Saturday, October 15, 2011

Some Epistemological Remarks Concerning the 99% Movement & Nozick’s Challenge

Reader and philosopher Joel Dittmer sent us the following interesting essay on the epistemology of Occupation.

I’m sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street Movement—or what I will call the 99% Movement—as I can relate to some of their—or “our”—concerns. But much of my sympathy is due not to claims the movement has made, but instead (i) the fact that there are a number of people in the movement who are showing their own stories about hardships, despite their efforts in overcoming their obstacles and (ii) the fact that I have friends whose stories are similar to those part of the movement. In this short piece, I’m going to identify some epistemological problems that I believe would work well to really show that the movement is both representative of 99% of us and brings up concerns that violate basic, and shared conceptions of justice.

I’d like to reintroduce a distinction Robert Nozick makes, roughly put, between end-result principles and historical principles. (Consult his famous Anarchy, State, and Utopia; note that he also speaks of patterned principles, and that he doesn’t explicitly talk about “policies”. Any divergence in terminology will be okay enough to illustrate the distinction Nozick has in mind.) Utilitarian style principles and egalitarian style principles are end-result, in that the justice of some policy or some distribution of goods, services, and resources will be determined by whether or not the results of the policy or the resulting distribution maximizes utility (utilitarianism) or satisfactorily meets conditions of equality (egalitarianism). Great disparities in wealth can be deemed unjust according to some forms of egalitarianism, which is once again an end-result theory of justice. Nozick challenges us to consider how a policy or a distribution is unjust if it abides by certain historical principles—principles which emphasize certain conditions that have to be met in the process of deciding on and implementing policies, as well as the process by which any distribution results. In the case of assessing policies in democratic societies, the justice of the policy will not be (at least directly) assessed according to the results gotten, but instead by how well the process of policy making and implementation meets certain conditions necessary for genuine democracy. So, for example, if some set of policies resulted in a distribution of goods and services such that 99% of the population was barely above the line of poverty, whereas the other 1% each possessed millions of dollars, this would not necessarily be unjust, just so long as the policy was decided upon and implemented in a genuinely democratic way. This kind of assessment of the justice of policies is, once again, from the perspective of those who hold that historical principles are the appropriately fundamental principles of justice, not end-result principles.

Let me now motivate why Nozick’s challenge is relevant, I think. Some of the 99% movement have publicized their own stories, usually ones of being in considerable debt, either through educational loans or through mortgage loans. Often the stories are ones in which employment is not feasibly available, as they have tried for (in some cases) years to gain employment all without success. These stories are sad, and they, to me, indicate that something isn’t quite right about the plethora of national and state policies. Nevertheless, there are those who doubt the injustice of these results. Some of the stories do seem idiosyncratic, yet still sad. For example (I’m making this hypothetical), suppose the case of someone who is 24 years old and holds a B.F.A., but with $110, 000 school debt. She is also underemployed. She works 30 hours/week at $10/hr with no benefits. This is unfortunate and sad, and perhaps even something indicative of injustice. Nevertheless, there will be some who question how this person got into her plight. Explanations may lead to bad personal decision-making and not necessarily to corporate conspiracy for the sole purpose of profit-maximization. We could of course retort by quoting a claim by the “collective statement of the protestors in Zuccotti Park”, which reads “They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”

This retort is problematic, though, for a few reasons. First, the action/practice of “holding hostage” must be specified. The second problem concerns whether education is a human right, and more specifically, what the precise content of that right is, if it exists in the first place. It seems that in our society, each of us have a right to the education necessary to be informed, active participants of democracy. But it is not obvious that any given person has a right to study fine arts, if the only way to finance that endeavor is by forcing someone else to pay $110,000 for it. This then motivates the fairness of making a loan to the person pursuing the endeavor. Of course, there is a further worry of financing a loan to someone whose prospects of paying it off are slim (thereby incurring more debt to that person). The third, and most important, problem with the retort is that it doesn’t directly address what I’ve called Nozick’s challenge. Unless “holding hostage” is spelled out in a truthful way that is morally problematic (e.g., students are forced to purchase loans upon being forced or manipulated into attending college), it will be left open about whether the student’s resulting debt is unjust, just so long as we are concerned about historical principles, not end-result principles. If those of the 99% could flesh out their stories in such a way that certain violations occurred in their incurring of their debt, then this would be very helpful, if not much more persuasive, to those doubting the injustice of their plight.

