Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"The Moral Basis of American Democracy"

If you have never heard of George Lakoff you haven’t  missed very much.

Lakoff is a Berkeley linguist who at some point morphed into a political philosopher. Having first studied with Noam Chomsky at MIT, Lakoff came to reject some of Chomsky’s philosophical positions, but still managed to follow Chomsky’s example by becoming an amateur political thinker.

How amateurish is Lakoff, the political thinker? Very amateurish, according to Stephen Pinker. His review of one of Lakoff’s books is devastating. Link here.

Pinker is a Harvard psychologist; I have no reason to believe that Pinker is some kind of a conservative, or even a Republican.

He simply wants to argue for more coherent and cogent thinking. As a man of the left he was horrified that pseudo-intellectuals would be drawn to Lakoff’s convoluted reasoning and intellectual trickery.

Pinker seems to believe that Lakoff is living proof of the problems that ensue when you live in a world where everyone thinks the same thing. It makes you mentally soft and weak. To Pinker that means that said liberal will be utterly incapable of defending his ideas against a conservative. 

Even though Lakoff’s attempts at political thought ought, by now, have been consigned to the dustbin of philosophy, three days ago he weighed in on the events in Madison, Wisconsin. His column appeared in the Huffington Post. Link here.

Taking himself to be a big picture thinker, he regaled us with his views of what was really at issue: “the moral basis of American democracy.”

Lakoff begins with something of a rhetorical ploy. He asks what conservatives really want?

As we know, he is echoing Freud’s famous question: What do women want?

I have occasionally pointed out that Freud’s question is offensive and insulting. It assumes that women do not know what they want and that only a non-female person can tell them what they want.

The possibilities for abuse are legion. I will not detail them here.

When Lakoff asks what conservatives want, he means that conservatives are deceiving the nation, pretending to want one thing while really wanting another.

Without making any effort to distinguish the different kinds of conservatives, or even to mention that many of the people who voted for the kinds of conservative policies that he abhors are not even conservatives, Lakoff assumes that conservatives are frauds. They pretend to care about budget deficits but that is really just a ruse to seduce unsuspecting independents into accepting their views on gun control.

Worse yet, the real conservative agenda seeks to create a government that will let the less fortunate starve. Lakoff condemns conservatives because they just do not care enough.

Apparently, Lakoff classes unionized government employees among the less fortunate in our society, as needing our care.

In his view, this thinking strikes at the moral basis of American democracy, which is, nothing other than CARE.

On what authority does he make this claim? On none in particular.

Does the Declaration of Independence value care above all else? Not really. Read it’s most famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While the Constitution does say that the nation should “promote the general welfare,” that is not the same as saying that we must guarantee the pension benefits of certain public employees, when those benefits were extorted as political payback for the support the unions offered to certain politicians.

For the record, here are the opening words of the Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Not a word about care.

I will spare you a reading of the Federalist Papers, but it should be fairly clear, even from a quick read of these two texts, that liberty stood out as a vitally important value.

In his HuffPost article, Lakoff justifies his theory about care by invoking a higher authority.

Above and beyond the founders of the Republic sits a former adjunct law professor from Chicago, named Barack Obama. If Obama says that the moral basis for American democracy is care and empathy, then, to Lakoff, that decides the issue.

As it happens Lakoff wants to make liberty a function of caring, meaning that he will be happy to infringe on everyone’s liberty so that he will be free to impose his values on everyone else.

Writing of Lakoff‘s conception of freedom, Pinker wrote: “It consists of appending the words ‘freedom to‘ in front of every item in a Berkeley-leftist wish list: freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, ‘ethical businesses,’ speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific--the freedom to eat ‘food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated,’ to the very general, namely ‘the freedom to live in a country and a community governed by the traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility.’"

To be fair and balanced, we can ask ourselves how many people would be free to starve if the Lakoff anti-agriculture model were allowed free reign?

And shouldn’t we also mention that free market economies have had more success feeding more people than have planned socialist economies.

Have we already forgotten that Stalinist and Maoist policies produced mass famines that caused tens of millions of people to starve to death?

Ah yes, Lakoff might retort: but the food was free of pesticides and hormones…

Regardless of whether or not capitalists care, they do a lot better at working an economic system that benefits real human beings.

Despite his having been smacked down by Pinker, Lakoff insists that conservatives and especially free marketeers do not care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

Ignore the fact that the union members who are deeply offended by what is happening in Wisconsin are rather more privileged than most Americans, we should also ask whether the concept of freedom extends to the freedom to vote in a democratic election and to have those who we elect enact the policies that they campaigned on.

Because, after all, Gov. Scott Walker is doing nothing more than he was elected to do. Apparently, the Lakoff concept of freedom does not extend to the will of the people as expressed in free elections.

But, if all of this care and empathy does not come to us from our founding documents, where does it come from?

One might imagine that it comes down to us from the concept of charity, the Latin of which is “caritas.”  But the etymologists assure us that it comes from another root, one that renders its meaning as concern, worry, or affection.

Care as a moral sentiment has a certain nobility to it, but one might easily say that our concern for our fellow citizens does not require us to provide a lifestyle that befits only Berkeley ideologues and cult followers.

Caring about what happens to people is not the same as feeling obliged to care for their every need. Because the more you care for everyone’s every need, the more you deprive them of the joy of providing for themselves. And depriving them of their initiative, dignity, and self-respect.

