Comments: The Just and the Good

I like the "needlessly contrarian" version of Bernard Chazelle. I encourage Chazelle to further his writing in this vein.

The point about a gated community being created with financial gates rather than physical gates is an excellent one that is sure to cause discomfort in many who consider themselves "liberal" or "progressive" but who prefer their comforts to remain inviolate and their living situation extremely white.

Posted by the anti-federalist at October 29, 2009 06:06 PM

Princeton is the quintessential private university: never mind that a bigger fraction of its operating budget comes from the taxpayer than is the case at public state colleges in New Jersey.

How does that work? Do you mean research grants from the government?

Posted by Cloud at October 29, 2009 07:38 PM


Social justice is prescriptive. It starts with the observation that some are less equal than others and that the needs of society must be attended to preferentially, ie, that the disadvantaged deserve more attention than the rich: not out charity but out of justice.

Well said! Great essay, Bernard.

Posted by cemmcs at October 29, 2009 09:10 PM

Those are liberal tropes, not left-wing tropes. Otherwise: bravo!

Posted by Nell at October 29, 2009 09:54 PM

About one third of the operating budget of Princeton U is covered by the US taxpayer.
People might also be surprised to hear that most of that government money is unrestricted (ie, PU can do whatever it pleases with it).

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at October 29, 2009 10:04 PM

Can ANY society sustain itself or survive without justice to its disadvantaged population?
Great post Prof Chazelle. Thank you.

Posted by Rupa Shah at October 29, 2009 10:22 PM

I'm sorry but I find the underlying sentiment of this post extremely reactionary. As far as I can tell you are saying that the left should abandon materialism in favor of some sort of abstract moral principle which sounds an awful lot like noblesse oblige.

Perhaps you can disabuse me of this...

Posted by bourbaki at October 29, 2009 10:53 PM

Anarchy in the B.C.

Posted by Marcus at October 30, 2009 12:36 AM

bernard rang my princeton doorbell and left a flaming bag of truth on my porch! quick, jeeves, stamp it out!

very well said.

along the same lines is the gross misuse of the words "we/our/us" in american public discourse.

Posted by anonymous at October 30, 2009 08:25 AM

This is a great post. I try to read his posts on Music, But I don't understand a thing. It is like reading Chomsky's essays on Linguistics, goes over my head.


But I eagerly await his essays on Politics. They are among the best the Internet has to offer.

Posted by Ajit at October 30, 2009 11:46 AM

I am a little taken aback that my post could be read as an endorsement of "noblesse oblige." It's just about the opposite.

I loathe "charity." My position on the subject has often been misunderstood (me, Scrooge?) so I try not to bring it up too often. First the usual defensive disclaimer: yeah, yeah I do charity as much as the next guy but that's only because the only thing worse than "noblesse oblige" is "noblesse n'oblige pas." When you see a guy starving on the street you don't do moral philosophy. You give him food.

But charity is loathsome nevertheless. It's humiliating for the recipient, and it gives the "benefactor" an undeserved sense of "being good." Are we supposed to be impressed that Bill Gates gives billions to Africa? Or that a third-rate musician named Bono spends so much time in the limelight to help the "helpless." I am not impressed.

Social justice puts no moral obligation on the rich. All it does is fulfill a contract among citizens by which everyone agrees on a model of society that does not depend on the particular economic situation in which the contracting parties are. In other words, you bring the crack addict and Bill Gates into a room and you hit them on the head so that they have temporary amnesia. Then you tell them one of you is Bill Gates and the other is a crack addict but you don't tell them who is who. Then they decide on a model of society. Once this is done, you tell them who has the billions in the bank and who's homeless. A bit of a cartoonish Rawls, I realize, but that's the idea anyway. Where I disagree with Rawls is in his disembodied view of a meta-ethics that factors out compassion. There was a historical need for him to do that, but in the end social justice needs a soul, too. There are many ways to arrive at the necessity of favoring the disadvantaged, but charity is not one of them.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at October 30, 2009 12:35 PM

Right on, Bernard! Someone objected that it is "liberals," not the "left-wing," that deserve the critique. I'm not so sure.

