Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

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Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Should Life in Jail be Worse than Outside, on Principle? By Chris Barker

Sheriff’s House and Jail in Easton, Maryland, c. 1881

Approximately 2.3 million people in the United States are currently in prison or jail. (Prisons are run by federal or state authorities; jails are run locally.) China, a non-democratic regime with a population four times larger than the US, incarcerates fewer persons in per-capita and absolute terms. What’s more, most people in US jails today have not been convicted, meaning that they are being punished without trial. Since US jail admissions number approximately 11 million per year, pre-trial incarceration is, arguably, the real problem of ‘mass incarceration’.

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called ‘less eligibility’. The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the ‘first and most essential of all conditions’ in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent’s ‘situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class’. That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior’s famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that ‘the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty’. As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham’s Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not ‘less eligibility’ but a more commonsense equality principle – offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. ‘Bentham,’ Semple wrote, ‘did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor.’

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an ‘approximation’ principle, wherein offenders’ rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected. Norwegian prisons use a similar ‘normality principle’, which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life. Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money. Today, US jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to ‘less eligibility’, and not just for the poorest of the poor.

Why are the carceral practices in the US so harsh? Part of the reason is the vestige of a Christian-inspired desire to reform the offender’s soul. Around the time of the Revolution, the penitentiary’s ‘unsocial manner of life’ based on order, obedience and silence could seem plausible only to those who thought that they could achieve a ‘new victory of mind over matter’. Today, prolonged solitary confinement is coming to be seen for what it is: torture. Another reason, identified in James Whitman’s book Harsh Justice (2005), is populism. Elected prosecutors and judges are guided by popular, punitive attitudes in a way that unelected bureaucrats in countries such as Germany (or Canada) are not. Survey research shows that Canadian and US attitudes about punishment are similar, but Canada has much more lenient sentencing policies than the US because bureaucratic appointees, not elected officials, make decisions about punishment. Another layer is race. Warehousing black males is clearly an outcome, and perhaps also an important aim, of US criminal justice. The result of this grab-bag of influences is segregation without soul-craft, and discipline and surveillance without reform.

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility. But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As evidence that precisely the opposite happens in US prisons, The End of Punishment (2013) by the present-day retributivist Robert Blecker’s recounts an interview with a Tennessee Death Row correctional officer who feels like a waiter, and a guard who complains that Florida’s Death Row is ‘the best deal in the building’. Blecker is right that we should classify offences and offenders according to the severity of their crime. Perhaps the ADX Florence supermax prison should even be, as its ex-warden described it to CNN, ‘far much worse than death’ for the worst of the worst. But think about this: county jail is ‘hard time’, and harder than state prison, as I am told by a local jail administrator. Almost 500,000 held in US jails are being held pre-trial. The average jail time served is short. Offenders quickly return to their communities, but they are not prepared for re-entry. Even the average jail and prison time might actually help offenders to become worse.

Too often, the US conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish. Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn’t prepare you to return to normal life. As opinion in the US starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system.

In Germany, there are restrictions on types of uniforms, on partitioning visitors from offenders, and on the use of bars and peepholes in cells. There are also protections of offenders’ rights to privacy, information, public exposure, and leisure and culture, that do not exist in the US. In the US, courts have upheld the constitutionality of expressive punishments that demean offenders, pre-trial incarceration that looks punitive, and denials of privacy and dignity.

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment. It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you. The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside. After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer ‘living in innocence and liberty’ does not? But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs. Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Chris Barker is assistant professor of political science at Southwestern College in Kansas. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On the Recent Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate About Basic Income

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail)

This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.:  The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.

The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many circles for co-authoring The Bell Curve, and labor leader Andrew Stern. These two make surprising debate partners, but of course, that’s part of the fun!

The debaters against the motion are Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economic advisors to the Obama administration, and both more on the liberal / progressive end of the economic spectrum, which also adds to the interesting contrasts between audience expectations and the arguments made.

