Critical comments concerning Cullen’s contest

Last week, Nathan Cullen announced a contest in which his constituents will compete to have their ideas for a new law turned into a private member’s bill and introduced in parliament during the fall sitting. Cullen envisions the contest as a means of fighting cynicism about politics by demonstrating that voters can have real influence over their MPs. However, if this is the aim, then the contest is a poorly conceived instrument by which to pursue it.

As it happens, voters are already entitled to send MPs their ideas for laws. And obviously MPs should, as a matter of course, turn great ideas into private member’s bills—at least insofar as a reasonable ordering of priorities allows (after all, MPs have other responsibilities). This is supposed to be standard operating procedure for representative democracy, not a radical departure from it.

Although Cullen describes the contest as a unique demonstration of trust in voters, there is already plenty of trust to go around. We trust the public to select good representatives, and part of what makes a good representative is being judiciously responsive to the public between elections. This means we also trust the public to form and communicate views and preferences that tend to be worthy of response.

Ordinarily, Cullen would act as gatekeeper, deciding whether or not an idea from his constituents is, all things considered, worth turning into a private member’s bill. This contest does not do away with the gatekeeper; it merely replaces an elected and accountable gatekeeper with “a volunteer panel of local business, faith, cultural and ethnic leaders”. What makes this contest remarkable, then, is not the trust it puts in voters but rather the mistrust it puts in representatives.

By portraying the opportunity for “real influence” as an exceptional event, Cullen encourages the perception that under ordinary conditions, voters have no real influence. And by removing himself from the process of evaluating the public’s suggestions for new laws and calling this “real influence”, Cullen encourages the perception that MPs are obstacles to—rather than facilitators of—democratic engagement. All this should be expected to feed voters’ cynicism rather than fight it.

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Samuel Scheffler on the value of toleration

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Liberal societies value and promote toleration among people whose deepest convictions and ideals frequently differ and even conflict. One reason to value this kind of toleration is that it helps maintain social peace. But as Samuel Scheffler observes, members of liberal societies often see toleration as a something more than a pragmatically justified compromise. Rather, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in itself. Given that life under a regime of toleration constrains and may even rule out the pursuit of some of our deepest convictions and ideals, what explains the strength of our allegiance to toleration as a non-instrumental value? In this passage from “The Good of Toleration”, published in Equality and Tradition, Scheffler offers a compelling and insightful explanation:

In general, the shared experience of subjection to a common authority is a powerful basis for relations of solidarity. Many other forms of comradeship and solidarity, in addition to those among siblings, are also forged on this basis. Think, for example, of the relations among students in a classroom, soldiers in a military unit, or workers in a manufacturing plant. In each case, there is room for competition, rivalry, and even dislike—indeed, the full range of human interpersonal attitudes is available to the members of these groups. But, in addition, there is this: a tendency to solidarity deriving from the shared experience of living together under a common authority.

Obviously, we are not all siblings or comrades, and there is (for now) no common human authority to whom we are all subject. So when I say that there is a form of fraternity associated with participation in a regime of toleration, I do not mean to suggest that the model of siblings and comrades carries over straightforwardly to this case. However, although we are not all subject to a common authority, we are all subject to the idea of authority. That is, we must all confront the normative dimension of human experience. We all live in the shadow of norms, principles, reasons, and ideals that, rightly or wrongly, we regard as authoritative. And although our values vary, the experience of responding to normative authority—of trying to be guided by values and norms that we accept—is part of our common experience. And this too makes possible a form of solidarity—a form of solidarity that derives from the shared experience of subjection, not to a common authority figure, but to normativity or authority itself.

