One prominent idea of rights, common in the US political and legal tradition, understands rights to be barriers against interfering state action: if the state just keeps its hands off, rights are taken to have been secured. The Capabilities Approach, by contrast, insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. In the absence of action, rights are mere words on paper. Vasanti was not beaten by the government of Gujarat; she was beaten by her husband. But a government that does not make and then actively enforce laws against domestic violence, or give women the education and skills they need to get a living wage if they leave an abusive marriage, is accountable for the indignity such a woman endures. Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action. The very idea of “negative liberty”, often heard in this connection, is an incoherent idea: all liberties are positive, meaning liberties to do or to be something; and all require the inhibition of interference by others.”
~ Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, p. 65
Imagine a child playing in a sandbox, dreaming up elaborate stories about the castles they’ve built with their sandbox toys. Now, imagine a group of eighteen adults, two teams of office co-workers, throwing around a baseball according to very precise rules. Those adults are playing too.
It seems contradictory at first. The elaborate rules of the baseball game are very different from the child’s freeform storytelling. How can they both be forms of play?
What makes them play is freedom from external consequences. A child in a sandbox does not fear that their day dreams will bring harm to them. A softball player knows that to swing and miss three times will result in an out but nothing else. Play can be elaborate and ritualistic or wild and spontaneous, it can be solitary or communal, it’s usually pleasurable but can also be painful, it can involve building things up or tearing them down. What unites all these activities is the mindset of the participants: blissfully free from worry about unintended consequences.
Work is one of the opposites of play. When we work, we’re striving towards a goal which matters, and everything we do must be measured against that purpose. A job can involve both work and play, if care is taken to create environments where there is no pressure to get things right the first time and no negative consequences for the employee if they fail. But some kinds of work can never be turned into play. You would not want a surgeon to play during surgery, happily disregarding the consequences as they cut into your body. Most jobs require at least some periods of seriousness.
But no human being can go too long without play, without respite from the fear of consequences. A surgeon must take their surgery seriously, but the must also have space in their lives to play. And because we spend so much of our lives at our jobs, they’re one of the best intervention points when it comes to bringing play back into people’s lives. It is through play that we are able to take work seriously. Without those breaks, those moments of freedom, we are too exhausted to think through the consequences when it really matters.
The famous Facebook philosophy of “move fast and break things” is fundamentally a playful one. Paraphrased, it just means “go ahead, don’t worry about the consequences”. The world is your sandbox. But of course, not having to worry about consequences is a form of privilege. And, insulated by that privilege, Facebook and other tech companies have played games with a great many very serious things.
The problem is not that Facebook encouraged playfulness, it’s when and how they encouraged playfulness. They handed a scalpel to a surgeon and told them “move fast and break things” rather than creating a more appropriate space for play.
I posted a few months ago about negative capability – that is, the ability to tolerate uncertainty, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Coined by the Romantic poet Keats, the term is easily associated with art but applies in all disciplines and all areas of life. Uncertainty pervades everything. So it behooves us to come to terms with it.
But there’s a complement to negative capability. I’ll be unoriginal and call it positive capability. Positive capability is the ability to create certainties in an uncertain situation. Instead of sitting with mysteries and doubts, you do your best to clear them up.
Negative capability and positive capability are not opposed; they go hand in hand. Negative capability in the sciences means acknowledging that the theories you rely on may be false and the data you record may be noisy or confounded; positive capability in the sciences means proposing and testing new hypotheses anyway, and provisionally accepting things that seem likely to be true. Negative capability in community organizing means recognizing that everyone’s perspectives differ and there’s no way to reach a perfectly fair outcome for everyone; positive capability in community organizing means doing your best to understand others and seek consensus anyway, and provisionally accepting compromises as the best you can do right now.
Perhaps I’m inventing a word unnecessarily. Perhaps ‘positive capability’ as I’ve outlined above is one way of expressing negative capability. Both rely on a fundamental acceptance of and tolerance for uncertainty. But Keats’ definition of negative capability seems fundamentally passive, a sort of “sitting with uncertainty” rather than “doing with uncertainty”.
I got into a debate a while back with a writer friend of mine, about art which raises questions vs art that tries to answer questions. She argued that the fundamental purpose of art is to raise questions but too often, I find myself reaching the end of a book or movie that tries to explore a particular question and going: “And???”
