Obama as a Rawlsian?

From Obama’s nomination acceptance speech on Thursday night:

“We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America’s promise – the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following Obama’s rise since the ’04 acceptance speech: it is the core of his political message, a theme if you will.

And this got me thinking, is Obama a closet Rawlsian? In Political Liberalism, John Rawls has this idea of “overlapping consensus:”

“In an overlapping consensus, citizens support the same basic laws for different reasons. In Rawlsian terms, each citizen supports a political conception of justice for reasons internal to her own comprehensive doctrine. A political conception is freestanding: it is a “module” that can fit into any number of worldviews that citizens might have. In an overlapping consensus each reasonable citizen affirms this common “module” from within her own perspective.”

Ironically, Rawls himself thought that an overlapping consensus is almost impossible to achieve, and he was deeply pessimistic that in a value-pluralistic society like America, with deeply conflicting value systems among citizens, political stability as a result of overlapping consensus is likely to be impossible.

We’ll see if such a consensus can develop under a potential Obama administration.


An Institutionalist View of The Wire

John Atlas and Peter Dreier asks, “Is The Wire Too Cynical?“:

The Wire reinforced white middle-class stereotypes of inner-city life. The show’s writers, producers, and directors portray most of the characters—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and ineffective. Viewers may have thought they were seeing the whole picture, but the show’s unrelentingly bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities. In that way, it did the opposite of what its creator, David Simon, said he wanted the show to do: spur our country to end the plight of the poor and minorities who live in America’s inner-cities.”

The main argument of the article is that The Wire paints a picture of inner-city urban life that does not allow room for any positive change through collective action such as community organization or coalition-building. The writers of the article takes David Simon to ask, by concluding:

“He generally views the poor as helpless victims rather than as people with the capacity to act on their own behalf to bring about change. He may think he’s the crusading journalist exposing injustice, but he’s really a cynic who takes pity on the poor, yet can’t imagine a world where things could be different.”

To support their argument, the writers list several examples in which people living in the kind of condition that The Wire portrays were able to form coalitions and affect positive political/economic change in their communities.

But to me, this argument misses the main, and perhaps the most important point in The Wire: namely, that while successes are possible at an individual level, they are rare if the broader institutional environment is itself corrupt. Thus, the show is really about how institutions affect individual behavior and trap its participants in social pathologies such as poverty, drug-abuse/trafficking, gang violence, lackluster education, etc.

The show itself can be seen as a dramatic illustration of institutionalism at work: in the show, the institutions–the political system, the police department, the public school system, the newspaper, the unions, the drug gangs–are really the main actors. It is really the interaction between these various institutions that produce the social pathologies that the show so accurately portrays. To its credit, the show follows good social science research and portrays each institution, as first and foremost, interested in preserving its own survival and entrenchment.

The critique, levelled by the article I linked, that The Wire somehow discounts individual expression, is missing the point: The Wire is full of individual heroes who do act with good intentions and who do try to reform the system. In fact, a couple of them does succeed. But what The Wire shows, correctly I think, is that unless the institutions themselves change, the odds of systemic reform are very low, because institutions, due to their very nature, are self-entrenching and path-dependent. In this way, they tend to outlast and wear down the individual participants acting within them. Thus, even as Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo all quit the drug game, new actors arise within the INSTITUTION of drug trafficking to take over.

The remarkable thing about The Wire is its insight, almost Weberian in nature, that modern institutions, despite their seemingly divergent contexts, all operate under a similar logic: thus, the show draws explicit analogies between the police department, the drug trafficking cartel, and the political machine at city hall. They all deal with problems of insubordination, bureacratic redtape, self-perpetuation, and so forth. This insight is best illustrated by Omar’s best line in the show: the lawyer’s got his briefcase, and I’ve got my shotty.

But is this institutionalist view cynical, as the writers contend? I would say that it is no more cynical than reality itself is. The reason why so much attention has been paid to institutional reform is the fact that institutions shape individual behavior. In fact, twentieth century political philosophy is almost exclusively concerned with institutions, a la A Theory of Justice. Yes, individuals can break out of the institutions, but it is extremely hard, and it is unreasonable, if not impossible, to demand that any particular individual act completely outside of his institutional environment and still be able to achieve systemic reform.

Therefore, it misses the point to criticize The Wire for merely painting a realistic picture of how institutions behave in real life.

What the Fuck is Wrong with Clinton Supporters?

According to the Washington post, 20 percent of polled Clinton supporters plan to vote for McCain.

What. The. Fuck.

I can understand abstaining, and I can understand hating Obama, but voting for McCain? That one just really confounds me.

Remember, McCain is the same guy who publicly said that he will appoint judges that will overturn Roe v. Wade, the same guy who did not vote for the Ledbetter equal pay bill, and the same guy who said that what women need in the workplace is not more legal power to fight discrimination, but more “education and training.”

The logic of voting for McCain to spite Obama really eludes me: if Hillary supporters are turned off by the sexism in the primaries, then how is voting for a guy with a clear women-unfriendly record any kind of logical move?

Therefore, I can only conclude that those 20 percent of Hillary supporters don’t give a rat’s ass about the women’s movement; they only care about Hillary.

Responding to Incest Thought Experiment

As Emil Aragundi comments on my post on incest:

“Say they refrain from having children, but what if they really wanted to? You can adopt, but knowing that you are able to conceive but shouldn’t can be psychologically damaging.
What if the contraceptives fail? You can have an abortion, but I’m sure there is a line somewhere when you are intentionally bringing genetically dysfunctional children to the world. And this coming from a pro-choice guy.

