Friday Ephemera
Phantom Guilt, Revisited

Details, Details

A while ago, I quoted an essay by Professor Zygmunt Bauman - a prolific, if unconvincing, advocate of socialism - and noted his readiness to make rather questionable statements. Among them, his belief that a leftist worldview follows from two assumptions:

The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members.

These, Bauman claims, are, or should be, the “constant and non-negotiable assumptions” of the left. But one of them at least has an obvious flaw. The components of a bridge do not, I’m assured, have volition. Bricks, cables and metal beams do not make choices that determine their strength and functionality. Human beings do make choices that very often, quite dramatically, determine their prospects and quality of life. Bauman’s essay frequently assumes a kind of self-evident righteousness, the details of which are never quite explained, leading to a tone that is not so much analytical as tribal and pious: 

The left wants a humane society, one that strives for justice for all its members. The left defines a just society as one that is aware that it is not-yet-sufficiently-just, that is haunted by this awareness and thereby spurred into action.

Praying_for_socialism_2Bauman is happy to insist that his assumptions are “the basis for a self-assertive left,” and that they “set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism.” Not a perpetual collision with the human condition per se, of course – such a thing couldn’t possibly be entertained - but with the human condition “under the rule of capitalism” - also referred to as the “global capitalist order” – one which entails “wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.” These are bold claims, and fairly typical, yet Bauman – hailed as “one of Europe's most influential sociologists” - seems to feel no obligation to substantiate them with particulars. These things are, apparently, simply understood. Despite a rush to claim the badge of “social justice” – a term that remains oddly undefined - the professor doesn’t explain in any detail what kind of action he would have us spurred towards. And given the role of individual judgment in how a person’s life plays out, questions of moral action do necessarily follow. Lots of them. I raised a few of the more obvious ones before, but I think some of them bear repeating:

Why is a society to be measured by how the least able fare, seemingly irrespective of why that situation arises and persists? How are people to be insulated from, and compensated for, what are often consequences of their own choices and priorities? How much control is to be exerted and how many freedoms curtailed - including the freedoms of those suffering misfortune? On what basis does Professor Bauman imagine he has a right to ensure that society’s members optimise the quality of their lives, insofar as they’re able? How, exactly, will this feat be achieved, and by whom?

If some individuals fail to make the approved decisions in the approved sequence and with sufficient foresight, will those choices be made by others, and if necessary enforced? Will individuals be compensated for all of their own shortcomings, dispositions and misjudgments, or just some of them? Who is Bauman to determine what constitutes an acceptable qualitative outcome? And how far would he go to ensure those outcomes are arrived at, regardless of the cost to others who may not share his view?

The professor claims that “the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members.” My initial response to this was to think of a drunken woman I sometimes see not far from where I live. She’s a slightly incongrous sight around mid-morning: fag in one hand, can of cheap beer in the other, chugging away merrily and looking a little unsteady. I’m guessing she’s not a physicist or a brain surgeon, or even a professor of sociology, and I doubt those were ever serious career options. It’s unlikely, I think, that this woman can hold down a job and I’d guess the odds are good that her morning beers are paid for with state benefits. Now if Bauman wants us to judge the quality of society as a whole by the quality of this woman’s habits and decisions, or the decisions of others like her, that seems a tad unfair. It’s also unclear what, if anything, Professor Bauman would want to do to this woman - sorry, do for this woman - in the name of “social justice”. Bauman’s essay is, alas, a little vague on practical detail, and thus vague on moral detail. It does, however, have quite a lot of this:

The ‘welfare state’… is such an arrangement of human togetherness. It resists the present-day ‘neo-liberal’ tendency to break down the networks of human bonds and undermine the social foundations of human solidarity… A social state protects its members from the morally devastating competitive ‘war of all against all’.

Choking_on_virtueWell, I’m not aware of a British political party that wants to abandon the welfare safety net – the “social state” as Bauman prefers to call it – let alone abandon “human solidarity,” and the arguments I’ve heard tend to centre on whether long-term welfare dependency is a desirable state of affairs for any human being. It’s one thing to rail against the “rule of capitalism” in abstract and fanciful terms; it’s something else entirely to address particulars – such as those of a soused, if amiable, woman drinking beer by the road. Is Bauman suggesting that this woman should be steered away from her morning refreshments? These do, after all, affect her employment prospects, finances and health, and thus make her one of society’s “weakest members”. Or does the professor believe that she should be compensated indefinitely by the state for being an unemployable alcoholic and not terribly bright? How, I wonder, is her life to be brought closer into line with mine or yours? Does she have a say in the matter? Do those of us who would have to pick up the tab?

Professor Bauman is happy to charge the “capitalist order” with “sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.” Yet one might very easily charge advocates of socialism with much the same sins precisely because their worldview so often degrades or denies the role of individual judgment and responsibility. What, for instance, happens to a person’s moral agency if that person is permanently shielded from the fallout of their own actions and is compensated not just for hardship and misfortune, but for negligence, selfishness and habitual idiocy? As a result, do they become a better person?

The professor tells us,

The left stands for the awareness that the job of making the world more hospitable to human dignity - the dignity of all humans - remains unfinished. It stands for the principled action that derives from such awareness.

Stirring stuff. But, again, it isn’t at all clear how socialism so conceived would improve the dignity of the woman mentioned earlier. Is her dignity enhanced by the state’s accommodation of, or correction of, her preferences and shortcomings? Is your dignity enhanced by paying for either of the above? Bauman’s enthusiasm for some idealised social system is, if not attractive, then at least hard to miss; his familiarity with individuals, human nature and practical questions of morality is not so obvious. Bauman defines the left, and apparently the left alone, as “want[ing] a humane society, one that strives for justice for all its members.” This is an absurd rhetorical conceit. I can’t offhand think of a major political outlook that defines itself as striving for a society based on inhumanity and injustice. The question is whether Bauman’s romantic view of the state as some benign parent figure is actually humane, or desirable, or in any sense fair. And using loaded, ill-defined terms such as “social justice” is a contemptible sleight-of-hand. Objecting to Bauman’s assumptions, or the assumptions of socialism generally, doesn’t imply a disdain for “human solidarity,” or callousness, or cartoonish supervillainy. Compassion and egalitarianism are not at all the same things, and to claim that they are is either woolly or dishonest.

Feel free to contribute to my welfare.