What is “Leftism” and How Can it Be Defended?

Recently I have been doing some writing on the concept “leftism” (which will probably be available soon as a small book). It is, of course, hard to define exactly what leftism is, but most people probably have a rough idea about what it means. My own method has been to approach the term as an ideal type, i.e., a sort of loose definition which enumerates characteristics normally associated with the phenomenon in question. When talking about ideal types, it is important to note that not all characteristics need to be found in all individual cases. But it is hard to say “objectively” how many characteristics one must observe, or how strongly they must be manifested. Again, an ideal type is not a precise definition.

For the purposes of my own investigations – and my defense of leftist politics – I assumed that the most important characteristic of leftism is a defense of relatively high levels of economic redistribution. It would be hard to call someone a leftist if he or she did not want higher levels of economic redistribution (mostly from rich to poor, of course) than, for instance, conservatives or libertarians, no matter how many of the other criteria for leftism they fulfill. On the other hand, it would, perhaps, be hard to call someone a “pure” leftist if she accepts high redistribution, but rejects all other characteristics of leftism.

The other characteristics or criteria that I include in my ideal type of leftism are support for: (radical) feminism, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, immigration and (some sort of) multiculturalism, bottom-up globalization and special rights for workers, and participatory and majoritarian democracy. One could probably also add environmentalist concerns (and a particular view of the state’s role to meet those concerns) to this list, but for different reasons I will not include it in my book.

I defend leftist politics by appealing to my hedonist ethics. I believe that, for instance, economic redistribution from the rich to the poor, a kind of feminism that makes us see beyond culturally specific gender roles, or a state that does not privilege any particular ethnicity or lifestyle can be defended on the grounds that it maximizes pleasure and (perhaps more important) minimizes pain.

I do not, in other words, appeal to Marxism in any way to defend leftism; and I believe that extensive ownership of the means of production by the state (or similar collective entities) would be mistaken. I believe leftists has relied too much on Marxism and other related theories to defend their positions. Hedonism is a more straightforward idea and it does not suffer from the many weaknesses that can be found in most other theories used to defend leftism. Of course, some may claim that the hedonist defense of leftism is not left enough. In that case, I would only answer that that would be a problem for such “left-leftism”, not for hedonism – unless, of course, the critics in question are prepared to make a philosophically rigorous argument against hedonism itself (and make better arguments for another moral theory).


My Ideology: Anti-Egoism

I usually discuss my ethics and my political philosophy. But to discuss one’s political ideology is to move some steps toward practical politics, leaving a few of the foundational steps behind for the sake of simplicity. After all, it is rare that a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a “nationalist” or a “socialist” is called upon to explain the moral foundations of their political views, and that is why we call these views ideologies rather than moral or political philosophies (but they can, of course, be propagated as foundational philosophies, provided that enough theoretical effort is made). And in real life (outside of the ivory towers of academia or think tanks, that is), we usually see no problem with the propagation of a “truncated” ideology rather than a complete political philosophy. In real life there is, alas, not enough time for the latter, nor enough philosophical know-how among most people to understand the philosophies in question.

So after this apology for the use of ideologies I would simply want to state what my ideology is. Put briefly, I probably adhere to what one might call anti-egoism. My view is that you simply don’t have a right to take for yourself more than is necessary for a decent life. By this I mean that you have a right to procure the means to uphold your own life (which, of course, also means keeping some savings for unforeseen events) and the lives of people who are dependent on you. I also grant the right to procure means for a few pleasures and interests that are necessary for a psychologically and culturally decent life. But wanting to go beyond this I would call egoism, at least in a world where many people lack the means to live this kind of decent life.

Now this anti-egoistic position does not by itself entail any specific economic system. In a very libertarian society the non-egoistic ideal could flourish if most people subscribe to it. In a world where many people do not subscribe to it political means are necessary to correct people’s egoism – means which might have different characteristics, depending on the circumstances. Often, however, the problem seems to be one of “financial” egoism, which often necessitates various redistribute measures through the tax system, along with other “leftist” tools. In this day and age the “environmentalist” toolkit seems to be highly appropriate as well.

I am perfectly ready to concede that some people will be happy to be egoists and claim that you basically have a “right” to anything that you can take for yourself. In real life, such conflicts are unavoidable. The resolution of these conflicts can only be left to democratic decision. I suspect, however, that few people would argue that egoism is an “ultimate” good. Some people would, no doubt, argue that egoism is bad, but that it is unavoidable. There might, for instance, be innovative and creative egoists who refuse to render any services to society unless their egoistic cravings are satisfied. I am prepared to concede that to some degree these cravings might have to be satisfied. But to what degree is an empirical matter. Anyway, it is all too easy to start up with the bad-but-unavoidable sentiment and slip into a good-because-unavoidable sentiment. As long as one avoids that slippage I believe the dilemma of unavoidable egoists is fairly manageable. At least as long as the egoists are not the majority.

