Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The ethics of 'humanitarian intervention.'

          What if the United States had a military whose strength was at least roughly commensurate with the military threats we face?  At present, our military is gargantuan: In 2009, the US spent $668 billion on defense, fully 43% of all the money spent on armaments in the entire world.  In the midst of a severe recession, we devoted 4.3% of our GDP to defense, far higher than any other democratic, industrialized country except Israel.  Yet, in military terms, we are in a remarkably secure position.  We have oceans on two sides of us, and the smaller, friendly countries of Canada and Mexico on the other two sides.  Furthermore, there is no country that threatens us from afar.  Not only is America far and away the leader in military spending, but of the next 19 countries rounding out the top 20, 15 are allies of ours.  Even China– mildly hostile and several times larger than us– spent less than 1/6 what America did on its military.  We fear terrorism, of course, but that’s not a military threat, and experience has shown that there is little or nothing that a conventional military force can do to prevent it.  Indeed, it may make the danger greater.  So clearly, if the purpose of our military were to defend America against threats, it ought to be a fraction of its current size. 
            Obviously, in a world of limited resources, maintaining a military force as absurdly bloated as ours requires strong justification.  And this is relevant for thinking about “humanitarian interventions” such as our most recent foray into Libya.  Taken in isolation, the argument for intervention is straightforward and compelling: Clearly the world would be a better place without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and better still if he could be replaced without massive bloodshed among the rebels trying to topple him.  The allied assault will cost lives, of course, but in the overall balance it will save them and, in utilitarian terms, produce a favorable balance of pleasure over pain.  (This is only true, however, on the questionable assumption that everything in this operation goes according to plan.  There is plenty that could go wrong: The rebellion against Qaddafi might falter, leaving us with a choice of deeper involvement or accepting a slaughter after all,.  The rebels might win, and turn out to be as bad as Qaddafi.  The operation might succeed, but provoke anger in the Arab world over yet another Western attack on a Muslim country.  We just don’t know.)
            But helping the heroic Libyan rebels is not the only outcome of “Operation Odyssey Dawn.”  It also contributes to justifying the military-industrial state that America has become.  Let us assume that we support attacking Libya.  But that attack is possible only because we have a military that far exceeds our defense needs.  Support for the attack therefore entails support for the necessary condition of the attack.  More generally, the widespread acceptance among the American people of the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions has served to justify the farthest tentacles of empire.  Our conquest of Iraq was supported by many liberals, and both on the left and on the right that particular adventure was lauded as a preemptive defensive act but also (especially when the claims of self-defense were revealed as lies) as a good deed we were doing the world.  The US Navy now lures recruits with images of American seamen helping the helpless at home and abroad, under the slogan “A Force for Good.”
            The cost of maintaining a military as large and powerful as ours is draining our economy and weakening our democracy.  It is also alienating people around the world who might otherwise be our allies.  If we want to change that, we must accept that that will mean that we are not able to right some of the wrongs we see in the world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Case For The ‘Repair Bill’




