity or form of life is justified based on the intrinsic value of that opportunity or form of life we are not dealing with a case of simple Perfectionist policy. Typical Perfectionist policies mandate that all citizens have a certain set of traits or engage in a certain set of rituals; for example societies that require all citizens to engage in practises that ensure their chastity would be directly perfectionist in this way. Thus, I refer to these typical Perfectionist policies as “Direct Perfectionism,” as the policies directly justify the use of coercion on the basis that the policy or law will ensure that people have certain traits or live certain kinds of lives. Contrastingly, a policy or law that justifies equal access for all to an intrinsically valuable opportunity or form of life can be referred to as “Indirect Perfectionism”, as these policies are not justified on the basis that the implementation of the policy will ensure that fact that citizens live a certain kind of life or have a certain character, and thus the policies do not directly ensure Perfectionist ends. But yet the policy itself could not be justified if we did not already have Perfectionist beliefs about what makes a life worth living, and thus they are still Perfectionist albeit in a much weaker sense.

Nothing I have said thus far shows why “Direct Perfectionism” would be less justifiable than “Indirect Perfectionism” as I have only laid out the difference between these two phenomena. But yet, it seems to me that “Indirect Perfectionism” is far more justifiable because these types of policies better accord with our intuitions about what justice requires than “Direct Perfectionism” does. Now let us take a hypothetical example where a certain class of citizens and residents do not have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic development, or general non-vocational educational development as the market does not provide these goods at a price where they are accessible to all. In this case I want to say that this situation is socially unjust as a sector of the population are being denied access to certain valuable opportunities and resources that are important to a well-lived life because of their socio-economic status. The injustice exists because all do not have equal access to the resources and opportunities required to live a well lived life, and thus the individuals who are denied access to these opportunities are not given their due. And as a citizen or resident justice requires that each has access to a set of opportunities that allows them to live a well-lived, valuable life. Consequently, “Indirect Perfectionism” is a requirement of justice, as coercive laws and policy must be created to rectify this injustice and ensure that all citizens and resident have access to the goods mentioned above.

Now suppose that as a result of the preceding injustice, policy and laws are developed to ensure that all citizens and residents have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic develop and general non-vocational educational development. But nonetheless very few additional people are using these resources, despite the fact that all have access now. It seems to me to be odd to say that such a situation is unjust as all have equal access to the relevant opportunities. We might say that the citizens and residents are living worse lives as a result of not taking up these opportunities, but the fact that citizens and residents make this decision is not enough to generate injustice, as no one is deprived of their equal claim to significant opportunities. Consequently, in this situation I don’t think that pursuing a “Directly Perfectionist” policy of ensuring people use these resources would be justifiable as no injustice is being done. We might not like that people are spending their money buying access to cable packages so they can watch more reality shows, rather than spending it on other more noble pursuits, but the fact that this is occurring is not enough to justify forcing people to engage in these noble pursuits. Part of the meaning of freedom requires that we positively allow all to pursue a valuable life, but we do not force them to live a life that others might deem valuable, and this is why “Direct Perfectionism” seems deeply questionable.

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The Canadian Senate: Abolition or Reform?

The Senate, in Canada, is very different powers than it is in the USA. The Canadian Senate has the power to block legislation that is passed in the House of Commons, but they do not have the power to amend or create legislation that appropriates public funds or imposes taxes. Based on this rationale the Senate is supposed to provide “sober second thought” as their model of debate is more flexible and allows them to examine legislation in greater detail and ensure that the House of Commons has not passed any problematic legislation. Furthermore, Senators are appointed from the party faithful behind closed doors, without any significant public scrutiny, and their term lasts until they are 75 years old.

However, in the last 25 years, the Senate has not exercise this power often and has tended to simply rubberstamp nearly all legislation that has been passed by the House of Commons. This has lead a large portion of Canadians, including Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party, to call for the abolition of the Senate. For many, the Senate is just a wasteful, useless institution that we would be better off without.

Furthermore, in light of a very public Senate scandal involving the misuse of funds by current Senators such as Mike Duffy, the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, earlier in his life had supported a Triple E Senate (Elected, Effective, Equal), has now suggested that he will not appoint new senators and that the provinces need to come up a solution to the Senate whether it be through comprehensive reform or outright abolition. The only major party to explicitly propose reform of the senate, as opposed to abolition have been the Canadian Liberals, who at this point in the run up to the October 19th election look to be a distant third behind the NDP and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Now, the likelihood of abolition of the Senate is slim as this would require an amendment to the constitution which requires negotiation with the provinces and tends to be an extremely arduous process which is politically dangerous because of the time and effort required, and the difficulty of achieving success. Abolishing the Senate is not something that the House of Commons and the existing Senate could pass by legislative fiat at the Federal level. But nonetheless it shows the popularity of the notion of the abolition of the Senate that one of the major parties is explicitly speaking out in favour of abolition, while another major party seems to be suggesting that abolition is a legitimate option if reform proves impossible.

