The Woodlands Settlement – proof the courts can still get it horribly wrong

The recent settlement compensating some of the children abused at the Woodlands school excludes pupils abused and tormented before the year 1974. Prior to 1974 the crown of British Columbia had immunity from criminal proceedings – in other words the province was above the law. According to this article from the BC government website:

“the provincial government recognized that the special immunity of the Crown was unfair and enacted the Crown Proceedings Act .5 That Act expressly provides that the provincial government is liable in the same manner as if it were a person.”

The act itself, cited from the above paper, calls crown immunity:

“a relic of the mediaeval age when the King could do no wrong. … where the subject had to go on bended knee to seek from Ministers of the Crown the right to sue the Crown… [It] is a relic of the time of the divine right of kings and should have no part in our modern jurisprudence.”

However, we can learn from Matthew Good:

“In the 2005 case Arishenkoff v. British Columbia, the court found the Crown and its agents couldn’t be held liable for any wrongdoing prior to the implementation of the Crown Proceedings Act of August 1, 1974.”

So, according to the 2005 ruling by the B.C. court of appeal, it was wrong for the province to hold crown immunity – but it is not wrong that they held crown immunity prior to 1974. This undercuts the moral arguments for the 1974 decision in the first place. If the only reason why it is wrong to have crown immunity is that a court decides it is wrong to have it, and the decision is not grounded in the reality of what is right, then the only rational thing to do would be to simply grant as much crown immunity as civil unrest will bear (it becomes a tactical question of realpolitik).

This is the worst kind of positive law – the kind which pretends to be natural (that it would be simply wrong for the crown to have this immunity today), but at the same employs the logic that the state had the immunity just so long as it didn’t admit that it didn’t have it. In other words, the state’s words make the moral law, rather than the the moral law dictate the words that it is right for the state to speak and make into law.

The implications of this 2005 court of appeal decision are nothing less than morally despicable. The picture on the left is of a concentration camp in which Canadians of Japanese ethnicity were held during world war two because they were under a racist suspicion of being spies. According to this decision, the state can not be held liable for this racist internment. Furthermore, should B.C. have gassed its Japanese civilian war time prisoners during this time, British Columbia would simply not be liable for its actions, even if it declared in retrospect those actions to be absolutely morally abhorrent. I needn’t mention that it also absolves the state from ever having to repay the goods that were outright stolen from British Columbians of Japanese ethincity during the second World War.
Would we stand for the decision that the state only becomes liable after it passes a law making itself liable for Germany at the end of WW2? For Spain during the decline of fascism? Of course not. The laws that exist at some point do not determine the liability unless those laws are right – if the laws are wrong, they must be replaced with right laws, which will determine liability in the correct way. If we are serious moral actors, we hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others. It greatly concerns me that the B.C. court of appeal lacks this seriousness.

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In late capitalism, are surfaces thickening?

An interesting development consumerism in the first decade of the third melenia is the rise of ethics as a sold quantity in consumption based capitalism. While it is not new for companies to enhance their reputation by donating part of their proceeds to charity, this has taken on a new character in that consumers actually expect their specific purchase to have a measurable “good effect” on the world. Now when I buy fair trade, shade grown, carbon neutral coffee rather than regular coffee, I expect my consumption to be both reducing the negative impacts of the production of non fair trade coffee, I am also actively subsidizing the kind of industry I believe to be good.  When I buy the organic option, or the low-carbon option, I believe (perhaps correctly) that I’m supporting the right kind of industry, or reducing harm to the planet. Perhaps the cleanest example of this “active production of good” consumerism is Starbucks’ Ethos Water. The idea is that when you buy this water, an even larger quantity of water will be brought to people who do not have access to clean water. I actually remember the first time I saw ethos water – I thought “Oh, that’s a good idea” – and from a marketing perspective it is. They make a 5 or 10 cent donation from every 2$ bottle of water, and that cents allows them to charge 50 cents more than their competitors.

It’s not accidental that the name Starbucks starts coming up in a discussion about the logic of ethical consumption. If you have any of their single use coffee cups laying around, read the label. You probably don’t (I’m the only one who seems to like collecting used paper coffee cups), so I’ll cite it for you:
“We work with 1.2 million people to grow and harvest even better coffee that earns even better prices. Everything we do, you do. You buy coffee at Starbucks. Which means we can work with farmers to help improve their coffee quality and their standard of living. We call it coffee that is responsibly grown and ethically traded. And thanks to you, we’ve grown big enough to be able to do this kind of good on this kind of scale. Good job, you.”

I did not add the bold type – that is right there on the cup. The logical link between your consumer choice and making a good impact on the world are not left up to the consumers imagination, but dictated!

What becomes clear in these examples is that the ethical implications of our consumer choices are no longer merely part of the information in which the choice to consumer some product are made – but rather that the ethical implications of a choice are being sold to us as a product themselves – a product supplemental to the object perhaps analogously to the way a two six of liquor sometimes comes with a little bottle of something more expensive.

