Emotive but Meaningless
Earlier this year, David Friedman found himself in a debate with two self-professed Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHLs for short, though I can’t detect any serious differences between BHLs and pro-capitalism neo-liberals). Friedman’s main charge against the BHLs is their attempt to smuggle a concept into libertarian philosophy that is neither well defined nor given objective parameters, namely social justice. The BHL definition of social justice is reliant on vague phrases like “special concern for the poor” and “minimally decent lives.” Friedman’s point is that if social justice is to be taken seriously as a politically or economically worthwhile concept, then its definition needs to be more rigorous. However, forcing the BHLs to formulate a more rigorous definition of social justice was like pulling teeth.
Part of my criticism of [BHL] Jason’s position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term “minimally decent lives.” In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that “minimally decent lives” in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
. . . they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what “social justice” meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn’t.
For BHLs, social justice is emotive but meaningless: in other words, rhetorical.
In The New Rhetoric, legal philosopher Chaim Perelman has this to say about values like ‘Justice’ as they are used in argumentation:
Their claim to universal agreement . . . seems to be due solely to their generality. They can be regarded as valid for a universal audience only on condition that their content not be specified; as soon as we try to go into detail [e.g., about social justice], we meet only the adherence of particular audiences. According to E. Dupreel, universal values deserve to be called “values of persuasion” because they are “means of persuasion which are that and no more than that; they are, as it were, spiritual tools which can be completely separated from the material they make it possible to shape . . .”
It is thus by virtue of their being vague that these values appear as universal values and lay claim to a status similar to that of facts. To the extent that they are precisely formulated, they are simply seen to conform to the aspirations of particular groups. (76)
Terms like “social justice” and “equality” get their emotive power from being vague. This is why progressives generally don’t like agonistic, logical debate. Logical debate requires precise definition of terms from the outset; but a precise definition of terms would unmask the progressive insistence on “equality” or “justice” as what it really is: special-interest pandering or, in other cases, a bizarre form of post-millennial utopianism. (I don’t mind when someone like Eric Holder tells us point blank that justice for “his people” is what really matters; at least he is honest about his partisanship, not pretending that he actually has universal aspirations when using superficially universal terms.)
All sides in political discourse make use of vaguely defined, emotive terms. “Freedom” and “duty” are popular terms on the American right. However, the test of a political philosophy is whether or not these universal values can be defined more precisely without completely negating their emotive power or unmasking them as partisan rhetoric. My own journey away from de facto leftism began with a recognition that people on the right were much more willing to delve into the first principles behind and definitions of their emotive concepts and terms. Beneath their rhetoric was more than ‘mere rhetoric.’
Friedman’s debate with the BHLs demonstrates that the rhetoric of social justice is indeed built upon smoke and mirrors and does not even try to correspond to reality. There are no first principles or attempts at precise definition because the entire progressive political philosophy finds its reason-for-being in emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. For example, Friedman persuasively argues that when progressives talk about the human right to “minimally decent standards of living” or to the meeting of “basic needs,” they really mean humans have a right “to live in a way that I, an upper-middle class leftist, would vaguely recognize as comfortable and meaningful.” There is no attempt to give a precise calculus to the concept of a “decent standard of living,” no attempt to define or to formulate the cost of “basic needs.” Why? Because then they would start to sound like Friedman:
A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.
The emotive power is gone, and with it goes the entire power of progressivism.
It’s human nature to be wooed by the power of emotive words and symbols. The power of religion likewise finds it fuel in the emotional needs of human beings. The value of a religion, like the value of a political philosophy, lies in its willingness to delve logically into the nature of its emotive terms and concepts, to prove that its emotive aspects do not rest upon rhetorical smoke and mirrors but rather correspond in some way to reality. (Whether those proofs are successful or not isn’t the point here.)
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn on the ‘logical’ or ‘realist’ part of their brain in one domain, but to shut it down entirely in other domains, to rely instead on emotion and subjective judgment, allowing themselves to be wooed by emotive words and symbols that in other contexts would send their logical brains into critical overdrive. It’s one thing to let the logical brain get turned off when attending to the kinds of needs fulfilled by religion—a recognition of sin, a need for forgiveness, a need for community, a need for spiritual comfort, et cetera. I think the needs fulfilled by religion are inherently emotional, inherently a-logical (I wouldn’t say illogical). And anyway, how a man works out his salvation is a private affair between him, his God, and perhaps his family. If such a process operates on emotion, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me, nor does it affect the world at large.
The trouble with progressivism is a) that it is emotive, b) that it is (unlike religion or right-wing populism) emotive and built on smoke and mirrors—emotive but meaningless, as we just saw—and c) that its meaningless emotionalism is designed to be coerced into the political workings of Western society.
Maybe coerced is the wrong word. There have been fights between left and right, yes, but the history of the West for at least 200 years has been the history of ever-leftward movement. An obvious reason for how the left took and kept power (not the only reason, of course) is that progressivism is, as Friedman points out about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, vague enough to be emotionally satisfying.
Progressivism is feel-good words, feel-good symbols, feel-good rallying, feel-good values. What does it matter if progressivism takes reality into consideration? It feels fucking good. It satisfies the emotional needs of guilty egalitarians. It is emotive but meaningless, sure, but like I said, humans are perfectly capable of turning off the demand for meaning in order to satisfy the demand for emotional fulfillment.
Progressivism is a political platform of irrational emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. The history of progressivism’s leftward march is the history of people turning off their logical brains and booting up their emotions. Okay for religion. Bad for socio-political policy.