Monday, October 18, 2010

Moralism vs. Meliorism

Sandy Levinson, at Balkinization, asks how libertarians might respond to the recent rescue of miners in Chile, which was largely funded by the Chilean state. Levinson thinks the Chilean state was right to step in and ensure that the rescue effort was made, but thinks this stepping in by the state does not sit well with libertarian notions about legitimate state action, since the state was not protecting anyone against a violation of their rights. That is, the Chilean state was acting as an insurer, not as a police force. If one admits that the Chilean state was right to act as an insurer in this case, then Levinson thinks one will be hard pressed not to endorse a welfare state, which acts as insurer in lots of cases. So, libertarians are supposedly caught between a) admitting that the state rightfully serves a welfare function, and b) looking like hard-hearted bastards who think it was wrong for the miners to be rescued.

Jacob Levy responds by saying -- these are my terms, not his -- that there's a difference between legitimacy and justification. The Chilean state, like all states, has way more power than is legitimate. This is, in large part, because actual states are never the outcome of social contracts:

States did not come about by individualist contractualist consent; they are not the institutional form of morally foundational nations; religious, hereditary, and customary forms of legitimation may remain sociologically credible in some places but are surely not morally well-grounded accounts of the justifications for the organized use of violence. 
Nonetheless, states exist, and have a mass of de facto power. The question is, how should this power be used? Jacob thinks -- rightly, I say -- that the illegitimacy of state power has no immediate bearing on the question of how that power might be justifiably used now that it exists. The libertarian is committed to saying that the Chilean state has amassed illegitimate power -- power that cannot be "morally well-grounded" -- but that, nonetheless, it is justified in using that power to rescue the miners, since "capacity and proximity can generate outcome-responsibility." It might be wrong for the Chilean state to have the power to rescue the miners, but it might still be right for the Chilean state to use its power to rescue the miners.

So far, so good. I am myself fond of drawing this same distinction between legitimacy and justification, and I think it does get Jacob's special version of libertarianism out of the dilemma Levinson is pushing.

Where I think there might be a problem is here:

The state’s first duty, the prevention of interpersonal violence, follows more or less straightforwardly from the kind of social organization that the state is: the agency that is able to claim and enforce a local monopoly on the legitimate initiation of force.
Notice that word, "legitimate"? Now, I know Jacob is using that in a purely Weberian way -- the local monopoly on legitimate initiation of force is the local monopoly on de facto accepted initiation of force. But this points, nonetheless, to the ideological underpinnings of state power. The state is only the state if it seems to people to be a legitimate power. I would hazard that a state that goes about rescuing miners is, other things being equal, more likely to seem legitimate to the people it governs than is a state that does not undertake such insurance and welfare tasks.

If this supposition is true, at least in the normal run of things, then Jacobite libertarians (as opposed to the Jacobin libertarians caught in Levinson's dilemma) seem caught in another dilemma, more psychological than logical. Since the state that uses its illegitimate power in justifiable ways thereby secures that power -- after all, people are not in a habit of differentiating between legitimacy and justification -- there is some tension between a) the hope that what power there is will be well-used, regardless of its source, and b) the desire that justice will be done by stripping illegitimate power from its holders. If the usurpers use their ill-gotten power well, and placate the people with bread and circuses, what hope is there that we will ever be rid of usurpers? There is some psychological difficulty in saying: "I hope that thief uses what s/he has stolen in such a way that it's harder to convince people s/he should give what s/he has stolen back to its legitimate owners."

This psychological dilemma between stringent moralism ("Let justice be done, tho' the heavens fall!") and soft-hearted meliorism ("What's done is done, so let's make the best of things") is not restricted to libertarians, of course. It is analogous (but only analogous) to the tensions in Marxism that give rise to "accelerating the contradictions" as a tactic -- trying to ensure that the usurpers aren't able to or won't do anything with their power that might incline people to forget that they are usurpers. Now, it's not surprising to me that Jacob tends to the soft-hearted meliorism side of things, but I don't think anyone can go very far in that direction without jeopardizing their commitment to the notion that the usurpers have what they have illegitimately. If strict determinations of right are to have any purchase at all, they have to have that purchase against the good outcomes that might come about at the expense of strict determinations of right.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I find this delightful and entertaining, not least because of the thought that I'm soft-hearted. But the dilemma doesn't especially trouble me, as I hold out no real hope for the revolution that accelerated contradictions are meant to bring on. I'm a materialist about big political structures and systems; if the state ends someday, it's not going to be fundamentally because people recognized its illegitimacy.

Will Roberts said...

