Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cognitive Disonance in Dar es Salaam

Last Sunday I returned from a week in Tanzania to the land of subzero temperatures and contaminated pork. I sat in the taxi and listened with incredulity to the news that all pork products had been recalled because a very small amount of a probably non-harmful toxin had been found in three herds. Twelve hours earlier I had walked through the market in Zanzibar where live chickens were haggled over, sold and slaughtered on the spot, giant sword fish on stone slabs, buzzing with flies were auctioned off to the highest bidder and someone had to warn me to 'watch the manta ray' that I was about to step on. The world has always been a place of contrasts but the ability to fly from one time zone, climate, way of being to another in half a day makes you very aware that it is now a place of extremes.

This was my second trip to Africa and sadly I think I have got to the point where I've stopped seeing. After prolonged exposure, at some point you normalize realities that at first seem utterly new and alien. There is only a relatively brief window of time to really grasp what is unfolding before your eyes, to contrast it with what you know, to become aware of all the implicit assumptions of your own culture and expectations by their absence in the new reality you face. I seem to have passed that point, so I watched others go through the process but felt none of it myself.

We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about mosquitoes and how to avoid being bitten by them. One member of the trip slept (in 30 degree heat) in full length pyjamas tucked into their socks and industrial size can of repellent in hand. We walked around in a collective cloud of DEET so strong you could see the insects hit the wall and simply drop. There was a lot of paranoia about food and going out after dark. And whereas when we turned up at an airport for an internal flight to find that it had been cancelled and we might miss our connection back to Amsterdam I felt the calm fatalism acquired from 6 months of plans not working out in India set in like a blessed opiate of the masses, most of the others became agitated and irritated with the local officials. When we finally did get on a plane, there were nervous jokes about the sign on the seat that said 'Use seat cushion as flotation device in case of crash'. And when we finally arrived back in surgically clean Skiphol airport everyone seemed to sigh with relief - no more DEET or hand sanitizer - we were back in regularized, standardized, predictable modernity.

All of this got me thinking about psychology. There is an implicit subtext in development that 'developing countries are lacking something, that the process of development is about filling in those gaps. I think part of my shock when I first went to the developing world was to realize that it wasn't merely a suboptimal version of the reality I was used to, like an outdated model from a few decades previous - recognisable but shoddier - but rather it was a whole different system, with different rules and ways of doing things. I was severely culture shocked - shell shocked - at first. It took a month to stop feeling miserable. It took two months to start laughing rather than crying at what seemed completely illogical (a traffic warden with a sign that says 'Halt and Go' on the same side for instance). It took three before I began to realize that it wasn't in fact illogical, it was just a different logic ('Halt briefly before you launch yourself into oncoming traffic and when you do go, go, go because they sure as hell wont slow down for you'). And it took the full six before I could begin to indulge in 'chalto hai' - relinquish the need to always be in control of time and circumstance, accept that I could not be completely the master of my own destiny, that risk was unavoidable but that usually, if you have some trust, things work out somehow. It was a psychological process - slowly wrenching my mind away from the pillars on which equilibrium normally rests: risk aversion, logical reason, understanding of my environment, and above all else - control.

In many ways, development is asking people to do the reverse journey: to alter psychologically from one mode to another, but crucially without the benefit of having their material conditions change first. It was relatively easy for me, with time, to adjust, because the reality was different, so I had to change and the psychological state I had to acquire was the one best, equilibrium response to the material environment I was in. Becoming unnervingly calm and fatalistic when you discover that all the roads are blocked with mud slides and you need to get back to Delhi to catch your flight tomorrow is the best psychological response. Accepting risk and not getting too stressed about mosquitoes is the only thing to do when you live in a tropical country. Relinquishing control is your only option when you step onto a decrepit bus taking hairpin bends over a precipice on the only road to your destination. Asking people to have different responses to the same conditions entails a considerable degree of psychological strain. But it's what the process of development does ask them to do - to become risk averse, used to standardization and legalization, accept extreme rationality, exert control, demand more from others and life etc.