    It is now more than a week since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) introduced a so-called ‘repair bill’ to fix the state’s sorry finances.  This bill would make sharp cuts in a number of areas, including education and state worker pensions, but also, most controversially, would strip Wisconsin’s unionized public employees of the right to negotiate with the state on any topic other than wages.  The intervening week has seen protests on a scale unequaled even in Madison, a town that roiled in radicalism in the 1960’s.  Emotionally, my sympathies are entirely with the protesters—how could they not be?  But intellectually, it’s worth asking what can be said for the repair bill, not only as a step toward forming a judgment, but also to add to understanding what motivates the protesters. 
     The case for Walker’s bill can be summed up in one word: necessity.  The Governor estimates that Wisconsin faces a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion over the next two years.  For a state with a population of fewer than 5 million, this is a huge hole to plug.  Wisconsin has fiscal problems it shares with many other states.  The Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), for example, has saddled the states with a huge burden for Medicaid over the next several years.  The pension fund for the state workers is also underfunded, and if it were fully funded the result would be a major burden for Wisconsin taxpayers.  Health care is expensive, too, of course, and thus state employees are being asked to pay for more of their own coverage, too.  Even the move to bust the state employees’ unions can be justified on this basis, since (the argument goes) without this move the state will not have the flexibility it needs to deal with what might well be a fiscal crisis of several years.
     Philosophically, then, the argument for the repair bill is a garden-variety utilitarian argument: The overall consequences for Wisconsin voters of passing the bill will be better than the consequences of defeating it.  And it follows quite naturally that the workers who oppose it are defending their particular interests at the expense of the general welfare.
     Now, there are good reasons for doubting that the state’s budget situation is as severe as the governor maintains, and even more reasons to doubt that whatever problems there are will be solved by the repair bill.  But this is a philosophy blog, not a public policy blog, so the question I want to ask is, Even if everything presupposed in the above argument were true, would it still follow that it is unreasonable to oppose the bill? 
     No, it would not, because the utilitarian perspective is not the only possible way of looking at the situation in Wisconsin.  In order to understand the opposition to Walker’s proposals the relevant concept is, I think, the social contract.  Contractarianism is an idea that goes back to ancient Greece: The principles of justice in society arise through an agreement between the citizens limiting the power of each in order to gain the benefits of law (and, some would say, collective action).  On Thomas Hobbes’ view, at least, in the absence of such a contract, there is no justice, and thus also no injustice. 
     I will not say that a state of nature reigns in my native state—though if there were, I’m sure it would be friendlier and more polite than the nasty, brutish and short situation that Hobbes describes.  But the position of the protesters makes a lot of sense if we think of it as resulting from widespread suspicion that the social contract is not being honored, and thus that cooperation at one’s own expense is not reasonable.  The conflict we see there is a predictable consequence of the dramatic increase in economic inequality in America over the last 30 years, and it is precisely the chief danger of inequality that it undermines the social contract and makes it more difficult for societies to act collectively for the common good. 
     This increased inequality can be traced at least in part to economic trends beyond anyone’s control: As the labor market has become more globalized, the gap between high-skill and low-skill workers has grown.  But inequality in the US is also a creation of government policy, most particularly since 1980.   Trade unions, for example, are the most powerful tool lower-skilled workers have in negotiating for higher wages, but under Republican presidents, and to some extent under Clinton, too, the Federal government has been actively hostile to unions, and union membership has steadily sagged.  The minimum wage has fallen in real terms while taxes for the rich have been cut, and health care costs have been allowed to spiral out of control.  As a result, wages for average Americans have fallen, while the number of billionaires has spiked.  My own hometown of Janesville, once home to a comfortable middle class of unionized auto workers, has been deindustrialized as job prospects for local labor have disappeared with the town’s General Motors plant.
     This is crucial background for the standoff in Wisconsin.  The protesters surely do not think of themselves as being at war in a state of nature, where everything is allowed.  But they have good reason to reject proposals for the common good that harm them severely, and cannot be convicted of selfishness for this, for they have no reason to think that their government will act on their behalf.  What Walker proposes is just a Wisconsin-sized version of what Reagan did when he handed tax breaks to the wealthiest while busting the air traffic controllers’ union.  Indeed, before he proposed destroying the public employees’ union in order to decrease the budget, he increased that deficit by passing the tax cuts that Republicans seem to think heal all social ills.  It has also emerged that Walker's budget-balancing plan includes a provision for selling off state-owned energy facilities, which dovetails nicely with the interests of his financial backers, the Koch brothers.  Wisconsinites affected by the repair bill cannot kid themselves that the present state government is going to act reliably for the benefit of all, for this would stand in stark contrast not only to Walker’s own views, but to the broader policies that have defined the Republican Party since 1980.  Sadly, in the Age of Reagan, anyone who is willing to sacrifice for the common good, in expectation that others will do the same, is just a fool.
     By the way, one consequence of this analysis is that it is a mistake to distinguish, as most Wisconsin Democrats do, between the cost-cutting measures Walker has proposed and the union-busting measures.  Both are aimed at redistributing wealth upward, without a compensating benefit for those harmed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In which our intrepid voyager journeys to Muscovy

[My apologies, first, for the long silence here. I've been busy. Second, to those of you who 'follow' this for my periodic rants about religion, for the fact that this post will be all about my current visit to Moscow, which lies outside the declared scope of this blog. I plan to post something on our recent, disastrous elections sometime soon.]

