Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

Serious Conversations, 12

In a brief Twitter essay on Richard Spencer’s claim that the Nazi salutes at his “Hail Trump” speech were “clearly done in the spirit of irony and exuberance,” New Republic editor Jeet Heer quoted a few sentences from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew that resonated with some of the writing I’ve done on the conversational stance and what makes a conversation serious (especially this post and this one). So I went back to Sartre’s 1944 text and read for context.

Here, our “post-truth” crisis looks more like a raging pandemic of bad faith:

How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees very clearly where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of a stone. They wish to be massive and impenetrable; they wish not to change. Where, indeed, would change take them? We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth. What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension. But they wish to exist all at once and right away. They do not want any acquired opinions; they want them to be innate. Since they are afraid of reasoning, they wish to lead the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what he has already found, wherein one becomes only what he already was. This is nothing but passion. Only a strong emotional bias can give a lightning-like certainty; it alone can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to experience and last for a whole lifetime.

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. He has placed himself on other ground from the beginning. If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse. I mentioned awhile back some remarks by anti‐Semites, all of them absurd: “I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc.” Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

Those wishing to read more can download a PDF of Sartre’s text — in the translation by George J. Becker, with an introduction by Michael Walzer — here.

Après Moi Le Déluge

APTOPIX Deep South Weather

From a 19 August 2016 Associated Press article, “Donald Trump to Travel to Flood Stricken Louisiana”.  Dee Vazquez, from left, helps Georgette Centelo and her grandfather Lawrence Roberts after they tried to recover their belongings from a family mobile home in Central, north of Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (David Grunfeld/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP)

There are many things at work in Trump’s reckless plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement: it’s a sop thrown to big coal and voters in destitute coal-mining districts; it signals a retreat from twenty-first century global engagements and plays to the reactionary America First crowd; it’s a petulant thumbing of the nose at President Obama — the list could go on. The point I would make is simply this: the threat to withdraw from Paris demonstrates that the man about to assume the presidency has no understanding of agreements.

When I talk about his lack of understanding I’m not simply saying that this man, who reads from the teleprompter like a struggling fifth grader, doesn’t intellectually grasp what agreements are or how they work. He might well not; but the real issue, I fear, is that he has no inclination to learn. Time and again, the president-elect has shown us and told us that he does not respect agreements or appreciate the power they have. He will break them at will, because cooperative agreements and — perhaps more to the point — cooperation don’t appear to have a place in his moral outlook, his idea of power, or his general view of the world.

He is a purely transactional man. He doesn’t build cooperative agreements; he strikes deals that work to his advantage. This is a point I’ve noted before, when Martin Wolf wrote about Trump’s “transactional approach to partnerships” in the FT before the election. The foreign policy community is especially alert to (and rightly alarmed by) what this approach might mean in terms of existing alliances like NATO. As Ian Bremmer recently put it: “Trump views alliances transactionally, the way he views his businesses & marriages. Values don’t enter the equation.”

The nihilism — I think that might be the right word for what Bremmer is identifying — of the transactional man counts as both a moral deficiency and a political handicap. In the moral sense, others have no standing: there are no second persons; there is no plurality, only a first person singular. He and I have nothing between us, because (I am again quoting Bremmer) “common values don’t matter” and there is no enduring “we.” With no obligations to me, others or any who might come after, he is out to score. And should others refuse his terms, resist or demand recognition, he is likely to compensate for his lack of political prowess in the only way he can: by exerting hard power.

Après moi le déluge is pretty good shorthand for this attitude, especially as it relates to global climate risk.

Postscript: During a press conference this afternoon, President Obama himself offered a more hopeful view. He noted a “tradition” of carrying international agreements “forward across administrations” and stressed what he called “the good news” about Paris: the agreement formalizes practices already embedded in our economy, and we have already demonstrated that it’s possible to grow the economy and meet its goals. Paul Bledsoe took a different tack this morning on the BBC Newshour, when asked if Trump could simply undo Paris: “investments in the United States and around the world are being made by businesses who know that carbon constraints are inevitable.” Trump, he says, is “on the wrong side of history.”

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

Another Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I promised myself at the beginning of this long, drawn out election cycle that I was not going to write about the presidential contest. I don’t believe I’m breaking that promise if I quote an article about the presidential race as a quick follow up to my post about Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness.