Here’s the summary of the debate from the IQ2 website:

Imagine getting a check from the government every month. $600 guaranteed. It’s happening in Finland, where a pilot program is being launched to test what’s known as a “universal basic income.” As technology transforms the workplace, jobs and income will become less reliable. The idea is that a universal basic income could serve as a tool to combat poverty and uncertainty in a changing society, and provide a cushion that empowers workers, giving them latitude to take risks in the job market. But some argue a guaranteed income would take away the incentive to work, waste money on those who don’t need it, and come at the expense of effective programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?

I’ve written about basic income before in light of Thomas Paine’s case for a social welfare system, broadly distributed to the point that we’d call it basic income today, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice of 1796. I’m broadly sympathetic to the case for basic income especially insofar as I’m convinced by two of his major arguments.

One, Paine argues that the right to private property is not an intrinsic right or derived from nature, or even from moral convictions about deservingness or our duties toward those less fortunate. Rather, property rights are artificial rights we’ve created for efficiency’s sake: it’s a way to incentivize people to be as productive as possible to the benefit of both individual and society. But whatever efficiencies property rights promote, Paine observes just as we observe now, they too often deprive people of the very thing they promise to provide. Economies based on property rights deny most people direct access to the world’s natural resources while sometimes failing to reward them proportionally.

This is true not only of those who produce the most necessary, useful goods and services such as growing and preparing food, building and maintaining our cities, towns, and homes, and caring for the disabled and sick; they are often the ones who receive the lowest wages. In the meantime, others who create such frivolous and even arguably harmful things as casinos, violent video games, and poor quality trinkets that become trash almost as soon as they’re made can often make money hand over fist. Some people are not able to make money even if they were willing: they may be disabled or aged, or the skilled work they’ve done all their lives becomes obsolete. Worst of all, those who raise children, care for the disabled and aged, and otherwise keep the home generally receive no pay, though their work benefits society most of all. The amount of money we can bring in generally determines the resources we have access to, so if we have no money, we have no property. Property rights, then, guarantee us the right to property without any consideration as to whether or not we actually end up be able to obtain or keep any. Therefore, Paine argues, we owe every person compensation for denying them their natural right to equal access to the world’s resources.

Two, Paine argues that a universal income is better than discretionary welfare, such as that based solely on need, because it prevents the inevitable jealousies and complaints of unfairness that can erode social cohesion and undermine mutual trust. If everyone starts out at the same basic level, we may not have all of the same chances in life just as we don’t now, advantages or disadvantages that we can’t do much about: we may have rich parents, poor parents, or none at all; we may be able-bodied or we may not; we may be beautiful, smart, or have other attributes that society rewards. But, we’ll all have the same basic chance that we can give one another: the freedom and well-being guaranteed by a basic level of economic security.

But back to the debate…. Why this digression, you might ask? I return to Paine because he makes the first sustained modern argument (that I’m aware of) in favor of a basic income and because his basic points, or closely related ones, are brought up throughout this debate. In the question and answer session, Andrew Stern refers to the way perceived unfairness, such as Paine discusses, has long politically undermined need-based programs, from publicly-funded unemployment benefits to health care insurance for those with low income. Stern also points out that many people already enjoy ‘undeserved’ basic income, such as those born to parents who can afford to provide it. If we have no problem with those people reaping the benefits of work they didn’t do, why not everyone? Charles Murray adds the element of personal responsibility to the question of perceived unfairness of needs-based welfare. If everyone were given the same basic level of resources, people could no longer justly claim victimhood for not having the same chances as everyone else. If we collectively provide the same benefits to everyone, we can hold people to a basic equal accountability for all who could work and contribute more than they do.

Murray, as you may guess from his emphasis on opportunities for traditional marriage and the preeminence of personal responsibility, is much more conservative than the other participants in the debate, and introduces a free market argument that many political conservatives might like just as well as pro-labor liberals and progressives. This argument is founded on the importance of competition in a well-functioning economy. To harness the benefits of competition, Murray proposes that if people have ‘walking – away’ money, employers will have to compete with one another for employees, and in doing so, they will have to innovate to make jobs appealing. Employers would have to offer good wages, provide a pleasant and safe working environment, and make the work seem meaningful and appreciated. This is a sort of competition that serves drives wages, standards, and productivity up, not sending wages and working conditions spiraling in the race to the bottom that so many unregulated job markets, mostly competing to lower prices, have exhibited throughout the history of capitalism.

