Using the UN Security Council as a Pseudo-Court

Security Council Chamber Mural (by Nick Jeffrey)

Security Council Chamber Mural (by Nick Jeffrey)

So, while all the real stuff is going on I’m also re-reading Judith Shklar’s Legalism (which is a fantastic book you should go read) and writing about reprobation in law. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

At the same time, I was discussing Peter Levine’s insightful post on Syria over on YouFace, and talking about similar issues with one of my colleagues oh-my-goodness-in-person-in-meatspace-and-such.

If we take for granted for the moment (per implausible, I think, but that’s a different story) that the reason to make some military strikes on Syria is because Assad has used chemical weapons, it’s an interesting question whether it matters that the US will not be getting authorization from the UN Security Council (UNSC) or, it seems, even being backed up by the UK.

First off, some folks have pointed out that the Geneva Conventions are super-old, and Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is a red herring, I think. It is entirely plausible that a customary norm of international law has developed that parallels the treaty norm banning chemical weapons, given the long history and wide scope of the taboo. If you wanted to argue that it was even a jus cogens norm, I wouldn’t laugh at you.

But, just as it would for domestic matters, it worries many people – myself included – to have a single state, especially one with all the geopolitical baggage that the US brings in general and to Syria in particular, serve as judge/jury/executioner on a norm violation like this. In the domestic case, we would typically want a court to pronounce guilt. And in the international case, it’s pretty common to look to the UNSC as a kind of pseudo-court, even though it isn’t.

One of the finicky bits of the post-UN Charter international system is that the creation of the UN mucked with traditional principles of international law in ways that we’re still working out. The big one here is obviously the simultaneous principles of averting war through reinforcing the norm of non-intervention in internal affairs of states and protecting and upholding human rights… which often involves the internal affairs of states.

But a subtler one that is coming up here, I think, is: in traditional conceptions of international law, because there is no international sovereign, states are responsible for norm-enforcement and maintenance (Realists think of the international system as a Hobbesian state of nature, but for traditional international law, it’s more like a Lockean state of nature). If you break an international rule, you are punished by your fellow states. This is even built into Augustinian just war theory – rather than self-defense being extended to things like “humanitarian intervention” or norm-enforcement, the right of self-defense against unjust aggression is an instance of the general right (/obligation) to punish injustice.

The UN Charter undercuts that image of international society without really replacing it. There still is a vestige of it on the economic plane: while only the UNSC can impose economic sanctions that are binding on all states (in virtue of their treaty obligation to obey decisions on such things by the UNSC), individual states can impose their own economic sanctions on each other (subject to the rules of other trade regimes, but that’s another story). So if you can get enough states to, e.g., embargo Cuba because you think they are violating human rights, you can enforce human rights norms that way.

But you cannot use force to enforce norms, at least not uncontroversially, because of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. There’s some argument here – Belgium famously argued in the FRY v. NATO case that because humanitarian interventions don’t aim to conquer, they are not violations of “independence” or “territorial integrity,” and the R2P report (but not the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document) argues that coalitions or individual states should be able to step in if the UNSC doesn’t live up to its obligations – but at the very least if you try to use force to punish someone for chemical weapons use under the theory that it’s not a 2(4) violation, your lawyers should cringe a bit. Article 51 reserves the right of self-defense to states, but it’d be hard here to claim that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was an act of aggression against the US.

At the same time, the kind of Lockean social contract bargain that we’re used to is incomplete on the international scale. The UN, and in particular the UNSC is charged with maintenance of international peace and security, which at least on the face of it is different from enforcement of all international norms (and keep in mind that on conservative readings, that “international” is understood as “between nations” not as “anywhere in the world”). The UNSC is not expected to take up all norm-violations it can, it does not have to abide by the decisions of international legal bodies like the ICJ, and it does not have to justify its decisions in terms of international law.

Now, we may be moving in the direction of making it more like an international court. There is a long-standing proposal to have a norm of a “Responsibility Not to Veto” (RN2V) at the UNSC, where the P5 nations would agree (this would be a social norm, not an enforceable law, obviously) not to use their veto to block humanitarian interventions. Were such a norm observed, it would make the UNSC more court-like, as at least the P5 would be bound in this one way to make their decisions on “legal” rather than “political” grounds. Right now, for instance, it is entirely possible for Russia to simply say, “yep, Assad used chemical weapons, but he’s our ally, so we don’t care, suck it.”

And my colleague pointed out to me that the best way of understanding the increasing traction of R2P may be as a change to the understood meaning of “international peace and security,” rather than as a norm permitting action in violation of the UN Charter (or reinterpreting Art. 2(4)). On this view, we are moving toward a situation where the UNSC would understand all violations of international law (or at least all violations relating to human rights and use of force) as threats to international peace and security, even if there were no such threat in a lay sense (violence is unlikely to spill across a border, etc.). This would make the UNSC more court-like in a different way, by giving it a more clearly norm-based mandate.

And as Peter pointed out, there is an important court-like function that the UNSC already plays. One of the problems with both deterrence and reprobation is that they require that you be able to communicate why the punishment is coming down. I mean, Kafka made a career writing about what law is like when the communicative function fails – it make the state into a brute, mysterious, soul-crushing threat. If military strikes on Syria are to have the (again, let’s assume for right now) intended effect of communicating the international community’s condemnation of chemical weapons use, it needs to be clear that that is why they are happening – before we even get to issues about whether it makes sense to treat the Syrian government as a criminal rather than Assad personally, etc.

In the current situation, that is far from assured. Plenty of people, myself included, and probably Assad included, are very skeptical that any US strike would really be motivated by our concern over chemical weapons. The water is too muddied by the fact that we were instrumental in letting pass two of the only other confirmed state uses of chemical weapons in the modern era, since both were by our ally Iraq, back when it was our ally (during the Iran-Iraq War, and then during the campaign against the Kurds); and, by the fact that the US has been sabre-rattling against Assad for so long now that it’s pretty plausible that chemical weapons are just a pretext for striking him and trying to tip the balance in favor of the rebels (not to mention that the US claims to have more certain intelligence on the chemical weapons than the UN has, or than the US is willing to make publicly available, further fueling the concerns of anyone who thinks that chemical weapons is a golden opportunity, rather than enforcement being a choice we’ve been backed into reluctantly and only because of the massive norm issues at stake). On the flip side, since the UK vote, I have seen many people say things along the lines of “now it is even more important to do something, since the UK has shown it doesn’t give a shit about chemical weapons.” But of course the UK’s – political, not legal – decision is also subject to the multiple interpretations that political decisions always are. Most of the parliamentarians who voted against military action would surely justify their vote in terms of things like their uncertainty of Assad’s weapons use, or their obligation to wait for the UN, or their (Realist-y) obligation to look after their constituents before international norms (it doesn’t show that I “don’t care” about crime if I spend time with my daughter instead of becoming a vigilante), or their opposition to enforcing the norm through military strikes etc.

As Peter drove home in conversation, going through the UNSC could help with this problem. While the UNSC is not a legal body, it shares with legal bodies at least some commitment to public reasoning – anyone can go read the transcripts of UNSC meetings, and find at least the public reasons for votes (no one can force members of the UNSC, any more than judges, not to argue disingenuously, of course). And while there is no rule about it, the social norms surrounding the UN stop Russia from arguing in the nakedly Realist way I suggested above. Ambassadors speaking in UNSC meetings at least pay lip service to international law and morality in making their arguments. So, to the extent that a vote to authorize the use of force against Syria could be gotten from the UNSC it would bring the communicative advantage of being not just a brute decision, but of being one that comes attached with “and our reasons are thus-and-so.”

Reading Shklar brings to mind at least one way in which the UNSC may be superior to a court, by the way. She points out the ideological nature of assuming that the realm of law and rules is somehow purer and cleaner than the realm of politics and compromise. One of the weirdnesses, to me, of this whole argument, is that we’ve drawn the red line around chemical weapons. Morally, surely, the best argument for getting militarily involved in Syria is that civilians are being killed, not the particular manner of their deaths. The use of chemical weapons may show the desperation of the Assad regime, but it is neither here nor there in terms of their cruelty. And even if you’re looking for an international norm violation, intentional targeting of civilians already is one!

So I worry that searching for a way to fit Syria into a discussion of international law distorts our approach to the situation. It possibly commits us to symbolic “retaliation” for the chemical weapons use that does not much change the situation on the ground. And it tries to hide the ambiguity of the situation by letting us say, “chemical weapons are bad, and whatever the folks we like have done they haven’t used chemical weapons, so now we have a bright line, and if you’re over it, you’re an evil asshole.” Again, I don’t have a solution to the Syrian situation ready to hand, and I’m frighteningly ill-informed about the internal dynamics of the country. But it strikes me that trying to get closer to a solution by looking for a clean legal principle that will maybe attract consensus on the principle without actually clearing up the lack of consensus on the situation or what can be done is precisely the wrong way to go. Letting the UNSC be the non-legal entity that it is might be the better solution than trying to make it more legalistic. If the US goes ahead with military strikes, it will be doing so in the name of some “higher law” that transcends the messy details of the situation, but it might be better to try to hash out those details in public if we actually want to keep people from dying, rather than just ensuring that they die from napalm instead of gas.


Everything I Know About Syria (Pt. 1?)


I can find it on a map. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

I’m a little worried about all the folks who have strong opinions about what we should do in Syria who don’t seem to know much more about it than I do. So, I’m not going to try to tell you what we should do, but as a philosopher, what worries me before we even get to that worry is that the conversations about Syria often seem a bit confused. I suspect at least some of that may be on purpose, but I can’t prove anything so you didn’t hear it from me.

Bottom line up front: A lot of people are talking about Syria right now as if we’re going to go in to punish chemical weapons use. But the real interest seems to be in using that justification to drive a plan that actually aims to do more. It’s really hard to determine how to “punish” chemical weapons use appropriately, and if we try to do more without admitting it and hence doing more than just bombing, we’re likely to fail at everything on the table. Worse, I worry that there’s genuine conceptual confusion and blurring here among people making decisions (in particular, various ways of being “against Assad” being lumped together and both their motivations and strategies being treated as interchangeable).

First, I think it’s helpful to set some outside boundaries to keep any discussion of it in context.

