Posts Tagged 'Alasdair MacIntyre'

ABOUT JUSTICE

John Dewey wrote, “We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, Justice, or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, unique.”

Alexander Saxton wrote, “To move from the particular to the general is an exercise in humility because it forces one to recognize the particulars – even those privileged details one’s own individual existence – remain meaningless and essentially useless to other people unless they can be shown to typify, or illuminate larger streams of human experience.”

For a word that has been chiseled into stone monuments for centuries we could reasonably hope society would by now have the practice and understanding of Justice down cold. However, more often than not, as Justice is experienced personally but spoken of generally we struggle to find understanding in the “larger stream”. Justice is variously defined as being fair and being fair defined as being just and just as being fair and so on. For centuries thinkers and doers have tried to grasp and define Justice in all of its manifestations concretely. This philosophic and semantic project has haunted virtually all societies throughout history. Almost every philosopher from Plato’s argument via Socrates about just persons and a just state to Aristotle and onwards across centuries to John Dewey and Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Alexander Saxton among recent others, has given us a take on Justice.

If, over so many centuries, so many brilliant people have struggled for so long and so hard to arrive at a definitive exegesis of Justice what they have been seeking may not exist, at least not in a form they were hoping for. Justice in all its manifestations seems to be like beauty, living in the hearts and minds of the observers be they beneficiaries or victims. Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just? Only in the eyes of the perpetrators. It seems to me there is no such thing as Justice except as an everlasting quest for justification. In that case Justice will remain always a fluid and beautiful idea, an aspiration at that, but in the end there will be no absolute, it will always be, “ … specific, concrete, unique” to the moment.

First and foremost it is necessary, I believe, to acknowledge that Justice is a construct – a moveable definition which, not unlike a sheen of oil on water, changes century to century, culture to culture, moment to moment, observer to observer. Like belief systems, Justice is fluid, always in motion. There exists no concrete, immutable, definition of Justice – no demonstration you can point to, take to the bank, or teach the young. What is Justice for you can be injustice to your neighbors. It remains, however, the most appealing and illusive of ideas and much like quick-silver, “Liberty and Justice for all … ” slips away at the touch.

A few quick police pistol shots and an unarmed 12 year old named Tamir Rice received an instant irreversible summary Justice not found in a court of law but in a public park. By late 2015, police in the US had summarily shot and executed 1103 “suspects” of whom 161 were unarmed. In the US, police summarily execute people, generally people of color, nearly on a daily basis. Once dead the “suspects” no longer have access to any semblance of Justice. Why then do we pretend Justice for all exists? Because we must. Like Equality, Justice is an essential myth an illusion without which our social contract would be impossible .

Injustice is not only the taking of lives but the diminishing of lives as well given an economic system that systematically concentrates wealth to a very few and harms many. Throughout the United States economic injustice manifests concretely in hunger, access to medical care, education, legal representation, and opportunity often determined by the color of one’s skin. Like any manifestation of inequality, lack of Economic Justice is corrosive disease and eats at the heart and soul of society. In Louisianna the Governor recently removed 31,000 jobless people from receiving food stamps, in Wisconsin that Governor removed 15,000, in Indiana 50,000,  and in Maine 40,000. Whose definition of Economic Justice is this?  Whose definition of morality, humanity, and common sense? Adults, and even more, children who are not well fed and well housed cannot possibly thrive and succeed are thus condemned to a diminished existence and, as a consequence, with what kind of commitment to a social contract? 

In courts of law Justice has fast become the last thing sought – winning is the goal. Prosecutors, with a firm thumb on the scales of Justice, are especially fond of, ex parte proceedings in police shooting cases where no contrary testimony is permitted. I once surveyed a fairly disparate group of lawyers with the question: “At trial what is most important to you – winning or Justice?” Needless to say, I suppose, winning was the winner. So much for Justice. How is this? Well, if you are a lawyer who works for insurance companies, for example, you make your living and your reputation defeating liability claims. It’s a no-brainer. Also, keep in mind that at trial the only participants who do not swear to tell the truth are the lawyers. It’s all about winning not about Truth and certainly not about Justice. It’s about profit.

We live in a time when sociopathy permeates society. The question is not how much worse can it get but how much longer can it go on without a total breakdown of civility and and order? There are, after all, consequences. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, put it this way: In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s  good for man, there can no longer either be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.”  The possibility of a civil society is foreclosed.

Larger Questions

Americans would do well to recall a caution from the great philosopher of democracy, Aristotle, that it is much easier to establish a Democracy than it is to preserve it. We are presently at a crossroads in our life as a democratic society, as a civilization, as a future. Our social contract, in place essentially since the Great Depression, is under attack by an over-reaching security apparatus, the very wealthy, politicians, and right-wing television networks. The plutocrats, as plutocrats are wont to do, act in service to their own wealth. Plutocrats serve themselves, politicians serve the plutocrats, and we, the American public, serve them all. The public in all of its disarray and confusion is managed and manipulated into smaller and smaller competing factions.

