Consent in 4D
Why moral and political complexity matters
I’m teaching one of my favorite classes this semester and as part of our class work I pull up the standard political spectrum that shows a single line between Left and Right and show the students why it’s wrong. Most obviously, the standard left/right spectrum leaves out a whole host of complexity. In its place political scientists usually offer something like a political compass or a social/political/moral grid.
But even these 2D approximations, as much as they improve upon the left/right line, are still 2D. They give us a glimpse of moral and political life, but leave a lot to the imagination. Even worse, though, they may convince us that the other stuff doesn’t exist.
What the 3rd Dimension Adds
What other stuff, you might ask? The 2D character of even a relatively complex political/moral compass still leaves us hanging in a moral and political space, devoid of geography and roots and unlinked to any sense of moral and political time.
Take, for example, the concept of consent, which political theorists think about a lot. The Lockean concept of consent takes place between a person and the state at some moment in time. While you can withdraw consent at any time, Locke’s view leaves out a lot of complexity. For one, there might be things we really like about the state and other things we really don’t (including rights violations), but Locke doesn’t really help us understand when withdrawal of consent is necessary or how to work within a complex politico-moral landscape. Jefferson follows Locke, arguing somewhat vaguely in the Declaration of Independence that we usually withdraw consent only after a series of serious and repeated violations of rights. That’s both correct but also unhelpful as a prescriptive tool (which it’s admittedly not meant to be).
There are, however, in this 2D account, hints of a 4D moral and political world. Both Locke and Jefferson are relatively clear about the tradeoffs involved in revolution and both nod, in various places, to the reality that people are often willing to put up with quite a bit from their state, not only because revolutions are risky and expensive, but also because people are attached to their nation in deeper ways than mere contractual language would suggest. It’s this nod toward affection that gets us closer to a 4D model of consent.
I’m thinking here of Tom Bell’s book Your Next Government, probably because we’re reading it in class right now. While we often think of consenting to political or social institutions as a discrete moment in time, a 2D point on a map, Bell argues instead that consent is a moving and dynamic process. The person who would not consent to a particular system, may - after important reforms - consent to that system later. Similarly, a single event may crack an otherwise patriotic person’s support for the state right in half. These aren’t cases of people being inconsistent; they’re cases of people balancing different goods at different times in different ways as they move across a constantly changing moral and political landscape, sometimes deciding that what worked well in the past no longer works or that what didn’t work well now sort of fits the bill.
Political and Moral Choice as a Complex Dynamic System
All of this is a drawn-out way of pointing out that human political and moral choice doesn’t exist on a spectrum or a compass, but instead takes place in a dynamic system of nested communities and societies where people balance all kinds of complicated goods that overlap across time and space. People are bound to regions they may dislike by family or property or jobs and they care deeply about deeply flawed things and people because they’re part of their past or their heritage or just because that deeply flawed thing or person also has some really amazing things to offer in some other domain. People are rooted in time and space by attachments to other people and to property; their thinking on various political and moral issues may vary based on the situation they’re in or how those values affect things in real time, on the ground.
We often think of political and moral choices as rational decisions in a very 2D world, as when we ask people on surveys if they like X amount of freedom in economic terms but Y amount of freedom in political terms. Or we simplify the world by asking students if we should have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima or if the South should have seceded as though those were simple decisions made in a simple moment with all the information at the ready. The answers to questions like that can be mildly interesting, but they’re ultimately mostly meaningless.
Particularly for the average person, they’re not really thinking about principles at all but instead looking at a vast and complex moral and political landscape where different parts of their moral and political lives support each other or are in conflict at different times and in different ways.
As merely one example, I worked briefly with an Afghan family who was relocated to the U.S. a few years back. The father was a journalist in Kabul before the Taliban took over and he had worked closely with U.S. military as an interpreter after 9/11. With obvious targets on their backs when the Taliban returned, he fled the country with his wife and six children carrying nothing but a single suitcase each.