It is in this spirit, I believe, that the adherents of different religions sometimes feel a sense of solidarity with one another as participants in the common enterprise of responding to ideas of the sacred or the divine. More generally, the adherents of different values and ideals sometimes recognize one another as participants in the shared human enterprise of trying to live a good or worthy life—that is, of trying to live in accordance with norms and ideals that one perceives as authoritative. I say that they sometimes recognize one another as participants in a common enterprise, not that they must do so or that they always do so. To the contrary, this unifying form of recognition is easily blocked or disabled by any of the numerous factors that give the differences and divisions among people their salience. However, I believe that a regime of toleration, by enforcing the kind of mutual deference to one another’s values that I have been describing, encourages such recognition. Indeed, it does more. It gives concrete social expression to a compelling but abstract idea: the idea of an otherwise diverse people who are united by the common experience of confronting the normative or evaluative dimension of human life. In addition, it demands that we relate to one another in a way that acknowledges this bond that unites us. And when we do relate to one another in that way, the experience—for many—is one of fraternity or solidarity with one’s fellows. To the extent that that experience is rewarding, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in its own right. In this way, a regime of toleration that is initially accepted on purely instrumental grounds may begin gradually to attract value-based support and may come over time to be seen as intrinsically worthy. What began as a modus vivendi is transformed into a valued way of life.

The rewards characteristically afforded by this way of life might be called the rewards of openness to the other. For some people, the most important of these rewards lies in the sense of enrichment that comes from developing an appreciation for forms of value that are realized in practices other than one’s own. Other people simply find it exhilarating to live confidently amidst the whirl of human diversity. For still other people, there are subversive and transgressive pleasures afforded by engagement with unfamiliar customs and practices. What underlies all of these rewards—what makes them available to the participants in a regime of toleration—is the kind of fraternity that is expressed in and realized by the practice of mutual deference to one another’s values. And for people who experience and appreciate the rewards associated with that practice, its value ceases to be purely instrumental. (pages 331-333)

Response to Tieleman, Anton and Plecas on proportional representation

15Tieleman’s secret stash of anti-PR arguments revealed

In their latest column, Bill Tieleman, Suzanne Anton and Bob Plecas claim that proportional representation would necessarily result in many MLAs being “appointed from the party list”; such MLAs, they allege, “would have no geographic riding, no constituents and no voter accountability.” These claims are demonstrably false.

While it is no doubt possible to design a proportional electoral system with these characteristics, there is no reason why a proportional electoral system must have these characteristics. As a matter of fact, most do not. For one, countries with proportional electoral systems are usually divided into a number of multi-member electoral districts. Others use a mix of single- and multi-member districts. Second, in countries that use the single transferable vote or so-called “open lists” to elect representatives in the multi-member constituencies, voters have at least as much control over which candidates from their preferred party are ultimately chosen for office as they do under our current electoral system. And one might even argue that STV and open lists actually give voters more control than they have under the status quo; after all, under our current system, each party can only present voters with one candidate in each electoral district, whereas these forms of PR allows voters to register preferences for different candidates from the same party.

The authors also repeat the canard that proportional representation leads to long delays in government formation following an election. While there have been a handful of news-making cases where the process takes a very long time, such cases are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual. In fact, depending on the circumstances under which a new government must be formed, the average duration ranges from about two weeks to a month. As BC recently proved, with a clear caretaker convention in place and the ongoing support of a professional public service, such delays are nothing to worry about.

Could electoral fusion work in Canada?

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A sample ballot from New York. Note that the Conservative Party has nominated the entire Republican slate, while only half of the Democratic candidates have secured the Working Families nomination.

Given that major changes to the electoral system seem to be off the national agenda at least until the Liberals are replaced in office, or perhaps reduced to a minority in parliament, it may be worthwhile for proponents of reform to consider some other options. In this post, I’ll discuss one such option: electoral fusion.

Electoral fusion is a system in which the same candidate can be nominated simultaneously by more than one party. Such candidates are listed on the ballot separately with the label of each party by which they have been nominated. Votes received by that candidate under each label can be reported separately, but they are added together for the purpose of selecting a winner.

The practice of electoral fusion is largely confined to the United States. In recent years, the most prominent user of electoral fusion has been the Working Families Party, a small social democratic party formed in 1998 by labour and community organizations and activists from the similarly oriented but short-lived New Party. The WFP differs from most American parties in three major respects. First, it rarely enters any candidates of its own into competition, preferring to leave candidates from other parties to try to win the WFP’s nomination. Second, the WFP is explicitly organized on the basis of class interest, which wouldn’t be unusual in most democracies but certainly sets the WFP apart from the major parties in the United States. Fusion voting is especially important in New York, where at least five minor parties regularly issue endorsements of major party candidates.

