Procedural rights and historical imagination

In his recent post at The American ConservativeAlan Jacobs notes some anecdotes and research indicating that people often don’t mind seeing people of an enemy political group treated unfairly:

That is, many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe. And — this is perhaps the most telling finding of all — their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup. Through a series of games, Iyengar and Westwood discovered that “Outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.”

One of my consistent themes over the years — see, for instance, here and here — has been the importance of acting politically with the awareness that people who agree with you won’t always be in charge. That is, I believe that it is reasonable and wise, in a democratic social order, to make a commitment to proceduralism: to agree with my political adversaries to abide by the same rules. That belief is on its way to being comprehensively rejected by the American people, in favor of a different model: Error has no rights.

What is being forgotten in this rush to punish the outgroup is a wise word put forth long ago by Orestes Brownson: “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.”

In a post from about a year ago, he pointed to a similar problem of perspective affecting those who want to liberate technology from the constraints of nature:

There is a deeper and more powerful and (I think) more pernicious ideology at work [than “social construction”],which has two components.

Component one: that we are living in a administrative regime built on technocratic rationality whose Prime Directive is, unlike the one in the Star Trek universe, one of empowerment rather than restraint. I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Social constructionism does not generate this Prime Directive, but it can occasionally be used — in, as I have said, a naïve and simplistic form — to provide ex post facto justifications of following that principle. We change bodies and restructure child-rearing practices not because all such phenomena are socially constructed but because we can — because it’s “technically sweet.”

My use of the word “we” in that last sentence leads to component two of the ideology under scrutiny here: Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have … or fondly imagine they have.

The reference in that last paragraph is to C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, which really seems like a text for our times (you can see some of my other posts that have referenced it here and here).

In those passages, Jacobs links to some other posts that he has written on this topic. These two are especially worthwhile, in my opinion:

  • The position of power“Key quote: “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

    “This is the danger for all of us who have some wealth and security and status: to imagine that the punitive shoe will always be on the other’s foot. In these matters it might be a useful moral discipline for philosophers to read the great classics of dystopian fiction, which habitually envision the world of power as seen by the powerless.”

  • Triumphalism and historical imagination

Update (10/20/16): Jacobs returned to the idea of the Controllers in his approving comments on John Gray’s book review of Homo Deus.

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