Jared Bernstein repeats the argument throughout the debate, like a mantra, that a dollar given to someone that doesn’t need it is a dollar taken away from someone that does. Many in the audience seem to find this argument convincing, but I don’t, at least without much more justification than he provides. For one thing, neither Bernstein nor his debate partner Jason Furman addresses the vast expenditures of time and money of a bureaucracy required to administer large-scale need-based welfare. It’s expensive for government as well as for individuals, who are required to provide proofs of their need, which is multi-dimensional and subjective and therefore difficult and time-consuming to demonstrate. (Murray does address problems with this kind of bureaucracy, but he emphasizes its unpleasantness and the way it re-introduces a form of serfdom, creating a class of people whose freedom is limited by this system.) For another thing, neither Bernstein nor Furman directly addresses the fact that universal basic income would vastly expand the number of people with disposable income for the first time, much more vastly than needs-based programs do. Most of this money, in turn, would go straight back into the economy, rather than into the ever-inflating bank accounts of the ever-fewer, ever-wealthier wealthiest individuals who are now gobbling up an ever-larger share of the economic pie. Our targeted redistribution system has been entirely unable to resolve this inefficiency, and in fact, may exacerbate it.

The side arguing in favor of the motion, which, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m more sympathetic to for aforementioned reasons, does not, in the end, convince the audience. They’re handily defeated, as the side arguing against the motion not only convinces most of the undecided but also wins over some of the basic income supporters. I suspect that Murray hurts his side a bit by spending too much time on arguments that I think are beside the point, such as whether more people could afford to get married (it doesn’t have to be expensive!) and on very subtle, not-very-well expressed arguments that were lost among the rest. But I would like to hear another major debate in which basic income is supported by stronger arguments, more convincing answers to objections, and most of all, better evidence. As Stern points out, there are small-scale and short-term experiments in basic income happening all over, in Alaska, Finland, and Toronto, for example, but the results are not in yet. I agree that such a major social program should be rolled out with some caution, given the potential fallout from unforeseen as well as foreseen potential side effects. But perhaps smaller experiments can’t reveal the benefits that a complete reinvention of a large economy would reveal, especially if effectiveness is entirely a matter of scale. For example, such a well-balanced, sturdy, and beautifully functioning thing as a termite mound couldn’t happen without an incredibly large number of factors contributing, namely the weather, millions of termites, many square miles of dirt, and so on. If you took a small pile of dirt and a small number of termites, a well-functioning termite mound would not result.

Our American re-invention of government was another such experiment founded on the idea that people can govern themselves and on the ideal of universal human rights (the ideal, mind you, not yet the reality). Many societies before and for some time since had tried to correct abuses and oppressions with one reform here, one reform there, or with a wholesale chaotic and violent overthrow after societal cohesion had already collapsed through famine and extreme corruption (such as, famously, the French Revolution). But it took a large number of fair-minded people to come together and lay the foundation for an entirely new system of government based on the ideal that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or as John Locke originally formulated it, life, liberty, and property. Or in the case of universal basic income, to actual property.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.

The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, March 22, 2017

Bad Things Happen for a Reason, and Other Idiocies of Theodicy, by Jason Blum

Ancient of Days by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

The problem of evil is a classic dilemma in the philosophy of religion. The relative ease with which the problem can be stated belies the depth of the challenge that it presents to traditional monotheism. Roughly, it can be summarised as follows:

If God is omnipotent, then He has the power to create a world without evil.

If God is omniscient, then no moment of evil goes divinely unnoticed.

If God is omnibenevolent, then He has the desire to rid the world of evil.

Therefore, the world should be perfect, or at least free of undeserved suffering. Yet, a cursory glance reveals a world that clearly is not inherently just or free from undeserved suffering.

Hence, the problem of evil: how can a perfect deity allow such injustice and rampant evil in the world that He created?