The long-standing alliance between Labour and the Cooperative Party in the UK can also be viewed as a more restricted kind of electoral fusion, demonstrating that fusion can be viable in the context of the more cohesive parties that are characteristic of parliamentary democracies. Members of Labour are permitted to maintain dual membership in the Cooperative Party, and Labour candidates may seek the Cooperative nomination. The Cooperative Party, in turn, only nominates candidates from the Labour Party. Nevertheless, nominations are competitive — although the Cooperative Party may nominate only candidates from Labour, it is under no obligation to nominate anyone at all. Candidates who desire the Cooperative nomination must convince the party that they will champion the Cooperative platform in office. Candidates who secure both nominations appear on the ballot once, with their affiliation listed as “Labour and Cooperative”.

Electoral fusion provides for more freedom of political expression in the electoral process without the risk of vote-splitting or the need to to adopt a completely different electoral system. The practice is also compatible with alternative electoral systems, both proportional and majoritarian. Supporters of proportional representation may wish to consider pushing for electoral fusion as a partial fix for some of FPTP’s flaws, and possibly as a stepping stone to more fundamental electoral reform, while those who oppose proportional representation on balance may also be convinced that fusion would go some way towards correcting the admitted defects of FPTP that motivate supporters of PR.

Response to Bannister: What grounds human rights?

yMxyTIf God can make moral rules just as he pleases, can we be confident that those rules are going to be any good?

At The BC Catholic, Christian apologist Andy Bannister and humanist advocate Ian Bushfield have summarized arguments they presented in a recent public discussion on the foundations of human rights. Bannister argues that Christianity offers a superior account of how there could be such things as human rights, while Bushfield argues for the superiority of a naturalistic, pragmatist approach. To my mind, however, neither approach is adequate; while each contains a measure of truth, both ought to be rejected by theists and non-theists alike. In this post I focus on some of the problems with Bannister’s argument; in a future post I intend to present some objections to Bushfield. Because it is not apparent from Bannister’s statement that he views human rights as importantly distinct from other kinds of moral facts, in what follows I use these terms interchangeably.

Bannister’s argument is as follows. There are three possible positions on human rights. The first is that human rights do not exist in any robust sense. They are just made up rules with no justification beyond their instrumental value in securing conditions for survival and reproduction. The second possibility is that human rights exist, but they are not justified or explained by anything further. The third position is that human rights exist because we have been endowed with them by God, our creator, who made us in his image. The moral skepticism of the first position is unacceptable, and the second position is ad hoc and lacks true explanatory power. Only the third position supplies an adequate foundation for human rights.

This short argument suffers from a multitude of problems. The first problem is that Bannister assumes that there is something morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations. The grounds of this special status are no less mysterious than the grounds of human rights — in fact, they seem to be basically the very same mystery. If so, then Bannister’s third position has no explanatory advantage over the second position.

Perhaps, however, this objection misconstrues Bannister’s claim that God endows humans with rights in the act of creation. Bannister may reply that God is in a position to determine what is right, good or valuable. When God creates human beings, he is not only assembling a bundle of material and spiritual substances which, by virtue of being assembled by God, thereby acquires value; rather, the act of creation also involves creating moral properties and attaching them to each bundle. On this view, there is nothing morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations prior to God’s willing that moral significance into being.

Although I think this interpretation is a better fit with Bannister’s intended meaning, it raises a new problem: making God’s will the ultimate source of moral obligation threatens to turn God into the kind of “human rights fairy” Bannister earlier dismisses as an ad hoc pseudo-explanation.

Bannister might respond that there is an important dissimilarity between a human rights fairy and a conception of God as the source of moral obligation. We have independent grounds to believe that God exists, and if God exists, God could play the same explanatory role as a human rights fairy. So God is not invoked on an ad hoc basis to explain morality; rather, God becomes a candidate explanation for morality only after God is established as a candidate explanation for some other phenomenon.