Separating people from a sense of community and identity with each other breaks the bonds of a civil society. It is clearly a barbaric and classic “divide and conquer” strategy for taking down a polity. This was a vision promoted by Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971, Powell Memo, a game plan commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic social ideals are clearly under attack.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do. They have done so since the dawn of civilization and for much the same reasons. Recall, for instance, the Romans, Mayans, and Chacoans — large, complex societies, in business for hundreds of years. Gone! Disappeared. Judging from the torrents of political writing these days it is reasonable  to ask why so many writers and thinkers sense an impending collapse. To more than a few thoughtful observers the collapse of American society is an open question. As the collapse phenomenon has been historically frequent and persistent, calling out the concern contemporaneously isn’t exactly “Henny-Penny” panic. Is the sky falling now? Maybe – maybe not, but then, “See it – Say it” seems an appropriate and thoughtful response.

When 97% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population it is not a “rich” society as we are often told the US is. That is propaganda. And when the 1% isn’t satisfied with 97% of the wealth but actively engage in acquiring more the problem is even worse, it is no longer merely a matter of perception. It isn’t just that the 1% has so much of the wealth — it’s what they are doing with their wealth that is dangerous. Greed has never been recognized as conducive to a healthy social contract. It doesn’t matter if greed is for material wealth, public attention, notoriety, or power, it hoards the goods of a society away from the commons to a few.

While greed was’t invented last week it certainly seems to exist on an outlandish scale these days in a dangerous game of extractive overreach. Unless greed is a virtue, and it certainly is not, Capitalism has no recognizable moral order and I challenge any Nobel laureate economist to refute that. Capitalism and Democracy are not interchangeable terms. Something else is needed – populism perhaps?

Social corrosion is more than joblessness although that is significant enough. The taxonomy of greed extends to voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits, and public education to mention a few. An even more egregious example was the bailout in billions of dollars of the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and who, after causing financial ruin for millions, walked away richer than they were previously. Not one of the villains has been charged with a crime. If anything the miscreants have been lionized.

Meanwhile, on Main Street millions of Americans cannot find jobs to support themselves much less families. Many have dropped out of the workforce and out of the statistical reckoning of employment thus distorting unemployment statistics. Congressmen have added further injury by terminating extended unemployment benefits.

A larger question, I propose, is what became of the millions of jobs that have disappeared? The good paying jobs are not coming back because they have gone overseas. Unless Americans are willing to work for poverty wages such as those paid by McDonalds and WalMart or for what people in the Bangladesh sweat shops are paid there is no work. In another bit of irony, the government subsidizes McDonalds and WalMart providing corporate welfare in the form of food stamps and so forth for their underpaid employees.

So  here is a bottom line question: What kind of country do people like the Kochs, Steve Forbes, the Walton family, and others like them and their mouthpieces, Fox television commentators, and politicians like Ryan, Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell want to see? Is their fantasy something out of the 1930s with soup kitchens and families lined up for a hot meal?  Would they be amused perhaps to watch people of the lower classes fighting amongst themselves in some version of Hunger Games? There is little doubt we are at a defining moment in the history of this country, this society, and the egalitarian political philosophy it was founded on. Can it be preserved? I quote Alasdair MacIntyre: “ … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossroads – Questions Without Answers

Here are some questions that have been plaguing me for months: Why are people like the Koch boys and their wholly owned politicians on such a rampage to destroy the American social contract? What’s in it for them? After all, they and their friends have or control nearly all of the money and resources. And when they have it all then what? What is the point or purpose of such behavior? Does it even have a point or purpose? Is it a sickness? A mental disturbance? Why would anyone want to deprive other people of food and sustenance when they, themselves, have more than they need? What sort of gratification comes from denying health care to those who need it but can’t pay? As we follow this line of questioning we arrive at this:  Do we actually have core “American Values”? Have we ever?

What is even more disturbing is that the majority of those attacking the social contract are self-defined Christians. It is my understanding Christian teachings require compassion and identification with others. This is the so-called “Golden Rule” that one should treat others as one would want others to treat them. This “Rule” exists across history in nearly every religion around the world. So what kind of belief systems allow some people to act with complete disregard for others? Is it depravity? It certainly isn’t civilized. A suit and tie don’t confer civilized status – only behavior does that. The Pope, speaking out against the patent absence of moral standards that has created the current scenario was criticized by a right-wing radio show host who claimed the Pope to be a Communist. When the Pope comments about redistribution of wealth he is speaking as a moral being not as a politician.

If we cannot ask moral equations of ourselves or of our society without being labeled what does that say about us? Moral questions have been replaced by power, profit, and gain. It does’t seem to matter whether or not environmental safety questions are settled before fracking for oil and transporting it across oceans, prairies, or tundra. Safety is only a matter of whether or not litigation can be successfully defended against by your phalanx of lawyers and PR firms. This strategy is deemed cheaper than moral considerations of environmental, social, and human damages.