The immediate tendency here is to say it’s all crap. It’s quite obvious that the incentive is for corporations to produce the ethical product as an image for the consumer – to create a belief in the consumer that s/he has produced an active contribution of good in the world. Whether any actual improvement of conditions for the less fortunate happens is of only derivative importance. However, I called the blog entry “are surfaces thickening?” – what do I mean by this? Well, to say that Starbucks only cares about how ethical their coffee “looks” rather than whether it is “actually” fairly traded, is to say that what matters is the surface. This is true for all commodities – all commodities are surfaces. This is actually not controversial – the basic meaning of commodity is a good which is indefinitely replaceable or reproducible – and if something is replaceable or producible it’s existence mustn’t exceed what can be gleaned from the “surface” – only on the surface can form be imbued into an object. Surface means plan, idea, image, concept. Autocad drawings are surfaces. Things produced using autocad drawings, like ikea furniture, are also surfaces. To say “it’s all crap” is to dismiss all greenwashing, all ethical-consumerism as superficial, as dealing only with surfaces – as not being radical (radical means “ Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life” – OED).

But, what are surfaces in the developed internet age? If the ethical “product” consumed by the buyer is his or her idea of the good s/he’s produced, does the internet, and freely circulating information affect the extent to which corporations can put out false-fronts, shiny but depth-less images of how they are making the world a better place? I think the answer to this is “only sometimes”.

I realize I’ve already mentioned Starbucks a few times – but bear with me. This year, the International Labour Rights Forum put out a scorecard (PDF) which judged how ethical the buying practices of different corporations really were. Concerning Starbucks, they concluded:

“Starbucks’ standards, unlike the broader chocolate industry’s “certification” program, include real requirements for their cocoa suppliers such as supply chain transparency and compliance with international labor standards, among other criteria. In the last year, the pilot program has been independently audited and Starbucks has stated that they are committed to independent verification. The company is actively working with cooperatives in the Ivory Coast and has supported a range of social programs in the region, including helping small farmers get access to credit. These steps appear to be very positive developments and we look forward to seeing how Starbucks’ cocoa program develops.”

What we can glean from this is not so much that Starbucks’s CEO really does care about the slave children in the Ivory Coast, but rather that their attempt to maintain and secure an ethical image requires real work on the ground. As the world becomes a little more transparent, it is too easy for a glossy but thin image to be discredited. In response, the surface must thicken to maintain its power as a surface.

Of course, everything Starbucks does, Tim Hortons can do worse. They like to talk about the coffee partnership they’ve started. However, this partnership they talk so much about supply an unspecified about of their coffee (from a PDF of their 2008 annual report). In other words, the vast majority of Tim Hortons coffee is of extremely low grade, and grown by underpaid coffee farmers. And yet, they try to cash-in on the ethical supplement to their product by producing feel good commercials about how well they treat a tiny minority of their farmers. This is an example of a thin surface. The question is, can the thin-ness of this surface by sustained? Or, is Tim Hortons too susceptible to public outcry, to potential boycotts – will they be inevitably pushed down the road of thickening the surface of their ethical supplement?

In the end, I’m not going to pretend this issue matters unduly. The future of the world does not depend on whether easy access to information forces corporations to be slightly more truthful about images they try to attach to their products.  At the same time, it’s always interesting when forces conspire to make word and deed correspond.

What is a Concept?

After grading the first set of papers for my Teaching Assistantship this year, I’ve noticed that a common problem of reasoning can be attributed to not understanding what a “concept” is.

For example, take the concept “Rule of Law”. The rule of law is the notion that everyone is equally before the law. Perhaps better – it means no one is above the law. But the rule of law is a concept, not a scientific hypothesis – it is not “true or false” based on whether it corresponds to reality. The rule of law is not “false” because someone is factually above the law. In fact, it isn’t false or true at all – it’s a concept. But what is a concept?

A concept is something in your head. It’s a notion, a picture, an idea. But it isn’t only in your head – what’s essential to concepts is that they can be shared. I can write a book about a concept, (i.e. “The Concept of Irony”). I can have an opinion about a concept, an opinion others might disagree with. We can even argue about the implications concepts have on the world (i.e. “What is the role of the notion of multiculturalism in Canada’s self-image, law and politics?”). The concepts can really “be” in the world – for example, we can discuss whether Canada is “really” a democracy. We can even talk about what a concept “really means” in terms of what a concepts actual implications are when we apply it in society, or science and technology, and we can do this only because we assume that the content of a concepts application exceeds any person’s intention. What this means is that concepts are not only “in your head”, not only “in shared reality” (between our heads), but they actually concretize in or into the world.

So concepts are in the world, but earlier I said that concepts are not scientific hypothesis – is this not a contradiction? Presumably, if concepts really described the world, they would merely be a kind of scientific description, which is either falsifiable or, if un-falsifiable, mere claptrack. The mistake here is to assume a strong distinction between description and production. Concepts, especially political concepts, are both normative and descriptive – they describe a state of affairs, but they also imply that some state of affairs ought be brought about. What do I mean by this?