Many of the 501(c)(3) nonprofits (doing charity or policy "work") are another righteous sham for those white people who are a little left-of-liberal. The low salaries mean only those with supportive family structures (or trust funds) can afford to work there, doing "good work."

Posted by Solar Hero at October 30, 2009 12:47 PM

Actually, rereading this post makes me even more skeptical.

Take the third paragraph...the one about the war. Ignoring for the moment the downright Friedmanesque mixed metaphor (bed pans...really?). What is the premise? That the only true way, or at least the only just way, to oppose war is to argue (to feel in your soul?) that it is truly immoral to kill people. I agree with the sentiment, but barring some sort of essentially religious awakening how exactly does this end or prevent a war? Am I misunderstanding something here?

Let's actually try and parse your "bedpan" metaphor. Isn't it pretty clear that the American people (or at least those not in the elite) are doing just that. It's not like this war hasn't cost hundreds of billions of dollars and destroyed tens of thousands of American lives. Obviously, as in your metaphor, this pales in comparison to the death and destruction wrought on Iraq, but is at least a potent argument that might actually accomplish something. Granted, it has been blunted by the (historically anomalous) fact that the government has been able to prosecute the war via debt and without a draft. But given the current state of things in this country arguably things have just been deferred. This sort of linkage certainly would seem more potent politically than sounding like the pope...

Anyway, that was just my impression...

Posted by bourbaki at October 30, 2009 12:54 PM

Bernard:

Apologies for missing your response.

I read what you wrote as saying a just society can only occur when the elites (out of a sense of what I'm not sure) deign to create it. Why else spend so much time pointing out how hypocritical it is for them to feather their own nest.

Based on your comment its clear that is not what your intention was. Nevertheless, "that the disadvantaged deserve more attention than the rich" has a certain patronizing sound to it and begs the questions: More attention by whom? And what sort of attention?

Posted by bourbaki at October 30, 2009 01:30 PM

There are many ways to arrive at the necessity of favoring the disadvantaged, but charity is not one of them.

Prof Chazelle, I have a very serious question to ask. What are the many ways to arrive at the necessity of favoring the disadvantaged? Supporting 'Affirmative Action' ( education, job opprtunities) is one way I can think of. Affordable housing ( or subsidised housing) and FREE healthcare is another way I can think of. I would like to know your thoughts. And if I am totally on the wrong track, please correct me. Thank you.

Posted by Rupa Shah at October 30, 2009 01:37 PM

A housekeeping note: Bernard, there's some HTML that you can put in a post, so that it only displays a portion before providing a link to a subpage containing the rest. This makes a blog easier to navigate.

A personal note: Bernard asks, "Are the moms taking their kids trick-or-treating this weekend and those sleeping by their children's bedside in the pediatric cancer ward "in it together"?

Thinking of the friends of mine whose four-year-old just died of cancer, I'd bet that it DOES comfort them the tiniest bit to know that there are other, healthy children, trick-or-treating this weekend and not going to a memorial service. That not ALL children are sick, and not ALL parents have to suffer as they have. That their personal suffering is not all that is.

Having been a child who received considerable charity, and at times a very sick adult, I can tell you that the belief that "we are all in this together" has given me great, great comfort. And furthermore that the charity I received as a child demonstrated to me that such behavior was possible; and encouraged me to act likewise whenever I was able. Not out of ego, but out of a rock-solid recognition that, regardless of one's condition, there is always suffering. That suffering is perhaps the only thing we DO share; and that to recognize another's suffering and try to lessen it, can be the opposite of egotistical, instead a deep moment of communion. The condition of one's heart makes all the difference--50 cents can be a moment of sharing, $50 million can be one of ego-driven loathing. The connective, humbling, clarifying, invigorating aspect of "charity" is demonstrated to me every time I summon the courage to engage in it in the proper spirit.