In some way this dilemma was summed up from talking to a linguistics student in the University of Dar es Salaam. She explained how the fact that Tanzanians are multilingual means they are not completely proficient in any one language. They speak their tribal language at home until they go to primary school, when they start speaking Swahili. When/if they go to secondary they start English, which is also the language of instruction in university. She said the end result was proficiency, but not fluency in tribal languages and Swahili, and often quite a poor grasp of English (she estimated that only about 10% of students at university spoke English competently). From the point of view of development, a common standardized language is essential. From a personal point of view, the absence of the true fluency of a mother tongue seems, from my Anglo-centric, monolingual standpoint, appalling. It brought home the scale of the challenge and also the near barbarity of wrenching people from one system to another.

I don't want to finish on a completely anti-modern note. Travelling through the country side and seeing the desperate conditions in which people live, you cannot but want to see the material comforts of modernity. But sometimes it isn't acknowledged enough what you are asking people to do in that transition, how difficult it is to get from one state to the other and what is lost in the process. And how it delivers you to a place where your full Irish breakfast can be whipped out from under your nose for fear that, if consumed in large quantities for 30 years, you might, might suffer side effects.


Benedict said...

Nice little piece Michelle, almost anthropological at point, but let's not dwell on that - I don't want to give you that label, it's often considered an insult in academia, if not in some parts of Africa.

As for the shift to modernity, I think you're right that for many people in the developing world it isn't simply, logically, the right thing to move towards. But as many examples suggest - such as Zambia - even when African people do, largely, embrace it, things often go terribly wrong. As the economy goes into decline, modernity can seem to go into reverse (this latter argument is stolen from James Ferguson's 'Expectations of Modernity' of course).

I'm far from being one of those 'don't force them to be modern' sort of anthropologists - I think some aspects of modern life are virtually universally desirable - but I think the development industry should think quite deeply about it's objectives. It too often has tried the impossible task of forcing countries into the same mold. For me food stability has to come over sky scrapers, and yet so few following the IMF or even World Bank model(s) have been able to achieve even that. Anyway, this isn't really going anywhere, just had a few thoughts on my mind.
Thanks for the thoughts Michelle.

Joe said...

This is really lovely, I especially like the bit on psychology and development. There's so much in there I wish I could get my students to see, particularly when talking about aid, intervention and human rights - I won't steal anything but inspiration from it though. Oh yeah, I'm teaching SRJ now - it's a bit strange and I have to do a lecture on Rawls next term, oh how not to let my bias show?!

Eva said...

What a joyful read about your fascinating experiences in the developing world!

However, I have to disagree about the pork issue: Dioxin is a dangerous chemical consisting of petrol! It is absolutely scandalous that this was found in the food chain, and those responsible for knowingly adding dioxin as a replacement protein to pork feed to save/make money (!!), should be severely punished, even while I agree, of course, that the unaware farmers are unfairly hit by this scandal. There have been a number of previous dioxin scandals in other countries, and as far as I am aware, there have been fatalities. It is the despicable greed of many animal feed producers as well as many food producers around the world that strongly contributes to our vast cancer rates today. And yes, modernity and the availability of chemicals certainly has something to do with it. While this one incident might have been blown out of proportion, it is a great testimony for the Irish Health Authorities that they thoroughly investigate such cases to protect the consumer's health.

Eva said...

By the way, in case anyone thought I exaggerated the dangers of poisoned food in our modern world: I just read a serious first page broadsheet newspaper article (Sueddeutsche Zeitung)on how a Spanish chemistry researcher has found out that softdrinks are severely polluted by pesticides!!! While British and Spanish lemonades are the most contaminated, in Germany the level of pesticides found in these drinks is 17 times higher than the lawful norm for drinking water!!!!!! Goodbye softdrinks, goodbuy fruit juices...I am utterly disgusted. This should make us think about what's in any fruit we buy when they are not organic.......Man's inhumanity to Man. "Five a Day" could mean the quickest way to ruin one's health.

Jenny SS said...

Michelle, I loved this blog especially for its laying the ground for the big mission to inject into an understanding of psychology and behaviour the importance of the real material, political and economic context (we all define the most urgent issues through our own lenses). It's precisely that expectation of behavioural change without material improvement that can be the greatest pitfall of development efforts, especially in the area of governance and 'corruption'. Anthropologists need to shout even louder about the structural and symbolic constituion of existence and the fact that it is ignored only at the peril of those we try to 'help'. And social psychologists (that's me) need to stop musing about norms and influence while pathologising 'radicalisation', thereby neatly allowing governments and corporations to glaze over material injustices.