All of these issues around the Senate raise the question of whether reform of some kind is preferable to abolition. While, I support many elements of the NDP`s platform, I think that even if the Federal government could easily abolish the Senate without having to pursue constitutional amendment this would be a misguided choice. This would be misguided as Canada`s House of Commons by its very nature requires a check on its authority and making the notion of sober second thought effective through the Senate would provide this check. Furthermore, there are no strong reasons, in principle, why we could not make the idea of sober second thought effective through reforming the Senate.

The partisans of abolition will typically say that there are a couple of factors which lead to the necessity of abolition. The first of these is that the current incarnation of the Senate does not add much value as it generally just rubberstamps legislation and thus it is a waste of taxpayer money to support this body. This critique is valid of the current Senate, but it mistakenly assumes that reform could not render the Senate more useful, so on its own it does not establish that Senate abolition is necessary.

Similarly, one other reason proponents of Senate abolition put forward is that the body is unnecessary, as the only kind of bodies that have a legitimate claim to rule, are ones that are democratically elected and the Senate is not. Furthermore, these partisans of abolition would say even if the Senate were elected, this would just create unnecessary duplication between the two chambers, and that a single elected house can provide sufficient popular control through electoral politics to ensure that legislation that is passed reflects the will of the people. Consequently, even an elected Senate would not be particularly valuable, as it would just duplicate the function of the House of Commons.

Now, defenders of an elected Senate have legitimate responses to these criticisms, but for the sake of brevity I will not get into these. I think if we properly understand the role the Senate is supposed to play today, we will see that the direction of reform lies not towards an elected Senate, but to reforming the Senate along democratic lines that avoid the demagoguery and partisanship inherent in electoral party politics. I have already explicitly responded to the first argument in favour of Senate abolition, but in order to respond to the second we need more deeply understand the nature of Canada`s governing system and what democratic function the House of Commons actually plays.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, the Canadian political system while democratic, tends to put a lot of power in the hands of the Executive and of the Parties. Due to the strength of party discipline in Canada, when voting on bills that involve appropriation of public funds or taxes all MPs that belong to parties are forced to vote with their party, rather than in the interests of their constituents. If MPs refuse to follow the party line when they vote they are expelled from the party and must sit as independents in the House of Commons.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister who fulfills the Executive function of the Federal government has a great deal of power. He has the power to select the Cabinet, who are then responsible for drafting most bills and largely control the legislative agenda, and while the Governor General formally selects Senators he or she does so on the basis of the guidance of the Prime Minister. Thus, in the context of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more like a constitutional monarch than anything else, as the only thing that blocks his will are existing laws and the courts. His party does not have power over him or her, and he largely drives the form that the Senate and Cabinet takes and consequently controls the direction of legislation.

Also, given that Canada adopts a first-past-the-post voting system Members of Parliament do not need to get a majority of votes to win a seat, but merely a plurality of votes to get their seat. In aggregate this tends to mean that the ruling party may only have received 40% of the vote or less and yet have a majority of the seats, because they were able to get the plurality of votes in enough ridings. However, the NDP, the main proponents of Senate abolition, have also come out in favour of electoral reform to move to a more representative and fair form of voting. So while the presence of the first-past-the-post system currently does impact the way that the House of Commons operates I will avoid including this element of the current landscape and assume that Senate abolition, or Senate reform, will go along with a change to fairer form of democratic representation in the House of Commons.

Given the strength of the Executive in Canada, and the situation of party discipline a unicameral parliament, even one that was very representative of the people`s party preferences, would still be deeply problematic and require a check by a less partisan body. In a situation with strong party discipline what dominates a legislative body is not a conversation between citizens elected to represent their constituents. Instead what is dominant is a battle between factions represented by the party apparatus, which tend to be dominated by elites of all kinds. What decides how a representative should vote is not his or her own judgment, but the ideological commodity that the party is trying to sell to the people, and this does not capture the spirit or essence of democratic governance as it is a form of elite rule.

Now, there are certainly merits to a system with strong party discipline as it is quite expedient and avoids the tendency in systems with weaker party discipline for people to be bought off through amendments to a bill as people must follow the party. But the House of Commons fails to exemplify the spirit of citizens coming together to deliberate about what is in the best interest of the people; this characteristic seems to me to be essential to democracy and any system that lacks it will be the worse for it. For what makes democracy the best form of government is not that 51% rule over 49%, but that under the best conditions it can represent a form of rule which is based on persuasion in which we come together to figure out the best way of doing things that serves the public interest. In this form of rule politics is not a war by other means, but a form of cooperation towards our common ends. A form of rule constituted by dialogue and cooperation seems far more reconcilable with individual freedom, than one in which the largest subset of the population rules, as the rule of an arbitrary majority is not necessarily that different from the rule of a tyrant. No doubt, my notion of dialogue and cooperation aimed at the common good is quite vague, but I think it captures some of our fundamental intuitions about democracy, and thus any form of democratic governance that fails to deal with those intuitions should be found wanting.

