August 9, 2017 at 9:06 pm #7108
I would be interested to hear what people here think of the following argument from a middle way perspective:
“The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.”
I have given it the title anarchist maxim as it it taken from Chomsky’s “Activism, Anarchism and Power”. I raise this point as a way of hopefully gaining a better understanding of where you are coming from.To my mind the claim regarding the burden of proof constitutes a truism but I am wondering if you see it as an absolute (positive or negative) and therefore incompatible with the middle way philosophy?
August 11, 2017 at 6:58 pm #7111
Thanks for the interesting question. You might be interested in this past post on the subject of anarchism: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/the-middle-way-to-anarchy/
As regards Chomsky’s statement, personally I’d be cautious about manipulating a burden of proof. Claiming that the burden of proof falls on someone else strikes me as another form of power play, supporting the assumption that one’s own position is the default. It seems to be a legacy of the mistaken idea that ‘proof’ can ever be provided for anything, rather than just a degree of justification. However, I do agree that all uses of power need justification. I don’t think that that justification amounts to any kind of discontinuous ‘proof’ though. Rather it is important that anyone seeking to use power can provide a better justification than the alternatives. That justification includes the coherence and evidence base of the case being made, but also its recognition of fallibility. Governments need to recognise their fallibility, and so does anyone who seeks to supplant a government.
August 13, 2017 at 8:56 pm #7119
Thanks for your reply and the link. I might comment on your anarchist article at some point.
I have read your reply a number of time and I have to say that I find it a bit confusing.
On the one hand you seem to disagree. For example you say, “personally I’d be cautious about manipulating a burden of proof. Claiming that the burden of proof falls on someone else strikes me as another form of power play”. (I find this interesting because it seems to suggest that you think the Middle Way transcends power dynamics. If this is the case then I would be very interested to hear more about this particular point).
On the other hand you say, “Rather it is important that anyone seeking to use power can provide a better justification than the alternatives” and “That justification includes the coherence and evidence base of the case being made”. This strikes me as basically saying the same thing as the anarchist maxim that I highlight in my original post.
You also make a couple of additional points regarding the need to be “cautious” and the “mistaken idea that ‘proof’ can ever be provided for anything”. Here I agree but unlike you I assume that Chomsky has already taken these points into consideration. After all, there is nothing in his writings in general that make me think otherwise.
August 15, 2017 at 7:49 am #7122
I think Robert is currently travelling, so I’ll interject here regarding this part of what you wrote:
In the terminology Robert’s using (I think) when he says ‘justification’ he is talking about something that is provisional and incremental – i.e. something that addresses the current conditions and may change as the conditions change, and something that provides a degree of proof. This contrasts with the way that the word ‘proof’ is used in the original quote, where it seems to be an absolute thing – that the proof must be true now and always, that that it is either proof or it is not proof. In this context the middle way of Middle Way philosophy involves preferring provisional and incremental justification over absolute proof.
The original quote is also phrased in terms of power either being legitimate or illegitimate. This is making legitimacy into a positive or negative absolute.
When you say that the claim in the quote is a truism, do you mean that the first statement “unless it proves itself” has already assumed that power will have to do the proving?
I don’t know if this helps, but have a look at the statement below where I’ve flipped the terms around. Does this help us to look at it in a different way?
“The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is never legitimate, unless it is proved to not be illegitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is illegitimate. If they can’t prove its illegitamacy, then it shouldn’t be dismantled.”
August 15, 2017 at 10:05 pm #7128
As I said at the end of my reply to Robert, I think Chomsky understands that his “absolutes” are “something that addresses the current conditions” which “may change as the conditions change”. Only the mad and the dogmatic think otherwise.
You say, “The original quote is also phrased in terms of power either being legitimate or illegitimate. This is making legitimacy into a positive or negative absolute.” Okay, but what is the Middle Way between legitimate and Illegitimate power? Do you, as Robert seem to suggest, think that the Middle Way somehow transcends real life power dynamics? If so, how?
In answer to your first question, I would say yes. But there is a logic to it. If, on the grounds of insufficient evidence, we reject the authoritarian norms that inform a given institution then “unless it proves itself” becomes a kind of default position.
As for your second question, I do think that it does help us to look at it in a different way. I would say that it helps us to look at it in a way that is beneficial to those in power. There is a long history of this kind of thinking in philosophy and I am hoping that the Middle Way is not yet another example.
August 16, 2017 at 5:32 am #7129
Provisionality is an ongoing practice (and quite a difficult one) rather than something that can just be asserted to be the case, and the avoidance of absolutes is part of the practice of provisionality. So when you say “Only the mad and the dogmatic think otherwise”, I think you may possibly be assuming too much about academic provisionality in general, including Chomsky’s.