As Yglesias points out (hey, when he’s right, he’s right), even if everything in Syria goes according to plan and swimmingly, military intervention in Syria is likely to be a very expensive way of helping people there. If all you care about is lives saved, it’s a serious challenge to ask why we don’t spend our money saving lives in contexts where, frankly, lives are easier to save.

There are all sorts of rejoinders possible here. As I myself have argued, it is quite morally plausible that it is more morally pressing to save people whose lives are being lost as a result of injustice than mere misfortune. And while it’s hard to assess this kind of outcome (which does not mean we shouldn’t try) someone could make the argument that a military intervention that stops a war significantly earlier than it would otherwise have stopped may save very many lives (especially when you count in the indirect costs of war, like disease and poverty) and so be more “cost-effective” than a quick calculation would show. That said, I think security folks should take it more seriously than we sometimes do that, if our principle really is “we have an obligation to save lives,” the burden of proof is often on military intervention to prove that it’s a better place to direct resources than other areas (when in actual policy fact, it’s often treated as if it’s the other way around).

The other is that we – “we” here meaning especially USians – need to avoid power fantasy. It may just be that there’s nothing we can feasibly do from here that gets everyone everything they want and a pony. “Syrians are still dying” is only a good rebuttal if we’re confident that there’s a course of action we take that can impact that.

That said, I think there are two questions that I wish some of the discussion would be clearer on. Both of them go to the broader question of how we would even define “success” here. One is, “what is the nature of our interest here,” which I’m going to leave aside for the moment, just because I need to do real work at some point today. The other is:

What is This Intervention About?

Punishing a violation of the chemical weapons “red line”

Off the bat, I’m just going to assume for the sake of this argument that the Assad regime did in fact use chemical weapons.

Right now, the official arguments in favor of US intervention in Syria seem to be focused on Assad’s chemical weapons use. This is, in fact, a violation of international law, and plausibly a serious moral violation. More serious than killing bunches of civilians with non-banned weapons? I don’t know (morally), but let’s at least grant that it’s a plausible reason to sit up and take notice.

But it’s less obvious than it may seem how bombing is related to this red line. The simplest theory is a purely retributivist one. Assad’s actions and those of his regime merit punishment and so they should be punished. If that’s our theory, it’s less clear why bombing military targets in the civil war is the right punishment. Difficult as it might be to actually do, this sounds like an argument in favor of apprehending and trying Assad (and perhaps other folks involved in the actual decision to use poison gas). And if you’re a pure retributivist, “it is hard to get proper retribution” is no more a reason for deviance than “punishing someone won’t deter anyone” is.

It seems particularly problematic to focus on retribution because most of the people dying from the bombing would be either civilians or regime combatants, not Assad and his inner circle. If we were going to war with Syria, you could argue that all combatants on the side of the regime are legitimate targets, and so they have no complaint if they are bombed to death, but punishing Assad is arguably not exactly going to war. And even if it’s legitimate to kill them, the idea that killing his combatants and Syrian civilians (even ones loyal to Assad) is inherently a punishment for Assad relies on the very arguable assumption that Assad cares a whole lot about them.

So, I doubt that pure retribution is actually what most people have in mind, in this sense, when they talk about a need to intervene because Assad has crossed the chemical weapons red line.

The worry is that we now start walking up to the line of saying that the intervention is not about punishing the chemical weapons use, but about getting rid of Assad himself. And, politically if not morally, that then provokes the question, “if this is about Assad losing, why didn’t we get involved sooner?”

If we want to stay on the chemical weapons side of that red line, there are two ways we could do it.

First, we could try to say that this is not a punishment strategy at all, but a denial one. To back that up, we would have to carefully attack all and only targets that were directly involved with chemical weapons production and use. Yes, that might change the balance of power a bit, but maybe that’s a side effect. The plan would not be so much to make Assad pay for using them, but to ensure that they literally could not be used in the future. So, for instance, if Assad were to box up all the chemical weapons and mail them to a UN cantonment area tomorrow, we’d be done and walk away, no further need to get involved.

Second, we could say that the appropriate punishment is just that Assad’s chances of winning the civil war be lowered by X%. I’ll admit, this just seems weird to me as a punishment.

Third, we could say that the intervention isn’t about punishment or about denial but about deterrence. I’m going to leave aside the idea that it’s about deterring other potential chemical weapons-users, and just focus on Assad. The idea might be that we send him this message: “we will stay out of this, unless you use chemical weapons. Then we’ll take action to make you more likely to lose.”

This is structurally similar to an approach that has been used in the US against violent crime to some extent. Basically, while no one is legalizing drugs, to send a message to violent street organizations that the real focus is on the violence, not the drugs. For instance, under the Boston CeaseFire model, gang leaders were more or less straight-up told: if you peacefully deal drugs, all you have to worry about is normal narcotics enforcement, but if you are involved in violence we will throw the full weight of all our special federal money and enforcement resources against you.

This seems to work pretty well, but you really have to not care about the drugs that much. If Assad believes that there is no way that the US and its allies will let him remain in power, no matter what he does, then he will never believe that our intervention is keyed only to his chemical weapons use, and we won’t be able to specifically deter him from using them. Basically, he would need to believe that if he refrains from using them, we would largely leave him alone to win or lose. For better or worse, it’s pretty reasonable for him to be skeptical of that at this point.

What I suspect is in a lot of people’s heads, though, when they point at chemical weapons use in Syria, is not any of this. It’s something more like, “Assad used chemical weapons; this should prove to anyone who was doubting up until now that he doesn’t deserve to be in charge of Syria.”

Removing Assad from Power

This is more straightforward, as a goal! For some people, the motivation might be tied up to some extent with the use of chemical weapons, but they would not think it acceptable for Assad to remain in power, even if he never used chemical weapons.

Frankly, it seems unlikely to me that, were (per improbable) the UN team to say, “we have definitively determined that no chemical weapons were used,” most of the people I know or read who are hawkish on Syria would suddenly say, “I guess it’s all cool now, nevermind.” On the flip side, I doubt very many people were on the fence about this, but then changed their mind about whether or not Assad was a bad guy once chemical weapons were used.

If all we wanted to do was see Assad dead or deposed, it might not be that difficult. Here’s where “I am not a Syria expert” becomes important, but even without boots on the ground, we could massively arm rebels, carry out airstrikes, etc. and probably stand a decent chance of changing the tide.

The problem with this would be what the aftermath looked like. Libya, the closest analogy to this kind of plan, is a worrisome one. It’s hotly contested in the circles I run in whether Libya was “successful” (partly for reasons like these, where I don’t think everyone agrees on what “success” looks like), but I think I can pretty uncontroversially say that the situation in Libya right now, post-intervention, is far from ideal. The worry would be that, OK, you get rid of Assad, but now you’ve got someone else pretty bad (if not equally bad, but maybe even worse) in charge. I mean, Maliki and Karzai maybe clear the low bar of “better than the last guys,” but not by a whole lot.

One consistent approach would be to say, that if this is punishment to Assad and his regime for using chemical weapons, or even for broader crimes like attacking civilians, that doesn’t matter. When we throw a violent criminal in prison, maybe it’s not our job to worry about whether another violent criminal will take his place (until it comes time to punish the successor).

But it seems like most people who are hawkish on Syria want something more than that.

Protecting Civilians

This is a fraught one, and one where the empirical details are even more important. In fact, as we go up this scale, in general, deep knowledge of the nuances of the Syrian situation gets more and more important.

One way to go is to simply collapse this into a different option. We are protecting civilians by removing Assad, who is killing them. Or, we are protecting civilians from chemical weapons attacks.

If you want to focus in specifically on civilian protection, though, I think we’d have to be going about this in a very different way than we’re talking about going about it right now.

Now, I have a rep (Having a rep requires being known – Ed.) for being skeptical of the ability of militaries to protect civilians. But it doesn’t seem impossible for them to do some good. The intervention in Kosovo likely saved some lives, and there’s a reason why people retroactively appeal to things like India’s intervention in East Bengal and Vietnam’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge to justify norms of humanitarian intervention. Heck, even France’s Operation Turquoise in Rwanda probably gets a worse rap than it deserves (saving civilians because you’re internationally embarrassed, or because they are the civilians aligned with your genocidal allies is still saving civilians).

But what’s currently being proposed most places isn’t like these operations. The most common comparison I hear is to Kosovo, but what’s important to keep in mind is that the aerial bombing campaign was followed up by a massive ground rebuilding project, involving not only a major NATO operation (KFOR) but one of the UN’s few full-on transitional administration missions (UNMIK). I’m pretty confident that no policy makers in the US are planning on deploying an Iraq- or Afghanistan-level US occupation force to try to rebuild things and protect civilians once the initial onslaught is blunted.

Because, keep in mind, it’s not as if Assad and chemical weapons are the only threats to civilians out there! If we imagined that we snapped our fingers and Assad disappeared from existence, civilians would still be under direct threats from continued social violence, ambiguous criminal/political violence, and getting caught up in the infighting between armed factions trying to assert control. They would also be under indirect threat from poverty, destroyed infrastructure (which bombing often makes worse), disease, and the like. So if what you care about is civilians don’t die rather than the much narrower Assad doesn’t kill civilians, it’s hard to imagine that you will accomplish your goal just through an aerial campaign, even if you believe that an aerial campaign was a key and successful part of the strategy in Kosovo. Yes, if you point out that ethnic cleansing accelerated during the bombing campaign, many people will rightly point out that there was then a return of large numbers of displaced after it was over; but it’s a hard thing to argue that the situation would have been perceived as safe enough for that without the presence of KFOR/UNMIK or something similar in the aftermath.

There may be answers to this, but the question for anyone pushing intervention as civilian protection should be, “what is the analogue to KFOR and UNMIK in the Syrian situation?”

There’s also, I think, a darker side to this. Like folks who say that we need to preserve “stability” in Syria, it’s not at all obvious that being against Assad is the way to go here. I wouldn’t particularly want to live in Assad’s Syria pre-civil-war, but the fact remains that I would stand a much lower chance of being killed there than in civil war Syria. Civil wars, even totally justified and understandable ones, are bad for your health and safety. In fact, the hard-nosed argument often is that we end war first and then worry about justice in a situation where fewer people are getting blown up.