Unlike the House of Commons, if reformed the Senate could be a governmental body that involves citizens coming together to cooperatively provide sober second thought for legislation passed by the more partisan House of Commons. Of course much reform would be required in this area for this to occur as currently Senators tend to be elites and representatives of parties, rather than ordinary citizens, and are selected for exceedingly long terms. One way to develop a senate that captures the spirit of citizens coming together to examine legislation judiciously to provide oversight to the House of Commons is the notion of using random selection, or what is commonly referred to as sortition or allotment to select Senators. We tend to see democracy as lying in electing people largely because our consciousness has become so commodified that we see our most fundamental trait as that of choosing a product, or a candidate, but arguably a more democratic approach is to have positions of authority occupied based on the principle of drawing lots. This is the approach that Athens widely used, and we find a modified form of it sufficient for jury selection. This approach ensure that not only the charismatic, wealthy and best speakers rule, but all segment of the populace participate in rule, rather than merely participating in elections. Therefore, a principle of allotment could be setup to ensure that the Senate was representative in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, and not directly connected to party politics. Furthermore, Senators could be selected to participate over short terms, with new Senators being selected thereafter. This form of selection ensures Senators do not have to worry about re-election or loyalty to a party; they need only exercise their best judgment and work with their fellow senators, rather than trying to score point for their party or themselves, and thus they are truly able to provide sober second thought. This proposal, is very much influenced and based on the proposal that Claudia Chwalisz wrote about in the Globe and Mail, earlier this year in her article entitled “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate,“ and would serve as an important non-partisan democratic counterweight to the legislation put forth by the partisan and politically motivated House of Commons.

The proposal put forward by myself here, and Chwalisz in her article, speaks to the fact that the problem with our Senate is not that we have no need for a body to provide sober second thought on legislation, but that the current incarnation of the Senate because of its institutional foundations cannot play the role of providing oversight and sober second thought. Hence a reformed Senate need not simply duplicate the role played by the House of Commons, and thus we have further options between abolishing the Senate, making it elected or leaving it as it is now.

Works Cited
Geddes, John. “Senate reform? There`s just the teensy problem of the Constitution.” MacLeans. 31 July 2015: Web. http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/senate-reform-theres-just-the-teensy-problem-of-the-constitution/
Chwalisz, Claudia. “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate.” The Globe and Mail. 15 June 2015: Web. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/replace-this-archaic-institution-with-a-citizens-senate/article24945037/
Milewski, Terry. “Abolition or attrition? Mulcair and Harper offer different paths to Senate end game.“ CBC News. 25 July 2015. Web. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/abolition-or-attrition-mulcair-and-harper-offer-different-paths-to-senate-end-game-1.3167577
Bryden, Joan. “Trudeau’s Senate Plan Lauded, Harper Dissed By Western Think Tank.“ Huffington Post. 31 January 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/01/31/trudeau-senate-harper-think-tank_n_4700454.html

A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

Capitalism: The Gap Between Employer Expectations and the Terms of Employment

In workplaces it is common for employees to be asked to work additional hours over and above the terms of their employment, without additional compensation, in order that the firm can meet its goals. Often when asked to do this, employees will say yes because even though they are not being adequately compensated for their work, they do not want their coworkers to have to bear an unbearable burden of the work that needs to be done, and they know that if they do not work additional hours one of their colleagues will have to do even more of the work. In this situation capitalism makes use of the laudable desire of workers to support their colleagues and prevent them from bearing an undue burden in order to exploit those very workers by drafting terms of employment that do not reflect their actual expectations of their employees.

In most jobs within the context of capitalist societies the terms of employment for a position explicitly reflect the notion that the employee will work X hours at the rate of pay Y dollars/hour. Yet, as has been noted above, at the same time, it is often expected that employee will work additional hours over and above the legally expressed terms of employment in order to meet certain goals that the firm has without additional financial compensation. That this is an expectation that employers have is clear from the way in which they praise workers who go above and beyond and work additional hours without compensation, and condemn those who just put in the hours that are expressed in their terms of employment, as if the good worker was the one who ensures that the firms meets all of its goals, and the bad worker is the one who just puts in his time without concern that the firm meets it goals.   Workers typically go along with this expectation for the reasons that they do not want to put an undue burden on their colleagues as was noted above and they do not want to be condemned as a bad worker for not doing their part to help the company grow. In this way, the commendable desire of the employee to avoid putting an undue burden on his or her fellow employees is turned against the employees themselves, and used to further the efficiency and growth of the firm.

