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<nettime> Ethics and Social Transformation (part 2)
Benjamin Geer on Wed, 9 Mar 2005 05:07:57 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ethics and Social Transformation (part 2)

(continued from previous post)

Proportional Influence

What does it mean to be considered a legitimate partner in a
political process?  It means that your voice carries weight.  How
much weight?  Let's consider these examples given by Michael

    Imagine a worker in a large group. He or she wants to place a
    picture of a daughter on his or her workstation. Who should
    make that decision? Should some owner decide? Should a
    manager decide?  Should all the workers decide? Obviously,
    none of that makes sense. The one worker whose child it is
    should decide, alone, with full authority. He or she should
    be literally a dictator in this particular case.

    Now suppose instead that the same worker wants to put a radio
    on his or her desk, and to play it very loud, listening to
    raucous rock and roll or even heavy metal. Now who should
    decide? We all intuitively know that the answer is that those
    who will hear the radio should have a say. And that those who
    will be more bothered -- or more benefited -- should have
    more say.

    And at this point, we have already arrived at a value
    vis-=E0-vis decision making.... What we hope to accomplish when
    we choose a mode of decision making as well as associated
    processes of discussion, agenda setting, and so on, is that
    each actor should have an influence on decisions in
    proportion to the degree they are affected by them.[20]

Let us call this the doctrine of 'proportional influence'.
Albert's examples concern highly localised issues.  It is worth
considering the implications of this doctrine for large-scale
problems as well, such as environmental degradation.  There is
widespread agreement among scientists that if the present
worldwide use of fossil fuels is not drastically reduced, the
resulting climate change will ruin the environment in which many
people live.  This is the view expressed by the United Nations'
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

    Overall, climate change is projected to increase threats to
    human health, particularly in lower income populations,
    predominantly within tropical/subtropical
    countries.... Warming of a few degrees or more is projected
    to increase food prices globally, and may increase the risk
    of hunger in vulnerable populations.... Climate change will
    exacerbate water shortages in many water-scarce areas of the
    world... The impacts of climate change will fall
    disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor
    persons within all countries, and thereby exacerbate
    inequities in health status and access to adequate food,
    clean water, and other resources.[21]

Proportional influence means that those who will be most severely
affected -- the poorest, particularly in the regions that stand
to be the hardest hit -- should have the greatest influence over
the world's use or abandonment of fossil fuels.

What sort of decision-making processes are capable of
implementing this doctrine?  More will be said about this in a
future version of this essay, but here I want to point out a few
considerations that the construction of any such processes must
take into account.

I have already mentioned one constraint on decision-making in
large groups: the greater the number of participants in a
discussion, the longer it takes.  Moreover, large meetings where
individuals can speak one after the other often resemble a series
of unrelated monologues, rather than a discussion progressing
towards a collective decision.  Decision-making processes for
large numbers of people must therefore use heuristics to identify
the main points of agreement and disagreement, and craft
proposals that are likely to be acceptable to all.  Attempts to
do this often take the form of some type of delegation.

What sorts of delegation are up to the task?  Making decisions to
promote other people's well-being requires knowing their needs
and having the will to champion those needs.  This is a risky
endeavour at best.  Anyone who has tried to make difficult
decisions on behalf of a spouse, family member or close friend
knows that, even with the best of intentions, it is easy to make
mistakes.  If making decisions for someone you know well is
difficult, making decisions for thousands or millions of complete
strangers is an enterprise bordering on madness.  But when
applied to parliamentary democracy, such a critique is too kind,
because it presumes a world in which political candidates are
motivated by the best of intentions.  In reality, parliaments are
an ideal instrument for consolidating the power of a particular

    ...that characteristic bourgeois political system we know as
    parliamentary democracy [is] the style of regime with which
    all ambitious, prosperous, and self-confident bourgeoisies
    feel most comfortable, precisely because it maximizes their
    power and minimizes that of their competitors.... Money is
    crucial for sustained electoral success, and money is
    precisely the resource with which the bourgeoisie is most
    amply endowed.  On the other hand, the prestige of electoral
    politics, if it can be solidly entrenched, serves to
    delegitimize extra-parliamentary political
    activity--especially strikes, demonstrations, and popular
    movements, which the bourgeoisie is less likely to be able to
    control and may, on occasion, profoundly fear.[22]

Another, more general failing of delegation is worth mentioning.
Delegation tends to give priority to problems that affect many
people.  This is a reasonable heuristic, because many serious
problems are like that. But when delegation is used, there must
also be ways for small numbers of people with serious problems,
and even for individuals, to _escalate_ their issue, bypassing
the normal decision-making processes, in order to get society to
spend more than the usual amount of resources on examining the
problem, determining its gravity, and solving it. A challenge for
designers of decision-making systems is to make escalation fair,
so that it remains exceptional and excludes frivolous complaints,
while responding quickly and effectively to serious ones.

