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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

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Topic: The disappearance of procedural rules of fairness as a public value

A gripe that continues to be articulated around these parts is that almost no-one seems to regard procedural rules of fairness as values per se. Most political actors seem to care only about their instrumental value and only insofar and as long their adherence helps their cause or tribe. Based loosely on Rawls' notion of justice as fairness, I define these rules of fairness as outcome-independent rules of play that bind all players equally. Examples include:

  • The free market place of ideas

  • Accepting the outcome of participatory events such as elections, polls, etc. as valid even if one does not agree with the outcome

  • Valuing facticity even when inconvenient

  • etc.

A commonly articulated hunch - one that I share - is that the political liberal left at least paid lip service to these ideals as values in themselves up until roughly 2010. After the woke capture of many cultural and political institutions, these values were discarded. I expressed this elsewhere:

Liberalism is everybody's second-best solution to everything. The best solution is of course to make everybody else live according to my preferences. The worst is that I have to live according to the preferences of my enemies. Under liberalism, we agree to an eternal truce where neither of us gets to dictate how the other person has to live (to a degree).

But now one side has the power to do exactly that and actualise their best solution with impunity. Most people aren't principled liberals. A ceasefire doesn't make sense when you can easily crush your enemies.

This keeps raising the following questions:

  • Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

  • If so, when?

  • What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I would be very interested in how the above questions could be approached empirically. I know this is a sentiment shared among a lot of people here, but in the absence of serious research on the matter (or is there?), how can we actually test it other than through links to silly google search trends?

As you note I think one's beliefs about procedurally fair rules are tied up with their conception of justice. Specifically, people support procedurally fair rules when they believe those rules will lead to just outcomes and oppose them when they think they won't. Unless one is committed to the proposition that procedurally fair rules always entail just outcomes (which I think describes very few people) it's not hard to find examples of cases where the application of procedurally fair rules lead to unjust outcomes. Some common examples in US history include poll taxes and literacy tests. While these rules were generally applied to all voters, they had the effect of disproportionately excluding certain demographics in a way many considered unjust due to those demographics relative poverty and illiteracy. This can also lead to a general skepticism of procedurally fair rules in general, in a way I think we still see today. The belief that the people who want to impose certain procedurally fair rules don't actually think the rule itself is good, but want the rule in effect due to the disproportionate impact it will have on certain groups (ex, debates about voter ID).

Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

My own appreciation for procedurally fair rules as tools to achieve just outcomes has certainly waned. Whether that's my own changing sense of what is just or just an expansion of my knowledge of situations where procedurally fair rules have led to unjust outcomes is hard to say, probably a bit of both.

If so, when?

In my particular case I would say starting five or six years ago. I share the perspective articulated by @drmanhattan16 that there was something different about the 90's compared to today but I am not sure I could identify a sharp breaking point for the culture more generally.

What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I suspect a mix of the two. For some people it was always purely instrumental while others followed a similar path I did, becoming disillusioned with procedurally fair rules as a mechanism for producing just outcomes due to a perceived lack of results. I think a big part of the reason the "left" is broadly more skeptical of procedurally fair rules its because the left's political coalition is composed substantially of those groups that have been left in disproportionately worse positions by the application of such rules, and have disproportionately benefited from less procedurally fair rules.

ETA:

This is getting a bit more philosophical but since I have Moore v. Harper on my mind I'll mention I think there is also a population out there that is skeptical about the extent to which we can coherently categorize rules into "procedural" vs "substantive" such that all rules are "substantive" in the relevant sense.

Specifically, people support procedurally fair rules when they believe those rules will lead to just outcomes and oppose them when they think they won't.

It sounds to me here like you are saying that people have just shrugged and said "well, since the rules don't produce just outcomes then fuck the rules". It seems plausible that this is what people think, certainly. But it is distressing to me, because that attitude seems like nothing more than "I do what I want" with extra steps. I will certainly concede that following the established rules (which let's say for the sake of argument are fair) will not lead to a just outcome every time. And by all means, I think we should endeavor to change the rules to ensure maximum justice in the outcomes (while keeping them procedurally fair). But even though the rules are imperfect, I believe that on balance following them will lead to more just outcomes than ignoring them.

More pragmatically, I think that the ideas of liberalism (and federalism, what scraps we have left in the US) are very much correct, even to this day. I may not like it that my fellow citizens can do (insert immoral act here). But I like that a whole lot more than if they could force me to follow their ideology. Which, as sure as the sun rises and sets, they will do as soon as they get power, unless we agree to a truce. So I support a truce, even when I'm in a position of power (especially then, in fact), because I want my teeth to not get kicked in as soon as the other guys have institutional power.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people have lost sight of this. I remember arguing with people (otherwise smart people, even) about Mozilla firing Brendan Eich back in the day. They simply considered it unimportant that if we set the precedent that you can fire someone for being against gay marriage, you also are going to be able to fire people for being gay if the Overton window ever shifts that way. They were purely concerned with short-term "get the enemy" even at the cost of long-term harm to their own causes.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people have lost sight of this. I remember arguing with people (otherwise smart people, even) about Mozilla firing Brendan Eich back in the day. They simply considered it unimportant that if we set the precedent that you can fire someone for being against gay marriage, you also are going to be able to fire people for being gay if the Overton window ever shifts that way. They were purely concerned with short-term "get the enemy" even at the cost of long-term harm to their own causes.