This rendering of commendable desires into tools for the purposes of efficiency and growth is particularly exploitative in this context, because the terms of employment that the employee formally agrees with do not express the expectation of the firm. In this way the business employs people under the pretense that they will have to work X hours a week at a rate of Y dollars/hour while recognizing that the hours expressed in the terms of employment will not be sufficient for the person to complete their work.  The impetus to take this kind of approach often results from budgetary and other constraints and does not suggest that employers are evil people, but it is exploitative because in order to respect someone you must be completely forthright and honest in making legal agreements with them. Otherwise, you are merely trying to manipulate the other person, and turn them into an instrument for your own purposes, a mere means, so to speak. Yet in this case the legal agreement laying out the terms of employment does not reflect the expectations of the employer, but instead only something that the employer thinks that the employee will agree to, and thus in this instance the employer manipulates or exploits the employee.

It might be argued that in many contexts overtime is used to compensate people for the hours they work over and above those stated in their terms of employment. In response I would say that while this is true, there are many contexts where claiming overtime is not condoned because of budgetary restraints, and in which people are still expected and asked to work additional hours without compensation.  So in this context my point holds in its entirety.

In addition, someone might argue that employees are not really exploited because even though their terms of employment do not express the expectations of their employer, employees usually know that they are expected to work more hours than expressed in their terms of employment to meet the firm’s goals. So, it is not as if the employees are being fooled or duped.

Whether it is true that employees understand that the terms of employment do not reflect the employer’s expectations is an open question that could only be answered through empirical research, but it seems unlikely that this objection holds water. If all employees understand that the terms of employment they agree to do not reflect the actual expectations of their employer than there is little reason for employers to not explicitly express their expectations in the terms of employment. A defender of this objection would have to answer the question of why employers do not express their expectations in the terms of employment if this is not to try to manipulate people and make employment at their firm seem more enticing than it actually is.

One question that the preceding discussion raises is whether this form of exploitation is a necessary part of capitalism that is brought on by the economic imperatives that it unleashes, or whether these exploitative practises could be eliminated while preserving capitalism. One’s ultimate position on this issue will determine where one stands on the future of capitalism, but whatever position one takes one must recognize the affront to human decency that is represented by the forms of exploitation that were discussed above. Unfortunately, the practise of disguising expectations behind more enticing terms of employment has become so commonplace that we have forgotten that it is fundamentally exploitative.

Freedom or freedoms?

References to the concept of freedom are ubiquitous throughout contemporary political discourse, and given the way people speak it seems that everyone is in favour of freedom, and yet people disagree deeply about the nature of this concept. Following Isaiah Berlin I think there is more than one concept of freedom, or liberty, but in distinction from Berlin and others who follow him I want to suggest that different concepts of freedom often relate to distinctive subject matters. Such that just as we can speak of freedom of choice, we so too can speak to a free character or freedom as a status of a citizen. These multiple concepts of freedom are not necessarily in competition, but rather represent the way in which a single word can come to have multiple meanings that while related concern different subject matters or areas of life. To further illuminate the proceeding I will examine the concept of freedom as it pertains to choice, character and status.

Arguably the most common way of talking about freedom, especially in North America, is in the context of saying that someone is free if they are able to make choices without coercive interference from another.  For this concept of freedom, the dominant subject matter of freedom is choice, as we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which is in this case is the absence of interference.

Another concept of freedom relates to character. On this account, freedom is part of the character of a person. For example, we might say that a person always strives to excel over others in all competitions, but never finds themselves satisfied is unfree because they are enslaved by their desire to win, when they would be happier and more fulfilled if their character led them to recognize that what truly matters to their happiness is not winning every possible competition, but something else entirely. Consequently what makes this person unfree is not that they make certain choices, but rather that their character is dominated by a desire that should not dominate their character. Thus, this concept of freedom relates to character. Furthermore, unlike the first concept of freedom this concept is positive, as a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree. Furthermore, there does seem to be something about it that resonates with us, because when we think of a free person, we don’t just think of someone who is able to choose freely in absence of external interference, but rather of a person whose psyche is ordered.

An additional concept of freedom and the most overtly political conception relates freedom to a status. To be free, on this account, one must not be subject to arbitrary power by the state or other individuals. Consequently, on this conception of freedom, freedom relates to a status, because one’s status as a citizen of a free state is what provides you with protection from being subject to arbitrary power, and consequently your status as a citizen constitutes your freedom.  Within an academic context this type of approach has been taken up by republican theorists with a particularly Neo – Roman bent such as Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, but it is not merely an academic concept as many people will refer to the way in which groups like gays, women and ethnic minorities are not free, and by this they do not just mean that these individuals are not allowed to make certain choices. Rather, what renders these groups of individuals unfree is that their current formal status as citizens does not adequately protect them from the arbitrary power of others.  Like the first concept of freedom this is a negative concept of freedom as it concerns the absence of something, rather than the presence of something.