Let me put it this way: I think Chomsky could have phrased what he said more helpfully if he had talked about the incremental justification of power rather than burden of proof, which is a discontinuous concept (either you ‘have’ the burden of proof, or you don’t). I don’t need a massive justification for holding back a toddler from running into the road, though that is using power. I would need a much stronger justification than that for initiating a military action. It’s not that I have a ‘burden of proof’ of the same kind in both cases, it’s that the degree of justification for using power (over alternatives) needs to be massively greater.
I don’t think the Middle Way ‘transcends’ power dynamics. Rather it’s a way of improving our judgements in relation to them – as it is in every other sort of judgement. As humans in a complex world, we’re not in a position to give up power, or to declare it ‘illegitimate’, as though there was some sort of cosmic court that ruled things ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’. However, we can recognise the degree of potential delusion we’re subject to when we use power, and particularly the ways that abuse of power is tied to the use of absolutisation as a short cut to instant group identity that circumvents experienced human solidarity. It may be that anarchists have often gained insights into the causes of abuse of power, but I think they’re mistaken to identify it so strongly only with formal structures like the state.
August 16, 2017 at 8:50 pm #7130
In general, I still feel that the anarchist maxim offers a better guidance for action in the real world than the Middle Way. That said I am still not sure I really understand the latter.
I do understand that the Middle Way wants to avoid absolutes. In the first paragraph of your reply you mention, within the context of provisionality, both absolutes and dogmatic thinking. I am wondering if you see these as the same thing? Is it not possible to make an absolute claim without it being dogmatic? That is, an absolute claim that is provisional to the current conditions which has to be reformulated as conditions change?
You then go on to suggest the “incremental justification of power” as a more helpful alternative to the “burden of proof”. To illustrate your point you talk about “holding back a toddler from running into the road” verses “initiating a military action”. You conclude this part by saying, “It’s not that I have a ‘burden of proof’ of the same kind in both cases, it’s that the degree of justification for using power (over alternatives) needs to be massively greater.”
It is interesting that you chose these examples because they are exactly the ones that Chomsky uses in his work all the time. I do agree that the size of the burden is different. However, I would also say that despite this difference the burden of proof remains on the authoritarian side of the relationship.
As for your last paragraph, I definitely agree that we have to try to be aware of potential delusions and I am all in favour of improving our judgements in relation to power dynamics. I also agree that the world is a complex place. Despite this, I still think that we can declare certain concentrations of power (not just the state) to be illegitimate if they cannot justify themselves. And just for the record, I am actually in favour of strengthening certain aspects of the state to protect the public from private tyrannies (think corporations) – as is Chomsky and every serious anarchist I have ever met.
You also highlight an additional point, stating, “and particularly the ways that abuse of power is tied to the use of absolutisation”. I would say that abuses of power have little to do with the use of absolutes. Rather, I would suggest that abuses of power have more to do with elitist belief systems like; sexism, racism and classism. Furthermore, I would argue that these elitist belief systems are maintained, not by the presentation of a good evidence base, but rather by manipulation and the threat or use of violence – the evidence for which is overwhelming (if we choose to look).
August 17, 2017 at 8:09 am #7132
Yes, I do see the terms ‘absolute’ and ‘dogmatic’ as interchangeable. I do not agree that there can be any belief (held by a specific person at a specific time) that is both absolute and provisional. That is because, as I’ve already mentioned, an absolute belief is not incremental, so cannot be adjusted in relation to new conditions – only accepted or denied as a whole. What may confuse that picture is that we often have clusters of absolute beliefs that are associated with more practical and provisional ones: for example, a devout Catholic who believes in the absolute dogmas of Catholicism may also associate this with open and loving relationships with others within the Catholic community, which are far from dogmatic within their limited terms of reference. But the loving relationships are in no way dependent on the Catholic dogma – if anything the reverse. If you’re interested in understanding more about this account of absolutisation, you could try this video: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-5-agnosticism/mwp-video-5a-whats-wrong-with-metaphysics/
You seem to agree that our sense of responsibility when using power is an incremental matter. But you also seem to disagree that burden of proof is a matter of absolute on/off belief. That it is so seems obvious to me, because ‘burden of proof’ is not a burden for a particular person, nor a matter of experience: rather it is likely to be the abstract object of burden of proof claims such as ‘The burden of proof falls on you’. There is no way of justifying such a claim, because it is merely an assertion of power. The fact that it may be used by people like Chomsky, who do have some well-justified critical points to make about establishment assumptions, does not mean that it’s a justifiable assertion of power; any more than atheists are justified in denying the existence of something unknowable just because they have lots of good critical points about dubious theist assumptions.