Take for example “The Rule of Law”. The rule of law means that the law is above everyone – including the one who makes the law. Like I said before, the Rule of law is not ‘false’ because the rule of law does not exist in every state. However, the rule of law may or may not exist in a state which claims to follow the rule of law. The rule of law is an “ideal”, an “idea”, a notion, or a concept, which can be held up to situations where it does not apply in order to discredit those power structures which justify themselves by way of concepts like “the rule of law”. For instance, Obama can use “the rule of law” as an ideal to justify his ad hawk legal structures for dealing with prisoners  – but at the same time critics can point out that his policies are anything but enactments of the rule of law. Ideals are themselves above everyone – anyone can pick up a concept and use it, anyone can show that someone who claims authority due to some concept is falsely employing the concept and not deserving of the authority.

Furthermore, the rule of law is concept of particular interest because it contains an inner tension in its essence.  Since it does not specify anything about the content of the law, can specify that different groups are to be treated differently before the law. So, the rule of law need not guarantee rights to all – it can guarantee rights to the nobility under the law, and under that same law take rights away from the peasants. This differential allotment of rights can be thought to be consistent with “everyone is equal before the law”. However, the universality of “everyone is equal before the law” conflicts with unequal allotment of rights. If everyone is equal before the law, it intuitively follows that the law should have the same content for all – that the law should not specify rights and benefits specific to one’s station. This tendency towards university unites the Magna Carta, the text which first secures the rights of the nobility against the absolute dominion of the king, with the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the Value of Communal Living

Last night a freelance reporter came to Toad Lane to interview my housemates and I on our choice to “live intentionally”. Preparing for and participating in the interview forced my housemates and I to evaluate, to take stock of what intentional living means for us.  Being required to explain and justify our living situation was slightly nerve wracking, but the experience on the whole was clarifying and worthwhile.

So what is intentional living? For us at least, it means living with a collective intent, purpose, direction. But certainly we all have many intentions, couldn’t any group of people living together find some common intention which they share, and say they are living intentionally? The difference is people move to this house specifically out of a desire to participate in a group which shares this intention, and which makes this particular intention a theme of their everyday activity. For us, that intention happens to be living with a vegan diet.

The reasons for group intentional collected around three ideas – support, engagement, and fostering values in the larger community.

Mutual support: Any value, no matter how good, can individuating if it alienates you from others. Veganism is a good example of this – holding oneself to a vegan diet can prevent one from participating in community, from sharing food and recipies, from eating out together, etc.  However, living together with a group of people who all share the diet overcomes those obstacles and turns what was an individuating force into a communalizing one. We share food, informally at least, several times per week. This is a boon both to our health (eating a variety of foods is essential to a vegan diet), but also our social well-being – doing things together is good for the soul.

Engagement: While we all hold the value of critique and argumentative discourse, it is not always productive to have discussion after discussion in which you must defend your “position” against those who think veganism is “stupid”. Living with 6 other people who all choose or practice vegan diets for different reasons provides an atmosphere for arguments which, since everyone is coming from a somewhat similar situation, can be more productive and less antagonistic. It’s a mistake to think “the more you disagree, the more critical a discussion is” – there is nothing inherently more critical about an argument between a vegan and a non vegan, than between someone who eats vegan for environmental reasons, and another who does so for animal rights reasons. Simply because we share a diet does not mean we share a common motivation behind the diet – and engagement on those motivations produces a thoughtful ongoing house discussion.

Spreading: All political activists know that organizing is the key to success. In a sense, this house is an “organizing” – it’s a group of people getting together under one roof, to share and organize their ideas. One value (I think) we all share with respect to Veganism is that it is not enough for us to be Vegan – if we think cruelty to animals is so nasty, we have to think of ways to spread reduced-violence diets through the larger community. One way we do this is with our pot-lucks, which are a time every week we open our house to the larger community to share vegan food and ideas. You don’t need to be vegan to come to the pot luck, you don’t need to share any of our values. In fact, you don’t even need to bring food the first time you come. If we can encourage people to eat vegan more of the time, even if that isn’t all of the time, this is still an improvement – part of moving towards a moral consensus on paying attention to the implicit violence in our daily lives.

This year, the house is trying to reach out in a new way, and to a new community, with our semi-academic graduate student sponsored conference. Roughly our idea is to get communities to talk to each other in a slightly more organized fashion – for people to prepare presentations which we can then discuss, and the whole thing to run along a schedule. While we have not received any submissions yet, the deadline is still over a month away (January 15th), and we have received promises from many house members and common attendees from our pot lucks that they will come forward with presentations.

This has been a pretty thin, incomplete, and house-specific account of what intentional living means. If you want to read more, there is an excellent article on Z-Net on “Revolutionary Communalism” which discusses a more radical model for communal, intentional. That article reminds us that communal living is not about, in the end, structures or models – but how we choose to engage with each other:

“It is important, in communal arrangements, to literally set space and time aside for this, taking into account that the lives we lead might pull us in different directions. However, communalism only provides a framework for these types of relationships, and if that space is not filled with a will and desire to share emotions, mediate problems, be open and honest, cultivate good eyes with patience and understanding, trust the other, and both give and accept criticism, this space can quickly be converted to something unfortunately similar to an apartment shared with a heap of sloppy craigslist roommates.”