For instance, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is a really lovely exploration of the tension between selfishness and selflessness that never really answers the question of “How do you compromise between the two?” I found myself frustrated by the story’s ending. Of course no answer to that question could possibly be a certain one. But refusing to answer at all seems to be its own kind of uncertainty intolerance.
If you think of it like what is apparently called the Hegelian dialectic, raising a question corresponds to proposing a thesis and antithesis which exist in tension with one another, whereas answering the question corresponds to proposing a synthesis. All syntheses are just new theses to be debated. But the discussion can’t move on without them.
I think the key here is actually an emotional one. You shouldn’t feel pressured into answering a question because you can’t tolerate a question without an answer. But you also shouldn’t feel pressured into not answering a question because you can’t tolerate having the wrong answer. The question of when to sit with your thesis and antithesis, and when to push towards synthesis, is itself a question with only imperfect answers.
With the exception of rare contrivances like king’s missives and broadcast television, we learn most of what we learn and meet most of the people we meet through networking. This has always been true, but it’s clearer than ever with social media. To be honest I rather like it. When a friend I trust or a writer I admire shares a link I tend to follow along enthusiastically.
A few months ago one of my favorite writers shared an essay they’d appreciated. I clicked the link and read the essay; then I clicked to the author’s profile and learned about their other writing; then I clicked on a book they’d recently published and browsed the other titles by that publisher. It was at this point that I came up short. One of the other titles was a book of Holocaust denial.
Since then, I have been turning the circumstance around and around in my head. Writing a book denying the Holocaust is clearly not okay. But are all of the other links in this chain not okay? Is it wrong to publish a book of Holocaust denial? Is it wrong to publish your book through a publisher that also publishes Holocaust denial? Is it wrong to publish an essay by an author who publishes with a publisher who also publishes Holocaust denial? Is it wrong to share an essay by an author who publishes with a publisher who also publishes Holocaust denial?
I feel that the answer to “is it wrong to publish a book of Holocaust denial” is clearly “yes” and that the answer to “is it wrong to share an essay by an author who publishes with a publisher who also publishes Holocaust denial” is clearly “no” but the in-betweens are murky. We’re all connected to something horrible if you look long enough. But what connections are too close?
At the risk of being entirely incorrect, here’s my first stab at a set of guidelines to use in my own life:
- 0 degrees (aka you are the person doing the unambiguously wrong thing) – not acceptable, for the love of god stop
- 1 degree (direct connection to someone behaving wrongly (A)) – unacceptable, unless criticizing or stopping the wrong behavior is the primary focus of the relationship with A
- 2 degrees (you are connected to someone (B) with a direct connection to someone behaving wrongly (A), and B is not making the wrong behavior the primary focus of the relationship with A) – acceptable only if you make clear that you disapprove of B’s behavior towards A
- 3 degrees (you are connected to someone (C) who is connected to someone (B) who is connected to someone (A) who is behaving wrongly, and neither C nor B is attempting to get their respective connection to change their behavior) – pretty much fine regardless, we have to stop holding people responsible somewhere
Obviously these guidelines would vary based on how harmful the wrong behavior is, the kind of relationship the pairs of people have and how much the relationship inherently supports the wrong behavior, and how successful each individual feels they’re being at trying to change the behavior. Human relationships are messy things. But I think there’s value in vague abstractions like this, so long as they’re not misunderstood as rules set in stone.
This link goes to a fascinating little explainer by Popehat on Twitter. Excerpted here and lightly edited for readability:
The Fifth Amendment says you can’t be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness” against yourself. The government can’t compel testimony from you if it might incriminate you — at least not without a grant of immunity.
One of the issues the courts have had to confront is this question: what is testimony? Is a sobriety test testimonial, especially if you have to talk? A blood test? Mandatory filing of tax returns? A handwriting sample? And so forth.
Now, pre-existing items and documents are not testimony. It’s not testimonial if you’re forced to turn them over — in the abstract. But there’s a nuanced, complicated exception. Sometimes the “act of production” can be testimonial.
The idea is that if the government subpoenas you for documents, and you turn them over, you are admitting the existence, authenticity, and your possession of the documents — and those may be incriminating. So even if the documents aren’t testimony, producing them might be.
