Thursday, March 29, 2007

Guest Blogger: Killing me softly with his political theory

[By David Hunter]

Social Change, Suicide and Political Theory

Political theorists typically argue that radical changes to society are necessary to achieve some goal such as justice, or the appropriate respect for freedom or minority cultures. So to take distributive justice for example just looking at the major theorists, Rawls argued that resources to be distributed via the difference principle, namely that the worst off should be as well off as possible. This would be a significant change, Nozick in contrast argues that a free market distribution is fair, if and only if the starting distribution was just. However, as Nozick acknowledges the present distribution isn't just because of historic injustice, thus he advocates an initial equal redistribution, so still radical social changes. Dworkin, in seeking a distribution which is ambition sensitive and endowment insensitive envisages a society that is equally radically different from our own.

However there is increasing evidence that there is at least a strong correlation between significant social change and increased suicide rates. This can be seen in the former Soviet States, and in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday agreement. Likewise China’s high suicide rates have been attributed to the changes following the economic reforms in 1978.

Nor is this only associated with what might be considered negative social changes, in Northern Ireland for example, the signing of the Good Friday agreement, which seems clearly a great social good, still has been correlated with an increase in suicide rates.

It should be noted that this is only a correlation it does not show causation. It might well be that actually suicide somehow drives social change or a more likely alternative is that something else is associated with both social change and suicide and is caused by or causes one and then causes the other, such as perhaps a general lack of social cohesion. A popular theory to explain this correlation is that of Durkheim’s, who holds that in times of social change the influence that society exerts on its members is weakened and people are left to their own devices. This state Durkheim calls anomie in effect normlessness. Significant social changes promote anomie because they typically represent significant changes in the norms governing a society.

This explanation, though plausible may be incorrect so it may well not be the case that social change causes increased suicide rates. However it is plausible that the correlation indicates causation, and since this is a presently unsettled (and perhaps unsettlable, given the difficulty of avoiding confounding factors in social science research) question, it is reasonable that as political theorists we ought to play it safe and for the time being treat it as if it is for the time being.

This clearly creates a problem for political theorists, considering that most of us, myself included, champion significant social changes but hardly want to cause suicides. So should we not argue for significant social changes? There are a variety of responses that can be made to this problem which I will briefly explore in my next blog entry... But for now what do you think? Is this a serious problem for political theorists?

PS if you really want to hear what I think sooner, well I'm presenting a paper on it on Saturday at ETHICS AT THE MARGINS OF LIFE one hitch for those of you who are in the States, or Oz or NZ, its in Ireland...


  1. If anyone is so repulsed by your changing society in the way you prefer that he commits suicide this is acceptable. You know that the change you desire is just. The fact that it deprives the suicides of the structures of life that they consider essential to a life worth living is not relevant. For evidently, they thrive on injustice. Their choice to kill themselves, rather than embrace your new system, the more just one, is not your responsibility. Indeed, they are best considered villains, committed heart-and-soul as they are to injustice.

    They prefer death to justice. To hell with them.

  2. Most anti-capitalists would rationalise that moving from a capitalist society would contain the potential to lower wars, poverty, famine and all the millions of other deaths unnecessarily caused by the system they oppose. This would more than offset the deaths caused by suicides, which as Jim says, would likely be performed by those standing to loose out through the movement taking control.

  3. David, maybe we should distinguish two kinds of championing.

    There is the kind of truth-seeking championing that we do when we say, "This theory if correct."

    And then there is the kind of policy-changing championing that we do when we wear sandwich boards and attend political rallies.

    As for us political theorists, I say that we generally fall into the truth-seeking kind of championing. In that case, changes in suicide rates are irrelevant to our project.

    Changes in suicide rates would only become relevant when we start considering the implementation of a radical political theory. It is then that we might ask, "Do the benefits of this theory outweigh the costs (including the potential increase in suicides) of actually implementing this theory?"

    But the answer to this last question does not change what the correct political theory is. At most, it affects what political theory it would be best for us to have given our long, contingent history.

  4. Change, for the sake of change, is merely discontent without direction as if "anything is better than the present." The Port Huron Statement is a case in point.

    Liberalism, which Rawls and Nozick both try to instantiate from different perspectives, remains the worst orientatation, save all others. Like democracy, it too is the worst form of government, save all others. Majority rule is balanced against minority rights by a constitutional consensus, birthing the first, free, and open society in human history.

    All political theory is doomed by its very nature. Only Marxism, supported by an oddly unscientific historicism and clash of classes, offered a "coherent system," and every instance of its implementation begat horrors of the worst magnitudes. Theory, as Ian Shapiro suggests in Political Criticism, (U.C. Berkeley, 1990) can only provide the conditions of human nature. Thereafter, only certain principles, not single theory, operate. But, even Liberal Principles conflict and require adjudication based on a system of "fairness, equity, and application." But even the best-intentioned Judges can go wildly astray (e.g., Dred Scott, Plessy, Kelo, Roe).

