Saturday, March 28, 2009

Liberals and Retribution

Ross Douthat's great merit is that he talks about issues that I find interesting, even though he doesn't always have anything interesting to say about them:

I also wonder about Isaac's broader premise: Is it really the case that most liberals - or "liberal writers," at least - reject outright the notion that lawbreakers deserve punishment for their crimes? Obviously, left-wingers tend to emphasize rehabilitation more than right-wingers do, but my assumption has always been that most liberals would agree in some sense with the premise that punishing criminals is a matter of justice as well as deterrence. But I suppose [sic] could be wrong.

There's a lot to disentangle here. First of all, most liberals are incoherent, as are many liberal writers. In general, people are for the punishment of groups they don't like or don't sympathize with, and against the punishment of groups they like. Conservatives don't sympathize w/ inner-city minorities and are fine with punishing them vigorously; populist liberals have the same sort of attitude towards, e.g., CEOs; and the general public has something of this attitude toward groups that no one identifies with, like child pornographers, serial killers, and Slobodan Milosevic.

I do think, however, that to the extent that liberals have thought the matter through they are often against retributive punishment in principle. For a neo-Millian liberal this is the natural position: on utilitarian grounds, the argument for retributive punishment is that society will gain more pleasure from watching the prisoner be punished than the prisoner will lose from being punished, even assuming that the prisoner poses no further danger to society. (Otherwise there's the selfish gain from having safer streets etc.) This is the sort of argument that leads to public executions, witch-hunts, and human sacrifice, all of which the Victorian liberals had strong feelings about. It violates the most basic your-freedom-my-nose intuitions, which -- even if they're fuzzy around the edges -- most liberals take seriously.

An interesting test case, which I used to try on people at college, is whether one believes in trying former dictators for war crimes. The argument that such trials deter current or prospective dictators from engaging in human-rights abuses is patently silly: their main consequence is to make dictators distrust offers of amnesty. (It's hard for dictators to retain their power without abusing human rights, and weak dictators die badly.) There is usually no danger that such dictators will ever wield power again, so they don't (by and large) pose a continuing public threat. They are not likely to be rehabilitated or forgiven; nor is their presence necessary for uncovering and remedying past abuses. The argument for trying them is almost entirely a matter of retribution: on the other hand, for a believer in justice as retribution, these are among the most powerful candidates for punishment.

I found many people surprisingly open to my argument that such trials are stupid and pointless, so I suspect that a lot of liberals, at least at Amherst, were not very strongly invested in justice as retribution.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

MoDo in Love

MoDo's column today is exceptionally weird and incoherent even by her standards. Let me summarize: MoDo was riding in a taxi with David Brooks to see Gordon Brown, who was cheerful despite having been snubbed by the Obamas, who gave him -- and his kids -- lame and half-assed presents, perhaps because they harbor secret anti-colonial sentiment. Wall Street is like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Michelle Obama is like Joe Louis. David Brooks, unlike congressional Republicans, does not like Michelle Obama's sleeveless dresses. MoDo does because

Her arms, and her complete confidence in her skin, are a reminder that
Americans can do anything if they put their minds to it.

Oh, and btw, she [Michelle] can presumably say something intelligent about cap-and-trade if pressed. Now I don't understand why Michelle Obama is supposed to represent all that -- she didn't get elected president. The general attitude towards Mrs Obama is more than a little irritating. It's just assumed that she doesn't fit the housewife stereotype because she looks tall and muscular and flashy, and therefore "formidable"; it isn't like she does anything interesting. Sort of like MoDo, in a sense, who tries to mask her near-Kristofian inanity by flooding her articles with digressions and wordplay.

As if one could be too incoherent to be unoriginal.

Friday, March 6, 2009

First Sentences

She was suffering from a glabrous mucous cyst.
[Pink Sock, unpublished]

(Glabrous, incidentally, means smooth or hairless. This sentence is from the OED. The word is unfairly neglected, I think. "He was gobbled up by the glacier's glabrous lips." "The glutton's glabrous forehead glistened with half-congealed globules of sweat.")