I think this is an effective reply to the charge that Bannister’s explanation for morality is just as ad hoc as the human rights fairy. But the problem with the human rights fairy is not only that it is an ad hoc explanation, but also that it just doesn’t really explain much at all. Unless there are moral facts prior to God’s willing them into existence, the moral facts God chooses to will into existence — and even the choice to will any moral facts into existence — are arbitrary. So even if Bannister is right to claim that God could bring moral facts into existence, we still don’t have an explanation of why these moral facts — why any moral facts — exist. And if Bannister is right to claim that moral facts fundamentally depend on God for their existence, there is no explanation.

It will not do to reply that God is not just good but also loving, and a loving God would create moral rules that are best for us. “Best” is an evaluative concept. If there are no moral facts prior to God’s willing, then prior to God’s willing there is no fact of the matter about what is best for creation. Any set of rules imposed by God would count as the rules that are best for us, so the selection of those rules would still have to be wholly arbitrary even if they were selected by a perfectly loving being.

Those who still find Bannister’s argument persuasive on balance may at this point wish to bite the bullet and accept a view of morality grounded in arbitrary divine commands. Before doing so, however, it is worth considering some further options. Nihilism, brute explanation and divine commands do not exhaust the options for understanding morality, and Bannister’s neglect of these alternatives is puzzling, especially given that the idea that moral facts depend on God has faced noteworthy challengers even within his own religious tradition. The influential Early Modern philosopher and theologian Samuel Clarke, for example, argued that while God’s will was always perfectly congruent with moral truth, moral truth was not dependent on God’s will. Moral truths, according to Clarke, are necessary truths, knowable by reason:

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 2.55.49 PM.png(from A Discourse of Natural Religion)

Morality is not a simple matter, Clarke acknowledges, and in some cases the distinctions between right and wrong may be very fine indeed. We have reason to pay attention to divine revelation concerning moral truth, because God’s perfect knowledge of morality can help us navigate the hard cases. But when it comes to certain elementary truths, Clarke says:

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Yikes!

Drawing on the philosophy of Plato and working with the methods of natural theology (i.e. deriving theological truths from reason rather than revelation, mystical experience, or analysis of sacred texts), the 17th-century Christian philosopher Ralph Cudworth likewise argued forcefully against the idea that morality is dependent on the divine will. The idea of absolute authority over the content of morality, Cudworth thinks, generates a paradox:

The right and authority of God himself, who is the supreme sovereign of the universe, is also in like manner bounded and circumscribed by justice. God’s will is ruled by his justice, and not his justice ruled by his will; and therefore, God himself cannot command what is in its own nature unjust. And thus have we made it evident, that infinite right and authority of doing and commanding any thing without exception, so that the arbitrary will of the commander should be the very rule of justice itself to others, and consequently might oblige to any thing, is an absolute contradiction, and a non-entity; it supposing nothing to be in its own nature just or unjust; which, if there were not, there could be no obligation nor authority at all. (from The True Intellectual System of the Universe)

Instead, Cudworth follows Plato in positing an abstract, mind-independent property of goodness — what Plato called a “Form” and Cudworth an “Essence” — as the basis of moral truth; God’s perfection ensures that his will is always exercised in conformity with essential goodness. While imperfect beings like humans are less reliably moral, the basis of our moral knowledge — rationally grasping the eternal essence of goodness — is ultimately the same as God’s.

Immanuel Kant, also a theist (although not an orthodox Christian by the time he developed his mature moral philosophy), developed a very different account of the objectivity of morals. In contrast to realists like Clarke and divine command theorists like Bannister, Kant argued that the source of moral authority must be found within moral agents themselves. But this does not mean that the dictates or morality are relative or otherwise mutable.

According to Kant, we are free only when our wills are not determined by “alien causes,” i.e. causes that are external to ourselves. This rules out the possibility that we could be free when we act according to whatever our strongest impulses happen to be, because these impulses are determined by external natural causes. Nor can random action make the will free, because the very notion of a randomly acting will is incoherent. It follows, by process of elimination, that the positive definition of freedom must be autonomy or self-legislation, i.e. action that is determined by a law that we give to ourselves. This law cannot be a hypothetical imperative because hypothetical imperatives are based on our particular interests and inclinations, and these in turn are naturally determined. And if the law is not a hypothetical imperative, then it must be a categorical imperative, which is the moral law. Therefore we are free only when we govern ourselves according to the moral law.