So years ago, the Supreme Court decided that sometimes, if it wants to compel production of documents, the government will have to offer what’s called “act of production immunity” — they can’t use your production of the documents against you.
Then, in 2000, the Supreme Court expanded the doctrine in the case of Clinton associate Webster Hubbell. The case involved very broad fishing-expedition style subpoenas from Independent Counsel Ken Starr.
The subpoenas were very broad — they asked for things like “any and all documents reflecting, referring, or relating to any direct or indirect sources of money or other things of value received by or provided to” Hubbell.
The Court found that because of how the questions were framed, identifying documents in response to them was “the functional equivalent of the preparation of an answer to either a detailed written interrogatory or a series of oral questions at a discovery deposition.”
Put another way, rather than simply physically turning over documents, Hubbell had to use “the contents of his own mind” to select documents responsive to the government’s broad fishing questions. That made his response testimonial, and thus protected by the Fifth Amendment.
Last week I was on a panel about ‘Democracy and the Digital Commons’ at Suffolk University. At the start of the panel, each of us gave a 5-10 minute talk to help frame the discussion. While there’s no transcript of the panel itself, here are my notes for the intro. (Quick context: each of us tied our talk to the Boston Marathon bombing and in particular Reddit’s response to it.)
The internet was supposed to bring about a new world, a better world in which everyone had a voice. With the rise of blogging and social media, the machinery of publishing was being democratized. And more democracy is always good, right?
Well, not necessarily. Democracy has its flaws and its dangers, just like any other system of governance. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the other ones that have been tried.”
I want to focus on one particular long-understood flaw of democracy, which is this: in a democratic system, every voice counts equally, even though some may be much better educated on a given topic.
We can view what happened after the marathon bombing through this lens. Reddit led a crowdsourced manhunt – another way of saying that is that they led a democratized manhunt. Anyone, regardless of their experience with intelligence investigations, could contribute to the discussion. It’s not surprising, then, that the investigation went awry – that the crowd failed to consider how misidentifying suspects could harm innocent people, or how a public manhunt might influence the behaviors of the perpetrators. The vast majority of the people participating had no training or experience in the matter, so why would they know?
Here’s a question for the room. A loved one of yours has been mysteriously murdered, and you have to choose who investigates, one or the other – the local police, or a community of people on Reddit. Which do you choose?
(More or less everyone raises their hands for ‘local police’.)
Now I want you to imagine that the prime suspect is a local police officer. Who you want to investigate – the local police, or a community of people on Reddit?
(More or less everyone raises their hands for ‘community of people on Reddit’.)
Here we have a great tension. It’s better and more effective to delegate power to those with the expertise to use it. But it’s only better and more effective when the experts act fairly and in the best interests of those who’ve delegated power to them. And there’s no way to be 100% sure that they’ll act in your best interests. This is called the Principal-Agent Problem.
We can see the Principal-Agent Problem at work with the issue of misinformation more broadly. Techno-Utopians have championed social media as a way to make every user a publisher. But there’s a real value to the training that journalists get. There are cultural standards they internalize and then enact, including things like verification processes, disclosing conflict of interest, and refusal to plagiarize or fabricate quotes.
I for one am relieved to be able to delegate this work to journalists at ProPublica or the New York Times or the Boston Globe. I may not agree with what they chose to report on or the opinions in their editorials but I trust that they’ll follow journalistic norms. I trust them to act on my behalf, my news-gathering agents. But not everyone does. There’s been a concerted effort for decades, which has risen to a fever pitch over the last few years, to portray them as biased, as liars, even, lately, as traitors deserving of violence.
If we stop viewing journalists as our “news-gathering agents”, who replaces them? We’ve got to trust someone to gather our news, because I sure am not capable of doing it all for myself. So who do we trust instead?
One response is, “We’ll trust those in power, we’ll trust the President”, which, no matter what party you belong to should give you pause.
Another, more optimistic response, is to say, “The crowd! We’ll trust the crowd.” In other words, screw agents – let’s all be principals.
But what does the crowd give us? It gives us clickbait passed around every corner of Facebook. It gives us waves of abuse and harassment on Twitter. It gives us lies that spread faster than truth.
It turns out this result is not very satisfying! So there are calls for someone to exercise power and try to fix these problems. People ask Facebook to stop the spread of misinformation. They ask Twitter to stop abuse on their platform. And in doing so, they’re asking the tech platforms to act as their agents.
