Sunday Sermon: I Kant


I started writing this as a sort of open snark-gram to Caitlyn Jenner, but I just couldn’t do it. As I started to think things through from different angles, I just got more and more depressed. So, I hit “Move to Trash” and tried again.

Root cause analysis, for me, always comes back to privilege, which is an instance of exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism becomes the idea that one person or group of people is special – they deserve to be treated differently (better or worse). That idea, to me, seems refuted by the absence of gods or any kind of inequality that is not a condition of our birth or imposed by society. And that brings me back to Rousseau and Kant.

So, in my mind I began to lecture Caitlyn Jenner about how she needed to think a bit more clearly about Rousseau and Kant and – yeah, of course I’m wasting my time. But I feel like I understand where Jenner’s coming from: she’s rich, she’s white, she’s famous – so that’s a couple of big check-marks in the privilege chart. And she feels betrayed by her class: rich white people, who the republican party serves to represent. Her complaint against Trump (“Call me!”) sounds like buyer’s remorse, not a clear political view. In other words, I think she completely misunderstood the situation: the party for the rich (motto: “cut your taxes!”) had a bit of a pile-up at the intersection of LGBT rights and “service to wealthy white guys” and Jenner didn’t quite realize that she had moved to a slightly more dubious position on the game-board – a more dubious position than she was already in, that is. I was curious and did a bit of research about some of the other intersections on LGBTQ rights in America, and it turns out that (based on [wikipedia]) you’re not very likely to be killed for being trans if you’re white. Of the fifty-odd incidents of murdered transpeople in the reference, there were a few hispanics, and one white person: the rest were black.

Jenner’s complaint was privilege and buyers’ remorse: she likes the party of “cut your taxes” because taxes are probably important to her, because she’s not as worried about “not having your skull smashed in.” It seemed odd to me that any adult couldn’t think their way through this – yet a lot of women vote for a political party that’s promoting the white male agenda, which isn’t afraid to use racial demonization and sexism as part of the ‘divide’ in its “divide and conquer” messaging. My analysis seems to leave me that Jenner was divided on the taxation/privilege for the wealthy issue, and conquered on the LGBTQ rights issue. The final (and most unkindest cut of all) would be when Trump made her choke on her own words:

When asked if he would feel comfortable letting Caitlyn Jenner use any bathroom she wanted at the Trump Tower, he replied: ‘That is correct.’ [1]

Of course he would! Message to Caitlyn: “you’re still in the rich people’s celebrity club, you still matter.”

For now.

handicapped ballerina

handicapped ballerina

Kant comes into the discussion because of his argument around The Categorical Imperative, that our actions create the world we must live in, so we have a responsibility to imagine the sort of world we’d live in if everyone acted as we did.  In the case of Trump’s response about Jenner, “why, yes, we’re happy to throw your black trans-sisters under the bus, because they’re never setting foot in Trump Tower anyway, so … fuck them!” And Jenner appears to be all right with that. My world gets a little colder and a little darker when I think of this. Because it seems so obvious to me.

If we’re not living in a world under control of some great imagined divine teleology, then we’ve got no say in anything prior to our coming online and beginning to make decisions within the context we happen to find ourselves in. (This is not going to become a posting about Free Will!) Whether those choices are real, or constrained, or not, it’s unavoidable fact that we will not all experience the lives we would ideally want: some of us will be rich but most of us (99.9% at least!) will not. Some of us will do well, but most of us will do what we can. Some of us will be reality TV stars or successful athletes, but more – vastly more – will not have the lives we would wish for, if we thought about it. We each live the lives we are injected into, and unless we believe in a god that has placed us here with special blessings or curses, that’s all there is.