1. Hail to the Moscow Metro, which is a modern miracle. It is desperately overcrowded, carrying (Wikipedia tells me) over 7 million passengers a day. That makes it the second busiest system in the world. And yet, you never have to run to catch a train, because they come every two minutes. And yet they are still incredibly crowded. That is, enough people come into each Metro station every two minutes to fill all the vacant space on each train that comes through. I've been here a week and still haven't sat down on the Metro. And here's a fun fact: There are two Moscow Metros: the public one, and then the 'secret' one that Stalin had built in the 1930's. I was skeptical about the secrecy of it-- thousands of people had to be involved in building it, right?-- but my host Boris would admit only that "some people guessed" that it existed. That one is still used by the military and the government. Recently, though, one line was made available for public use. You can see it, light blue, on the Metro map, running exactly parallel to a dark blue line. It runs, conveniently enough, directly from the Kremlin to Stalin's home.

2. I'm staying in what is frankly a pretty dingy neighborhood. There are very few restaurants, cafes, or large stores nearby. What the area does have are large numbers of tiny shops, stands, really, most of them specializing in just a few items: toiletries, for example, or fruit, or, most interestingly, dildoes. Within a few hundred yards of my lodgings there are perhaps three places to get a cup of coffee (forget about good coffee!), and exactly five places to buy dildoes. This has sparked some obvious questions in my mind about the private lives of the locals, who presumably provide the demand for these shops. I figure they can't just be using dildoes; they must be finding regular need for quick dildo shopping ("Hold that pose, honey. I'll be right back.") The people here don't look particularly outre or adventurous; quite the opposite. And there's no visible gay presence at all.

3. It is fascinating, as I walk around here, to distinguish the shiny new capitalist overlay from the dingy communist-era bulk that constitutes most of the city. I've posted on Facebook pictures of a 70's vintage Metro station with a Starbucks moved in to the ground floor. Contrasts like this, if less stark, are visible all over the city. In Red Square, Lenin's tomb faces the GUM department store, which now houses a huge selection of very pricey Western shops. Only the very rich can afford to go in; the street outside was blocked off so that customers could park their luxury sedans and SUV's near the side door. Escalades seemed to be particularly popular. There are still monuments and places names for heroes of the Revolution. I'm very near Gagarin Park, named for the 1950's cosmonaut. The park is overlooked by a huge statue of the rocketman himself, looking down Leninski Prospekt, jammed with cars while at least one drunk is passed out on the pedestal below.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just a few thoughts on De Waal

Frans de Waal spoke today at George Mason on the topic of "Primate Behavior and Human Society." His talk in fact had little to do directly with human society, but instead consisted of summaries of a lot of various interesting research on altruism and cooperation in animals, especially primates. Some of de Waal’s books include discussion of philosophical topics, but that too was omitted from the talk. Nevertheless, it seemed apparent that de Waal’s work is not far removed from that of Sam Harris, the subject of my second most recent post here. With that in mind, I’ll offer a few quick remarks on his presentation.

1. De Waal gave a lot of interesting evidence of altruism in apes and other animals. The implication, I guess, is that we find such empathy in humans as well. This was fascinating, but not, to a student of the history of philosophy, surprising. David Hume postulated more than 250 years ago that human beings have a natural feeling of empathy (he called it sympathy) for others, which he explicated in the same terms as de Waal, as the phenomenon of feelings ‘catching’ from one person to another. Nor would the philosophical naturalist Hume have been at all troubled at the discovery of this commonality between animals and humans.

2. Though the talk today did not touch on moral philosophy, that phrase is in at least one of de Waal’s earlier books. So it is worth noting that the empirical discovery of empathy and altruism in animals, while certainly of interest and importance for moral philosophy, still falls well short of providing an evolutionary basis for morality. As Hume and others have recognized, empathy is an unreliable footing for moral judgment. As de Waal himself pointed out, empathy is felt more intensely for those closest to us, less for those farther away. And yet we all acknowledge that we have moral obligations to very distant people, and possibly to non-people as well. Furthermore, it is possible that one might be held morally accountable for failing to have empathy. Thus slaveowners in the antebellum South failed, in most cases, to feel empathy for suffering human beings in their very midst, and are nevertheless morally accountable for that failure.

