Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms

Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.

Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.

However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?

Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.

Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.

This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.

These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.

The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.

Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.

Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.

Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.

Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.

Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.

In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.

But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.

Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.

Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.

The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.

Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.  

Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.

Nightcap

  1. What are the real fault lines diving Americans? George Hawley, Law & Liberty
  2. Beliefs and interests Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Can we trust deliberation priests? Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. R. Kelly and mob justice Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

The Catholic Church, Pedophilia, and Gay Rights

Note: I wrote this eight (8) years ago, in April, on my personal blog, Facts Matter.


The Catholic Church is, first of all, a criminal organization. It conspired for several generations to shield criminals from justice, just like the Mafia. Reading the press, I experience a sense of growing disbelief. Many commentators sound as if it the Catholic Church should be given a pass, somehow. The reverse is true. I am not religious but I know enough about the traditional Jesus to remember that he held hypocrites in special contempt. (Within the context of his day, he called them “Pharisees,” a sect known for showing off instead of acting righteously.) The Catholic Church’s own historical, philosophical, and moral claims demand that its crimes be treated with special severity. The Catholic Church deserves enhanced penal sentences and seizure of property.

If you are a grief-stricken Catholic and you hesitate to leave the Church, you should wonder whether even your simple passivity does not make you complicit in the large-scale, systemic, criminal cover-up becoming apparent right now. If you believe that the Catholic Church has the ability to cleanse itself somehow, you have not been listening to the shameful lies and self-deceptions expressed by prelates, during Holy Week of all times.

As always, I pay attention to what one should reasonably expect to happen and that is not happening. It’s striking how nearly none of the accusations of pedophilia against the Catholic church concerns girls. Catholic sexual crimes against children are almost exclusively homosexual. It looks like we are speaking about thousands of homosexual crimes. It makes me wonder why I don’t hear a word from so-called “gay” organizations. I mean militant gay organizations. I do not (not) refer here to the many homosexuals who lead irreproachable and constructive lives. They have no more to do with priestly pedophilia than I am responsible for heterosexuals who cut up their wives into little pieces. Nevertheless, anyone who thinks that mass molestation of children by homosexuals within the church has no bearing on the discussion of homosexuals’ right to marry is dreaming. The numbers are just too large and the criminals are homosexuals, anyway you look at it.

Law, Judgement, Republicanism

Draft material for a joint conference paper/Work in Progress on a long term project

This paper comes out of a long term project to work on ideas of liberty in relation to republicanism in political thought, along with issues of law and sovereignty. The paper in question here comes out of collaborative work on questions of law, judgement, and republicanism in relation to Turkey’s history and its current politics. Though this comes from collaborative work, I take sole responsibility for this iteration of draft material towards a joint conference paper, drafted with the needs of a blog with a broad audience in mind.

The starting point is in Immanuel Kant with regard to his view of law and judgement. His jurisprudence, mostly to be found in the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals on ‘The Doctrine of Right’, is that of law based on morality, so is an alternative to legal positivism. The argument here is not to take his explicit jurisprudence as the foundation of legal philosophy. There is another way of looking at Kant’s jurisprudence which will be discussed soon. 

What is particularly valuable at this point is that Kant suggests an alternative to legal positivism and the Utilitarian ethics with which is has affinities, particularly in Jeremy Bentham. Legal positivism refers to a position in which laws are commands understood only as commands, with regard to some broader principles of justice. It is historically rooted in the idea of the political sovereign as the author of laws. Historically such a way of thinking about law was embedded in what is known to us as natural law, that is, ideas of universal rules of justice. This began with a very sacralised view of law as coming from the cosmos and divine, in which the sovereign is part of the divinely ordained laws. Over time this conception develops more into the idea of law as an autonomous institution resting on sovereign will. Positivism develops from such an idea of legal sovereignty, leaving no impediment to the sovereign will.

Kant’s understanding of morality leaves law rooted in ideas of rationality, universality, human community, autonomy, and individual ends which are central to Kant’s moral philosophy. The critique of legal positivism is necessary to understanding law in relation to politics and citizenship in ways which don’t leave a sovereign will with unlimited power over law. Kant’s view of judgement suggests a way of taking Kant’s morality and jurisprudence out of the idealist abstraction he tends towards. His philosophy of judgement can be found in the Critique of Judgement Power, divided into parts on aesthetic judgments of beauty and teleological judgments of nature.

