Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tough Love in the UK (Josh)

Last year (if I'm remembering the time frame correctly) David 'Dave' Cameron shocked his Tory followers by imploring them to 'hug a hoody'. Apparently, by 'hug' he meant 'tackle'.
British politics now makes sense, again (aside from, you know, Labour now being a centre-right party some of the time)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Berlin and Arendt: in the News! (Alas) (Josh)

Funnily enough, a week after I presented a paper on Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt at our political theory workshop, the Chronicle of Higher Ed publishes a piece on Arendt by Russell Jacoby which includes a brief comparison of the two. It's not to Berlin's advantage; and so (despite my attempts to defend Arendt from liberal detractors last week), I bristle. I'll try to get to a larger point by and by -- I hope; but first -- I vent. (I'll leave responding to the sneering at Rawls to others)
Jacoby's an old hand at anti-Berlin polemics -- he published one in Salmagundi over two decades ago, accusing Berlin of going along with the powers that be and the dominant currents in Western society (back when being a liberal, as Berlin was, was [highly] arguably compatible with the dominant currents in America and Britain). Here the objection seems to be partly that Berlin chose less sexy titles for his works than did Arendt (The Human Condition vs. "Alleged Relativism in 18th Century Thought'? Yeah, ok. Never mind that one was an academic article, the other a mass-market book; or that, while many of us doubt that Arendt really captured the whole of the human condition, Berlin managed to say some trenchant things about the history of relativism, and the difference between relativism and pluralism -- matters which some of us think sort of significant). So -- Berlin wasn't as good at advertising. Is this really a point that a more or less left-wing critic of modern commercial culture wants to be pushing? (One isn't reassured by Jacoby's citing of Arendt's use of Greek and Roman words as a point in her favour. It all depends on how one uses them; wearing one's classical education heavily is not in itself a sign of intellectual excellence.) Jacoby also charges that Berlin 'never really' wrote a book; the 'really' here leaves a bit of wiggle-room, perhaps -- which is useful, since the statement is false, as readers of Berlin's biography of Marx know. It may be true that Berlin's description of Arendt as 'the most overrated philosopher of the century' did not appear in print in his lifetime; but he did, rather bluntly, call her over-rated in print -- so Jacoby's charge of 'caution' seems misplaced here. (Indeed, Berlin would agree with Jacoby that he [Berlin] and Arendt were both over-rated). And he repeats the well-worn charge that Berlin 'waffled', and suggests that his 'unwavering moderation' makes him uninspiring. Berlin did waffle about some things; but he was consistent, and adamant, about others, some of them rather important, such as opposition to Soviet Communism. And I, at least, find him inspiring precisely for his unwavering moderation -- of which we could use more.
As I've suggested, Jacoby stresses the 'celebrity' aspects of Arendt; when it comes to her serious philosophical works, he notes that her writing became 'opaque' and 'cloudy', and notes that she benefitted from "the widespread belief that philosophical murkiness signals philosophical profundity" (widespead among whom?) While he's dismissive of Berlin, he hardly goes easy on Arendt; he admires her intellectual style, but not, ultimately, the content of her thought -- and, to his credit, he does ultimately focus on the latter, and makes some valid points (I found his noting of the "semireligious Heideggerian idiom of angst, loneliness, and rootlessness" that informs Arendt's work congenial, though also one-sided and perhaps overly ungenerous; there's also both a political hard-headedness, and an affirmation of worldliness, in Arendt's work which partly balance out the more 'Heideggerian' elements). But here, too, he's not entirely fair or entirely accurate -- or, if literally accurate, some of his claims are misleading. Eichmann in Jerusalem may have been the only work that Arendt wrote 'on assignment' for the New Yorker; but others of her books were also culled from essays that appeared in that journal, and so presumably benefitted, as EinJ did, from the editorship of William Shawn (at least some portions of On Violence and Crises of the Republic -- and perhaps also Men in Dark Times, but I now forget, and don't have the book at hand). And the conclusion that Arendt's reflections on evil in EinJ were simply correct, and the Origins of Totalitarianism, containing arguments in tension with the later book, simply wrong, seems -- well, simplistic. Things are less cut and dried, all around (but then this is no doubt a very Berlinian, waffly, uninspiringly moderate point): for one thing, many have contested the idea of the banality of evil (even those who actually understand it); for another, as Jacoby earlier notes, there's an awful lot going on in Origins of Totalitarianism, aside from the notion of 'radical evil'. But Jacoby's impatient treatment of philosophers who have commented on Arendt, with their addiction to nuance in reading and creativity in conceptual argument, suggests that he wouldn't have much time for such quibbles.
Overall, it's a partly astute, partly ham-fisted, account of Arendt and of intellectual life more generally; whenever Jacoby does show appreciation for any thinker or intellectual milieu, it seems purely for the sake of using him, her or it to bash someone or something else. Jacoby is a past master of the intellectual jeremiad; and there is much to sympathise with -- and many harsh truths to face -- in his lamentations about the state of cultural and intellectual (and political) life in our society. But, for all the intellectual sharpness that he can, and sometimes does, display, pieces like this -- ill-tempered, simplifying, and ultimately un-edifying -- are not the stuff of which a vibrant intellectual life is made. For that we'd do better to turn to Berlin and Arendt, for all their faults.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nice election results; shame about the Constitutional structure (Josh C)

By temperament, I'm a small-c conservative. If a political system is working reasonably well, I tend to be leery of dramatically changing it; if it's working poorly, my first impulse is to look for reforms that can be made within, rather than to, the overall constitutional and institutional structure of the system.
That said, after the last several national elections, I find myself asking myself, increasingly frequently and with decreasing inhibition: the Senate - what's the point?
I like the idea of divided government and checks and balances (and indeed wish we had more of it, and am looking forward to having more of it for the next couple of years). Bicameralism is fine by me. But it seems to me that there's something weird about a system in which a few thousand Montanans or Virginians can determine who controls half of the national legislative branch. On a deeper level, the Senate seems to give undue advantage to certain demographics within the US, which seem hard to square with ideals of political equality (which I tend to think are central to democracy).
I don't imagine that I'll find any takers -- but would anyone here care to defend the Senate? If not, does anyone have any ideas about what might be a plausible alternative for one house of a bicameral legislature? Or should we scrap bicameralism altogether -- and if so, why? (My pragmatic argument against scrapping legislative bicameralism: the 1996 [whoops! -- I meant 1994] House Republicans.)

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Two Moral Questions; or, Help(?) Salve Josh's Conscience! (Josh)

Two questions about the defensability of things that I am doing have come up in recent conversations with other contributors to this blog; and I'd be interested in hearing what others have to say about these, and perhaps having a fairly extended conversation about what I regard as the more significant one (which indeed is relevant to many of our contributors, and not just me).
First, the minor point. There is, of course, a fairly major election coming up. I currently reside in MA, and am likely to do so for the next several years. I haven't been following local politics closely, but have been slowly and haphazardly trying to learn something about politics in the Commonwealth (apparently there's a lot of cronyism in Boston politics, and some parts of even MA are surprisingly reactionary). Despite residing in MA, however, I am still registered to vote in NJ, where I grew up. I would say that at this point, despite not having lived there full-time for 8 years, I still know a bit more about NJ politics than MA politics, and this is one reason I continue to vote there. But I decided not to register to vote in MA in this particular year mainly for strategic reasons, since the NJ senatorial race is really close, and I really want the Democratic candidate to win.
Now, of course, there is in fact no rational reason for me to vote at all, as people keep telling me. However, being irrational, I persist in doing so, and in thinking about how and where to vote as if my vote might actually matter. Leaving this absurdity aside, the question that was posed to me is this. Many voters in the US do not have any choice in where they vote - they reside in one state, where they are registered, and can't decide to vote in another state for strategic (or other) reasons. Because of my good fortune in being a grad student in MA, while also still being registered in NJ, I seem to have an advantage in voting that most US citizens don't, to the extent that (at this point) I can choose where to vote, so as to (arguably) make my vote count more. Does this raise any problems of democratic justice, as my interlocutor suggested, or not (as I've always tended to think)?
Ok, now for the more significant (I think) question, which came up in the discussion of what political theory is at the political theory Workshop this past Wednesday (and was most forcefully posed by Sean). This might be stated thus: assuming that we would-be political theorists are committed to certain political goals, or feel that we have certain moral duties to seek to effect certain things; and assuming also that being academic political theorists -- that is, writing on a fairly abstruse level for a fairly small audience (many of whom already share our basic goals and values, even if they argue for them in different ways) -- is not, on the face of it, the most effecacious way to pursue those goals or fulfil those duties; why are we academic political theorists (or political scientists), or seeking to become such; and how might we justify devoting ourselves to academic pursuits, as opposed to devoting ourselves to careers of social or political activism, of whatever sort?
I think I can provide an answer, for my own part, to the first question, about why I've decided to go into academia rather than activism; but I don't know that this explanation is really a justification. Whether it is or not depends in large part on whether one believes that everyone has a duty to do all s/he can to improve the world (whatever improving the world may consist of); but even if one doesn't believe that everyone has an absolute duty to do so, I'm not sure that it's adequate justification. As a value pluralist, I don't think that I believe that everyone has a primary duty to improve the world; but I'm not sure about that. And at any rate, I'm not sure that I don't think that working to improve the world in some way is more important, in terms of my own scale of values and esteem, than the academic work that I do. But - I enjoy academic work, whereas I don't think I'd enjoy activism. And I don't think I'd be a very good political activist at all; whereas I think I'll be at least a decent-to-mediocre political theorist (and, I hope, rather better than mediocre), and am likely to do more good as a teacher of political theory (even if this good consists in benefitting individual students rather than contributing to larger social change) than I would as a (frustrated, not very effective) political actor or social activist.
These at least are the reasons why I've adopted the path I have, though as I've said, I'm not sure that they suffice for a justification. I'd be interested to hear what others think about this, and how they justify (if they do) their decision to go into academia -- particularly in the cases of those who are more strongly convinced than I that everyone has a primary obligation to improve the world, or benefit the worst off, or what have you -- which seems to make it harder to justify devoting one's life to other goals than does my own more permissive, pluralistic conception of duties.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Political Theory: What's the Point, and Who Cares? (Josh)