There, to develop my intuitions about the fundamentally non-transactional character of conversations and other cooperative undertakings, I focused on Nussbaum’s discussion of the shortcomings of transactional forgiveness, and in particular its emphasis on scorekeeping.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martin Wolf writing about the dangers of a “transactional approach to partnerships” — which would reduce all alliances, agreements and institutions to winner-take-all “deals” — in an excellent piece called “How the West Might Soon Be Lost”:

…the ability of the US to shape the world to its liking will rest increasingly on its influence over the global economic and political systems. Indeed, this is not new. It has been a feature of US hegemony since the 1940s. But this is even more important today. The alliances the US creates, the institutions it supports and the prestige it possesses are truly invaluable assets. All such strategic assets would be in grave peril if Mr Trump were to be president.

The biggest contrast between the US and China is that the former has so many powerful allies. Even Vladimir Putin is not a reliable ally for China. America’s allies support the US largely because they trust it. That trust is based on its perceived commitment to predictable, values-based behaviour. Its alliances have not been problem-free, far from it. But they have worked. Mr Trump’s cherished unpredictability and transactional approach to partnerships would damage the alliances irreparably.

A vital feature of the US-led global order has been the role of multilateral institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In binding itself by the rules of an open economic system, the US has encouraged others to do the same. The result has been extraordinary growth in prosperity: between 1950 and 2015, average global real output per head rose sixfold. Mr Trump does not understand this system. The results of repudiation could be calamitous for all.

Three Questions for the Michigan DEQ on the Back Forty Project

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced its intention to permit the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold and zinc sulfide ore mine that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, plans to develop near the headwaters of the Menominee River. In response to the MDEQ’s request for public comment by November 3rd, I’ve submitted these three questions. I’m posting them here so that others might consider them in the run up to the public meeting with the MDEQ in Stephenson, Michigan on October 6th.

  1. In determining that the Back Forty Project application meets the requirements for approval under Part 632, did MDEQ take into account the cumulative effects of sulfide mining throughout the Lake Superior watershed? We know that the Back Forty project poses a significant risk to the Menominee River all by itself. With the mine in close proximity to the river, a flood, berm collapse, subsidence or a slide could destroy the Menominee River; to answer these serious concerns by asking the company to add a “synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” as the DEQ has proposed, is to trivialize them. Other development that the mine will inevitably bring, including haul routes, power lines, lights, fueling stations, exhaust and machine noise, will leave a large industrial footprint and disturb the Menominee River and its environs in countless ways. At the same time, this mine will heighten the risk, in the long term, of large-scale environmental destruction posed by the resurgence of sulfide mining not just in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in Minnesota and Canada as well — all around the lake and throughout the Lake Superior watershed. Has the DEQ completed or participated with neighboring state agencies and tribal authorities in a scientific study of the cumulative impacts of sulfide mining around Lake Superior? Has the DEQ issued guidance on how cumulative environmental effects should factor into its decision-making process for permitting new mines in Michigan?
  2. Has MDEQ made any determination about the human rights implications of its decision to allow the Back Forty project to go forward? Human rights are not outside the DEQ’s bailiwick, no matter how hard it may try to exempt itself. Witness Flint. In the present case, the DEQ’s oversight is inextricably bound up with the state’s obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties. Aquila’s Back Forty project is sure to disturb, and likely to desecrate, lands traditionally belonging to the Menominee and still held sacred by them; and making provisions for archaeological recovery and preservation of mounds and other sacred sites does not adequately address the basic human rights issues involved here. The headwaters of the Menominee River are central to the tribe’s creation story, marking the place where the Menominee people originated. Their very name derives from manoomin, or wild rice, which will not survive changes in sulfate levels or degradation of overall water quality. As tribal member Guy Reiter has said, “It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians.” Seen from this perspective, the Back Forty is not only an affront to Menominee history; it also puts the cultural survival of the Menominee people at risk. How will the DEQ factor such human rights considerations into its decision-making process?
  3. What has the DEQ done to restore trust in its authority, and reassure the Menominee and people living downstream from the Back Forty project in Michigan and Wisconsin that it will exercise appropriate care? The Flint water crisis cast a long shadow, and reinforced the perception that “politics and poverty are big factors” in DEQ decision making. “The same attitude of disregard for citizens and the environment has repeated itself in DEQ decisions across our state for well over a decade,” said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley after news of the Flint water crisis broke; controversy over the renewed Groundwater Discharge Permit issued by MDEQ at Eagle Mine and legitimate concerns about lax oversight at Eagle East help make her case. Like all government agencies, the Michigan DEQ should operate in sunlight. Already, however, troubling questions have been raised about the transparency of the Back Forty permitting process. For example, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, asks why the DEQ appears to be in a “rush” to grant the Back Forty permit. So as things now stand, the DEQ enjoys de jure authority in Michigan under Part 632, but it is unclear whether the DEQ still enjoys de facto authority, which could only derive from demonstrations of regulatory competence. How does MDEQ intend to quell public concern that it is compromised or incompetent, and reassure the public that it is a responsible steward?

