Monday, January 29, 2007

Donald Davidson and the American Dream

Guest post today from Jeff Maynes:

One of the places I peddle my political opinions is on a forum otherwise dedicated to one of my favorite clubs, the New York Mets. Since the forum is dedicated primarily to a baseball team, and one out of New York no less, there is little unity in political opinion. Further, one often encounters the opinions of people who are not otherwise politically active, and they often do not have a particular party line to press. Yet in recent discussions over the minimum wage, a very clear divide emerged. What particularly struck me about the arguments of opponents of the minimum wage increase was faith in the ability of the impoverished to pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps.

The “American Dream” is that anyone can make their fortune or fame in this country through hard work. It's a great message in one respect, as it promotes effort and determination. Yet at the same time, it obscures a more complex political and social reality. Many of the participants in the aforementioned discussion hold this dream dear, leading to a great many statements along the following lines: “if they want to make more money, they should find higher paying jobs,” “there is money for anyone willing to work for it” and so on and so forth. There are undoubtedly a great number of reasons why people hold this view, from an overemphasis on the exceptional few to socialization in grade school. I wish to add to this list, rather than supplant it, by drawing an analogy to the work of Donald Davidson.

The central element in Davidson's philosophical project is his theory of interpretation. Interpretation is an activity that we all take part it, we interpret others and we interpret ourselves. Essentially, when two agents are involved in an interpretation, they fix the meanings and referents of their terms, allowing for successful communication. One difficulty that faces interpreters is the interconnectedness of belief and meaning. One cannot know the beliefs of another without knowing what they mean by their utterances, and one cannot know what their utterances mean without knowing what they believe.

So how do we find our way out of this conundrum? Davidson's solution is to assume agreement. In his paper “Belief and the Basis of Meaning” he writes “the point is rather that widespread agreement is the only possible background against which disputes and mistakes can be interpreted.” In other words, for me to figure out what someone else means by their utterances, I have to assume that we agree about just about everything else – the world we are talking about, basic beliefs about it, etc. If we are going to disagree about anything, we have to agree about most of the background stuff to even understand the disagreement.

The hypothesis I want to float for all of the SteveG's loyal readers is this: when encountering the plight of the impoverished it is natural to assume agreement with the circumstances in which both the “interpreter” and the “interpreted” live. If the American Dream truly applies to everyone, then the plight of the poor is their own fault – they have simply been too lazy to take advantage of the opportunities granted to them. Coming from a middle class lifestyle, this is a pretty easy view to hold. Had I decided not to work in high school I still would have ended up in college. My parents cared too much for my future to allow me to miss that chance (nor do I blame them). Had I decided to be lazy in college, I still would've gotten my degree, and probably would've wound up in some corporation earning a modest salary, living a comfortable life. The American Dream applied to me, whether I chose to be lazy or industrious.

As the middle class individual in this example, I am the interpreter. As interpreters, we know that our experience in life differs greatly from those on minimum wage income. To understand this disagreement, we assume agreement on background circumstances. Sure, we can make some new leaps, we understand that the poor don't always have food, or adequate health care, or even a roof over their heads. Nevertheless, many still insist that if these people only worked harder, their situation would improve and their plight would vanish. This sentiment comes out of the massive agreement the interpreter assigns between his or her circumstances and the circumstances of the interpreted. If opportunity is all we have ever known, then it is devastatingly difficult to approach a life without it. The American Dream is part of the middle class upbringing, and when interpreting the life of someone from a different background, it is one of the background assumptions often held steady.

I do not wish to limit this scheme to people who buy into the American Dream through and through. It is a powerful and pervasive influence, that I would guess afflicts all of us who have been lucky enough to avoid true hardship in life. It is difficult to get a hold of the life of the poor when you return to a warm apartment at the end of the day. No matter how much you see it, or understand it, the attributed background agreement, to some degree, is there. Davidson argues that agreement is a necessary precondition of interpretation. I'm not sure if the claim to necessity holds in this analogy, but at the least, this agreement is difficult to escape.

This audience doesn't need a moralistic essay on how to avoid this problem; many of the people who write and post here are more admirable than I in this regard. Yet, for my part, I think there is at least some hope for us to understand the lives of those in need by being conscious of the circumstances from which our interpretation begins and by making the important effort to refine our interpretation of the circumstances of those in need.

(Note: I do not mean to suggest that Davidson's doctrines are parallel to social justice arguments, or that this analogy is perfect. Further, even though Davidson was quite the lefty, I have no idea if he would agree with this or not. I merely wish to suggest it as an instructive and illuminating analogy).