Clarke’s realism, Cudworth’s Platonism, and Kant’s rationalist constructivism are just three alternatives to Bannister’s grounding of moral truth in God’s will. All of them were proposed by people who believed in God, so they are at least compatible with Bannister’s broader religious beliefs. And because none of these alternative theories of morality presuppose or entail the existence of God, they are also compatible with secular humanism. Because Bannister fails to address these alternatives — let alone the multitude of realist theories originating within the field of secular ethics — his claim that Christianity offers the only secure foundation for morality lacks adequate support.

Emergence, explicability and necessity

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According to panpsychism, mind is ubiquitous and fundamental. To support their position, contemporary panpsychists rely in part on what Michael Della Rocca calls an explicability argument — an argument in which “a certain state of affairs is said not to obtain simply because its obtaining would be inexplicable, a so-called brute fact.”

One reason that panpsychists reject the idea that consciousness is a strongly emergent property of certain functional or physical states, for example, is because strong emergence would be brute. If consciousness is strongly emergent, there is by definition no reason why consciousness should pop into existence when certain states are instantiated. Put the pieces — neurons, computer chips, beer cans — together in the right way, and then — poof! — all of a sudden, consciousness happens, and that’s the end of the explanation. According to the explicability argument, this gives us good reason to reject the claim that consciousness is strongly emergent.

But why stop there? If consciousness is neither reducible to nor strongly emergent from the physical, what explains why there is consciousness? The only remaining options seem to be that the existence of consciousness is a brute fact, or that consciousness necessarily exists. The explicability argument used to rule out strong emergence, however, also seems to rule out consciousness being a brute fact. This leaves three possibilities. Either explicability arguments are illegitimate, there is a principled reason to accept the explicability argument against strong emergence while rejecting the explicability argument against brute consciousness, or — most plausibly, I think — consciousness is a necessarily existent phenomenon.

Does convention really forbid the disallowance of provincial law?

CharlottetownRef

Here’s something interesting about a relatively obscure part of the Canadian constitution. You know the powers of reservation and disallowance? Probably not, because if you were born after 1961 neither of them have been used in your lifetime, so here’s a summary. Basically reservation empowers a lieutenant governor to pass a provincial bill up to the federal government to be approved or quashed, while disallowance empowers the federal government to quash a law that has received assent at the provincial level (as long as this is done within one year). These powers were used willy nilly for a time following Confederation, but were increasingly regarded as intrusive, undemocratic and contrary to the spirit of federalism. The last time a provincial bill was reserved, the federal government approved it on principle despite almost certainly disagreeing with the substance (Diefenbaker was PM, while the reserved bill originated from the CCF-controlled legislature in Saskatchewan). While the provisions on reservation and disallowance are still in the books, the usual story is that they’re obsolete by convention.

HOWEVER.

In 1992, a major package of constitutional reforms — the Charlottetown Accord — was submitted to a referendum. Among these reforms, sections 55 and 90 of the Constitution Act 1867 — the provisions of the Act that define the powers of reservation and disallowance as they apply between the provincial and federal governments — had been rewritten. The new version omitted the power of reservation but retained the power of disallowance. This seems to undermine the usual story that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention.

Why? Recall that a constitutional convention is an unwritten, non-justiciable (meaning it can’t be enforced by the courts) constitutional rule that exists only in virtue of being recognized and treated as binding by the political actors to whom it applies. To say that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention is to say that the relevant political actors recognize and treat as binding a rule that forbids the use of the power of disallowance. If disallowance is forbidden by convention, then the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use. But if the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use, why would you deliberately redraft the relevant provisions to retain the rule permitting disallowance? The only reasonable conclusion, I think, is that the rule permitting disallowance as a matter of law was retained with the intention that disallowance ought to be permitted, full stop.

If this was the intention, then the inclusion of the rule permitting disallowance suggests that disallowance is still permitted as a matter of convention. That’s because Charlottetown represented just about the broadest elite consensus you can imagine. Every major political party and all the provincial governments supported it; it failed to pass only because it was defeated in the referendum. We can conclude, then, that the power of disallowance was acceptable to most of the political actors to whom an anti-disallowance convention would apply. This means that as of 26 years ago, there was no convention forbidding the use of disallowance. So the claim that there is now a convention forbidding the use of disallowance can’t depend on the observation that disallowance hasn’t been used in a long time — after all, that was true in 1992 too. To conclude that there is now a convention against disallowance, something must have happened in the last 26 years that indicates disallowance is now regarded as forbidden. As far as I can tell, nothing like that has happened. I conclude that disallowance is still permissible both as a matter of law and as a matter of convention.

