The wrong model for a Canadian republic


Image: The hearing given by the Doge in the Sala del Collegio in Doge’s Palace by Francesco Guardi, via Wikipedia

CBC quotes Tom Freda, director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, saying:

By simply removing our link between the Governor General and the monarchy, that makes us a parliamentary republic. That is our goal.

Our Governor General acts in the name of the Queen. We would like that to change. We would like the Governor General to be our official head of state, not our de facto head of state.

No other difference: no change to our royal institutions, no changes to our history or culture, and above all, no changes to royal visits! We’d still welcome the Royals.

It’s not that simple. Read on to see why.

Keep in mind that the governor general is appointed (and, potentially, dismissed) by the Queen, on the advice of the prime minister; this advice is normally understood as binding, and the Queen’s involvement as a mere formality, so when Freda says we could become a republic simply by removing the link between governor general and Queen I assume he means that the final constitutional authority to appoint or dismiss the governor general would pass to the prime minister. But in fact this is no simple change. It would radically undermine responsible government and lead to a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister.

One of the governor general’s crucial constitutional functions is to appoint – and possibly dismiss – the prime minister. In Canada the appropriate choice for the governor general to make in these matters is usually absolutely clear. For example, when the Liberals won a majority in the last election, Stephen Harper could plainly see that he would not have the confidence of the incoming House of Commons and he resigned. If he had, for some unfathomable reason, decided to meet the House after all, he would have resigned after failing to secure confidence. Note: he would have resigned. The House of Commons has the power to revoke the prime minister’s legitimacy; it does not have the power to remove the prime minister from office. Only the governor general has this power. Knowing that the Governor General can remove him or her from office, a prime minister has every reason to resign once his or her legitimacy has been revoked by the House and there is no prospect of reacquiring legitimacy via a general election (which can also only be called with the authorization of the governor general).

If, on the other hand, the prime minister appoints and dismisses the governor general, the situation is quite different. If the prime minister anticipates difficulty in a new parliament, he or she can appoint a close ally as head of state, guaranteeing that the governor general’s powers will only be used in ways that are beneficial to the current government. If the prime minister meets a hostile House with a friendly governor general backing the government, he or she can remain in power indefinitely no matter what happens in the legislature. Not even the budget sets any ultimate limit on the government’s lifespan; time limits on the issuance of governor general’s special warrants can be circumvented by repeatedly dissolving parliament. This has the added benefit of forcing the opposition parties out of competition by depleting their election funds, eventually delivering parliament back into the hands of the governing party.

This particular scenario, which involves a prime minister exercising his or her new power over the head of state to the fullest extent, is clearly far-fetched. But it is not so hard to believe that the prospect of a prime minister exercising these powers to even a limited degree can profoundly alter the expectations and the behaviour of all the relevant actors, from the governor general to the voters, and I find it hard to believe that anyone in Canada thinks our political system would benefit from the prime minister being given these new powers. Frankly, I think the people at Citizens for a Canadian Republic just haven’t given the issue very much thought.

Of course there is no reason why Canada could not become a republic as long as the threshold for the relevant amending formula is met. The decision to abolish the Canadian monarchy would be regrettable, in my view, but it would not necessarily turn out to be a complete debacle. There are many flourishing parliamentary republics, and among them Canadians can find many models for constitutional reform. But none of these republics take the form that Freda advocates for our country, and there is good reason for this; it would be a recipe for a utterly unique, made-in-Canada disaster.

Ethics of voting part 1: Why is it wrong to vote for the bad man?


It’s obvious that people who vote for Trump are doing something wrong, and it’s obvious that a Trump presidency would be horrible. But how are those facts connected? The nature of the connection between the wrongness of voting for Trump and the badness of a Trump presidency is important in part because it would also shed light on whether or not it’s wrong to vote for Stein or Johnson, as many of Clinton’s supporters have claimed. Let’s take a very quick look at how the dominant ethical theories might deal with this question.

A strict consequentialist explanation of the wrongness of voting for Trump won’t work, I think, because no one person’s vote determines the outcome of an election. The consequences of one person’s vote are nil. Similarly, inferring “a vote for Stein or Johnson helps Trump” from “a larger share of the vote going to Stein or Johnson helps Trump” seems to involve a fallacy of division. Rule consequentialism doesn’t seem to clear things up too much either. People voting for Stein and Johnson probably think following a rule that dictates voting for Stein or Johnson would bring about the best consequences, and Clinton voters probably feel the same way, whereas the point of “a vote for X is a vote for Y” slogans is to appeal to people to vote for Z even though they think it would be best if X were elected.

A deontological approach seems more promising, as it can accommodate considerations like whether a candidate deserves your vote. Trump voters are doing something wrong because Trump does not deserve their vote. But this doesn’t seem quite right either. First, a desert-based approach appears to treat public office purely as a private good and elections purely as a means of dividing a quantity of private goods between the candidates. Second, the bases of desert for holding public office could never include a purely relational fact about a candidate such as their chances of winning, whereas it seems that there are at least some circumstances where voting for the lesser of two evils is ethically obligatory simply because of relational facts like their chances of winning the election and the badness of their main opponent – a tight two-way race between a Nazi and a Republican, for example. One possible explanation is that an implicit but clear compact exists among the non-Nazi voters in such a case; given the existence and purpose of the compact, this gives rise to a duty to uphold the compact by voting for the lesser of two evils. But because there is normally no such implicit compact, there is normally no such duty, and considerations of individual desert take precedence.

