Demythologizing Progress

This series follows one entitled Demythologizing Values (DV).  Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites.  Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at

– 1 –

Drawing upon our demythologized account of ethics as the harmonization of subjective viewpoints (per my DV series), we can use this concept of intersubjectivity to propose a theory of moral and social progress according to stages of development, in the following terms:

The nexus of all morality is the relationship of any two subjects, that is, any self-other dyad.  Moral growth, then, is any widening of perspective that more effectively includes other as self, and integrates their viewpoints accordingly.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, appendix –

“[Stage 1 of moral judgment] takes an egocentric point of view.  [One does not] consider the interests of others [nor] relate two points of view.  Authority’s perspective is confused with one’s own…  A person at [Stage 2] is aware everybody has individual interests to pursue,… so that right is relative (in the concrete individualistic sense)…  The person integrates or relates conflicting individual interests to one another through instrumental exchange… or through fairness…  [Stage 3] takes the perspective of the individual in relationship to other individuals [with] shared feelings,… which take primacy over individual interests.  The person relates points of view through the ‘concrete Golden Rule,’ putting oneself in the other person’s shoes…”

Since the self-other dyad is the nexus of morality, and since the above three stages cover the spectrum from self to other, it would seem to follow that all moral thinking, regardless of variability or complexity, must reflect one or more of these three core moralities.  An indication of this is the comparison to be made between this first half of Kohlberg’s six stages of moral psychology and his upper three stages respectively, as interpreted here by another researcher.

Evan Simpson, “The Development of Political Reasoning,” Human Development 30, 1987, page 268 –

“Kohlberg groups 6 stages of moral development into three levels… but his original depiction of the stages makes a dual division – prepolitical and political – equally appropriate.  The evaluative conceptions in the former group [i.e., stages 1-3] are prepolitical in lacking the systematic vision which is necessary for understanding the complex interdependencies of social organizations…  While political thinking is inherently systematic, however, it differs according to one’s conception of right.  Kohlberg’s descriptions of these conceptions make clear the appropriateness of labeling [his] stages of political reasoning (4) conservative, (5) liberal, and (6) egalitarian.  …stage 4 [emphasizes] respect for authority, and preservation of the basic rules and structure of society…  [The] stage 5 orientation assumes a democratic social order in which people coordinate their actions to ensure that all may seek their own good in their own way.  It does not, however, seem to accommodate the importance of respect for personality, at least as this is understood at stage 6 [in terms of substantive equality].”

Questions to consider:

Are not stages 1-3 and stages 4-6, at least in essential form, concrete and abstract versions, respectively, of the same general moral orientations?  Is it possible that the self-other spectrum has some correspondence to the right-left spectrum?

 2 –

Exploring the possibility that moral and social progress is constituted by the achievement of greater intersubjective harmony, and that the sociomoral progression from self to other corresponds to the sociopolitical progression from right to left (see DP-1), we may first note the following link between the conservative right and egocentric or ethnocentric rationales:

To see that egocentricity is a distinctive aspect of the conservative right, we only need to isolate conservatism from the liberal and egalitarian features it tends to incorporate.  What remains, by definition, is the illiberal and inegalitarian extremism of the authoritarian far right, with egocentric doctrines such as “might makes right,” and supremacy of the self or one’s group (religion, nation, race, gender, species).  Moderate conservatism attempts to mitigate such egocentricity by appealing to a moral standard beyond subjective interests, to which all must conform, so that cohesion and order may prevail over division and chaos.  Having concluded that such a moral standard is a myth (see DV-1 to DV-5), we can also conclude that, in supporting anything short of a true harmony of all wills on their own terms – which is to say, a liberal or egalitarian morality – this supposed source of cohesion and order is a projection of narrow interests.

Ted Honderich, Conservatism, chapter 8 –

“The conclusion to which we come is not that Conservatives are selfish [but rather that] selfishness is the rationale of their politics, and they have no other rationale [grounded in a] recognizably moral principle [apart from selfish or group interests]…  The resistance of Conservatives to decent lives for others has no other rationale but their selfishness [or their] class interest.”

Yet, the conservative right does recognize the harmonizing function of morality, even when seeking to impose cohesion and order without due regard for whether all viewpoints have been truly integrated.  This often implicit norm of intersubjective harmony is the germ of progress to be found within conservatism.

Morton Auerbach, The Conservative Illusion, chapter 9 –

“We have seen that, in spite of historical variation, the unifying thread of Conservatism is its underlying value of harmony…  The only techniques which are fully consistent with Conservative values are the defense of harmonizing traditions and exhortation to moral improvement…  The constant argument against Liberalism… is that the pursuit of freedom above all else leads ultimately to chaos and to the imposition of repressive authority…  [Yet even authoritarians] will not reject all freedom but only such freedom as conflicts with the need for authority and stability…  Harmony… accepts all other human values, but subject to the need for minimizing (not eliminating) personal desires and for maximizing love of the community.”

In terms of the self-other dyad as the nexus of all morality, this social “harmony” can essentially take only two forms: either the resulting single will is that of both subjects (other as self) or it is that of only one subject (other for self).  Translated in terms of the political spectrum, either there is the genuine harmony of the left, based on mutuality and equality, or there is the false harmony of the right, based on domination and inequality.

Questions to consider:

Can the social harmony sought by conservatives be genuine other than as that which would be acceptable from the viewpoints of all concerned?  Does this not mean that the perspective or preference of every individual is to be respected as much as that of any other individual?  Might this be why, in the West, conservatism has tended to be combined with individualism, or with liberal democratic principles?

 3 –

Further examining the possibility that moral and social progress is defined by the achievement of greater intersubjective harmony, and that the progression from self to other corresponds to the progression from right to left (see DP-1, DP-2), we may next note the following way in which the liberal center can be seen as an intermediate orientation between egocentricity and an equal regard for the other as for the self:

Liberalism brings egocentricity out into the open, as a practical approach that is as valid for others as for oneself, thus combining egoism with a concept of equality to create a system of mutual individualism, appealing to political or legal norms such as an equal right to freedom, the social contract, and democratically coordinated self-interest.

Jurgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, chapter 2, section III –

“If the needs relevant to action are allowed to remain outside the symbolic universe, then the admissible universalistic norms for action have the character of rules for maximizing utility and general legal norms that give scope to the strategic pursuit of private interests, under the condition that the egoistic freedom of each is compatible with that of all.  With this the egocentrism of the second stage [in Kohlberg’s theory] is literally raised to a principle; this corresponds to Kohlberg’s stage 5 (contractual-legalistic orientation).”

Such a link between the second and fifth stages of Kohlberg’s moral scale is reinforced by empirical findings of a relativistic or egoistic orientation, resembling regression to stage 2, accompanying advancement to stage 5 liberalism.  A similar pattern can be discerned in the development of liberal ideology historically.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, chapter 4 –

“…an increased orientation to instrumental egoistic consideration is found [at or around] Stage 5 [with or] without disruptive ethical relativism.  It is understandable, then, that many of the classical arguments for Stage 5 moralities are social contract arguments designed to show that commitment to social law is the best strategy for Stage 2 instrumentally egoistic people.”

The intermediate or transitional nature of liberalism is reflected in its historical evolution from classical liberalism, emphasizing egoistic freedom, towards welfare liberalism, emphasizing the equality underlying the liberal aim of harmonizing individual wills.  Paraphrasing what was said regarding conservatism, in terms of the self-other dyad as the nexus of all morality, the “harmony” of wills sought by liberals essentially takes only two forms: either the resulting single will is that of both subjects (other as self) or it is that of only one subject (other for self).  Again, translated in terms of the political spectrum, either there is the genuine harmony of left-liberalism, based on truly free agreements between moral equals, or there is the false harmony of right-liberalism, based on coerced agreements in an egoistic or unequal power struggle.