Rousseau breaks this up into natural inequality and social inequality. Natural inequality is the stats you roll up when you start the game: oh, look! Jenner rolled an 18(00) on Dexterity and an 18(30) Constitution! Jenner’s going to be a track and field star! Trump rolled a 15 Charisma, he’s got a chance at being a so-so Bard. Then there’s the social inequality: Trump rolled high and started with a platinum spoon in his mouth. Jenner had it a bit tougher but was college-educated and had a wife with a well-paying job who supported her during the difficult period of training for the olympics. Meanwhile, other people have natural inequalities like being physically or mentally infirm, or social inequalities like being born into minorities that are discriminated against. Those people can’t buy real estate, let alone speculate in it; they can’t afford to stay in a hotel let alone gild one. Rousseau argues that society’s project is to try to provide social justice against social inequality, and social support to help those who are born with natural inequalities. Life really is mostly about your starting conditions. Kurt Vonnegut tries to lampoon the social balancing of natural inequalities in his story Harrison Bergeron:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains. [Vonnegut]

Kant argues that we create the world we are going to have to live in, so we had better think about the universality of our actions. Clearly, when he wrote that, he was trying to establish “The Golden Rule” on a solid basis – and I think it’s one of the noblest attempts to cross the is/ought chasm that any philosopher has ever made. So, if we listen to Kant and try to weigh the universality of our actions, it seems obvious that one should not increase unfairness toward another, because you create an increasingly unfair world and eventually you will also come in for your own share of unfairness. Likewise, if you support a political party that has consistently favored racial unfairness, unfairness toward LGBTQ, income inequality and unfairness toward women: you oughtn’t be shocked (as Jenner was) when they turn on you and throw you casually beneath the wheels of the bus. Jenner then shows an utter lack of philosophy by accepting Trump’s acknowledgement that she’s still in the rich white people’s celebrity club, and it’s OK. After all, rich white celebrities can tell a president “call me” without everyone simply laughing at them. What Jenner doesn’t appear to realize is that Mark Zuckerberg[1], Peter Thiel [2] or Jeff Bezos [3] will always, always, always, be in line ahead of her. And, because that’s the kind of world she chose to support, through her support for that political party, that’s the way it’s going to be.

I wonder if we’ve heard the last of this affair; if Jenner is going to be mollified by knowing that she can use the bathrooms in Trump Tower. I suspect that’s how it’s going to play itself out, because someone who thinks about this wouldn’t be a republican at all, wouldn’t have reached out to Trump with the “just between us oligarchs” appeal, and would never have made the mistake of thinking that the politicians she supported gave a flicker of thought for her, or anyone else.

divider

If you were Trump, this would be your god.

If you were Trump, this would be your god.

Here, I will ask you to reflect for a moment and consider whether you wish you had Donald Trump’s life, or not. It’s doubtless a life of misery: a thin veneer of self-satisfaction over a deep undercurrent of bad taste, insecurity, and the awareness that you’re still the kid who got pushed around on the playground and you’ll never be as popular as you want to be. If you could have Donald Trump’s life, you wouldn’t be able to lead it any differently than he did, because you’d be Donald Trump, and you’d lead that life Trumpstyle: you would be unable to spend that money doing something interesting or worthwhile; your idea of ‘worthwhile’ would be patting yourself on your shoulder for being able to hire workers to put a new layer of gilt over a shockingly crass display of nouveau richesse. You’d be rich, of course, but you’d be a rich piece of shit, writhing in your own insecurity and narcissism. I would rather die.

The Golden Rule is not about covering every possible surface of your surroundings with gold leaf. And Wikipedia [wik] gets it profoundly wrong in combination with Google search, returning:

The “Golden Rule” has been attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, who used it to summarize the Torah: “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NCV, see also Luke 6:31).

The article itself points out that there were many other philosophers who formulated that dictum hundreds of years before jesus allegedly did.

Speaking of Harrison Bergeron:

Comments

  1. EveryZig says

    I feel a need to nitpick that Kant’s Categorical Imperative was not exactly like the golden rule but was more specific (and in my opinion less coherent) by forbidding actions that would not just make the world unpleasant but would make that same action impossible if everyone always did it. His example was that for lying, if everyone always lied than speech and therefore lying would become meaningless. Of course, the problem with this is the specificity problem, where the rule “you should lie” self-invalidates but the more specific rule “you should lie if it protects you from imminent danger and you think you can get away with it” does not (as a world where people apply the latter all the time is pretty close to the real world). This does bring up the issue that the Golden Rule, while generally pretty good, also has difficulties with the specificity problem. Many right wing social positions are cases a Golden Rule twisted by over-specificity to the point where they boil down to “everyone should be free to do what I want”. See for example the Republicans who absurdly claim that marriage equality means gay people as well as straight have the right to marry people of ‘the’ other gender.