In existing forms of government, escalation is typically
implemented by judicial systems.  But such systems have serious
inherent limitations.  Courtroom discussions are limited to a
small number of participants; a trial is not a broad popular
consultation, capable of meeting the requirements for
proportional influence.  Moreover, judicial power is dependent on
the military and political power of the state, which is in turn
based on economic power.  Returning to the environmental example,
in a world in which fossil fuels are one of the main sources of
that economic power, no judicial system can produce a ban on
fossil fuels.  Rather, fossil fuels must be abolished by
replacing the economic processes that depend on them, from below
rather than from above.  Judicial processes are therefore better
suited to resolving local problems by making small exceptions to
standard practice than to solving large-scale problems by
introducing sweeping and innovative reforms.

If proportional influence can be implemented on a large scale, it
appears to offer a solution to the problem of expensive tastes.
If people have the power to obstruct important decisions when
they feel their needs have not been met, there are two possible
political outcomes: compromise and paralysis.  In such
situations, survival depends on compromise; that should be a
strong incentive.

Cooperative Economic Management

What sorts of economic arrangements would enable societies to
attain the goal of well-being for all?  Within any group of
people, standards for well-being will include a constellation of
requirements, many of them involving work and the availability of
goods and services.  How can those requirements be translated
into economic processes?  There is no single answer: different
groups of people, in different times and places, will have
different priorities and will be faced with different
circumstances. However, I think we can imagine some elements that
most answers to this question would probably contain.

To satisfy needs, we must use resources, such as land and labour.
We will therefore need to set about matching resources to needs.
Many resources are scarce.  When considering how best to use
scarce resources, one must set priorities.  A group could begin
by attempting first to devise an economic strategy that would
meet its highest-priority needs.  If such a strategy is found and
sufficient resources remain, lower-priority needs can be
accommodated in turn.

How can priorities be set among different needs?  The urgency of
well-being can serve as a guide: it will be most important to
meet needs that will improve the quality of life of those who are
worst off, or protect the well-being of those who are most at
risk.  The goal of a political system based on proportional
influence is indeed to enable those groups of people to have the
greatest say in setting society's priorities.

To assess the risks and possible adverse effects of a proposed
economic strategy, one can examine its inputs and outputs (what
is produced and where it goes, what is consumed and where it
comes from), and examine the dependencies that these inputs and
outputs would create.  Some dependencies can be rejected as too
risky; others can be rejected as incompatible with the group's
own well-being or with that of others.

For example, every economic strategy depends on environmental
resources.  It is self-defeating to depend on the depletion of
scarce resources, or to damage aspects of the environment on
which well-being depends.  Human dependencies include
relationships between producers and consumers.  A region whose
economy depends on the export of a single commodity will find its
well-being in danger if the demand for that commodity decreases;
this risk may be deemed excessive.

As needs and circumstances change, economic processes will have
to change to accommodate them.  Change introduces risk.  One way
to reduce the risk of change is to begin with a prototype on a
small scale.  In addition to testing whether a new process
actually works, a prototype can help identify unforeseen
dependencies that the process involves.

We can broadly imagine a process of periodic collective
deliberation in which a people living in a political unit would
consider the needs to be met and the available resources, and
design a strategy that, in their view, would meet those needs
without introducing unacceptable dependencies, using the sort of
political system hinted at in the previous section.
Participatory Economics[23] is one proposal for such a process.

Strategies for Social Transformation

Certain kinds of strategies for social transformation follow from
the preceding discussion.  Real strategies, of course, are rooted
not only in ethical principles, but also in concrete
circumstances, in the histories and opportunities of particular
times and places.  It is possible, however, to indicate a few
ways in which this particular ethical approach can guide

Proportional influence would require political systems very
different from nearly all those in existence today.  Such systems
would need to be invented and tested, and a body of knowledge
would need to be developed about their use.