As most of the contributors to this blog know, the Political Theory Workshop here is having a special meeting next week to discuss the nature of our field (or discipline, or vocation, or common pursuit, or past-time, depending on how you look at it). First- and second- year theorists have been asked to think about answers to the questions
"What is political theory?" and "What's the point of Political Theory?", which will then be discussed by the full company there present.
Now, a number of us are going to be expected to come up with, and share, answers to these questions; others of us don't have to, but would have something valuable to say about them. So I'm just going to throw the comments section to this post open, as a forum for (perhaps) developing and test-driving ideas to share in the workshop -- or continuing (or rather anticipating) the discussion outside of the workshop, among a somewhat different group of people. (The answers to the question are supposed to be 3-5 minutes, which seems like a roughly blog-post-like length of time -- unless it's a blog post by me).
If no-one else says anything, I might (or I might just let it die); but for the time being, there are no pronouncements as to the nature and purpose of our field from me.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Should Joe kill Fred? (Brandon)

Hi all,

A friend (we'll call him Joe) recently asked me the question: should I not kill Fred (our mutual friend)? Strange as it may seem, I wasn't sure how to answer. Even stranger, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that even though I strongly want Joe not to kill Fred, the best answer to Joe’s question is no.

A desire is overriding, let us say, if and only if one attempts to satisfy it. It follows that Joe's question can be restated thus: should I not have an overriding desire to kill Fred? The best answer is no because no one, including Joe, can help having the overriding desires s/he has. Physical events at the quantum level, whether governed by deterministic or indeterministic laws, fix the content of all one's desires, and hence all one's overriding desires. To say that Joe should not attempt to kill Fred is to say that nature should be different from the way it is, which seems nonsensical.

I want to do away with a possible objection. One might observe that people often can help having the overriding desires they have. It may be, for example, that two years ago, Joe had the opportunity to join a gang. He recognized that whereas joining A was likely to cause him to embrace violence in the future, refraining from joining A was likely to prevent him from doing so. For social reasons, Joe joined A. In this case, the objection goes, Joe caused himself to have an overriding desire to kill Fred in the future.

It is true that Joe caused himself to have an overriding desire to kill Fred in the future, but only in a proximate sense. The important question to ask about the above case is: whence Joe’s overriding desire to join A? At this point, a regress sets in. Perhaps three years ago, Joe decided that he was going to pursue social satisfaction at all costs and, in this way, caused himself to have an overriding desire to join A in the future. The important question then becomes: whence Joe’s overriding desire to pursue social satisfaction at all costs? At some point, the overriding desire in question will have been caused by a prior overriding desire that Joe did not choose to satisfy. (This counter-objection is similar to Galen Strawson’s infinite regress argument in “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility”.)

I’d like to know what people’s reactions to the above argument are. It seems to me that the argument hinges on two assumptions that you might find problematic. The first is that a person must choose to do X in a more-than-proximate sense in order for it to be true that he should not do X. The second is that asking whether one should attempt to kill another is the same as asking whether one should have an overriding desire to kill another.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts,
Brandon

Consequentialism (Sean)

Here is a counterexample to consequentialism that I've been discussing with someone, and I'd like to hear others' thoughts on it and whether it's a standard example in the voluminous literature on consequentialism and, if so, whether there is a straightforward way of handling it.

Ten members of a firing squad each fires one shot at an innocent man, each bullet hits him, and he dies. Suppose that the first bullet that hits him also kills him immediately. It is false of the soldier who fired this first shot that had he not fired the bullet, the man would not have died, so this soldier's action of firing at the man had relevantly similar consequences as the counterfactual action of not firing. 'Relevantly similar' means that the morally relevant features of the consequences of each action--whether or not an innocent person died--are the same. Thus, if consequentialism is true, then there is no basis for saying of this soldier that he should not have fired at the man, because the morally relevant consequences of doing so would have been the same as inaction. We can suppose that this is a voluntary firing squad, so that no one would have suffered reprisals from a commanding officer or anything like for not firing. We may suppose that this soldier is a nihilist and shot the man on a whim and derived no satisfaction from it and nothing else good came of it, in which case consequentialism would seem to have the absurd consequence that it is not true that this soldier should not have fired at the innocent person, or we may suppose that he derived some small amount of satisfaction from shooting at a human being or some other trivially but positively valuable consequence resulted from firing the shot, in which case consequentialism would seem to have the absurd implication that it was better for him to fire the shot than to not fire it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

History of Political Thought: What's it Good For?

