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.

2 comments:

Gracchi said...

Really interesting post. I've faced this issue from the side of being a history PhD student and exactly the same thoughts have come to my mind as came to yours- what is the purpose of writing articles which very few people read etc.

I suppose there are two ways I thought through of justifying it:
a Firstly we shouldn't underestimate the kinds of unconscious filters that go round. Think of a popular historian or philosopher- what they do is build upon the works of others to write their broad accounts of a field- consequently their thought is informed by much of what they've read which is directed to the more elite universe. In that sense without the specialist the populariser would be sunk- their work would not be as good and consequently public debate wouldn't be as strong.

b. I suppose this maybe because I come from a university in which all the teaching is done one or two on one but I do think that academic teaching has a real value. In the UK at least kids leave school with a good sense of what knowledge is, but no real sense of how to organise it for themselves or how to acquire it themselves. Academic teaching in the best unis over here therefore takes the form of a dialectic in which the student is continually put into the situation of dealing with arguments- sometimes for the first times in theri lives. They then go on to apply those techniques of argument in other fields to other problems.

I don't know if that helps but its a start on an answer- this is a great blog by the way.

sexyurdu said...
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