    On an unrelated note, Harrison Bergeron always bugged me. I have seen very few people who actually want to handicap natural advantages for purposes of equality (with anti-intellectualism and the like usually in my experience being centered around perceived smugness or selfishness rather than equality as such) and very many people who want to call social advantages natural superiority and worse social disadvantages natural inferiority. In that context, I always read Harrison Bergeron as an unpleasantly Objectivist allegory of accommodation towards people who are worse off as handicaps keeping you from achieving true greatness. I view it in the same category of “yes the events described are awful but fear of this rare/hypothetical scenario props up a real life nasty status quo in the opposite direction” as narratives where the US government takes away all the guns as part of a plan to crush dissent.

  2. polishsalami says

    The only person with worse taste than Donald Trump is the sleazy Australian talk-back radio host John Laws.
    ————————–

    This is a great article, but I think it has to be acknowledged that this sort of mentality has a counterpart on the Left. It’s easy for privileged Westerners to dismiss as “Islamophobia” any discussion of Islamic terrorism or Islamic crime gangs, especially when they live in areas with essentially no Muslim population.

  3. says

    polishsalami@#2:
    I was hesitant to attack Trump’s taste, to be honest, because it’s a matter of class and class identity. I was particularly hesitant to use the words “parvenu” or “nouveau riche” but if those words were intended for anyone they were intended for Donald Trump. I’ll say, to be fair, that Trump’s tastes are reminiscent of Louis XIV’s – which is now “old money” but at the time when Versailles was built, was “new money” I actually nearly published a version of this piece with an entire discussion about shockingly bad imperial taste, but I deleted that part because it’s irrelevant to the main point I was trying to make.

    There is a relevant bit, which got me down that whole digression, which is that Trump suffers from the same problem as Jenner: he’s also a nouveau riche, who will never be allowed into the ranks of the elite. They’ll take his money, but he’ll never sit at the high table. He’s doing his best to get his spawn to the high table but – ha – it’ll never happen. Did you see the way the Windsors didn’t even put Trump on their radar screen? Their reaction was, basically, “Trump, who?” (Which is rather funny coming from a bunch of Hanoverians who would have been considered barbarians by a Carolingian, who would have been considered a thug by a Roman, who would have been considered a new man by a Periclean, …. it’s sneers and belittling all the way down.)

    Before there was Mar a Lago, there was Versailles.

    I think it has to be acknowledged that this sort of mentality has a counterpart on the Left. It’s easy for privileged Westerners to dismiss as “Islamophobia” any discussion of Islamic terrorism or Islamic crime gangs, especially when they live in areas with essentially no Muslim population.

    Agreed. That’s why I think we have to do root cause analysis on all this stuff (which is hard, per my earlier postings on the difficulty of neatly assigning cause and effect) We have to examine claims independently and try to filter them for privilege or ideology. That’s hard.

    With regard islamophobia or islamic apologism, I’ve been mentally writing a few postings on that topic, because of some of my exchanges with Anjuli Pandavar. Suffice to say I think “it’s complicated.”

  4. says

    EveryZig@#1:
    I feel a need to nitpick that Kant’s Categorical Imperative was not exactly like the golden rule but was more specific (and in my opinion less coherent) by forbidding actions that would not just make the world unpleasant but would make that same action impossible if everyone always did it.

    I was simplifying. I hope I didn’t over-simplify; it sounds like I might have. My comment “I think it’s one of the noblest attempts to cross the is/ought chasm that any philosopher has ever made” was me jumping ahead of myself: I see the Categorical Imperative as putting a foundation under the golden rule – which is a very important step. That’s me compressing a lot of stuff down, but I don’t think Kant would disagree. If you can explain why the golden rule ought to be a rule you’ve defeated Hume, and established a basis for all moral systems based on reciprocity.

    His example was that for lying, if everyone always lied than speech and therefore lying would become meaningless.

    Yup. That’s right. And that’s what I was angling at when I implied that Jenner’s support for a political group that doesn’t are about truth means that she’s choosing a world in which truth is a casualty. Urrrr…. I was going to quote it but I see I shortened that bit; damn it, I do that a lot (when I write something I go back through and do what I think of as a “tightening pass” and try to compress my points and eliminate redundant thoughts) anyhow, the problem with the post-truth political reality of the times is that now nobody can make a reasoned decision about anything a politician says, because we have no idea how that will actually connect to actions. Of course that goes back a long ways; that’s not just a Trump problem.