That’s not to say that Trudeau could ring up Julie Payette tomorrow and start quashing provincial laws all over the place. I concede that the use of disallowance would be contrary to the prevailing political mood, which currently favours a more decentralized kind of federalism. But a constitutional convention is more than a prevailing political mood. Moods are more changeable, for one. And over the course of Canadian history, the prevailing mood has at times favoured the practice of a considerably more centralized kind of federalism. If and when the pendulum swings back in that direction, it is reasonable to think that the power of disallowance could be exercised regularly once again.

Is Scanlon a virtue ethicist?

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According to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualist ethics, an act is wrong if it violates a set of principles that no one could reasonably reject. Reasons for rejecting a principle must conform to two restrictions. First, they must be personal reasons; one cannot appeal directly to impersonal values to reject candidate principles. Second, they must be individuals’ reasons; contractualism does not allow the aggregation of mild objections to outweigh a small number of very strong objections. Being a violation of contractualist principles or some narrower set of special obligations to others are not the only ways an act can be wrong, however. It would also be wrong, Scanlon suggests, to use fine spirits as paint thinner, to develop an obsessive preoccupation with work or sex, to be indifferent to the suffering of non-human animals, or to use the Grand Canyon as a landfill.

It is not plausible, Scanlon argues, that these things would be wrong because no one could reasonably reject principles that disallow them. Rather, these other kinds of wrongdoing are related to violations of the principles that no one could reasonably reject through the higher order property of representing a failure to respond properly to different values. Violating contractualist principles involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of persons in the distinctive ways that this value calls for; using fine spirits as paint thinner involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of fine spirits in the distinctive ways that that value calls for (e.g. by enjoying a good whisky’s complex flavours, or at least getting joyfully smashed with some pals). According to Scanlon’s view, there is no underlying master value that ties all these things together. Rather, both values and principles of right and wrong are constructed from reasons, the most basic normative entities. To value something, on this view (what Scanlon calls a “buck-passing” theory of value) is to see the reasons to treat that thing in certain ways and not others.

Given this more general account of right and wrong, it becomes clear how impersonal values may bear indirectly on the rejectability of candidate principles. Conformity with contractualist principles is a proper response to the value of persons in part because of our distinctive nature as creatures that recognize and respond to reasons. If a candidate principle would leave no room in my life for certain impersonal values — in other words, if it leaves me no room to recognize and respond to reasons to alleviate the suffering of non-human animals, for example — then I have reason to reject it; refusal to take this reason into account in assessing the relevant principle would demonstrate contempt for my value as a person, as well as that of the animal.

Because Scanlon’s contractualism emphasizes principles of right and wrong, it is often regarded as a species of deontological (duty- or rule-based) ethics. Odd as it may sound, however, I think it may be more fruitful to think of Scanlon’s moral philosophy as a species of virtue ethics. What I have in mind by virtue ethics is a family of approaches to moral theory that focuses on the character of the agent and a humanistic ideal of flourishing or eudaimonia, as opposed to approaches that focus on conforming to fundamental duties or bringing about optimal states of affairs. On this view, contractualism merely specifies requirements of the classical virtue of justice, which seems to cover more or less the same moral terrain that Scanlon refers to as “what we owe to each other”.

