I once sat next to an elderly gentleman on a transatlantic flight, and as I often do, I engaged in conversation with him for the duration of the flight. As we spoke, we shared our educational and professional backgrounds, he was retired but he had been active in multiple businesses during his professional life, and his educational background was in philosophy. Somewhat taken aback by this, I inquired as to his reasoning for electing philosophy above many of the other educational directions a man of his intellect could have pursued.
His answer was that anything that ever takes place within human society is powered by philosophy, from how we approach our personal life to how we perceive the world is dependent on our philosophy. A person who values empiricism will view the world differently from a post-modernist, a person who subscribes to deontological ethics will view behavior from a different perspective than a person who values virtue or consequentialist ethics. Few places today is this as clear as the case of Social Justice Warriors against the rest of society.
Self-Perception vs Objective Perception
The major seed of discord stems from the root of which the theoretical frameworks branch of from analytic and continental philosophy. The two major schools of philosophy within the Western World are analytical philosophy (Anglosphere and Scandinavia) and Continental philosophy (Germany and France). From the former we get thinkers such a Russell and Moore, which were further developed by the logical-positivists (logical empiricism) who’s excesses were reacted to by Karl Popper in his philosophy of science, despite Popper being a logical positivist in many ways himself.
The continental school includes such thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard , in addition to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, and related Marxist strains of thought. John Stuart Mill was among the early philosophers to point out the differing approaches of what would become the two schools, where the analytical school is more closely aligned with the natural sciences and objective reality, whereas the latter more focused on phenomenology and the subjective.
It is from this foundation that the discord is sown, one side relies on objective measures the other on subjective impressions. One focuses on the truths are shared among us, the other on the individual perception of reality. Thus, the two sides are mutually exclusive, one cannot accept empirical data that contradicts it’s subjective interpretation, the other cannot accept subjective interpretations that contradict the empirical data.
What Social Justice Philosophy is actually centered on is enforcing these subjective perceptions as if they were empirical data, and demand the same treatment for them. This is very apparent in the debate on transgender pronouns, because pronoun use is determined by empirical observation of the physical characteristics of a person that are available to be observed by all. While SJWs are seeking to have this altered to the self-perception of the individual, the data from which is only available to the person themselves.
The Moral Paradox
Within moral philosophy there are two major schools, duty ethics, and consequence ethics, that I cover in more depth in my post on SJW morality. In brief, duty ethics is based on the intent behind an action, if your intent was good, then your action is good, even if the consequences of the action was bad. In consequence ethics, intent does not matter, what determines good or bad is the consequence of an action.
The two paradigms are incompatible, and thus cannot be used it tandem and yet be consistent. Furthermore, they rely on universality in order to be just. If one applies one moral standard to one party, and another to a second party, then it violates the universality principle.
The SJWs are prone to being a quantum state morality police in this regard, such as when they disregard the consequences of demanding inequitable treatment to achieve equity, yet disregard the intent when analyzing wrong-speak. For instance when they force apologies for “wrong-think“:
The approach to force the apology, in public to ensure that the person issuing the apology is sufficiently shamed, is to beleaguer them with an army of rhetoricians who have no interest in the meaning or intent behind a statement, just how it could be interpreted. While this is not uncommon in a legal sense, and meanings are often contested in court, in such cases of morality it presents a conundrum.
In this case, the focus of the SJW is not on the intent behind the “wrong-think“, but solely placed on the alleged consequence of it on a global scale. Yet, in their drive to eradicate the wrong-think, they disregard the consequences of coercing someone to fall in line with their scattered moral view.
This begs the question, can someone be held accountable to moral values that they do not share, had a say in formulating, or that conflicts with their own moral values? This is no different than the time prior to freedom of expression, where people were forced to live in accordance with a moral code that they may have strongly disagreed with under threat of public shaming, or other punishments.
This is what the enlightenment philosophers attempted to eradicate with the principles that are embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America. The form of a social contract is generally consistent with a selection of rights that each individual has the right to be protected and a series of duties that each individual must accept. For instance, everyone has to pay taxes to fund public goods. Alternatively, everyone has the right to free expression and the duty to uphold the right to free expression for all.
Furthermore, regardless of moral framework preference, the code must be applied universally regardless of ethnic background, religion or other individual factors. This anchors the moral framework within a mind-independent framework, rather than an entirely subjective one.
The Case of Jordan Peterson
The case of Jordan B. Peterson offers an relevant illustration to the philosophical principles outlined in the previous sections of the essay.
In this case, a bill is being passed in Canada that forces certain words to be used when addressing among others transgender people, from the perspective of an SJW, failing to utilize this language, is a moral failing as it may hurt the feelings of transgender people or those who claim to fight for transgender people. From Professor Peterson’s perspective, forcing someone to utilize certain words, or to speak in a certain manner conflicts with an individual’s right to freedom of expression.