I was a little confused in the concluding paragraphs though, when you seemed to think it to temper your point that you saw the benefits of material improvement - surely that's precisely it that's needed: not condescending lectures about 'emracing modernity', but real material improvements, that will end up costing we in the North some of the comfort of our lives! But then, you taught me that one too ;>

Paul said...

Nice musings Michelle, not too much meta narrative ;)

It struck me square in the face in Amsterdam airport again, when I saw four people standing inside a ventilated glass cage having a smoke, how utterly farcical many aspects of modernity and progress are when you attempt to reconcile them with the kinds of livelihoods people have in developing countries. Now I'm not against smoking bans, far from it. From a Western perspective they make sense but then to go and build a "smoking chamber" to less impinge on personal freedoms is well.... It makes sense for me in it's local context but it starts to lose sight of the road when you consider an immunisation plan for a village in Zambia or improved WatSan facilities for a camp in Goma that aren't taking place. How much comfort/freedom are we willing to give up in order to see real material improvements in others lives? It isn't as simple as this because there are huge structural and distributional constraints but the essential question remains. Equality vs. Freedom again.

On asking people to adopt a modus operandi that doesn't give them any benefit in the situation they are in... it's pretty stupid, even the "modern" world we inhabit still portrays many tribal/patronage aspects - getting a job being an obvious one. If someone told me I should apply to the jobs I'm most qualified for and not places where I have friends and influence, I'd tell them to feck off. I guess in a lot of ways it's akin to asking people to drop their religion (because in "modern" life there's no need, we've got loads of material comfort, no need to pray to God for it) but remain poor and without hope - it just doesn't work.

p.s. Joe I'd love to hear your thoughts on Rawls, I only ever read one of his books and what I read was pretty interesting except the whole veil of ignorance garbage, that was not good.

Michelle D'Arcy said...

So finally, in the post-Christmas, Stephen's Day lull, having got the religion rant/kid with dragon anecdote out of my system I can try to muster some thoughts. So...

Ben - shout louder (as Jenny says) - I take it as a supreme compliment to be labelled as 'anthropological' - though I've no claim to it, and you do. One question though - how to extricate food security from sky scrapers? Sen actually says the best way to ensure food security is to improve employment diversity and while this doesnt necessarily mean sky scrapers it certainly means urbanization and a shift out of primary industries and subsistence farming. the broader question is how to confer the benefits of modernity without the problematic aspects - perhaps it is all of a piece and too tightly woven to unpick the threads?

Joe - Im really thrilled to hear that youre teaching SRJ. How do you find the youths? And I second Paul's call for your thoughts on Rawls (my memories of our discussions are hazy) and add a request for a bit of Rorty too.

Eva - minimal exposure to food poisoning is definately a plus in the modernization column. and while many of the food scandals of late may have had posed a real threat, im not sure the current one did. But I'll take your word on soft drinks!

Jenny - you let me away with nothing - in the best way! So yes, you are right - there was a tension in the last paragraph that contradicted what I had said earlier. It was a different point, coming out of a different impulse. And integrating them might have brought me somewhere I didnt want to go. Because I guess I was not just saying different material conditions prompt different psychological responses but also, implicetly, that some of the hallmarks of a Western consciousness are in some way undesirable - and the shift to that mindset involves a loss. But if that's the trade-off, the faustian pact, then yes, absolutely make it, though in full recognition of, as you have put it, the negative psychological things that capitalism in particular does to people (a pithy recap on that would be great by the way!). but i'll pose the question again, for collective response, - if its mindset follows material then where is the space for transcendence?

Paul - yep - freedom/equality - that old faceoff. what is to be done? i ask in sincere earnestness! i think Sen (who I am referencing for the second time I realize, though this is a coincidence) may have come up with the theorem to prove they are incompatible but in his writings comes down on the side of freedom. do we are agree? let's put this to a poll...And yes - what are we willing to give up? Soft drinks perhaps... :P

Further thoughts...?

Joe said...

Hey Michelle,

The youth of the LSE are... strange. Largely very bright and well prepared - though surprisingly predictable. Also, they are very uncomfortable with normative/evaluative questions - or giving answers to them - and that worries me a great deal. It seems they're very much Rorty's post-modern liberals - all normative commitments are ultimately subjective preferences and liberal capitalism is the best we've got to offer ourselves.