Questions to consider:

As an individualistic orientation ranging from egoism to equality, does not liberalism ultimately require a choice between these opposites on the self-other spectrum?  Insofar as egoism is chosen, can liberalism provide a legitimate ground for respecting others as beings with interests distinct from one’s own, which liberalism itself requires to avoid collapsing into right-wing illiberalism?  Yet, insofar as equality is recognized as this ground of legitimacy, must it not then be seen as a first principle from which all other political norms are to be derived?

 4 –

Still exploring the possibility that moral and social progress is defined by the achievement of ever greater intersubjective harmony, and that the progression from self to other corresponds to the progression from right to left (see DP-1 to DP-3), we may finally note the following link between the egalitarian left and ordinary morality’s regard for others as for oneself:

Comparing Kohlberg’s third and sixth moral stages, we again see that the latter is a more abstract or systematic version of the former.  Simply put, stage 3’s pre-political morality is the Golden Rule, while stage 6’s political morality is a second-order application of the Golden Rule.  Whereas Stage 3 adopts the viewpoint of any particular other, Stage 6 attempts to ensure that this role-taking is reciprocal, at least imaginatively, and that all viewpoints are thus coordinated on an equal basis.

Donald R.C. Reed, Following Kohlberg, chapter 8 –

“The aim of Stage 6 reversible role-taking is… an intersubjective point of view… That justice judgment is valid… which is acceptable from the point of view of every individual involved…  Any one person’s decision on what should be done is to be not only fully reversible but also the decision the relevant community would make were it to be of one mind…  Indeed, [Kohlberg’s] stage sequence as a whole admits an interpretation on which the progression is toward greater and greater intersubjectivity, where the reasoning perspectives are not so much those of individuals as of increasingly intersubjective practical rationality…”

A correspondence between Kohlberg’s third and sixth stages fits certain progressive ideas: the ideas of primitive communalism, of childlike simplicity and sharing, and of women’s care for particular others (all stage 3) as prefiguring or paralleling social justice (stage 6). Drawing an analogy between Gestalt psychology and moral psychology, in support of the last of these ideas, Carol Gilligan has suggested that the ethics of justice and care are two, sometimes gendered, ways of perceiving the same moral reality.

Carol Gilligan, Mapping the Moral Domain, prologue –

“Like ambiguous figure perception where the same picture can be seen as a vase or as two faces, the basic elements of moral judgment – self, others, and the relationship between them – can be organized in different ways…  From the [‘masculine’] perspective of… justice, relationships are organized in terms of equality, symbolized by the balancing of scales…  From the [‘feminine’] perspective of… care, relationship connotes responsiveness or engagement, a resiliency of connection that is symbolized by a network or web.”

To make the above metaphor more precise, the vase can be converted into a set of scales to symbolize the justice orientation, while the faces can be retained to symbolize the care orientation.  Hence, when we focus on the scales of justice, human faces are separated by a device designed to balance conflicting claims, so that each person is treated equally as an individual whose interests are distinct from those of others.  When we instead focus on the human faces, we see no barrier between people to keep them from connecting with each other, sharing their interests in common, and striving for their mutual good.

Questions to consider:

Once it is recognized that the essence of morality is the Golden Rule, and hence that the ethical ideal is that which all could accept after identifying with each other’s viewpoint, can there be any real dispute that such an ideal must be the first principle of moral and social progress?  Is this not true radicalism, in the etymological sense of going to the root of what morality fundamentally requires, as well as in the activist sense of calling for drastic changes in the political status quo in the direction of substantive equality?

 5 –

Progressive morality, seeking ever broader intersubjective acceptability, is simply an abstract or systematic form of the ordinary regard for particular others based on Golden Rule reciprocity (see DP-1 to DP-4).  Accordingly, ethical and political decisions cannot be guided by universalistic abstractions except as these are interpretable, in the following terms, as provisional generalizations or reflections about the core norm of reciprocity within actual interactive contexts:

Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self, chapter 1, sections 1 & 4 –

“The norm of ‘reciprocity’ is embedded in the very structures of communicative action into which we are all socialized, for reciprocity entails that we are treated by others equally insofar as we are [members] of a particular human group…  Thus at one level the intuitive idea behind the norms of universal respect is ancient and corresponds to the ‘golden rule’…  Universalizability enjoins us to reverse perspectives among members of a ‘moral community’ and judge from the point of view of the other(s).  …if we do not view such discourses in legalistic terms as articulating [only] the standpoint of right-bearing ‘generalized others,’ and if we understand them as the continuation of ordinary moral conversations in which we seek to come to terms with and appreciate… concrete others’ point of view, we do not have to submit to the distorting lens of [overly abstract] procedural universalism…  In the final analysis, universalizability requires us to practice the reversibility of standpoints by extending this to the viewpoint of humanity…  But the ability and the willingness of individuals to do so begins with the admonition of the parent to the child: ‘What if others [did that to you], how would you feel then?'”

Every moral issue arising ostensibly from a clash of abstract ideas (whether between right and left or within a progressive movement) can be translated into a purely contextual issue of clashing subjective viewpoints, constituted by phenomena such as present desires or future interests, emotional attachments or conventional expectations, formative histories or life meanings.  Recognizing this translatability of the abstract into the contextual, a progressive morality seeks to resolve such conflicts by having those concerned, in either real or hypothetical dialogue, reverse their viewpoints so constituted, and thus construct mutually acceptable solutions.  This intersubjective approach thus radically particularizes conservative ideas like social order and love of community, as well as liberal ideas like equal rights and a social contract, while eliminating false abstractions suggesting some pre-existing universal morality.

John Rawls (1921-2002), “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” III: IV-VI, Collected Papers

“…the first principles of justice [are not] true in all possible worlds.  In particular, they depend on the rather specific features and limitations of human life that give rise to the circumstances of justice…  It is not that, being situated impartially, [one is able to] have a clear and undistorted view of a prior and independent moral order.  …there is no such order, and therefore no [moral] facts apart from the procedure of construction as a whole; the facts are identified by the principles that result…  Objectivity is to be understood by reference to a suitably constructed social point of view, [an] example of which is the [social contract] framework provided by the procedure of [an] original position [of equality]…  When citizens invoke these principles they speak as members of a political community and appeal to its shared point of view either in their own behalf or in that of others.”

Questions to consider:

Construction being but an organization of parts, is not a constructed social point of view but an organization of particular subjective viewpoints (see DV-6 to DV-10)?  Is equality anything more than an abstract term for making interactive contexts acceptable from all such viewpoints?  Must not all moral abstractions, such as human dignity and respect for life, be translatable into the vicariously felt experiences of specific human or sentient beings? Would progressive ethics have any concern untied to actual perspectives and the relations between them?

 6 –

The constructed intersubjective standpoint of progressive ethics, which treats all universalistic moral abstractions as provisional generalizations or reflections about the core norm of Golden Rule reciprocity (see DP-1 to DP-5), amply justifies the following enumeration of presumptive abstract rights:

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to respectful concern – a basic right to be considered as a being with one’s own ends, as important as anyone else, including any member of an opposing majority/minority (because group size alone does not alter the intersubjective relations between any two individuals), hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to individual liberty – a basic right to pursue one’s own ends as freely as possible (self-preservation, self-gratification, self-fulfillment, self-expression), as that which anyone else would find desirable in like circumstances, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to material goods – a basic right to benefit from an unspoiled environment, and from sufficient external things to make pursuit of ends meaningful, given that natural resources were originally common to all, and that property is socially constructed, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to systemic fairness – a basic right not to be deprived of the liberty to pursue one’s ends, nor denied access to originally common resources, through either regulation or privatization, except on reasonable conditions agreeable or beneficial to all, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to distributive justice – a basic right to an equivalent share in the control of, and the advantages from, any political or economic system with which one is expected to cooperate by limiting or redirecting one’s individual liberty and access to material goods.

