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The common good, responsibility to shareholders, and political activity

A while back, Slacktivist wrote a post justifying the differential treatment of nonprofits, corporations, and expressly political organizations with respect to their ability to participate in politics.

Nonprofits, he says, get many tax benefits because they work for the common good. If they were to get involved in electioneering or major issue advocacy, they would be pursuing a narrower partisan benefit, and thus would no longer deserve the tax benefits they're given by society. This seems to me to fallaciously inflate the civic sector and denigrate politics. Think, for example, of the Roman Catholic church in the US. The church's core activities, which justify its nonprofit status, include things like administering confession and communion to parishioners. But this seems to me to be a narrow, partisan activity. I don't see how I (a non-Catholic) or the wider society benefit from these rituals. They may certainly be good for the individual Catholics taking part in them*, but it's a stretch to say they serve the common good of society. On the other hand, some of the church's political advocacy -- for example, its backing of comprehensive immigration reform -- seems to me to do much more for the common good, since the US as a whole (and sender countries like Mexico) would benefit from a more just and humane immigration system. Even the dread electioneering can serve the common good, perhaps even better than direct service to parishioners, if the candidate in question is likely to institute good policies. This is not to say that politics is never narrowly partisan, or that all nonprofits would do more good by becoming advocacy organizations. But I do think that the political-nonpolitical line is a poor fit for the partisan-common good line.

He makes a related argument against corporations getting involved in politics. A corporation's purpose, for which it has been given special treatment in the law, is to make money for its shareholders. If a corporation is turned into an ideological political apparatus, those shareholders have been betrayed and the corporation has lost the justification for its special treatment. This argument is generally right, but it wrongly conflates all political activity with political activity serving an ideological mission unrelated to the corporation's business plan. In fact, much corporate political activity is part and parcel of its money-making activities. AN oil company campaigning to open ANWR for drilling is not misusing its shareholders' money on an unrelated crusade, it's furthering its profit-seeking by trying to change relevant government policy, with a net payoff for shareholders if it succeeds.

*Some atheists may go farther and say that these rituals are a waste of time and effort, and that the church is creating new needs (by preaching about the need for forgiveness to avoid damnation) and then fulfilling them, resulting in no net gain for society. I think my argument works fine with the more religion-friendly take on things in the main body of the post.

Is unequal justice still justice?

"Unequal justice" refers to situations in which justice requires that we do a certain thing, but it is only possible to do it in some of the cases. The question, then, is whether it's better to do justice some of the time and thereby treat cases unequally, or to do it none of the time and achieve equality at the expense of justice for any of the cases. I've touched on a similar theme with respect to imperfect tests and speciesist animal rights policies, and generally come down on the side that unequal justice is better than equal injustice.

David Fryman cites a similar argument being made by Ernest van den Haag in the case of the death penalty. A common anti-death-penalty argument is to point out that it's applied unequally -- specifically, people of color are far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites -- and therefore even if it's justified in theory, we're better off not applying it at all if we can't do it equally. Van den Haag replies that unequal justice is still justice for those who are properly executed and thus the status quo is better than a ban (assuming you agree that death is deserved for certain criminals). Framing the problem this way brackets out a lot of elements of the inequality in sentencing, such as the likelihood that many of the people sentenced to death don't in fact deserve it, and whether unequal death penalty application contributes to larger structural inequalities. But within its domain, it seems at least plausible.

Fryman counterposes van den Haag's argument to one from Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin is concerned that a democracy can't maintain its integrity if it makes compromises on matters of principle. We can't apply one side's definition of justice to some cases and the other side's definition to others (especially -- though the portions of Dworkin's argument Fryman quotes don't make this explicit -- if the division between the two sets of cases is arbitrary). This is because the state that instituted such a policy would have to rely on contradictory principles when justifying each half of the policy. Thus, Fryman writes:

Imagine a state that, in an effort to compromise between death-penalty supporters and opponents, passes legislation providing that all and only convicted murderers born in months with 30 days shall be put to death. Would we say in this case that "unequal justice is still justice"?