The response to Professor Peterson’s non-compliance with their morality, SJWs react as they always do, take it to social media, start protests and pressure Dr. Peterson’s employer, the University of Toronto to get him to shut up. This is the standard response, publicly pillory someone until they relent, which serves a dual purpose, of both getting your way, and making an example to reduce opposition.
However, this presents the philosophical paradox of using one group or one person’s rights to limit the ones of another group or person. If one approaches it from a utilitarian perspective, in some ways summarized by Mr. Spock as “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” one could argue that the small size of the transgender population (0.3% of American adults) who feel the need for enforcing pronoun use vs the need of the entire population to have free expression.
If one argues from the perspective of the rights of the individual, utilizing the principle that any law must apply equally to all, then it follows that if transgender people are permitted to dictate which pronouns they are referred to as and thereby create a duty on the population of the land, then everyone else must be afforded the same right to go along with the additional duty. Thus, meaning that everyone must be permitted to select their own pronouns.
However, perhaps the funnier perspective is that, if merely the act of utilizing the wrong pronouns causes irreparable emotional damage, while at the same time it is impossible to know which pronouns to use prior to the person expressing their preference, then it follows that the law will not solve the problem that it is supposed to solve. The basis of pronouns to address individuals is based on rapid visual recognition of their biological characteristics. In the case of those who are transgender their specific biological characteristics do not match their subjective self-perception. This is not even starting on “other-kin” or many of the other Tumblrisms that are making their way into the public vernacular.
Therefore, one side is using pillory tactics to push a law and compliance with the law, that will not solve the problem, but will have the unfortunate side-effect of limiting free speech for an entire population.
In short, the law does not make it better for transgender people, but it does give government the necessary “in” to pass further amendments to the law that prevents people from expressing necessary view and perspectives.
The Public Shaming Paradigm
The pillory was an old time invention for those who had behaved in a morally reprehensible manner, usually according to the church. It was a tool for public shaming and humiliation, wherein an individual’s failing to live up the moral or social code of the day, would be put on display for all to mock, tease, and pelt with more or less what they could grab. The purpose of such punishment was to enforce a code of morals and values that at the time were viewed as compulsory.
One must remember that the time from around 1200 to 1850, where the pillory and similar devices were in use for social shaming, were also those where one could be punished for such controversial statements as the Earth being round, or in orbit around the Sun. This was a time before such enlightenment ideals as freedom of thought, expression and assembly, when citizens were largely considered the property of the regent.
In the past five to ten years, the pillory has been re-instituted through social media, but in a somewhat more insidious manner. While the poor soul condemned to the pillory in past times normally had to spend an hour or two on their punishment, the Internet is forever, and shaming efforts protracted indefinitely. In such a scenario, the apology is the first step, not the final step in the person’s penance.
In many ways from a moral perspective the SJW behavior takes on the predictable path of the show trials from every nation that ever attempted to implement Marxism as their base ideology. The wrong-thinker is publicly shamed, and beaten into issuing a tearful apology for being a wrong-thinker. However, the punishment does not stop here, they are then forced to be reeducated, or cordoned off from the rest of the population, lest they spread wrong-think to other people.
Unfortunately for the Marxist militia marching ahead in the culture war, when lacking sufficient state influence to simply ship suspected subversives to Siberia one must devise another path of attack. This is where social media comes in, a person says something that disagrees with the morality outlined within the Marxist doctrine. A myriad of militants proceed to barrage the individual with an onslaught of online and offline harassment. The person tearfully apologizes, hoping that this will stave off the assault and let them return to their regularly scheduled life, alas, this would not be sufficient punishment.
In effect what it creates is a legal system outside the legal system, where a person is punished in any available avenue according regardless of whether the punishment fits the crime or was even just. However, this assumes that justice was the goal to begin with, in reality the barrage that beset the individual was a means to an end, namely enforcing an ideology against the will of other individuals.
Summary and Conclusions
In many ways the social justice phenomenon is an interesting case. The original foundation on which movements such as the female suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement among many were built on, was that just belonging to a group did not determine a person’s identity. Just because you happen to belong to one of the aforementioned groups, did not determine anything about you, except that you belonged to those groups.
With the new social justice movement, this script has been reversed and now there is a culture war, based in Continental philosophical interpretivism and post-structuralism, that have merely swapped “Proletariat” with “Oppressed” and “Bourgeois” with “oppressor“. The term regressive comes from this very fact, that by applying this paradigm to their ideology, they are seeking to cause social policies to regress. In effect, the old oppressor is to become the new oppressed and vice versa.
To quote George Orwell:
“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
For those who are curious about this topic I would recommend reading the history of Mao’s China, the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the tale of Pol Pot’s Cambodia as they were seeking the same end through different means.