Richard Norman, Free and Equal, chapters 4-5 –

“Consider a group of people coming together in some joint enterprise… for instance… to share a house…  The set of arrangements which is adopted by the group must be one which can be justified to each of its members.  …each person has an equal say, [and so] can make an equal claim on the group…  … there is a presumption of equality in the distribution of benefits and burdens…

“The fundamental reason why we should seek to promote and maintain relations of cooperation is that we ought to live and work with others in ways which respect their freedom within the common project, recognizing that they have their own needs and interests which have to be accommodated and their own ideas about how to do this…  If we could live pretty much as isolated individuals, we could respect the freedom of others in a negative way, by leaving them to get on with their own lives.  But as social beings, needing to associate with others and to link our efforts with theirs in common projects, our concern for the value of freedom requires that we shape our social institutions as ones in which all can participate freely, on terms which all can freely accept.  Respect for persons as free beings is thus the reason for making our institutions cooperative institutions, and the principles of justice appropriate to such a cooperative group or community are [those] of equality.”

Questions to consider:

When extricated from religious and metaphysical mythology, are “natural” or “human” rights intelligible other than as presumptive abstractions for what we emphatically want from each other as equals?  Can we not see the above presumptions as constructive steps leading inferentially from moral equality as free beings to socioeconomic equality within a cooperative scheme?  Does the generalization from the house-sharing example (plus the fact that the word “economy” literally means household management) not correctly suggest that egalitarianism applies to both personal and societal relationships?

 7 –

Our progressive idea of society as cooperation among moral equals (see DP-1 to DP-6) provides the following normative basis for both civil obedience and disobedience:

John Rawls (1921-2002), A Theory of Justice, chapter VI, section 59 –

“…once society is interpreted as a scheme of cooperation among equals, those injured by serious injustice need not submit.  …the principles of justice, the fundamental terms of social cooperation between free and equal persons… underlie the constitution…  Up to a certain point it is better [for cooperation] that the law and its interpretation be settled than that [they] be settled rightly.  Therefore it may be protested that [this] account does not determine who is to say when circumstances are such as to justify civil disobedience.  It invites anarchy by encouraging everyone to decide for [oneself], and to abandon the public rendering of political principles.  The reply to this is that each person must indeed make [her] own decision.  Even though [people] normally… accept the injunctions of those in authority… they are always accountable for their deeds…  This is true on any theory of political duty and obligation that is compatible with the principles of a democratic constitution…  But while each person must decide… whether the circumstances justify civil disobedience, it does not follow that one is to decide as one pleases.  It is not by looking to our personal interests, or to our political allegiances narrowly construed, that we should make up our minds.  …a citizen must look to the political principles that underlie and guide the interpretation of the constitution…  Equals accepting and applying reasonable principles need have no established superior.”

William H. Simon, The Practice of Justice, chapter 4 –

“…Dominant arguments for obedience demand that we look at the legal system as a whole, ask if on balance it serves some good [order, fairness, democracy], and if the answer is yes, obey its commands categorically.  But unless we have some reason to think our selective disobedience will trigger some independent and unjustified lawlessness, we should not consider it a threat to the desirable aspects of the legal order.  The fact that other people are obeying the law is often a fairness reason why we should, but if the law itself is unfair, the fairness concerns supporting disobedience will usually outweigh those supporting obedience.  And the fact that the law has emerged from a generally democratic political process is a reason for obedience, but not one that should prevail if the process has not been democratic in this particular case.  Now turn to a [different] conception of law…  We can call this conception Substantive, though there are many variations of and names for it.  Some people prefer the term “natural law,” though that term has connotations too exotic and metaphysical for what… is a familiar, mainstream notion…  It acknowledges… jurisdictional rules… as expressions of underlying values, such as order, fairness, and democracy, and it insists on interpreting the rules in the light of these values.  …it denies that jurisdictional principles that prescribe the allocation of authority for dispute resolution are more fundamental than substantive principles that prescribe the just ordering of the social world…  [Substantivism ultimately] leads to anarchy…  For [some,] anarchy is tantamount to lawlessness, but for the Substantivist (and for most anarchists) anarchy is simply the most decentralized legal system imaginable.  In such a system every citizen is a common law judge of what the law requires [meaning] that enforcement takes place through spontaneous citizen action… rather than formally constituted authority.  The tendency to see all conduct in defiance of constituted authority as norm-less or unprincipled is a… prejudice.  The examples of the Boston Tea Party and the Birmingham march remind us that disobedient conduct can be intensely normative [and also] that some of the most radical manifestations of Substantivism have achieved legitimacy in our culture.”

Questions to consider:

If we are to have a non-mythical conception of law, what can morally justify obedience to it other than social cooperation?  Would not the same principle also then place limits on required obedience, and thus justify civil disobedience when fair terms of political or economic cooperation have been seriously violated?

 8 –

A progressive understanding of society as a scheme of cooperation among moral equals (see DP-1 to DP-7) also supports the following conception of socioeconomic justice along neo-Marxist or post-capitalist lines:

Jeffrey Reiman, “An Alternative to ‘Distributive’ Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary volume 15, 1989, page 299, section II –

“If we take Marxism as moved by the ideal of equal sovereignty, we can say that Marx’s crucial discovery about capitalism was that it contained a new, and in some ways, invisible form of unequal power over people: private ownership of means of production, which Marx held to be coercive even when it did not seem so…  Overt violence is needed only to protect private ownership [of common resources].  Once that is secure, no more violence is needed to force the worker to work for the capitalist on the latter’s terms… And, once the structure of property ownership becomes so much part of the social landscape that it is taken for granted, the force is not seen at all.  All that remains is the vivid picture of workers freely agreeing to work for capitalists.  …what Marx called ideology is, in capitalism, little more than the tendency of the force built into the structure of property relations to become invisible…  It is surely plausible that a society of equally sovereign people would be one in which people were working for others in an amount equal to that in which others were working for them.  …deviations from equal labor exchanges would require special explanation, while equal exchanges would already be satisfactorily justified by the ideal of equal sovereignty.  This accounts for the distributive ideal that Marx attributes to ‘the first stage of communism’ (what is later identified as socialism)…”

Robin Hahnel, Economic Justice and Democracy, chapter 7 –

“…to manage our economic affairs… if we had the opportunity to start again [we] could hold a lottery, or perhaps have a brawl, to decide who owns what productive resources.  The unfortunate losers would have to hire themselves out to work for the more fortunate winners, and the goods the losers produced could then be ‘freely’ exchanged by their owners, the people who didn’t produce them.  Of course, this is the capitalist ‘solution’…  Alternatively, we could make the best educated, or perhaps most ruthless among us, responsible for planning how to use society’s scarce resources and for telling the rest of us what to do.  But [now] command planning is in the dustbins of history where it belongs.  …authoritarian planning does not yield economic democracy, equity, [or] efficiency…  In the aftermath of the collapse of communism, debate about alternatives to capitalism has divided into three camps: proponents of market socialism,… community-based economics, and… national democratic planning.  …since everyone in all three camps is thoroughly committed to democracy, all understand that the struggle to eventually replace capitalism must necessarily take the form of fighting for reforms within capitalism for the foreseeable future.  …their differences about the future do not mean they cannot agree [about] reforms to advance the cause of equitable cooperation…”

Kai Nielsen, Equality and Liberty, chapter 3, section II –

“We need democratically controlled decisions about [production]… to meet, as fully as possible, and as equally as possible, [the] different needs… of all the people.  Care must be taken, particularly in the period of transition out of a capitalist society, that [these] are needs people… acknowledge when… aware of the hidden persuaders operating on them.”