    Of course, the problem with this is the specificity problem, where the rule “you should lie” self-invalidates but the more specific rule “you should lie if it protects you from imminent danger and you think you can get away with it” does not (as a world where people apply the latter all the time is pretty close to the real world). This does bring up the issue that the Golden Rule, while generally pretty good, also has difficulties with the specificity problem. Many right wing social positions are cases a Golden Rule twisted by over-specificity to the point where they boil down to “everyone should be free to do what I want”. See for example the Republicans who absurdly claim that marriage equality means gay people as well as straight have the right to marry people of ‘the’ other gender.

    Yeah – that’s why I introduce the idea of exceptionalism. I see exceptionalism as the means by which many people decide that “these rules don’t apply to me.” It inevitably falls on its face when someone realizes that if everyone is playing by some rules, they can be gamed because their responses are now predictable. If you combine The Categorical Imperative with game theory, you get a horrible world, indeed, because it says that everyone should just roll a couple dice and consult the Trump Table and not bother trying to pursue a strategy at all.

    I always read Harrison Bergeron as an unpleasantly Objectivist allegory of accommodation towards people who are worse off as handicaps keeping you from achieving true greatness.

    I agree. I like to think that it was Vonnegut in a particularly dark period, trying to imagine how things could get worse – maybe railing a bit inside about “out of control political correctness.” Allegedly, Vonnegut wrote that as an allegory imagining if the verbal effect of “political correctness” were implemented physically in some pseudo-socialist dystopia. It is not anywhere near my favorite work from Vonnegut.

  5. says

    Dunc@#5:
    When you look at the pictures of those opulent rooms, you should imagine them filled with the overpowering stench of human and animal waste.

    Yeah. Sanitation was a problem in general, with most of the world up until near history. I don’t want to imagine what the ancien regime smelled like.

    Probably the most fantastic scene in my imagination are the masked balls under Alexander VI and the Borjas in Florence: a huge room full of smelly people wearing elaborate robes and masks to conceal the outward signs of syphillis. The lighting is smoky tallow candles, and everywhere the glint of gold. Everyone is drunk.

  6. EveryZig says

    @ Marcus Ramun #4,
    I think exceptionalism is not a prerequisite for gaming the system when projection works as well. There are some people who assume that everyone else must be gaming the system as hard as they can and and the solution is therefore to do the same. As the sickeningly smug saying an actual person told me once goes “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying”.

  7. says

    EveryZig@#7:
    I think exceptionalism is not a prerequisite for gaming the system when projection works as well.

    I’d file that under exceptionalism because the person is acting as if they were special, but doesn’t even realize it because they’ve internalized it totally.

    That, I would say, fits Trump to a ‘T’… I wonder sometimes if he can be called a ‘liar’ because a ‘liar’ knows what the truth is and cares enough about it to come up with untruths. Trump doesn’t bother coming up with plausible untruths: is he even a liar? The words start to fall apart and lose their meaning when we try to specify them tightly enough.

  8. says

    This is tangential, but the notion that happiness is obtained through stuff, or the actions of others, or whatever, is both common and wrong. Happiness seems to be *weirdly* unrelated to the external world. Acknowledging this is of course risky, since it leads to ideas like “eff the little people, they don’t need stuff to be happy, they can just imagine themselves happy” which is basically “the great sky father will give you great rewards in the NEXT life” rearranged slightly.

    Maslow’s heirarchy, the Declaration of Independence, and so on. Buried in so many of these basic ideas is this thing. I think of it as a western idea, but obviously many people east of the date line suffer from it just as much.

    Intersectionality is, as the kids are fond of saying, hard. While there are obviously genuine and deep inequalities in play, and while it will always profit us to continue to level out differences, it does not serve us well I think to pretend that if only we work hard enough we can flatten everything out. The very idea of intersectionality enables us to consider the idea that perhaps we could each, in a practical world, have roughly as many low spots as high spots, and so that on average we’re all pretty much equal. Nobody bothers to think of it in those terms.

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