These three concepts of freedom show that the distinction between concepts of freedom is perhaps wider than we might think. It is not as if we have multiple concepts of freedom that all have a different interpretation of what constitutes a free choice, instead these concepts of freedom are distinct in that they relate to different areas of life or subject matters. As a result there is no reason to necessarily see these conceptions of freedom as opposed to one another. In fact, I find myself attracted to all three concepts of freedom, and it seems to me we have significant reason to see these concepts as complementary rather than opposed, as they all seem to involve something we deeply esteem.  We deeply admire the person who is not enslaved to certain desires, we value our ability to make choices for ourselves in our own lives, and we value being protected from arbitrary coercion by our equal status as a citizen. It should be noted that none of this suggests that there is no conflict between differing concepts of freedom, but rather that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are not necessarily inherently incompatible with one another.

It could be objected that there is an inherent conflict between these differing concepts of freedom as the person who is free according to the free choice conception need not be the same person who is free on the free character conception. But while this critique is accurate in one sense it misses the point of the argument I am making. Yes, according to the free choice conception a person is free if they are not interfered with in their choices, which is different from the conception of a free person according to the free character conception, but it can be responded that there is no single definitive sense in which we could speak of somebody as a free person, but rather there are different senses in which we can be free that do not necessarily exclude one another, such that we could be free in one sense, while being unfree in another. Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.

In addition, one other thing that we might take away from this subject is the political difficulty that is created by the concept of freedom. Given that there are so many various sense of the term freedom that are used it would seem that in any political discussion when the concept of freedom is invoked we are liable to confusion, misunderstanding and talking past one another. As a result we ought to be careful in invoking a concept of freedom when we engage in dialogue to ensure that our interlocutors understand what we mean by freedom, and that we are not merely talking past them.

The Intergalactic Chronicles of Kesarp

Dear Pisely,

I have been travelling around the universe for far too long. As a result I feel compelled to reach out to you even if it is only to share some of the findings from my missions.

My last mission was to explore the city on Earth called “Toronto.” It was quite a voyage from the other side of the Milky Way, but it was certainly worth it to observe the forms of life that inhabit this city. The squirrels, coyotes and rabbits were all interesting, but the most interesting creatures that I witnessed were those who had built Toronto, and other cities on Earth, the humans.

Unlike other creatures their bodies were soft and fleshy, and did not seem to be suited to survival, but these creatures had clearly figured out a way to maintain their dominance over the seemingly more formidable forces of nature that inhabit the Earth. It is not of interest to me how they came to achieve their dominance, but one thing that does deeply interest me is the relationship humans have to machines.

Within Toronto many human beings packed themselves into capsules that transport them from one end of the city to the other, but generally the human does not see the presence of others within these capsules as an opportunity for interaction with those others. They merely pass each other in silence, avoid eye contact and seem to see the corporeal presence of other humans as a physical obstacle that they must get around. Once in a while one of them will move their flappy food holes and say something in the presence of others, but this is not the norm. It is hard to say whether they are at ease with the presence of others, or too afraid to interact with others when they are on these capsules.

However, one object that did solicit a vast amount of attention from humans when they gathered on these high-speed capsules were little rectangular boxes that humans carry presumably to contact one another, and access information. These boxes appear to be the center of each human’s world when they are in those high speed cramped capsules areas. At regular periodic intervals they will check the box like an attentive mother hen watching over her chicks. It is as if something disastrous will happen if they do not interact with their box. Also, their boxes seem to deeply impact the emotions that the human experiences. Their box will burble or make another odd sound, and they will peer at it, and giggle, smile, frown or cry. The only explanation I can see for the deep attachment that humans have to their boxes is that the box constitutes one of the most significant elements of their lives, as they seem to be far more affected by it, then by the presence of others right in front of them.

Perhaps humans have an internal adaptive function that allows them to be unaffected by the presence of other human beings in crowded spaces in order to better pursue their peculiar goals. But this is only conjecture, and I have no way to prove it, as we are banned by the bureaucrats on Lixillika from dissecting any creature on another planet, no matter how fascinating, and must make due with scanning through anal probing which only gives us modest information. Sometimes I wonder if these bureaucrats fail to understand what would be gained if researchers like us had greater authority. Surely, if we were able to dissect humans then we would uncover the secrets that lie behind the human’s relationship to the box.

But to return to the topic at hand, one other peculiar thing about these boxes that I just must share with you is that these boxes seem to be indispensable, and yet utterly replaceable. There are piles of them throughout cities, and if a human finds himself without one he does not grieve, as he would the loss of a child, but nonetheless he must necessarily get a new box as soon as possible. How can something be so fundamental to a life, but yet be so replaceable? I still feel like I am missing something in understanding the human’s relation to these boxes, but one thing I am certain of, Pisely, is that fully understanding these boxes is necessary to fully understanding these strange creatures.

I hope you are well, and the desk work you are engaged in is not too repetitive for a seasoned field researcher like you.

I hope to see you soon.