Questions to consider:

Because virtually all capital is produced by collective labor applied to originally common natural resources, should we not reject, as a class-biased myth, the notion that capitalist relations are the nearest we can get to a free and just system of exchange?  Would this not be more fully realized in a truly cooperative society which put both political and economic decisions under the direct democratic control of those most affected?

 9 –

If moral progress involves reforms within capitalism towards more equitable social cooperation (see DP-1 to DP-8), it would seem to entail the following justifications for ensuring a decent standard of living for everyone through a universal basic income:

Philippe Van Parijs, “A Basic Income for All” in What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch?, section 1 –

“If the motive in combating unemployment is not some sort of work fetishism… but rather a concern to give every person the possibility of [avoiding unattractive work and] taking up gainful employment in which she can find recognition and accomplishment, then the UBI [Universal Basic Income] is to be preferred [over employer subsidies]…  The availability of such a strategy undermines [excessive productivism] and thereby improves the prospects for realizing environmentalist objectives [plus] gives everyone some real freedom… to perform autonomous activities, such as grass-roots militancy or unpaid care work…  Everything we know suggests that nearly all people seek to make some contribution…  On this background, even the principle ‘To each according to her contribution’ justifies a modest UBI as part of its best institutional implementation…  True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle…  But this… is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income, and leisure…  Such gifts of luck are unavoidable and, if they are fairly distributed, unobjectionable.  A minimum condition for a fair distribution is that everyone should be guaranteed a modest share of these undeserved gifts.  Nothing could achieve this more securely than a UBI.”

Respondents’ comments from the same book…

Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001): “Access to the social capital – a major source of differences in income, between and within societies – is in large part the product of externalities: membership in a particular society, and interaction with other members of that society under practices that commonly give preferred access to particular members…  When we compare the poorest with the richest nations, it is hard to conclude that social capital can produce less than about 90 percent of income in wealthy societies… On moral grounds, then, we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent to return that wealth to its real owners.  In the United States, even a flat tax of 70 percent would support all governmental programs [including a UBI] and generously leave with the original recipients of the income about three times what, according to my rough guess, they had earned… [So] it is not clear why motivation to earn more would be reduced.”

Anne L. Alstott: “Even a UBI below subsistence level could make a real difference in women’s lives.  …a UBI would ensure that everyone can count on the same income floor, regardless of work history.”

Ronald Dore: “A basic income would obscure the distinction between those who would find it difficult to get a job and those who simply prefer to live modestly…  That should help with the dignity problem, which in my view is at least as serious an aspect of unemployment as the poverty problem…  Decoupling work – having a job – from the status of citizenship is the first step.  Tying the latter to something else – like doing some form of community service – might be the second.”

Robert E. Goodin: “Suppose workfare requirements are taken to imply an ‘activity test’ that can be satisfied in any of many ways.  …we may well find punitive and draconian workfare schemes being thereby transformed, in effect, into state salaries for socially useful labor of many (if not quite all) forms.  …workfare will have become a first approximation to a participation income [and then] we truly will have backed into progressive social policy.”

Also relevant here, as a premise to this and similar debates…

Liam Murphy & Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership, intro –

“Private property is a legal convention, defined in part by the tax system; therefore, the tax system cannot be evaluated by looking at its impact on private property, conceived as something that has independent existence and validity.”

Questions to consider:

Must economic cooperation be equated with wealth production, the labor market or trade narrowly construed?  Can it instead be understood simply as people helping each other through mutually acceptable arrangements?

 10 –

Reinforcing the arguments for moral progress via egalitarian reforms (see DP-1 to DP-9) is our previous rejection of acausal free will, ultimate responsibility, and harsh values not grounded within a naturalist-determinist framework (see DV-11 to DV-15).  Hence, for the following kinds of reasons,  desert or merit cannot justify fundamental inequality:

Saul Smilansky, “Egalitarian Justice and the Importance of the Free Will Problem,” Philosophia 25, 1997, page 153 –

“Starting from a presumption of equality in what people ought to get, a hard determinist conception of justice would [necessarily] see any unequal well-being… as unjust; [the] idea that there can be the sort of non-arbitrary ‘genuine choice’ which could justify some inequality would be simply seen as mistaken…  [The false] assumption that people can deserve forms of treatment or situations in the strong sense of desert that only… free will (if it could exist) would provide… lies behind much of the thinking that inequality of distribution can be morally justified.”

Bruce Waller, Freedom without Responsibility, chapter 14 –

“…the no-fault naturalist denial of [ultimate] moral responsibility is likely to enhance individual freedom by encouraging a more egalitarian society.  Careful focus on the full details of our environmental histories [and our genetics] eliminates moral responsibility and thus offers solid, worldly grounds for equality: exact equality of just deserts.  That brings the principle of equality down from the transcendent realms… and anchors it in the gritty environments that shaped us and were – at critical points – not of our own choosing or making.  And, if everyone is precisely equal in just deserts, then the vast differences in wealth and power among individuals in our society are unjust [as are] the severe practical restraints… imposed by such inequities.”

Ted Honderich, How Free Are You?, chapter 10 –

“There has never been agreement on what [punitive] desert-claims are to be taken as meaning… [Yet there] must be something substantial in talk of desert and punishment…  It is that punishing the offender will give satisfaction to the victim or others, perhaps to society as a whole.  The offender by his offence has created a grievance… a desire on the part of other people for exactly his distress.  Punishing him will satisfy that desire.  Further, there is one particular penalty that in a clear sense will be equivalent to his offence.  This is the penalty that does not do more and does not do less than exactly satisfy that grievance…  What is needed for this kind of punishment is… a free action [not compatible with determinism]…  The means of great distress [for people not responsible] is not justified by the end of satisfaction.  …punishment is right… when it has fair consequences… in accordance with a certain moral principle.  That principle is the Principle of Equality, which is that we should take really effective steps to make well-off those who are badly-off.  …determinism [thus also] has consequences for… the social actions that enter into… distributions of income and of wealth, distributions of power and rank, and official praising and blaming…  If that is so, should one part of the response of affirmation [to determinism] be a move to the Left in politics?  I leave you with that bracing question.”

Questions to consider:

Posing the above “bracing question” in reverse, should one part of social progress, or moving to the political left, be an affirmation of determinism?  Without free will and a strong sense of desert, can retributive or punitive justice be a valid norm meaningfully distinct from distributive or egalitarian justice?  Morally, to be consistent with the no-fault implications of determinism, must not any political or economic institution be a matter of non-judgmentally distributing the benefits and burdens of cooperation under conditions acceptable to all?

 11 –

While our naturalist-determinist framework validates progress towards substantive equality, from a moral point of view (see DP-1 to DP-10), the same naturalism also shows there to be no objective reason why a moral viewpoint must be accepted in the first place, over a rival amoral perspective.  Consequently, to all that has been said so far, we now need to add the following major qualification:

Philippa Foot (1920-2010), “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Virtues and Vices

“Attempts have sometimes been made to show that some kind of irrationality is involved in ignoring the ‘should’ of morality…  Irrational actions are those in which a [person] in some way defeats his [or her] own purposes…  Immorality does not necessarily involve any such thing…  People talk… about the ‘binding force’ of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape…  Perhaps it makes no sense to say that we ‘have to’ submit to the moral law, or that morality is ‘inescapable’ in some special way…  The conclusion we should draw is that moral judgments have no better claim to be categorical [or absolute] imperatives than do statements about matters of etiquette…  Perhaps we should be less troubled than we are by fear of defection from the moral cause; perhaps we should have even less reason to fear it if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.  It is often felt, even if obscurely, that there is an element of deception in the official line about morality.  And while some have been persuaded by talk about the authority of the moral law, others have turned away with a sense of distrust.”