I understand Bernard's point, but it seems like an attempt to intellectualize frightening, uncontrollable portions of the human condition so as not to feel them. In my experience it is only by allowing oneself to feel the basic injustice of this reality--see it, acknowledge it, mourn it, see its vastness, and that some aspects of it are beyond human control--that one can move past the self-indulgence of outrage. For me, things work better on the other side. As always, YMMV.

Posted by Mike of Angle at October 30, 2009 02:02 PM

Mike of Angle:
Prof Chazelle:
I do agree with MoA that charity has a place and I have contributed what I could, to say a food pantry ( because the thought of someone going to bed hungry is unacceptable ) or for victims of natural disasters ( to help them cope with the emergency situation ) but not to make me feel that I am 'good'. One can not help but put one's self in that person's situation.
On the other hand, I agree absolutely with Prof Chazelle's point about Social Justice for the disadvantaged needing preferential attention, without which we can not claim to be living in a just society. Sadly, we are way far behind in building one.

Posted by Rupa Shah at October 30, 2009 02:41 PM

This notion of being in it together is also known as solidarity. Solidarity is tremendously effective when people understand their real collective interest and understand the class structure that is repressing their interests. Rarely do those who are not of the working/lower classes truly share a sense of solidarity with those in that class, because in an immediate material sense these people don't share the same interest.

However, it is possible to take a more objective/larger perspective and find a reason to be a class traitor. The idea of a common good is often a part of that process.

Posted by doug lain at October 30, 2009 03:15 PM

This notion of being in it together is also known as solidarity. Solidarity is tremendously effective when people understand their real collective interest and understand the class structure that is repressing their interests. Rarely do those who are not of the working/lower classes truly share a sense of solidarity with those in that class, because in an immediate material sense these people don't share the same interest.

However, it is possible to take a more objective/larger perspective and find a reason to be a class traitor. The idea of a common good is often a part of that process.

Posted by doug lain at October 30, 2009 03:15 PM

Perhaps I don't spend enough time listening to liberal drivel, but Bernard's tirade strikes me as one long straw-man argument. I have never heard anyone argue that I should consider the war in Iraq unjust because someday I will be inconvenienced by it. Never. To me, "We're all in this together" has never meant "There's a risk that if you're harmed, I'll be harmed, too." Instead, I've always thought of it as a counter to the conservative/libertarian creed that life is competition and I am entitled to keep my just reward from the clutches of the losers who covet it. That is, in the struggle against the foes of humanity--disease, poverty, natural catastrophe, isolation, indignity, etc.--we're all in it together, i.e. on the same team. Being a team player requires a willingness occasionally to subordinate self-interest. This is what doug correctly calls solidarity.

Bernard doesn't seem to be aware that you don't have to be a Kantian to value impartiality, as evidenced by his gratuitous equating of utilitarianism with egoism in the third paragraph. Why on earth does he think a utilitarian would agree that Princetonians need be concerned only with the welfare of their fellow Princetonians?

Posted by Jim Anderson at October 30, 2009 04:11 PM

"I have never heard anyone argue that I should consider the war in Iraq unjust because someday I will be inconvenienced by it. "

I have. Over and over again. People say that the Iraq War will increase terrorism, which might come back to bite us. Which is a valid point, but if the person leaves it at that it is arguing on the prowar side's turf. You're arguing about whether the Iraq War makes Americans safer or less safe, and leaving the Iraqis out of the picture.

More generally, that is how mainstream arguments about our wars tend to go--we argue about whether the war is worth the cost for Americans. The cost is defined in terms of financial cost cost in the lives and health of American soldiers and and the risk that we might increase anti-American hatred and maybe even terrorism aimed at "the homeland", which are valid concerns, and then there's also the concern that our reputation as a country will be tarnished (something I think we deserve). It's almost the definition of being a leftwinger if you oppose a war because of the cost to the people we are invading. When people in the mainstream do talk about civilian casualties overseas, they again start talking about how it is counterproductive to us, how it stirs up anti-American hatred and might increase the number of guerillas in the invaded country and also terrorists willing to come here and kill us.

