Politics and Principles

Elise has been discussing the polygamy question at length, and has raised a point that really deserves a separate treatment.  The question has to do with the importance of principles, as opposed to emotional certainty, in politics.  It happens to be something that our friends on the Left are discussing as well, apparently due to the fact that their new avatars Occupying various things don't have any obvious principles.  An interesting and, I think, an argument worthy of consideration has appeared on the Left about why principles shouldn't be important.

This ties into the question about false consciousness, where Cassandra wanted to defend 'a large grain of truth.'  Elise gets to what is probably the core of any such grain:
I think perhaps the underlying question is, "What constitutes an argument based on principles?" I'm not going to claim that my emotional certainty polygamy is a bad idea is a principle but my conviction that a dyad is the best form for marriage may be.
I'm seriously out of my depth here but what about the case of a woman who asserts that she has no problem being married to a husband who beats her?
A principled argument is a kind of demonstration, in which you give an account of a thing that goes upwards from particulars to the core truths that give rise to those particulars.  In chemistry, a demonstration of this type would go from particulars like ice and water and steam to a higher truth -- the structure of H2O -- which explains why those particulars arise in given circumstances.  When you can give a demonstration of this type, you are arguing from principles.

You may still be wrong, of course.  Aristotle had a system of elemental chemistry that was quite principled, and succeeded in giving an account of why ice changes into water; but the principles gave way, on further evidence, to better principles that offer a fuller account.  This is important, because principled arguments are only as good as the principles underlying them.  It is important to return to the principles, and re-examine them carefully in every generation.

So, in terms of the argument that Elise offered about the dyad in marriage, it is indeed a principled argument:  the principle is that the convenience of the courts is an important feature of the marriage contract.  Because non-dyadic marriage is more legally complex, she argues, polygamy is impossible in a society like ours.

There are a couple of good things about principled arguments in politics.  The first one is that they give you standards that can prevent you from being led astray by a charming or persuasive politician.  This has been a problem since at least ancient Greece, where the complaint against Socrates (more properly aimed at the Sophists) was that he offered teaching in how to 'make the weaker argument appear the stronger.'  Utilitarian philosopher Neil Sinhababu, the first of our gentlemen of the Left, praises this aspect particularly.

Lots of people in politics want to get you excited in a way that'll get you doing what they want, so they'll work to create the right emotions in you. Given your psychology and their interests, it may be most effective for them to develop or manipulate your emotional attachments with a particular tribe or politician, either loving them or hating them. 
What's of fundamental importance in the world, and what good people are really trying to advance through involvement in public life, doesn't have a proper name like "Obama", "Bush", "Reagan", or "the Republican Party." It's described by more general terms like "the greatest happiness for all" or "helping people" or (according to views I think are wrong) "obeying God" or "property rights" or "the revolution." If you don't try to sort out what you care about at this level, the emotions that tie you to politics may attach to politicians and tribes and not the things that are described in well-reasoned principles. And then the things that motivate you won't be the things of real value.
The first benefit, then, is that you can be sure you are not swept off your feet.  One can certainly appreciate why this is a question of particular interest to thoughtful Leftists in the wake of 2008.

It is not only clever politicians that can sweep you off your feet.  Far more dangerous for most people are strong emotional reactions.  One can imagine a case in which a helpless girl child has been brutally murdered, and the wrong man is pinned with the crime.  How hard will it be for the jury to give him a fair hearing, given their fury at the crime, and the finger of authority pointing at him?

Not impossible, to be sure!  Yet the reason it is possible at all is that we have a strong principle about the importance of a fair trial.  We trust in that principle to cause the jury to put aside its anger and desire to punish, and demand of themselves that they hear the evidence fairly.

The other good thing about principles is that they give us grounds for addressing questions like Elise's: "What about the case of a woman who asserts that she has no problem being married to a husband who beats her?"  Is it really the case that there is no principled argument here?