Note 15:  “I am therefore putting forward quite seriously a theory that disallows… saying that [one] ought… to have ends other than those [one] does have, e.g., that the uncaring, amoral [person] ought to care about the relief of suffering or the protection of the weak…  [Rather,] we must start from the fact that some people do care about such things [and] they may therefore talk [i.e., ethically] about what should be done presupposing such common aims.  These things are… only subjectively and contingently necessary…”

Kai Nielsen, Why Be Moral?, chapter 8 –

“…from the moral point of view ‘Because it’s right’ must be a sufficient answer…  …it cannot possibly be a sufficient answer from the point of view of self-interest or from the point of view of an individual challenging the sufficiency of the whole moral point of view, as a personal guide for his [or her] actions.  …we have two strands of discourse here with distinct criteria and distinct canons of justification.  We just have to make up our minds which point of view we wish to take.  …whether it would or would not be in your ‘true interests’ to be moral or non-moral would depend on the sort of person you are. [Generally] we are, as a matter of fact, partly egoistic and partly other-regarding in our behavior.  There can be no [completely] non-personal, objective justification for acting morally [rather] than non-morally.  …[Although one may] not want to be in the position of finally having to decide… the subjectivists are right in suggesting that this is just what [one cannot] avoid doing…  We need not have existential dramatics here, but we do need to recognize the logical and practical force of this point.  Most rationalistic and theological ethical theories seem to be mythmaking devices to disguise this… uncomfortable fact.”

Richard Garner, Beyond Morality, chapter 11 –

“…the amoralist need not, perhaps even cannot, do without an ethics… What the amoralist rejects are the distinctive beliefs of moralism…  To the amoralist, the idea that guidelines are set for us by Reality or by God is a fiction…  The amoralist… sees morality as… an ‘institution’ aimed at regulating interpersonal relationships.  Amoralists… think we get a more accurate version of our world by calling a convention a convention, by learning to see things and people without the distortions imposed by [moralistic] concepts, and by not pretending to be bound when we are free [of objectively binding norms].”

Questions to consider:

Does moral progress as the ever widening of subjectivity beyond egocentricity not suggest that any choice between egoism and ethics must be made subjectively from a logically prior amoral perspective?  Are both ethics and egoism not therefore valid alternatives within a fundamental amoralism, which accepts ethics or morality only in their deflated etymological sense of customs or practices, invented to override egocentricity and promote social harmony?  Might the mature ethicist be an amoralist, in the sense of rejecting, as unfounded and superstitious, the notion of morality as something “real” or “inescapable,” and instead attending to what one desires for oneself and others?

 12 –

Ethical equality of oneself and others (see DP-1 to DP-10) and amoral egoism (see DP-11) are both valid guides for social conduct.  As unconventional or subversive as this might seem, the following suggests that we commonly presuppose the validity of both of these perspectives in real-life decisions  about how to treat others:

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 6, section 2 –

“All real societies, and all those which it is of direct practical use to consider, are ones whose members have to a great extent divergent and conflicting purposes…  People simply are not going to put the interests of all [others] on an equal footing with their own interests and specific purposes and with the interests of those who are literally near to them.  Such universal concern will not be the actual motive of their choices, nor will they act as if it were.  …a large element of selfishness… is a quite ineradicable part of human nature…  Even what we recognize as unselfishness or benevolence is [often] incompatible with universal concern.  It takes the form of… self-referential altruism – concern for others, but for others who have some special connection with oneself: children, parents, friends, workmates, neighbors in the literal, not the metaphorically extended, sense.  Wider affections than these usually center upon devotion to some special cause… not upon the welfare of human beings, let alone sentient beings, in general.  …in becoming capable of acting [primarily] out of universal concern, people would have to be stripped of the motives on which most of what is of value in human life is based – close affections, private pursuits…”

Up to a point, our preferential treatment of ourselves, and of those near and dear to us, can be ethically justified on practical or affective grounds.  However, insofar as we favor ourselves, or those physically or emotionally close to us, over others with a greater need for our concern, to that extent we are taking a stance of amoral self-interest towards those others.  Justifying our variable concern for them as ethical discretion or aspiration is only a more palatable way in which our morality concedes rational space to our amorality.

Peter Railton, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13, 1984, page 134, notes 34 & 42 (cross-referenced) –

“The consequentialist may [recognize agent-centered prerogatives but] also argue that at least some of the debate [about moral demandingness] is more properly concerned with the question of the relation between moral imperatives and imperatives of rationality than with the content of moral imperatives as such…  One need not be a sceptic about morality or alienated from it in any general sense in order for the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ to arise with great urgency.  If in a given instance doing what is right or having the best sort of character were to conflict head-on with acting on behalf of a person or a project that one simply could not go against without devastating the self, then it may [even] fail to be reasonable from the agent’s standpoint to do what is right.  It is always morally wrong (though not [necessarily] morally blameworthy) to fail to perform morally required acts, but in certain circumstances that may be the most reasonable thing to do – not because of some larger moral scheme, but because of what matters to particular individuals.  Therefore, in seeking an answer to ‘Why should I be moral?’ I do not assume that it must always be possible to show that the moral course of action is ideally rational or otherwise optimal from the standpoint of the agent.”

Questions to consider:

Should we not, ethically speaking, admit our amoral disregard for the extreme needs of many human or sentient beings in the world, instead of rationalizing our neglect in terms of moral permissibility?  Given our naturalist-determinist framework, might it make sense to think of amoral egoism, or even lack of empathy, as an evolutionary default prevalent in much of humanity?

 13 –

Social progress as widening intersubjectivity can now be seen as creating a dialectical tension between two completely opposite positions: a radical morality based on concern for all human or sentient beings; and a radical freedom due to the lack of an objective requirement for any moral concern at all (see DP-1 to DP-12).  This tension leads to a paradoxical nihilism, in the following sense:

One of the factors in social progress is the growing awareness, central to both of these positions, that there are no objective values “out there” to privilege one subjective viewpoint over another.  From a perspective which seeks intersubjective harmony, this equal legitimacy of viewpoints translates into an egalitarian morality, but from a skeptical perspective which realizes that it cannot go beyond the intersubjective, any such morality lacks external objective support.  Intersubjectivity both grounds and bounds any theory of moral or social progress.

Ross Poole, Morality and Modernity, chapter 4, last section –

“If intersubjectivity is to serve as the foundation for a theory of justice as a good, it must be established at the level of individual identity [such that] the concerns of the self include a reference to the concerns of others…  This concept… presupposes a certain form of social life – a ‘community’…  [However, those] who have invoked the concept [of community] against liberalism have simply evaded the central problem which liberalism is attempting to confront: the place of values in a value-free social world…  Nihilism arises in part through the collapse of objective values and the incapacity of individuals to provide their own.  It is the emptiness of absolute freedom: freedom as arbitrariness…  Liberalism is a diluted nihilism.  It implicitly recognizes the nihilism at the center of modern social existence, and attempts a holding operation: to contain nihilism within the limits necessary for social life to continue.”