I have briefly mentioned the value of a transitional period; now
I can better explain what I mean by this.  During this period,
productive transitional organisations could be created to meet
high-priority needs such as food and shelter; these organisations
would use, as much as possible, political and economic processes
that a transformed society could be based on.  The experience of
participating in these organisations would enable people to
imagine more clearly what life would be like in a transformed
society, and what their needs would be in such a society.  These
organisations would also function as prototypes, to reduce the
risk of bringing about a failed social transformation.
Inevitably, different organisations would adopt different
approaches (e.g. different decision-making processes), and could
therefore learn from each other's successes and failures.

Transitional organisations would not be able to fully implement
proportional influence, which would allow everyone affected by
them to have power over them, because this would require the
creation of a political system capable of including the entire
society, and such a system cannot exist until a large-scale
social transformation has taken place.  Therefore, in their
relations with the rest of society, transitional organisations
would need a strategy of heuristics, aimed at approximating as
closely as possible the results that they would be able to obtain
from true proportional influence.

At the outset, transitional organisations would depend heavily on
the capitalist economy; this dependency would be a risk (as it is
for most of us who depend on that economy).  Over time, they
would have to decrease this dependency by increasing and
diversifying their own productive capacities, so that they could
depend more on each other.  As a result of this process, society
would come to depend increasingly on the these organisations, and
less and less on the pre-transitional structures, until the old
structures could be abandoned entirely.

A Critique of Human Rights

It is worth comparing an ethics of well-being with another sort
of ethics that is widely accepted: the ethics of human rights.

Rights have a clear role to play in contracts.  If you and I
agree to an exchange of goods, and I don't honour my end of the
bargain even though it is well within my ability to do so, you
have a legitimate grievance, and would expect a fair judicial
system to grant you some sort of remedy.

Human rights describe expectations that far exceed this limited
sphere of application.  The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights[24] adopted by the United Nations begins by saying that
'human rights should be protected by the rule of law'.  However,
it lists many rights that cannot be enforced in this way.  For

    Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for
    the health and well-being of himself and of his family,
    including food, clothing, housing and medical care and
    necessary social services, and the right to security in the
    event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old
    age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his

    Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free,
    at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary
    education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional
    education shall be made generally available and higher
    education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of

Suppose that I do not have access to a reasonable standard of
living, or to education, and that I therefore conclude that my
rights have been violated.  To what judicial body should I bring
my grievance?  The courts of national judicial systems judge
violations of the law, and no law has been broken in this
case. Even supposing some national or international court were
competent to hear the case, and ruled in my favour, what remedy
could they propose?  If my country has no public education or
health care system, a court ruling will not suffice to create
one.  It is not obvious what form such a system should take; the
Declaration does not, and could not, spell this out in detail.
Any such system will inevitably affect many people besides me;
they should also have a say in its design.  In other words, the
creation of public services is a legislative responsibility, not
a judicial one.  The fulfilment of that responsibility requires a
political system that is accountable to all citizens.  But if my
country had such a political system, citizens would already be
able to create the public services they need, and there would be
no need to speak of human rights.

If there were any doubt that human rights are not the sorts of
rights that can be protected by a judicial system, the
Declaration adds:

    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in
    which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration
    can be fully realized.

No court could ever be capable of imposing a new social and
international order on the world; therefore, such a right cannot
be 'protected by the rule of law'.  Instead, social
transformation will be needed; new political and economic
institutions will have to be created.  But the concept of rights
does not help us to envisage those institutions, still less a
transformation that could bring them about.  The basic problem is
that the concept of rights makes sense only in the context of a
judicial process, but the aspirations expressed as human rights
cannot possibly be satisfied by any such process.  Therefore it
seems to me that the concept of a human right is incoherent.

The Universal Declaration lists some rights that are very vague:

    Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and

Others are very specific:

    No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account
    of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal
    offence, under national or international law, at the time
    when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed
    than the one that was applicable at the time the penal
    offence was committed.

We may therefore ask: why were these rights chosen, and not
others?  This question is especially pertinent since the
Declaration purports to enumerate _universal_ rights.  On what
grounds should we accept these rights as universal?  From what do
they derive their legitimacy?  The Declaration offers no answer
to this question.  But there is a deeper problem with the claim
to universality.