Oh, you're a softy alright! In fact, it's even worse than I thought! Don't be mislead by the analogy to Marxism; we don't have to be talking about revolution here. The same psychological tension ought to attend any situation, however local, in which a wrong has been done, but the wrong-doer, by acting benevolently, courageously, or the like, endears him- or herself to the world in such a way as to dramatically reduce the likelihood of having to rectify the wrong done. Robin Hood, for example.

Also, I agree wholeheartedly with your final claim, but ONLY so long as you are referring to "real" (moral) legitimacy, not Weberian legitimacy. Weberian legitimacy, being non-normative, is just the necessary ideological conjunct of de facto power, such that whenever a state is successfully overthrown one must say that it failed to be recognized as legitimate.

anotherpanacea said...

Very much liked this post, especially for the way you manage both charity and criticality. This is the sort technique that ought to be more common in the philosophical blogosphere (i.e. real philosophy, done online) but isn't.

As for your conclusions: I'd like to hear more about how you're resolving the psychological dilemma here in favor of moralism rather than meliorism. I don't share your priors, but I feel like I ought to be able to understand them, and I don't.

In my view, we should always be suspicious of revelatory moral intuitions when they threaten those in whose name we mobilize, i.e. the least advantaged, subaltern, etc. Even though your account of the dilemma with moralism puts me in a bind that I'm hardpressed to resolve, I find it strange that you don't seem to be as worried about your horn of the dilemma being put in the same bind.

anotherpanacea said...

That last bit sounds a little overcritical, and I really meant only to compliment the post and engage with it. Hope you're doing well, Will!

Anonymous said...

Come on! It's significantly more entertaining for onlooking students if you guys stop conceding each other's points or being softys.

Going to office hours is more desirable if there is any chance that a Marxist vs Libertarian (liberaltarian?) show down could spontaneously break out in a ferrier hallway.

Will Roberts said...

Joshua: believe me when I say that a) I feel the psychological tension, b) I don't know how to resolve it on either side, and c) I am personally and psychologically inclined at least as much to meliorism as to moralism.

BUT: I also think the issues are meaningfully different within a Marxist framework, which does not start out from a notion of legitimacy or propriety, and so ends up in different psychological binds. I perhaps should never have mentioned the analogy to accelerating the contradictions, since both you and Jacob wanted to cash that out in terms of some parallelism. I really meant that there is no straightforward parallel, and the working out the analogy would have to change all the basic terms, and would probably reveal all sorts of subsidiary issues.

Short answer: I don't flesh out how the moralist might deal with the issue because I am not, myself, the moralist.

Anonymous: a) I think Jacob took "softy' to be a fighting word, so the showdown might be closer than you think; and b) I'm nonetheless still hoping to effect the Marxist/Libertarian fusionism referred to in the post's labels -- I think we could work some sort of pincer move on the mushy-headed paternalism of the protectionist nation state.

Anonymous said...

"some sort of pincer move on the mushy-headed paternalism of the protectionist nation state" is my new favorite phrase as i work out my own budding Marxist/Libertarian fusion political stance.

Spoke with other poli theory undergrads...we all eagerly await the show down and recommend a pre-preemptive strike on all of McGill's coffee making facilities.

Anonymous said...

preemptive** (not sure how an extra pre got in there)

Jacob T. Levy said...

I don't have enough coffee in my system to return to the substantive points right now, but I will tell anonymous and his or her cohorts that Professor Roberts and I have been discussing the possibility of something like an annual public debate for your collective entertainment and edification, and the current exchange only makes me more eager for such a thing.

Anonymous said...

Noted and seconded. You guys debate and i'll be there.

ps, sorry to remain cowardly anonymous but Prof. Roberts has some control over my grade this semester and didn't want to accidentally ruffle feathers with snooty comments. Always fun watching profs i enjoy and admire with spectrum spanning view points debate on interesting points.

I will add my naive and sentimentalist view which i admit misses the point of the debate you guys were having. It's a nice thing that those poor guys were saved. A hug from someone you love and a hot shower after 60 something days in a mine must have felt great.

Will Roberts said...

Anonymous: I think pre-preemptive made perfect sense in the context, since Jacob would certainly try to preempt any of my rejoinders by entering into a state of uber-caffienation, allowing him to bend time and space by thinking faster than the speed of light. In order to preempt his preemptions, I would have to do as you suggest.

Anonymous said...

Well put.

I rescind my typo correction.

I'll never forget last december when Professor Levy took 14 espresso shots in about 5 minutes in poli 232. Made me feel nauseous from about 20 rows back.