The conversation by Don and ‘Cheerful Hobbist’ below (see this post), as well as a number of conversations in recent weeks, has raised the question of why one might want to study the history of political thought (or whatever one wants to call it), how one should approach this study, and what use one might, or should, make of it. Since studying the history of political thought is what I (allegedly) do -- and what I've spent the past 8 years or so of my life doing, or trying, preparing, or pretending to do -- this question seems worth pursuing to (and for) me.
First, antiquarianism. I hear this bandied about as a dirty word -- surely, it is said in many of these sorts of conversations, studying the history of political thought must be or do x if it is not to be 'mere' antiquarianism. Well, what's so bad about antiquarianism? What, exactly, is the argument against x when one says that x is a case of antiquarianism? I can think of a couple of ways to interpret this -- both of which are no doubt reductive, but here they are. One is that to charge something or someone with antiquarianism is to say that it is not useful; the other is that to make the charge or wave about the term is to state that you find something uninteresting. The former begs the question: useful for what? As for being uninteresting -- well, I think that's very much in the eye of the beholder; one man's antiquarianism is another's dazzling work of historical reconstruction/retrieval. I think that charges of 'antiquarianism' are better reformulated as quiet comments that work x doesn't tell us what we happen to want to know -- which leaves us with the job of explaining what we want to know, and why.
CH offers several answers for why studying the history of political thought might be valuable -- though not all of them are necessarily arguments for exactly the same sort of historical knowledge or inquiry. Some seem to me to call for a study of historical development -- of the reception and influence over time of ideas, theories, larger modes of thinking. This is rather different from what the Straussians claim to do; and it is different from at least some versions of 'Cambridge historicism'. In discovering the roots of our own ways of thinking, or ideas which continue to be used in contemporary thought and argument -- or, going in the opposite direction, of tracing out the impact over time of a thinker's work as interpreted and used by others -- it is not clear that the intention(s) or intended meaning(s) or actual conscious convictions of the thinker(s) in question are really necessary to accurately reconstruct. The question remains: why should I care what Hobbes or Hume or Hegel meant to mean, or meant to their immediate contemporaries?
This question also seems to remain unanswered by another use for the history of political thought that emerges from CH's and Don's discussion -- namely, simply drawing on past thinkers for their arguments, because they articulate these particularly well, or offer particularly strong ones (what has been referred to, in some conversations among participants in this blog, as the 'smart cookie' approach -- the idea that it's worthwhile to read [some] past thinkers because they were really smart, and so made points which can still enrich our thinking about various topics).
The 'smart cookie' approach does suggest one line of argument for why we might want to try to recover (as best we can) what a particular thinker or group of thinkers actually thought. This is that, if these thinkers really did possess great insight into particular questions, and developed theories that are more sophisticated or comprehensive or powerful than what most of us are capable of, then it would seem desirable to recapture as much of their insight as we can, which means recovering their actual views, rather than the (possibly simpler or shallower) constructions others (including we ourselves) put on their views: if Hobbes, say, really is a smart cookie -- and I know that I'm a less smart cookie -- I should be pretty eager to figure out what Hobbes actually meant to say. On the other hand, if we are confronted with the work of a thinker who has been influential and in whom we perceive considerable intellectual power, but who appears to us to make arguments that are absurd or misguided, or the significance or meaning of which is simply obscure -- then a historical inquiry into how and why they came to propound these views may help us in understanding them, taking their arguments seriously, and getting more from them.
Thinking about why I tend, in many cases, to (try to) do the history of political thought, several reasons, not yet discussed, occur to me. First is that I simply find this stuff interesting -- including the question of what particular thinkers were actually trying to say, and why. Another has to do with expanding one's intellectual reach. This is, in a way, a sort of reverse of the goal CH mentions (and connects to Quentin Skinner) -- the idea of liberating ourselves from the hold past thinkers have on us. Studying past thinkers is, for me, one way of escaping the hold of my own assumptions and those of my milieu, of being confronted by a very different mind, from a very different time, than my own. On the other hand, it can also be a way of clarifying my own views by finding, not necessarily their antecedents in terms of any process of historical development, but their affinities to the views of earlier thinkers -- who have, it's safe to say, seen deeper and farther than I. Coming -- insofar as I can -- to understand or enter into another thinker's thought is thus a way of increasing self-knowledge. It does so, first, by pointing to the limitations of my own outlook -- as well, perhaps, as its strengths, or at least what is different about it from the view of others, and thus what I, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps unconsciously, believe and care about. Second, though, it can also furnish a perspective that i find convincing or attractive, and seek to work into my own thinking (with whatever modifications I feel the need to make on it); encountering a sympathetic but distant outlook can help to draw out and refine my own views. Even if I am using, or appropriating, the other thinker's ideas, I still think I benefit from having them be that other thinker's idea -- something outside of myself, different from my own views, to which I can react.
Another reason why I think I'm attracted to the history of political thought is somewhat harder for me to articulate, since it has less to do with my personal experience than my conception of the nature of politics and political thinking -- or, rather, a conception to which I think I might subscribe, but have not thought through fully. But here's a stab at articulating it. (I think) I think that politics and political theorising are necessarily historical -- that they exist in and apply to historical moments, and that one cannot fully understand the meaning or assess the insightfulness of a political theory unless one sees its connection to history. One can of course evaluate political-philosophical theories apart from any historical experience, in terms of their coherence, or the validity of certain of their assumptions which are not historically dependent. Still, political theory, even if it uses the techniques of philosophy, is concerned with politics, and society more generally; and these are subject to historical change. Political philosophers may seek timeless truths about politics; but they also, in many cases (and perhaps more often than they discover timeless truths) wind up producing sharp insights into the experience of their own world.
Yet these insights, while they are about and based in particular moments of history, are not limited to them; for the experiences of different periods have much (though not everything) in common. Thus, to take a theme from my own work: it seems to me valuable to look at past thinkers' attempts to grapple with the experience of political violence -- particularly what one might call ideologically-inspired violence (violence inspired or justified by visions or theories of the way the world [be it the material world or the spiritual] is or should be)-- and to puzzle out how liberal democracy might, or must, respond to such violence, in thinking about this problem as we encounter it. To be able to understand, derive insight from, evaluate and where necessary modify or reject the responses of earlier thinkers to these problems involves understanding them historically -- how the circumstances, pressures and resources, as well as assumptions and favoured beliefs, of their times shaped what they thought and said -- and also determining how our own experience is similar to, and how it is different from, these earlier periods.
This is (meant to be) a case for approaching past thinkers historically, and also trying to recapture their insights; I'm not sure, though, whether it explains why we should be so concerned with what these earlier thinkers actually thought. Ultimately, I do think that that sort of inquiry rests on the simple pleasure and sense of discovery and enrichment that comes from encountering, being puzzled by, and coming to better understand another mind. In this sense, the old metaphor for the history of ideas as a conversation -- and one in which we are not merely interested in hearing ourselves talk -- does, for all its problems, seem attractive to me.

Voting (Sean)

I'd like to hear responses to the following simple argument that voting for Nader in 2000 was at least as rationally defensible as was voting for Gore.

Either (a) a choice of vote should be based only on the expected value of its impact on the outcome of the election, or (b) it should be based on other considerations, such as, to name a couple of possibilities, the value of expressing one’s political opinions, the value of avoiding pangs of guilt, a civic duty to vote, etc. If (a), then the choice of whether one should vote should also be based only on the expected value of the impact on the outcome of the election and, therefore, leftists (nor anyone else for that matter) should not have voted, and everyone who did vote was equally irrational in doing so, given the vanishingly small probability of casting a vote that would have changed the outcome of the election and the small but genuine costs of voting. If (b), then it was rational for leftists to vote for Nader if they had the appropriate expressive preferences or if a civic duty required sincere voting of them, etc. These conditions were met for most Nader voters if they were met for most Gore voters. Hence, (most) Nader voters' vote for Nader was just as rationally defensible as the choices of (most) Gore voters.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Memo on Records (TP Admin)


Since we're getting a lot of new traffic in the comments section of both old and new posts, I just want to remind members of _Theoretically Political_ that a copy of each post or comment is sent to a GMAIL account. This allows members to see very easily what kind of action is being had, without scrolling back-and-forth among old posts and comments. The GMAIL username is [theoreticallypolitical]. As to the password: please email that address for the inside scoop.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Nativism: Counterintuitively Defenseless? (Don)

Spurred on by some topics mentioned today at the Theory Worksop, I want to ask what the relationship might be between where one is born and what kinds of treatment one is entitled to get.

Something I think about often is how I would react, if I were in a situation of intolerably threatening nationalism, or of racism cloaked as nationalism. So imagine this case.

I am walking down the street in some neighborhood I've never been in before, say, South Boston. Some ruffian approaches me and hurls a nationalist epithet at me, e.g., "Go back to China!" Now, my initial line of defense, given that I could not just flee--imagine that he is blocking my way down the street and that he is much larger and more violent than I am, so I must try to defuse the situation--would be to reply, "Look, I was born in America, just like you were, so whatever your beef is, it's probably not with me." Call this quotation the _Reply_.

Hopefully, I would have made him reconsider his aggression by throwing light on a possibility: Americans born in America can be non-white and non-black, too. And perhaps this possibility would defuse his aggression, not at the Chinese, but at least at _me_. The prospects of the Reply's working to get me out of danger depend, of course, on his being, not predominantly a racist, but rather just a nationalist who sees my, say, East Asian-ness as somehow a threat to America and Americans, and not to his "race."

My concerns then are: If this kind of response seems acceptable, then on what grounds? I.e., what makes it a good thing to say? The concern arises, since we would probably all admit that such a reply is something like a deflection: the real issue is what makes the ruffian's behavior justified, if it can be. And we probably think it can't be, since he shouldn't talk that way to anyone, anyway. So, if the Reply is just a deflection, then it is consistent with the claim that where one is born never generates _per se_ a reason to be treated in a certain way. Of course, the fact of where one is born sometimes matters _per accidens_: that I was born in Louisiana might allow me to make special claims against a Louisiana legislator, as prescribed by positive law. But what I want to examine is how the fact of being born here, rather than there, makes a more fundamental difference to how I am to be treated.

But is the Reply just a deflection? Imagine the following case; for I think it might lead us to think in a different way.

If I have my facts right: Germany was for a very long time--only until very recently, in fact--governed by what, in English, can be called "the right of blood," as opposed to "the right of birth." The latter is what is in effect in America and England: citizenship is conferred automatically to anyone born in America (or England). But in Germany, I think, being born in Berlin was consistent with being afforded no German citizenship; rather, the right of German "blood" allowed the state to make distinctions between whom it would give citizenship along ethnic (or racial, perhaps) lines. A case arose in which a Turkish youth committed some crime, and he was deported from Germany--even though he was born and raised in Germany, even though he had not even once set foot upon non-German soil. But off to Turkey he was sent.