They're lack of anger, rebellion, questioning or even just angst is very alien to me. But they seem to be preparing for jobs in banks, foreign governments and think tanks, so I suppose they'll be well prepared. My own ennui aside, it is a good experience for me and I do enjoy the students, especially the days when despite ourselves actual learning occurs - which is great.

Rawls... that's a rant that never ends, and as I get older (and perhaps wiser, but maybe just more cantankerous) the rant simply gets longer. To start from Paul's point about the 'Veil of Ignorance' - my main problem with Rawls is the same problem I have with modern moral theory and modern liberal political theory. It presupposes the priority of the right over the good, but the vision of the right presupposes subjects that are undifferentiated and featureless so far as it matters for the ultimate question of what is valuable in a human life. Rawls (along with Kant, Mill, Habermas, etc) answers that it is rationality or rational autonomy. Rawls removes the Christian overtones of Kant's thinking and invests it with a throughly modern economic sensibility - but the end result is the same: a world of featureless autonomous choosers who make room for other featureless autonomous choosers to make the choices as best they can. That's the whole point of the veil of ignorance - as far as it matters for morality or the design of society, who we are does not matter, anyone of us is indistinguishable from any other. This to me is horrifying, partly on aesthetic grounds, but also because it is profoundly unpolitical.

What I mean by that is that we assume the hard choices we make in human life have been made - politics is the war of self-interests, but morality does not admit of such conflicts. This whole edifice that Rawls constructs (in truth he constructs one wing in a larger edifice) hides the historical process of western development as an historical and political project. Again what I mean is that capitalism, democracy, urbanization and all the other conditions that Rawls presupposes are not the working out of universal history or spirit (despite what Kant or Hegel say), nor is it Marxist historical materialism - rather we have the interaction of material and technological changes, with changes in social structures, political powers, as well as psychology and ideas. And, I'll manage to slam on the brakes there...

Rorty - In many ways my infatuation with Rorty has passed. I simply find his political thinking shallow and both his liberalism and post-modernism lacking. That said, much of what I'm doing now is responding to that in ways that are often hidden from me - much as young love shapes us for the rest of our life.

Finally to respond to Jenny's point. The problem is that (modern) material development cannot be separated from the psychology, sociology and politics of modernity. Which is not to paint modernity as some sort of deterministic cage, obviously it a socially constructed concept that catches a certain amount of our experience. But my point is that the kind of material development is determined by and also determines the wider world. This isn't a dialectic process or even the necessary unfolding of social laws - but a complex social world that is the result of our (humanity's) long process of development/change.

I think we need to acknowledge that 'development' as it works today will involve bending social units and individuals into a particular shape and this will without question be a painful process filled with loss. This is the true horror of the whole civilizing, colonizing, modernizing mythology - its own blindness to the destruction.

But this doesn't entail that we don't try to develop - some conditions are truly desperate and changing them is simply a good thing. It is the awareness of what the costs of material development are - only this will also us to begin to question and rethink the presuppositions of the dominant social logic. I think recognizing what is lost and that the developing/modernizing project is not unquestionably good is the key to reclaiming politics as the social art (in the sense of artisan more than fine art) of making these difficult choices - rather than self-interested competition for the ripest fruits of social wealth.

I think the space for transcendence, though I tend to steal the term reconstruction from Dewey, comes through critical inquiry. The ideational and material elements of our social world are not fixed or immutable, nor are they pliable at will - hence the need for both descriptive understanding and evaluative judgment. The separation of these two aspects of inquiry I think is what renders study/academia often unpolitical and powerless. The old ideologies of right (conservative) and left (revolutionary) are, I think, equally bankrupt so far as one ignores the possibility of the change and the other the contingency of change. There are no guarantees, there's the sensitive identification of problems, the methodological and critical examination of social conditions, and finally there must be evaluation and action. General formulas will always fail us: for example freedom versus equality. If we are going to respect the importance and separateness of these values, we can only prioritize them in the concrete situation, because such a prioritization will lead to a loss of the other. To demand that freedom always be held above equality, or that equality entails freedom does some violence to the concepts and our experience of them. Sorry for the rant, it's not terribly well thought out nor coherent, but maybe a little bit interesting.

Michelle D'Arcy said...