This relationship between nihilism and social ethics can be compared to the relationship, in science, between Einsteinian and Newtonian paradigms.  In each instance, the former perspective is one of complete relativity, while the latter is one of illusory absoluteness, useful for certain human purposes, but only properly understood against the background of the former perspective.  Hence, drawing again from the psychological theories of Kohlberg and Gilligan (see DP-1 to DP-4), we might speak of moral development culminating in an alternation between two gestalts.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, chapter 9 (with Clark Power) –

“…after attaining a clear awareness of universal ethical principles valid against the usual skeptical doubts, there still remains the loudest skeptical doubt of all: ‘Why be moral? Why be just, in a universe that is largely unjust?’…  Such despair [occurs] when we begin to see our lives as finite [and] the meaninglessness of the finite from the perspective of the infinite.  The resolution of the despair… represents, in a sense, a shift from figure to ground [when we] sense the unity of the whole [of life] and ourselves as part of that unity.”

Contrary perhaps to Kohlberg’s wish, this figure-ground metaphor suggests that the shift is always possible in both directions.  Nihilism remains a valid perspective, arising from moral progress and challenging it dialectically, while allowing for it as a socially useful construction which incorporates freethinking enlightenment about reality’s intrinsic meaninglessness.  This is one variation of what has been called the paradox of nihilism.

Questions to consider:

Is it not a conceptual necessity that our naturalist-determinist framework, just as its opponents claim, leads to some type of nihilism?  Yet, can there be any purer sense of morality than being moral when one has no reason other than empathy for its own sake, especially when making an extreme sacrifice with no ultimate reward or meaning?

 14 –

Ultimate subjectivism and nihilism as products of moral progress (see DP-1 to DP-13) account for the countervailing persistence of religious movements attempting to create purpose within an increasingly liberalized and secularized world.  Such movements range from regressive forms of authoritarianism or sectarianism to the following progressive types of non-dogmatic spirituality:

1.  Progressive spirituality is essentially a quest for intersubjective harmony that has been given the deepest significance, consistent with the sense of unity in Kohlberg’s theory.  At its starkest, it is a straightforward extension of paradoxical nihilism, wherein empathy becomes a highest purpose in the absence of any other.  Muted by figurative language, this benign nihilism is also expressed by certain kinds of liberal theology, pantheism, Neopaganism, New Age or Eastern mysticism (see DR-18 to DR-20).

2.  Given that subjectivity is the only source of value in the universe, a second form of progressive spirituality mitigates the nihilistic implications of this contingency by fallibilistically postulating an infinite subjectivity (universal consciousness, eternal afterlife).  It motivates, without detracting from, a secular morality based on empathy. Versions of the figurative spiritualities listed above could also fit in this category, as could spirituality guided by near-death experiences, whatever their real source might be.

3.  A third form of progressive spirituality seeks to reform religious institutions from within, and to move them towards a society which all of its members can accept insofar as they are able and willing to identify with each other’s needs, including religious needs. This type of spirituality might include faith-based social activism, interfaith cooperation and ecumenism, or advocacy for greater church democracy.

Gordon Lynch, The New Spirituality, intro –

“…progressive spirituality… has emerged out of four key concerns: the desire for an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriate for modern, liberal societies, the rejection of patriarchal forms of religion and the search for religious forms that are authentic and liberating for women, the move to re-sacralize science… and the search for a nature-based spirituality that will motivate us to try to avert the impending ecological catastrophe…  [The] notion of the divine can take either pantheist or panentheist forms in progressive spirituality…  This view of the divine is often held in conjunction with an emphasis on the value of mystical union with [the] grounding source of life, and it is common for advocates of progressive spirituality to either actively endorse, or be sympathetic to, feminine metaphors for describing the divine.  …advocates of progressive spirituality [also] regard all constructive religious traditions as containing insights that can be valuable…  Religious tradition is therefore valued in so far as it points to the core assumptions of progressive spirituality – and other meaning-systems, such as rational secularism, or even eastern and New Age spiritualities that are also subject to critique where they differ from these core assumptions.  …the perspective on demoralization broadly shared amongst many advocates of progressive spirituality is that moral decline arises out of an instrumental secular world view (or its ‘other’ – patriarchal religion) which provides the ideological support for a rationalized, capitalist structure that exploits both humanity and the wider natural world.  …it could be argued that if we are indeed living in the throes of a cultural crisis in values then progressive spirituality offers a viable world view and ethos…”

Questions to consider:

Given that even secularists recognize the need to rise above nihilistic despair, must they not also recognize the vitalizing function of some type of religion or spirituality in an otherwise meaningless universe?  Could this be a socially useful function as long as it leaves intact the substance of progressive ethics?

 15 –

Within our philosophy of ultimate subjectivism and nihilism (see DP-1 to DP-14), a progressive morality would reject the finality of any external authority, religious or secular, in favor of the following principles of radical anti-authoritarianism, associated with anarchists or left-libertarians:

Susan Brown, “Anarchism, Existentialism, Feminism, and Ambiguity” in The Anarchist Papers 2

“The recognition that our world is neither divinely nor naturally [purposed] does not imply that meaning does not exist [in any sense at all], as the nihilist [might] have us believe, but rather that meaning is humanly created.  …if the ambiguity implied in a world where meaning is created by human individuals is fraught with anguish, it also brings with it the possibility of freedom…  This focus on individual liberty… is at the heart of anarchist thought…  …human individuals are free – free to project themselves into a meaningful future, free to assert their own value as ends in themselves…  To live ethically, one must reach out towards the future, and in freely doing so, one must open up freedom not only for oneself but for others…”

Bonnie Haaland, Emma Goldman: Sexuality and the Impurity of the State, chapter 4 –

“From an absolutist perspective, human desire is bad and social control is good…  Libertarians [or anarchists] call for an end to sexual [and other kinds of] repression as it manifests itself through the socializing agents of the church, the family, and the State…  Through the unfettered expression of… impulses [in harmless ways], the individual may gain her/his physical and emotional well-being, while the society may gain integrity and honesty, throwing off the shackles of moralist hypocrisy…  [Similarly,] radical pluralism recognizes the needs of the individual… and, like libertarians, it recognizes the legitimacy of ‘denied’ sexual practices [or alternative lifestyles].”

Paul McLaughlin, Anarchism and Authority, chapter 1 –

“…anarchists take as their starting point the open question of authority [and so] are especially keen to highlight the superstitious, mythical, and generally irrational features of the justification of authority.”

Noam Chomsky, “Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future,” Chomsky on Anarchism

“…it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.  …the essence of anarchism [is] the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met…  One major element has been… ‘libertarian socialism.’  …tendencies in anarchism draw from the best of Enlightenment and classical liberal thought…  …they contrast sharply with Marxist-Leninist [‘socialism’], the ‘libertarian’ doctrines [of capitalism], and other contemporary ideologies, all of which seem… to reduce to advocacy of one or another form of illegitimate authority, quite often real tyranny.”

Questions to consider:

Having concluded that there can be no binding “must” apart from subjective ends, how can one accept a final authority independent of what one wants, all things considered – without being irrational by definition, and hence under the influence of a superstition?  From an ethical perspective of treating others as equals, does this not mean recognizing others as also ultimately not bound by any external authority?  In terms of progress from right to left, is it much wonder that, as the direct opposite of the illiberal and inegalitarian extremism of the authoritarian far right, we have the libertarian and egalitarian radicalism of the anti-authoritarian far left?