So, that was the simple story of my political ideology. Less egoism in the world, that’s it. Not a complicated message, one might think. Of course, I am always ready to defend this ideology on a more philosophical level, but in – what I have called – real life such defenses are rarely called for; and I am beginning to think I am wasting my time with philosophical details.

Let’s Take the Power Back

Many people complain about different things around them every day. If we exclude purely “domestic” complaints, the most common themes are probably things like traffic jams, lack of parking spaces, trains or buses not running on time, stress at work, the price of a cup of coffee, littering, ill-mannered teenagers, etc. Less common (because they affect you less in everyday life), but not too infrequent, are complaints about taxes, pensions, crime rates, queues in the health care system, corrupt politicians, and so on. The list of examples could, of course, be much longer; but the point is that all of these things are to a large degree affected by political decisions (by what the politicians do or don’t do).

In spite of that, many people seem to prefer to complain in private, without engaging in any way in political life. Perhaps it may be psychologically satisfying to blow off some steam in private, but it does nothing to solve the problems. I must confess that I get more and more pessimistic about changing anything for the better in this world, just because of this general reluctance to get involved in political life. I am not saying that everyone should run for office or go to demonstrations every week, but the least one can do is to try to become a somewhat more informed voter – and this means keeping a constant interest in politics, rather than watching a few debates during election time. It would, however, be good if many more people could join political parties and become active members.

The underlying concern here is that democracy seems to be slipping out of our hands more and more every day. Most likely the important thing for people who want to change things radically (no matter in what direction) is not to discuss among themselves what policies would be best in the ideal world. The important thing is to reach out to “common people”, to wake them from their political slumber and apathy. If we sincerely believe in democracy, then we must show the political elites who really should have the power. At this stage I am almost tempted to say that the contents of the policies are relatively unimportant, as long as policies are really in line with what the people want.

The important thing now is to, so to speak, take the power back. When things like universal suffrage was achieved people got the power in the first place. But in most places this power was quickly relinquished to party apparatuses, which made it easy for “special interests” to manipulate the parties behind the scenes. What we need, in short, in politics today – besides a voting system that allows for many political parties to be represented in the parliaments – is much more transparency, popular participation, and popular interest and knowledge. More participation by totally uninformed people, on the other hand, would only lead to blind “populism,” whereby the masses themselves are manipulated by charismatic leaders; therefore increased knowledge as well as participation is vital.

Anyway, if we cannot achieve these things, it is futile – for the few of us who are interested – to discuss alternatives to the present “world order”. But I believe “real” democracy can be achieved. It is possible to envisage a culture where, perhaps not all, but many more people take an active interest in learning about politically relevant matters and in discussing them openly. Of course, this might entail some sacrifices; for instance, it might leave people with a little less time for pure recreation. But if we, the people,  cannot make that sacrifice, then maybe we do not deserve to live in a democracy anyway.

Ethical Hiring and Firing

It struck me one day when I was passing a parking inspector on the street that that kind of job could not be very hard to learn, i.e., most ‘normal’ people could probably do it quite easily. Yet, it is probably the case the people who actually do jobs like that – jobs that most people can do with a small amount of on-the-job training – often have more work experience or education that is needed (but it could also be the case that they simply have the right social connections). There are other jobs that require some sort of education, but usually not a three- or four-year university degree. Many civil service jobs, for instance, ask for degrees in political science, law, sociology, etc. even though the job description has very little to do with the contents of such degrees.

In other words, many people are over-skilled or over-educated, relative to their present job. On the other hand, there are many people who remain unemployed because they can’t get the experience or education that will put them on the top of the list of the hiring employer. There might be a measure of ‘hidden’ discrimination in this.  We usually frown upon nepotism or favoritism, because we want to ensure equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Thus, one might want to rely on objective criteria (years of education, years of work experience, etc.) when hiring. But if these objective criteria are not very relevant for the job in question, then this appears to be nothing but a form of discrimination of those who have not been able to connect to the right kind of social networks (and we all know that social networks are of increasing importance when it comes to landing a job these days) or have been forced to stay away from work life for other reasons. And it is probably the case that this kind of discrimination hits people even harder than the ‘classic’ kinds of discrimination: race, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, religion etc.

Now, if we want to maximize happiness in society it seems that employers should relax their demands for education or experience, when those criteria are not very relevant for the job in question. Empirical research has confirmed that whereas people are able to adapt to many unfortunate circumstances in life (for instance, becoming disabled), unemployment  seems to be an exception to this. After the shock of becoming unemployed has receded, quality of life increases somewhat again, but usually not up to the pre-unemployment level. Combatting long term unemployment should, thus, be important for a hedonistic utilitarian. One way of doing this could be – at least for some vacancies – to consciously hire people who may have less experience or education than the top applicants. In other words, hiring people with adequate qualifications rather than people with excellent qualifications (which are unnecessary for doing the job in question anyway).