What, then, distinguishes this youth from another who was _not_ born in Germany? Given fixed crimes and effects, what work is being done by the fact that this youth was German-born? For it is doing _some_ work, I think, in terms of our intuitions, but it is not quite clear what the shape of that function is.

Now, I admit that this story discloses a very messy bundle of facts and possible moral implications. I have my own views about how best to understand these cases, but I will leave them for now.

Return to the case of the South Boston Bully. We can isolate some considerations, all of which probably are psychologically in play, were I to give the Reply.

(i) The fact that I am American-born might be strategically said to induce behavior that I reasonably want, i.e., his going away.

(ii) The fact that I am so born might generate a _reason_ for me to be treated in a certain reasonable way, i.e., not getting punched or verbally abused. Call this the _nativist claim_.

Now, (i) is clearly able to do a lot of work in explaining why I would give the Reply. I think it would be quite acceptable for me to do a whole host of actions in order to avoid getting punched or abused, regardless of spouting sophistries in the public square. But is (i) all that we can say to justify giving the Reply, or to justify the ruffian's reaction to it?

I would like to hear y'all's thoughts on the matter. But to end, and to hint: my view is that being born here, rather than there, does not generate any additional reason to be treated in some way; rather, it is a fact which generates a reason to dismiss a forseen objection to being treated in some way. And: what's operative in the Germany example is, not that being born in Germany matters, but rather that differences in punishment should depend not at all on facts about birth. The reasons why the "right of blood" is bad don't make the "right of birth" good; they're both bad, but for non-co-extensive sets of reasons.

(I've made a change in the sections on Germany; I had accidentally switched traits about who was non-German-born.)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

War and Sovereignty, Again (Sean)

A while ago I brought up the question of the grounds, if any, under which the presence and current activity of American troops in Iraq could be deemed legitimate and whether they are satisfied. This seems relevant to that question:

"Poll: 60% of Iraqis Approve Attacks on US Troops
A new poll shows Iraqi opposition to the US occupation is growing. According to the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, six in ten Iraqis approve of attacks on US troops. Four in five Iraqis say the U.S. military provokes more violence than it prevents. The results come on the heels of a State Department survey that found two-thirds of Iraqis favor an immediate withdrawal" (democracynow.org)

Only 9 percent of polling respondents favor 'only reduc[ing] US-led forces as the security situation improves in Iraq.' The link takes you to the polling organization and information about the poll.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What we talk about when we talk about rights (Josh)

The question of what (human) rights are is a big, and a vague, one (ditto the related questions of where rights come from, and what obligations they impose, etc.). I don't know how to answer it, or begin to answer it -- partly because I don't know what sort of question it is, or what sort of thing it is a question about (personal incapacity also plays a part, of course). Here, I don't intend to address the question of rights directly. Rather, I want to ask (and only ask), what sort of claims are rights claims? Or, put differently (in a way which I hope is clarifying), when you or I make an assertion to someone having a right, what sort of statement are we making?
I can think of three ways of regarding rights-claims (or rights-statements), though I suspect that I'm missing some possibilities (and that these can be formulated better than I have done thus far).
The first is to regard rights-claims as fairly simple factual claims; by simple factual claims, I mean claims that things exist or don't exist in the world -- claims which I assume are thus empirically testable. That is to say, when I claim that X has a right to Y, I mean to assert that there is some feature -- some thing -- that X posseses, in much the same way as X posseses brown hair or two hands or the ability to speak.
Now, this seems to me a non-starter (though I may be wrong here). I don't see how rights can be regarded as 'simple' facts, since they seem not to be material objects, or easily identifiable (physical) qualities of persons. If 'X has a right to Y' is a simple factual claim, I don't understand what it means.
A second possibility is that 'X has a right to Y' is a normative claim, of a particular sort -- what one might call (if the perhaps seemingly paradoxical phrase be permitted) a claim of normative fact. That is to say, 'X has a right to Y' means 'There exists an obligation on the part of persons (in a particular relationship to X) to respect X's right to Y -- that is, to not hinder X from Y, or to help X secure Y.' This claim, in turn, rests on a 'normative reality' -- some feature of X, or of the relationship between X and Y, or the relationship between X and other agents or persons or individuals, which demands that others respect X's right to Y.
Now, this seems to me a much better description of what many people think they are doing or saying when they make rights-claims. It also, of course, leaves open, and indeed begs, a number of questions; I tend to think that its from conceiving of rights-claims in this way that many discussions of rights, and thus many of the theoretical questions commonly asked about rights, begin. I'm not sure if this is the best way to think of or use rights-claims, or if this is the way that I'd prefer to think of and use them; but I think a discussion of rights-claims should recognise that this is both a common and attractive, and also problem-raising, way of understanding rights-claims.
A third possibility is that rights-claims are not statements of facts of any sort, but rather a sort of act. On this understanding, when I say 'X has a right to Y', I am not offering a description of X or Y or the relationship between them. Rather, 'X has a right to Y' means 'I believe that you should give/allow Y to X; do so'. That at least is the basic import of the statement -- that it is an attempt to secure Y for X because we believe that X should have Y. In fact, of course, it's a somewhat more charged and complex statement -- it means not only 'Give or allow Y to X' or 'I think that X should have Y', but 'I/we think that Y is in some way or for some reason vitally important to X, and that to deny Y to X is to offend against X in some way'. So it's not just a matter of imposing what we'd rather like to see happen, for whatever reasons, through the use of morally bullying language (of course, sometimes rights claims will be just this; but they claim, and are understood, to be more). It does involve making a normative claim. But it is different from the second possibility. In that understanding of rights claims, rights are taken to be original -- that is, people have rights, and from these follow obligations, and it is because people have rights that we can claim rights for ourselves or others. In this third understanding, we begin with the belief that people should -- for whatever reason -- have certain things, and from this insist on their being granted rights to those things. That is: in option 2, we are saying that X should have Y because X has a right to Y; in option 3, we are saying that because X should have Y, X should be granted a right to Y, or should have a right to Y recognised. On the third understanding of rights claims, rights don't actually explain anything; rather, they are ways of calling for the recognition and instantiation of things that need to be explained in other ways -- or ways of conferring a particular sort of status on certain goals. To say that I have a right to free speech doesn't actually explain why I should be allowed to say what I like; it merely asserts that I should be allowed to say what I like -- and that my being allowed to do so is particularly important. For an explanation we need recourse to some other theory, or normative premise, which will convince us that the right -- and the actualisation of the right (that is, my ability to say what I like being respected by others) -- are justified or demanded.
I said at the beginning that I was going to talk about what sort of claims rights-claims are, rather than what sort of things rights are; but clearly the two aren't so separable, and I've thus been doing both. On the first conception of rights-claims, rights are simple facts about people -- properties of persons that are no more complex than any physical or psychological properties that we commonly recognise. This is a conception of rights that I find hopelessly obscure and impossible to adopt. On the second conception of rights-claims, rights are still features of or facts about people, but of a more complicated (and definitely not physical) they are things that people possess, that demand that people be treated in particular ways. On the third conception of rights-claims, rights are particular conditions that we think should prevail -- abilities or protections that we claim on behalf of some people in relation to others, or certain obligations that we insist people recognise in relation to others, for reasons that the rights-claims themselves don't specify.
In the first understanding of rights claims, I have no difficulty understanding what sorts of things rights are supposed to be -- but I find it difficult to understand how rights can be these things, or how such things can be found to exist. In the second understanding, I have no difficulty seeing how rights can be the sorts of things that they are claimed to be; but I find the sort of thing itself obscure (as reflected in my rather confused explanation of it). The third understanding seems to me less obscure, but it does leave a good deal unanswered; and in particular, it merely states, but cannot explain, the special status that rights have for us -- the way in which they act as 'trumps' or 'side constraints'.
So I'm not wholly satisfied with any of these ways of understanding rights-claims -- or with my own formulation of them; nor do I think that this exhausts the possibilities -- it merely exhausts my own capacities. So I'd welcome any suggestions about other ways to understand rights claims, or better ways to formulate and analyse the understandings I've suggested.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

And People Laugh at Aristotelian Final Cause! (Don)


Analytic ethics? Or neurotic ethics? Happily, I say, Both.

Sean's question (not here posted) concerning the Newcomb Problem brought this to mind. As most things tend to do for me.

*****

CAN BAD MEN MAKE GOOD BRAINS DO BAD THINGS?
Michael F. Patton, Jr.
Syracuse University

Consider the following case:

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

QUESTION: What should the brain do?

[ALTERNATIVE EXAMPLE: Same as above, except the brain has had a commisurotomy, and the left half of the brain is a consequentialist and the right side is an absolutist.]

