Posts tagged: floyd

Protesting > Public Health > Jobs and Funerals?

It is now common on the right to condemn those like the health official in this article saying that attending a protest is “really the worst thing they can do from the pandemic standpoint” while simultaneously saying that “protesting racism and injustice is important [my emphasis], and much of the risk of a protest can be reduced by staying 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from people and wearing a mask.”

As many have noted, we’ve spent the last two months telling people they have to put up with losing their jobs and even not going to funerals for family members; and the same public health officials who were very strict on these matters have taken a much more lax attitude towards the safety of protesting injustice. DeBlasio has openly threatened Jews for attending funerals, while giving protestors a pass, though to be fair, DeBlasio has been especially egregious. But here is Gov. Whitmer in an orchestrated protest photo-op at a protest, not socially distancing, when she was nearly as draconian in her enforcement of lockdowns.

I can’t think of any reasonable conception of justice or rights where this ranking makes sense. It seems to me like the right to be with a family member as they die is stronger than the right to protest. Indeed, this strikes me as blindingly obvious. And yet public health officials don’t seem to see things that way. I don’t know why, so I wrote up this blog post to try and see if I could come up with something that at least sort of makes sense.

To begin, the protests cannot be justified on the grounds that they’ll save enough lives from white supremacy to balance out the virus risk. It is not clear we will see big policy changes from these protests that will actually reduce deaths enough to compensate for the increased risk of virus exposure. Instead, the argument needs to point to some other good that the protests provide. So I’ll set this point aside.

Here’s the best I can do in terms of explaining the ranking. Most leading public health officials are secular egalitarians. They think there is no God or anything like God, that science tells us more or less how the world is, and that there is a prime, fundamental, transcendent moral value: human equality, and justice understood as preserving equality. Most other values are secondary to preserving egalitarian relations between persons. On this view, protesting racism and injustice is a way of realizing the value of equality, and so participates in the sublime, the highest good. The pursuit of the highest good can justify the imposition of health risks on others.

Operating your business isn’t sublime on this view. Indeed, Mill, Keynes, and Rawls all denigrated commercial activity as central to a worthwhile life, so viewing running a business as fundamental to a person’s conception of the good is in some respects uncommon on the left (though seeing being a laborer as fundamental is quite common). So keeping your small business going gets trumped by public health, but protesting inequality is holy and so trumps just about everything else, at least at some margin of health risk.

Somehow realizing equality must also be more important than being near loved ones when they die. Perhaps on the secular egalitarian worldview, maybe death is just the end of life and not something to treat as an especially sacred event? Maybe it is nice to be able to be with someone as they did, but perhaps not transcendent or sublime?

To me, this is a highly idiosyncratic and obviously mistaken ranking of values. I also don’t think it is the view held by the sincere secular egalitarians I know. But it seems to be the revealed preference ranking of many on the high-status left, including public health officials. I gather from friends that protest organizers on the ground are doing their best to implement public health guidelines, and I believe them. But the leaders seem to be failing us.

This is really the best I can do to make these seemingly inconsistent actions philosophically coherent. But you have to attribute really strange value rankings to public health officials and politicians who discouraged funeral attendance but who are actually attending the marches.

I have good friends who view the world through a darker lens. They’ll say that what egalitarian elites really value is looking good and virtuous in front of others, and protesting gives them an irresistible opportunity to do so. These aren’t people with weird value scales, they’re bad or morally mediocre people who care more about how others see them than any moral principle. I try to avoid seeing the world in this way, but my “weird value scale” explanation honestly feels like a stretch.

Perhaps you can do better.

Low Trust America – Cops and Protestors in a Low Trust Equilibrium

What happened in Minneapolis is a trust disaster. Due to the legacy of racism, black Americans don’t trust legal officials. Indeed, only 17% of black Americans say *most people* can be trusted, in contrast with 46% of whites. I would also bet that white cops trust black Americans relatively little, though getting good survey data on this would be next to impossible. From studying trust, my sense is that police distrust leads some police officers to use excessive force, either out of fear or disdain for untrusted blacks.

Excessive force arguably leads black Americans to resent police action more, and trust the police even less. Accordingly, mutual distrust is a social equilibrium in inner cities, and this tense environment creates the powder-keg social contexts we’ve seen all over the country. That is what it’s like living in a low trust society – conflict can erupt at any time.

Now for some speculation. My guess is that low trust equilibrium was disrupted in the past because black Americans had more high status leaders who believed in non-violence, or at least who believed in non-violence more strongly than most people. The willingness of black protestors to avoid violence even in situations when it would be justified was a way of signaling honesty, integrity, and conviction. That made them harder to dismiss and ignore, and so harder to distrust. That’s not to say they weren’t mistrusted! But it was one way to extricate a community from a low trust equilibrium.

This is totally unfair to oppressed groups, but given how I think about building trust, it seems to me a more effective strategy than more violent protesting.

You build trust by playing cooperate when others expect you to defect; and if you are prepared to be non-violence in more cases than people expect, and at great cost to yourself, you can help extricate your community from a low trust equilibrium. But I worry we have lost the moral basis for deeply committed non-violence.

Unlike fifty years ago, we don’t have many national leaders who believe in systematic non-violence, or at least who are known for holding that position. Somehow older generations have not passed on a strong belief in non-violence to younger people.

I don’t know why this is. But my suspicion is that it is hard to motivate radical non-violence outside of religious belief systems where one thinks that evil people will ultimately get what they deserve, either through divine or karmic punishment. You can get radical non-violence more easily from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism than you can from secular doctrines because those who suffer from being non-violent can psychologically compensate themselves. For they believe that punishment and vengeance are the job or someone or something else. People will get what they deserve, but not from me!

Last year I wrote a reference piece on Christian anarchism, which led me to read a lot of Christian arguments for pacifism. They were better than I thought, so I’ve been moving in a pacifist direction. But if it weren’t for Jesus’ teachings and behavior, I’m not sure I’d be very convinced that radical non-violence was the way to go. It helps me to know that, in the end, justice will be done.

Of course, other reforms can help restore trust, especially giving police incentive to behave in a more trustworthy fashion. But a strong religion-level commitment to non-violence may help too.