{Another thought: If research such as de Waal's were to be used in a moral theory, it might run as follows: Moral judgment requires us to take the perspective of others (PO). PO, however, does not arise from reason, but rather from feeling, namely a feeling of empathy. Therefore moral judgment is based on feeling, not reason. Hume would certainly approve of this. But as de Waal acknowledged in questioning, the feeling of empathy is not necessary for PO; rather, this can be achieved through cognitive means as well. So feeling might be part, even a necessary part of moral judgment, but it is not necessary, at least as far as the talk today showed.}

3. I cannot be the only person to have felt the delicious irony of a guest of our economics department detailing the evidence for the natural unselfishness of human beings. If economics is to be an empirical science, it has to base its predictions on an empirically grounded understanding of economic agents, but research like de Waal’s seems to make a hash of the laissez faire economist’s fiction of a self-interest agent maximizing her interests in the marketplace. What would economics look like if it took account of the real nature of human beings?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is (really) the matter with Kansas?

[In the last few years I’ve met a number of people with connections to Kansas—good people all, and most of them Democrats, too. This piece is written with them in mind, with respect and affection.]


What is the matter with Kansas? This question is important, and not just for Kansas, because the political trend that Thomas Frank analyzed in his bestselling book of that title is widely viewed as the most potent force in American politics today. Frank’s view is that Kansas’ staunch social conservatives vote against their interests. In the end, I think he’s right about this, but for the wrong reasons. The idea of voting against one’s interests is more complicated than he acknowledges, and this is what I want to explore here.

Frank is hardly alone in claiming that a large swath of white, working-class Americans vote against their own interests when they select candidates on the basis of cultural and symbolic issues such as gun rights and abortion rather than economic issues such as health care. This assertion rests on a number of questionable assumptions: for example, that voters generally, and these voters in particular, vote with the intention of furthering their interests; that commentators like Frank know what those interests are, even if the voters themselves do not; and that issues such as gun rights do not touch on the foremost interests of those who value them.

The first assumption—that we do or should vote in order to further our interests—is debatable, but lies outside the scope of my present interest. The second claim, that the commentator knows the voters’ interest better than they do themselves, amounts to pointing out a sort of ignorance on the voters’ part, and thus will doubtless strike some readers as condescending. In a previous blog I argued that it is not truly condescending to accuse someone of ignorance. But the nature of this assumption merits a closer look.

When we say that someone has acted against her interest, we are suggesting that either she doesn’t know what her interests are, or she is mistaken about how to achieve those interests. I suspect, but cannot prove, that most liberal commentary in the Frank vein assumes that the overriding interest of American voters is to do as well as possible for themselves materially—to earn money, to live securely, to provide the most comfortable possible life for their children, and so on. The benighted voters of Kansas either a. fail to recognize that these are their interests, or else b. falsely believe that supporting gun control will advance them.

Consider option a. I argue that a person’s interests are not just given, so that we can be mistaken about them in the same way that we can be mistaken about other matters of fact. They are subject to reflection, and this entails an element of choice. As such, it is far more difficult to be mistaken about my interests. I say ‘more difficult’ rather than ‘impossible’ because one might forget what one has chosen as an interest, or be confused about the content or implications of an interest. But the important point is that I am in a better position to know my interests than is Tom Frank, or anyone else, for that matter.

So we should consider the likelihood that social conservatives just have different interests than the ones Frank and others take them to be voting against. Indeed, the fact that they vote so dependably and vehemently against their presumed interests is prima facie evidence that those are not their interests at all. There is nothing inherently irrational about preferring something that does not benefit me materially. As David Hume says, “’Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

It makes a lot more sense to suppose that the voting patterns of white social conservatives reflect in some degree the interests of the voters, and their best understanding of how to pursue those interests. I think that those interests are best understood as relating to a sense of moral community that some Americans feel was lost after the 1960’s. To name just a few major causes, the civil rights movement and the wave of non-European immigration in the 1980’s and 1990’s demolished the picture of America as a monolithically European culture, while feminism and gay rights unsettled gender roles many took for granted. For highly educated voters who can participate in the newly-globalized economy, these are unambiguous steps forward, morally but also materially.