Copyright, 1988, by the American Philosophical Association.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Emotion, Cognition, and Double Effect; or, Hume, Kant -- and modern psychology (Josh C)

This article may be of interest to some of the bloggers here -- it suggests, if nothing else, that some of the issues that some of us have been batting-around over the last year are of interest (and are being worked on, along very different lines) in modern psychology as well.
As for the conclusions of the studies discussed -- my own view is that it provides evidence for the contention that watching Saturday Night Live is conducive to making one a callous killer of fat people, but I grant that the implications are ambiguous.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Political Theory Necrology (Josh C)

It's been a very, very bad week fora lot of people; it's also been a sad week in the smaller world of political theory. On Tuesday Iris Marion Young died (see also here); she had been ill with cancer over the last year, but seemed to be on the mend -- so it's something of a surprise, for me at least, and a distressing one. It's a loss for the field, of course, and must be particularly terrible for her students and colleagues at Chicago. And the day before Robert Wokler also died, also of cancer. This, too, is a great loss for the field, and to his colleagues and students at Yale, and many friends. It's also a great loss for me: Robert was a dear friend, a fount of knowledge, insight and encouragement whenever we met, as well as wonderfully entertaining and gracious (and endearingly, maddeningly disorganised) -- and I'm very, very sorry that I won't see or speak to him again.
There's a nice obituary/article on Young from U Chicago, , which effectively gives some indication of just how great her colleagues' and students'loss is; and a very good, informative obituary of Wokler in the Times; I'll try to link to other obituaries as they appear.
Update: there's a brief, but very nice, appreciation of Robert Wokler by his fellow-Rousseau scholar Chris Bertram, at Crooked Timber; and another, lovely one of Iris Young by her former UChicago colleague Dan Drezner.
UPDATE: Another obit has appeared, in the Guardian; the prose style is strangely familiar (ditto the byline...) Better latish than never, I suppose.

Monday, July 24, 2006

More on Strauss (Josh C)

This started out as a comment on Sean’s post, immediately below; but it got too long, and I decided that nothing was gained or lost by having it a separate post instead.
It is a pretty remarkable letter -- though hardly the bombshell it seems to be presented as. It's been public knowledge (if not publicly acknowledged by many of his admirers) that Strauss was pretty sympathetic to far-Right politics in the '30s (though, obviously, the vehement scorn of his reference to liberalism is somewhat shocking to contemporary sensibilities). I'm not entirely sure what to make of the letter, since I haven't (and can't) read it in the original, and don't know enough about either the larger intellectual, or the immediate (The correspondence with Lowith) contexts. But I expect that it means what it seems to mean, and is interpreted to mean in the post.
The question, which I don't think the post decisively addresses, is whether Strauss's position remained unchanged after the War. (This seems to me a problem with Horton's argument -- it focuses entirely on Strauss before WWII, and doesn't really acknowledge the possibility that Strauss's views changed substantially, even dramatically -- as they seem to have done, at least, in his attitude towards Heidegger, which is significant and suggestive, though hardly demonstrative, of a larger change) On the one hand, you'd expect him -- like many others who had flirted with anti-liberal ideologies (Left as well as Right) -- to change his estimation of liberalism's and fascism's strengths and desirability after the horrors of Nazi rule and the victory of the Allies. On the other hand, as the letter shows, from the first Strauss disassociated Nazi policy from far-Right principles, so that it was possible that the Holocaust did not, for him, invalidate the 'principles of the right'. The explicit message of Strauss's later writings is certainly not in favour of fascist principles, but rather on behalf of some version of natural right (I can see the title for a dissertation now: 'From "the principles of the right" to the principle of Natural Right'. Or something similar but a bit sexier). Whether there remained some hidden advocacy of fascism I couldn't say; I haven't noticed it, but I also do think that Strauss retained an elitism, and a vision of politics, which while they stopped well short of fascism, or indeed general authoritarianism or imperialism, were also incompatible with liberalism as I, and most of us, understand it.
(By Strauss's 'vision of politics', I mean a 'realist' view of politics as unalterably governed by conflict and the possibility of violence, and not amenable to being governed by public reason and benevolence, so that a certain amount of political authority and communal loyalty [though only so much as was compatible with freedom of thought] were necessary to maintain order -- the maintenance of order, combined with the protection of the intellectual freedom and virtue that were necessary for philosophy, being the primary objectives of politics. This view of political authority and community, however, while very different from liberalism, was also very different from what one tends to find in fascism, and certainly Nazism).
All of that said, I think that Stephen Holmes overdoes his account of Strauss as an anti-liberal. I'm particularly dubious about items 3) and 4) of Holmes's indictment, as presented by Horton, which seems to me to conflate a concern with the limitations (and excesses) of legalism with contempt for the rule of law, and appreciation for 'non-liberal' personal virtues with contempt for liberal personalities. 2) is certainly part-right, though so far as I know Strauss doesn't conclude that the solution to the permanence of the 'theological-political problem' [Straussian lingo for the irruption of religious beliefs into politics] is an alliance of rationalist elites with theocrats (and, as I've said before and no doubt will have occassion to say again, I think it's a bad idea to equate Strauss's views with those of neo-cons who admire him, much less their strategic political action.) As for 1), it’s unclear to me what Strauss is here described as rejecting—either liberal belief in the desirability of free public debate, or the rationale here presented for it: the former seems to me a pretty universal contention of liberal political thought, while the latter is a particular claim about the desirability of public debate (as a way of ‘mobilizing decentralized knowledge’ etc.) which is specific to certain liberal thinkers (such as Hayek), but not accepted or adopted by many. Anyway, while as I’ve said I’m fairly confident that Strauss was both an elitist and had a view of political authority at variance with liberal democratic theory, I don’t think that he presents a picture of politics that is quite so Platonic-authoritarian. For one thing, his elitism tends to be with reference to philosophy and the ranks of ‘the philosophers’ – whom he’s pretty clear shouldn’t be those governing. That said, Strauss, and many of his followers, did/do seem to have an ideal of politics as dominated by wise statesmen who will know how to both inspire and control the people – a sort of crush on great men – which, while again very different from Fuhrer-worship or Platonic belief in philosopher-kings (which according to Strauss of course isn’t actually Platonic at all), is also very different from the more egalitarian view of political power characteristic of most democratic theory (or the suspicion of rulers common to many liberals).
Ok, I’ve gone on too long. I may have more to say on Strauss later (indeed, I’m afraid this is most probably so), but for now I’d just like to make one observation: much of the whole debate on Strauss that we’ve seen the past few years (and, really, going back to the 90s at least) strikes me as rather Schmittian – the argument seems to be whether Strauss was a ‘friend’ (as Steven Smith calls him) or an enemy of liberal democracy. But what if this Schmittian framework isn’t – as I tend to believe – the best way (and it certainly seems to me not the most liberal way) to approach political thought (even if you think it’s appropriate in approaching actual politics)? If Strauss had advanced a political programme, or even an explicit set of political principles, this sort of talk might make sense. But it’s not obvious to me that Strauss had any direct political agenda. I think he’s better read as discussing a number of often important (though sometimes very oddly formulated, it must be said) problems, many though not all of them political, many of which post problems for adherents of liberalism, and suggesting interesting perspectives on or responses to these problems -- none of which should be taken as final or definite. Embracing him as a friend – except when he insists on the value both of philosophy, and of intellectual freedom – or excoriating him as an enemy – except when he embraces fascism – doesn’t seem to me a very good response to what he’s doing.
Ok, now I’ll wait for Don to set right whatever I’ve got wrong...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Letter from Strauss to Loewith (Sean)

All I read from the blogger's post was his translation of this letter (you have to scroll down a bit to get to it) that Strauss sent to Karl Loewith in 1933. The letter contains the following provocative passage: "And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination."

I'm curious to hear the thoughts of those in a better position than I to evaluate the passage fairly and impartially.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Sovereignty in Iraq (Sean)

Does anyone on the board think the U.S. should stay in Iraq but refuse to go along with the prime minister's proposal to end immunity for U.S. soldiers?

Monday, May 22, 2006

International Political Theory (Josh C)

Anyone interested in international political theory -- and addicted to the internet -- will be thrilled to learn of the (I think, new; new to me, anyway) website called, creatively enough, International Political Theory. They have a number of links to various online resources -- unpublished papers by the likes of Arneson, Barry, Benhabib, (Josh) Cohen, Miller, Nussbaum, Sen and Walzer (as well as many published pieces), e-texts of various classics in international relations theory and the study of ethics and international relations, from Thucydides to Aron, book reviews, videos of conferences and interviews, and so on, as well as 'The IPT Beacon', an online 'journal' consisting of a selection of particularly noteworthy (according to the impressive editorial board) recent articles on international political theory, culled from various top academic journals. All in all, it looks like an outstanding site of its kind, and a great resource for those of us interested in such things.
(And at some point, I will post something substantive. Well, maybe.)