By most of what I see, the balance of power in Syria is still somewhat favorable to Assad (and certainly would have been absent support to the rebels from a number of US allies). So if you really want to just make sure civilians are safe, then I think we need to take seriously the idea that we ought to throw our weight behind Assad. On the one hand, this is arguably morally odious (though it’s basically the deal we’ve been happy to accept in other places, most saliently Bahrain). On the other hand, if you don’t want to make that deal with the devil, maybe it’s not just civilian protection you care about…

Resolving the Conflict

Read this with an implied rider of something like, “in a just way,” or “and creating a more legitimate democracy there.”

Again, I suspect this is what many hawks have in mind as their goal. Not just that the civil war grinds on, but without poison gas, or that Assad loses and who cares what takes his place. At the very least, most seem to have in mind that “nothing could be worse than Assad” (of course, things could).

But the imagined ideal outcome is, maybe not Sweden, but some kind of human-rights-respecting (basically) democracy (basically).

Here we hit the point of maximal “you would need to know more about Syria than I do to figure out how to do this properly.” But, like protecting civilians, I think you can’t reasonably have this as your goal without countenancing some kind of much larger, longer-term intervention than people currently seem to be talking about.

And though the dark side of this is less dark than just going for civilian-protection-via-stability-under-anyone, there’s at least a way in which this pulls against current rhetoric. I suspect that the surest route to something like this would be a negotiated transition, where Assad keeps some power for a while and likely a rich and comfortable life somewhere forever. He’s a bad guy, but he also still has power and supporters, both within and without the country. And there are some bad guys on the side we USians like, too – those al-Qaeda linked brigades are supported by someone, and let’s not pretend the secularists are saints either (again, whether they hop the “better than Assad bar” only gets you so far). Some kind of managed transition probably requires all the UNMIK-like apparatus of protecting civilians in the aftermath of the war, plus currently-not-forthcoming political will from at least Russia and the US+allies to get the regime and the rebels (respectively) to agree to it, something neither seems to want to do.


Don’t Have a Cow


“Cow” by Lars Pistaj on Flickr

Like all east coast American liberals, I am required by my contract to like This American Life. Listening to it this week, however, provided some new content for this blog, which is quickly becoming way more focused on where you should give your money to charity than I’d initially planned it to be.

Anyway, this week on TIA, in conjunction with the other show that my New World Order masters use to implant my brain with information, Planet Money, they were talking about a very interesting charity, GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly gives poor people money.

That’s, well, pretty much it.

Now, even though I talk a lot about structural change and the like, there’s a lot to love about this model. In class, for instance, when I talk about trying to help people out, I always tell my students that they should seriously consider whether their plan, whatever it is, is better than just handing out money (my favorite example of this is discussions about how we need to carefully target economic stimulus money instead of just “throwing money in the air” or something similar – of course, there are better and worse ways to stimulate the economy but at the end of the day, yeah, the main point is just to get some money out there, so simply throwing it in the air for anyone to catch is far from the worst idea).

There are two things that the story made me think about, however.

Paternalism vs. Public Goods

Discussions of whether to just hand out money often seem to come down to questions of paternalism. This is basically the mundane, “that panhandler will just spend the money on booze” problem/argument.

In one corner, you have the person who says: poor people wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t make bad choices a lot of the time, and we know pretty well what poor people need to do to un-poor themselves. So, if we put restrictions on the money we give them, like requiring it to be spent on healthy food, or housing, or education, then it’s a win-win. Smart poor people would spend on those things anyway; stupid poor people are being saved from themselves.

In the other corner, you have the person who says: this is all very patronizing. People generally know what is best for them. And anyway, we shouldn’t be so confident that we, those of us who are not and have not been poor, know better. For instance, some decisions that often come in for criticism, like spending on “luxury” goods, make sense when you actually pay attention to the human need for pleasure and dignity in their lives, and criticism is more about us wanting the poor to be properly ascetic to earn our pity than it is about figuring out what’s actually good for them. Yes, sometimes people make bad decisions. But they make fewer bad decisions for themselves than we do for them.

One thing that strikes me as missing from this (very stylized) argument is the role of public goods. This argument makes a lot of sense when you think what the poor are mostly lacking are private goods – things that individuals own, that are only used by one individual, etc. (in the lingo, things that are rival and  excludable). And in those terms, you can probably tell that my sympathies are with the “let people do what they think is best” side of things.

But what if what is lacking are public goods? The one that comes to mind for me is public safety. Everyone is better off if there is a pretty non-corrupt, even-handed system of policing (or something like it) that prevents, defuses, and deters violence. Yes, I can have private security, but in the real world that’s usually a poor second – I have to restrict my movement a lot more, I have to worry a lot more, etc. And working on conflict, I’m familiar with the way that lack of security can keep people from getting themselves out of poverty. There are also less dramatic examples, like digging wells.

The problem is that there are well-known coordination problems with creating public goods, which is why the mainstream conventional wisdom (certainly not unanimous) is that they need to be provided by non-market, coercive entities like the state. In a nutshell, why would I pay my share of a police force if I’m going to benefit from it even if I don’t pay? Giving people more money won’t automatically solve this problem – people with lots of money still face the temptation to free ride.

I actually suspect that there may be more of these kinds of goods that poor people need than we sometimes appreciate, but mostly because I’m a Marxist weirdo interested in social structures. Giving people money within the current system will certainly help them, though, so it’s not everything.

Two side notes. First, if you buy this, it would require dramatically changing the focus of most “charity.” If you’re comparing GiveDirectly to, say, Oxfam, then you’re mostly talking about provision of private goods. This kind of concern only applies if you’re comparing giving to GiveDirectly to giving to something like basic-science research or the Communist International.

Second, it shouldn’t be read as “giving to public goods is always a good idea when compared to giving to private goods.” We, you and I, we’re not magic. If I give $1000 to some poor Kenyan, one thing she can do is take the time she’d spend earning $1000 and instead spend it organizing in her community. It’s entirely plausible that she’d do a better job at getting public goods provided. The advantage that relatively wealthy foreign donors have at this sort of thing would primarily be if they’re trying to influence actors in their own society (like lobbying to have pharma let more generic drugs be made) or maybe use pull at the governmental level (though this would apply mostly to very large donors).

What About Markets?

The other question – and this is a totally honest question-question, not “aha! I have a question you cannot possibly answer!” – I had when listening to the discussion of GiveDirectly was, what about markets?

This is related to the above, since a market is a kind of public good. Yes, we buy private goods in a market, but the existence of the market is a public good. If this sounds silly, keep in mind that markets aren’t just “some people show up and sell some stuff,” they require rules about property to be observed/enforced (otherwise “selling” makes no sense), in the modern world someone is taking care of making a currency work, contracts need to happen, somehow rampant theft needs to be prevented, etc. If you don’t like capitalism, fine, I’m with you, but even non-market kinds of exchange of goods and services require a forum for it, which is a public good. (Or, at least, markets are usually public-good-like, you could probably create a fancy one that isn’t quite, but that’s not the main form).

One of the comparisons in the show was between the GiveDirectly model and Heifer International (another org that I’ve given money to, in fact in lieu of favors at my wedding). Heifer gives people high-quality cows and training, not cash.

Initially, it might seem – and this is the way the discussion was set up – that this is a simple contrast. Let’s imagine that the cost for someone to buy the cow and the training would be $1000. It may seem like we either buy paternalism (and maybe we should, though I’m skeptical) or giving $1000 cash is the clear winner. If someone wants the cow and training, she can just go ahead and buy it. But if she prefers something else, she doesn’t need to.

What this leaves out is that I can only buy a cow if someone is selling a cow, and ditto for training. The discussion makes a big deal about how the Heifer cows are much better than the cows available locally. So what if I want the Heifer cow and the training, and would spend $1000 for it, but I can’t buy it at all because GiveDirectly came in and gave me cash, instead of doing something else?

One way to approach this would be to say that I just haven’t counted all the costs in the situation properly. Heifer International isn’t just providing a cow and training, they’re providing cows and training in rural Kenya. If getting all that stuff and getting it to rural Kenya costs $2000, then it’s totally unsurprising that giving someone $1000 instead will not be as good as giving them a thing that costs twice as much. So to fix the contrast, give them $2000, and let them mail order a cow and a trainer.

But I worry that it’s not quite that simple. There are a lot of fixed costs involved in this sort of thing. We don’t have good cow-mailing infrastructure. A trainer can’t go to rural Kenya for an hour and then go home to her family in Sweden. If an individual person wanted the cow and training, trying to cover these sort of costs could in principle be paid for, but it would be prohibitive. Much more than the nominal doubling of the market cost of the cow in an existing market. It’s in this way that a market for cows and trainers in rural Kenya functions as a kind of public good.

Now, Heifer can provide these things without it getting ridiculous because it provides them to a bunch of people at a time. It surely has high costs associated with getting cows and trainers to rural Kenya, but it knows it can spread them out among lots of people, so it’s maybe only costing that $2000 per person when you figure the actual cow and the actual training plus the share of shipping cows and housing trainers, etc.

You could have a situation where beneficiaries of GiveDirectly do something very similar. If, say, 1000 recipients of $1000 each made it clear to the international cow-and-training industry that they wanted to be able to buy cows and trainers in rural Kenya, someone would set up a franchise of Hilde’s Cow and Training Emporium there. But that’s a coordination problem again – I’m not going to save my $1000 until the emporium opens unless I know that lots of people around me are going to as well. Heifer basically solves the coordination problem via giving gifts-in-kind and negotiating as a large collective buyer with Hilde.

So, my question is: how much should this be a worry in the case of groups like GiveDirectly? How can we best deal with lacks of markets and market failures?

On the one hand, this doesn’t seem like a pure philosopher’s worry. We know that the poor pay more for lots of things, often in a nutshell because they don’t have access to the efficient markets and financial systems that the wealthier among us do. And things it’s hard for one person to buy, like irrigation systems and wells, seem like pretty typical things rural poor areas in developing nations are lacking.

On the other hand, again, external donors aren’t magic. If enough of us can agree to donate to a large org like Heifer to make it feasible for them to build an infrastructure that supplies cows to rural Kenya, it’s not like rural Kenyans who get GiveDirectly money couldn’t have a town meeting and decide to chip in on a larger project.

On Not Speaking in a Language They Can Understand


Banksy, “Flower Chucker 2″(?)