There is so much in your comment I think its going to take me even longer to digest than Christmas dinner. Some immediate thoughts/responses:

On Rawls: yes, now I recall. I remember being drawn to the glittering simplicity of his ideas on the one hand, and appalled at the decontextualization of the individual on the other. I still feel that tension, in a wider way, between trying to extricate in myself and in others what is universal, transcendent of the accident of birth and what is particular, embedded in the social world and web of relationships and norms. It is a kind of see-saw joy/sadness where you vacilate between feeling kinship, connection across boundaries and then running up against them in ways that make you feel very alienated. But perhaps that is to stray too far - the basic point - if I've understood it correctly - is the latter: how much our context creates us (though I know this formulation of words does violence to the complexity of what I think you are saying). I presume Jenny would agree, and I think at the societal level you're right. Though a part of me would still hold onto a little place for Rawls, if only in a paedegogic way, as a tool to teach people about how important their position in society is. I could imagine doing the thought exercise with my students for instance. And though I would never, ever want the world to actually look like what they might dream up (evidently I lack faith in the youth - LSE or UCD) I think it would be useful for them.

I completely agree about 'development' - it is an ackowledgement of the destruction wrought on individuals and societies in the process that is so terribly lacking and so greatly needed. And on that note I have a call to action for everyone. Today I read an article in the Financial Times Magazine entitled 'Can the Free Market Give You Moral Backbone?' or put another way 'Does the free market corrode moral character'. Rather predictably Tim Harford - who is usually a pretty sanguine species of economist - says yes it does not corrode moral character because (and this is the sum total of his argument) competition allows you to penalize those who are not acting morally. It enables you to avoid 'lazy, timorous, unimaginative, rude or dishonest people'. And it rewards 'hard work, calculated risk-taking, applied creativity, amiability, and honesty'. So obviously, first off, the question is who made calculated risk taking a moral virtue and unimaginativeness a moral vice. And secondly, while consumer choices may in some part be guided by a desire not to get scammed, ineffective goods etc there are many other non-moral considerations like price, convenience, image etc which raise many of the real questions of the relationship between capitalism and morality. So, I would like to pose you all the same questions, garner and collate your answers and send them to Tim Harford. Such is my faith in all your judgements, I think the end result could truly be quite something. You can access the original article here:

Freedom and equality will have to wait for another day. But I wanted to finish on lighter note. I came across this lately - Calvin and Hobbes take on the financial crisis, and capitalism.

Joe said...

I'm waiting for a flight to the states and can't face doing grading tonight, thus I have more free time than I'm used to...

I just wanted to say something about the pull between the universal and the particular (for lack of a better phrase) - as it is a tension at the centre of what I'm working on at the moment. I think the challenge is not to reject the experience of universal in human social relations, and certainly not to allow ourselves to be caged by our environment. I do think the individual is an important node of moral and social experience, but I've to find a way to theorize that in a way that isn't too liberal for my own tastes. I think human creativity, sympathy, impulsiveness and self-awareness make the transcendence possible, but it must be mediated both by a sense that we remain rooted in our own experience and that the universal experience is a fullness not an emptiness - meaning it not a universal without content, such that Rawls or Kant suggest. Also the individual as agent of social change/improvement needs the creation of new communities or publics to be be effective and ethical. Or some such... not sure that I've added anything.

I look forward to reading the article you mention, though I'll have to wait a little while, as I'm sure it will make me angry. It may be of interest, Millennium (which I've been editing for the last year) has an article on the development of the free market as social control in victorian England - though part of a larger argument about non-rational accounts of free market development. The link is: if interested.

Jenny SS said...

All - thank you for the jolt.

From me some not well-researched points, naively woven together:

On the universal versus the particular, I am wondering if anyone has read Isaiah Berlin's Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) on Tolstoy - I haven't read it, but came across it during a rant by Said on the blindness of Berlin's Zionism, so while I look into the latter, I thought Michelle might pick up on the former!

On one such set of universals: freedom versus equality. Without having properly read Sen, I will suspect that his genuine freedom will neatly let us all off the hook (philosphically, not materially), and thus be provocative and make a case for equality, for what I think is a Rawlsian reason: though aesthetically it's better to consider the characteristics of unique individuals, should any of these, be they inborn or a result of willed decisions, justify the gaining of more resources by one person over another (i.e. Rawlsian because I'm advocating blindness to individual characteristics in doing allocations)? No one wants lazy people to be rewarded the same as those who work hard, but what if they are lazy for biological or structural reasons? When is inequality of an endstate (as opposed to of a start state - my poor articulation of this dichotomy that lies out of my field) ever ok?

