Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Socialism and a moral reductio ad absurdam

In mathematics, "reductio ad absurdam" is a type of proof that works like this: if you want to prove that something is true (or false), assume the opposite -- i.e., assume that it's false (or true) -- and then show that this assumption leads to an absurdity (typically a contradiction), from which you conclude that your assumption of the opposite was wrong, and that therefore the something is in fact true (or false). Indirect, but, in math at least, irrefutable. Outside of math, things are always a little messier, but a similar argument can be used in the case of moral or ethical issues as well -- if it can be agreed that a particular moral position runs into serious conflict with reality, then that alone should lead us to question the assumptions that led up to that position.

As a case in point, consider this review of G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism by Andy Lamey (entitled "The Thinking Man’s Marxist"). Cohen's brand of so-called "analytical Marxism" is immediately an oddity. To his great credit, he saw it as a contrast to what he apparently called "bullshit Marxism" -- namely, the vaporous rhetoric of the French post-structuralist, post-modern, post-post poseurs. But Marxist socialism, with its origins in Hegelian dialectic and its roots in a collectivist political backlash is, to say the least, a difficult fit with the arid, logical procedures of Anglo-American philosophical analysis. Nevertheless, Cohen tries to force the two together, with the result being the illustration of the moral reductio I've mentioned, at least as summarized by Lamey, who quotes Cohen as saying:
“The socialist aspiration is to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life. As I have acknowledged, we now know that we do not now know how to do that.”
Cohen’s conclusion is thus a mixed one. We should endorse his two moral principles even though there is no sign they will lead to socialism any time soon. But perhaps they could have some application here and there, as in the education or health spheres. Or perhaps one day our circumstance will change and socialism will become possible. Cohen’s closing lines refer to markets as systems of predation. “Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.”
There's a kind of pathos here -- Cohen, raised in the socialist faith and desperately hoping to cling to it at whatever cost, was still both rational and honest enough to admit that, as far as he or anyone could see, it was an impossibility. What he could not do was take that one next step in the reductio sequence -- re-examining the moral assumptions that had led him into this fatal conflict with the real world. 

Cohen is by no means the only one brought to this sort of moral impasse, though he's more explicit about it than most. Others reaching the same dead end may decide that it's the world that's false -- or, in moral terms, not "good enough" -- rather than their beliefs, a kind of insanity, perhaps, that cultural processes akin to natural selection will tend to weed out. But there's no denying the depth of the crisis in which one is immersed when one's most fundamental values appear to be implicated in fundamental contradiction with reality. In a subsequent post, I want to look at the value that I think is primarily responsible for this kind of crisis: equality.


  1. Cohen was sort of a quasi-Rawlsian socialist, tho' his critiques of Rawls were IMHO, flawed. Anyway, it's commonplace for naive Darwinists or rightist-atheist sorts to claim normativity/ethics/morality cannot be established logically--Hume said as much in what 1750 ala is-ought distinction. But it's a bit different to then say, ala positivists, therefore any and all ethical statements (say "equality is good", or "we should uphold Due Process") are meaningless.

    I strongly doubt you would think along Humean/Darwinian lines were you charged with a crime that you did not commit, and the judge and jury convicted you anyway---you'd say, "what about justice, etc, due process, telling the truth??" And Judge Darwinstein says, "well, we decided society would be much better off with you guilty, whether you did it or not"--as do his chuckling cronies at a higher court, when they deny your appeal....sort of a cliched courtroom drama scenario--until it happens to you, or someone you know/love. Then you'd be probably quoting Plato or Kant and/or "thou shalt not bear false witness." And ultimately much of "morality" works like that. It's not quite mathematical--provable via axioms, reductio proofs, etc--but not exactly BS either. You know it when it's injust.

  2. No, you're misunderstanding the nature of the dilemma, J. The problem doesn't arise simply when somebody else, whether or not in a position of power, has a different conception of justice than you do. The problem arises when you start to sense that your own sense of justice is not viable in the real world. At that point your options are either a) condemn the real world as not "good enough" for you, or b) re-examine the assumptions and values that underlie your own sense of justice.

  3. No, you missed the point on Hume (maybe google the is-ought problem...Hume was the granddaddy of RealPolitik), and for that matter, objective Justice. Your real world isn't the "real world" anyway, m. It's the world according to the Tea Party, neo-cons, hick libertarians, naive Darwinists and machiavellians, etc. (I'm not supporting Cohen anyway..the authentic marxist thinks in terms of historical-process, rather than Justice anyway).