I’m going to do two terribly irresponsible things in this post. First, I’m going to at least tangentially touch on the current situation in Egypt, a subject on which I am both horrified and woefully uninformed. Second, I’m going to be obnoxious based on the title of an article, which I well know is not necessarily endorsed by its writer, and in this case when I finished reading it, bore relatively little (but not no) relationship to the content of the article itself.

Also, I need to remind you that this is my venue for half-baked, incorrect, and underthought ideas. You need to pay if you want the good stuff, or come inside the ivory tower, obvs.

But on the plus side, holy schnikes, it’s a post that’s actually relevant to some of the stuff I’m supposed to, you know, professionally think about.

Anyway, the article that got me thinking about this stuff most recently was William Dobson’s “Lost in Egypt,” whose long subtitle is “President Obama has no influence with Egypt’s generals. It’s time the administration admits it—and speaks a language the generals understand.” It’s that last bit – a language the generals understand that I want to riff on for a sec.

My day job being horror and violence (i.e., security studies-ish), I hear variations on this argument a lot, that when dealing with particularly violent groups, there’s no point in trying to see where they’re coming from, or negotiating with them, or what have you, you need to meet them in kind. Probably the most seminal expression of this viewpoint in my field is Stephen John Stedman’s 1997 article “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes.” In a nutshell, Stedman argues that we can divide “spoilers” – groups that oppose peace processes – into three types: limited, greedy, and total.

Limited spoilers are what they sound like. They want some specific thing, and if you give it to them, they will become peaceful. Most of the time (Stedman argues, and many follow him), the way to deal with them is to give them what they want.

Greedy spoilers don’t want to fight forever, but they want to salami-slice you. Give a greedy spoiler an inch and it’ll come back and ask for a mile. They will keep fighting and dragging their feet as long as they think they can maybe get more. So you deal with them most effectively through a “departing train” strategy – we’re doing final divvying up of the rewards of a peace process now and if you don’t say, “OK, we are fine with this, and just this, no more fooling,” you get NOTHING.

Total spoilers are… well, read my book for some of the conceptual confusions I think are involved in this category. But they’re the folks you can’t deal with. Either there is nothing that will make them stop fighting (they desire the war for its own sake), or they want something completely non-negotiable – e.g., they’ll stop fighting if you let them straight up genocide some group. You have to kill or neutralize them.

In my experience, there’s a lot of pressure to put the bogeyman of the moment into the “total spoiler” category. Why are we dragging our feet on Syria? Why don’t you want to bomb Libya – do you love Qaddafi? Why did Nelson Mandela play so nice with Mugabe? Etc. Implicit in these questions is that one (and, typically, only one!) of the players is so irredeemably evil that there’s no point trying to deal with them.

But this claim is really worrisome, and not just for someone with my optimistic Lederach-derived moral intuitions about people. First of all, it’s ahistorical (again something I bring up in the book – e.g., in the DR Congo, at one time the CNDP were figured as “total spoilers” and the national army allied with the FDLR against them; later, the FDLR were figured as “total spoilers” and the CNDP was integrated into the national army to fight against them – meanwhile, the FDLR have a complicated – dysfunctional, but complicated – relationship with the actual people in their areas of operations.).

But I want to focus for a sec on how it interacts with the “language they understand” claim. The general intuition seems to be that the bad guys – whoever they may be in this situation – have set the terms of the debate, and we must follow them there or risk irrelevancy.

Why would we want to let the bad guys set the terms of the debate? Let’s grant, e.g., that the Egyptian army has decided that it is going to make the current conflict there about who can wield superior force. They are assholes and we should not listen to them.

We should also not ignore the power of the terms of the debate to constrain our options. We all want an outcome where no one gets hurt and everyone is happy, right (RIGHT)? It’s just that it’s only hippie dippie peaceniks like me who think that’s possible.

But think about the ways in which letting the terms of engagement be set in violence makes the peaceniks wrong rather than simply recognizing our wrongness. The most chilling part of Carol Cohn’s “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, to me, is the way she reports that living in the world of “threat advantage” and “deep earth penetrators” (snicker) colonized her own mind. If your language is that of rational choice theory, it’s very hard to admit that the world also includes psychology, love, hope, fear, trauma, and the like. And then you sneer at the hippies like me for bringing them up. It’s not the peaceniks who made that world, man, you’re the ones trying to make us live in it.

And here’s where it goes from being a peacenik’s lament to a real policy problem. Using a conceptual and linguistic framework where you can only understand each other’s actions in terms of threats and advantage not only impoverishes the world, it carries very real risks of creating and exacerbating the violence you claim you’re there to prevent. Denying and obscuring that we’re dealing with human beings who have a psychology and a political physiology doesn’t make it go away.

There’s pretty good evidence that violence exhibits attributes of a contagion. The mechanisms are still being researched by psychologists smarter than me, but they include imitation and reduction of psychological barriers to aggressive actions in the victims of aggression. It looks like attributing an aggressive motive to your interlocutor is more likely to make you act aggressively towards them, too.

So, where does this leave us? If we use the language of threat and interest, we will see our enemies pursuing their interests, through threats, and responding reliably only to threats – whether those of violence, or of other forms of harm (e.g., economic). How sad is our state of understanding of conflict if the thought process on a place like Egypt is that we consider shooting, then cutting off aid, and then throw up our hands? (“Oh, but we did talk to the generals about peace.” “Really? Did you appeal to them as human beings or did you make a public diplomatic statement in an ambient discourse of threats?”). And so we speak to them in the language of threat and interest. And they respond in kind. And we wonder where the violence came from.

Alternatively, what if we spoke to them in a language that they didn’t “understand?” What if we spoke a language that allowed for all that hippy-dippy stuff about love and peace to be a real part of the discourse, that recognized the fear and anger that goes around in these sorts of situations? It’s hard to assess a policy that’s so rarely been tried, but the evidence is suggestive: violence interrupters in Chicago, family group conferencing as part of restorative justice programs, mass moral shaming.

If you want a philosophical homily, the mistake seems to be tied to one that Arendt accused thinkers of making: conflating power and violence. Both can get someone to do what you want. But violence does it by short-cutting the person, attacking them on a lizard-brain level and getting them to jump to out of fear; power does it by coordinating actions and making people move along with you out of solidarity. You can, if you try very hard, turn a violence advantage into a power advantage, by systematically smashing down all other sources of power until yours is the only one left standing, and people go along out of sheer moral exhaustion. My fear is that we – people like me, playing a part in a very powerful military nation – have spent so much time hammering down every source of power that we’re in danger of losing the meaningful ability to speak in the register of power rather than the register of violence. We’re projecting an inability to understand any other language onto the other by convincing ourselves that speaking violence is one way of speaking power, and that the other is refusing to respond to other ways. When in fact we have only atavistic non-violent language to use, empty rituals from power-building, and so if the other started responding to power we wouldn’t even recognize it. It’d be like Wittgenstein’s lion.

OK, if you’re not a philosopher, retroactively skip that last paragraph so I don’t sound in(s)ane. If you are a philosopher, commence nitpicking my abuse of Arendt.

Giving Well: What Should Count Besides the Numbers?


Pictured: INEFFICIENT RESOURCE USE (Photo: “Citizens of Abyei Protest Bashir’s Statement” by ENOUGH Project)

It’s pretty common for sites and such devoted to helping you “give better” to ultimately look for some criterion of efficiency. For instance, the first two criteria that GiveWell uses for assessing charities are “strong evidence of impact” and “highly cost-effective.” Similarly, when Giving what we can declares that some charities are 1000 times more effective than others, they focus almost entirely on cost effectiveness. This leads them into some knots on their assessment of some kinds of interventions – for instance, they start by trying to translate things like education into economic improvement (can we measure how many $ of future income $1 of education spending creates?) and political advocacy into health spending (if $1 of spending advocating for bed nets gets the government to spend $3 on bed nets, it may be worth it). I think it’s unsurprising that trying to force things this way leads them to largely throw up their hands on things like education, political advocacy, and emergency relief, though that might be a conversation for another time. But, for instance, I think they’re actually too easy on emergency aid, by their own lights. Emergencies, by definition, are complex and chaotic environments, and so it’s going to be almost impossible for the cost of a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) in an emergency to be lower than the cost of a DALY in a situation where people are simply poor. So long as there is space for additional funding of things like anti-malarials, by the logic of cost-effectiveness, it will almost never make sense to go with, say, Doctors Without Borders over the Against Malaria Foundation.

I think this focus on a narrowly defined notion of efficiency is problematic. I’m not going to give a knock-down argument in a blog post for that, but I’d like to at least make some notes toward broadening the conversation.

The easy way to do this would be to say, “let’s just not focus on outcomes so much.” If I simply have an obligation to help some people and not others, regardless of how effective my help is, that of course makes this whole approach wrong headed. And, in fact, I tend to think that our obligations to help others might look more like Kantian imperfect duties than utilitarian maximizing, but it’d be dirty pool to start with that. I think there are things even the consequentialists should be keeping in mind.

And also, nothing I say here should be construed as saying that efficiency doesn’t matter at all. It’s certainly a worthwhile consideration. Even if you bought an almost wholly deontological picture of your obligations, if organization A accomplished the exact same goals as organization B, but at half the price, you should probably go with A.

Finally, I don’t think the upshot of these considerations is kumbaya-we-should-all-give-wherever-we-please. I do think it’s weird that people I know spend much more time worrying about the marginal efficiency of the charities they give to than they do to the question of whether the marginal dollar of their income should go to charity or personal consumption. It’s a tough question whether I’m doing more “good” by giving $1 to BRAC than by giving it to Oxfam, but it’s almost certain that giving that dollar to either does more good than spending it on a flavor shot in my coffee.*

It’s hard to measure politics.

It’s currently somewhat trendy to measure political advocacy in terms of leveraging your funds, especially since corporations get so much bang for their buck out of lobbying. And that’s something worth thinking about (though I wish people who make this argument would pay more attention to where the money is coming from – e.g., does it make sense to pay for bed nets out of Ghanaian taxes rather than out of my USian pocket?).

But to think that that’s the whole of it impoverishes our notion of politics. Even if you leave aside the inherent value of political participation, the changes that political change can wreak go far deeper than just the number of bed nets provided. I mean, Marx imagined the communist revolution as increasing the material luxuries available to the proletariat, but if you try to reduce it just to lowering the Gini coefficient of a society, you’re missing the point a bit. Politics isn’t just a way of setting spending priorities, it infuses people’s whole lives.

