Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Because of my work on Hannah Arendt, I often struggle with the apparent incongruity between her account of natality and my own tendency towards antinatalism.

Natality is at the heart of Arendt’s project, a rejection of the Heideggerian obsession with mortality and being-towards-death:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

While it’s true that Arendt didn’t simply mean the biological act of giving birth when she described natality, this biological fact is at the heart of her insight into the novelty and unforeseen circumstances of political action, since it introduces new selves into a world that would otherwise become increasingly familiar.

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginner, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming. Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances were that NO earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that NO life would develop out of inorganic processes, that NO man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the “infinite improbabilities” on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them— men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”

One cannot help hearing Arendt’s Jewishness in the attribution of a miraculous power of renewal and unprecendentedness to natality. This is partly a reflection of certain Jewish tropes like Tikkun Olam, which is used in an ordinary sense to indicate the “public interest” but carries a theological connotation, since it literally means to “repair of the world,” in the Manichean sense described by Isaac Luria: that the world was formed through the shattering or rupture of the divine, and it is our job to restore the divine’s unity. One gloss on this restoration is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the first command given by God, and there is a sense in Arendt that the “new ones” may include our political messiah, the actor whose words or deeds may salvage our shared world. (Luria, however, taught that this entailed a Zionist return from the Diaspora, which Arendt recognized as impossible.)

Yet part of the fundamental antinatalist objection is that giving birth is a existentially weighty act that we do on another’s behalf: we bring a new person into the world who must receive the gift of existence without a right to refuse it. Better Never to Have Been tries to captures some of the ways that this may be a harm, but I primarily worry that bringing more children into an already crowded world is a kind of trespass that Arendt noted would always be a risk in acting.

Continue reading Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Publicity Without Politics

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Following Nietzsche, Arendt speaks of the Christian publicity without politics as world-destruction and ultimately as ‘desertification’: “the withering away of everything between us, can also be described as the spread of the desert.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 201) As with the growing belief that the purpose of political action is the preservation of life rather than the practice of freedom, this limited government renders the public realm a veritable desert. On the one hand, the totalitarian temptation to marry matters of life and labor with the political subordinates freedom forever to the necessities of survival. On the other hand, the dangerous forces unleashed by warfare render political instability potentially cataclysmic for publicity as the risk of action become unpalatable. These twin attacks on the preconditions of politics threaten to destroy the world we share, about which we deliberate and for which we act. Continue reading Publicity Without Politics

Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

In The Human Condition Arendt staked out a position that action’s novel self-disclosure comes at a price: irreversibility and unpredictability “being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing….” (Arendt The Human Condition, 237) In her efforts to demonstrate that willing occurs without the determination of thinking, she presents us with an account of freedom indistinguishable from randomness. Arendt’s actors ‘know not what they do’ until they have done it, and afterwards they observe and evaluate the consequences as if they were spectators and not agents themselves: an action worthy of the name is unforeseeable even to oneself.

Arendt wrote that “the remedy against the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by action does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty, but it is one of the potentialities of action itself.” (Arendt The Human Condition, 236-7) In contrast with labor, the experience of which can only be salvaged because the laborer exists within a world created by work, or with work, which creates a world of static perpetuity unless natality and action interrupt its sterility, action cannot withdraw itself or find in the contemplative faculties a predictive measure that could reign in its excesses. Thus, Arendt suggests, only a second action, an act of forgiveness, can make the inevitability of trespass sufferable.
Continue reading Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility

Using Basic Income to Sell a Carbon Tax

You know, I may have been looking at the Basic Income + VAT wrong. Instead of using a value-added tax to fund the basic income, perhaps we should use a basic income grant to sell a different policy… the carbon tax!

Here’s what I have in mind: the US could adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The goal would not be to fund any existinng social services: instead, the carbon tax would be pooled and remitted to all citizens equally. I’m not sure this would quite sustain life at a dignified level all by itself, but the ideal of a carbon tax is its incentive structure. By discouraging carbon-intensive consumption, we could eventually get greenhouse-gas emissions under control. But of course, taxes are unpopular, and growth-restrictive, and in general a bad sell.

So sell it with as a tax rebate. All citizens would be eligible for a tax refund from the carbon tax administrator. Unlike the tax, which would be paid mostly by industry, the refund would be flat and paid to citizens. So you could really win out if you used very few carbon-intensive products but still got your share of the overall carbon-tax refund. Your prices would not rise to meet your refund check. The rich who used massive carbon-intensive goods like yacht and jet fuel would pay quite heavily, while only receiving the same flat refund, while the rich who spent their money on solar panels and electric cars would find that their investments in clean energy had serious dividends! Continue reading Using Basic Income to Sell a Carbon Tax

Why I am still hopeful for Egypt’s revolution

The Day of Thugs (Image from Foreign Policy)

It is said that revolution is what happens when a police officer is transformed from a legitimate authority into a man with a gun. If that’s true, then what we witnessed in Egypt yesterday is a classic counter-revolution: irregular hoodlums attacking peaceful protesters, whose only defense is the military standing by. To ask for the army’s help is to reverse the transformation, returning to these men with guns their aura of legitimate authority.

And just look at how the Egyptian government is spinning the attacks:

“Mubarak’s primary responsibility is to ensure an orderly and peaceful transfer of power. We can’t do that if we have a vacuum of power.”

Robert Springborg puts it this way:

“The threat to the military’s control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Continue reading Why I am still hopeful for Egypt’s revolution