The important aspect here is the aesthetic judgement, given political significance through the interpretation of Hannah Arendt. From Arendt we can take an understanding of Kant’s attempts at a moral basis for law, something that takes political judgement as an autonomous, though related, area. On this basis it can be said that the judgement necessary for there to be legal process, bringing particular cases under a universal rule, according to a non-deterministic subjective activity, on the model of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is at the root of politics.

Politics is a process of public judgement about particular cases in relation to the moral principles at the basis of politics. The making of laws is at the centre of the political process and the application of law in court should also have a public aspect. We can see a model of a kind in antiquity with regard to the minor citizen assembly, selected by lottery, serving as a jury in the law courts of ancient Athens. It is Roman law that tends to impose a state oriented view of law, in which the will of the sovereign is applied in a very absolutist way, so that in the end the Emperor is highest law maker and highest judge of the laws.

As Michel Foucault argues, and Montesquieu before him, the German tribes which took over Roman lands had more communal and less rigidly defined forms of court judgement, and were more concerned with negotiating social peace than applying laws rigidly to cases. Foucault showed how law always has some political significance with regard to the ways in which sovereignty works and power is felt. That is the law and the work of the courts is a demonstration of sovereignty, while punishment is concerned with the ways that sovereignty is embedded in power, and how that power is exercised on the body to form a kind of model subjugation to sovereignty. The Foucauldian perspective should not be one in which everything to do with the laws, the courts, and methods of punishment is an expression of politics narrowly understood.

The point is to understand sovereignty as whole, including the inseparability of institutions of justice from the political state. The accountability of the state and the accountability of justice must be taken together. Both should work in the context of public accessibility and public discussion. The ways in which laws, courts, and judges can be accountable to ideas of autonomy must be declared and debate. Courts should be understood as ways of addressing social harms and finding reconciliation rather than as the imposition of state-centric declarations of law.

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.

 

At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.

Is it always wrong to be angry?

Recently it was brought to my attention a text by a Brazilian journalist “chocked with the anger the Brazilian middle-class has for Lula,” evidenced in the celebrations over Lula’s imprisonment. Honestly, I couldn’t finish reading it because I have better things to do, but in the first lines, she questions how people can be so angry and at the same time rejoicing while Brazil goes through such a turbulent moment. In her understanding, Lula represented the aspirations of millions of Brazilians, and these aspirations are now failing.

Ironically, I believe I know where her frustration comes from. Marxism is nothing but a Christian heresy.  Marx belongs to the group of 19th-century intellectuals who declared that God is dead. However, Marx was not able to get rid of all the Christian ethos. He simply transformed the working class into the suffering Messiah, the socialist intellectuals (like himself) into prophets and the future communist society into Paradise. Classical liberalism has its roots in Christianism, and Marxism is one step further away from it.

One of the most basic Christian teachings (expressed by Jesus himself) is “love your enemies.” Maybe this doesn’t sound controversial today, but it certainly was in 1st century Palestine. My understanding is that, as a deformed form of Christianity, Marxism is questioning how people in Brazil are failing to love Lula, their enemy.

However, Jesus didn’t simply say “love your enemy.” He went on to explain what he meant by love. Love in a Christian sense is less a feeling (although it is also a feeling) and more an attitude. It is mostly to follow the 10 commandments in our relationship with God and with other people.

The love Marxists preach lacks definition and as so lacks meaning. Therefore it is open to abuse. The love Christians preach is deep and complex, and not always easy to understand or to put into practice. But it is certainly not shallow. It is possible, Biblically speaking, to love your enemy and at the same time rejoice with justice.

Some may argue that this is not necessarily due to Christianity. Some philosophical school that predates Christianism (such as stoicism) preached something similar. I’m not going to argue about that. I’m not doing the most scholarly argument here, so you can’t take it or leave it.

Some may argue that the journalist I’m referring to is not a Marxist. To those, I quote John Maynard Keynes (who was not always a very good economist, but sometimes was very accurate in his observations about life):

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

As a Christian, I don’t hate Lula and I don’t rejoice in his suffering. But I’m certainly rejoicing with justice. It may be hard to understand or to accept, but while I love my enemy I don’t necessarily approve his actions. And I certainly don’t consider my enemy my friend. It’s complex. As C.S. Lewis put it “people who have never been to Narnia find these things hard to understand.”

Worth a gander

  1. Zero hour for Generation X
  2. Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas together? That’s new.
  3. America at the end of all hypotheticals
  4. What’s left of libertarianism?
  5. Factual free market fairness
  6. Thinking about costs and benefits of immigration