Lest you think this is an airy philosopher’s concern, keep in mind that there are important policy questions that turn on whether or not we think of the value of political systems primarily in terms of material benefits to the population. The whole history of supporting authoritarian governments on the theory that they can make the hard choices needed for economic growth is based on identifying the two.

Even if you do focus just on material change, the important changes may be missed if you focus just on the kind of thing we have a reasonable hope of measuring in a straightforward fashion. Sen has famously argued that democracies don’t have famines – this is a straight-up material benefit to democracy, but it would be at least fiendishly difficult to use that result to calculate the return on investment for each pound sterling contributed to Gandhi’s IndieGoGo campaign. More recently, Peter Buffett posted a somewhat-fluffy-but-makes-a-good-point column arguing that it’s weird to see the same captains of industry and government who create problems like poverty getting together to decide how to spend money to alleviate it. In other words, even if we focus only on material benefits, there’s the question of how many bed nets $1 of spending on lobbying for more bed nets buys, and then there’s the question of how we got to the place where people can’t afford bed nets in the first place.

There’s more to live than living.

I blame the Rawlsian doctrine of primary goods for this one. What about the inherent goods of education and democratic participation? Why should we care less about them than DALYs and the like?

The quick answer is that, if you’re not alive, you can’t enjoy anything else. But as I’ve argued more formally elsewhere, this is a misleading way to look at things. In a nutshell, if we really put an absolute priority on preserving our own lives, we’d all hang out in underground bunkers wrapped in bubble wrap (if you want the longer version, I have a chapter on it in my vaporware book, or you can just go read Butler and look cooler). We accept risks (which in the language of decision theory, just are reductions to our expected number of DALYs) all the time for things we think are important. The argument that one DALY is more important than, say, a child having access to the means to create art is one that we should be having, not one that we should assume away at the start (I mean, it’s a bit weird to me that almost no discussion of charitable giving seems to even notice the discussion about capabilities in the theory of development).

Issues like the symbolism of giving might live here, too. For instance, if I give to a poverty-alleviation organization based in the global South, that might have a good element of “saying” that I don’t think poor people are just victims whose problems need to be solved by white people like me. It might also have non-symbolic benefits mediated by the symbolism, like building organizational capacity in poor communities (often a criticism of aid agencies that swoop in with ready made programs, even if in the short run those may look more “efficient”) – this overlaps with the importance of politics, above – or just changing a hegemonic mindset that can tend to demoralize poorer people.

There’s a difference between badness and injustice.

One intuitively “punchy” reason to be attracted to groups like MSF that work in war zones and the like is precisely the thing that makes it hard for them to compete on pure efficiency measures: they work in war zones and the like.

This starts to push against the assumption that we’re playing nice with the consequentialists, but I don’t think it entirely breaks the rules. It’s at least plausible that there is something worse about someone dying because they got caught in the crossfire of a war than because they happened to catch malaria.

Now, this may pull against some of the considerations about politics, above. If most poverty is injustice rather than bad luck, the gap between the person who dies from a gunshot and the person who dies from poverty-induced malnutrition narrows. But again, I don’t think we get to ignore the conversation (and if you buy the equivalency, you probably should be working for structural political change more than most discussions of charity imply, since the injustice of poverty remains even if you mitigate its effects by giving someone a bed net. If you steal my money, and then someone gives me the P.O.S album I was going to buy with it, it doesn’t morally sanitize the theft).

We might have other special obligations.

This is dicey territory. The push towards efficiency as the overriding moral criterion for giving comes from the – quite powerful – idea that I should measure my action only by how much good it does, and not by morally arbitrary criteria like how close I happen to live to the recipients of my assistance.

But this flattens out plausibly important distinctions. Again, this bends the rule of being nice to consequentialists, but at least pluralist consequentialists can take it seriously.

I might be required to put my thumb on the scale for people whose poor circumstances are in part my fault. For instance, it seems plausible that, as an American, I might have a greater responsibility to help out victims of the wars in Iraq and DR Congo, where my country had a strong hand, than I do to people in some place like (uh… shit, the US has its fingers almost everywhere…) maybe Mali, which is more on the French’s moral account.

I might have special obligations to do good in my own community. For instance, I spend a lot of time these days on prison teaching and (increasingly) on getting involved with violence-reduction in my home city. That’s time that I could be getting a second job and donating the money to buy bed nets.

Now, the worry here is that allowing this kind of consideration opens the door to all sorts of moral abuse. It’s a very compelling worry that at some point, when I’m giving money to help out with re-greening the golf course in my gated community** I’ve crossed the line into just buying luxuries for myself (if I golf) or being morally self-indulgent (if I don’t) under the guise of “charity.” I agree that there needs to be some line here!

But I think it points to the fact that the distinction between consumption and altruism that seems taken for granted by the conversation about giving is too blunt an analytical instrument. It seems right to question whether the prison teaching work does as much good as donating the salary I could earn in that time to the Anti-Malaria Foundation.*** At the same time, it seems odd to count it as just a fancy kind of self-interested “consumption.”****

One utilitarian way around the weirdness here would be to instrumentalize it. Dollar for dollar, my investment in prison teaching is inefficient and sub-optimal. But human nature being what it is, I am more likely to sustain altruistic activities with a face-to-face component, so it makes sense to do this as a way to maximize the good I do in the teeth of human weakness of will. Basically, I’m much more likely to quit the second job where I send money to a faceless organization helping people buy bed nets than I am to quit the work where people tell me directly that I’ve helped them. It’s not right, it’s just a prediction about my own psychology, which is just another utilitarian datum.

But this strikes me as not quite right. I think we need to de-impoverish our conceptual apparatus for thinking about altruism more. I’m not sure we need to “flatten” things like working in one’s own community into either a category of self-interest (where we make a space for them alongside other forms of permissible consumption) or charity (where they probably compete poorly with bed nets). They can be their own category, at least if we’re willing to go at least as far as value-pluralist consequentialism.

And the moral motivations are at least prima facie different. When I give to BRAC, I do it because I think as a relatively affluent person (I AM THE 17%) I am obliged to help out those less fortunate, in a very generic sense (I also think BRAC scores high on some of the less quantifiable stuff above, but I’ve already written about them). I do the prison teaching because I feel like I have a special obligation to make my own community a better community. It’s not clear why these can’t coexist, or even need to be ranked.

Fuck, maybe it is just Kantian imperfect duties. Sorry, utilitarians.

* Blech.

** Fuck gated communities. They’re necrospaces.

*** This also opens the door to the question of why I work as an academic when I could have gotten a higher-paying job as a lawyer or businessman if I’d followed a different path.

**** I mean, yes, inevitable “there’s no such thing as altruism” assholes, I get warm fuzzies from the work. But I get warm fuzzies from donating to BRAC, too. Go read your Hume, but also that argument doesn’t make the distinction here at least.

Non-Egalitarian Communism (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part II)

"Home Brews" by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

“Home Brews” by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

Or, “not-necessarily-egalitarian communism,” perhaps. Basically, I hate to say it, but the hipsters making home brews and artisinal pickles and knitting socks and whatnot have a lot of it right.

Let me explain/thoroughly confuse the matter.

Lots of people who comment on communism – both those who criticize and those who praise, in my experience – and its practicability or lack thereof focus, understandably, on the famous slogan from the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

In a perfect world, it would say “his or her” or “hir,” but, well, it’s not a perfect world.

I can see why there’s a focus on this, but it’s deeply problematic for understanding the communist argument, I think. And especially problematic for understanding what challenge communist and socialist ideas pose in the current US context.

Focusing excessively on this slogan distorts the conversation because it puts our emphasis on consumption. It makes it sound (to many) as if the communist utopia is defined by the second clause, as a world where everyone can have whatever they want. This raises obvious questions about how we secure the first clause – why will I work if I can get everything I want (or at least everything I need) by sitting on my butt all day?

But that concern reflects a concept of human good that is, I think, alien to Marx, and to most who find his ideas attractive. In particular, it assumes that work is essentially onerous, and so to be avoided whenever possible.  Marx had a different perspective, attested to by something he says just before the more famous quote. He claims that the slogan can only be implemented “after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.”

In a nutshell, the argument is that each will contribute “according to his/her abilities” not in the hope of some further reward, but just for the sake of making the contribution. In fact, work that one does not see the point of is characteristic of alienated labor, which Marxists hope will disappear in a well-organized society. In other words, we shirk when we don’t see the point of what we’re doing.

Lots of folks will claim evidence of “human nature” on the side of the view that all we want to do is selfishly consume. But the evidence strikes me as sketchy in the extreme.

First, there’s just the anecdotal. What are your hobbies? Me, I’m sitting here writing a blog post when I take breaks from my paid work. I’m not getting paid for it. All I get to “consume” out of it is the satisfaction of creating something that seems halfway worthwhile. I bet you have similar hobbies. Maybe you make model airplanes, or get really good at a sport, or cook, or garden, or prep each year for NaNoWriMo. Even seemingly “passive” activities, like playing video games and whatnot, are often enjoyable because they provide ersatz accomplishment.  You’re not playing the guitar, or shooting terrorists, or growing food, but it’s almost like that. I mean, this is the answer to the seeming paradox of games like FarmVille – why would someone spend their free time doing a simulation of repetitive labor? Because at least it’s repetitive labor that gives you a sense of creating something, and so many people seem to be desperate for that in their real lives.

As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the “guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time” horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn’t like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void. 

In fact, part of the distortion of the whole consumption-focus might be that it’s not at all clear that there’s a such thing as pleasurable consumption on its own. Rather, I think Aristotle got it right – pleasure is part of an activity which develops or exemplifies a human excellence (1174a15-1176a30/X 4-5).  Or, another way to put it, we always take pleasure in production, not consumption – things that seem like consumption (just listening to music, say) are really a kind of production (refinement of our appreciation of music) and treating them as a separate category distorts and degrades them.*

Practical upshot: if we think of consumption as its own thing, we’re going to get human nature very wrong. We’re going to look at the fact that people need certain kinds of material goods to keep their bodies working, and see increasing material goods as a means, rather than an end. We’re going to give people only some kinds of means of production: mp3s and not music education. We’re going to fetishize the product rather than the production: why would anyone want to tell stories around a campfire when the plots are likely to be derivative re-hashes of great works?