On Rawls and Kant, a genuinely ignorant question: were they not referring to hypethetical thought experiments that must be engaged in in order to arrive at the above equality of end state without being blinded by the colourful characteristics of indiviudals? If so, their argument still has ethical relevance, even though it is aesthetically depressing. It is only unpolitical if it is taken to be a description of how things actually are, or how we must start from this point in time. Of course this point in time consists of individuals that are both endowed and coloured in different ways, but surely that kind of political positioning only comes in at a stage after the hypothical situation of which Rawls and Kant speak, and is in fact the kind of outcome their experiment tries to avoid? Or is the point of the critique that such an ethical system is irrelevant given that we are starting where we are: it's thus another transcendant universal that does not account for the messy contingent realities...?

And so, on transcendance: my psychological point is not meant to lead to structural or material determinism: it is meant to inject into psychology a consideration of structural influences, where currently there is none. Descriptions of such causal forces would then only sit alongside those of internal or social agency, which must remain (though it's all a multi-directional mess, I know). For this, we have the neocortex & frontal lobe that have enabled us to transcend the genetic programming and even short term self-interest. This enables much of Joe's 'creativity, sympathy, impulsiveness and self-awareness', of which I would pick out self-awareness as key, and agree with the centrality of critique in maintaining and exercising our free will.

So, on constraint, in the case of the free market. Obviously Harford is not considering the subjective and historically contingent nature of what we see as moral. But beyond that, we could stick to our current folk conceptions of morality and see where the market leaves us. Clearly it will not allow for the morality of protecting the weak from domination by the strong. To try to unpick this, we can have a look at what happens before transcendance, at what it is that human behaviour, without self-awareness, would otherwise gravitate toward; let's say this is determined by biology, sociality and structures. Lab game-based experiments such as the one Harford quotes have been used to show us that biology tells us to be cooperative up to a point, which is nice. Sociality works hand in hand with this as the product of our evolution as social beings, and is observable in the reward and punishment of cooperative or non-cooperative behaviour in these games. But structures, such as how the games are set up, determine what will be beneficial or not for us, and thus constrain the type of morality that can emerge from them. Where games are based on individual attempts to gain points, cooperation is possible, as is honesty, but not conceptions of collective identity and solidarity, nor support for the weak for merely compassionate reasons.
In addition, these games are inadequate in getting at lived human experience for the same reason most psychology experiments are: they are decontextualised, and don't consider positioning by not differentiating the players - which brings me back onside with Michelle and Joe! When Harford does try to differentiate, he cites samples of players from different countries, and assumes that the different outcomes are a result of one characteristic supposedly shared by some of those countries - the non-existence of market democracies. Nothing on poverty or inequality or political participation and transparency...

The problem of the free market brings me to the problem of many debates about the benefits or lack thereof of modernity - the fact that only one form of modernity is implicilty being considered. That 'development' was conflated with the introduction of free market capitalism is one of the crimes of the development institutions, and might explain our ambivalence toward its concomitant change in consciousness. If free market capitalism bears an ugly type of consciousness (and I know it's up to me to demonstrate this), why not conceive of economic development, and economic systems for that matter, on different terms? But I know Michelle should be ahead of me on this one...

How to summarise and move forward? I'll follow Joe's lead: "There are no guarantees, there's the sensitive identification of problems, the methodological and critical examination of social conditions, and finally there must be evaluation and action." But Joe, this all sounds a bit close to (though going further than)John Gray - are you being drawn to him in there?

Joe said...

More overlong rambling, possibly of interest...

I've read Berlin's Hedgehog and the Fox, part of the PhD thesis actually. What's the reference on Said? That would be an important bit of secondary reading for me to do, as I'm stretching some of Berlin's ideas that I think may have some resonance with post-colonial work (for lack of a better descriptor).

It's a great essay though, its got some great lines about history being a madman, if one holds any sort of teleological notion of history, a la Kant, Hegel or Marx. And its an elegant defense of the individual stuck in the current of deterministic ideologies.

