"no harm, no foul"
Friday, August 15, 2003
MUCH ADO ABOUT ALIENATION: I haven’t read Audi’s book, which Nate Oman discusses at his blog. But I’d be surprised if Audi uses the notion of alienation Oman attributes to him – an empirical notion, which tracks the “actual, subjective, reactions of citizens.” Let me first contrast this “subjective” idea of alienation with an objective one, which I think is plausible; then I’ll say why only the objective idea is suitable for political decision-making.

First, is alienation only plausibly construed as a matter of subjective feelings? Or can we be alienated from something (the good, some aspect of ourselves) without knowing it? It strikes me that we can be objectively alienated, that is, be alienated, without actually feeling alienated. Indeed, though I’m no Marx expert, it seems the case that the proletariat can be alienated from their “species good” without knowing it – indeed, they might feel perfectly happy, which is what makes their alienation from their true good so poignant: their non-recognition of their alienation is a sign of how deep their alienation is. False conciousness, anyone?

More generally, I think we can (and do) sensibly talk about people being alienated from their good, or their rational nature, or their true selves. We can look at a person who wastes his life away, debauched, and speak of a way in which he is alienated, although he himself is perfectly satisfied with where he is. He is alienated from his good as a human being; he’s not living an objectively good human life. We say to him, “You’re not living a life fit for a being endowed with reason” (or something like that). Perhaps we can even reason him into a recognition that the life he is living is objectively deficient. But it doesn’t seem to me that his recognition that he is not living a good life (viz., a life befitting a human being) is a condition of his being alienated – that would be to say that one can only be alienated if one feels or thinks one is, which is what I’m suggesting isn’t necessarily the case. (At the same time, it may be the case that in order to legitimately coerce somebody, you have to be, in principle, able to rationally persuade the other person that he is in a state of alienation from his good, his rational nature, etc.)

So I take we have two notions of alienation, at least, that we can work with. The question now is, which notion is the one most relevant to talking about policy? I think it’s pretty clearly the objective notion: we should worry about creating the social conditions where people aren’t objectively alienated. It may be that even when these conditions are in place, people will still be alienated (some people are never happy, no matter what you give them), but that’s not the state’s legitimate concern.

If Audi is using the subjective sense of alienation, then I agree with Nate: he’s made a mistake. But the fact that he talks of “fully and rationally informed consent” as being the standard (i.e., only politics that you would agree to if you were fully informed and rational are non-alienating) makes me think he’s using the objective one. So what he’s talking about is not the feeling of alienation, but being alienated from your rational nature, where “being alienated from your rational nature” is an objective standard – i.e., you can be alienated from your rational nature without subjectively feeling alienated.

There is another possible way out for Audi, even if he’s using the subjective standard. He may be making a claim either that (1) empirically, the only time people feel alienated is when they are rationally alienated, or (2) conceptually, that the only “true” alienation is alienation from one’s rational nature. This is possible, but strained. As Nate’s Shakespearean examples show, alienation as a subjective feeling can have all sorts of sources, and it’s artificial to say that some of these are alienation and others aren’t. So the principle of charity leads me to attribute the objective concept of alienation to Audi, since that gives him the stronger argument. But perhaps I should read the book first.

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