It’s not that what we call “consumption” is not production at all – it’s just that it’s a very thin slice of it. But we have a society in which is very easy to mistake that part of pleasure for the whole, and then end up unsatisfied. And it leads to two mistaken ideas about the economy. The first is that people will only produce if you give them the means to consume as an incentive. So, “human nature” means that we have to have gross material inequality. Bzzt. Human nature may well be – probably is – at least moderately self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But it’s a distortion of a world of alienated labor to think that being selfish means seeking only consumption. The pleasures of creating, including creating things that are of value to others because they can build their own creations on them, are very real and powerful.

The second is that, even when we try to help out the less fortunate, we risk conceiving our help very narrowly. Consumption is the slice of production that requires us, the powerful, to cede mostly some food and cheap plastic physical objects, but very little in terms of freedom, control, and respect. It’s a lot easier for me to say, “here’s $10, go buy some mp3s” than it is to say, “let’s democratize this workplace so you get a say in what kinds of things we produce instead of just which products you’re going to buy.”

It’s this misunderstanding that, e.g., leads Yglesias to grossly misunderstand class warfare.** In a nutshell, Yglesias argues that it’s class warfare when Obama wants to redistribute some income towards the poor and the GOP wants to redistribute some income towards the wealthy. Sure, if you’re poor, and those are your only two choices, Team Obama.

But that’s not class war. Maybe it’s an intra-class war, between two factions with different ideas of how to keep control. But the basic power structures remain the same: the means of production are privately owned and subject to more or less unlimited accumulation, concentrating decisions about what kinds of production are to be undertaken in the hands of a relatively small elite. We do call internecine fights among the folks who control those things “class war,” but it’s about as meaningful to do so as if we looked at the African theatre of World War I and called it “decolonization.”

This is where, I think, people tend to get misled by Marx’ slogan. “Communists want to take your hard-earned consumption and give it to the lazy!” That sounds horrible, and that’s how it sounds if you think of a) the point of work to be to gain the means of consumption and b) communism as basically about changing who gets the means of consumption.

But it’s not. In principle, I think, we might have a non-egalitarian communism. What’s central to communism is not the pattern of distribution of consumption, that very narrow kind of human activity going under the name. Rather, what’s central is that decisions about how to deploy the various material necessities for production available to a society are made in a way that involves broad social participation.***

It could be, that if we were all getting together as a society (or a syndicate, or whatever), we would decide to distribute various physical products in an inegalitarian way. Nothing would stop someone from saying, “look, I don’t want any of this stuff, let’s give it to that Bill Gates guy.”

An egalitarian or needs-based (let’s bracket arguments about whether they’re different) way of distributing physical goods isn’t, conceptually speaking, the only way that a social conversation about how to use the means of production might go. But I think Marx is led to his slogan because he thinks we would be stupid to have it go any other way.

If everyone was making the decision together, why would we give someone more power over decisions of what we should produce when he didn’t work any harder than anyone else? If we didn’t see ourselves as in competition for the only kind of production/consumption we were allowed, why would we, as human beings, decide to let someone starve or go without medical attention or dignity, just so we could produce things we don’t even care about very much? I think Marx is optimistic enough to think that we wouldn’t. If we were freed from the antisocial and stunted pursuit of “consumption” by being allowed to be full partners in production, we wouldn’t have to give according to our abilities and take only according to our needs, but we would.****

It’s only a combination of the (maybe true) thought that human nature is eternally somewhat self-centered with the (completely false) thought that self-interest consists in maximum consumption that makes our current way of doing things look free, and something like libertarianism look like an increase in “freedom.” That’s a swindle – the current system employs huge resources on one side in a class war (that’s largely triumphant), securing power in the hands of a pretty small elite and giving them unlimited rights to perpetuate that power. Pretending that more “freedom” lies on the side of your relatively powerless consumption being more determined by your individual worth to those who control the means of production (or, for that matter, lying on the side of your relatively powerless share being a more equal slice and less dependent on that individual worth) and that there’s a big fight over it hides how limited much freedom actually is.



* This may be related to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-production,” but I’m not sure I fully understand that, so don’t take my word for it.

** Yglesias, if he gave two shits about what I thought, would probably (sincerely) say something like, “it was kind of a joke, dude.” But I’m not inclined to let him entirely off the hook – he seems to basically have liberal egalitarian intuitions, but be under the impression that you can satisfy them by post hoc redistribution by a welfare state. But Yglesias was a philosophy major, and so he should know that Rawls, father of contemporary liberal egalitarian philosophical thought, realized that laissez-faire capitalism was incompatible with justice, no matter how much redistribution you do after the fact.

*** State vs. non-state communism/socialism arguments, it seems to me, start here. The question is basically whether there could be anything recognizable as a state that reflected broad social participation or not.

**** He’s also maybe sneaky. What’s a need? Some are obvious, but I think he’s smart enough to realize that once everyone’s belly is full and nakedness covered, what you “need” is going to be defined in terms of the social system of value you participate in and help create. The liberties of the ancients and the liberties of the moderns have to be integrated all the way to the base of the system. Or, if that’s impossible, we’ve got a big problem that we need to face head-on instead of pretending it away.

MOOCs and Maximin

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

Quick reaction post. If you’re a gamer friend, sorry, this isn’t the “Mooks and Minmaxing” post you’re looking for.

Over on FaceSpace, John Protevi linked to this critique of Thomas Friedman’s breathless support for MOOCs (massively online open courses).

Its main point (TL;DR) is that, in the name of “democratizing” education, the MOOC era is ushering in a new and even-harsher oligarchy on the side of the professorate. This should be totally unsurprising to anyone who’s, like, heard of Marx – MOOCs make education more capital-intensive, which tends to concentrate power more.

All of this is, I think, quite a valid concern. But it struck me that the article buried a perhaps even more important point.

Friedman did mention the online revolution’s potential disadvantages—“Yes,” he conceded, “only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies.”

I don’t think we should move off this point too quickly. I’ll admit to being very torn on the issue of MOOCs. On the one hand, I share many worries about their implementation, but on the other, I am attracted to their potential.

But this strikes me as a phenomenally important issue. Many professors make much of the fact that watching some lectures and taking online quizzes doesn’t replicate the atmosphere of intellectual vibrancy that a well-run face-to-face discussion can provide.  But I think that’s in many ways the pinnacle of the classroom experience, and one that the best of us (me not among them) can only reach inconsistently. It’s a sort of maximax ideal in itself.

A lot of what a human teacher can do is help with the problem that is briefly acknowledged both by Friedman and by the critique: she can help students who struggle with the material find a path to mastery. Poorer Egyptian students who drop out of MOOCs are likely not doing so because they are not as smart as their wealthier colleagues – but they are probably disproportionately burdened with inadequate preparation, busier and more exhausting lives, etc.

Helping weaker students is hard, frustrating, unsexy work that is often not even that highly esteemed by professors – it is very easy for us to look at students who aren’t “getting it” and make snarky jokes about them to our colleagues, and then focus on the keeners. I’m at least as guilty of this as anyone else.

And structurally, many of our schools aren’t set up this way. I have several friends and colleagues who teach at less prestigious schools and do the backbreaking labor of trying their best to help their students succeed. And they are often not honored for it – no one gets famous in Philosophy academe for being the best teacher at Anne Arundel Community College (intentionally not a place where I personally know someone teaching), and your teaching load is likely to interfere with publishing. Without breaking confidentiality or airing dirty laundry, I think I can safely say that whether my state school has a special responsibility to accept weaker students and try to help them succeed is a perennial discussion we have on the admissions committee, on which there has never been consensus.

So my worry is this: very many of us, especially the elites in the profession, are already often helping the powerful rather than the weak, already reinforcing social hierarchy. If we are not practically committed to not just teaching models, but career models (what I do in my classroom is less important than who can sit in it, in many ways) that help those with less social power, we maybe shouldn’t be surprised if we’re cast aside when a more efficient way to reinforce elite advantages comes along.

My Just-So Story Brings All the Boys to the Yard (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part 1)


Farm Auction by Bill and Vicki Tracey on Flickr.

Imagine a group of people living before the advent of the state, or really even before any sort of organized society. Miraculously, these are people who manage to be born and grow up and make autonomous choices nonetheless, but leave that aside for now.

Let’s not imagine that, because there is nothing like a state or society yet, that there are no moral rules in place – that’s silly. There are certain general principles of right action that every normal person at least basically adheres to. No one is a moral saint, but if anyone is raped, or wantonly killed, or abandons an infant to exposure, or what have you, people are outraged.

One central moral principle in this state of nature is that we all have a right to feed and shelter ourselves. This is such a basic necessity of life that it just seems obvious to me, and if you don’t see it this way then I don’t think we can have a conversation. It simply beggars the mind that we could expect someone to starve herself to death or die of exposure when the means to avoid this are available to her.*

So, people begin to hunt, forage, and farm to feed themselves. Yay!

But, of course, not everyone wants to be a hunter/forager/farmer. So eventually some people say to each other, “you know, I am tired of how farming (let’s just say farming) takes up so much of my time, and anyway, you are a much better farmer than I am. What say we make a deal – I will spend my days writing epic poems, and you spend your days farming. At the end, I will recite my poetry to you, and you will give me some of the food you grow. Then we are both fed and entertained.”


Over time, as farming techniques spread and people realize more efficient means, and see the advantages of consolidating their farming, we start to see mergers. Less productive farmers will turn their land over to more productive farming associations. Sure, there will be some people who continue farming even though they could do something else, just because they enjoy it, farming is hard, often tedious labor, so most people do not. Eventually each region is served by a dominant nutritive association that organizes farming throughout the region, having absorbed all the other farmers who matter. Everyone else spends their time writing poetry or whatever other socially valuable work that they do.

But eventually the dominant nutritive associations have to do something about the smallholders. Their small farms break up the associations’ ability to farm efficiently and effectively, and endanger the ability of everyone to be able to get fed. So everyone would agree that, will they or nil they, smallholders will eventually need to join the nutritive associations and should not be permitted to farm their own land, at least not if it interferes with the ability to feed the population well.

We have now achieved an ultraminimal state. The nutritive association asserts a monopoly on the production of food, as it must do to ensure that the growing population can get fed appropriately.

