ThoughtStorms Wiki

Context DecentralizedLeft, AlternativeVisionsForDecentralizedLeft, TheLeftTheoryOfDisagreement

(draft ... to be worked on, particularly the order)

I've been thinking more about some disagreements within the left. About some of my own intuitions in favour of or against other positions adopted by the left.

And today I saw two articles :

Now I'm not claiming any great historically original insight here. But I'm starting to see that a lot of internal disagreements within the left (or other broad churches) is between universalists and particularists or abstractists vs. concretists or top-downists and bottom-upists or Platonists vs Arostotelians.

Now, take two issues raised in the above stories : to what extent should the left support indigenous rights or protect religious sensibilities?

My left-wing commitment seems to me to be about universal principles : justice and freedom.

Saying this isn't saying very much, of course, because these are EinsteinPrinciples. Everyone (including the right) believes in them.

And the two principles are always in opposition. So what being "left" means to me is not only supporting justice and freedom but supporting a particular balance, or continuous negotiation, between them. As I started sketching on EmpiricalSocialism, part of that negotiation involves some empirical hypotheses : about the nature of certain kinds of institution such as FreeMarkets (they generate inequality); and part involves some moral judgement calls (this generated inequality is an injustice too great to ignore and free markets must therefore be balanced by some curbs on freedom and other institutional correctives)

Now, while I'm up in my ivory tower deducing such careful statements from first principles, there's another left-wing going round doing a bunch of practical things : joining TradeUnions and organizing strikes in order to get pay rises; going on the streets to protest against the AmericanWarOnIraq; demanding quotas for black students at the university; defending immigrants from "offensive" criticism of their social norms.

Now, some of these actions seem to me obviously good in themselves. Some seem unpalatable but justifiable evils. Some seem downright wrong-headed.

One way of understanding AlternativeVisionsForDecentralizedLeft is that these are all parallel initiatives in a wide-ranging, decentralized research program to figure out what justice is.

And while justice must accord with general top-down principles, it will also have to be discovered piecemeal through lots of claims and counter-claims about these particular cases (negotiation between employees and employers, positive discrimination, what historical wrongs should be actively reversed even at the cost of hurting other innocents now, what historical wrongs we should leave and try to forget.

But of course, the fact that all these assertions are part of worthwhile field of moral research doesn't mean that all claims are right. (Anymore than all experiments are meaningful.) It doesn't even mean that all the directions taken are consistent.

Certainly some demands for reparation or restoration are misguided. Some unflinching support for interest groups is morally wrong.

What is the right response to this. It's clearly "diversity" or "liberalism" in the sense that we must weigh and debate each claim. Be willing to tolerate a certain amount of advocacy of it. And be willing to criticise and reject it if found wanting.

But we shouldn't be fazed by this. We shouldn't be tearing ourselves up over it or falling into angry factionalist flame-wars.

how to tell the differernce

I have intuitions. For example I back the TradeUnion against the capitalist employer with hardly a moment's hesitation. I don't have a lot of faith OnDemonstrations but I opposed the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from the comfort of my arm-chair. I'm reluctantly persuaded that quotas for blacks may do some good in disrupting the harsh racial stratification in Brazil. I feel hostile to attempts to defend minority religions against offense. I worry a great deal over the left's engagement with Palestine.

Is there a general scheme here?

Here's a first draft :

It seems that the Palestinian question is just a disagreement between two interest groups for which there is no likely "just" solution. There are no universal principles at stake, just a messy historical muddle which isn't going to end happily (or at all). Neither Israel nor a Palestinian state have a "right" to exist; nor any other NationState.

The left should be above such things. It should be concerned with principles

But then, of course, my little nagging inner skeptic asks "but what's so different about the union case?" Isn't that just a squabble between interest groups

OK, I can defend against that. What makes the worker / capitalist fight an instance of a principle is that "workers" and "capitalists" are types (in fact functionally defined types, compare my discussion about DemarcatingScience) whereas Israelis and Palestinians are "mere" tokens of the same type, exemplifying nothing very interesting.

(There are attempts, of course, to tie the Palestinian resistance to a notion of "imperialism" but frankly, a lot of similar issues strike me as having similar problems in being real questions of principle.)


to be continued