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United States / Leftism

Why the Left Should Forget about Fairness

If Barack Obama’s message of hope pushed a political pendulum, then Donald Trump’s rabid chauvinism has started a wild pirate ship ride. Although for many of us, having Trump as president makes us feel as though we are slowly walking the plank toward an impending societal plunge, there lies ahead a tangible future in which we move away from political barbarism. The Trump movement need not be a painful backlash that we merely confront; we can instead transform our current political situation into a force for progressive change beyond that which Obama promised. We need to move past resisting the current administration and take advantage of an opportunity to reframe the political landscape. The left needs a tectonic shift, and the key to a successful transformation is forgetting about fairness.

In the US, the left has constructed an idea of fairness wherein people get what they deserve based on their situation and identity. Fulfilling the failed American promise of justice has become the ultimate public aim of the left. Although such rhetoric provides a stark contrast with the right’s tenets of fairness (individual rights, hard work, good behavior, and piety), such an invention runs counter to the science of morality and political effectiveness.

In order to determine whether or not our actions and identities entitle us to a certain degree of well-being, we may first turn to the question of how much power one has over one’s actions. Free will prompts debate both inside and outside philosophical circles, but purely semantic differences account for much of the disagreement; science paints a clearer picture of the relationship between free will and fairness.

The laws of physics hold that the amount of energy in the universe is constant; any movement or action can be explained by preceding physical conditions. While most of us feel as though we are unified individuals capable of projecting and expressing ourselves to the outside world, our feeling of agency is merely a manifestation of matter that has formed a state of consciousness that we regard as ours to share. In reality, a cloud from which rain falls could be said to have as much agency as a person who speaks her mind. Free will is an illusion.

There is no evidence to suggest that each of us is any more than a series of chemical reactions building upon themselves. Even our thought processes, which most of us believe endow us with the ability to make choices, arise due to a particular configuration of atoms.

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris tells the true story of two murderers, Hayes and Komisarjevsky, in order to stress the “role of luck” in issues of blameworthiness. Harris, referring to the murderers, claims:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.  

Proponents of free will often worry that conceding our inability to step outside the laws of physics would render life meaningless. This could not be farther from the truth. Correctly labeling free will as a myth can have positive implications for social cohesion. We can still change our “minds,” make choices, learn, and adapt while recognizing that we stand outside the pervasive grasp of biological determinism no more than a dandelion does. We can retain the constructions of self and responsibility while simultaneously acknowledging that these formulations are only useful in so far as they contribute to improved life.

One positive consequence of dispelling the illusion of free will could be an increased willingness to redefine criminal justice. The political capital already exists for a transformation. There is rare bipartisan agreement on the issue of mass incarceration, as more and more politicians and citizens agree that the War on Drugs has gone too far. Ninety-one percent of Americans also want to eliminate mandatory minimums and support more rehabilitation and mental health programs in lieu of purely punitive systems.

Forgetting about fairness can help shape a reconception of criminal justice toward effectiveness and rehabilitation and away from retribution and punishment. Discipline should be a means by which we can establish incentives that have positive consequences for society, not a system that gives criminals what they deserve in the form of systemized retribution. Adopting this view, we would no longer jail a man because he deserved it. Nobody deserves suffering. If we are to condemn someone to suffer in jail, it should only be because doing so will establish a disincentive for others to commit similar crimes.

Correspondingly, we should not offer unconditional praise to those who work hard or are successful, for not only the deservedness of their success but also the very concept of deservedness is illusory. The view that we are morally entitled to the money that we earn, for example, is a particularly unreasonable one. In the US, almost all of us are lucky in the traditional monetary sense. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average household lives on $154 a day. This compares favorably with World Bank Development Indicators estimation that over three billion people, almost half the world, lives on less than the equivalent of $2.50 a day. Even the self-made American has had massive advantages in wealth compared to most people in the world.

Furthermore, moral luck can range from genetic advantages to lack of control over the chemical reactions that make up our psychological attitudes toward work. And once we apply our powerlessness over free will to the question of who should be praised, we should dole out effective praise in much the same way as effective punishment. Nothing truly deserves praise, but praise may still be worth offering if its selective awarding provides an incentive for people to do more good.