Yours truly,

Kesarp

On the Importance Of Caring: A Clarification

In an entry that I posted a couple of days ago I argued that it is not clear whether a society is better if its members care more about its affairs. I just wanted to clarify that this argument in no way suggests that I am indifferent between a citizenry that is concerned about its affairs and a citizenry that is apathetic. A responsible citizenry is the citizenry we should hope for. This sort of citizenry will be one that deeply cares and is concerned with the affairs of the community, but merely caring about its affairs is not enough to ensure the practise of responsible citizenship.

For example, the zealot deeply cares about his cause, but his care for his cause is not restrained by considerations of the equal standing of those who oppose him. Consequently, the zealot is more likely than most to use violence to ensure the success of his cause. In this sense, caring about the affairs of one`s society is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the practise of responsible citizenship, because the zealot who deeply cares seems to threaten the preservation, well-being and stability of the community, and thus is clearly not a model for the practise of responsible citizenship.

This raises the question of what is required for responsible citizenship over and above caring about the affairs of one`s community. One factor that is required for responsible citizenship over and above caring is recognition of the equal status of others within the community. Like the zealot the responsible citizen is deeply concerned with the affairs and direction of the community. But, unlike the zealot, the responsible citizen recognizes the equal status of others and thus will not simply try to impose his vision of the good on the community by any means necessary as the zealot would, and will instead be willing to work with others to ensure that the public good is served. Therefore, a responsible citizenry will certainly care about the direction of its affairs, but a responsible citizenry is much more than a citizenry that cares. Thus, while I see care as a necessary and positive quality of a responsible citizenry, unlike apathy which seems to have no intrinsically positive qualities, a citizenry that cares needs other qualities in order to serve its community`s good, rather than its disintegration.

On the Importance of Caring

Often it is said that the reason behind many of our social ills is that people do not care, and consequently a better society would be one in which people care more. This thought may seem obviously true, but on closer examination it is unclear whether a society would be better if its people cared more. Zealotry and violence tend to go along with caring, and while apathy fosters its own evils, a citizenry that cares more does not necessarily lead to the constitution of a better society. Nonetheless, the notion that people should care more also suggests a call for people to be caring, in distinction from an invocation for them to care more in a general sense, and this call for people to be caring seems to be a valid ideal. Yet, this ideal too has its limitations as it does not do justice to forms of life that we ought to value, and yet are incompatible with the ideal of the caring person.

If we examine the notion of what it means to care more. We can see that this notion is a negation of apathy. The caring person, as opposed to the apathetic person, is concerned and interested in the state of affairs of their society, and the broader world. These states of affairs truly matter to them, and when they go well the caring person is ecstatic, and when they go poorly they are likewise miserable, melancholic or depressed. Yet, the fact that someone cares does not determine their political orientation. The reactionary conservative certainly cares as much as the revolutionary socialist. This means that those who care will often be at odds with one another. For this reason thinkers like Hobbes have been particularly concerned with those who cared. Those with strong attachments to causes are more willing than the apathetic, to use extra-legal means, including violence, to pursue those ends, and this puts social order at the risk of breakdown. A society of people who are very concerned with direction of society and the world is in danger of being one that is rife with zealotry, violence and at worst, civil war. A body of apathetic citizens on the other hand tend to be very easy going and peaceable. The apathetic person who only cares about his narrow private interest may not be admirable, but he poses no more threat to the social order than an indignant zealot. So, while there does seem to be something to the notion that society is improved if people care more it is not simply the case that a society is better off if people care more, and worse off if they are more apathetic, because even though peace, stability and social order are not fundamental values, they surely are of great importance and thus we should always be weary of threats to them. It should be noted that this is not to say that a society is better if people are apathetic.

It seems to me that the notion that we should care more also involves a call for us to be caring, over and above a call for us to care more. Imploring people to be caring is distinct from imploring them to care more. A person who cares more about something merely has a strong attachment to that thing and an interest in it going in a certain direction. For example, the person who directs much of his energy to ensuring that the party he supports wins the election is an example of a person who cares strongly about something. On the other hand, the person who is caring is someone who works to provide love and ease the suffering of concrete others in the world. In this way, the notion of being caring is loaded with the particular values of empathy and compassion. Christ is a particularly significant example of a caring person, as he lived his life giving love to all he met. On the other hand the political ideologue may or may not be a caring person, as even though the political ideologue cares about the direction of events, they may not have any genuine concern for concrete others. The call for us to care more seems to involve an invocation for us to be caring as typically the images that are alluded to when people implore us to care more include images of those who provide love and ease the suffering of others. For example, when people say we should care more they appeal as much to volunteers working with the homeless as to activists devoting their lives to democratic accountability.