An advantage of a deontological approach is that it can explain why Trump voters are doing something wrong: they’re giving their votes to someone who doesn’t deserve their votes. He doesn’t deserve their votes because he’d be a terrible president. This approach can also make some sense of the “a vote for X is a vote for Y” slogan: it’s an attempt to establish an implicit compact among voters that would give rise to a duty to vote for Z regardless of whether X is the more deserving candidate. But the deontological approach also has serious problems. It may sometimes be useful to analyze elections purely as a contest for private goods, but it doesn’t seem right for the moral perspective on elections to view them purely as a contest for private goods. Furthermore, this approach implies that all the votes ought to go to one candidate. But if one candidate were to get all the votes, I think most people would be deeply concerned with the competitiveness of our political culture, not deeply impressed by the voters’ powers of moral discernment. Even voters with a clear favourite among the candidates are likely to prefer a more competitive election; a voter’s assessment of Clinton, for example, may depend on how the perceived relative strength of the other candidates affects the kind of appeal Clinton will make to the voters.

The most popular theories of ethics struggle to provide a satisfactory explanation of when voting in a particular way is right or wrong. Deontology is somewhat more successful than consequentialism in this respect, but it issues guidance that is incompatible with our understanding of the purpose and functioning of democratic systems. In my next post, I’ll look at whether two alternative currents in ethical theory – contractualism and virtue ethics – might provide us with better answers.

Does panpsychism have moral implications? (No.)


Spock knows that consciousness can be found in surprising places

In a recent post at the OUP blog, Godehard Bruntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla write:

…[P]anpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.

Panpsychism is simply the doctrine that consciousness or mentality of some kind is a fundamental and pervasive feature of the world. If panpsychism did imply the theory of value that Bruntrup and Jaskolla attribute to it, would have good reason to think that panpsychism is false. So given the explanatory virtues of panpsychism, we’re fortunate that it does not. Panpsychism has no moral implications whatsoever.

The authors seem to be assuming that possession of mental properties is both necessary and sufficient to be a bearer of intrinsic value; necessary, because they appear to hold that as long as we understand nature as consisting in dumb matter, we would be justified in viewing nature in purely instrumental terms, and sufficient, because they write as though establishing that the constituents of nature have mental properties also establishes that the constituents of nature have intrinsic value.

Bruntrup and Jaskolla claim that adopting their view will improve our relationship with nature, but in fact it would licence almost any abuse of nature while ruling out any non-instrumentalist environmental ethics. This is because the elements of nature to which panpsychists make their surprising ascriptions of primitive consciousness are virtually immune from being affected by any human action, whereas panpsychists do not ascribe consciousness to the elements of nature we directly encounter in the world and with which environmental ethics is normally concerned.

Panpsychists think that consciousness is everywhere, but they generally do not think that everything is conscious. The fundamental constituents of the world have mental properties, but it doesn’t follow that just anything built up from those constituents will have mental properties. Panpsychists take some teasing for the claim that, say, electrons have experiences of a sort – “that there is something it is like to be an electron” – but they do not claim that there’s anything it is like to be a chair, a rock, or a flower. All the building blocks of nature have a primitive kind of consciousness, but only certain kinds of arrangements of those blocks (such as we find in human brains, for example) will be conscious in their own right.

There are live debates in environmental ethics about whether an entity like an ecosystem might have intrinsic value or direct moral status of a kind, over and above the value and moral status of the individual animals that partly constitute the ecosystem. And there are similar controversies about the value and status of species, considered independently of the value and status of any or all members of the species. But there is little debate over whether an ecosystem or a species can possess consciousness in its own right, separate from the consciousness of any constituent of the ecosystem or member of the species. So on Bruntrup and Jaskolla’s view, the matter is settled right away: ecosystems and species are not conscious, and so they cannot possibly be bearers of intrinsic value. Of course we have good reasons not to clearcut all the forests or hunt species to extinction, but those are just a familiar mix of prudential reasons and moral concern for the rights or welfare of individual animals. That may turn out to be the right answer – I’m skeptical of the idea that ecosystems and species have intrinsic value myself – but I can’t see how this view would lead to any improvement on the relationship with nature that follows from the caricature of the Cartesian picture that Bruntrup and Jaskolla provide.