Americans with less education, however, are likely both less able to adapt to a globalized economy and more likely to define their moral community in relation to familiar practices and nearby people. And Frank has argued, persuasively I think, that the voting patterns he points to break down fairly clearly on educational lines. Thus poorer people in places like rural Kansas can see feminism and gay rights as tearing down the moral institutions that give their lives meaning. They are also more likely to see issues in terms of the groups, especially ethnic and religious groups, of which they are members, rather than in terms of humanity in general. So they can feel threatened not just materially but morally by large-scale immigration, and react to terrorist attacks not as affronts to human dignity but as attacks on their community.

So it is hardly surprising that such people have a tendency to vote for political candidates who share these impulses, and who profess to care about the same issues. These candidates tend of course to be Republicans. The Democratic Party is increasingly home to educated people, especially on the coasts—the very group whose boats are lifted by global trade. It is hardly an accident that at the same time the Democrats are less likely than they ever were to emphasize social justice and economic equality, though the recent health care bill is a notable exception to this.

Nevertheless, the eponymous voters of Kansas do, I think, vote against their interests when they support candidates such as Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Their mistake is not that they don’t know their own interests, but that the candidates they vote for do not serve those interests. The economic and social forces that threaten the traditional order in Middle America are well beyond the capacity of any political party to turn back, and in any case the Republican Party has shown no inclination to offer more than lip service to appease social conservatives. The sad fact is that neither major American party shows interest in addressing the real concerns of white working-class Americans.

This brings out a genuine quandary: I see a tension between movements toward freedom and toleration and the legitimate need of many Americans to live in strong communities that provide their members with ethical guidance. For me, at least these movements, such as feminism and the civil rights movement, are clear examples of moral progress. Is it possible to have liberation from the straitjacket of tradition without destroying the communities these traditions sustained? I don't pretend to know the answer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Philosophy and the Science of Happiness

Influential scientist and author Sam Harris has lately taken up the subject of the application of neuroscience to morality. His claim: that “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind.” Much of what Harris says is right. For example, most, though not all, philosophers would agree with his rejection of moral relativism, especially the mushy-headed examples of relativism that he cites. I think he is also right to see relevance for brain science to questions of human happiness. But with all due respect to Mr. Harris, I will focus here on what I think he gets wrong.

One mistake is his ad hominem dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy. This is captured in the claim that it is impossible to derive a normative statement from purely factual premises— simply put, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ As Harris notes, this view originates in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, the argument of which Harris describes as "lazy" and not the "last word on the subject of morality until the end of time."

But while it is true that there is some debate about how to understand the naturalistic fallacy and even whether it is really a fallacy, Hume is hardly the only one to have seen a problem in deriving statements of moral obligation from statements of fact. Intuitively, it is hard to see how we can know anything about how the world ought to be purely from knowledge of how it is. More specifically, study of the mind can show us only what people desire, or what makes them happy. It cannot show us that we ought to strive to help them fulfill their desires, or value their happiness.

[By the way, Hume’s treatment of the basis of moral judgment does not deserve to be so glibly rejected. Hume at his laziest is better than Harris at his best, and more rewarding of careful study, too. But I digress.]

Harris runs together a number of distinct claims. He seems to think that the ‘no-ought-from-is’ claim entails the claim that all ought claims are subjective in the sense of being neither true nor false. It does not. Kant, for example, agrees with the first claim but not the second. Harris furthermore seems to assume without stating that the methods of natural science are the appropriate methods for resolving all questions of fact, and this too is debatable, to put it mildly. One can be a cognitivist in moral theory (this is the view that there are knowable moral facts) without thinking that moral facts can be observed in a laboratory. Harris’ view might be both coherent and true, but this requires more and better argument than he gives.

The second major mistake Harris makes is his too-hasty embrace of the idea that moral statements can be analyzed exhaustively into statements about human conscious states, specifically statements about human well-being. Curiously, he does not argue for the identification of well-being with conscious states. It seems entirely possible to me that my well-being might be increased by something of which I am not aware. Nor am I clear on his reasons for thinking that only conscious states can be of value. The act of valuing might be said to be a conscious state (though I can think of counterarguments to that, too), but it doesn’t follow from that that conscious states themselves are what is valued. One can (I would say should) value the health of the planet, and my valuing might be reducible to a conscious state of mine, but the thing valued is not at all describable as a conscious state.