There are, though, claims made by the “collective statement of the protestors of Zuccotti Park” which I think start from Nozick’s challenge. For example, we have: “They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.” Just so long as freedom of the press is a condition that must be met in order for policies to be shaped and implemented in a democratic way, it appears that we have here a claim that a historical principle of justice has been violated. And then from this point, all that has to be established are some empirical claims. That is, in what ways have corporations used the military and police force to prevent free press? The mere claim proves nothing until there are verifiable reports which confirm this kind of violation of justice. I’m not skeptical of being able to establish such facts; I’m merely pointing out the significance of doing so.

Let me now contrast two other claims made by the protestors of Zuccotti Park, or who are alternatively called “the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square.” This first claim is this: “They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.” Perhaps this is true. But a lot is required to confirm this claim. And additionally, it will require an explanation of how corporations doing as such is a violation of historical principles. The second claim to consider is, I believe, true. I also believe that information can be collected rather easily to establish its truth. What I’m worried about, though, is that despite it being true, and despite me believing it to amount to an injustice, it will be difficult to explain how it is a violation of a historical principle of justice. The second claim is this: “They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.” Once again, I think this is true, and that such actions/practices are unjust. But it is hard to see what historical principle is violated. If certain kind of leveraging outsourcing abides by national policies and international policies, and no one is coerced into agreeing to these policies, and no one is coerced into partaking in the practices allowed by such outsourcing, then it becomes difficult, at least to me, what historical principle is violated. Now, if such policies are enacted by legislators who give overweighted concern for profit-maximizing executive of corporations than to stakeholders who are also supposed to be represented in the democratic process, then indeed we have some indication that a historical principle has been violated—namely, we have violations of democratic standards.

I’m going to end this essay by making explicit some of the epistemological observations, and which should then emphasize the primacy of debating and illustrating the issues in terms of historical, as opposed to end-result, principles. First, hearing stories of those with lots of school debt but with very limited job opportunities may at first compel some to think that something is wrong with the workings of our economic and political system. But according to some, the burden of proof is placed back on those sharing their stories. Historical considerations creep back up—How did you get into so much debt? What have you done in terms of trying to get a job? Etc. If the stories could be fleshed out in such a way that it becomes clear to the skeptic that historical principles have been violated, then the burden has been shifted into a sphere of how one’s injustice is to be rectified and compensated for. Second, our intuitions might not be reliable when broad, bold (and yet perhaps true) claims are made—e.g., the one that says that “They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.” We might at first think that this is true, but then as we reflect on it, we might realize that evidence has to be given which establishes this claim. Additionally, it is not obvious that such actions/practices are morally impermissible (or unjust) until more is said about how this is, in fact, true. Epistemically, the best approach is to provide lots of details and lots of context. These details will be of the historical sort, and then can be used to persuade those who aren’t initially persuaded (or who become dissuaded) about the end-results (such as significant debt). Finally, I hope that this piece has been helpful in refining the efforts of those of us who continue in this movement. And although the initial efforts of the movement have been perhaps necessarily bold and perhaps even courageous, this does not mean that the movement shouldn’t be responsive to the idea of making a detailed, epistemically friendly disclosure of the facts exposing systematic (historical) injustices.

Joel Dittmer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Missouri University of Science & Technology.