If all we have is emotional certainty, we have to admit that other people are just entitled to theirs as we are to ours.  They have exactly the same standing to say, from their own unique perspective and position, "This seems right to me."  In order to say, "But it isn't right," we have to be ready to give a demonstration from principles.

It's not important that we should always do so.  To a large degree, many important questions really can be decided based on what 'seems right,' provided that we have a mechanism for making space for those who disagree.  This brings us to our second gentleman of the Left.
I’m sympathetic to Arendtian concerns about the mismatch between absolute principles and the intensely particular world of human affairs....   The reason I care about all of this gets back to the very beginning, when I was mentioned the possibility of being “uninterested” in principles. More to the point, I worry about those whose principles are not strongly enough held to entice them into political action, because I do share what I see as Madison’s concern: that it’s one thing to establish a republic in which all citizens are empowered to act equally, and quite another to figure out how to entice them to actually get involved. That’s the crisis of 1787; not just that the mechanics of the Articles were broken, but that republicans had always assumed that only a virtuous people could make a republic work, and as 1776 gives way to 1787 it’s increasingly clear that the people were to be corrupt, not virtuous. In my reading, Madison’s leap is to essentially jettison the assumption of virtue and try to use self-interest to entice people back into public action. That’s why Madison’s Federalist essays are so radical: he’s overturning not only centuries of assumptions about the mechanics of republics, but far more critical assumptions about the citizens of republics. Madison makes self-interest — not well-argued principles — the entryway for political participation precisely because he’s seeing all around him the lure of private happiness, rather than the appeal of public happiness. 
I think that's a really interesting claim about Madison.  I'm not sure it's right, but let's grant it for the sake of argument.  It surely is the case that our democracy intends to involve as many people as reasonable in at least the voting process, because the United States claims that its legitimacy depends on consent of the governed, as proven by their representation in government.  Thus, the more of the governed who vote for representatives, the more legitimate any action of the Federal government must seem.

So what if people are 'uninterested' in principles, and just want to live the way they think is best?

Arendt, as it happens, has a model for this:  it is based on Kant's approach to aesthetics in his third critique, the Critique of Judgment.  There is an immediately obvious sense in which a model like this is appealing.  Political questions are fundamentally questions about justice, and the language of justice is very often the language of beauty.  We say that a just decision, like a beautiful thing, is "balanced" or "harmonious" or "fulfilling" or even "stirring."  It is an emotional reaction rather than a scientific one; to put it in Arendt's terms, justice is a question about meaning, not a question about fact.

Justice isn't chiefly about exactly what happened, but about what would make it right.  Determining the facts is at most a preliminary condition.  I say "at most" because we very often set the facts aside if we determine that they were arrived at in a wrong way:  say by violation of 4th amendment rights without due process.  Nor is this particular to the American system:  we can see a similar setting-aside of facts in, say, Sir Thomas Malory's account of the trial of Guinevere.

So, to a degree I think we ought to try to make room for different emotional certainties about justice.  Fortunately, we have been provided with a way of doing that in very many cases:  the 10th Amendment.  In the wake of the 2004 elections, I wrote:
We should remember that they felt all the passion and concern that we did ourselves, and found that doing everything they could only led to the defeat of their cause. That kind of defeat can weaken the Republic, which many of us are sworn to uphold. It weakens it by undermining faith and confidence in the institutions. We must take care to be sure they find fair hearing of their concerns in the institutions that conservatives now control. The government must serve them as well. We should take care to observe the tenets of Federalism, and not use the power of the Federal government to try and influence liberal states according to a general will. We should erect new walls in that regard, so that our disappointed neighbors can still live the lives they want to live in what is also their country. 
This still seems right to me.  If we can restructure the American system along originalist lines, we can more readily ensure that 50 different systems of 'emotionally certain' ideas of justice can flourish alongside.  The 10th Amendment's push of almost all authority to the state and local level is the health of our Republic, especially as it becomes more diverse with age.