The tech platforms are hesitant to do this, I think rightly. “Who are we to determine which journalists are legitimate and which are not?” Facebook asks. “Who are we to determine what’s rudeness and what’s abuse?” Twitter asks.
But if not them, then who? They’ve designed their platforms as a meeting ground of millions of principals rather than a place where people can delegate responsibility to agents. The platforms don’t empower people to address these problems, so the only solution is to go behind the platforms. And behind these scenes, of course, these companies are profoundly non-democratic.
And so you end up with a site like Twitter, where many users feel coerced into letting Twitter act as an agent on their behalf despite having no mechanisms to hold it accountable. So Twitter has power its users don’t want to grant it, and that Twitter itself doesn’t want to use, but that must be used for the commons to remain remotely functional.
So how do we move forward? I have three main ideas.
First, I think we need to change how we design our digital platforms. Web applications are governance systems made of electricity and silicon rather than ink and parchment. When you ban a person from your website, it’s not that different from asking the sheriff to walk that no good rascal to the edge of town. And if we view web platforms as systems of governance then we can see just how naive and inadequate sites like Twitter or Facebook or Reddit are. The use of the phrase “upvoting” and “downvoting” on Reddit seems almost insulting. Users aren’t upvoting a person to represent them in a specific situation or downvoting a proposed policy they don’t want to see adopted. Or over on Twitter – people have been using external tools like shared blocklists for years to try to establish some semblance of collective control that the platform itself refuses to grant them.
Specifically, I think we need to design systems that encourage us to delegate power to those we trust – voluntarily, and revocably. Because we need agents that we can trust to act on our behalf, but we also need ways to withdraw power from those we no longer trust. If we can do this on our platforms, we won’t have to beg for intervention from the people behind the platforms.
Second, we need to nourish existing systems of trust and adapt them to online spaces. A lot of tech industry rhetoric has centered around replacing trust, for instance blockchain is supposed to be trust-free. But humans will always have to trust each other, and we’ve developed some pretty good cultural norms and social systems to facilitate that trust. We shouldn’t just throw them away.
Which brings me to my third point. Our legal system has a solution for the Principal Agent Problem. It doesn’t always work, but it does help a lot of the time. This solution is the concept of fiduciary duty. This is what requires Doctors to act in the best interest of their patients, lawyers to act in the best interests of their clients, and bankers to act in the best interests of their customers. Why not require platforms to act in the best interests of their users?
Nothing we do is going to permanently solve the Principal Agent Problem. There will always be some amount of misinformation and abuse in our digital commons. But that’s not an excuse to turn away from the issue. By thinking carefully and compassionately about these problems we can improve our approach to them.
Back in high school and college, I had friends who offered to do tarot readings for me. I always turned them down. “What a dumb idea,” I’d think. “How could a deck of cards predict your future!”
Then a few years ago, my friend Zandra made the offer differently. “I use tarot cards to help my brain think about problems in a new way. Want to try?” I was still a little dubious, but I agreed to give it a shot, and I’m so glad I did.
Humans are a storytelling animal. We use symbols and associations to shape our thoughts, actions, values, hopes. We do this constantly, albeit largely unconsciously. A tarot reading is just a way of making this storytelling process explicit and therefore manipulable.
All of this is a preface to a specific set of cards I’d like to talk about:
I’ve drawn these cards together in a few different readings, and come to associate them with a set of ideas and concepts that are very important to me. These associations are echoed and enforced by the visual similarities in the cards. Let’s take them left to right.
A surface reading of this card might suggest that the Devil is an ominous figure who has enslaved the people beneath him and keeps them trapped against their will. But I don’t see these figures as slaves. The christian Devil is a seducer. The figures have somehow chosen to be there.
But why would someone chose to give up power? Or rather, why would someone chose to believe they have no power?
In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society David Grossman described a study published by Richard Gabriel in his book, No More Heroes. A thesis by Janine Wannacott explains it this way:
Gabriel showed that during both world wars, prisoners of war did not suffer psychiatric casualties from artillery attack, but their enemy guards did (1987). The guards were in a position of responsibility, while the prisoners were not. Grossman cites this (1996) and explained that the prisoners had no control over their situation; their living or dying was up to the guards. The guards, meanwhile, were crushed under the burden of responsibility of their own, their companions’, and their prisoners’ lives.