The call for us to be caring is not a problematic ideal, in fact, at first glance, it seems self-evident that it is better if people are more altruistic and more compassionate towards their fellows, and devote far more time to easing their suffering. But even this ideal has limitations because while it is true that we would prefer a society of Mother Theresas as opposed to a society of Donald Trumps, it is not clear that we would want to live in a society entirely populated by Mother Theresas if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts, or Coltranes. While we certainly esteem the life of Mother Theresa for her devotion to living through giving and caring for others, we also esteem the lives of philosophers, authors, artists and musicians. The vocations of the philosopher, musician, author, and artist are all incompatible with devoting oneself to being caring as the meaning of the lives of artists, musicians, authors and philosophers involves being devoted to their craft, and this leaves little time to devote one’s energies to healing the sick or feeding the poor. Furthermore, it is the artist’s, author’s, philosopher’s and musician’s utter devotion to mastering an elevated art that makes their life admirable. They are not content to merely float through life and merely be adequate; they instead try to excel in an art that seems central to human life. So, it seems that the issue with the call for us to be caring is that it upholds a single model of human excellence and posits that society would be improved if we all just adopted it, when in fact there are numerous incompatible forms of life that ought to command our esteem. Consequently, the call to be more caring fails to recognize and do justice to other forms of life that enrich our society and our world. As was mentioned earlier while a society of Mother Theresas might seem nice, it would not necessarily offer us adequate opportunities for fulfillment if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts or Coltranes.

The Competing Claims of Politeness and Authenticity

Politeness is a large part of the social fabric of most societies. While the forms that politeness takes are different in differing societal contexts typically communities adopt some forms of etiquette to ease social interaction. I would like to address politeness within the context of post-industrial English speaking countries. Within this context certain aspects of politeness seem to be at odds with a popular interpretation of authenticity. This popular interpretation of authenticity, let us call it “popular authenticity” posits that the authentic person has the integrity to be honest about who he or she is and what he or she thinks. However, the nature of the conflict between the good of politeness and the good of popular authenticity is not one of opposing values with equivalent spheres of application; rather these goods are most compelling in a distinct set of spheres within a community. Yet it should be noted that one sphere in which these goods have similar claims and consequently virulently oppose each other is the political sphere.

Investigating an example will help us better understand why certain elements of politeness are at odds with popular authenticity. For example, if I am at work and am invited out for drinks, or to go to supper with my colleagues it is impolite to say “No, I don’t want to go because I don’t particularly like you.” This statement may be true, but it is certainly impolite. The polite response would either be to say “no, thanks” without further elaboration, or to come up with a tactful excuse for why you cannot attend if you are prodded as to why you cannot attend. Thus, it seems politeness requires us to refrain from saying things that may be true and that we may want to say. Consequently, politeness seems to be at odds with popular authenticity, as according to this notion, the authentic person will not hide what he or she thinks, but politeness seems to require us to hide what we think.

While the preceding may causes us alarm, the conflict between popular authenticity and politeness does not require us to either support politeness exclusively or popular authenticity exclusively. While there is conflict between popular authenticity and politeness this conflict need not raise its head all the time as theses goods are most compelling within different spheres of the community. The value of politeness within post-industrial English speaking countries is a good that operates most dominantly within the sphere of the broader society and economy, as opposed to the narrower spheres of the family, romantic relationships and friendship. Within the spheres of economy and society we must deal with people we do not know, may not like and may not trust, and politeness helps all of us to operate within that social world by minimizing conflict. When dealing with others who we know little about politeness seems prudent as it allows us to get along and avoids unnecessary conflict. Here, it should be noted that I am making use of certain elements of Kingwell’s analysis of politeness or “civility” as a political virtue which he outlines within “A Civil Tongue,” although my point is different, as I am speaking about non-political social interaction. On the other hand, popular authenticity seems most compelling within the sphere of deep private relationships. In the context of these deep private relationships there is no need to use politeness to minimize conflict as affection and open communication can play this role. Furthermore, popular authenticity is most compelling within this narrower sphere of deep private relationships as these relationships are marked by a degree of intimacy that requires us to disclose ourselves authentically to one another. It may seem impolite to do something that offends a friend, but part of friendship is disclosing oneself to the other even if this initially causes offense. It is a sign that a friendship is not fully developed that the friends hide things from one another in order to ease social interaction. Therefore, it seems that politeness and popular authenticity are most compelling within different spheres of the community.

It should be noted that while I have said that politeness is most compelling within the economy and broader society, and popular authenticity is most compelling within deep private relationships, these goods are still operative in other spheres; it is just that the claims of popular authenticity are more compelling in the sphere of deep, private relationships than economy or society, and likewise the claims of politeness are stronger in the economy and society than in the sphere of deep, private relationships.

The one sphere that I did not discuss was the political sphere, and it seems to me that this is a sphere in which politeness and popular authenticity have similar claims. In politics citizens need to be encouraged to voice their thoughts and frustrations authentically so that the discussions that occur actually consider the genuine concerns of the citizenry, and so that citizens feel secure in disclosing their opinions. On the other hand there may be times where the authentic disclosure of political opinions will cause conflict that will make a workable compromise impossible, and thus there may be a pragmatic need for politeness within the political sphere in order to come up with solutions that serve the public good. In this sphere we simply have to accept that the conflict between politeness and popular authenticity runs deep and that it is something that we must live with.