Given that his contractualism does not purport to be a complete moral theory, why say that Scanlon’s philosophy is a species of and not merely consistent with virtue ethics? The first reason is that the normative authority of contractualist principles is derived from character traits and capabilities that ought to be included in any plausible list of the virtues and the elements of human flourishing. By acting on contractualist principles, Scanlon argues, we establish a basic moral relationship with others — a relationship of “mutual recognition”, as Scanlon calls it. This is not, of course, the only moral relationship. We have duties to friends and family members that we do not have to complete strangers. Plausibly, we also have special duties to neighbours, fellow citizens, classmates, co-workers, etc. But the relationship of mutual recognition, Scanlon argues, is the foundation upon which these other relationships are built. For example:

Friendship, at least as I understand it, involves recognizing the friend as a separate person with moral standing—as someone to whom justification is owed in his or her own right, not merely in virtue of being a friend. A person who saw only friends as having this status would therefore not have friends in the sense I am describing: their moral standing would be too dependent on the contingent fact of his affection.[…]

As is well known, it is crucial to friendship that we are moved to do things for a friend by the special affection and regard that we hold for him or her as a friend, not simply by consideration of a kind that we owe to everyone. But […] friendship also requires us to recognize our friends as having moral standing as persons, independent of our friendship, which also places limits on our behavior. (What We Owe to Each Other, p. 164-165)

As Mark LeBar has pointed out*, this kind of recognition seems very much like a virtue even though Scanlon does not explicitly characterize it as such. Moreover, seeing and treating others in this way is also a precondition for developing virtues and modes of flourishing peculiar to family, friendship and political life.

Second, it is not clear how the contractualist formula can be given much in the way of determinate content without reference to the virtues and the forms of flourishing. For example, as noted above in the discussion of impersonal values, we have reasons for benevolence to animals. And the trait of benevolence contributes to (both causally and constitutively) a relationship with non-human nature that is part of a plausible humanistic ideal of flourishing. The virtue of benevolence and the kind of relationship it is bound up with will often have a significant bearing on the rejectability of principles concerning what we owe to each other. Overall, I strongly suspect that the virtues and the relationships with which they are connected have some bearing on the rejectability of principles more often than not.**

Third, Scanlon stresses that contractualist principles are not categorically binding rules, not do they specify a clear ethical decision procedure. The interpretation and application of contractualist principles always calls for the exercise of judgment, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the virtue ethical concept of practical wisdom or phronesis. Contractualist morality is action-guiding for an agent only to the extent that he or she possesses the master virtue of practical wisdom.

At the very least, then, Scanlon’s contractualism seems to be a fairly comfortable fit with virtue ethics — more so, it seems to me, than with deontology or consequentialism. This suggests that attempts to develop a first order contractualist ethics may profit from closer engagement with the virtue ethical tradition; likewise, attempts to fill out accounts of the virtues are likely to benefit from greater attention to contractualists’ efforts in mapping the domain of what we owe to each other.

*In his chapter “Virtue and politics” in the Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics.
**Robert Adams makes an argument to this effect in the fourth section of his article “Scanlon’s Contractualism: Critical Notice of T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other,” The Philosophical Review, 110 (2001): 563–86.

Response to Welbanks: Some problems with the case for free tuition

TimeLordsTIOTThey probably didn’t charge tuition at the Time Lord Academy either, and you know how egalitarian they were

The Georgia Straight has published a short column by Douglas Welbanks that purports to rebut criticisms of free tuition by Postmedia’s Tristin Hopper. Although Welbanks makes a number of worthwhile points about defects with the status quo, the part of his column specifically concerned with defending free tuition relies heavily on three unsatisfactory arguments. 

1. Free tuition is not a “free ride” for the wealthy because the wealthy pay taxes.

The wealthy also pay taxes under the status quo, which does not include free tuition. This means that if tax rates are held constant, free tuition would indeed be a free ride — an additional benefit the wealthy receive while paying a smaller proportion of their wealth into the system. The obvious response would be that taxes on the wealthy should be raised. But Welbanks admits that under the status quo, the wealthy are already not paying their fair share, and this calls for tax reform. However, there are no details on what reforms would ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share under the status quo, let alone after free tuition has been introduced. This is not, I suspect, because the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated. Tax policy is hard. Given the difficulty of answering this question, I do not see how Welbanks can rule out in advance the possibility that ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share would have to involve a mix of taxes and user fees — including tuition fees.

2. Opposition to free tuition implies ignorance of free public education and universal health care.

This is really a sort of slippery slope argument, in which support for certain existing free services is claimed to lead inexorably to support for making some other service free. But an opponent of free tuition can just as easily turn around and say that support for free tuition leads inexorably to support for free all you can eat cookies. Neither of these are good arguments. Unless the causal chain is spelled out, slippery slope arguments are fallacious.