People lose their savings or lose their homes when the economy and markets tank. The government bails out bankers, “too big to fail”, who gambled away their depositors’ money with taxpayer money to the tune of billions of dollars. This is the taxonomy of greed in a society that once represented a shining shore of exceptionalism. Moral questions will not be asked here. Profit and loss take precedence over morality. This is what we have become.

A recent example of displacement of moral thought by legalism is one Barry Engle, a lawyer involved with off-shore trusts for people stashing their wealth, ill-gotten or otherwise, out of reach of the tax man. Engle made the following statement: “Lawyers can debate the morality of these trusts… My first duty is to my clients and my clients have a need.” Apparently “morality” is not Mr. Engle’s brief. (“Paradise of Untouchable Assets” Leslie Wayne, NYT 12/15/13) So, what is it that lawyers do if their “first duty” is to their clients and not to Justice? As I understand it, Justice serves the whole of society by protecting individuals from injustice. That Truth and Justice are held to be blind to social status is why Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded and why lawyers supposedly have a sworn responsibility to serve that ideal.

If Justice has been undermined so too has religion been stripped of moral value. Case in point: Paul Ryan, the Republican, Alter Boy, Congressman who is working relentlessly to dismantle social safety nets, is a Catholic. My question is, to what extent has Ryan been informed by his religious beliefs? I don’t see a connection between the teachings of the Catholic prophet and Ryan’s behavior as a member of society. So far as I know, the prophet Jesus is nowhere depicted as a sociopath.

We will never have a just society without a sense of shared community. As Alasdair McIntyre put it: “In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good for man, there can no longer be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.” The United States seems to no longer qualify as having a shared conception of what is good.

Using their offices as instruments in service to the wealthy politicians are creating  a destructive social fractiousness. We have a society of rent-seekers – asking, “what’s in in for me?”.  It’s all about price not value. Using power to selfish ends isn’t confined to politics it operates within religious entities, trade unions, businesses, police departments – organizations led by individuals with insatiable appetites for wealth, fame, and power. Is this our new measure of life?

As the world turns there are so many questions and few and fewer answers. Volver … volver….

What Does It Mean To Educate?

To be motivated to learn requires something to be “out there” that appeals to someone’s “in here” – something that holds promise and that, to achieve, requires interest, effort and personal discipline.

Certainly, among the tasks of public schools is to train children to become successful in the essential skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but are schools also responsible to motivate children to learn? While some will argue that teachers are the principal source of motivation, this seems to me to be unreasonable and mainly a sloughing off of a responsibility proper to parents.

While the society as a whole certainly has a part, valuing learning is first and foremost a family matter, and children need to come to school with that sense.

I think it cynical, if not irresponsible, to foist onto teachers what is essentially a role of parenting. Parents must understand and agree that they have an essential participatory role in the education of their children.

Time to have a public dialogue about ‘educating’

Once in school, a child’s education does not rest solely upon acquiring the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. To teach only skills is not to educate but to train, and that is an issue schools and society must come to grips with. Education and training are not the same thing, and it is important to know and understand which of the two is going on; it is a matter of definition and of “first principles.”

What do we mean when we say “educate?” What does it mean to be “educated,” as differentiated from being “trained?” If we don’t have clearly defined first principles on this matter, we have no clear intellectual, moral or social compass. And this may explain why public education has been so long susceptible to pillar-to-post oscillations from one new great idea, reform, innovation to another and another over the past century and longer.

In fact, John Dewey raised this same issue in 1896! Perhaps the time has come to have a public dialog that is not about charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, magnet schools, free schools, grading schools and teachers, ending social promotion, corporal punishment, and so on. Perhaps the time has come to stop all of that and talk about what we mean when we say we want to “educate” children.

A contemporary ‘OK Corral’

More people experience public education than don’t in the United States, and its influence on social attitudes is pervasive. Common to that experience is the generally accepted organization and structure of curriculum and instruction that was pretty well laid down in modern times by Ralph Tyler in his widely influential 1950’s book, “Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.”

According to Tyler, children are in school to be “developed,” teachers are the transmitters of development, and administrators determine if the transmission has taken place. Is this what we want education to mean?

Well, yes, with certain qualifications. This is the training-in-essential-skills component of a child’s education. Essential skills, however, cannot be said to be the whole of a child’s education. For government to prescribe public testing for discrete skill acquisition as its sole measurement of educational achievement is to betray a fundamental responsibility of any civilization worthy of the name – to properly educate, not merely to train, its young.

Today’s emphasis on public testing and grading of schools has no pedagogic justification – its intent is cynically political. When, in self-defense, schools must “teach the test,” the political agenda dehumanizes the educative process and robs it of meaning and any sense of intellectual purpose. And herein lies a contemporary “OK Corral,” where public education meets politics and where teachers and children generally lose.

The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way: “If life is to be meaningful, it is necessary for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creation of other people’s projects, intentions and desires.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” 3rd Ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

This essay first appeared on: nmPolitics.net


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