However, there are some questions that have to be decided for everyone.  I think these are questions that have to be decided on principle, precisely because otherwise we are enforcing our will on others whose moral standing is just as strong as our own.  Such enforcing will provoke a revolt, and more than that, it ought to provoke a revolt.

Since principles can be wrong, we still have plenty to argue about at the Federal level.  A principled argument is open to two different kinds of arguments, actually:  that the principles are wrong (modern v. Aristotle's chemistry), or that the application of the principles can be handled differently than posited (that legal ease can be achieved for the most complicated polygamy if they are organized legally as a sort of corporation or trust).

That still leaves lot of room for things you believe intensely, even if you can't say quite why.  Those things are good too, sometimes:  at least, they should be if they truly are aesthetic principles.  For aesthetics looks to the beautiful, and the True and the Beautiful finally prove to be only the first division of the Good.


Elise said...

It seems to me there is a difference between principles in a field like chemistry and principles in a field like what forms of marriage are, well, what? Acceptable, desirable, workable? Principles in chemistry must conform to what is: if I misstate how nature works, experience will prove me wrong. It's less clear-cut in things like marriage forms: different forms work (if by "work" we mean society survives) and it's possible forms which did not work in the past may work in the future.

More pragmatically, I'm all for Federalism. But there is so much currently done by the Federal government that almost everything requires national consensus. Marriage is an example: the definition of marriage touches Social Security, income tax deductions, family income qualifications for assistance programs, and who knows what else. To let States define marriage as they wish, we must either do away with many Federal programs or re-write those programs so they apply to individuals rather than couples or families.

Which I think goes back to the question of what we want marriage to accomplish. If we think marriage is crucial to society's survival then it behooves us to encourage it by recognizing it at the governmental level - which seems to argue against re-writing programs to apply to individuals.

E Hines said...

I'm all for Federalism. But there is so much currently done by the Federal government....

As am I all for Federalism. But do we really have a federalist system today, or have the States been reduced to the same relationship to the central government as late-18th century counties were relative to their States: "merely as districts to facilitate the purposes of domestic order and good government," as John Jay put it?

To let States define marriage as they wish, we must either do away with many Federal programs or re-write those programs....

On the matter of marriage, that's the price of the full faith and credit clause of Art IV, Sec 1: Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. On the broader matter of ...either do away with many Federal programs or re-write those programs.... in general, I see little downside, and I lean toward doing away.

Eric Hines

Grim said...


I want to address a concern that you raise.

It seems to me there is a difference between principles in a field like chemistry and principles... of marriage.... Principles in chemistry must conform to what is: if I misstate how nature works, experience will prove me wrong. It's less clear-cut in things like marriage forms[.]

The difference you are pointing to is the difference many philosophers are concerned about, which is said to be between nature and "artifact." Artifacts are supposed to be, in some sense, unnatural, and some philosophers warn against trying to draw lessons from them and apply those lessons to nature.

For example, let us say that I explain to you Aristotle's concept of 'form and matter' by analogy to a chair. The matter of a chair is just wood or plastic or what have you; but if that stuff were laying in a heap on the floor, it wouldn't be a chair. Thus, the form of the chair is the order imposed upon the matter, which gives it a particular capacity. Now, we can talk about the form of a mountain, which is likewise the order imposed upon the matter which gives it a particular...

"Wait!" you might object (as these philosophers do). "The chair has a form because we created the form, and put the matter into it. Your model suggests that someone has imposed a form on the mountain, but the mountain just is there. The only 'form' it has is the linguistic 'form' that we are imposing on it by calling it a mountain. There is no metaphysical form in which it participates."

There is a valid concern here, and although I think it breaks down eventually (due to what I think is a provable unity of the Order of Reason) I don't wish to dismiss the valid points that may come from it. Artifacts do have forms that we are sub-creating, and there is a greater sense in which they are under our control.

However, I would submit that a natural principle still exists in human things. We have a great deal of control over what forms a chair takes, but nature dictates that it needs not to be upside-down (or else it needs to have a good seat belt!).

