Beware of Awe

Over the holiday weekend, I spent some time with my family watching the series Planet Earth on a high definition television. It was moving and informative, a sublime challenge to our capacities in its global sweep and the depiction of interconnections between the planet’s various ecosystems. I found myself thinking that this was the perfect propaganda for environmentalism, insofar as it inspires a deep loyalty to the natural world that many city-dwellers would find it difficult to muster on their own.

But what, exactly, ought we be inspired to do on the basis on this awe-inspiring video? How can the natural environment it depicts be saved, and at what price? And how should we weigh the potency of this visual rhetoric against other kinds of arguments?

One very common kind of deference in the US is deference to faith and religious conviction. Environmental activists frequently traffic in a naturalized version of this kind of conviction, and earn deference in much the same way as the faithful. Like other kinds of deference, we ought to beware of revelation, whether it comes in the form of religious inspiration or natural awe.

Yet awe cannot simply be discounted. “Philosophy begins with thaumazein” which is the Greek word for wonder, amazement, and awe. Wariness is not skepticism, any more than doubt is solipsism. So we must also decide what to do about revelation and inspiration; passion and conviction cannot be ignored or denied. At base, this is question about the power of revelation versus the demands of reason: we recognize that many things that motivate action do not necessarily justify action. So how ought we to relate to experiences that are strongly motivational where there remains significant conflict over the appropriate justification?

Let’s say that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against torture and political exclusion. In a moment of clarity I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men do. Few would question my reasons or demand that I justify my positions, and many would be impressed by the depth of my faith. Though my quest would almost certainly fail, it is unlikely that anyone would call me crazy.

Now instead, imagine that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against the debauchery depicted on cable television. In this moment of clarity, I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men pretend to do. Many people would question my reasons for choosing this subject, and demand that I justify my position. Few would be impressed by the depth of my faith, and I would likely fail and be called crazy.

Clearly, many people have had both kinds of revelations, and clearly we react to the first sort of revelation much more sympathetically than to the second sort. Given this incongruity, my question is: why is the revelatory character of the motivation important at all? It seems that the method by which I have arrived at my convictions, whether it be reason or revelation, matters not at all: what matters is the substance and content of those convictions, and the acts that follow.

If we accept revelation as a source for moral justifications, then we have to ask how anyone can be expected to distinguish true from false revelations. If, on the other hand, we recognize revelation as a source of motivation but reject it as a source of justification, then we have to ask what work justification does: in what way are reasons — disconnected from my faith and fundamental concerns — reasons to act? The recipient of divine revelation is satisfied that God has spoken; political liberty seems to demand that we allow her to act on the basis of that revelation. Why not allow the “marketplace of ideas” to judge whether this revelation has merit? What right do we have to demand further (non-revelatory) reasons?

John Rawls famously argued that reference to purely private experiences for public justification fails the test of public reason. Since those who have not shared your revelatory experience cannot evaluate the claims that emerge from it, we ought to pursue thin, pluralist-friendly justifications instead. This places a very large obligation on the recipients of revelation to translate their convictions into the terms of those who don’t share that conviction. The burden of translation will often even suffice to silence or marginalize the convictions of those who receive some kinds of revelations. The fact that the quest for pluralistic justifications may ultimately undermine the substance of my revelation, as they would with anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion activists, is supposedly a feature rather than a bug in public reason.

Rawls himself was forced to revisit this conception of public reason when it became clear that his rejection of thick “comprehensive doctrines” that are incompatible with pluralism would also have squelched the religious rhetoric offered by Martin Luther King against segregation, or Lincoln against slavery! But his revision was only a weakened restatement: he concluded that activists like King must stand ready to supply “public” justifications to supplement their Christian rhetoric. Again, this is easy for Dr. King and difficult for Fred Phelps, which is a feature, not a bug.

Chris Eberle offered a defense of revelation in his excellent book Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics. There, he describes a Christian mystic who has a justice-oriented revelation that provokes activism on the part of the global poor. Try as she might, however, this hypothetical Christian mystic cannot find pluralist rhetoric capable of persuading non-mystics of the rightness of her cause. As a result, she switches to the more effective religious rhetoric, and seems to have failed Rawls’ test.

Now, the obvious response is that this is a contrived example: there are plenty of pluralist-friendly defenses of activism on behalf of the global poor. So the mystic’s failure to find rhetorically effective language is simply a personal failure, not a systematic failure of secular or liberal language as such. The unrecognizable comprehensive doctrines mostly fall on the other side of the debate, among those who argue that we need not attend to the needs of strangers beyond our borders. Those are the people who argue from a special feeling of solidarity to their fellow Americans or an exclusive set of indefeasible obligations to their own family that trumps all other possible demands.

Yet the disconnect between public justification and revelatory motivation remains a problem. In particular, it seems to me to be a problem whenever we must evaluate our own commitments, or discover that we feel strongly about something that others do not. It’s also a problem for Experimental Philosophy and its quest to substitute Hume’s theory of moral sentiments for anything approaching an externalist theory of moral justification.

Megan McArdle and Health Care

So far, McArdle is definitely earning the praise heaped in her direction. She has a post today on health care innovation where she captures the market-based argument against single-payer health care without ever mentioning it. Citing two other bloggers, Glenn Reynolds (actually an op-ed at the Washington Examiner… blog, rag; tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to) and Andrew Biggs (at the American Enterprise Institute’s blog) who both supply the kinds of anecdotes and clean identifications that make dry policy debates moist and juicy, McArdle gives us an insight into views that are currently out of favor. Good oppositional research to be had here.