In times of high unemployment employers might receive hundreds of applications when they announce a vacancy, and it is hard to imagine that the person who actually gets the job is actually better at doing the job than any other person who ‘ranks’ from, let’s say, place 2 to 20 on the list. On the contrary, we all know from experience that a not insignificant amount of people we encounter in everyday life are more or less incompetent at their job. Thus, in many cases the policy suggested here would not only be more just, but also more efficient for society. But even if it turns out to reduce efficiency, we must always remember that it is always possible to sacrifice some efficiency if it means greater justice (i.e. overall happiness).

You can read more on this topic in my article ‘Ethics in Hiring: Nepotism, Meritocracy, or Utilitarian Compassion,’ in the lastest issue of Philosophy for Business.

Hedonism and Basic Income

As a hedonist, I have often defended the Welfare State, which includes, for instance, financial assistance to people who are unable to find work (or unable to work at all). The logic behind this is that the relief of suffering that ensues is not counteracted by a similar loss in pleasure by those who are taxed in order to fund such programs.

This kind of assistance can come in different forms. In Sweden, for example, there are unemployment benefits that are determined as a percentage of one’s previous salary (this has all sorts of requirements attached to it), but there is also means tested assistance which is calculated to cover only the necessities of life (rent, food, clothes, etc.). Other kinds of assistance exist for the sick, for students, for parents, and so on.

The idea behind a basic income is that these different kinds of assistance can be replaced by a single type of benefit that all citizens are entitled to. It does not matter whether they are unemployed, sick, students, parents, or simply people who choose not to work – they are all eligible to receive the basic income. The question is whether a basic income is preferable to traditional benefits from a hedonist perspective.

There is no clearcut answer to that question. As I stated at the outset, hedonists should defend some kind of assistance to those that are unable (and perhaps also unwilling) to work. On the plus side, a basic income lets people choose an “epicurean” way of life, which – I believe – can be conducive to increased happiness. Epicurus’s idea was that one does not need much in the sense of material wealth to be happy. More important is leisure and good friends. A basic income also enables engagement in political life (“civic virtue”), which is somewhat in line with John Stuart Mill’s ideals.

A drawback to basic income, however,  is that it may render some people too passive. Empirical research seems to confirm that sitting alone at home all day watching television (or something similar) is detrimental to one’s happiness. This means that a basic income is most beneficial to those who have good ideas about how to use their free time in an active way. Some traditional unemployment benefits require certain activities on the part of the recipient, and this is probably what some people need (whereas the idea behind the basic income is that it is supposed to be totally unconditional).

Is there a risk that a basic income scheme would become to expensive? Of course, hedonists must always take account of the fact that many people are not hedonists, and they will perhaps resent paying taxes to finance a basic income (which means that, for instance, entrepreneurs may “obstruct” these policies). On the other hand, it is not to be suspected that many people would choose to live on the basic income instead of working, because we must suppose that the level of the basic income is set rather low. It will allow people to live modestly by themselves, but it should not be set so high as to allow, for example, the forming of a family (something that most people want).

There is, however, a kind of paradox involved in this. If – as I believe – people could become happier by living in a more epicurean way and renounce many modern pleasures, and if more people realized this, then perhaps more people would want to live on a basic income instead of working. But then we could not afford the basic income scheme. The ideal, then, supposes that most people would not choose the epicurean way to happiness! If too many people choose that way we would have to come up with some other scheme, for instance, shortening the workday for everyone to five hours, which would radically reduce unemployment and increase leisure time (for most people). This compromise would be beneficial both to those who have a hard time finding something meaningful to do in their spare time and those who can’t get enough spare time. At the same time the level of production that is necessary to maintain a decent material quality of life can be kept going.

I have uploaded a longer text on the hedonist case for a basic income on the Social Science Research Network.

Can We Afford to Help Refugees?

[This a translation of an old post from my Swedish blog]

For a few (mainly among the Sweden democrats, I presume), the refugee question may be about protecting Swedish “culture” or “identity”, but for most people it mainly seems to be a question about costs: can we afford to help a lot of refugees or not? For that reason, I would like to contribute with a few theoretical comments about what it might mean to say that one can or cannot afford something (discussion about our actual national accounts I leave to others).

When is it possible to say that one person definitely cannot afford to help another person? There are possibly saint-like people who would dispute the following answer, but it seems reasonable to assume that someone who does not have food, clothes, and shelter for oneself cannot afford to help someone else (it is, rather, precisely those people who need help from others). It is rather pointless to share one’s last piece of bread with someone else so that both get too little food and perish.