Why Inequality Matters (Josh C)

I haven't anything interesting to say for myself on this topic; but via my friend Chris Brooke, I see that Why Inequality Matters, a pamphlet co-authored by our friend-in-common Ben Jackson is now available for free online. Ben's a super guy, who's great company even if discussing Leonard Hobhouse and Isaiah Berlin's liberalisms, or Hugh Gaitskell and Evan Durbin's economic thought isn't your idea of a good time (though, if this is the case ... well, you poor, benighted creature, you); he also combines top-knotch skills as a political theorist and historian of British political thought. So I tend to think that anything he writes is likely to be good.
All of that said, I have yet to actually read this pamphlet, so can't say anything about it, substantive or otherwise. But I thought I'd call it to people's attention, and open up a space for any of my co-bloggers, who have a stronger footing in the theoretical literatuer on, and debates about, equality, to weigh in -- if they have the time and inclination to read the piece.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Immigration "reform" (Sean)

On a recent visit to the department building’s cafeteria, I realized that the regular cashier, a young Brazilian woman, was not there and had not been there for at least a week. I asked one of the other workers where she was and learned that she had been fired because she lacked proper papers. If other businesses are also purging their staff of undocumented workers in anticipation of more exacting penalties from the government for violating the law, she will probably have a tough time finding work. Assuming, as seems safe, that she does not have a nest egg saved up to travel south of the border to find work, her choices are probably between prostitution, theft, or dependency on friends or family. Since most illegal immigrants’ friends and family are either themselves illegal immigrants or too poor to support multiple dependents, the last option may not be a real option, if a crackdown on illegal immigrant labor really is underway. Perhaps it is not, but I’m interested to know if anyone thinks that it should be, and, if like me they think that it should not, how they think borders should be regulated, if at all. Any successful attempt to enforce a prohibition on employing illegal immigrants would ruin or at least make extremely difficult the lives of the estimated seven to nine other million illegal immigrants in this country. I invite anyone who is aware of redeeming aspects of such a policy to mention them.

Ramin Jahanbegloo

It's now been well over three weeks since Ramin Jahanbegloo was detained by the authorities in Iran while trying to leave Tehran to attend a conference. Jahanbegloo (a dual Iranian/Canadian citizen) has been held, largely incommunicado, in Iran's infamous Evin Prison ever since. I say infamous in part because the last Iranian Canadian to be shut up in Evin -- like Jahanbegloo, without being charged or granted any legal process -- wound up dead from a blow to the head, the marks of torture and sexual assault on her corpse. Iranian authorities say that Jahanbegloo is being held for having 'connections with foreigners'; the hardline Iranian press, which has close ties to the government, accuse him of being a US/Zionist spy. It's rumoured that he has produced pages of confessions; it is unlikely that these were voluntary, or that they are true. The proximate cause of his arrest seems likely to have been his criticism of Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for denying the Holocaust. More generally, though, Jahanbegloo is a voice for moderation, internationalism, and freedom of thought; values that do not seem particularly prized in Iran at present.
Jahanbegloo (who did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne and in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard) is one of Iran's leading secular intellectuals. He's published books on Hegel and Gandhi: and his own work has been, appropriately, devoted to fostering communication and reconciliation between opposing traditions and insights, and advocating non-violence and moderation. He also published a book of interviews with Isaiah Berlin which is an invaluable resource for studying that figure. I read Jahanbegloo's book of interviews shortly after I discovered Berlin; the book served as a major part of my introduction to Berlin's thought (as well as his life and personality), and as such, has had a very substantial influence on my thought -- and, indeed, my life generally. Indeed, I suppose that one can say that it changed my life -- that it has had a decisive influence on where and who I am now. So, as well as admiring Jahanbegloo, I owe him a great debt. This, however, nothing next to his importance to liberal-minded students and reformers in Iran, among whom he seems to be a major, and beneficial, intellectual influence.
At first, Jahanbegloo's friends kept quiet, hoping that he would be released. This has failed to happen, however, and reports that Jahanbegloo has been spending much of his time in Evin's medical ward -- as well as the talk about his being a foreign agent -- have not been reassuring. So an international campaign has been commenced to secure his release -- or, at the very least, open and just treatment; it has enlisted the support of figures ranging from Noam Chomsky and Jurgen Habermas to members of the American Enterprize Institute. There is a website devoted to his case here, which contains information on both Jahanbegloo and his situation; anyone interested in learning more about what's happening to him and why should check it out. There's also a petition to the EU, to apply pressure on Jahanbegloo's behalf, here, which I urge people to sign (you don't have to be a national of a member of the EU to do so). There are several letter-writing campaigns, the websites of which are here , here, and here; again, I strongly urge people to join in sending letters or emails to the Iranian authorities (being careful to be respectful, of course; the websites provide templates of the sort of thing they judge to be well-advised.
This case, of course, hits particularly close to home for political theorists -- hence it's mention here; but it's also an important case for the principles of freedom of speech and due process of law. And, of course, it's also a terrible ordeal being undergone by a good and admirable man and his family.
So please act now.
UPDATE: There's an article in today's NY Times about Jahanbegloo's case, which provides more detailed and, hopefully, accurate information on what's happening to him, and its context.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mini-blog roundup (Josh C)

I haven't the time to formulate any thoughts about it myself, I'm afraid; but this post on liberalism, cultural (dis)advantages, education policy and conceptions of the good by Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber might be of interest to, well, several people on this blog; and I invite you to post any thoughts in the comments here.
Also, those who aren't getting enough moral philosophy in their lives right now might want to check out David Velleman's post on evil -- or, rather, on the deficiencies of Ron Rosenbaum's statements about evil -- here.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Varieties of Ethical Pluralism (Josh C)

With a heavy load of final papers to see to, I probably won't be posting much for the next couple of weeks or so; but to avoid feeling like too much of a deadweight, here's a very rough thing I jotted down independently a couple of weeks ago. It's an attempt to sort out, not the serious ambiguities or perplexities inherent in theories of value pluralism, nor the different variations of value pluralism that have emerged over time, but the different ways in which self-declared proponents of value pluralism have understood, and held, that position. (I'm not going to go into what value pluralism is here; an earlier account of my understanding of that position can be found here.) Given this focus, I wind up avoiding the most interesting issues -- such as what incommensurability means, for instance; nor do I offer any evaluation of the coherence or plausibility of these different positions. I'm just concerned to straighten out some confusions that I've noticed in the literature on value pluralism, which I think result from conflating a number of distinct positions, all of which endorse value pluralism in some way -- but in different ways.
There are of course many ways one can distinguish between different accounts (or possible accounts; I haven't found examples of all of the positions described below in the literature; also, some authors seem to hold, at different times, to more than one of these positions) of value pluralism in terms of three questions on which one can take a position:
1) Whether pluralism -- the idea that there are a plurality of equally valid and potentially conflicting values or goods, which do not form part of a single moral system or way of life, and which cannot be ranked or classified or decided between with reference to a single principle or rule -- is true or untrue as a claim about reality;
2) Whether the truth of value pluralism happens to be the result of certain, alterable circumstances of modern life, or whether there must, given the nature of human beings and their values (so far as these are known to/experienced by us) be such variety and disagreement;
3) Whether pluralism -- or more precisely, the condition of pluralism -- is a good thing as such, or something to be (regretfully) accepted

Now, it might at first seem that one who responded to position 1) that pluralism is untrue as a claim about reality should not be considered a pluralist at all; but I hope to suggest below that one can in fact deny the truth of pluralism in one respect, and still be a pluralist. I now outline three positions, each of which can be broken down to a varying number of sub-positions, based on how one answers the questions above.

P1. Pluralism is untrue (or incompletely true), but a social reality (either contingent or necessary) given the way things are -- that is, there is in fact one best way of life or moral system, but human beings will not come to agree on it; this may be a good or a bad thing. (One can think of various sub-positions -- based on the view taken with regard to questions 1 and 2; what characterises position-family P1 is the view that pluralism must or should be accepted as a reality about human life, even though the ethical or meta-ethical claim involved is false. One might describe this position as pluralism political (or social)-not-metaphysical; or one might not label it as pluralism at all, but rather as a doctrine of reasonable disagreement. Still, this position seems to me close enough to pluralism in its implications for the way one approaches ethics to be included here.)