Related reading

David Chalmers’s 2013 Amherst Lecture on “Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism” (pdf)

Philip Goff’s publications on panpsychism and related views

Panpsychism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Rawls and full employment


Larry Udall has a short piece up at the APA blog in which he suggests a “friendly amendment” to John Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness. Although Rawls tended to be deliberately vague about the institutional arrangements and policies that would satisfy his favoured principles of distributive justice, Udall points out that Rawls was a lifelong supporter of the goal of full employment and what is now often referred to as a job guarantee (i.e. government as employer of last resort), with approving references to such policies appearing in lectures and published works at every stage of his career from A Theory of Justice onward. Udall’s complaint is that Rawls’s theory fails to establish a job guarantee as a fundamental requirement of justice. Appealing to the reader’s conviction that such a guarantee is required by justice, Udall concludes that Rawls’s theory must be missing something, but the problem is easily solved by adding employment to the list of social primary goods whose distribution the principles of justice are meant to regulate.

I believe Udall is mistaken on both points; it is not plausible that employment is a primary good, but justice as fairness generates a commitment to guaranteed access to employment without any amendment to the list of primary goods.

In Rawlsian jargon, primary goods are things that “every rational [person] is presumed to want.” Social primary goods, the distribuenda of justice as fairness, are the subset of primary goods that are produced and regulated by a society-wide system of cooperation; Rawls’s canonical list includes rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. In a free society – the kind of society to which the principles of justice as fairness are supposed to be applied – people will have all sorts of different goals and plans for their lives. But no matter what their goals and plans happen to be, everyone needs a share of social primary goods to pursue them. For this reason, primary goods are sometimes described as the all-purpose means for a person to make effective use of their rights and liberties, or as the things a person would want regardless of what else they want.

Given this definition, we can perform a simple test to check whether something counts as a primary good. If employment is a primary good, that means employment is something that every rational person wants. If we can conceive of a rational person whose plans for life don’t require employment for their fulfillment, employment is not a primary good.

Conceiving of such a person doesn’t take a lot of imagination. Many people find fulfillment in working as full-time dependant caregivers and household managers outside the labour market. Clearly these people are playing a role in the cooperative venture of society – an indispensable role, in fact – and the suggestion that a person would be irrational to pursue and find fulfillment in this kind of work would be both manifestly untrue and grossly insulting. Being employed is not just unnecessary to pursue the goal of becoming a full-time dependant caregiver, it is incompatible with that goal. It follows that employment is not a primary good.

If employment is not a primary good and there is no principle of justice that specifies a requirement for the institutions of the basic structure to guarantee employment, support for Udall’s (and Rawls’s) conviction that a just society will guarantee full employment must either be found in the canonical list of social primary goods or as a consequence of the two canonical principles of justice as fairness. Udall points out that Rawls’s remarks on full employment might be taken to imply that a job guarantee would fall under the social bases of self-respect, but rejects the inference on the grounds that the social bases of self-respect are too weak a foundation for a right as important as guaranteed employment. Although I find this part of Udall’s argument very misguided, I will set the issue aside for the time being. Instead, let’s take a look at Rawls’s two principles of justice.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, here’s Rawls’s two principles as they appear on page 266 of the revised edition or page 302 of the original edition:

2princThe second principle establishes a baseline of strict equality in shares of social primary goods. Deviations from strict equality are permitted only if such deviations increase the absolute size of the least advantaged group’s share. This aspect of the second principle is known as the difference principle. The other aspect of the second principle, the principle of fair equality of opportunity, places a further constraint on deviations from strict equality in shares of social primary goods even when such deviations would make the least advantaged better off.

There is some reason to think that the difference principle generates a requirement for guaranteed access to employment as a matter of basic justice. Creating opportunities and incentives for the unemployed to find work will increase the total quantity of social primary goods, thereby increasing the absolute size of the least advantaged group’s share through a rearrangement of social and economic inequalities, just as the difference principle dictates. Udall might object that this is too contingent a basis for guaranteed employment, and it seems obviously unjust – not to mention deeply at odds with the spirit of justice as fairness – for a person to be denied real opportunities for employment on the grounds that giving them a job isn’t unnecessary to maximize the distributive shares of the least advantaged.

Fortunately, the principle of fair equality of opportunity can provide a more secure foundation for a job guarantee. Long-term unemployment damages one’s prospects for attaining different offices and positions to which relatively larger distributive shares are attached and inevitably leads to a lower overall lifetime share of social primary goods. While the second principle of justice permits and regulates certain deviations from strict equality, the requirement of fair equality of opportunity prohibits any deviation from strict equality of opportunity. Because long-term unemployment creates inequality of opportunity, justice requires that the basic structure of society be arranged so that no one suffers involuntary long-term unemployment. No amendment to the list of primary goods  or the principles of justice is needed; Rawls’s original principles already explain why a just society would guarantee a job to anyone able and willing to work.

Supplementary Links

“Welfare, Work Requirements, and Dependant-Care” by Elizabeth Anderson

John Rawls at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Original Position at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Paul Thompson on parties and movements


Excellent analysis by Paul Thompson over at Renewal:

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither ‘wing’ adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of ‘people all round the country’ does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. And, as Matt Bolton notes, ‘The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism’. Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited, party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years. A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the broader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the ‘voice’ of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group ‘in struggle’. But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘support anyone/all demands in struggle’.  Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

Read the full thing here: Corbynism isn’t a social movement, and Labour shouldn’t be one