So what is this good that we should be promoting when we praise or punish people?

Oprah might say that such a good is relative to our identity.  Many people may agree, as they cheer her on when she speaks about living or speaking “your truth.” But we should not be concerned with my truth or your truth; rather, we should focus on the truth. The left should attempt to move away from the accommodation of moral relativism toward a pursuit of moral objectivity based on reason.

Ascribing objectivity or scientific properties to morality strikes some people as presumptuous. In actuality, all that objective morality implies is that we have reason to prefer some moral theories over others and that we are right in saying that there are some things that we ought to do more than we ought to do other things.

Much of the right’s political platform relies on the “moral truths” of Judeo-Christianity and the existence of natural rights. Although these principles are often paraded as objective truths, the particular religious dogmas or natural rights to which people subscribe do not find their basis in something as universal as reason. Most often they result from cultural myth or tradition, as people who wish to codify customs into inalienable or divine ethics spread their narrative. These stories frequently overlook reason or evidence and even attempt to undermine it in favor of faith.

This is a terrible mistake. Without the universal principle of reason, people simply further internalize their sociocultural intuitions, sinking further into their given social norms, religious teachings, and stereotypes about others. Such thinking (or lack of thinking) has been largely responsible for enduring racism, sexism, speciesism, and the like, which have caused immeasurable suffering to conscious minds.

Not only is ignoring reason undesirable; it is also impossible. If one were to disagree with this assertion, one would have to offer their own reason when asked why. Reason is our language of argumentation and thought (which is not to say that it is always best to be purely reasonable; we are not unfounded in our adoption of irrational dispositions at times).

In reconstructing itself, the American left should embrace reason. This is more controversial than it might sound. It implies that the left confine itself to producing results that will improve conscious life, not fairness, unreasoned religious instructions, or vague principles such as equality or individuality. We must somehow navigate the landscape of the well-being of conscious entities; we must traverse the peaks and valleys between endless suffering and infinite joy.

The left can realign itself with reality by forging this consequentialist path, standing against suffering and pursuing happiness. This objective morality is no more than an aggregation of subjective ones, seeking to maximize desirable feelings and minimize undesirable ones. Experiencing desirable feelings is subjective, yet we have objective reason to believe that these experiences exist and carry value (whereas we could not say the same thing about natural rights, free will, or religious afterlife).

This universal perspective does not discriminate and encompasses all conscious creatures. Henry Sidgwick explains how this theory can lead us to greater unity: “the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realised in the one case than in the other.”

This should be the guiding maxim of the left. Applying consequentialism to a movement like Black Lives Matter makes both easier to conceptualize. Since the taking and harming of black lives is a disproportionate problem, we have special grounds for proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” rather than simply saying “All Lives Matter”. Such social movements need to be revised, as many Americans find them inherently divisive. Indeed, fifty-seven percent of Americans have a negative view of Black Lives Matter movement. By incorporating Sidgwick’s exception for functionality into his general claim that the good of every individual is of equal importance, the left can at once hope to tackle the political problems that are most pressing and remind us of our ultimate equal importance.

Emphasis on particular lives, just like the government invention of rights, may be important means to maximizing happiness, but they are not declarations of innate value. By presenting these means as tools for the pursuit of happiness, the left can focus on the very concrete goal of improving sentient lives while fulfilling the most often ignored promise of our founders (“the pursuit of happiness” is often treated as a vague accessory to life and liberty). Consequentialism can also be an antidote to elitism, when we consider, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham did, that “the question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” Bentham was talking about the problem of animal suffering, but the claim implicates all conscious life.

A consequentialist framework would further some current objectives and create others for the left. We have already considered implications for how we talk about and act upon issues of criminal and racial justice. The consequentialist view also reconceives wealth as a means to flourishing rather than a deserved end reflecting a person’s worth (this mentality is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we often refer to future earnings as “our money” and any disruptive change to the system of wealth distribution, which is more than anything else responsible for our earnings, as a kind of theft).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton have famously found that positive correlations between individual income and happiness fail to appear at incomes above $75,000 a year. Considering this, although traditional consequentialism grants equality no innate value, practical applications of the theory would almost certainly be more egalitarian than the current policies of the political left. It would still be beneficial to have some wealth variation to facilitate incentives to contribute actively and positively to society, but the retention of wealth based on a primordial claim to it would cease to be a compelling rationalization of wealth inequality.