By the same token, there may be a number of different forms that marriage can take (indeed, in trying to challenge everyone to defend monogamy, I'm on the side of that proposition at least for the sake of this argument). However, ultimately there is a natural principle that unifies all those forms.

That principle is that we must unite bloodlines across generations, both to ensure a healthy diversity in the blood (e.g., no close-cousin marriage) and to ensure that generation occurs broadly enough to sustain the species over time. We may have a lot of control over the form, but if it ceases to adhere to this principle, nature will prove us wrong -- just as in chemistry.

Elise said...

Grim -

I was with you up to:

to ensure that generation occurs broadly enough to sustain the species over time.

I don't know what that means.

Grim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grim said...

It means that you have to ensure that enough children are generated, and survive to adulthood (for which purposes "adulthood" means not just age, but having the appropriate education to play their part in society). If you can't do that, the species or at least the civilization ends. That is to say, the natural principle will reassert itself -- or, as you put it, nature will prove that you were wrong.

Elise said...

It would seem, then, that monogamy would better fit your first requirement. As for your second, I don't think monogamy and polygamy necessarily differ in the number of children produced but it seems to me that monogamy would be superior in the "raised to adulthood" realm since presumably a father would do a better job with a smaller number of children - because of time constraints if for no other reason.

I'm not sure that either of these two requirements says anything about gay marriage.

Grim said...

Aquinas will agree with you about monogamy's fitness to seeing that children are raised to adulthood properly, although (as we'll see) he doesn't think polygamy violates natural law.

As for 'gay marriage,' naturally enough he doesn't consider it. However, insofar as gays want to reproduce and can't inside their own marriages, that would seem to be an imperfection: in other words, their desire to 'marry'-and-adopt would suggest that they are in some fundamental sense out of order with nature. If they did not wish to reproduce, then they would be out of order in a different way; but wishing to reproduce with someone who cannot possibly fulfill that wish is likewise out of order.

That strikes me as an answer to T99's concern that her gay friends are not obviously being punished; insofar as they ever wanted children, they certainly are. We might pity them, and even help them, without losing the ability to recognize the pain that an impossible desire must cause. Homosexuality would then be out of order, not in the first sense of 'natural' -- it certainly occurs in nature -- but in the second sense. It is opposed to the perfection of nature's intent.

In a large way that's neither here nor there. In another way it's important, though: assume that in some future era, scientists develop a pill you can take that will ensure that any child you conceive will be straight. The analysis suggests that it would be reasonable to take it, insofar as you would be helping your children be in accord with their natures; but if indeed that is reasonable, and almost everyone did so, homosexuality would (more or less) cease to exist. Is that good or bad?

That's another question -- one that is important to me, because I believe in a principle of plurality. Yet I can't see how it would be out of order with natural law for people to choose to prevent their children from suffering unnecessarily. A child born straight can fulfill this natural desire naturally and easily; a child born gay will be directed to fulfill this natural desire in an impossible way, and so will have to seek forms besides actually bearing their own children with their own beloved partner.

I can't fault a parent for wanting their child to have the simple, ordinary pleasure of loving a mate and bearing a child with them. Yet that seems to suggest permitting the destruction of an entire kind of person, assuming that technology permitted it and that parents did indeed normally make that choice. That seems to be a difficulty for the principle of plurality, which I think I have good reason to hold on other grounds.

Grim said...

Note, by the way, that this is not "destruction" in the sense of killing living people; it's destruction in the sense of allowing parents to choose to prevent the conception of a class of person.

In that sense, the Left has already decided its position here: even if it rejects the legality of a pill that prevents the conception of gays, it will certainly endorse the abortion of the conceived baby on any grounds the mother elects. The only way out would be to ban not only the pill, but any tests that might reveal the genetic factors that are supposed to be responsible for homosexuality. That, though, is itself a restriction on the 'right to choose' -- the mother's right to have all the information she needs to make her choice.

(Indeed, it's the flipside of the court case demanding that a sonogram of the baby-to-be-aborted not be provided as a condition of abortion. The mother must have all and only the information she wants.)