The points elaborated above are not likely to help us better resolve the conflicts between politeness and popular authenticity that occur, but they do help us better understand the claims popular authenticity and politeness make on us. This will prevent us from seeing these goods as placing unconditional commands upon us, and rather see that each one of these goods is but one among many, within its own peculiar character and claims.

The Multiculturalism Festival in Canada

Multiculturalism is a policy that is not only enshrined in law in Canada, but also an element of our national identity. It is said that, unlike the US which insists on trying to build a singular homogeneous national culture based on the differing historical cultures of its inhabitants, Canada will have a permanently heterogeneous national culture which celebrates cultural diversity, rather than trying to overcome it. Furthermore, it is noted that Canada is a cultural mosaic, with each culture making up a different part of the Canadian whole. This approach to national identity certainly has the strength of rendering Canada more inclusive and respectful of other’s cultures, but certain elements of the practise of this are less about inclusiveness and generating respect and understanding of other cultures, and more about consumerism, and commodification. One such element of the practise of multiculturalism that is more concerned with consumerism and commodification than anything else is the multicultural festival.

Multicultural festivals are held across Canada, and go by various names such as Heritage Days or Carassauga, but their essential substance is the same. There are pavilions for each culture interesting in creating one, and at these pavilions the general public can try food from the culture, or see the culture’s traditional dress, or dances. Purportedly these festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s diversity, but while these festivals offer an opportunity for members of a culture to display elements of their culture which is certainly positive they do not facilitate deep understanding of, or respect for other cultures among the wider population. Most of the attendees at these festivals go to try the food of cultures that they are unfamiliar with and see their traditional dances, dresses or artifacts, but the attendees are not given context to understand the food, dress, or dances of the culture. Rather, people line up and give their money and order their food, or sit or stand politely and enjoy the entertainment provided by the traditional dances, songs and dress of the people. But does this kind of mode of interaction with members of another culture generate understanding of, or respect for another culture? It does not seem to be the case that it does. By purchasing food from a cultural pavilion I merely realize that a culture makes a certain kind of dish, but I have no understanding of what role this food plays in their culture, or what role food in general does. Likewise, if I see a traditional dance, song or dress of the culture I do not learn what the traditional dance or song celebrates or honours, or what purpose is served by the traditional dress. In this way the attendees of the multicultural festival may at most learn a set of facts about another culture (ie what food they eat, what their traditional dress looks like etc), but cultures cannot be understood by learning unrelated facts about that culture. Rather, understanding a culture requires a more overarching understanding of the meanings of the society and how those meanings are embodied in a set of practises. Consequently it does not seem to be the case that the multicultural festival generates understanding of, and respect for other cultures.

Now, it might not be a problem that the multicultural festival does not generate understanding of, and respect for other cultures if this festival was merely regarded as an opportunity to see some exotic dances, songs, and clothing as well as try some interesting, unique food. But shouldn’t part of a festival that honours diversity be a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue, and understanding, rather than reducing cultures to producers of good food, and pleasant entertainment for the consumer? It does seem that honouring cultural diversity would require a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue and understanding, because we only come to appreciate, understand and respect other cultures if we understand the. Furthermore we can only appreciate cultural diversity itself when we come to recognize the value that others cultures have, and this also requires a genuine understanding of the meanings embodied in the practises that constitute a culture. Consequently, the multiculturalism festival fails to adequately meet the end that it avowedly tries to secure, the celebration of diversity, as it reduces cultures to producers of commodities (good food and entertaining dances and songs) for a mass of consumers, and thus it is more of an exercise in consumerism and commodification than it is in the celebration of cultural diversity. We can see that consumerism and commodification are the guiding principles of the multiculturalism festival through the analysis provided earlier, as we see attendees of the festival consuming food and entertainment provided by the culture, rather than engaging in a dialogue with members of that other culture to understand their practises. This is surely a case of consumerism and commodification if anything is.

One further reason why it is problematic that the multiculturalism festival does not meets it avowed aim of celebrating diversity is because this encourages people to see celebrating diversity as enjoying commodities from other cultures. If we are told that by going to a multicultural festival we are celebrating diversity then we will tend to think that celebrating diversity just means being a consumer who is open to enjoying the products of other cultures. Therefore, the multiculturalism festival not only fails to meet the end that it aims at, but rather also encourages people to have the mistaken understanding that celebrating diversity is a matter of being a consumer who does not prejudge commodities based on their cultural origin. But, for the reasons pointed out above, this commodified view of celebrating diversity has little to do with generating the intercultural dialogue required to genuinely celebrate diversity.

It should be noted that nothing in what I have written above means to suggest that the Canada’s multicultural policy is bad, rather I have merely tried to highlight some of the shortcomings of the multicultural festival as an element of Canada’s overall multiculturalism policy.