The basic argument against a government monopoly on health care is that markets fund innovation. Drug research, clinical trials for new surgeries, new medical equipment: these are all very, very expensive. When they pay off, they pay off with drastically improved patient outcomes. Thus, the increased costs and profits associated with the US health care system are not the results of rent-seeking or lack of regulatory oversight, they’re not the result of health care professionals repeatedly mugging us with “Your money or your life” price gouging. Instead, it’s the result of people paying more to get more: specifically, more health, more quality adjusted life years, better outcomes and capacities than they could have hoped for before the expensive innovations. Reynolds supplies examples from his own family of life-saving and -improving treatments that would have been unavailable thirty years ago. Ignore the partisan rhetoric, but remember this: they lived because of markets and profits, because someone in the sixties was priced out of the market which diverted its resources to research rather than care.

But this cuts against conservative arguments, as well. Here’s McArdle, on the finding that veterinary costs have risen apace with human health care costs:

Veterinary spending is subject to few of the perversities that either left or right suppose to be the main problems afflicting health care spending.  Consumers pay full frieght most of the time.  They are price sensitive, and will let the patient die if keeping him alive costs too much.  There is no adverse selection.  There is no free riding on mandatory care.  Government regulation is minimal.  Malpractice suits are minimal, and have low payouts.  So why is vet spending rising along with human spending?

The answer is the same: pet owners pay more to get more, in this case, to get more quality-adjusted life years with their beloved pets. Again: forget the rhetoric. Ignore your disgust that animals lives are being equated with human lives, or that suffering is being economized, or lives and deaths transformed into a ‘standing reserve.’ Just add this fact to your repetoire: profit-seeking promotes innovation which leads to improved outcomes. No one is proposing a public option for veterinary health insurance, though maybe they should. I dread the thought of our cats getting sick, becase I know we’d spend thousands to save them in the right circumstances.

Economists have long recognized that part of the increase in health care spending is due to improved quality. Yet of course they also acknowledge the innovation and inequality of outcomes go hand-in-hand. The improved outcomes of the rich aren’t available to the poor, and they’re frequently financially devestating to the middle class.  Though improved health care quality eventually ‘trickles down,’ it’s hard to accept this present inequality when the promise of future health care improvements is going to be achieved by someone else. In short, future sick people are benefitting at the expense of present poor people.

So the question that economists can’t answer is: how much inequality is innovation worth? That’s a public policy question, but also a justice question. John Rawls asked it this way: what is the just savings rate? What do we owe our children and their children rather than our own least advantaged? The answer depends on how we expect populations to grow and how we rate the suffering due to unsupplied medical care, which is to say, how we rate premature and avoidable morbidity and mortality, and how we discount future benefits. Still, kudos to McArdle for making the case.

One last thing:  innovation can happen at the level of distribution and institutional design as well as drug treatments and surgical techniques. For instance, many proponents of single-payer site the gains to be had by emphasizing preventative care. Since most poor people still get treated, albeit through emergency rooms where the treatment is most costly, improving our services to these groups seems likely to improve outcomes throughout the system, taking the strain off emergency rooms and treating conditions early, before they become acute and require major interventions. Similarly, disconnecting coverage from employment might suppy other goods, like allowing entrepreneurs to take more financial risks without also risking their families’ safety and health because they are uninsured. These are questions economists can answer, and we ought to be paying more attention to their responses in the public debate.

Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated

In the small corner of political philosophy I inhabit, Sheldon S. Wolin is a big name. His mammoth Politics and Vision is a breathtakingly systematic genealogy of political life, a Rosetta stone of political theory. His perpetual commitment to thinkers like Tocqueville and Montesquieu has kept interest in those figures alive during a period when most political thinkers were obsessed with John Rawls (and to a lesser extent Jurgen Habermas) and the study of old civic republican thinkers was considered conservative in the bad sense. So I was initially excited that he’s put out a new book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

The first chapter is available online. Unfortunately, it starts with a fairly traditional critique of the media representations of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, turning the analytic techniques of the scholar on the mythologizing of that day. That work has already been done, and frankly, done better and with more care, in the months following that the attacks. However, the table of contents promises something more: an account of the subversion of democratic prospects and a form of market totalitarianism, a privatised, corporatised version of the pervasive bureaucratic power of totalitarian societies. It’s a story that’s easy to tell, mixing critiques of monopolistic corporate media and private pro-capitalist propaganda borrowed from Walter Lippmann and Noam Chomsky with a kind of post-9/11 Hart and Negri account of imperialism, terrorism, and the imagined might of a Superpower in a global economy. Maybe it’s good to have that all in one place, and so maybe Wolin is doing us a favor by offering his traditional systematic breadth for the contemporary world. Or, maybe my reading of the table of contents and the character of the reviews is off, and he’s doing something completely different.

Chalmers Johnson reviews it on truthdig, which suggests the audience is weighted more towards a general lefist audience (antiwar No Logo types) and less towards political theorists. I suppose that’s not inherently bad, but Wolin can be a little wifty when it comes to his policy/activism recommendations, and makes a better scholar than a political actor. Worse, he’s apparently trying to detail contemporary political options without the least understanding of the internet. I won’t run out and buy this one, but I look forward to a deluge of Wolin faddishness as it catches on, so I may end up looking at the rest of the chapters eventually. Meanwhile, I’ll spend some time with his Tocqueville book: Tocqueville Between Two Worlds. Some good stuff there!