But even if we give Harris a pass on these points, there is still the bigger issue of the relation between moral obligation and human well-being or happiness. On this at least Harris does offer an argument of sorts. Here it is:
Imagine some genius comes forward and says, "I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings." Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here's the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is -- again, by definition -- the least interesting thing in the universe.
Well… OK. This establishes at most that we cannot be interested in something of which we cannot be conscious—a claim that I’ve never heard disputed. But if we are to take this as showing that moral claims have only to do with human well-being, let alone conscious well-being, then clearly Harris is making the mistake I just described, confusing the act of valuing with the thing being valued. (For a vastly better, though still problematic argument for roughly the same point, see Chap. III of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.)

The issue Harris claims to have solved at a stroke is one that goes back to Plato: On the one hand, in order to have motivation to act morally, our moral beliefs must speak to some desire in us; on the other hand, if that is all that they speak to, then our moral theory risks becoming mere egotism. Socrates argues at length in the Republic that justice is a “benefit.” The moral philosophers of the early modern era wrestled with how to ground an account of moral action in human nature while nevertheless providing a robust account of moral obligation. Perhaps Harris has found something that all these earlier philosophers have missed—but I doubt it.

[Mr. Harris will apparently be coming out with a book soon, under the title The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The material discussed in this post, however, is taken from a longish piece in the Huffington Post, linked above.]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kant and condescension

The Washington Post recently published a rather remarkable op-ed piece under the title, Why are Liberals so Condescending? The author, Gerard Alexander, took it as a given that liberals are condescending to average voters while conservatives are not (well, OK, maybe they are sometimes). Within three days the online version received nearly 3000 comments, most of them aiming more vituperation at each other than argument toward the original article. Alexander’s piece itself was notable not only for its forest of unexamined assumptions and specious claims, but also for its failure to explain two basic things, namely, what is condescension and what is so wrong with it? But of course it’s futile to scan the editorial page of the Post for answers on this, or anything else, for that matter. Immanuel Kant, underappreciated as a philosopher of liberalism, got this one right more than 200 years ago.

Kant was what in German is called an Aufklärer, or ‘Enlightener.’ He was an intellectual-- a university professor, even— who saw it as his task to help common people clear away their ignorance, exercise their reason, and change the world accordingly. He was thus a ripe target for charges of condescension, and if he were alive today he’d no doubt be squarely in the sights of Prof. Alexander. In a famous short essay Kant considered the question, What is Enlightenment? His answer was that enlightment is “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and immaturity, in turn, is “the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”

The key word here is ‘self-incurred’: The unenlightened are responsible for their own ignorance. What could be more ‘condescending’ than this? In fact, this charge was soon leveled at Kant, by his acquaintance and intellectual sparring partner, J.G. Hamann. In a private letter Hamann mocked Kant’s definition, accusing him of putting himself and other self-important Enlighteners in the role of schoolteachers to the common person. But Kant, unlike Mr. Alexander, is clear about the difference between condescending to someone and saying that they have a false belief. The former can be justified as an attitude toward someone only if they are incapable of thinking rationally, and thus is incompatible with the calling of the ‘enlightener.’ The latter, however, is the very essence of respect between reasonable people.

Though Kant doesn’t explain his decision to say that ignorance is self-incurred, the logic behind it is pretty clear: The essay as a whole is about the obstacles to the free use of human reason, and how to overcome those barriers. The unenlightened have to be responsible for their own ignorance, because enlightenment requires that they be responsible for their own enlightenment. The goal is that people will reason on their own, and reason well, and this requires that they are capable of reasoning. If they are not reasoning well, then whatever external problems might make rational thought more difficult, the failure to think is the fault of the thinker, too.

This means that when a liberal (or anyone) says that the American voters are wrong about something, this is neither arrogant nor condescending. As long as the assumption is that they are capable of correcting their false beliefs, ordinary respect requires that we give people some responsibility for their own ignorance. This touches on one area where Alexander has a valid point. The left has often devoted too much intellectual energy to theories of the mass deception of the public. Alexander cites Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he might also have mentioned many others, such as Noam Chomsky. I don’t want to say that anything these people say is mistaken—sadly, too often they are right on target. But the obsession with this sort of thinking can lead progressives to forget that their goals for a just and peaceful society depend on the ability of people to think for themselves despite all the deception that admittedly is all around us.