Consider the right concerning motherhood and childhood.  The
human need it refers to may well be universal, but it is
described so vaguely that it is impossible to know what it might
mean in practice. One could certainly imagine a society that, by
means of a suitably devious interpretation of the words 'care'
and 'assistance', conformed to this principle by implementing
processes that would horrify the mothers and children affected.
However, any attempt to make it more specific would risk
sacrificing its universality.  In different societies, mothers
and children will have different ideas about exactly what sort of
care and assistance they should receive.

In order to get round this problem, we could propose reducing all
human rights to a single one, the right to well-being, and leave
the definition of well-being up to the people affected.  Then,
for example, mothers and children could decide for themselves
what sort of special care and assistance they require.  But then
the goal of well-being would be doing all the work; it's not
clear what, if anything, the concept of rights would be
contributing.  Since a human right does not give mothers and
children any means of ensuring that their needs are met, their
success in reaching that goal will depend on their political
power alone.

I will mention a final problem with rights: why should anyone
care about them at all?  Consider this one:

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or
    degrading treatment or punishment.

If I agree that no one should be subjected to torture (as I do),
it is surely because I believe that everyone's well-being matters
and should always be protected.  But in that case, I don't need
to be told that torture is wrong.  Conversely, if I don't care
about people's well-being, why should I care about their rights?

In short, human rights are inherently unenforceable and therefore
incoherent.  Unlike the concept of well-being, they do not help
us formulate a strategy for reaching the objectives they
describe.  Their attempt to be universal forces them to be too
vague to provide any practical guidance.  And they seem to
presume a concern for well-being, without adding anything useful
to that concern.

It may be that this is, in fact, what human rights are intended
to do: express a concern for well-being in a manner that is bound
to be ineffective.  An effective concern would require the
transformation of the existing political and economic order,
which most governments are at pains to protect.  I am sure that
many well-intentioned people believe that caring about well-being
and caring about human rights are the same thing; I hope this
essay will give them reason to reconsider.


1. P. F. Strawson, 'Freedom and Resentment' (1962), in _Freedom
   and Resentment_, London: Methuen, 1974.

2. Antonio Gramsci, _Quaderni del carcere_ 10, II, =A731.

3. For a parody of this state of affairs, see 'Tissues in the
   Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?'

4. Theodor Adorno, _Minima Moralia_.  London: Verso, 1974, p. 156.

5. Mikayo Yamashita et al., 'The structure of _yutori_ and its
   functions', _Japanese Psychological Research_, 2001, vol. 43,
   No. 4, pp. 225-34.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, _Philosophical Investigations_, =A71.

7. Immanuel Kant, _Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals_
   (1785), tr. Allen Wood.  New Haven: Yale University Press,
   2002, Ak 4:429.

8. Ibid., Ak 4:428.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'A Lecture on Ethics', 1965, _The
   Philosophical Review_ 74: 3-12.

10. J=FCrgen Habermas, _Moral Consciousness and Communicative
    Action_ (1983).  Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, p. 67.

11. Anna Wierzbicka, _Semantics, Culture, and Cognition_ (Oxford
    University Press, 1992), p. 183.

12. Ibid., p. 200.

13. Ibid., p. 198.

14. Slavoj Zizek, _The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of
    Political Ontology_ (London, New York: Verso, 1999), p. 188.

15. Elizabeth S. Anderson, 'What Is the Point of Equality?',
    _Ethics_ 109, no. 2 (January 1999).

16. Karl Marx, _Capital_, vol. 1 (London: Penguin Books, 1990),
    pp. 163-77.

17. Louis Althusser, _Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays_,
    Monthly Review Press (1971).

18. Karl Polanyi, _The Great Transformation: The Political and
    Economic Origins of Our Time_ (1944).  Boston: Beacon Press,
    2001, pp. 49-50.

19. Ibid., p. 51.

20. http://www.zmag.org/alblacpe.htm

21. Robert T. Watson (ed.), _Climate Change 2001: Synthesis
    Report_ (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 9-12.

22. Benedict Anderson, _The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism,
    Southeast Asia and the World_.  London: Verso, 1998,
    pp. 182-184.

23. http://www.parecon.org

24. http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

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