I sat chatting with him about his plans for the future in the living room of the rental the volunteer resettlement group had secured for them, eating the characteristic dates and nuts Afghans offer to every guest. To my surprise, he said his plans were to get his kids, four of whom were girls, a good education in the U.S. and then go back to his country when it was safe. It was probably rude, but I asked him why. He said it didn’t even occur to him to stay. Afghanistan was his country. It was his home. If you don’t fight for your country, what kind of person are you?
It’s very possible Afghanistan will never be safe enough for him to return and it’s possible his daughters and sons won’t want to. But the sentiment of fighting for your country - not because it’s worth anything in its current state - but because of what it has been in the past and what it could be in the future, is emphatically 4D moral thinking. But the conflict between the love of his country and the love of his family represents a 4D element too. At the same time that we might think fighting for our country is a good and noble thing to do, no one could look at an Afghan man with four female children and call him a coward for leaving Taliban-controlled Afghanistan either. He made a hard decision, rooted in the reality of his time and place, his social and moral obligations, and his view of the time horizon in which each kind of action must take place. When he found that all his values weren’t all compatible, he did his best. In this case that was good enough.
What the 4th Dimension Adds
As that example suggests, time is an additional piece of this puzzle and one that offers more complexity than I’ll do justice to in a short blog post. But time makes our political and moral landscape more than simply 3D because time adds the element of improvement, reform, and - crucially - hope. The Afghan man fleeing the Taliban left his country because its current version was not safe, but he had hope for a better future, a future that he and his children could contribute to.
His commitment to a complicated country reminded me a bit of Burke’s refutation of Lockean contract theory, which he replaced with a positively 4D vision of how we consent to and think about the communities to which we do and could and should belong. As Burke notes, the partnership that makes up civil society is a complex one: because “the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Burke goes on to discuss how this partnership links people across time and social status and geography into much more than a linear 2D contract but instead into a 4D web of interconnectedness and interdependence and messy rooted sociality.
Adding time to social contract theory mattered for Burke because time links us to our past, provides roots for our present, and colors our vision of our future. Time is both individual, in the sense of individual development and experiences that shape our worldview, and also social, in the way that we share a communal past and the way shared events color our political and moral language and activities. In both cases, time - and the experiences time brings and the way those experiences compound over a human life - change our moral and political landscape in powerful ways.
I’ve been thinking in terms of consent because that’s the topic of my classwork this week, but 4D moral thinking works in every human context as well. It’s why you can want to strangle your kid while loving her with every ounce of your being. It’s why you can love your country one moment, when you’re thinking about one part of it, but dislike it intensely when you think about others. It’s why we keep fighting for our countries even when they fail us over and over again. It’s why Peter Singer violated his own principles when it came to caring for his aging mother. It’s what Frederick Douglass felt about the United States in his powerful and heartbreaking speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Ideologues and 2D Humanity
2D moral thinking is why ideologues don’t understand real human beings. Committed conservatives and libertarians and progressives I know all bemoan the fact that humans and citizens and voters are irrational; that they don’t behave according to principled moral and political positions. I think this is probably a good thing. People behave in messy moral and political ways because the world is a messy moral and political place. I can love the idea of my country and still hate much of what it does in the world. I can even feel a weird sense of patriotic pride while still recognizing the nation state as a historical social construct that should probably wither away.
Once you start thinking ideologically and assume other people should too, you essentially remove a lot of why moral and political thinking matters in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. My insistence that we don’t follow ideological purity tests when making moral and political decisions doesn’t mean that principles fly out the window and it doesn’t mean we can’t have a map that shows us a better political or moral landscape. But it does mean we need some way to avoid talking about politics and morality in a way that hollows out everything that is meaningful and complicated about it in the first place.
We need to be able to make messy moral and political statements like “I don’t consent to my country now, in its current state, but I consent to what it might become.” Or, in harder times, “I have loved my country and hope to love it again, but right now I must resist.” And those are weird and hard things to explain to people used to thinking in 2D.
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