To respond to the defense of equality. 'No one wants lazy people to be rewarded the same as those who work hard, but what if they are lazy for biological or structural reasons? When is inequality of an endstate (as opposed to of a start state - my poor articulation of this dichotomy that lies out of my field) ever ok?'

My whole objection to abstract moral reasoning is that in engenders questions like this, which cannot be properly answered. If we defend equality, of opportunity or outcome, as such we are left making endless caveats and revisions, or engaging in a somewhat totalitarian project of defining what morality/equality demands. This is a nearly useless game that philosophers have engaged in with renewed vigor ever since Rawls' ToJ. My point is that not only can we not judge what morality or the good society without knowing what kind of people we are, but also we cannot determine if equality is more important than freedom, or what kind of equality we may want in the abstract. It's more important to improve our practical and critical ability to respond to problems, and at the same time to have sense of the history of our ideas about freedom and equality. These are ideas that are the expression of particular human experience and history, and not much of it unproblematic. I think once we're better and wiser about these sorts of issues we'll be in a position to respond to specific question of the trade offs of freedom and equality.

There may be cases where we find that equal outcomes for the industrious and the lazy is not terrible, but in fact good. I can't think of a great counter example at the moment.

Rawls is certainly referring to a hypothetical, but Kant, however, is referring to the categorical imperative that must guide any action that can be deemed moral. So, Rawls is less metaphysical than Kant, certainly - yet his thought experiment is set up to reveal morality/social justice in a very particular way that presupposes the Kantian starting point. Both thinkers surely allow that there will be moral failure and injustice in society - but the idea that we need to be blind to distinctions to reach the end state of justice is really question begging. It has ethical relevance so far as we are concerned with equality and impartiality. And it's an equality very much concerned with the preservation of freedom. I think Gilligan's work attacking the presumption that abstract moral reasoning is superior to contextualized reasoning is on point. There may be a use for devices like the 'kingdom of ends' or the 'veil of ignorance' but to my mind it can only be heuristic and the point would really be to encourage people to experience reality from the others point of view or to promote fairness as a virtue. Good, but limited I think.

I imagine Jenny and I agree to a point on the psychological aspect, but as I'm sure I've gone on about at length I'm not convinced that our biological programming or determination is nearly as important as the social conditioning of consciousness. But this stems from my skepticism about how we understand the scientific/biological brain. Genetic programming I think is a truly unfortunate term that reveals alot of mistaken thinking about the nature of biology and evolution. A case in point was a rather crude (though interesting) article I read about the identification of the part of the brain responsible for religious experience. But I'm not convinced that linking a particular type of experience to a particular area of activity in the brain warrants the claim that this bit of grey matter is responsible for religious experience. I'm even more suspicious of the sorts of claim that we are hard-wired for religion, morality or social cooperation. Not only is it far too deterministic for me, but its also in a sense metaphysical as opposed biological or evolutionary to assume that notions as complex and social as morality or justice would be hard wired. There may be instinctual behaviors and common capacities, but I tend to think the connection between this and concepts and social action as we know them is contingent and ill understood. But this may be a bias I've developed because bio-psychology gets filtered through other writers before it reaches me usually.

And I can only second the comments on the free market - though I'm in favor of dropping the whole modernity (as well as post-modern and pre-modern) phraseology. It's more useful to be specific about what developments we want to discuss - and as always specificity and context illuminate contrasts and contours in less dichotomized ways. I've jotted a few responses the article on free market and morality - but I'm not yet able to say much of anything sensible and not just disgruntled with basically all the assumptions made.

Final point, I've been drawn to Gray. There's much in his thought that is valuable, but I have much the same relation to him that I have to Richard Rorty - there interesting figures in their own right, but I'm interested in the thinkers they draw on (namely Berlin and Dewey) and seek to put those ideas to somewhat different use than either Gray or Rorty. Really my little credo is me aping John Dewey more than anything else.

Mathew Agripinus Senga said...

Congrats for the article Michelle!I never imagined that you could think of writing something after your visit in Tanzania.This is really professionalism!Very briefly, I always believe on the world of multiple reality. I strongly oppose those with the view that there is only one singe- objective reality. To underscore this one should therefore go beyond observation (as basis for knowledge) and focus on underlying structures and mechanisms. This is how you can also get the true picture of Africa, something that you have significantly done! Congrats once again!