Responsibility can be tremendously stressful. Responsibility for matters of life and death, in murky, uncertain circumstances, can be almost too much to bear. Put down your burdens, the Devil seduces us. There’s nothing you can do. You’re powerless to change this. You have no responsibility.
In her poem Return, Carolyn Forche stands in a supermarket recounting to a friend her experiences as a human rights activist in El Salvador and explaining how helpless they make her feel. The friend replies:
Your problem is not your life as it is
in America, not that your hands, as you
tell me, are tied to do something. It is
that you were born to an island of greed
and grace where you have this sense
of yourself as apart from others. It is
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless.
It’s a complicated poem. I used that last line – better people than you were powerless – to shame myself for years. We’ll come back to that feeling of shame in a bit. But for now, I want to focus on the line right before it: it is not your right to feel powerless.
It is not our right to feel powerless because we are not powerless. The devil lies when he tells us we have no power and therefore no responsibility. He has seduced us into wearing his chains, but we always have the power to take them off.
So… how do we take them off?
This card shows the angel Gabriel waking the dead with his trumpet. It is time for them to be judged by God.
I just talked about how we imagine we are powerless before the devil. We also imagine that we are powerless before God. But unlike with the Devil, we don’t feel bad about it. It’s humble and good to submit to God’s judgment, right?
If we define “submitting to God’s judgment” as something we do after death I have no criticism of it. I’m not gonna tell you how to live your best afterlife. But submitting to God here and now too often means submitting to the church’s will, or your local priest’s will, or your parents’ will. More generally, it means submitting to a set of predetermined rules and values without questioning them. This can be as tempting for secular people as for the religious.
The power of judgment is our greatest responsibility, because it is the power from which all other powers flow. After all, we cannot act until we have judged that we should act. Some people try to avoid responsibility by pretending they have no independent power of judgment. They say, “I was just following orders”. Courts have rightly rejected this defense and that’s because it elides the truth: that choosing to follow orders is itself an independent judgment.
We cannot lose or forgo our ability to judge. But what is judgment?
Some people conceive of it as the simple application of rules to a situation. Perhaps they imagine a judge, faced with a defendant, who classifies their crime as Crime A according to the criteria in Law B. But this is not how the judicial system works at all. Law is messy, ambiguous, full of contradictions and conflicting precedents, constrained by precise language yet liberated by the inherent imprecision of language. A judge doesn’t color by numbers, she paints. No wonder attempts to automate judicial decisions have been, by and large, a horrific mistake.
Jeremy Bentham said: “The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.” Without uncertainty there would be no need for judgment. There would be no need for responsibility, no opportunity for power, no occasion for free will.
Unfortunately, tolerating uncertainty is hard. During the Manafort trial, the jury asked Judge Ellis to define reasonable doubt for them. But it is not actually possible to define reasonable doubt, at least not in the way the jurors were likely hoping:
“The truth is that no one has yet invented or discovered a mode of measurement for the intensity of human belief.” — John Henry Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law
Most federal and state courts adhere to the “reasonable doubt” standard, but judges have been loathe to define it further. In a 2011 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit denied an appeal that was based on a trial court’s refusal to impose a definition.
“The term reasonable doubt itself has a self-evident meaning comprehensible to the lay juror,” the appeals court ruled. “Most efforts at clarification result in further obfuscation of the concept.”
The jurors were looking for more rules to help them make their decision. They wanted to submit to God’s will – or in this case, the state’s. Understandable, but past a certain point no rules are available. You cannot lay down your burden. You must judge for yourself.
The Lovers card, visually, is a combination of the Devil and Judgment. The human figures look similar to the pair of humans on the Devil card: naked, the woman on the left with symbols of fruit and growth and the man on the right with symbols of fire. The creature hovering above is more similar to the Judgment card: a wreath-crowned angel, whose presence in a bright blue sky evokes an atmosphere of hopefulness.
If the Devil is what tempts us to deny our power of judgment, the Lovers encourage us to embrace it.
Behind the naked man is a burning bush, like the one through which God spoke to Moses and commanded him to go free the Israelites. Moses tries many times to refuse this responsibility, asking “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) But in the end God convinces him, by giving him a partner:
“Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” (Exodus 4:12-15)
Responsibilities are less heavy when shared.