Posted by Donald Johnson at October 30, 2009 05:01 PM

"It's almost the definition of being a leftwinger if you oppose a war because of the cost to the people we are invading."

That was a little unfair to some non-lefties who oppose American imperialism. Some of them also oppose our foreign adventures in part because they kill people overseas. The distinction is between those who are Serious People (to use Glenn Greenwald's term) and those who are not. Serious People don't oppose wars for moral reasons--they oppose them, if they oppose them, because of the costs to Americans.

Posted by Donald Johnson at October 30, 2009 05:07 PM

MoA: What you describe seems the desired behavior of human beings and I am with you there. But my post addresses the role of politics. People should show compassion but the state should provide justice, which is different. I don't want the state to even think that "the healthy and the crippled are in it together." I want the state to think "a natural injustice was done to the crippled that must be palliated." There's a big difference: the first is a call to passivity, the second a call to action.

Doug: Solidarity is wonderful, I agree. But let's use the word solidarity. In it together means something else (I address that in my second paragraph.) However, solidarity can't extend across class lines, and I don't want justice to "wait" until it does.

Finally, why should justice be preferential? Because all forms of justice are. The whole point of justice is to focus on the aggrieved. Just like the whole point of medicine is to focus on the sick. It has to be preferential in order to achieve the goal of equality. It's preferentiality in the service of equality.

Jim:
>> Perhaps I don't spend enough time listening to liberal drivel

I agree.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at October 30, 2009 05:36 PM

Even though I think this is a terrific essay I have to partially disagree. If getting people to do what they should for the greater good, or for a just society, or whatever you want to call it, is the goal, then, practically speaking, you have to accept that some people will do the right thing for what you may regard as the wrong reasons, or intellectually incoherent reasons.

As long as are in fact doing the right thing, maybe being concerned with why they do so is less important than merely that they do so.

(a brief example: I don't know why George Jr nixed the proposed Israeli attack on Iran in December 2008, I'm just glad he did so.)

Bernard, I'm not saying you are wrong, just that what you describe is a goal, one that would probably create more reliably decent behavior, but one that I think we haven't reached.

A case in point, American attitudes towards the Afghan conflict:

If most Americans saw the war as inherently repugnant our involvement would have ended a long time ago. But large numbers of Americans are zenophobic and racist, sustaining the occupation of Afghanistan for 8 years and counting, in a way that would surely have been impossible if the towers were attacked by a radical group of Scandinavians and we had, say, tried to occupy and brutalize Finland since the fall of 2001.

Also, large numbers sincerely believe that fighting "them" over there make us safer here(and yes, there is some overlap between these two groups-- possibly substantial overlap).

But if ending the war is more readily achieved by explaining to some persons why what they've been told about the about the Afghan conflict making us safer is a lie, then that's how you need to persuade them. If others are best persuaded based on our common humanity, than that's how you reach that group. In your heart of hearts you might prefer that the former group would be also reachable by the latter argument, but you can worry about that some other time.

Maybe such a "cafeteria approach", in which you offer an assortment of arguments is philosophically sloppy, but if it is more effective in the here and now I think it has merit.

Let me note, however, that I am not rejecting your argument, because I do think it would be preferable that people see killing and subjugating Afghans as inherently wrong, and if we could start from such a basis we would err less and correct our mistakes sooner.


(Incidentally, I'm struck by the parallel between your discussion here of the promotion of just behavior and your previous argument that torture should best be criticized on intrinsic rather than practical grounds. If I am mischaracterizing the former argument I apologize, but that's how I understood it.)