Instead, the justification of use of power, like any other moral judgement, needs to be recognised as made by embodied people in particular contexts. The integration of judgement of those using power, compared to the integration of judgement of those they are using it against, in my view provides a much better guide to how far power is being justifiably used. The gap in integration and ability to address conditions between parent and toddler is obvious, but in cases of military action often much less obvious.
For a more detailed account of the political philosophy here, please see the final section of my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Belief’, as well as other sections of the Middle Way Philosophy series. If you prefer audio, there are also recorded talks and discussions on the topics of responsibility and authority here: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/2014-summer-retreat-talks/
August 17, 2017 at 10:05 pm #7133
Thanks for taking the time to reply Robert and thanks for the suggested reading.
We seem to have different understandings of what absolutes are. You seem to see them as inherently dogmatic because such claims cannot be “both absolute and provisional”.
I, on the other hand, think that absolute claims can be dogmatic (Marxist tend to be very good at this) but are not necessarily so. I also think that this is how Chomsky uses them. So, for example, if evidence is presented that raises questions about the validity of an absolute claim then that absolute can be changed or abandoned, either way the old absolute is then replaced by an updated version. From this understanding we still use absolutes but in a non-dogmatic way – and I don’t really see a problem with that. In fact, this is how I think most people use them which seem to me to be evidence that your claim regarding the nature of absolutes is not necessarily true.
You also make a couple of interesting little statement in your reply. For example, regarding the matter of absolute on/off belief you write “That it is so seems obvious to me”. You also say that “The gap in integration and ability to address conditions between parent and toddler is obvious”. However, when I make the same kind of claim about Chomsky’s statement you see it as “merely an assertion of power” with “no way of justifying such a claim”. This leaves me wondering why you can make such claims but I cannot. I would also like to point out that I do not see the anarchist maxim in the way that you describe. Rather I see it as a moral position.
P.S. I am on holiday for a week so will be unlikely to reply to any further comments until I return home.
August 19, 2017 at 4:09 am #7134
I don’t think you’ve understood my approach here, which is why I suggested further reading. There are limits to how much I can explain in an online exchange.
— if evidence is presented that raises questions about the validity of an absolute claim then that absolute can be changed or abandoned, either way the old absolute is then replaced by an updated version.–
There can’t be any such evidence, given the nature of an absolute claim. Any possible evidence will consist of experiences, which are incremental in nature and thus will make no difference to the absolute. For example, someone who believes that God has created the universe will interpret every new experience in the terms of that belief, including evidence about the Big Bang, evolution etc. Someone who believes that all Republicans are liars will similarly interpret every new piece of evidence in the terms of that belief of their total and deliberate falsity, rather than thinking in terms of the degree of accuracy or degree of responsibility in the words of political opponents.
You also write
–regarding the matter of absolute on/off belief you write “That it is so seems obvious to me”. You also say that “The gap in integration and ability to address conditions between parent and toddler is obvious”. However, when I make the same kind of claim about Chomsky’s statement you see it as “merely an assertion of power” with “no way of justifying such a claim”. This leaves me wondering why you can make such claims but I cannot.–
This sounds like an issue with the way you are interpreting my term ‘obvious’ – a problem with text-based communication that might not be such an issue if we were talking face-to-face. By ‘obvious’ here I meant ‘based on experience’, not ‘absolutely a priori true’. My objections to the ideas from Chomsky, as I said, are based on apparent absolutes in what he says. There is always a degree of doubt about what he meant in context, and of course it would be better to ask him directly. However, there are certain philosophical formulations that immediately introduce a priori thinking that it is difficult to interpret in ways other than absolute, and burden of proof seems to be one of these.
It is difficult to maintain a discussion online about absolutes if people exploit ambiguities in the language used, so as to accuse anyone who is trying to avoid absolutes (like me) of being absolute. The principle of charity is required to give one’s interlocutor the benefit of the doubt. If I fail to do that myself then I’m happy to be picked up on it, but so far I don’t think it’s the case here, for the reasons I’ve explained. It’s easy to end up in a Catch-22 situation whereby it is impossible to avoid absolutes, and the discussion ends in mutual misunderstanding and recrimination, with both sides accusing each other of being absolute and thus unable to re-frame their differences. There has to be a way forward, which for me begins with positively seeking out incremental thinking. But it’s difficult to do that without generally recognizing its value first.
Enjoy your holiday!
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