Marius Commanded Armies, Ambition Marius

Seneca, Epistle XCIV.64-7

It was not virtue or reason which persuaded Gnaeus Pompeius to take part in foreign and civil warfare; it was his mad craving for unusual glory. Now he attacked Spain and the faction of Sertorius; now he fared forth to enchain the pirates and subdue the seas. These were merely excuses and pretexts for extending his power…. And what impelled Gaius Caesar to the combined ruin of himself and the state? Renown, self-seeking, and the setting no limit to pre-eminence over all other men…. Do you think that Gaius Marius, who was once consul (he received this office on one occasion, and stole it on all the others) courted all his perils by the inspiration of virtue when he was slaughtering the Teutons and the Cimbri, and pursuing Jugurtha through the wilds of Africa? Marius commanded armies, ambition Marius.

When men such as these were disturbing the world, they were themselves disturbed — like cyclones that whirl together what they have seized, but which are first whirled themselves and can for this reason rush on with all the greater force, having no control over themselves; hence, after causing such destruction to others, they feel in their own body the ruinous force which has enabled them to cause havoc to many. You need never believe that a man can become happy through the unhappiness of another. 

 

Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.

How Things Are Between Us, 3: A Brief Reply to a Long Comment

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to set down some thoughts in response to Marc Tognotti’s long comment on my posts about the transactional model of conversation, in which asks are countered by bids, resulting in a spread or a workable measure of practical liquidity.

Marc suggested I was too hasty in my refusal of the transactional model, and urged me to look a little more closely at asking and bidding and the joint commitments that underlie even the most finite, fleeting and seemingly self-interested human interactions.

There’s lots to what Marc says, and we might ultimately be saying the same thing. One place I thought my response might take the discussion was to Kant’s distinction of price from dignity in the second section of the Groundwork.

What refers to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; what, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, i.e., a delight in the mere purposeless play of the powers of our mind, has a fancy price; but what constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not merely have a relative worth, i.e, a price, but an inner worth, i.e., dignity.

This distinction of relative worth and inner worth, price and dignity, can be applied and extended in a number of useful ways. More on that in the future. Here, I invoke it just to draw a bright line between negotiating a price (or merely asking and bidding) and the dignity of the plural subject to which conversations and other cooperative endeavors commit us. We want conversations that respect not only the dignity of individual persons but also the dignity of the plural first person to which we have jointly committed.

Marc’s comment comes close to the Kantian position in saying that we are already so committed: as Kant argues, the “share” every rational being has in universal legislation requires that each person takes her maxims from the point of view of herself, “but also at the same time of every other” person.

The larger point — maybe this is obvious — is that when acting jointly these basic moral considerations of the respect we owe to each other are of more importance in working out what to do than arriving at a brokered decision about what each wants or is willing to do.

Postscript 3 September 2016: To take a simple example. Lucy and Jo are taking a walk together to the old lighthouse. When they arrive at a fork in the road, Lucy wants to go left, and follow the path that runs along the brook, then cuts back to the cliff where the lighthouse stands. Jo wants to walk along the cliff all the way to the lighthouse. Both routes have much to recommend them, and we could extend the example to imagine their conversation at this juncture. They might debate the merits of each route, the scenic beauty of the cliff route or the quiet shade of the brookside path, but their conversation will involve something other than negotiations of fancy price. (Is Jo dismissive of Lucy’s suggestion? Is Lucy obstinate in her refusal to walk along the cliff? Does one run roughshod over the other? Does Jo agree to Lucy’s route then nurse a resentment for the rest of the walk?) Jo and Lucy have arrived at a moral crossroads: how they conduct themselves in conversation is of greater moral significance than the route they take. It’s not just a question of how they treat one another. It’s a question of the respect they accord to the “us” to which they’ve committed, the first-person-plural cooperating subject that is Jo and Lucy walking together.