But the further one progresses from the satisfaction of those basic needs, the less meaningful it gets to claim that one “cannot afford” certain things. Of course, one could always use the expression in a technical sense, – Bill Gates might afford to buy 100 luxurious houses, but he “can’t afford” to by 101 – but for a well-to-do person it is more apt to talk about priorities. I think most of us would claim that a parent who says he cannot afford a winter coat to his child, although he has just bought a new hi-fi system for himself, can actually afford the coat, but has prioritized something else.

There is no doubt that Sweden can afford to help more refugees than the numbers that have already been helped. The question is if we want to prioritize it. Many Swedish households seem to have a lot of money to spend on travels, home improvement and interior design, electronic gadgets, restaurant meals etc. This is obviously something they prioritize above helping strangers in need.

Why, then, is it the case that some people still claim that we cannot afford receiving refugees? Apparently the affordability answer is simply a pretext. There must be some other real reason. The main candidates for such a reason, I believe, are: (i) a moral conviction that we do not have any economic responsibility towards strangers, (ii) the nationalist argument mentioned above, or (iii) pure unreflective egoism. It would, thus, be good if those who claim that “we can’t afford” openly state which of these viewpoints they actually endorse.

(Then there is of course the question of how one is supposed to help people if one actually wants to prioritize this – through taxes or through individual actions. That question is too complex to discuss here and now.)

How Much Do Biological Sex Differences Explain?

Whether sex differences are social constructions or biological facts is an old and contentious question. It has mostly been feminists (but by no means all feminists) who have pushed the former idea and “conservatives” who have pushed the second. If you believe that sex differences when it comes to, for instance, choice of career or lifestyle are the result of social construction then you might believe that children should not be brought up so as to be socialized into traditional gender roles; if you believe the opposite then, perhaps, you see no harm in reinforcing what is “natural” anyway.

Now how can we know which view is correct? Many people probably go by experience, observing that men and women seem to make different kinds of choices and to think and act differently. It is not easy, however, to know whether these observed differences are the result of “innate” sex differences if most people have been brought up in a way that encourages gender differentiation from the earliest childhood. One would have to make new observations on people who have been deliberately brought up in a non-traditional way (when it comes to gender differences), and this might be hard to do in a systematic way, since very few children can be brought up in this “sheltered” way. After all, gendering processes are so pervasive that it is hard to avoid its influences.

But there are some who believe scientific studies have proven that there are biological sex differences. There is, for instance, one study – “Sex differences in human neonatal social perception” by Connellan et al (Infant Behavior & Development, vol. 23) – which has been mentioned quite often. The study tested whether there was a sex difference when it comes to interest in looking at a face and a mobile among neonates – i.e., persons “who by definition have not yet been influenced by social and cultural factors”. The study showed that male infants had a higher preference for looking at the mobile, while female infants preferred more to look at the face. The exact figures for males were 25% preference for looking at the face, 43.2% for the mobile and 31.8% with no particular preference. For females the figures were 36.2% for the face, 17.2% for the mobile, and 46.6% for no preference.

It seems clear that the study proves something, namely that “[m]ale infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face”; but it is hard to see that this proves something very significant. I think one must concede that there are some innate differences between the sexes that may determine the shapes of lives of men and women, but it is hard to see how studies like these can prove that the extent and pervasiveness of differentiation we observe today is innate. After all, the study showed that 31.8% of the males and 46.6% of the females showed no preference for either of the objects in the study. If these numbers were extrapolated to adults and, for instance, career choice, we should be able to see far less sexual segregation in work places than we see today (although a 50/50 distribution for all occupations may never materialize because of the biological differences that actually exist).

Another study (which unfortunately had a rather small sample size) looked at children’s interest in different toys – specifically a doll and a toy truck – during the first year of life. The authors found that the infant girls showed a large spontaneous preference for a doll, whereas infant boys showed no significant visual preference for either the doll or the truck. But the female interest in the doll cannot be described as overwhelming, since they seem to have been interested in the truck about 35% of the time (Alexander et al, “Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual interest in Toys”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 38). Yet another study found that both girls and boys aged 12 months chose to look at a doll approximately 57% more than at a toy car, although when the boys get older (24 months) the interest in the car is raised to about 51 to 55%, while the girls’ interest in the doll drops to about 51 to 55%. In addition they found that there were no significant sex differences regarding the color of the toys. This, again, seems to point to relatively minor sex differences (Jadva et al, “Infants’ Preferences for Toys, Colors, and Shapes: Sex Differences and Similarities”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 40).

The truth is probably that there are some biological differences that may affect life choices among women and men, but that these rather limited differences are reinforced (by parents, kindergarten teachers, other children etc.) when the children are brought up. So if one wants to look to each individual’s potential and let them develop in their own way, the least one can do is not to force children into certain categories early on. If a boy does not show any clear preference for playing with cars or building blocks or a girl does not show a clear preference for playing with dolls, then don’t buy these things for them anyway.