Behind the naked woman is a fruit tree with a serpent, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the story of the burning bush, Moses tries to refuse a responsibility pushed onto him by God. In the story of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve tries to take on a responsibility refused to her by God.
And it’s not just any responsibility. The knowledge of Good and Evil is what allows us to judge our own actions as good or evil, so you could also call this the Tree of the Power and Responsibility to Judge. Once they’ve gained the power and responsibility to judge, the Lovers lose paradise. How could they keep it? How, when they understand for the first time not only that suffering exists but that they themselves are a cause of it?
Thank God they’re not alone.
Love gives us strength to judge and to face the consequences of our judgment. What we cannot do for ourselves we can often do for others. Love helps ease suffering. It pushes us to seek the happiness of our beloved, even when their desires conflict with ours. Love compels forgiveness. When a loved one hurts us we want to forgive them, sometimes so badly that we forgive even when we should not.
The Lovers don’t represent only romantic partnerships. They represent friendships as well, and familial relationships, the connections of colleagues and neighbors and community-members to each other. They can represent the relationship of a fan and a celebrity, two candidates running against each other, the people of one nation and the people of another. The Lovers represent any human connection. They can even represent our connection to ourselves.
I said before that Carolyn Forche’s poem made me feel ashamed of myself. I knew about the existence of good and evil from a young age; I have a collection of books about genocide that I began building in high school. How could I have even a glimpse of all the suffering in the world and not dedicate my life to healing it? What good is all the good that I do, if I could be doing more?
The Lovers remind me to forgive: to forgive myself for my imperfections and for the suffering they’ve caused. It’s not that I think I “deserve” forgiveness. It’s that I know that only love will give me the strength to keep going, to keep the burden of responsibility secure upon my shoulders.
This philosophical approach to suffering and forgiveness is one of many reasons why I dislike our prison system. How does punishment teach responsibility, judgment, or love? By taking away an incarcerated person’s choices we decrease their sense of responsibility and deprive them of the opportunity to practice their judgment. By separating them from their community and support network we impair their ability to love and be loved.
When I was 13 I made a very bad judgment and physically harmed a classmate I was fighting with. My “punishment” was court-mandated community service. I was never once separated from the people who loved me and pushed me to do better. I volunteered at a shelter and saw the suffering caused by physical violence, which helped me see the consequences of my own actions. Everyone should be given this chance, especially children, but so many aren’t.
I’m not saying that all we need is love. Love’s seldom enough on its own and it certainly doesn’t fix every problem or repair every harm. But it can give us the strength to navigate a world full of suffering and the courage to shoulder the awesome responsibility of personal judgment. So, when we’re given the choice – and we are given the choice so much more often than it seems – when we’re given the choice, I try to choose love.
I’ve yet to regret that.
I’ve been drawn to libertarian ideology my whole life but have never really embraced it, aside from a one week stint after reading Atlas Shrugged my freshman year of high school. I liked the book enough that I immediately started re-reading it so I could better understand it. And when I did I realized: there are no children in the story. There’s also no loving parents with Alzheimer’s, no aunts with cancer, no friends who need a place to crash for a couple months while they try to figure out what the hell they’re doing with their lives. In all the thousand plus pages of the book, there’s a great paucity of human relationships. It’s just heroes loving other heroes and fighting villains.
(If any of you have read Atlas Shrugged, you might be thinking, “But Eddie Willers!” Eddie Willers just proves my point. Sure he’s a lifelong friend and colleague of Dagny’s who she genuinely seems to like, but she leaves him to die without a second thought. Millie Bush is another non-exception exception. Yes, she’s an eight year old kid, and so technically the book does have a child in it, but literally all she does is get punched in the face by a heroic factory worker. Atlas Shrugged: Punch Children and Let Your Friends Die.)
Anyway, this post is not meant to be a review of Atlas Shrugged. But I think the flaws of Atlas Shrugged are of a piece with the flaws of libertarianism as a whole. It views liberty as a naturally occurring right which must be protected from all threats, most notably the government but also other organizations and individuals. A lot of libertarians do just focus on the government, either because it’s intellectually easier or because their libertarianism is a Trojan horse for small-scale authoritarianism, but my issue is not just the categorization of who is a threat to liberty. It’s the central conception of liberty as a gift from god or nature which must be protected from other men.