But now we have a problem. What about people who cannot or will not pay the nutritive association for food? Are they to starve? We can’t have them starting up as smallholders; we’ve got to do something else. This isn’t any deep ownership issue – we just can’t have them trying to grow food where other people are trying to grow food, because it won’t work. Or trying to stop the association from growing food on land they’re growing food on. We’re talking pure use-conflict.

Clearly the solution is to bring everyone into the nutritive associations. Those who can pay, but would prefer not to, must pay. For those who cannot afford to pay, since we’re saying we don’t want them trying to subsist on their own, we tax everyone to sustain them.

Would we go beyond this minimal state, where the only legitimate function of the state is to ensure that everyone is fed? It’s not clear that we would. For instance, would we engage in redistribution of violence, so that people who are near those who use violence could be protected by some state agency?

Well, the nutritive associations could deal with much of this already. Anyone who interfered in the production or distribution of nutrition could have nutrition withheld. That is, after all, one of the few cases in which violating someone’s right to be fed would be justifiable. You can’t swing a sword if you’re starving! Beyond that, while it is unfortunate that someone may die from violence, it is not clear that anyone – aside from the violent person – violates any of their rights by failing to intervene. People might voluntarily band together to, say, shame the violent, or protect those vulnerable to violence, but it’s not at all clear that this is a legitimate function of an organization that controls a legitimate monopoly on food.


* In case you are either satire- or Nozick-impaired, this is an analogue of the basic position that self-ownership plays in libertarian theory. My principle strikes me as just as plausible, and has an even hoarier pedigree in Hobbes.

Political Economy of Consent (Notes Toward a)

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA - via Bread for the World

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA – via Bread for the World

This is the germ of an idea, and it’s going to be a bit choppy since it’s not fully formed. Imma pull a Maimonides and ask you to assume that anywhere I seem to be clearly talking out of my ass it’s just because I totally have splendid ideas but I’m not putting them across well. Point them out and I will steal your views and claim that’s what I meant all along.

I know, I know, I’m aiming for that very prestigious publication in Radical Philosophy. I’m sure I’m also rehashing things people besides me have already said; I’m just starting to mull this stuff over, and I haven’t done a proper lit review yet. Take me to task for that when it’s a peer-reviewed paper.

Also, I should probably put a trigger warning here – nothing graphic, but stuff that may be unpleasant for folks to read may come up.  And if you’re my parents or something (hi Dad) you may not want to read more because there’s going to be an ill-considered detour into sex work and stuff.

Here are the basics, what “everyone knows.” Bear with me, I’m being pedantic because I’m trying to find my footholds.

There are plenty of things that, normally, I can’t do to you. Kill you, have sex with you, take your stuff, cut into your body with scalpels, inject you with chemicals.

But I can do all of those things if you consent.  At least arguably. We might quibble about euthanasia, for instance, but your consent at least morally sanitizes – on the standard theory – lots of things that would otherwise be wrong for me to do to you.

I’ve been thinking about the adequacy of this picture a bunch lately, and this morning my thoughts on it were pricked by reading Hedges’ and Sacco’s account of the conditions for migrant farm workers in Imokalee FL in their Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  Workers in Imokalee are subject to all sorts of indignities and abuses – low pay, crummy living conditions, sexual harassment, etc.

Some of the stories they tell are of people who are simply not consenting to their treatment. They tell of a few egregious cases in which people were literally chained up, locked in, kidnapped and coerced to work. But even leaving those aside, there are plenty of folks in conditions that are at least pretty grim and undesirable.

One sort of story about those folks would be: but they consented. They work jobs for very low pay, some of them below minimum wage, OK – but no one put a gun to their heads and made them take those jobs, and no one owes them a job. They consented to take a job that someone consented to give to them. They are charged very high rates for sub-standard housing, but that’s what the market will bear. If it’s not worth $50/week for them to live in a shabby trailer with a bunch of other migrant workers, they should find another job.


The standard reply would seem to be something like: but they didn’t really consent. Sure, migrant workers aren’t subject to gun-to-the-head coercion, but the are subject to all sorts of, let’s say, pressures on their decisions that undermine our notion that they’ve consented. Florida is pretty hostile to collective bargaining. Many of the workers are undocumented, and so (reasonably) worry that if they bargained hard they’d just be turned in to INS and deported. Even aside from that, there’re more workers than there is work, which will drive things down to a pretty raw level, in accord with the iron law of wages. Maybe even worse, as Hedges and Sacco point out, because dead workers can be replaced. If you’re desperate enough to be grasping a job that only maybe will give you enough to live on, other things are probably going badly in your life that people can exploit.

I’m becoming less sure that this standard reply is the right one, though.  For one thing, it’s subject to a slippery-slope-style response from the other side. OK, the libertarianish person may say, but where do we draw the line? Given their druthers, everyone would spend their days perfecting the pastimes that they have harbored based solely on the fact that they make them smile and sound dope. And then we’d take whatever they wanted from everyone else. Everyone does plenty of things all day only because of some outside pressure to do so, and where do you draw the line between the migrant worker in Imokalee and the office drone working a 9-5 and the professor writing a paper that he doesn’t really care about because he needs to pad his tenure file? COMMUNIST.

For the other thing, well, let’s consider one of the worse things about Imokalee. According to Hedges and Sacco’s informants, sexual harassment is pretty common for migrant worker women. They heard stories that women were routinely asked to give sexual favors to managers in return for continuing to be chosen for work.

Blech, but what about consent? I’m a farm manager, I don’t owe anyone a job, right? I can not pick up a migrant to work just because I don’t like the way s/he looks. Why is it more wrong for me not to pick her up just because she won’t sleep with me?  And if she does sleep with me, isn’t it consensual?  How is it less consensual than the woman who works long hours in the backbreaking sun so that she’ll get called in again tomorrow?

Blech. I don’t even like working through this position in devil’s advocate mode, but bear with me another minute. Let me bear with myself another minute.

The problem is not that I’m trying to say, “OK, it’s cool beans that women are pushed into doing this.” The problem is that I’m saying it’s not clear that consent lets us make the cut. Consent is usually understood in terms of the presence or absence of pressure, and ex hypothesi the external pressures on the sexual-favor-granting and the backbreaking-labor-doing are the same. If one’s consensual, it looks like the other is (and vice versa, COMMUNIST).

Let me be as clear as I can be once again. I absolutely think that things like asking someone to exchange sexual favors for the privilege of continuing to work is awful and wrong. My concern with consent is that it does not adequately capture the wrongness, and the concept threatens to hide other wrong things. If you read this as “oh, consent doesn’t matter, let me go abuse people” you are getting the message very very wrong.

One way to go would be to infer additional pressure from the nature of the act supposedly consented to. This is, e.g., one way that you might argue against prostitution (or suicide). Even if we cannot point to some external factor that differs between, e.g., the situation of a woman (or man) who goes into prostitution and a seemingly-similarly-situated woman who chooses to do something else, we might think that the mere fact that one has chosen (or “chosen”) to go into prostitution demonstrates that she is suffering from some additional external pressure that invalidates her consent.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

This is a bit of a caricature of the actual argument in the feminist literature, which tends to be able to point to particular structures that provide at least a plausible explanation for why prostitution might be “special,” instead of resting all the weight on the presumed badness of the profession itself. But my sense is that the context of discovery is not too far off from this story – even when we’re looking at issues specific to women, women are subject to all sorts of patriarchial pressures that distort their context of choices that have nothing to do with sex or prostitution. While feminist thinkers rightly decry many of those other things, sex and pornography tend to get special attention.* And it’s hard to avoid it seeming like the deep intuition that prostitution is wrong comes first and theory is built to try to explain and justify that intuition.

If the intuition is correct, this is not in any way an unreasonable thing to do – it’s just part of the standard reflective equilibrium approach to doing ethics.

But it’s also clear that there are theoretical and practical dangers lurking. Practically, it’s easy to not do the hard work of reflective equilibrium and just turn it into rationalization. In this particular case, I worry a bit that if we get too differentially horrified by the sexual favors, we’ll blunt our horror at the other stuff.

On a theoretical level, it’s not clear that consent is doing any interesting work here any more (this is a result that would probably be welcomed by a number of feminist theorists, mind you). We can just skip straight to the badness of giving sexual favors you don’t enjoy.

But now this opens up new and terrible vistas to our gaze.

Importantly, “sexual favors you don’t enjoy” underplays what’s going on here. As Brison puts it, theft isn’t gift-giving minus consent and rape isn’t just sex minus consent. Or, if you prefer something a bit less academic, someone who talks about how cool it would be to have a pill that would make a woman forget that you raped her is probably (culpably) forgetting to include the part of the fantasy where his target is “crying in terror, not to mention resisting.” If we imagine that the women Hedges and Sacco were told about were giving blow-jobs that are exactly like the ones you might get from a woman who’s into you except inside her brain she’s kvetching about it, we’re leaving something out. Even if there’s no overt force, we’re leaving out the look on her face, the act of intimidation to get her to do it, the trauma she may suffer afterwards, lots of really shitty stuff.

But, if we include all of that stuff, two things. First, would consent make it OK? I mean, if we try to imagine the opposite case – sexual harassment plus consent, I’m not sure I can even imagine something coherent. I can imagine things that are sort of like it, like “let’s role-play that I’m a migrant worker…” but that’s different. I’m not being facetious about it being coherent – there’s not clearly any magical moment of “consent” that is distinct from all the stuff that’s different between the overt act of rape or sexual coercion vs. sex. That’s what strikes many people as a bit too rigid about the infamous Antioch College sexual offense policy.** If you talk to a woman (or man), get to know her a bit, invite her to come back to your place, put on some music, talk feminist theory, eventually start making out, she’s enthusiastic about it, etc. etc. the normal “read” of that situation is that consent has been given, even if there is no act of saying “I consent to this.” You can’t have that surrounding pleasant activity and the surrounding awful activity of rape.

Second, why are we even talking about consent? What does “she didn’t consent” add to the badness of what happened?

This brings me back to all the non-sexual stuff about Imokalee workers. I don’t think consent sheds much light on the badness of many of the things that we’re inclined to say are bad because they’re non-consensual. It doesn’t have to be sex. Murdering someone and euthanizing them are typically pretty different things, even if we don’t focus on the moment of saying, “please kill me.”

