Wednesday, August 08, 2012

I know you are, but what am I?

I would comment at Crooked Timber, but I'm long-winded and pedantic; so I need to post there instead (!).  But while I can appreciate arguments in this form (mostly because over the years I've learned to understand them in their native tongue, so to speak), this is as fine an example of academic philosophy going off the rails as I've seen in a while.  To whit:

ADDENDUM: it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy. So, for example, are people exposed to the conditional “IF increased inequality ends up making the poorest better off THEN increased inequality is justified” more likely to believe that increased inequality is justified, even when no evidence that increased inequality benefits the poorest is presented?
The joy of this experiment is that it would only subject the test subjects to ideas, not to actual, you know, poverty, or even worse, "poor people."  "The poorest" is a lovely abstraction, as are "civilians" who may be subject to "drone strikes."  "Poor people" are as foreign to the experience of people who write in the language of this post as Afghanis and Iraqis are.  My favorite way of summing this up is Marlowe's line from "The Jew of Malta:"  "Thou has committed fornication.  But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead."  This is not, in other words, a moral blind spot peculiar to Americans; nor is it new by virtue of modern technology.

Evidence about the effects of inequality on the poorest is what, in that argument, needs to be presented.  The idea of inequality, in other words, and its affect on the idea of poverty.  Do the poorest need to be presented?  Do they need to be represented?  Do they even need to assert their existence, or is it sufficient to claim them as a term in a syllogism? (The entire argument is basically a simple one about drawing valid conclusions from offered premises.)  Dorothy Day insisted she and her fellow workers were visitors in the land of the poor, not some deus ex machina swooping in to rescue the poor from themselves.  Even when working with actual persons who are actually poor, in other words, the temptation (anfechtung, Kierkegaard would call it, and would that I could bring all the nuance of that word from S.K.'s works into this discussion more accurately) is to treat them as abstractions rather than as actual humans.

There is a curious philosophical issue being overlooked here, one existentialists and phenomenologists struggle to name:  the issue of existence.  Kierkegaard's argument about arguments about the existence of God turns on the issue of existence itself.  "The poor" is a label, an identifier, just as "Napoleon", in S.K.'s example, identifies a particular historical personage.  Napoleon is further identified by historical actions connected to that name, and to the individual connected to that name. But do those actions establish the existence of the individual?  Or do they simply identify some one person, against all the persons who ever lived?  It's a very close question, and it's related to this issue of identifying the poor.  Is Napoleon more of a person to us because we know of all his deeds?  Does extensive knowledge establish his existence, or merely identify a particular person and set of circumstances?  Do we establish Napoleon's existence by what he did?  And if we do, do other people lack existence because we cannot identify their deeds?  Surely not.  But what do we mean, then, by "existence"?  Is it one thing for Napoleon, another for his hostler, or a foot soldier in his army who died in Russia?  Identity is a rather simple matter:  I identify you as someone I know, or as the person I saw commit the crime, and then the state identifies you as a criminal.  Does any of that prove your existence?  If so, how?  What is it proving?  If no one can identify you, do you fail to exist?

Do "the poor" exist because they are poor?  Is their identity being in poverty?  Does that establish the existence of any individual on earth?  No.  It establishes an identity, and from it you claim to know what you need to know, but what you know is a construct of your own making.  "Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  What?  Did anybody have to sin for this man to be born blind?  Does his identify as a blind beggar eclipse his existence as a human being?

Too easily, it does.  Too easily, we overlook existence and stick with the easier abstraction of identity.  You are poor, and we who are not poor will come up with a solution for that.  But first we must settle on how we can accurately talk about the solution for that; what we can say, and how accurately we can say it.  We must be moved by our own rhetoric and logic and come to a reasoned conclusion which cannot be gainsayed.

We must fiddle, while Rome burns.

Why are people swayed by false conditional antecedents?  Because it is in their own interest to be.  It is easy when the poor are an abstraction, are the people on the street corners making $30,000 a year panhandling (as one good church member assured me was the case, once.  And he clearly thought that was a princely su, enough to secure quite a comfortable middle-class existence, and all without "working."  As if pandhandling at the intersections of the I-10 service road wasn't in any sense work.).  But as Dorothy Day's experience shows, even when we are working beside the poor, trying to help them as directly as we can, they remain an abstraction.  They are poor; we who choose poverty in order to help them, don't know what it means to be poor.

Is that a conditional antecedent?  Is that a necessary condition?

If you cannot imagine the conditions of poverty except as an abstraction, as something you can escape (and even Orwell knew he wasn't meant to stay poor), how can you empathize with civilians in foreign countries?  And if your concern for them is not based on empathy, what good is it?  When people stop being human beings, stop, in other words, having existence, they start becoming abstractions:  counters in a game, pawns on a chessboard, numbers in a body count.  Dalton Trumbo wrote of the body counts from the Vietnam War, how they represented so many arms and legs and torsos and heads, all shattered and broken by then-modern weaponry.  Trumbo noted that we read such lists in the morning paper, and instead of throwing up in revulsion at the picture they should have conjured, we reached for the coffee cup.  Abstractions and identities such as "enemy" make the whole process work; conditional antecedents are just a layer on top of layers, a nice way of talking about what we are talking about by not talking about reality.  Is the real problem of drone strikes and civilian deaths that we rely on conditional antecedents in our arguments?  Or is the real problem that we just don't care, because those "civilians" aren't even people, they don't even, as far as we are concerned, have existence?

The issue is never "How do we talk about it?"  The issue is always:  "What are we talking about?"  And to the extent that is a fit question for philosophers (all questions are, but some are more fit than others), it is a question of how we understand and face and define and discuss the nature and reality of existence.

And I'm not sure we're even touching on that, yet.

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