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Semiformalishmaybe

Hazards of Simplicity

(This was summarised on my twitter feed, but I think it's an important point)

One of the easiest things to do, and the hardest things to do well, is to design a governmental system. A lot of people who are opinionated in politics, with or without a political background (and often without much knowledge of how law works in practice or the principles of jurisprudence), end up making a sketch of how a government that implements their most important values would work. This isn't always perfectly specific to their values; sometimes people have some ideas about procedures for change that they stick into that designed system, and they might allow for decisions to be made that contradict some of their weaker values. The process of designing such a system is a good exercise (more law-studenty people might design their own version of the Model Penal Code or something like that) for learning to think about governance.

One major failing people often make when they do this is they avoid thinking about some difficult terms, and in the name of tractability stick with foundations that are really concrete. Sometimes the hard terms are just put off for later, sometimes they're deconstructed and then ignored. There are two major problems with this intuition:

  • It's a form of the Loki's Wager fallacy; just because something is difficult to pin down precisely doesn't mean it cannot be handled
  • In moral/political philosophy, the hardest to define foundations are often the most important ones
On the first point, while it's true that if you ask many people to define justice you'll get many different answers, it is not that difficult to attend to justice when you're constructing your ideals, either by routinely examining the structures you propose from many different conceptions of justice (vague as many of them are) or choosing a (possibly more rigourous) specific meaning. Many of the better-known political philosophers have done the latter; John Rawls is often considered one of the greatest American political philosophers because he defined concrete and fairly intuitive versions of many of these basic concepts. On the second point, the reason that many of these terms are so difficult to define is that they're so value-laden to people and based on moral intuitions; they're close to the ideals that people have for society. That's also the reason that ignoring them is generally a bad idea; frameworks that don't strive to meet a reasonable set of them are going to be alien to the needs/desires of people.

A more mature effort at building an ideal society can't shy at the difficult concepts around which people organise their lives. It will not be able to align with everyone's conceptions of government (unless everyone thinks the same; unlikely!), but by recognising many of their concerns and embedding many of them into its structure it will be able to provide for meaningful lives for its people.

A few tricky terms of that sort (no society would have to tend to *all* of these):

  • Justice
  • Fairness
  • Autonomy/Liberty
  • Representativeness
  • Egality
  • Equality
  • Opportunity
  • Community
  • Integrity
(You will notice that these terms or their synonyms are often used as national mottos or other slogans; liberty and justice for all, liberte/egalite/fraternite (or the Vichy version of travail/famille/patrie), and so on)

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