  1. Too many times we tell children to follow their dreams. This is bad advice. Children do not understand that there will only be a small number of people who will be able to profit financially from training in humanities, social sciences, the arts, and other fields in minimal demand. First, they don’t understand probability. Second, they don’t understand which fields have an extremely low probability of providing financial success. Third, they over-estimate their own aptitudes and promise. Fourth, they don’t understand the Darwinian nature of capitalist society. Standard career classes in high school, which cover available careers and the training needed, are not adequate. I think if we look far enough back in the causal/decision chain of the underemployed, poor, and desperate art student, we will find elementary school teachers, high school teachers, college professors, and parents who encouraged the talents of children and teenagers, even though they knew that as these talents developed, the child’s future was, in all probability, fucked. Who is to blame?

  2. @Diogenes99...Is it right to characterize your response as being, essentially, that "they should have known better"? If so, I think the response fails. When I entered college nearly a decade ago, the prospects for the academic job market were quite good. Many academics were nearing retirement age, and the general outlook was one of optimism, as a new wave of hiring would be needed to replace retiring and semi-retiring faculty. Early in my graduate school career, the market soured. The unbridled and unethical actions of criminally negligent plutocrats lead to a devaluation of 401k retirement plans, and university and college endowments nation wide. The extent of this harm, and its impact on the job market, it is important to note, would be clear for several more years. As hiring freezes were effected, and retirement age faculty chose to continue working, rather than living on diminished 401k income, the market was effectively strangled, and the strangulation grew rapidly worse and worse. Not to mention the fact that, belt-tightening measure by University bureaucrats, themselves often in league with the plutocracy, have led to more low-paid, no-benefit, adjunct professors in the academic workforce (as a percentage) then ever before.

    My graduate training continued, however, and like many I forced to make a decision, leave graduate school w/o a PhD, in considerable debt, and find subsistence level income, with no prospect of income/social mobility or press on in the (in the retrospectively naive) hope that the market would recover and more jobs would open up. That has yet to happen.

    As much as I realize that nothing in life is certain (except death and taxation (the latter at least for the 99%, the 1% seem to find ways to avoid it)), I nevertheless believe that the job market for those starry eyed children who dreamed of getting a PhD, and teaching a subject they love, has been made worse by the actions of the plutocrats.

    We cannot let them off the hook simply because it was always a relatively small number of professionals in academia, the fact is that through their criminal actions they made the job market worse for us all, and that is a serious harm, for which they alone shoulder the blame.

  3. A couple more thoughts.

    1) It isn't like there would not be work for more professors in the humanities. At large State Schools, it is not unheard of for faculty to teach courses with more than 250 to 300 students. Typically with low-paid graduate student help.

    2) Wages for University administrators have continued to rise far above the rate of inflation over the last decade, despite cutbacks in faculty hiring. So it isn't like the money does not exist for more faculty. Additionally, universities have used the financial crises as cover to eliminate departments they do not deem "worth the investment", i.e., Gender studies, LGBT studies, foreign languages, classics, etc...(this tactic is admittedly more widespread in the UK, but it happens in the US as well.

    3) Suppose everyone had worked for only those degrees with "marketability". What would have been the result? More competition, for fewer jobs, in those fields. Thus diminished job prospects.

  4. @99%Philosopher : Banks loaned money to people to buy overpriced houses they could *not* afford. The banks knew better. Schools loan money to students to earn overpriced unmarketable degrees they could *not* afford. Schools know better. Same bullshit marketing.

    I think people are waking up and understanding that capitalist society is one big Monopoly game, and the 99% didn’t know how to play when they received their playing piece. *No one taught them.* The problem with reality is that you can't restart the game when there is a winner. In reality the winner just keeps charging rent no matter what space you land on, and you are screwed, more screwed, and screwed again.
    What the 99%ers want is (a) a game other than Monopoly or (b) a Monopoly restart or (b) a Monopoly game with tweaked rules. Basically all of these options involve a redistribution of Monopoly money.