Posted by Jonathan Versen at October 30, 2009 05:47 PM

"But if ending the war is more readily achieved by explaining to some persons why what they've been told about the about the Afghan conflict making us safer is a lie, then that's how you need to persuade them."

I don't know about Bernard, but I agree with that. Partially. The down side is that you're in effect conceding that American safety is the main factor one should use in evaluating whether a war is justified or not. So in theory making us a little bit safer would make it worth killing a very large number of foreigners--it just so happens that in this war it won't work. Which is probably how some people think. I'd still use the argument, or at least not wince too hard when someone else used it, but it's an argument that reinforces the notion that our lives are the only ones that matter.

Posted by Donald Johnson at October 30, 2009 07:27 PM

Hi Donald,

I understand you point, and I agree that it's preferable to not argue that killing a bunch of foreigners to somewhat improve our safety is worth it. That's why I acknowledged that

...if we could start from such a basis we would err less and correct our mistakes sooner.

I'm arguing, maybe not too clearly in the 1st comment, for what I referred to as a cafeteria approach, because unfortunately a single argument may not work for everyone, or at any rate enough people(obviously some simply cannot be persuaded).

I'm going to evoke my dim memories of being an undergrad in psychology, of the Premack principle, in which more easily learned behaviors could clear the way to learning more challenging behaviors, through successive approximation.

So (maybe) some persons who have never questioned US hegemony may become more receptive to arguments against empire, eventually, if you try to reach them first with the argument that brutalizing people in far off lands is bad for us in practical terms.

One of the problems that arises, when you refuse to engage people at their own level and address their fears, is that what they often hear is a no-good haughty liberal talking down to them, evoking the image of how the elite talk in terms of ideals because they don't have to sacrifice while working class families send their children off to war on their behalf, etc. These notions are overstuffed with stereotypes, but you don't challenge and deconstruct stereotypes by ignoring them.

Posted by Jonathan Versen at October 30, 2009 08:52 PM

This is what lack of justice to the vulnerable looks like and which can not be justified under any circumstance.

"Lack of health care led to 17,000 US child deaths"
here
http://www.france24.com/en/node/4912853

Posted by Rupa Shah at October 30, 2009 08:55 PM

I got off the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich Connecticut. I drove less than a mile through narrow winding picturesque public roads until I reached an Audubon Park of over one hundred acres. It was beautiful old forest in early spring green. There was a network of trails, barely used and not easy to follow. Hardly anyone uses this park. It was free and unregulated to enter. Where was the police presence? I assumed it was private, that I was being monitored by private security as I passed by the homes of the rich. I'm a middle aged white guy. I wonder, what would happen if someone less acceptable did the same.

Posted by lance at October 30, 2009 11:28 PM

"Residents love their high taxes. Why? Besides well-paid cops and teachers -- and the flower beds -- we get potholes, and not much else. Why the love for high taxation then? Isn't it a bit suspicious? Here's the answer. There are two ways to build a gated community: you can build a big gate; or you can raise taxes to the stratosphere. The latter is smarter because it raises average wealth by keeping the lower middle class out and home prices up."

This is non-sense. People don't love high taxes as a means to keep people away. High rents do that. Income taxes and property taxes, especially on a broader geographic scale, are progressive. Though they are not nearly as progressive as they should be, taxes for public goods on average are paid for in larger part by those with large amounts of wealth.

People can't afford to live in Princeton, NJ because the median home value is $824,029. I.E. a bunch of rich people have congregated together. But, the poorer residents of Princeton pay a smaller portion of the taxes for public services than the richer citizens do. So, contrary to your assertion, people don't love high taxes because they keep people away. People with a shit ton of money can afford to buy homes in an area where public services are under-utilized.

However, though they may be underutilized due to the absurd amounts of property taxes collected on expensive homes, the principle of public libraries and high taxes still stands. NJ has a state income tax of something like 9% at the top bracket, that's better than my home state. Florida doesn't even have a state income tax, how's that for social justice in our tax system?