It is possible that Welbanks thinks the chain leading from public education and health care to free tuition is too obvious to elaborate. But if he were to attempt do so, it might turn out that there are relevant differences between these services. For example, it might be relevant that free public education is mandatory whereas postsecondary education is not, or that universality in the health care system results in a more equitable allocation of resources than a two-tier system. Relevant differences like these, I think, make it unlikely that a non-fallacious version of the slippery slope argument will succeed.

3. Many other wealthy countries, most of which are far more egalitarian than Canada, provide universal free tuition.

This is an excellent reason to take a look at free tuition. But it is not a good reason to conclude that free tuition is a more egalitarian policy. Whether free tuition is a more egalitarian policy depends on the policy’s effects on real opportunities for postsecondary education. As Alex Usher has shown, postsecondary attainment rates in countries with free tuition are lower and more strongly correlated with parents’ attainment. Free tuition does not seem to be part of the explanation for these countries’ successes in the pursuit of equality.

This is not to say that free tuition is an inherently bad idea. I think there may be ways to do it that would avoid the pitfalls that commentators like Hopper and Usher are worried about. But the first step in arguing for a free tuition regime worth wanting is to acknowledge that those pitfalls exist in the first place.

Why democratizing the party policy process is always doomed

Formally speaking, a political party convention is the organization’s supreme policymaking authority. But in practice, the convention qua policymaking body mainly serves to display support for policy decisions already taken by the leadership. Yes, resolutions passed by the convention end up in the policy book. But the leadership is not obligated to actually pursue anything in the policy book. Nor are the policies it chooses to pursue limited to those included in the policy book.

Nevertheless, no convention is complete without a pitched battle between supporters or opponents of this or that resolution. The mere presence of a controversial resolution on the convention agenda can cause the party serious political embarrassment, while the prospect of such a resolution actually coming to a vote is treated as mildly more worrisome than the coming of Ragnarok. Under these conditions, the convention qua policymaking body acquires a secondary function of demonstrating the relative strength (in terms of numbers, organizational capacity, and procedural acumen) of a party’s internal factions or ideological tendencies.

This state of affairs is understandably frustrating for many party members, a large proportion of whom are motivated to get involved in party politics in the first place because they perceive this as an opportunity to influence policy in a meaningful way. And as a result of this frustration, party members have often tried to overhaul the policy process so that the formal promise of authoritative* member control over policy can be reflected in practice. Such efforts are rarely met with any degree of success, and successes tend to be temporary rather than incremental. This establishes a vicious cycle; each setback seems to confirm activists’ suspicion that the party is dominated by elites who are out of touch with the rank and file, and the cure is to bring those elites to heel through further — inevitably doomed — attempts to capture the policy process.

However, the fundamental difficulty with democratizing the policy process in the ways that activists envision arises from the conflict this creates with other mechanisms in the larger democratic apparatus that party policy processes are meant to serve.

Some of these other mechanisms are internal to the party. Party leaders, for example, are increasingly likely to be selected by the membership at large, and members ostensibly choose leaders largely on the basis of their policy commitments. This selection process gives the leader a far more convincing claim to a democratic mandate to set party policy in practice compared to an assembly of convention delegates, most of whom are unknown except to the local activists they represent and who meet as a body only once every year or two.

Activists’ demands for authoritative control of policymaking also creates a conflict with external democratic mechanisms. The practice of democracy within parties must serve the practice of democracy in a system of representative, responsible government, and this requires that a party’s elected officeholders be responsive to policy demands originating outside the party organization, from individual members of the public or organized interest groups. Insofar as authoritative member control of policy conflicts with the ability of officeholders to respond to such policy demands, the goal of a “more democratic” policy process conflicts with the broader goal of democratic political process.

This is not to deny that political parties suffer democratic defects or that these defects can and should be corrected. It is just to say that the usual approach to correcting the democratic defects of our political parties is inevitably doomed, for very good reasons. Efforts to make political parties more democratic should focus on other avenues for reform.

*By authoritative control I mean the legitimate power to force a party’s officeholders to adopt positions that they would not otherwise have adopted.