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,

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.


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.)