It just seems to me there are too many difficulties one must endure to carry on a relationship that satisfies the moral intuition of others. But even if they could, chances are they wouldn’t be having quite a healthy relationship, even if we get past the fact that they´re brother and sister out of our heads.”

To the first point: I think the state has a legitimate interest in reproductive regulation, especially if the offspring is likely to have genetic defects. As for the claim about the psychological stress, I think that is something any two individuals seeking to enter into a consentual relationship should take into account before actually entering into such a relationship.

Second, if, for some reason, the contraceptives fail, I think the state has also an interest in stepping in. But perhaps more importantly, I think it is really the parents’ moral duty to abort such a child due to the genetic problems.

Finally, I acknowledge that there are many, many practical difficulties that have to be overcome before any particular instance of a consenting incestous relationship between adults can satisfy the moral threshold, but the whole point of the post is a thought experiment. I don’t deny the real possibility that most ACTUAL cases of incestous relationships do not meet this threhold, but this does not rule out a priori, at least not to me, the possibility that no such relationship can possibly exist. Therefore, I don’t think I can make any sort of categorical moral claims.

Got My Degree…Finally

As Kanye once asked: you know what college does to you? It makes you really smart man. Now when a lady walks up to me and says, “Hey, you know what’s sexy?” I say, “No I don’t know what’s sexy, but I bet I can add up all the change in your purse really fast.”

Woot! Do you see that son? I have rights AND privileges now: the right to be a pedantic, elitist, out-of-touch, pink commie Islamo-facist, and the privilege to work at entry-level political jobs that contribute to the coarsening of the political process.

This will do wonders for my sex life. I guarantee you.

But seriously, let me stop being flippany for a moment (but only for a moment), and let me be quite somber and say this: it took a lot of people to sacrifice a lot of things so that I could hold this piece of paper in my hands. In fact, someone had to die (may my mother, God bless her soul, rest in peace) for me to get here, and despite whatever “irony” I employ as a self-defense mechanism, I cannot take away the sacrifices that people have made on my behalf.

And sometimes, despite my being a very lapsed, non-practicing Catholic, the Catholic guilt inside me threatens to overwhelm, as it is likely to do now. I can never be sure if I ever lived up to the sacrifices that people have made, and I can never be sure that whatever I do, now or later, can ever redeem their suffering and their time.

The moment is passed, so let us return to our scheduled programming: my money is that I will receive a text message at 3AM tonight from Barack Obama, announcing his VP pick.

What is Wrong with Incest?

Let’s up the ante a little bit from yesterday’s post on polygamy (this is Nussbaum’s blog post on the very subject back in May) by asking what I think is an even more controversial question: what is wrong with incest?

Incest is just one of those things which you are not supposed to touch or talk about, but since it is a Friday afternoon, and I have some time to kill at work, I decided to touch it and talk about it. We’ll see where this goes, and keep in mind that good manners is definitely not a consideration here.

Scenario: A man and a woman, brother and sister of the same parents, decide that they love each other, and decide to do it. Is this wrong?

Some arguments that might be made against this scenario are: 1) that such an union will produce an offspring that is more likely to have genetic defects that will put its life in jeopardy, and 2) that such an union will lead to a more general moral decline.

Let us then examine each argument. The first argument can easily be refuted if both the brother and sister used contraceptions; or, to completely eradicate the possibility that a child will be produced: suppose that either or both of them are infertile and thus cannot conceive. Would this fact change our moral intuition?

As for the second argument: what if this union were kept in secret, and that no one else will ever know about it, thus eradicating the possibility that it will encourage other kind of similar behavior? Would this fact change our moral intuition?

I think, all things considered, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the hypothetical scenario, provided that all the subsequent facts which I’ve listed are fulfilled. Of course there are genetic arguments to be made against having offsprings in an incestous relationship, but if that possibility is removed, I am having a hard time seeing why two consenting adults should not be able to engage in such a relatioship.

And of course this argument does not AT ALL take into account the emotive aspect of such a possibility: namely, that everyone would be physically revolted by such a prospect. Therefore, I think we don’t need to worry about the policy aspect of the incest question, since it is very unlikely that criminalizing incest will violate any rights which a reasonable number of people would claim.

I know, you are grossed out, but part of the fun in doing philosophy is the intuition pumping and crazy thought experiments. And I think it is possible to talk about taboo subjects without being hysterical about it.

Maybe next time I’ll do one on cannibalism.

My One and Only Love

This is only, like, I don’t know, one of the best ballads that Coltrane ever did: in fact, I consider this version of “My One and Only Love” the definitive recording of the song. Just listen to Coltrane as he comes into the song; that shit gives me the fucking chills. And of course, how can I not mention Johnny Hartman’s voice, that rich, baritone voice. It is just inimitable. This is not even mentioning McCoy Tyner on piano; I mean, I can go on and on about this line up, but the best thing would be to simply listen.

Check out NPR’s 2002 story on this classic collaboration.

I think Coltrane’s ballad playing is often overlooked relative to his more spiritual and free-jazz works. But as Coltrane shows, again and again, that when he wants to, he is a ballad-player of the very first rate. And this album just shows that capability at its best. Is this “smooth jazz?” You damn right it is! But there’s Coltrane’s being smooth, and Kenny G’s being smooth: the difference is that Coltrane is God, while Kenny G sucks donkey balls. It really is that simple.

So here it is, from me to you, for your late-night listening pleasures.