P2 Pluralism as a claim about values is true (or probably true), but as a social reality is contingent (or, to be more precise, relatively strongly contingent): it is possible to imagine people agreeing -- possible even for people to agree -- on the primacy of some one value or the supremacy of some one way of life as best, even though this would be a matter of consensus rather than the discovery of the truth about values/morality (and such agreement would, in fact, obscure the truth). There are two importantly different subpositions here:
2a. This would be fine, though ultimately false; such moral consensus, and consequent overcoming of value-conflict as a reality in people's lives, may be unlikely to occur, but it is not impossible, and such a harmonious state of affairs, in which conflict and moral loss were no longer realities of social and moral life, would be desirable (so, the implicit answer to question 3 is that pluralism is undesirable)
2b. Such agreement, to be sustained, would require too much oppression for its maintenance to be desirable; so while moral unanimity is possible, it is undesirable, and for reasons other than its simple falsity (so, the answer to question 3 is that pluralism is to be welcomed). (Note that position P2b. is very close to position P1, in that both embrace pluralism as a social reality that should be accepted; where they differ is that P2b regards pluralism as a true or valid theory about values, while P1 doesn't; while P1 regards pluralism as a necessary feature of social life, while P2b regards the elimination of moral disagreement as possible and even practicable, but as involving an unacceptable cost.)

P3 Pluralism is true, and necessary: there is something in the way that human beings -- as we know them, as they exist and so far as we can tell have always existed -- are that entails pluralism; to imagine a non-pluralistic reality would be to imagine an existence radically different from that which we know as human; overcoming pluralism as a reality about human moral experience would require a transformation of either the meaning of human values, or the nature of human beings, or both. If this is accepted, there remain two possible responses based on the answer to question 3:
3a. Pluralism should then be embraced, as an essential part of what makes us human
3b. Pluralism -- and thus the human condition itself -- should be bewailed.

As far as this applies to examples of value pluralism, I take Berlin to mainly hold to 3a, though there is also an element of 3b -- in his emphasis on the tragic dimension of pluralism; there are however moments where he seems to hold to 2b (which, to the extent that he is a Humean, and therefore can't make assertions of radical non-contingency, he has to accept; indeed, the difference between 2b and some version of 3 seems to me to reflect a tension between Humean and Kantian (to use those terms both crudely, and with a very specific meaning in mind) elements in Berlin's thought. I think that Berlin would distinguish between strong contingency and weak contingency, and hold that while its possible to imagine moral plurality and conflict being overcome, this would involve a radical alteration of all of the categories and values by which we live - so that pluralism is a necessary feature of OUR lives. Rawls and Larmore, on the other hand, hold either to some version of 1, or to 2b -- it is unclear which, exactly; they try to avoid making assertions about the truth of pluralism as a meta-ethical theory, and emphasise instead its social reality; yet they also seem to decisively reject the idea of a best life, while also holding consensus to be (contingently) possible, if unlikely. But then I'm not sure how well I've grasped Rawls and Larmore's position (assuming it's basically the same), so correction is welcome.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

More substantive issues in democratic theory (Sean)

The substantive question in my last thread on the ordinary usage of 'democracy' and its cognates didn't get much airtime except for a short comment by Don to which I'll now respond. In response to my open-ended question, "Why care about democracy," Don wrote,

"...the quick answer is, I think, a more prudential dislike of autocratic (albeit benevolent and equitable) regimes; a second answer is that citizens might be owed the opportunity for the _ownership_ of what their political communities do, in their name or for their sake. Perhaps."

I was intrigued by the second answer, but right now I'm curious to know how Don responds to the following hypothetical example in light of the first answer. Suppose that you, Don, have studied theories of justice, virtue, etc. for your whole life, and now, at some ripe old age, you have the opportunity to seize political power and establish yourself as a dictator. You can recruit whomever you like as an advisor (suppose that Finnis and Raz or even Aristotle are still alive at this point). Don't you and your cadre have as great a claim as anyone to know what laws should be passed? Let's also assume that you ran for election and only got .001% of the vote. Would it be right/just/legitimate for you to take power? If you wouldn't take power, it seems inappropriate to label your reasons for not doing so "prudential" reasons--don't you know that you'll do as good a job as anyone?

King Chavez? (Lucas)

[I'm posting Lucas's Chavez comment on Sean's "Ordinary Usage" post here--to keep comments organized. Please let me know whether this is a bad or unwanted move. Also: I will keep Sean's comment on Chavez in the "Ordinary Usage" thread, since it's still Beitz-related. For that thread, click here. --TP Administrator.]

=====

I don't know whether it's better to start a new post, or paste this here.

"Venezuela's Chavez proposes referendum on holding office until 2031"

Associated Press

Caraca, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez said Saturday that Venezuelan voters should have the chance to decide whether he should govern the country for the next 25 years.

Speaking at a stadium packed with supporters in central Lara state, Chavez said he would hold a referendum to put the question of his remaining in office to Venezuelans if the opposition pulls out of upcoming presidential elections.

"I am going to ask you, all the people, if you agree with Chavez being president until 2031," he said.

It was not clear if Chavez was talking about holding a legally binding vote to eliminate term limits or proposing a plebiscite.

Chavez said Friday that he said he might seek "indefinite" re-election through a referendum if the opposition boycotts the presidential vote.

"I would call a national referendum to have the people decide if I can continue here indefinitely or if I have to go after six years," he said.

Opposition leaders accuse Chavez, a former paratroop commander first elected in 1998, of becoming increasingly authoritarian and opening dangerous divisions along class lines in Venezuela — the world's fifth largest oil exporter.

The Venezuelan Constitution allows a president to be re-elected only once in immediate succession. Chavez is eligible for re-election to another six-year term in December, but if he wins he would not be able to run again in 2012.

Polls indicate Chavez is likely to win the Dec. 3 election, and international observers have signed off on recent votes as fair.

Four government opponents have announced plans to run against Chavez, although not all have agreed to participate in primaries to choose a single opposition candidate.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Introduction and _United 93_ (Don)

HAL 2000 has given me the go, and I must abide.

For my part, this web-log is to raise political and philosophical questions in a way which might allow for broader feedback. And to commit jokes to (digital) print. Many of the contributors to this web-log will be far apart over the upcoming summer, and so _Theoretically Political_ might be a good way for them to stay in touch, even if it keeps them spatially apart. And having this as a group web-log will increase the chances of its staying alive.

In other news, last night I saw _United 93_. I thought it went well: the movie showed admirable restraint and "minimalism." No major actors were employed, and so the film worked well as a depiction of the "common" American citizen. It was no tale of heroism or of triumphalism-to-be. The film conveyed frustratingly and remarkably well the disarray of America's air-traffic-control system. The movie claims that military commanders knew of United 93's hijacking no earlier than four minutes _after_ its crash. If that's true, then the film does a good job of showing you why and how such confusion arose among the country's top brass.

I wonder: How do others feel about this movie, assuming, then, that the film is as I've described it, i.e., done with admirable austerity, restraint, and bluntness? Part of me found that, so to speak, "it was not too early to do a 9/11 movie." The movie was a fine work of art, done about a topic of seriousness. But another part of me found that the movie would play well into the image of Western decadence which might be fueling some of America's enemies: "A memorial to the victims of 9/11, but it's still just a commercial movie, with a $9 sales tag. Is nothing beyond the market's reach?" True enough, in an ideal world (for me), the movie would have been released with a nominal price tag (say, $1) to avoid the charge of opportunism. As to that, I can't say much more. But as a work of art, the film deserves to be seen. That is much more than I expect to say about that new firefighter movie with Nicholas Cage as the lead actor (_World Trade Center_ by Oliver Stone).

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Political Theorists at the AAAS (Josh C.)

Jacob Levy has an interesting post on which political theorists are -- and aren't - members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He notes some patterns of inclusion and, um, non-inclusion that aren't wholly surprising -- almost no Straussians, and (though he doesn't mention this), a general trend away from 'post-modernist', communitarian and 'Continental' theorists; he also notes some surprising indiividual exclusions, the most egregious of which, in Jacob's view (with which I tend to concur) is Michael Walzer (Jacob doesn't list, but also doesn't note the absence, of either Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor, the latter of whom I'd say is as egregious an omission as Walzer. And, among foreign members, what about Habermas or Jerry Cohen? And, among philosophers whose work is relevant to political theorists, what of Nagel, Raz, Parfitt? [Or, as Don would be quick to add, Finnis]? Some of these folks may well be members, but have not been mentioned by Jacob as being philosophers rather than political theorists; the page with the list of AAAS members seems currently to be down, so I can't check).
I don't know how much can or should be concluded from this -- aside from the (fairly obvious) lesson that inclusion/non-inclusion among the august ranks of the AAAS is not a sufficient criterion for judging distinction (I don't mean that as a snark at the AAAS or its members).
UPDATE: I've now looked at the list; Nagel, Sandel, Taylor, Raz, Parfitt, and Habermas are all on it, though it appears that Finnis isn't (sorry, Don).