    Two words always appear when "politics, economy, society" are raised: Spontaneity and Dynamic. Any system that undermines either concept leads to totalitarianism, authortarianism, or tyranny. Human society will never, ever be "perfect," as none of its members are. But any society constructed must embrace both spontaneity and dynamics or become moribund, closed, ossified, corrupt, inert, etc.

    "New" liberalism is an example of keeping the dynamics alive, faithful to the original liberal concepts, but accepting the two liberties that Isaiah Berlin rejects, one positive, the other negative, thus providing social security by social insurance (not always well, but necessary). Original liberalism neglected "survival" needs in its rush to anti-tyranny. The two are interdependent.

    Sixty years ago F. A. von Hayek posited what seemed an odd new "liberal" principle: Universifiable Laws Exclusively. (The Popperian Connection is deliberate, as both were friends.) On intial acquaintance, it was a terribly odd principle, seemingly too stringent, too broad. But, as "special interests" have come to dominate the masses and trump the will of the majority, as Congress exempts itself from its own laws, perhaps the Universifiable Law principle is worth a look.

    In 1991, Frederick Schauer proposed a change from a "system of laws" to a "system of rules" in Playing by the Rules: A Philosophical Examination of Rule-Based Decision Making in Law and Life (Oxford: Clarendon Law Series), arguing one follows rules (how Wittgensteinian) easier than obeying laws, most of which are arcane, unknown, unintelligible, excessively myopic, overly procedural, and egregiously particular vis-a-vis the general.

    In many ways, our legalistic society is an extension of Mosaic Laws, a deontological proscriptive orientation, rather than the teleological prescriptive orientation of Greek aniquity. Rather than promoting individual and social well-being as the Greeks, the West has succumbed to avoiding harms through criminal and tortious litigation and laws. Perhaps a blend of the two would succeed better than either/or, but few are discussing Schauer's ideas. But "promotion" is psychologically more satisfying thant "inhibition," and the latter rules, but not by rules.

    Lawrence Cahoone in 2002 suggests that the liberal principle of "government neutrality toward private morals" is not, and has never been, tenable. Weak or strong social constructionist and the notion of "embeddedness" makes his point obvious. Would the Founding of America have happened in Asia, Arabia, Africa? Of course not. The Age of Enlightenment, reacting against the Age of Faith, "situated" the American experiment, which has led to other pluralistic liberal democracies -- but largely in places where the Enlightenment occurred, because the context was right. We could no more "import democracy and freedom" to medieval Arab lands than an Oak Tree could take root in the Sahara. (See, Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Society.

    One does not have to be a conservative to acknowledge the force of Oakeshott's indictment of rationalism in politics. The social planners and engineers, using whatever calculus they find expedient, often miss satisfying needs of a social dynamic that resists containment. It's one thing to agree that the State rational building of public works for the social good is useful, it's another to hope the State calculus workers will remake human society ideal.

    Whether one uses the utilitarian calculus, cost-benefit calculus, the tyrannical calculus, the special interest calculus, all are inadequate to the tasks of massive social engineering, but each may jointly or severally be pragmatic for targeted projects of a common interest. Organic social evolution is preferred to revolutionary change, assuming the proper set of principles serve as guideposts, not dogmas.

    Like the human body, the social body is immensely complex, and no one can stand outside it to regulate it internally without unintended consequences. Thus, spontaneity and dynamics must be expressly acknowledged as primitive factors upon which to apply liberal principles and endeavoring to "form a more perfect union," recognizing one never will reach the Telos.

  5. My apologies for the much delayed responding to my own thread. I unfortunately managed to stab myself in the hand the day after posting this topic and thus earned myself an undeserved rest from blogging.

    Jim & Chris, yes that is one sort of response, but it seems only truly a live option for the consequentialist, since the rest of us will be uncompelled by offsetting.

    Jack, fair point, and to some degree I agree. I guess for me it is more pressing as an issue because I am in bioethics, and so often my theorising is also sandwich board wearing...

    In terms of 'solutions' I don't have much although I think maybe the main implication is we ought to be cautious about sandwich board wearing...

  6. However I do think there is some possible hope with the use of virtual communities as testing grounds and experiments in social and political theory. To give one example I also moderate a property investment forum of all things We have had very interesting discussions there about freedom of speech, and there have been shades of political theory, even some budding Hobbes and Lockes... In any case I think political theorists ought to studying these communities as models.


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