I think the problem is bigger than that: I think many people on the left believe legitimately and truly that there is no way the Overton window ever shifts back towards views they disagree with. They believe firmly and passionately that they are on, as they would say, "the right side of history," that their views will be vindicated by time, and that those who disagree with them will be condemned by the societal consensus of the future. I saw an atheist arguing with a Christian online -- now, far fewer than all atheists are like this, let alone progressives, but nevertheless this illustrates a particular point of view -- and he said, if you'll permit a paraphrase:

You're dumb and stupid, caring about the perpetuation of your false beliefs rather than whether they're true or not. In 50 years the entire developed world will be free of religion, and your children will think you incredibly stupid for having been religious. Give up your false beliefs, embrace what is true.

This is, essentially, the atheistic version of "you're a wicked and condemned sinner and you're going to Hell, unless you repent." It's the equivalent of a fire and brimstone sermon, with all the purposeless invective of a college-campus preacher. It's not even "God loves you, and what you are doing separates you from this love," as the good sermons I've heard have been like; instead the message rings about the same in my ears as "God hates fags."

Progressives, whatever their religious convictions, ultimately have a similar eschatology. Lacking (or refusing to use) the rhetorical condemnation of hellfire and the violence of the noose, the language that comes out when they hate their interlocutor or feel prone to self-justification involves, in some way, the hatred or approval of the future: "the right side of history," "your children will hate you," "the future is female," "let the elderly bigots die, then we win."

Now, I think their take is bogus, even if one agrees with their view: as I've argued before, history is a fickle mistress, and I think it is much more likely that "history" or social consensus will condemn all of us for some bizarre thing none of us realize than to affirm the entirety of any one of our belief systems.

And if your views are defined by social consensus, or what we anticipate the social consensus to be, then are we truly philosophers? Are we not the same as any witch-burner or troglodyte convinced that the world will not change from what we anticipate? In this sense I fear the progressives who follow this chain of thought have become the very thing they swore to destroy: hegemonic oppressors.

No one in the America of 1900 would ever imagine that two men and two women would ever be permitted to have sexual relations with each other, let alone that they would be not only permitted but encouraged to couple up and call it marriage. Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying that's a good argument against it! But it certainly demonstrates that what is imagined about the future by the past doesn't always work out. Things change, now more than ever, and the progressives pushing for radical social change while believing they are entirely on the "right" or "winning" side of it are acting, in my view, incredibly foolishly.

Robespierre didn't think the French Revolution would conclude with his head on the chopping block, or with the establishment of a dictatorial empire. But it did. Neither did Lenin believe his great people's revolution would end with a personality cult and a dictatorship -- not of the proletariat, but of his general secretary, the guy who took notes at meetings. But it did. You push for a revolution for the people, and sometimes what you get is a new regime just as wicked as the old. Different words, but the same melody.

What the left is believing when they say this is quite literally Whig history; all history trends towards the good, over the long-term. Tomorrow is morally better than today, and anyone who opposes the imagined tomorrow is not a stalwart conservative, defending what works now as opposed to what may not work at all, but a wicked reactionary blinded by prejudice or power, opposing the glorious future which is a fait accompli, and denying all of us a share in The World to Come.

Part of this, as many before me have said, is that progressives have a habit of denying that past progressive ideas which didn't work out or were condemned by societal consensus were actually advocated by progressives. Eugenics is the big one here; I find so many people of my acquaintance don't realize that eugenics were "the big progressive policy" of the early 1900s, that it wasn't invented personally by Adolf Hitler but was, in fact, the consensus policy of educated people who saw resistance (especially from religious groups) as evidence of their backwardness and superstition.

Should, say, the medical transition of trans minors be ultimately rejected by the societal consensus by 2050 (as I think is plausible), I wonder if there might be at least some on the progressive left who would categorically deny any progressive ever advocated for such a thing, or at the very least seek to quietly bury it in the history books.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people have lost sight of this. I remember arguing with people (otherwise smart people, even) about Mozilla firing Brendan Eich back in the day. They simply considered it unimportant that if we set the precedent that you can fire someone for being against gay marriage, you also are going to be able to fire people for being gay if the Overton window ever shifts that way. They were purely concerned with short-term "get the enemy" even at the cost of long-term harm to their own causes.

I think the problem is bigger than that: I think many people on the left believe legitimately and truly that there is no way the Overton window ever shifts back towards views they disagree with.

If you'll permit me to out-blackpill you: It's worse than that. I had quite a few discussions with self-proclaimed "liberals" arguing for more state control to crush their opposition where I asked them how they would like it if the winds shifted and they were left staring down the barrel they are forging.

The answer, and this is not me being hyperbolic, almost always was: "That is precisely why we must do everything to defeat those fascists before they even get the chance." It's quite literally who/whom.

the medical transition of trans minors be ultimately rejected by the societal consensus by 2050 (as I think is plausible), I wonder if there might be at least some on the progressive left who would categorically deny any progressive ever advocated for such a thing

The easy option here would be to say "it was all motivated by evil capitalist for-profit medicine." Conservatives are even helping to build that case for them already, and it will be a simple pivot when the time comes.

You forgot to take it all the way, it will be blamed on "evil capitalist for-profit medicine, and wait a minute, which side was known for being pro-business back then?" and just like that the blame will be laid at the feet of the right, just like how eugenics has been laundered using the shoddy commutative equation "eugenicists= Nazis = right-wingers = conservatives".

Will private enterprise and large corporate capitalism be firmly on the right in 2050? I don’t doubt that the right will be capitalist or at least anti communist, but it seems like large, complex corporations of the sort that are plausibly somewhat blameworthy for trans are becoming more and more lib/progressive in terms of alignment.