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Classical and Quantum Genius?

P.A.M. Dirac was the Calvin Coolidge of physicists. Unlike Calvin Coolidge, he was also a genius -- though the title of his new biography, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, is cringe-inducing. (Is a quantum genius someone who's both a genius and not a genius at the same time?)

Anyway, here's Dirac having a nice Coolidgesque moment (Jeremy Bernstein, LRB Letters):
While it is certainly true that Dirac was a man of relatively few words, as David Kaiser makes clear, it is easy to exaggerate his reluctance to speak (LRB, 26 February). During the 1958-59 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton he frequently had dinner in the cafeteria with young people like myself. He entered into our conversations, sometimes with quite unexpected comments. On one occasion I had asked a colleague what Hans Bethe – a very successful consultant and a well-paid professor at Cornell who even so lived quite modestly – did with his money. My colleague said he thought that Bethe invested it. ‘Maybe he loses it,’ Dirac commented.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Is Liberalism Neutral?

There's been some debate (collected in this post) about the proper role of dogmatic communities, like the Amish or the evangelicals, in the politics of a liberal democracy. The heart of the argument is about whether it's possible for a liberal state to be value-neutral, and to leave people entirely free to pursue their own notion of the good life. Noah Millman argues, and I agree, that the only way to achieve this sort of neutrality is for the state to shrink to something much smaller than it currently is.

I'd go further, in fact, and say that the abortion issue suggests that this might not be enough. After all, the state is -- even on a minimal account -- responsible for enforcing the rule of law; murder is against the law; therefore, if you consider abortion to be murder -- which I don't, btw, in case you stumbled upon this by accident -- abortion is against the law even if you're a principled libertarian. (Similarly with dependent vegetables, Terri Schiavo, etc.) The sensible way to draw a line in all these cases is to make a judgment about what constitutes a valuable life. As far as I can see, the only "neutral" possibility is to treat all (enforceable) potentially "alive" cases as being actually alive, which is the hardline fundamentalist view.

And of course education is value-laden. As Millman says:
Now let’s look at education, which is, I think, the best ground on which to make my argument. Every modern liberal state that actually exists provides for universal public education. And the content of that educational program is regularly contested, because it is impossible to educate in a value-neutral fashion. Education is, first and foremost, about building character, and you cannot set out to build character with no notion of what makes for good or bad character. [...]

Most people’s notions of a “liberal education” imply a very different set of virtues than a purely instrumental one; indeed, a “liberal education” is all about inculcating liberal virtues – inquisitiveness, objectivity, skepticism, etc. But once again, precisely because these are, indeed, virtues, they say something about what constitutes “the good life” and not merely about “mere life” questions. And a liberal education will necessarily rankle those who hold to metaphysical commitments that they do not want to see challenged.

I agree with this, and it doesn't bother me. The thing is, I disagree with what Millman says later:
Families are ontologically and chronologically prior to the state.

This is part of why I'm not a libertarian. I agree with the Dawkins view that homeschooling your kids or sending them to religious schools ought to be unacceptable. I believe that the state is ontologically prior to families: however, the state is even worse at rearing kids than most families are, so as a matter of convenience parents get to rear their offspring, and one has the (mild relative to the alternative) evil of religious indoctrination at home. If you start out with this sort of view, Millman's arguments about education don't apply -- the responsibility for schooling kids belongs to the state; if the state requires public schooling, it isn't outsourcing this responsibility, but it isn't encroaching on anything either -- but it follows that the state is necessarily engaged in value-laden enterprises.

In general, the "your freedom ends where my nose begins" attitude runs into trouble whenever you have to think about dependents. Either it's unacceptable to let them starve/choke/run about illiterate or it isn't; if it is, then they're theoretically wards of the state, and the state has to take care of them, which generally involves some degree of making value judgments.