But I don't think this framing of the unequal death penalty situation as a compromise matches the actual case, and thus Dworkin's counterargument is inoperative. The unequal death penalty is not a result of some sort of compromise where anti-death-penalty people get their way with white murderers while pro-death-penalty people get their way with murderers of color. It's the product of a practical constraint (rooted in the operations of social prejudice and unequal access to legal resources) on a policy meant to execute everyone. No one individual or entity is saying that justice is done when people are not executed and that it is when people are executed. Rather, each side is praising the cases that have the "correct" outcome, and deploring those that go the other way.


Halfway Cultural Theory

In a recent Nature opinion column, Dan Kahan proposes "cultural cognition" -- a version of Mary Douglas's grid-group cultural theory -- as a better way to approach public conflict over scientific issues like climate change. Kahan contrasts cultural cognition to the dominant deficiency model of public understanding, but I think cultural cognition is actually rather closer to the deficiency model than Kahan thinks (and closer than Douglas's original cultural theory).

The deficiency model holds that the failure of the public to grasp certain scientific issues, such as the reality of anthropogenic climate change, stems from ignorance and biased thinking. Thus, the solution is to hit them with facts and education. In contrast, Kahan argues, people's divergent views on these issues stem from their attachment to certain cultural ways of life. People will accept or reject information based on how well it upholds their way of life.

So far so good -- but then Kahan veers back toward the deficiency model. His article is undergirded by an assumption that cultural cognition is a form of detrimental bias on the part of the public, while some undefined community of scientific experts has unbiased access to the truth. The task is then to reframe the expert truth in ways that will be congenial to different cultural biases. This adds depth to the deficiency model, but still retains its basic structure of the need for education by experts.

Kahan seems to assume that any policy proposal that the experts know is right can be effectively reframed to suit any cultural bias. Thus, for example, Kahan says that we should point out to Individualists that battling climate change can be profitable. For this strategy to work, one of two things must be true: 1) battling climate change really is profitable, but Individualists have for some reason failed to discern that despite being dispositionally motivated to seek profits, or 2) battling climate change isn't really that profitable on the whole, but clever rhetoric from experts can fool them into thinking it is. Neither one of those sounds like a particularly appealing option -- nor do I see any reason to believe that at least one of them must be true in any situation of culturally-motivated conflict.

There are several elements of Douglas's thinking that seem to be missing from Kahan's exposition of cultural cognition in this article, and which would push our grappling with climate disagreement further from the deficiency model.

First, Douglas is at pains to emphasize that cultural outlooks are not "biases" in any invidious sense. Rather, each cultural outlook grasps an important part of the whole world, which cannot be grasped in a comprehensive extra-cultural way. This implies that each culture needs the other four and can learn from the other four. Kahan is convinced that we know climate change is a problem and what to do about it, and so the only thing we have to learn from Individualists is how to convince them to change their minds. Douglas would hold that Individualist resistance to belief in climate change reveals something important about how we should handle our world -- while also instructing those Individualists to listen to climate-change-believing Egalitarians for the same reason.

Second, in a vein that echoes pragmatism, Douglas is more careful than Kahan not to frame cultural cognition as mere wishful thinking and groupthink. Focusing on certain aspects of the world really is important for maintaining certain ways of life -- e.g. hierarchical organizations really are more threatened by deviant behavior than egalitarian or individualist ones. If we don't appreciate that, then we easily fall into the spin trap where we can just slot in some different, appropriately framed, beliefs to guide our cultural opponents in a different direction.

Third, Douglas's theory provided for the possibility of changing cultural outlooks. From time to time, "surprises" can force upon people a realization that their cultural orientation no longer works to grapple with the world around them, leading them to seek a new arrangement. In Kahan's presentation, biases can only be accommodated or circumvented. But it may be that climate change is making certain aspects of Individualism fundamentally untenable and the best solution -- though accomplishing this is hugely difficult -- is to become more Egalitarian (which is not to say this is some sort of permanent world-historical victory for Egalitarianism, as cultural theory predicts that a too-Egalitarian world would eventually generate problems that only one of the other cultural orientations can solve).


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