Ordinary usage and 'democracy' (Sean)

I'd like to hear others' thoughts on these questions:

On linguistic usage: Are most ordinary folk inclined to call some laws, policies, "outcomes" of political decision-making procedures "democratic" no matter what the procedure was? Are ordinary folk inclined to say that laws or policies are "undemocratic" even if the procedures that produced them involved citizens' participation, elected and accountable representatives, was transparent, backed by a majority, [fill in your notion of the purely procedural aspect of democratic procedure here], etc.? (Ignore, of course, the case of laws or policise that bear on procedures themselves, like laws imposing property requirements on voters.) As I see it, no one talks in the first way except Dworkin, Beitz, and a few others. The second usage might be less uncommon; repressing political speech can be called undemocratic. But this isn't a genuine example of the usage, I think, since opportunities to freely express oneself are connected to purely procedural aspects of democracy. Beitz's claim is that an outcome is undemocratic if it treats people inequitably, but that seems unmotivated by ordinary usage.

Substantive issue: why care about democracy?

Tocqueville in America; or, democracy, blank slates, and utopia (Josh C.)

There are two interesting discussions going on at once over at Crooked Timber, in response to this post by John Holbo. One concerns the history of Tocqueville's reputation/prominence in American (and to some extent more broadly Anglophone) intellectual life and political debate (declaration of interest: I've contributed to this part of the discussion on the Croked Timber thread); the other concerns the validity and applicability of the conservative critique of (alleged) liberal or left-wing attempts to effect radical, ideology-driven social transformation.
This latter point is, I think, an important one; and given its importance and complexity, I want to think a bit more about it before getting into a discussion of it here (but I do hope to do so eventually -- perhaps after I've finished a paper I'm currently working on, on Hume, which is somewhat related). Broadly speaking, though, the dilemma is this. On the one hand, certain conservative or what one might call dystopian liberal critics of radical social transformation (I'm thinking here of Montaigne, Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Popper, Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, to some extent post-French Revolutionary liberals from Constant to Tocqueville, etc.) seem to me to have a powerful point, and one which we'd do well to heed. On the other hand, warnings against radical change have often been deployed in defense of deeply corrupt and oppressive regimes or norms; sometimes the status quo is so bad that maintaining it is worse than the risks associated with social transformation; and sometimes radical transformations work rather well. Indeed, it is frightening to contemplate what the current state of the world would be without them (I believe it was Anatole France who once said that if men never dreamed -- and, I'd add, never sought to transform their dreams into realities -- we'd still live in caves.) Furthermore, there is the problem of uncertainty. That we cannot know what the long-term (or even short-term) results of our actions will be is both obviously and importantly true; but this cuts both ways -- it may make us cautious about acting, but it also undercuts predictions of disaster; and if we only acted when we could be sure that no undesirable or disastrous results would follow, we would wind up doing nothing at all. Yet inaction is not neutral; it has its own results, for which we who do not act must bear some responsibility.
So how can we tell when we should follow the sceptical, cautious liberals or conservatives -- and so avoid Jacobinism, the Great Leap Forward and all the Five Year Plans -- and when we should follow the dreamers, the visionaries who have generally been the ones responsible for freeing the slaves and bringing hope to the afflicted? I don't have an answer, and doubt that I will, though this is the point I hope to return to. For the moment, I think that it's important to remember that there is more that is important, in considering this, than the ambition of the goals. What means are employed in their pursuit is a decisive question: one answer -- too simple, but at least a start -- is that the difference between change, however sweeping, based on consent, and change, however desirable, achieved by coercion and violence,is crucial. Another important factor is the attitude, the mentality, of the reformers: whether they are dogmatic, convinced of their own virtue or infallibility and thus deaf to criticism and blind to their own mistakes and limitations, or whether they are, while committed, also open, flexible, respectful of others, and regard themselves with scepticism and humility.
As for the other issue -- of Tocqueville's reputation -- I've already said what I have to say about that over at Crooked Timber (and have learned much from some of the other posters, for which I'm grateful to them). Thinking about it, and the quote from Nisbet with which John opens the post, raises another question I'd like to pose to any readers here. Thinking about it, it seems to me that there's a long dry period in conservative political thought -- by which I mean political thought of seriousness and quality (though not necessarily fame) -- in the English-speaking world between, say, James Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), and the post-war period when you have conservative philosophers like Oakeshott and more conservative liberals such as Berlin and Hayek* writing; and even Stephen seems like a somewhat isolated figure (though perhaps one might also count Bagehot, and perhaps Maine -- though I don't know his thought well enough to classify him). So we seem to be talking about a silence of serious conservative political theorising for 80 years or so -- and a general sparsity for over a century, between say Burke and Oakeshott. Could this be correct?

*This should not be taken to deny the vast differences between these thinkers; nor when I describe thinkers as 'conservative' here do I refer to support for what passes for conservative politics in the US today; I mean, rather, the sort of scepticism and wariness of radical change and ideological visions referred to above.

Introduction... (Josh C.)

And I'll take -- whatever this font is ...
(Not that I expect this will be an entirely successful practice -- at least if our readers are as immune to the subtleties of typefaces as I am; I fully expect to get credit for the brilliant and hilarious posts of my colleagues, while shifting some of the blame for my own inanities onto them ...)
Anyway, welcome, all who come across this, to our new blog. My fellow-bloggers, and our souless robotic overseer, can all speak for themselves as far as their goals and guiding principles for this blog are. For my own part, my hope is to post mainly on matters that I know something, and have something to say, about (aside from, for instance, 'heh. read the whole thing'), and to avoid polemics and inanities alike. I (and many of the other bloggers here) will be focussing heavily but not exclusively on political theory; we will be generally but not always serious (see Don's hilarious first post below); and we'll probably be posting somewhat irregularly, especially with crunch-time for final papers here at Harvard GSAS coming up. The site will be added to and prettified considerably (well, we hope) once finals period is over.
And now, on with the show ...

Reading Steven Smith (Don)

My former advisor at Yale, Steven B. Smith, is hoping to set the record straight on Leo Strauss. His newest book, _Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism_ (University of Chicago Press, 2006), is due to hit bookstores next month. I've not read it, of course; but Smith came to Harvard a couple of months back to give a talk at the Political Theory Colloquium here. He read (parts of) a chapter; it was very good. Smith is a fine writer, a sharp reader and critic, and a friend and mentor. Check out the book. It will surely debunk much that needs debunking about "Straussianism." Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto has a largely praising review in _Commentary_, except for two digs: (i) the _real_ Strauss might not have been _so_ against the Iraq War; and (ii) Smith fans the flames of a politicized Strauss by writing an admittedly timely and political book on Strauss and his political perception. The "chapter" link above has, surprisingly, some very big lauds for Smith from Harry Frankfurt (_emeritus_ philosopher at Princeton)--surprising, since "analytic" philosophers usually have no patience for Strauss or Straussians. As eminent a figure as Frankfurt (of _On Bullshit_ fame) might pave the way for a re-appraisal of that impatience. (Another notable exception is John Finnis's treatment of Strauss's work on natural-law theory.)

Moussaoui and Co. (Don)

"One is an Islamicist radical. The other is an environmentalist terrorist. They both thought that they knew the ways of love and heartbreak, of murder and bloodshed: until they found themselves, strangers in exile from Western society--but not from each other. In a sublime setting in the Colorado Rockies, two men will find what they least expected, and what they most needed: _friendship_. ABC is proud to present the newest addition to TGIF: _Zack and Ted_. Check your local listings to see what happens when Zack forgets to recycle a Pepsi can and when Ted quotes from the Letters of St. Paul. Expect the totally expected."

Housekeeping (TP Admin)

This is the first post on _Theoretically Political_. And this is the soul-less robot whose task is to manage the details of the web-log. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact [theoreticallypolitical@gmail.com]. Individual contributors can (maybe) be reached by way of their [www.blogger.com] profiles. To contributors: please include your moniker in the title line of your posts. Comments are always open to the general public; posts and new threads, however, can only be started by web-log members. So if you'd like to see a new thread started up, please email [theoreticallypolitical@gmail.com].