"Public and private are ideological words that are part of American mythology and bear little relation to common sense." This statement seems to be lacking any sense of... what's the word? ... NUANCE.

I'm going to stand by the idea that public libraries, swimming pools, and services are a good thing. Princeton and Camedon need them. And the solution isn't to beat people over the head with their woeful inability to be charitable, but rather to point out that we should politically force people with $800,000 houses to pay for both their public libraries AND teachers throughout the state.

"Life doesn't do 'In it together' very much, I'm afraid."

Although I technically agree with you that some whipped up sense of cheesy barney emotionality is a pretty week way of expressing compassion and empathy, I think you are throwing bricks at people because of muddied expressions.

What if people are both expressing two sentiments in this cliche statement? 1) Our common humanity should be cause for empathy 2) What happens to other people more frequently affects us than most people would expect.

Maybe if the sentiment was a little bit more poetically expressed?

"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with others; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects."
-Herman Melville

That sounds an awful lot like "we're all in this together" to me. What a naive bleeding heart materialistic liberal!

"There are many ways to arrive at the necessity of favoring the disadvantaged, but charity is not one of them."

Simply put, I think your point throughout the entire post is that public goods and charity are no substitution for justice by means of politics. I completely agree, but do you have to beat your readers over the head with the human condition to make this point?

"I understand Bernard's point, but it seems like an attempt to intellectualize frightening, uncontrollable portions of the human condition so as not to feel them. In my experience it is only by allowing oneself to feel the basic injustice of this reality--see it, acknowledge it, mourn it, see its vastness, and that some aspects of it are beyond human control--that one can move past the self-indulgence of outrage."

Agreed. Higher taxes for a more progressive tax base are good. Public institutions, by definition, are PUBLIC and therefore good if funded largely by the upper class. Non-intellectuals may not neatly identify the sentiments they express in perfect philosophical and social justice terms, but don't hate them for it. Cliches have many different meanings. And while poverty will always exist in relation to wealth, we can move towards a more equitable society without demonizing everyone who isn't poor, right? I mean, I thought bankers and politicians were the enemy... now it's those selfish taxpayers who jack up the tax rates on their own incomes so that other people can't afford to get... earned income credits???? Come on.

If anything, let's look at how those people in Princeton made their money, not how they pay for public goods.

Posted by Kyle M at October 30, 2009 11:33 PM

Jonathan Versen --

If most Americans saw the war as inherently repugnant our involvement would have ended a long time ago.

Not even close. Not even. The Afghanistan invasion doesn't depend on Joe & Ethyl Sixpack supporting it. Nobody asked me if I wanted the US Govt to invade Afghanistan. They just did it. They did it because they control the money that controls the Fed Govt decisions. "They" would be those who benefit from militaristic imperial adventure. "They" choose that path because "they" benefit from it. "They" is not a large group, a majority, of Americans. It is a small group, in whose hands power is now concentrated.

What the rest of us think is irrelevant, and when we tell them as much, that we are tired of their treating us as such, we get TASERed or detained without process. THAT is the reality of the present American situation. Not a democratic decision process. An oligarchic, plutocratic one.

Posted by the anti-federalist at October 31, 2009 12:08 PM

"One of the problems that arises, when you refuse to engage people at their own level and address their fears, is that what they often hear is a no-good haughty liberal talking down to them"

Possibly, but I was thinking more of how mainstream liberals talk to each other and they always talk about wars in terms of our good intentions, and the only question is whether the costs for us will be too great. And the term "us" is used without much examination. It's assumed we're all in this together and that we're all people with good intentions. You could write a single NYT Week in Review piece with some standard boilerplate phrases involving our good intentions and some cautionary notes about the costs to us and our naivete in expecting others to be like us and just repeat it with slight changes from war to war. Alissa Rubin wrote one today. link


And Thomas Friedman writes something like this almost weekly.

Posted by Donald Johnson at November 1, 2009 05:29 PM