It would be manifestly easy for someone on the Right to oppose a reverse pill of that type (i.e., one that prevents conception of anything except homosexual children). Natural law grounds provide a solid reason to argue against such a technology, and we aren't committed to abortion (which, as noticed above, would make opposition to the pill incoherent).

Should we also oppose the first type of pill, though? At least for me, there are two principles in conflict: the natural law principle that can see why it would be reasonable for parents to want their children to enjoy as much perfection of their natures as possible; but also the principle of plurality, which suggests that there is a metaphysical reason to value different kinds of human beings. That's a long argument in itself, but I'm convinced of it; so for our purposes, let me just note that it's a principle I think is at least as strong as the natural law principle.

E Hines said...

...the natural law principle that can see why it would be reasonable for parents to want their children to enjoy as much perfection of their natures as possible....


...also the principle of plurality, which suggests that there is a metaphysical reason to value different kinds of human beings.... [L]et me just note that it's a principle I think is at least as strong as the natural law principle.

It occurs to me that your second principle actually is subsumed in your first: how can (my) children enjoy as much perfection...as possible, if they're to be denied access to those different kinds of human beings (for example, by preventing a priori their existence)?

Eric Hines

Elise said...

Grim -

(Parenthetically, I will be interested to learn if Aquinas thought polygamy did not violate natural law or just polygyny.)

We are looking at a time in the not too distant future when gay couples will be quite capable of having children with their partners. I believe it would simply be a variant on cloning. For male couples having a child would also involve a surrogate to carry the child to term but in terms of DNA (blood, if you prefer) the child would be a combination of the two parents.

Even today a lesbian couple could have a child with one partner as the mother and with a brother of the other partner as a sperm donor. The child would not be a result of the DNA of the couple but it would be a close approximation.

I think there is some conflict between the importance you attach to a child being the result of combining the DNA of the couple and the importance you attach to raising a child to successful adulthood. It seems the ideal - the most naturally perfect - combination would be: DNA combination of the two parents; carried to term by one of the parents; raised to successful adulthood. Yet so long as we can achieve the last, are the first two really that important for either society or the continuation of the species?

Elise said...

With regard to making all children born straight, I think that by the time we are technologically capable of doing that we will be looking at so many other ramifications of genetic engineering that that issue will be lost in the noise. Imagine what human perfectibility will mean for the children who are version 1.0 when version 2.0 is achievable (Thanks to Robert Reed's "The Dragons of Springplace" for that thought.)

Grim said...

Mr. Hines:

That depends on how the pill works. If the pill destroys cells (say, eggs or sperm) that contain code compatible with homosexuality, then perhaps that might be right. If Augustine's account of evil is correct, any existence is better than none; so to deny existence is to deny any good.

If it simply edits existing genetic code, then you aren't denying the child existence. You're just removing a deprivation, which increases the child's access to happiness. That's where I think the principles might be in conflict.


I object to the word 'polygyny' on the grounds that there are too many 'y's in it. I can't look at it without thinking of worms writhing together.

However, you're quite right -- Aquinas specifically argues that it is in accord with natural law (but not with Christianity) for men to take additional wives, but not vice versa. When I have time to write the post -- perhaps tomorrow -- I was going to quote that language directly because it's an interesting argument. It's the one case I can recall from reading Aquinas in which the Golden Rule is specifically invoked and rejected.

(Aquinas isn't obviously arguing from any desire to take 'extra' wives himself; he was apparently quite celibate, though he was also a defender of the goods inherent in sexuality.)

I don't think there's any conflict between 'siring' and 'raising' -- if we're talking about what can be perfected, we can recognize disabilities in both fields. For example, it's plainly better to sire a child naturally than through the kind of fertility treatments that work by artificially creating dozens of embryos, and then killing the ones you don't end up wanting. However, this is still better than having your brother impregnate your wife -- that sounds like it would create all kinds of issues that would be disruptive to the family, lesbians or not -- which might, in turn, still be better than having to do without children at all.

