Amateur social science, poorly written polemic and misguided social commentary

Month: October, 2015

Political Perfectionism Revisited: The Capability Approach

Note: these are some very tentative musings on political perfectionism. I’m trying to develop an argument in favor of the “capability approach”, an approach

In an earlier post, I expressed some misgivings about the origins of the Western political tradition, which are firmly tethered to works of the political perfectionists, Aristotle and Plato. I expressed that I was very wary of the paternalism expressed in both Politics and the Republic. After a week of reflection and an intense schedule of reading and research, I’ve come to the conclusion that that the Western political tradition has been too quick to discard the pre-modern focus on the good life. I was led down a number of research traps, trying to comprehend the Rawlsian critique of teological conceptions of justice, before I realized that I firmly believe that the good must come before the right. This is rooted in an inclination I possess, one that leads me to believe that there are universal needs that are shared by all of humanity. While I shudder to use the term “human nature”, which contains too much historical baggage, there is ample evidence that suggests that there are some goods that have inherent value because they allow for a much fuller expression of humanity. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum defined this particular conception of the good to be the “capability approach”. To Sen and Nussbaum, the capabilities and boundaries of human nature are shaped by the distribution of material and political goods. The fact that these goods shape the boundaries of human nature serves as the justification for distributing these goods.

I’m drawn to the “capability approach” because I believe that is a human account of justice, one that cuts sharply against both the transcendental ethics of Kant and the radically situated, and therefore dehumanizing, ethics of utilitarianism. Furthermore, the “capability approach” avoids metaphysics in favor of a empiricism that avoids the calculation errors of utilitarian logic. For far too long, political theory has avoided the empirical insights of the social science, insights that demonstrate that there are institutional changes that increase human flourishing and human happiness. By avoiding these insights, political theorists have avoided grappling with the implications of the deep desire for economic development in the global South, a desire that demonstrates the primacy of material concerns, a primacy that must be re-stated in an era where liberalism has triumphed.

Again, these are some very tentative thoughts designed to crystalize my reasoning. I’m not sure where I’m headed with this.


Ethical Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is very dangerous because, of course, if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Doing anything becomes tragic because it means sacrificing how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” – David Foster Wallace

At first glance, David Foster Wallace’s statement about perfectionism appears to be unrelated to ethical perfectionism but the implicit assertion contained within this quote contains great meaning for the ethical perfectionists of the past and the present. Implicit to DFW’s claim is the idea that:
1. achieving “perfect” is impossible. ultimately, perfect ideas are never perfect. “what it really is” is less than that.
2. therefore, the notion of ethical perfection, whether oriented towards some objective form of the good or some ideal form of human nature, is painfully flawed. there is no ethical perfection that can be instantiated through the habituation of education or firm laws because ethical perfection isn’t a concept that can be attained or discovered. attempts to force ethical perfection upon people serve as evidence for the validity of this claim. the utopian ambitions of communist states, the puritanical tyranny of calvinist communities and the evil consequences of state-supported papal authority all attest to the dangers of ethical perfectionism.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. “Ethical perfectionism” veers too far into the realm of the “philosophy” aspect of “political philosophy” for me to have any substantial thoughts about the concept. Nevertheless, I find myself simultaneously repulsed and attracted when I think about the concept. The notion that states can promote just behavior and The Good through education/myth-making/censorship + the proper construction of a state (Plato) or through laws + political community (Aristotle) is very attractive. It’s also quite toxic because it’s rooted in an inherent paternalism, the paternalism of thinking that there can be ethical perfection.

I’m very confused about this topic and look forward to producing some coherent thoughts about this in further blog posts and, later on, my research paper.

Are Group/Corporate/Collective Rights Compatible With Individual Rights?

This post isn’t intended to convey a comprehensive answer to this question. I simply want to share some initial thoughts about this question, which will serve as a road-map for a research paper I’m about to write. Two years ago, I created this blog with the intention of becoming a “thought-leader” or a “public intellectual”. Right now, I’m more concerned about avoiding writer’s block and existential crises.

This question is arguably the defining question of “post-material” or “post-modern” politics. The developing and the developed world alike confront issues dealing with so-called “minority rights”, whether rooted in sexuality, ethnicity, “race” or gender. As noted by Will Kymlicka, post-war notions of universal human rights were intended to address the concerns of various minorities by separating rights from identity. Like Kymlicka, I believe that this move has its strengths: rooting rights in corporate bodies has a long history of oppression, which may be seen in the caste system of colonial Spanish holdings, “Jim Crow” America or feudal Europe. Like Kymlicka, I also believe that notions of universal human rights do not provide answers for the problems that face multicultural states: should states grant minority nations, whether Crow or Euskadi, more autonomy or less autonomy? Should states grant special privileges to minority ethnicities so that they may posses special authority over sacred sites or lands used for rituals? Should emerging immigrant communities and pre-existing minority communities receive some sort of state support to preserve language or, at the very least, accommodations for their lack of fluency in the dominant tongue of their nation-state?

I’d argue in the affirmative to all of these questions but I’d feel uncomfortable stating this support without noting that these questions are problematic and contain no easy answers. These questions challenge our shared conception of liberal citizenship, rooted in universal rights and duties. Confronting these questions by granting various minorities, whether ethnic or racial, special privileges, distinctions or rights should give us pause because it may serve to deepen divides between different communities. Furthermore, it may be at odds with ideas about universal human rights.

In the research paper that I’m working on, I’m going to propose that conferring minority groups with special privileges, rights and autonomy complements rather than contradicts notions of universal human rights. I’m also going to propose, contrary to the liberal scholars whose works I’m drawing on, that human rights should be only be referents to the most essential, agreed aspects of human dignity that are worth protecting. When frameworks for a universal human rights become more than this, they deny pluralistic/multicultural or plurinational states the ability to define specific notions of rights in a democratic manner that’s attuned to social realities. Some rights and some duties may be rooted in a objective, universal ethics but political theorists should pay attention to the subjective experiences of different cultures and take care to reflect upon the problems attached to excessive abstraction. This is no justification for moral relativism but rather a clarion call to political theorists to pay more attention to the importance of social realities, which may necessitate some new frameworks for creating rights.