This conception is extremely popular. You can find it in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
I believe that liberty is not given to men, it is created by men. If liberty is “the ability to do as one pleases”, then how do we gain those abilities? How do we even learn what pleases us? I am at liberty to write this blog post, and yes that is partly due to the freedoms of speech and press granted protected by the US Constitution, but it’s also due to years of public education and the mentorship of family members, not to mention the labor and community resources that went into building WordPress, the internet, and computers in general. Without them, I would not have the liberty to write this blog post. In fact, I cannot think of a single liberty I possess which was not in some way facilitated by people known or unknown to me. Even the most basic liberties such as bodily autonomy are in some ways created. If I’m attacked, how do I defend myself? With weapons created by and purchased from other people, with skills taught by self defense experts, with moves seen on TV.
If liberty can be created as well as destroyed, then libertarians have an obligation to support liberty creation along with liberty protection. To care only for one half of the matter is to let liberty languish. A person recently released from prison has regained some liberty from the state in a very meaningful way, but they also need liberty in the form of the ability to earn money legally. Otherwise they are likely to end up back in prison.
So why are there no children in Atlas Shrugged? Because a child is a perfect rebuke to the conception of liberty as a natural gift under threat. A newborn has no liberty – it cannot even hold its head up! It takes years for children to develop even a basic bodily autonomy: my niece is three and I am still always mindful of the ways I might need to intervene to protect her from herself. As she gets older the threats change, and she will be trusted more and more to act on behalf of herself, but it is a long process. And the ability to set her own boundaries and act on behalf of herself is itself a skill and knowledge/value set created through gifts of wisdom and care, role-modeling and expectation-setting.
We’re all children at heart. We may have learned enough skills to get by but we all struggle both to protect our liberties and to expand them, to enforce our boundaries and to broaden our horizons.
It’s a lifelong process. And any political movement that fails to respect both halves of that process is not one I care to be a part of.
We often talk about giving people the benefit of the doubt, but seldom talk about its opposite, to the point that no agreed upon phrase for it exists. The best I could come up with is the “burden of doubt”, which largely applies to courtroom settings. Even with the help of judicial documents, the phrase is not very popular.
And yet we give people the burden of doubt just as often as we give people the benefit of it. When I am in a bad mood and a stranger cuts me off, I give them the burden of my doubt as to whether they intended it. When I am feeling happy and lucky it is easy to give them the benefit of the doubt instead.
It might be better for the world if I could always give the benefit of the doubt to people, but at least fluctuations based on my mood aren’t particularly unfair. Of course our decisions in these matters are also influenced by things like race, gender, and other kinds of in-group/out-group status. Racism and sexism are sometimes viciously overt but more often they take the form of giving the benefit of the doubt to men and/or to white people, and the burden of the doubt to women and/or people of color. For instance, when a black woman complains about the way a match is being refereed. She acts in a similar way to many white men, but they are given the benefit of the doubt while she is given the burden of it. A study of political candidates found that “ambiguity boosts support for white male candidates but not for black male candidates. In fact, black male candidates who make ambiguous statements are actually punished for doing so by racially prejudiced voters.”
Our world is filled with uncertainty. We are constantly deciding whether or not to give people or groups of people the benefit or the burden of the doubt. But it’s not enough to make these decisions in isolation. We must look for patterns in how we distribute the weight.
This old tweet has recently been making the rounds and sparked up some discussion among my Facebook friends:
As someone with a background in both science and the humanities, I am continually exhausted by the antagonism between them. In any given argument I usually side with humanities advocates, because STEM workers are way more likely to be dismissive dicks. But this critique really misses the mark.
All disciplines ought to teach about how knowledge is constituted in their domain. That’s as true for biology and math and computer science as it is for history and philosophy and art.
It’s true that some of the disciplines most likely to discuss knowledge constitution are in the humanities. Philosophy has epistemology, for instance, and there are subfields of history and sociology focused on knowledge constitution. But in STEM we have statistics, and subfields of psychology and computer science concerned with what is knowable and how we know it.
Regardless, I don’t agree that we can or should assign ‘knowledge constitution’ to specific fields. All knowledge is actively constructed and we ought to be teaching people about that process even as we’re teaching the current results of the process. Which is, I think, what Neil Degrasse Tyson is getting at.