The changes in technology may, though, create significant alterations in the picture. I agree about that; and since the idea is to perfect nature, I certainly have no reason to object to the standard.

However, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't want to make use of a pill such as I describe in the example anyway. What I'm trying to decide is whether we should legislate against such a pill in general. That's an issue that, even if it were in some sense 'lost in the noise' is nevertheless important conceptually. Precisely because the technology is changing so quickly, these are issues we ought to be thinking through.

E Hines said...

That depends on how the pill works.... If it simply edits existing genetic code....

I'm not sure I agree. The pill destroys cells, or we preempt the creation of the cell by editing the predecessor genetic code--I see no moral difference here, not when our technology gets this far. When does life begin? At conception--at the point the egg and sperm unite? When the conditions for that unification occur? How far back, if at all, do we run that chain?

When we destroy the cell, goes an argument against abortion, we're destroying God's handiwork. An argument against birth control pills centers on an immorality of interfering with the unification of those two cells that will become a life.

Birth control, or DNA editing, are we not interfering with God's path for the life that will flow from that code?

Where, indeed, do we draw the line?

I'm of two views on this. God gave us the ability, for instance, to develop an ability build genetic code from the ground up, and we've already assembled living viruses, insofar as viruses live. Can we do this with human life? Not today, but we will be able to tomorrow. Certainly there are ethical questions to using such a capability, but would it violate God's law?

We have free will for a purpose, but it's inappropriate to do wrong just because we can choose to do so. Manipulating genetic code I don't think falls into that category so clearly. Doing so for the survival of the species, I think would be legitimate. Doing so to manage our evolution according to our terms, or doing so for the convenience of a couple of wannabe parents, I don't think so.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

The traditional line is at conception; and there is a strong reason to endorse that line. Conception is the point at which genetic codes are set. What was, before, a partial code -- incapable of supporting life or defining an organism -- becomes set, unique, and powerful.

A pill that only edited sperm or eggs, so as to pass on a better code to any possible children, would be reasonable. Consider, for example, a pill that eliminated code that created susceptibility to cancer or heart disease; we would not have any reason to be bothered by that.

douglas said...

Indeed, no more so than we should be troubled by organ transplants, for instance, or any other life saving medical intervention. It's clearly an alteration of what was naturally occurring, but is there any reason to think of it as 'destroying God's handiwork'. God created the ability for cells to become cancerous, and also gave us the ability to fight cancer. The rest is up to us.

That's not to say that messing with genetic codes is something to be taken lightly, there are certainly ethical dilemmas aplenty there.

E Hines said...

Conception is the point at which genetic codes are set.

This, I think runs near the center of my dilemma. When we manipulate the genetic code, we're manipulating conception. I see this as a continuum, not as two distinct states.

But we've been messing with the genetic code for thousands of years. We do this when we breed animals or plants for certain traits. We do this when we select mates from one blood-line preferentially over another. We do this today with more specificity when we select sperm or eggs from banks according to this criterion, or reject according to that criterion.

Yet the right or wrong of it isn't straightforward; it's more situation--and motivation--oriented.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

Eric, I know my wife certainly manipulated conception- when she figured out what the schedule was going to be for us having children, she made it happen- even getting the order of gender just as she wanted. There were no guarantees, but she researched and we did the things that made sense, and it all worked out as she planned. I hardly think it immoral or unethical, nor does the Catholic Church- even they allow for the rhythm method as a means of regulating how and when we have children. We're given the power to choose, and that power should be borne responsibly, not shirked. Cancer is an alteration in the DNA (or I think more precisely the RNA) in some cells, and is as natural as anything. If so, then it's perfectly natural for us to do some tweaking to achieve good ends- but that is a tremendous responsibility, and truly fraught with risks as well. I don't think that's reason to avoid it though. The point at which an individual existence is defined (as opposed to merely suggested by either component that creates it) seems the right place to say 'here is the line where the fiddling about stops, and respect for the individual life begins'.