Many solutions to the problem of evil – called ‘theodicies’ – have been proposed. There is the argument of free will, attributing evil not to God but to humanity’s misuse of its own freedom. Others have argued that certain kinds of moral goodness – compassion, for instance – are not possible in a world without evil, and the value of these types of goodness outweighs the evils on which their existence depends. There is also what I call ‘the big-picture defence’, claiming that evil only appears as such from our limited perspectives. Were we able to see things from the perspective of God, we would see that, in the grand scheme of things, every apparent evil plays a necessary role in making the world more perfect.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s simple solution was to argue in 1710 that this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz depicts God assessing in His infinite mind all the various possible worlds that He could create. Because He is a loving God, the one He chooses to create is surely the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Leibniz’s argument suggests that it is ultimately meaningless to complain about this evil or that injustice; because this is the best of all possible worlds. We should take comfort in the fact that everything is, in the final analysis, as good as it can possibly be.

Voltaire derided Leibniz’s solution, writing a book to satirise it. In Candide (1759), the eponymous hero and his companions stumble through the world, constantly beset by bad luck and predations. They witness even greater tragedies in the world around them. Their troubles arise from the uncaring forces of the natural world, but also from the naiveté of Candide, who is constantly assured by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. In juxtaposing vivid depictions of myriad cruelties and Professor Pangloss’s blind insistence on the ultimate goodness of the universe, Voltaire demonstrates that there is a poignant reality to the experience of suffering that cannot be rationalised away. The claim that justice naturally inheres in the order of things does not bear scrutiny.

There is also a profound moral danger to certain types of theodicy.

The essential difficulty of the problem of evil is how to reconcile its apparent existence with a loving, all-powerful deity. One popular method has been to reassert the inherent justice of the world, implying, if not explicitly claiming, the righteousness of the suffering that we witness throughout it. The result is, essentially, a theological form of victim-blaming.

For example, the American evangelical preacher Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – which killed between 220,000-316,000 people, and injured another 300,000 – as the fault of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti had apparently sworn a pact with Satan in exchange for delivering them from French rule, and the earthquake was divine retribution for that bargain (delivered approximately two centuries later). Robertson similarly suggested that both Hurricane Katrina and terrorism were divine punishment for the fact that abortion is still legal in the United States. Robertson, of course, is not alone. An Iranian mullah has blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly; a New York rabbi blamed the advancement of gay rights in the US for another earthquake in 2011; many Burmese Buddhists blamed a 2008 cyclone that killed approximately 130,000 people on bad karma.

The desire that motivates these interpretations is understandable. Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are either random events in a chaotic world, or they are explicable events within a discernible pattern. In the former case, we inhabit an essentially amoral universe: bad things happen to good people, children die premature deaths, and tragedy strikes without remorse, all without rhyme or reason. In the latter case, we inhabit a much more hospitable universe where there is some sort of inherent order: a place where morality is inscribed into the very fabric of things, assuring us that, if only we play by the rules, evil will be punished, goodness will be rewarded, and justice will reign supreme.

It is easy to understand the attraction of that vision. But it has a substantial dark side. Like any theodicy, it cannot simply unmake suffering, and so it instead tries to justify it. The claim that the universe is inherently just then implies that those who suffer deserve it. The existence of a just God and a moral universe is gained at the cost of condemning victims of misfortune as blameworthy. And so, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the devil. Women and homosexuals agitating for equal rights are blamed for deadly natural disasters.

Such a worldview conveniently scapegoats someone, usually whatever population someone wishes to demonise: women, homosexuals, the poor, etc. It also normalises social ills that could otherwise be addressed and meliorated. In a dark irony, holding that the universe is ultimately a just place ends up condoning the suffering and injustice that happens within it, often on the backs of those most in need.

Visions of a just universe need not function this way. Theodicy authorises only the suffering of the less fortunate when it indulges in willful blindness and insists on justice as a foregone conclusion, denying reality in favour of comforting ignorance. Alternatively, when justice is construed as hope – as a vision of what the world could possibly be – it functions as a lodestar. This acknowledges the disturbing realities with which we are surrounded, and refuses to be disillusioned by them. By regarding justice as an ideal rather than a present reality, one’s vision of the inequalities and brutalities of the present moment remains unobstructed, allowing them to be faced. The just universe in which we should believe is the one that can be created only through dedicated effort and real action on our part. But that can happen only if we refuse to take shelter in soothing fantasies. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Blum is a visiting assistant professor on the college writing programme at Davidson College in North Carolina. His first book is Zen and the Unspeakable God (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!