And I worry that consent is a way of setting up an Agamben-style “state of exception.” We invoke consent precisely when we are talking about evils and abuses of the person. I don’t say that I have “consensual sex” with my wife. I mean, I do, but I just say that I have sex with her. I insist on its consensual nature only if there is some reason I am concerned to prove to you that it isn’t rape. And if that’s the concern, you should probably make your judgments based on something other than my protestations of consent.

Invocations of consent are a sort of ticket into a zone of suspension of the normal rules for dealing with human beings – consent is a “get out of jail free” card for doing things that would normally be wrong. In the case of workers (sex- or otherwise) it is a way of saying, “these horrors are beyond your judgment.” No one invokes consent when talking about my job as a professor. We invoke consent when we’re talking about people with jobs we can’t imagine anyone would want to do, when they are in situations that make us recoil and wonder how we can extricate them. Invocations of consent are aimed at anesthetizing this response.***


So far, I’m assuming that there is no important inner act of will. I’ve tried to at least sketch why I don’t think it’s necessary for the important arguments and why it can’t really find a place in them.

I’m influenced here by Brandom’s famous paper, Freedom and Constraint by Norms (sorry for the JStor link, I didn’t find a freely available copy). In a nutshell, Brandom argues that calling something “free willed” is a purely practical judgment. There’s no metaphysical will that you have or you don’t, and we don’t really discover that, e.g., humans have free will but rocks don’t.  Rather, we don’t treat rocks as having free will because the most successful practices we have don’t involve free-willed rocks. Ask some stones to build a house versus mortar them together yourself and see which works better.

This applies to people, too. Treat drug addicts as evil-doers who need to be punished and oops, you’ll end up with an endless drug war and prisons groaning under the weight.

As Brandom anti-pithily puts it,

The force of the claim that the difference between the social [the realm of the free willed] and the objective [the realm of the causal explanation] is a difference in how they are treated by some community (by us) rather than an objective matter about which we could be right or wrong is that differences in convenience of one kind or another are the only differences to be accommodated here. (193)

This provides an answer to the “slippery slope” worry about recognizing constraints on consent that I discussed above. There’s no place on the slope between the pressures on professors and the pressures on slaves that we have to stop. It’s just that our social practices become more and more strained as we try to either treat professors as coerced or slaves as free.

But wait. Wait.

Who’s “us?” Convenient for whom?

I think we think we’ve climbed the slippery slope here when we’ve slid to the bottom (maybe it’s an Escher slope?).

The doctrine of consent is a social practice that creates sacrifice zones full of people we want to exploit. If they were full and equal participants in our social practices, we wouldn’t feel strain and we wouldn’t invoke consent. We invoke consent because otherwise our moral practices threaten to inconvenience us – people like me, relatively affluent, male, white, educated, powerful, comfortable – with nausea and horror. Granting that someone can give consent is often taken to be a way of treating them as human, but I don’t think it is. Treating someone as human is how to treat them as human – invoking their consent too often looks like an excuse for not doing that.

This is why I talk about this being some thoughts/notes toward a “political economy” of consent. I suspect that the ways in which we talk about consent and non-consent are generated by and reinforce a particular distribution of power, economic and otherwise. Framing work as inherently consensual lets me eat cheap tomatoes and enlists some of the very people who make do with crappy conditions so I can have inexpensive consumer goods in the defense of my privilege. If we mark out a zone of sex that is not “work” it has as at least a side effect the impact of making clear that the rules of work that brutalize all non-genital areas of the body are beyond reproach.


* It bears noting that the conviction that sex work is (overwhelmingly/necessarily) bad for the sex workers is only one strand of feminist critique on the issue. For MacKinnon, e.g., the problem is just as much that pornography and sex work communicates and normalizes a misogynistic image of women, and thereby harms other women than the sex workers. For many feminist critics of sex work, it would be an evil even if all sex workers themselves were treated well, enjoyed the work, were not subject to any kind of coercion, etc. I’m only ignoring this line of argument because I’m focusing on a different aspect.

** I don’t agree with people who think the Antioch policy is ridiculous. Lots of things that fly in the context of, say, my relationship with my wife are dangerous to rely on with someone you know less well. Antioch’s policy may err on the side of the cautious, and I suspect it was often violated in letter by committed couples, but seem like a reasonable set of rules for a context in which stakes are high, people are prone to pressure, and communication can be difficult. I’d certainly rather be able to appeal to “the rules” to force communication than have people, as we know people do, go along with something they don’t really approve of because they feel awkward standing up for themselves. And that’s even leaving aside things like extreme drunkenness, etc. that the policy would help blunt the impact of.

*** I don’t want to imply that the response is always appropriate, particularly in the case of sex work. If my points here apply to sex work, as opposed to just being partly inspired by reflection on the ways in which it has come under critique and been defended, it would be in a more limited way. I think the question of whether sex work is consensual (as I am arguing it is for all work) is tangential to the question of whether it’s right or wrong. The argument should be over what life is like for the sex workers (and possibly whatever knock-on impacts it has on other men and women). Most people, myself included, don’t have a very clear picture about what life is like for actual sex workers. All I’m saying is a) if we’re going to pass judgment one way or the other, we should do it by starting with looking in detail at what life is like, and it’s probably going to be very different for different sex workers; we can’t short-cut that investigation by making any sort of transcendental argument about the nature of sex. Once we’ve done that, b) let’s not cheat by invoking consent on behalf of people who look like their sex work is miserable for them or invoking secret non-consent on people who look like it’s a good profession for them. I don’t have settled views on how many people are likely to be in either of those categories, and I think it’d be irresponsible for me to have them.

I Am Not a Babysitter

Pictured: Women's Work

Pictured: Boring Women’s Work

This is going to be a quick (hopefully not “quick”) relatively link-free post. There’s literature talking about this, but I’m not going to drag it up right now since I really oughta be working. It’s just really been bugging me, so this is a philosophy/vent.

I have a four-year-old daughter. As a result, I organize my life to a significant extent around her schedule. Often, this means that I either can’t make things or need to schedule them around the fact that she’s got to get to preschool in the mornings and home in the evenings, I’m making dinner, and that early evening (between when I knock off work and when she goes to bed) are prime family time.

This is often at odds with my professional culture, not to mention culture in general, that drive me up the fucking wall. Recently, for instance, I was in a conversation about scheduling a meeting that several other attendees really wanted to schedule in the evening, during the week. I was already annoyed enough by the fact that I needed to justify at least three times during the conversation how, NO, you need to LISTEN, meetings at 5PM really suck for me because that’s when my daughter is coming home from preschool and we’re eating dinner and stuff. Later, it came back to me that one of the people involved in the scheduling had quipped that they were trying to set up this meeting with me, but it was hard because I had “babysitting duties.”


OK, not quite, but still. A couple caveats: I know the person who said that, and I don’t think anything was meant by it and generally like this person. And in terms of formal stuff, my job is pretty good about me having a child (certainly much better than many other jobs under capitalist conditions of production) – I got my tenure clock stopped for a year, I mostly set my own hours, etc. So I have it much less bad than many.

But the culture around this stuff really sets my teeth on edge. I am not a “babysitter.” There are so many things wrong with this.  First, while I am lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman with whom I have a healthy relationship, I am not merely a backstop to her primary child-care duties. I really resent the implication that comes out, e.g., not only in the term “babysitting,” but in the way that if I say, “I can’t do Mondays, as my wife gets home late,” it mostly passes, but if I say, “I can’t do Wednesdays, I like to be home for dinner with my family,” it seems to be more looked-askance-at. Part of our healthy relationship is that we try our best, within the confines of our socially inflicted normative damage, to be co-equals in our parenting. Yes, of course, we don’t always need to be there both – but neither of us is “covering” for the other when only one of us is there.

Second, while of course I have obligations to my daughter (and trust me, sometimes I am playing “you be the King, and I’ll be the Princess” out mere teeth-gritting Kantian duty), that is not the primary reason, most of the time, that I spend time with her. I spend time with her because it is valuable to me to do so. Most of it is enjoyable! It’s really cool to hang out with someone who’s learning a lot of things about the world, and it’s fun to be silly with a four-year-old in ways that I’m not with other people. Even the parts that may not be “fun,” we’re building an Aristotelian friendship – I am trying to help her be a _phronemos_ and she’s helping me, cultivating virtues like patience and care in me.

Academia, for all its lefty cred, is not always the most congenial place to see things this way. It’s not just about my daughter – I recall one incident, when I was talking about the job market, when I was told by a colleague _in front of my then-fiancee-now-wife_ that I shouldn’t have a serious relationship until I had tenure, as otherwise it would prevent me from moving around as needed.

But of course it’s not just academia (and I want to reiterate that though this is a pet peeve, most of this comes up among people to whom I bear no overall ill will. Except the “no serious relationships” guy, fuck that guy, he was also just an asshole in general). Numerous times I’ll be out on the street with my daughter and get some variation on “it’s so nice to see a father spending time with his child!” That shouldn’t be laudable. It should be expected.

Part of what frustrates me, I guess, is that it doesn’t need to be this way. I don’t work on a nuclear submarine or in an ER. As I’ve pointed out to my students when I sneak in some feminism, the only thing that keeps me from bringing my daughter to work with me is social norms about the separation of the work and home spheres. I doubt that the quality of their education would be degraded if instead of meeting for 2.5 hours with only adults, we met for five hours, talked philosophy, ate a meal together, and played with our children (or took care of our elderly, etc.). Along with some colleagues, I organized a free philosophy class in Baltimore, that had “kid-friendly” plastered all over the proposal material I sent the organizers, and yet when I showed up to the first class with my daughter, I had to go home because they neglected to tell me that their space wasn’t lead-abated and so young children weren’t allowed in – I doubt if there was an issue with the content of the class it would have been relegated to an oversight in the same way. I gave a sharp student the suggestion (at her request for some literature on the ethics of care) to read one of my favorite books, Sara Ruddick’s _Maternal Thinking_ and she said she liked it, but couldn’t relate to a lot of it, since she wasn’t a parent – and yet, you know, we consume media about war and police procedurals as if they’re touchstone human experiences.

We’ve got a society that’s unfriendly to children in the public sphere, and expects women to take care of them in the private sphere because we made it that way, not because it has to be that way, and it hacks me off.