Entitlement and tyranny

More on Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal and consensus, agreement, universalism, and how to think and argue about them. I basically agree with it, but there are places where I think it could use some expansion, or some further stipulation, or both. I think there are some lurking unacknowledged tensions; once they’re pointed out all will go swimmingly. Page 260:

I don’t think I’m asking for all that much in the way of intellectual conformity, consensus, or (gasp) tyranny. The version of universalism I’m proposing does suggest that it might be good and useful to say, “No matter how or what you think, you fellow human, you are entitled to food and shelter and health care and education and political representation.” You can be a Christian Scientist, a secular-humanist professor, or an avant-garde poet/sculptor/dancer, and we can let all those language games flourish. But underlying that commitment to parlogy and dissensus, let’s imagine provisional agreement about human entitlements…

Yes, let’s, but there’s a problem there, an unacknowledged tension. It’s helpful of Michael to have placed the Christian Scientist so close to health care in that passage, because that’s the tension. We can say “No matter what you think, you are entitled to health care,” because that doesn’t amount to forcing health care on the reluctant Christian Scientist. But what about the Christian Scientist’s minor daughter? That’s where the tension bites. We can tell the Christian Scientist “you are entitled to health care” without being coercive, but we can’t tell the Christian Scientist “your daughter is entitled to health care” without being at least potentially coercive. The Christian Scientist, if she is a dedicated Christian Scientist, won’t want her daughter to get health care as commonly understood – she will in fact want precisely to deny her daughter the entitlement to health care that we have in mind when we talk about entitlements to health care. And that’s a problem. That’s the problem.

Because of course it applies to a lot of cases. Not just the Christian Scientist who doesn’t want her daughter to be entitled to health care, but also the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to education, the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to freedom, the parents who don’t want their daughters to have the right of refusal in marriage, and so on. It also applies to men who don’t want their wives to have various entitlements; it applies to men who don’t want their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers to have any entitlements. It applies to people who have power over intimates and dependents, because such people generally do have both de facto and de jure power to deny entitlements to said intimates and dependents, a power which it can be anything from difficult to impossible to interfere with, especially without coercion – without what the people in question would indeed see as tyranny. That’s the problem. That’s the problem and it means that saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled to [various things]” won’t untie this knot between universalism and difference.

It’s a knot that keeps turning up in the newspapers day after day. It turns up in the father who wouldn’t let his daughter have surgery to drain an abscess in her head because ‘traditional healers’ advised him not to. It turns up in a new domestic violence law in India:

Every six hours, a young married woman is burned, beaten to death or driven to commit suicide, officials say. Overall, a crime against women is committed every three minutes in India, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Despite the scale of the problem, there had been no specific legislation to deal with actual abuse or the threat of abuse at home.

Again, this is coercion – depending on which person we’re talking to. If we’re talking to women, we’re saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled not to be subject to violence.” But if we’re talking to men, we’re not saying anything parallel, we’re saying something opposite – we’re saying “No matter what you think, you are not entitled to subject your wife to violence.” And Michael says so very clearly on p. 254 – a student asks if we can’t just say denying education is wrong, and the answer is yes, it’s just that it’s not helpful to say it in a foundationalist way. All this boils down to, I think, is perhaps a small disagreement about how much we’re asking for in the way of intellectual conformity, consensus, or (gasp) tyranny. I don’t think we’re asking for too much, certainly, and I think we’re asking for it on good grounds, but I also think that some of the people we’re asking it of are indeed going to think it’s tyranny.

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