A reexamination of moral values based on happiness should not confine itself to concern for any one species. Accordingly, the suffering that we inflict on billions of non-human animals every year (bundled with the economic inefficiency and environmental degradation that results from creating non-human animal products for human consumption) through meat production, non-human animal testing, and other harmful practices should be considered a major political problem.

Extending concern to what some may consider a fringe issue may seem like a political impossibility. However, a growing number of people support all animal rights, as a third of Americans believe that non-human animals deserve the same rights and forty-four percent of Americans now oppose any medical testing on animals as humans. Furthermore, to ignore mass suffering of any kind denotes moral inconsistency. Humans tend to devalue the lives of those who are not like us, through racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and speciesism. All of these forms of bias are predicated on a deeply ingrained suspicion of others, a ruinous evolutionary remnant from a time when our base tribal allegiances were beneficial for our survival. The left has a chance to advocate for those among us who are most vulnerable: those who are unable to “speak their truth” to us. And doing so, contrary to popular belief, would not be political suicide.

The most extreme caricatures of the left almost always hone in on its relativistic tendencies. The term “snowflake” is a response to the moral declaration of feelings, not facts. Accusations of “pie in the sky” policies, overly-sentimental approaches, and idealistic reasoning presume that the left is in some sense creating a reality for its political project instead of creating a political project for reality. Indiscriminate charges of racism and ad hominem attacks on political opponents fire up the liberal base yet defy the rules of rational engagement and alienate people whose political leanings depend on slight philosophical differences, shaped and reinforced by their biology and culture.

The prevailing mentality on the left seems to be that Trump supporters do not deserve our consideration, open-minds, or reasoned conversations. Most Americans do not believe that the Democratic Party’s supposed inclusion extends to them. A recent Gallup poll found that the Republican Party’s favorability has stayed steady at thirty-nine percent since Trump’s presidential victory, while the Democratic Party’s favorability has dropped from forty-five percent to forty percent in that same time period. Perhaps the public senses hypocrisy.

At the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, Michelle Obama delivered a mantra for the anti-Trump left that many found inspiring: “when they go low, we go high.” In the fall, with less than a month left until the day that Donald Trump won the election for President of the United States (and with Hillary Clinton’s victory presumed to be a foregone conclusion), debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump if he would be willing to accept the results of the upcoming presidential election. Trump declared that he would tell us at the time, which Hillary Clinton  called “horrifying.” Yet despite the left’s attempts to take the moral high-ground in anticipation of a resounding victory in the US 2016 Presidential Election, once Trump’s presidency became a reality, many on the left abandoned such high hopes and principles.

It seems the left should not have been so quick to demand the unconditional acceptance of the election results; ever since Trump’s victory, those on the left (and across the entire political spectrum) have tried to delegitimize Trump’s position by claiming that Russian interference is somehow responsible for his victory. This may be true, but it has become, like many of Trump’s political peculiarities, too much of a distraction. A Washington Post poll has found that more Americans believe the Democratic Party only stands against Trump than believe that the Democratic Party stands for something, by a margin of fifty-two percent to thirty-seven percent. The left still seems nostalgic for Obama’s sense of hope, even though they have been unable to craft their own inspirational theme. Far too many liberals are ready to follow Bill Maher’s declaration: “when they go low, you go lower.”

But politics are still about hope, not despair. The left has just failed to present a unified and promising message. We are in the midst of a cultural realignment; massive shifts are inevitable. The choice that Democrats and those on the left now have is whether or not they will direct these changes toward consequences that maximize well-being.

Politics can guide, limit, or ignore us on our journey through the moral landscape. Most of the left remains blinded like deer in headlights, either nonplussed by the prevailing partisan atrocity or naively fixated on the unfairness of their present situation. While the left may continue to stumble through the darkness, their vision obscured by concern for fairness, we must not forget: there is a moral compass ready to help guide us toward the pursuit of happiness. For the moment, it remains buried beneath our accommodationist ethics. But we shouldn’t be afraid to uncover it.