 16 –

Recapping, we can describe social progress as the egalitarian pursuit of mutual harmony among conflicting wills (see DP-1 to DP-9), recognizing that such wills are predetermined, sometimes validly amoral, and normatively unconstrained by any higher meaning or external authority (see DP-10 to DP-15).  Hence, as suggested by the following writers, progressive morality supports equality and liberty among people as given, with their biologically and socially conditioned wills as they are, rather than as they supposedly ought to be or might have been under ideal conditions:

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, chapter 2 –

“…there is a metaphysical method of trying to have it both ways – of at once permitting and denouncing coercion by denying that it is in any important sense coercive.  This is done by [requiring a person] to act in a way in which he would [require] himself to act, if his reason [or consciousness, or whatever] were fully developed…  In this way, [one gets] the identification of coercion with complete self-government.  For freedom is after all only doing what I want; [and] what I want is that which will satisfy… my rational nature… [However,] there is every difference between what in fact I wish, and what someone else thinks I ought to wish; between what I do wish, and what, because I ought to wish it, I am said to be wishing already in some deeper sense…  At some stage I am bound to protest, as oppressed minorities and majorities have always protested and always will protest, that to be free is to be in a position to secure the satisfaction of one’s actual wishes, not of… ‘potential’ or ‘ideal’ wishes…”

Jeremy Waldron, Liberal Rights, chapter 2, section 2 –

“To talk about my freedom… is not to talk about the thought or decision-making of an entity cleansed of the ‘false consciousness’ that characterizes my present experiences and desires.  Sometimes liberals are [improperly] accused of taking the beliefs and preferences of individuals as given and hence of ignoring the fact that forms of society may determine forms of consciousness…  [But this] is in principle something that people as they are can recognize in themselves and take into account in their reflective deliberations…”

Saul Smilansky, “The Ethical Advantages of Hard Determinism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54, No. 2, June 1994, page 355 –

“Without [acausal] free will people are ultimately ‘given,’ being whoever they happened to be, with the desires and beliefs they happened to have (including the desires to change or not to change themselves).  …people’s actions follow from their desires and beliefs, which in turn result from factors ultimately beyond their control…  To hold people morally responsible for their actions is, according to hard determinism, to hold them responsible for the results of the morally arbitrary…”

Questions to consider:

Although non-progressive forms of society may determine people’s consciousness, does that make their resulting desires any the less real, compelling, or legitimate?  Can an ascribed wish give anyone a sufficiently rational motive to change except insofar as, due to reflective thought or consciousness raising, it emerges from and transforms one’s present desires?  From an ethically progressive standpoint of respecting pluralistic freedom and opposing authoritarianism, should not those attributing unacknowledged wishes to others accept those wishes rather as their own, to be harmonized with the others’ actual desires on mutually agreeable terms?  When a laudable social initiative is of dubious success, in light of current human nature, might it not be reasonable for an individual to withhold full cooperation in that experiment, especially if an additional contribution would be merely symbolic, or negligible compared with the repression involved?

 17 –

An egalitarian and non-authoritarian pursuit of harmony among predetermined wills, taken as given within a pluralistic context (see DP-1 to DP-16), has the following implications for diversity and privacy:

Davina Cooper, Challenging Diversity, chapter 2 –

“In the main, proponents of diversity concur in the importance of sustaining and strengthening private life [but also] many are anxious to distinguish their notion of a private sphere from that pervading traditional liberal thought.  Within the politics of diversity, the private is not usually identified as a literal place, such as the home.  Instead writers emphasise the importance of individuals being able to construct their own ‘private’ sphere…  We can see this revalorisation of the private sphere, like the emphasis on freedom, as a reaction to the perceived hyper-politics of movements… where every individual decision and action was deemed a legitimate object for account.  At the centre of this hyper-politicisation, opponents claimed, was a normative monism: the assertion of a single right way of doing things.  Thus, the insistence on a private domain is linked to the affirmation of diversity, and the insistence that there should be spheres of life free from the imperative to confess, justify and be judged.”

The distinction between private and public demarcates, not literal places nor sharp boundaries, but a continuum between the subjective and the intersubjective.  Near the subjective end of the continuum, insofar as one subjectivity is not impinging on another, we have a private domain, in which to be free from social accountability for differences.  Conversely, near the intersubjective end of the continuum, to the extent that subjectivities interact, we have a public domain in which, from a moral standpoint, differences can be assessed for harm, but not otherwise for content, and then are to be included within open society on mutually agreeable terms.  For example, in the area of sexuality, the continuum ranges from the lone individual entitled to utmost privacy, to partnerships requiring disclosure and consent, to a sociocultural environment which should be acceptable to everyone (particularly women, children, and the marginalized).

Anna Galeotti, Toleration as Recognition, chapter 3 –

“What is important and must be stressed is that… public recognition, with the aim of legitimating the public presence of diversity, is content-independent and hence, can be fitted into the ideal of neutrality… [However,] it requires a more active and positive attitude toward differences, which goes beyond the usual interpretations of neutrality…  [It] aims to distribute the benefits of inclusion enjoyed by the majority to all citizens, whatever their ethnic, national, cultural, or gender membership…  If this notion of recognition can be reconciled with a revised notion of neutrality, it can also be reconciled with impartiality.  In fact, it does not entail favoring some particular group, and therefore giving up the principle of universal justice…  While public toleration cannot be denied to any identity (once the harm test is passed), after this first step towards inclusion has been made, then all other claims should be subject to negotiation and reciprocal accommodation.”

Questions to consider:

Biologically and socially determined as they are, can people help but be who they happen to be, with all their diverse personalities, sexualities, and identities, for which they may wish privacy or social inclusion?  Since people also cannot help but engage in forms of amoral egoism, and hence only be ethical in various limited ways, would it not be quite hypocritical for anyone to impose a single strict moral code?  In the absence of a higher meaning or external authority, how can any way of living be ethically better or worse than alternatives in an inherent sense, rather than in the sense of being more or less in mutual harmony with others’ lives?

 18 –

Sharing the usual leftist concern about the social causes of diversity, the egalitarian and non-authoritarian pursuit of harmony among predetermined wills (see DP-1 to DP-17) cannot overlook the following considerations about biological differences among human beings:

Mary Midgley, “On Not Being Afraid of Natural Sex Differences” in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy

“Moral pluralism, the notion that there are different kinds of goodness, is quite acceptable to modern thought.  What worries people is the idea that these differences… are in any way naturally determined and therefore out of the control of the individual.  …much of the individuality which people show has been the result of their upbringing…  But this fact cannot save [an] inflated concept of freedom… because people’s upbringing is normally just as far out of their control as their genetic constitution is.  …race difference is, among all the differences… used to justify oppression, probably the most trivial.  Where it does not coincide with cultural frontiers, it is insignificant.  …treating differences of status built on it as idle and artificial is just as appropriate as it is in the case of class.  It cannot follow, however, that this is true of all other differences…  [Age/ability] certainly has a biological basis as well as a social one [and so does sex]…  To insist on denying the reality of such causes is to draw a bizarrely hard line between the physical and the mental aspects of a human being… which seems very badly suited to the realistic description of our lives…  [Our] experience on the matter… must of course be critically used…”

Recognition of humans as socially interacting organisms, determined at two levels, can avoid the politically undesirable implication that human nature, or one of its genders, must have a fixed common essence.

Drucilla Barker, “Dualisms, Discourse, and Development” in Decentering the Center, essay 10 –

“Emphasizing the embodied nature of the feminist [or other] subject does not entail essentialism, because bodily experience cannot be reduced to either the purely biological or the purely social.  The body is the site of intersection of the natural with the cultural, and cannot be wholly explained by either.”

However, given our naturalist-determinist framework, we must regard biological causes as ontically preceding and constraining social forces and constructions.  Otherwise, we imply that human beings do indeed have a fixed common essence, some disembodied quality separating them from nature and animals, contrary to both environmentalism and Darwinian science.

Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left, chapter 1 –

“If Darwinian thinking tells us that we have been too ready to assume a fundamental difference in kind between human beings and nonhuman animals, it could also tell us that we are too ready to assume that all human beings are the same in all important respects.  While Darwinian thought has no impact on the priority we give to equality as a moral or political ideal, it gives us grounds for believing that since men and women play different roles in reproduction, they may also differ in their inclinations or temperaments…  …the core of the left is a set of values, [but] there is also a penumbra of factual beliefs that have typically been associated with the left.  We need to ask whether these factual beliefs are at odds with Darwinian thinking and, if they are, what the left would be like without them…  Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the left because it has provided grounds for hoping that a very different kind of human society is possible… [However,] Darwinian thought… dashed the left’s Great Dream [of unlimited human malleability].”

Questions to consider:

Might it be argued that leftists are inconsistent when they criticize anti-evolutionism, while not accepting the full implications of Darwinian biology?  Would this science not explain the historical constancy of societal male dominance even amid great variation in social structures?  Does that not support, rather than undermine, the leftist/feminist opposition to patriarchy as a primary form of oppression against women and men?

 19 –

In the egalitarian and non-authoritarian quest for harmony among predetermined wills (see DP-1 to DP-15), the diversifying interplay of biological and social forces (see DP-16 to DP-18) is especially relevant to the debates around gender variance, suggesting the following models for different kinds of transgender experience:

1) Intersex Status Model

Deborah Rudacille, The Riddle of Gender, chapter 7 (terminology slightly changed) –

“All the evidence… points to the critical importance of circulating testosterone in establishing a male reproductive anatomy and brain structure.  …testosterone deficiency… is one of the… effects of exposure to… estrogenic chemicals in males…  [Many] individuals with confirmed prenatal… exposure [to such chemicals] indicated that they were… transsexual, transgender, gender dysphoric, or intersex…  …the scientific literature shows quite clearly in animals that in utero exposure to exogenous hormones and hormone mimics affects the brain and behavior.  …most of my sources trace their feelings of gender dysphoria to their earliest childhood…  Many transgender people believe that these feelings… are the result of ‘hormone surges’ in prenatal life…  …science liberated [others] from the stigma of mental illness, just as I am certain it will eventually reveal the actual biological mechanisms that produce [many] anatomical and neurological intersex conditions.”

2) Chosen Expression Model

Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014), Trans Liberation, chapters 1-2 –

“The sight of pink-blue gender-coded infant outfits may [bother you or] you may be a woman or a man who feels at home in those categories.  Trans liberation defends you both.  Each person should have the right to choose [those or many other] gender categories…  Millions of [people] do not fit the cramped compartments of gender that we have been taught are ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.  …I have no hesitancy in saying I was born female…  The problem is… trying to understand my gender expression by determining my sex…  …I am a masculine, lesbian, female-to-male cross-dresser and transgenderist [without need] to change my body to ‘match’ my gender expression…”

3) Sexual Orientation Model

Anne Lawrence, Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, chapters 10 & 12 –

“With the exception of cross-dressing, we autogynephilic transsexuals rarely display female-typical behaviors, attitudes, or interests during childhood or adulthood…  Our gender dysphoria and our resulting cross-gender identities are direct outgrowths of our paraphilic desire to turn our bodies into facsimiles of women’s bodies…  Autogynephilia [‘love of oneself as a woman’] is another variety of sexual orientation: It is an unusual variant form of [male] heterosexuality.  Like other sexual orientations, it is something we autogynephilic transsexuals did not choose and something we cannot change.”

4) Ungrounded Identification Model

Mirha-Soleil Ross (interviewer Viviane Namaste), Sex Change, Social Change, chapter 7 –

“[A man who] his entire life [had not done] anything that could have made people see him as anything other than a straight masculine man… wanted to go to a women’s shelter because he ‘identified’ as a woman.  This is [an] example where… special privileges [should not be] accorded to trans people solely by virtue of their identities, [when they] have no grounding in actual cross-living experiences.  Policies that pertain to us [trans people] have to be grounded in [reality], otherwise they are postmodernist head games taken to extremes.”

Questions to consider:

Could policies and debates in this area benefit from the above distinctions, given that trans people sort themselves into similar groups?  Should we not treat these different kinds of experience the same way we should treat intersex statuses, chosen expressions, sexual orientations, and ungrounded identifications, respectively?


Harmonizing diverse wills in an egalitarian and non-authoritarian manner (see DP-1 to DP-17) entails the following methodology for reconciling differences, not just at the level of bodily experiences (see DP-18, DP-19), but also at the level of cultures or beliefs:

Rainer Forst, “A Critical Theory of Multicultural Toleration” in Multiculturalism and Political Theory, essay 11 –

“…every use of force, or… any morally relevant interference with others’ actions, needs to be justified by reciprocally and generally non-rejectable reasons in order to be seen as legitimate.  …one party must not make any claim to certain rights or resources that are denied to others, and [must] not project [one’s] own reasons (values, interests, needs) onto others…  One must be willing to argue… with reasons that are not based on contested ‘higher’ truths or on conceptions of the good which can reasonably be questioned and rejected [and with reasons that are]  shareable among all persons affected, not just dominant parties.  …it makes an essential difference whether a democratic state asks a cultural group to respect ‘personal autonomy’ because of a notion of the good that they might not and need not share, or whether they are asked to respect a form of autonomy to which they themselves need to take recourse when they demand a justification for a political or legal norm and reject ethical ‘colonization.’  If the democratic state argues on the basis of a principle of reciprocal justification which gives equal chances to raise claims to all involved, members of majorities, minorities, and minorities within minorities, it can justifiably claim to establish a system of multicultural justice.  …reason is not sufficient to provide us with the one and only, ultimate answer about the truth of the good life which would show that all other ethical beliefs are false.”

Anthony Simon Laden, Reasonably Radical, 5.6 & note 39 –

“…in all cases, [moral or political] legitimacy rests on the reasonableness of deliberation. Nondeliberatively attained results, such as from majority votes, trace their legitimacy not only to the original deliberative approval of the procedure as a means for reaching decision, but to the ongoing deliberative environment in which the result could be challenged at any time…  These two grounds of legitimacy will be related in a properly functioning democracy, since a [majority] vote gives citizens a further reason [to argue] in support of the winning policy…  …keeping in mind the contingency of the factors that lead to what looks to us like [social] progress can keep us from falling into a kind of moral triumphalism that excludes others who disagree with us in the name of a supposedly reasonable consensus.”

Georgia Warnke, “Discourse Ethics and Feminist Dilemmas of Difference” in Feminists Read Habermas

“…it remains one of the major contributions of feminism to have allowed us to recognize new and different normative perspectives, first those of women in opposition to those of men and subsequently those of different groups of women…  This sort of pluralistic feminism… precludes those differences that themselves preclude difference. If we are to recognize the legitimacy of different voices, then we cannot allow any to retain a monopoly on the discussion or to exclude the possibility of listening to others.  These standards arise out of a critical pluralism itself…  Whatever specific solutions we decide most adequately reflect the diversity of our legitimate normative difference, we can work for those solutions in a united and consensual way…  We agree to disagree [while acknowledging that] our common work arises out of a recognition of the legitimacy of our differences.”

Questions to consider:

Inasmuch as multiple cultures and divergent beliefs are a sure sign of moral progress, is it not a sad irony when progressive movements are unable to accept such differences among themselves?  Might a reason for this be that such movements have not fully progressed beyond authoritarianism and value monism, to incorporate the radical significance of determinism, amoralism, and nihilism?  As progressives who would tolerate religious convictions of all kinds, should we stigmatize “crazy” beliefs, when we are all prone to quasi-religious “delusions” – of free will, inescapable morality, and higher meaning?


About Vaughn Barnett

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