    The political tides shift yearly, if not weekly--and besides the usual machiavellian conservative will play populist one week (like the TP is now); a few weeks later, he's condemning the popular vote, favoring royals, or Diebold for that matter.

  4. The "is/ought" distinction is old and not what I'm talking about. Nor whether my "real world" is the "real world". See if you can figure out what the real point is here -- here's a hint: it's in the 3rd sentence in my comment above.

  5. The Hume i-o issue may be a chestnut but does still figure into many debates--even the Rawlsian sort (or anti-Rawlsian). Anyway I get it, but most conscious humans probably suspect their sense of justice is not viable in the real world in their 20s or so, if not before--irregardless, some keep working towards what they perceive to be a just society--(though they might not know what that it is. For a Glenn Beck-groupie, it might be like one big Utah. For a marxist it's something quite different...)

  6. Okay, J, so you're taking option a): the real world as you understand it just doesn't measure up to your own high moral standards. The problem is that nature doesn't care.

  7. This wasn't about me.

    But you have revealed your own naive Darwinian-naturalism. One could say the same about the situation of the corrupt Judge Darwinstein I described (which you probably don't understand). So when he pronounces you guilty of murder, even though you're not...nature doesn't care. Or, there were no WMDs. Sowwy. Nature doesn't care.

  8. You could only say the same about the situation with the corrupt judge if you thought that the real world was on the same level as human judgement. Which, of course, some people do, but they're often institutionalized.

    A better parallel with a person condemning reality for failing to measure up to his moral standards would be someone who thought that gravity was unfair -- if birds can fly, why shouldn't he? But nature doesn't care about his notions of fairness, as he'd find out were he to jump off a roof.

  9. Faulty if not absurd analogy.

    Intelligent people don't "condemn reality" as a whole for not being just and fair because they can't fly like a hawk, etc. Anyone who did so would be mentally ill.

    We condemn humans, or politicians, military leaders (or professors, bureaucrats, etc) for performing injust deeds--for bringing about injustice, brutality, atrocity, etc. Hitler and the nazi's Evil isn't merely that of a pack of wolves--though that's about all the Darwinian-naturalist can say. Nature doesn't care! Hitler, stalin--just poorly conditioned, or adapting to their environment, etc. That hardly begins to explain nazis and stalinists.

    Really you sound quite social Darwinist, now, m---Hubert Spencer-morf!

  10. Once again, you miss the point. Intelligent people like G.A. Cohen certainly at the very least lament reality for failing to accommodate their socialist dreams. Maybe, instead of arguing with your own imagination of what I'm saying, you should just read the post again.

  11. Nyet. You didn't respond to my points, which are spot on. You're the one denying that Justice/Good/ethics exists, offering the nihilist-naturalist POV. Most people don't agree with you, even conservatives. The Kissinger-AynRand nihilist perspective is a minority, thank Osiris.

    Cohen was not "lamenting Reality" as a whole either. He was pondering how to implement something like social justice in the most effective fashion, and maybe a bit bitter. Besides, there are rather involved points to socialist thinking (and marxism) that you just overlook--as most conservatives do (and chi chi liberals as well). Ie, you might not agree or care for dialectical thinking, but historically speaking, exploited people do at times rise up against the wealthy and powerful, and often think they are upholding something like "Justice". Even the American Rev. shows as much

  12. He was pondering how to implement something like social justice in the most effective fashion, and maybe a bit bitter.

    He'd done his pondering, J, and had come to the conclusion that it couldn't done. He doesn't sound bitter about that, but simply realistic and resigned. But, as I've said, he couldn't bring himself to take the next logical step, and question the assumptions that had lead him to this impasse.

  13. Re-read my last post on....historical process. The left, whether you like them or not, has not exactly expired. China for one is still mostly a socialist, even communist country. That's one of your marketing spins--the end of socialism, etc. We should oppose totalitarianism, and/or rigid stalinistic statism. But it's just naive to say socialism as a whole is disappearing. In many places, it may be growing (Latin America, tho' they seem to prefer Mao to Marx). In LA the recent AZ immigration laws fiasco resulted in nearly 100,000 hispanic people protesting in the streets, many with red flags, even communist slogans.


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