Too much care is demoralizing and depressing.

The more salient issue, and the more serious defect in Lakoff’s reasoning, lies in a more basic confusion. Surely, there are people in society whose business is care. There are even people whose business is charity, in the sense of caring for the indigent.

Traditionally, those people have belonged to religious institutions.

You see where I am going: Lakoff is attributing to government and to the economy functions that are more properly those of religions. He has confused church and state.

As it happens, conservatives are more likely to give more generously to religious charities than are liberals. Perhaps conservatives believe in the separation of church and state to the point where they want religious charities to be doing more and the government doing less. It would be difficult to say that they give more because they care less.

This does not mean that the government should do nothing to provide for the poor and the indigent. Clearly, it needs to supplement the efforts of religious institutions.

But government functions best when it creates the conditions where business can create wealth and where citizens can care for themselves.

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that Lakoff has imported the concept of care from the writings of Martin Heidegger. I will spare you the details-- and that’s assuming that I would get them right-- but Heidegger once wrote a book called Being and Time where he attempted to construct humanoid entities whose sole purpose would be to embody certain philosophical principles, namely those involved in a single verb: to be. Since verbs have tenses, he was happy to allow those humanoids to exist in time.

Once Heidegger created these humanoid creatures, he had to find a way for them to connect with other humanoid creatures. As you may know, he saw their connection in terms of another verb: care.

Given that all other social transactions, the kind that would join people in a community or in the marketplace, are proscribed, all that is left is a generalized and anxious worry about other people.

I do not want to go into too much detail about Heidegger, but you probably know that several years after he wrote Being and Time he discovered National Socialism and declared that Hitler’s Third Reich was the best embodiment of his philosophy.

Just don’t say he didn’t care.

Much of the rest of Lakoff’s article is a hopeless muddle. I will not tax your patience with an extended disquisition, but I will point out that much of his reasoning is based on a false analogy.

Lakoff says that society is like a family and that we will have to choose between a patriarchal or matriarchal family structure. In truth, society is a collection of families, joined together by a system of exchanges.

According to Aristotle-- a higher authority than Lakoff-- the state precedes the family: "Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that."

Naturally,Lakoff opposes the patriarchy, attributing all manner of evils to men… because fathers do not care.

By dismissing the vast majority of men who care enormously about their families, who work and fight and die to protect them and to provide for them, Lakoff has shown, yet again, that he is more adept at caricature than at rational argument.

It gets better. After denouncing the patriarchal family for being led by a single father who makes all of the decisions, Lakoff attempts to link this model family to the marketplace, even though, by definition, the existence of a market precludes there being a single individual who makes all the decisions.

As Stephen Pinker explains: “Lakoff strikingly misunderstands his enemies here, repeatedly attributing to them the belief that capitalism is a system of moral reckoning designed to reward the industrious with prosperity and to punish the indolent with poverty. In fact, the theory behind free markets is that prices are a form of information about supply and demand that can be rapidly propagated through a huge decentralized network of buyers and sellers, giving rise to a distributed intelligence that allocates resources more efficiently than any central planner could hope to do. Whatever distribution of wealth results is an unplanned by-product, and in some conceptions is not appropriate for moralization one way or another. It is emphatically not, as Lakoff supposes (in a direct-causation mentality of his own), a moral system for doling out just deserts.”

Which leaves us with the question: what is the moral basis for American democracy, as it is being played out in Madison, Wisconsin, and soon, in a state near you?

Simple, it’s respect for the will of the people as expressed democratically at the ballot box.


The Ghost said...

freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, ‘ethical businesses,’ speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific--the freedom to eat ‘food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated ..."

seems to me that he wants us to be "required" to live in a society that has these things ... i.e. government mandates ... because as far as I can tell you are free in America today to live in places that have all of these things available right now without government mandates ...

enowning said...

"Given that all other social transactions, the kind that would join people in a community or in the marketplace, are proscribed"

Where does Heidegger say this? I can think of a few places where he says, what can be construed to be, the opposite of what you've asserted.

"Care" in Being and Time was an infelicitous translation it seems we are now stuck with. It has no connection with caring about the poor and other moral imperatives.

I've read a few things by Lakoff and its clear he has not read anything at Heidegger's depth - nothing wrong with that, Lakoff doesn't claim to be an ontologist. Lakoff never references Heidegger in any of the 100+ books and papers searchable online.

So I don't see the point of bringing Heidegger into your discussion. Did you need to reach for Reductio ad Hitlerum? Doesn't Lakoff already have enough rope to hang himself?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Point well taken. I had read on Wikipedia that Lakoff was influenced by Heidegger. The concept of care is fairly closely identified with him, and I doubt that a professor who has navigated among the precincts of the left would have missed it.

I was also intrigued by his concept of an embodied mind, especially as it recalled to me Heidegger's effort to create humanoid beings out of a verb, or in particular, the copula.

It made sense to me, and perhaps to no one else, that if care, concern and the rest are the basis for human connection, then the connection between humans must be based on emotional affinity rather than transactions and exchanges.

I need not tell you that certain political philosophies emphasize emotional attachments more than the workings of free markets.

I do believe that those who see empathy and care as the basis for democracy are saying that it does not much matter what you do, as long as you have the right feelings.

That said, I am not going to go to the mat on my vague recollections about Heidegger. I am merely trying to respond to your question. And, thanks for offering a corrective.