    The 99%ers complain that the Monopoly winners also bought government, which wasn’t even on the playing board. But it was! And it will always be. So to answer you directly, plutocrats will always emerge in Monopoly and attempt buy up everything.

    What we need to do is give our own children the perspective and tools they need to play the game. We are not doing that now. We allow various college departments to recruit students into programs where they will have a very hard time adjusting to reality outside academia if they are not one of the few stars. The Occupy movement should not only be marching on Wall Street, they should be marching on colleges, who charge too much for unmarketable degrees, give loans they know students cannot pay back, and woo students under false promises of future success.

    (I consider myself a 99%er. I am angry at how things have turned out for me and people around me. I would like the USA to be more like, say, Finland, where education is highly valued and there is free health care, a pension, and free higher education – and by “free” I mean available to everyone using redistributed wealth from taxes. But I am realistic – this won’t happen in America as a result of the 99%er movement. If one could convince philosophy departments and other non-practical academic departments to offer teaching certificates or a range of practical certificates as part of their graduate programs, then that would a part of the a solution. But that won’t happen either. So, we need to focus on what we can do for our children. And that is to teach them what they need to do to survive -- how to play Monopoly.)

  5. @Diogenes99...I would also like to see forgiveness of student loan debt, and gov't subsidized, low(or no)-cost, universal access to health care and education, as I believe the majority of the 99% would.

    I suppose the only difference is that I, personally, refuse to believe that these things are not possible in the United States. Not only do I believe that they are possible, but I believe they are inevitable.

    As for teaching our children to play Monopoly, that is a zero-sum game, and someone always gets unjustly hurt in zero-sum games. I'd rather not teach my child to be sociopath. I would rather teach them compassion for others.

  6. There is no way in the context of verbal social discourse to prove or even establish the credibility of all general statements, even if they are basically sound. That is how nonfiction books function. Truths, trends and manifestations of social structure will, however become powerfully evident when profound problems are at work and educated citizens who are reading books and trying to understand the problems directly affecting their lives will summarize those truths and they will begin to require less formal proof point for point because they are a more and more universal common ground of direct experience. In other words I think the calls for evidence here are not helpful or wise but rather have the ring of self righteousness. What is at the heart of the experience of your imaginary BFA and disappeared investments and political promises of peace that are fulfilled in endless war is one consistent habit of the criminal enterprises that control this empire. That habit has many names:fraud, mendacity, deception, false advertising, con game, seduction; it doesn't matter what you call it is a lousy basis for an economy or a society and it is a way of enslaving people to the masters of planetary self destruction. It is a global criminal enterprise that has to be stopped. Academia is a part of it and needs to accept that and the consequences of its participation.

  7. i posted a comment earlier, but i think the google ate it.
    at any rate, thanks for this.

    i have a couple of questions - first, i'm not sure how you are distinguishing between rhetoric and epistemology here exactly.

    second, and i suspect this is more a problem with nozick than anything, i'm not sure is meant by "historical" here. that is, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of history in this history. it seems like, in order to think along with nozick, we are being asked to assume the existence of actual historical principles, rather than demonstrate their existence and then their violation. i'm not so sanguine about their existence, or at least i think there would need to be a demonstration of them of some kind. but more importantly, i think that this points to a larger epistemological problem. it has often been an epistemological, or even an ontological, problem for those to whom principles of justice have not been extended to convince those included under said principles that 1) they are not included under them, 2) they probably should be, and thereby 3) those covered by the principles probably fundamentally misunderstand them. to think about this historically, for instance, if it were indeed true that there were an actually existing historical principle that education was a human right, then it probably would have been the case that education wouldn't have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first place, no? and then, no one else's rights are violated by having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to anyone for education.

    i symapthise with the idea that there should be more details or more context provided in these claims, but i'm not convinced that a nozickian epistemology or what have you is going to persuade folks, or even adequately describe justice as it is being articulated in the street by the ows folks.

    i think that the epistemological question is: how can you show folks that they are other than they are? how can we understand ourselves to be other than we are?