Rawls, Economic Liberty, and Lack Thereof
April 13, 2012

John Rawls

Gary Oldman as George Smiley -- I mean, John Rawls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent-ish post at Understanding Society leads back to this old Will Wilkinson post suggesting that the great philosopher of liberalism John Rawls was more radical than anyone gives him credit for. That’s because everyone treats Rawls’ difference principle — that a just society is only unequal when those inequalities benefit the worst off — as his most radical claim when, according to Wilkinson, what precedes it is actually far more radical. Here’s Wilkinson:

Rawls theory of justice has two principles. According to Rawls, the requirements of the first principle absolutely must be satisfied before moving on to the second principle. The difference principle is the last half of the second principle. By the time Rawls gets to the difference principle, most of the important work has already been done.

Rawls’ first principle of justice is a principle of maximum equal liberty that doesn’t sound that much different from Herbert Spencer’s. According to Rawls “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” The principle of equal liberty, and its absolute priority over matters of distribution, is what makes Rawls theory of justice liberal.

One might sensibly imagine that if all liberties matter, and that if citizens are to enjoy the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, then economic liberty must matter, and citizens ought to have as much of it as possible. However, Rawls specifically denies that robust economic rights and liberties are in any way implied by his first principle of justice. Economic liberties are not among our basic liberties. This is Rawls’ boldest claim.

So far so good. But when Wilkinson says that Rawls must have excluded economic liberties from his first principle because “if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get the answer he was looking for,” I can’t help but wonder if that’s being a bit overly glib. To be sure, Wilkinson is more well-versed in Rawls than I am, but I can still think up one or two plausible justifications for keeping economic liberties off the list of foundational political freedoms in Rawls’ system.

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Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Hierarchy and Domination
March 31, 2012

Hierarchy, order, control, domination.

Hierarchy, order, control, domination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shawn Gude and I had an interesting Twitter debate the other day with Corey Robin, regarding the relative merits of classical liberalism and small-r republicanism’s differing conceptions of liberty. Before I get to my disagreement with Corey, here, by way of background, is my most recent gloss of the liberal/republican disagreement, using Philip Pettit’s framework for republicanism. In Pettit’s account, republicans want to maximize freedom from domination (carefully defined), whereas liberals want to maximize freedom from interference.

Corey’s understanding of the republican tradition differs from Pettit’s. Over Twitter, he criticized republicanism for abandoning liberalism’s conception of liberty without offering a sufficiently comprehensive alternative. Classic republicanism, he argued, is mainly concerned with the eradication of social hierarchy; as a result, it is defenseless against attacks on freedom that don’t exploit those hierarchies.

Here, with the breaks between tweets eliminated, is the thought experiment he used to demonstrate his point:

Imagine one co-worker, equally situated, pestering another co-worker. Just bothering them, preventing them from getting their work done, preventing from doing what they want to do. Not to dominate or create a hierarchical relationship, but to interfere and get in their way. Seems important to hold onto that as an abridgment of freedom.

It’s entirely possible that the republican tradition as embodied by Milton, Machiavelli, Skinner, etc., (but excluding Pettit) has no satisfactory response to Corey’s challenge. He’s the one with a Ph.D. in political theory, and my own dealings with those theorists is both scant and second-hand. But I will note that, under Pettit’s definition, the pestering employee is definitively dominating his co-worker, and therefore restricting his liberty. That is to say, the pestering employee is interfering in his co-workers affairs 1.) on an arbitrary basis (he’s just bugging this one guy, and seemingly without provocation), 2.) without reference to the interests of the co-worker (who would clearly be better off if he wasn’t being pestered), and 3.) without allowing the co-worker recourse to any means of contesting the pestering (we’re assuming that the co-worker already asked him to stop, and was ignored). Dominating interference is any form of interference that satisfies at least one of those conditions — the pest’s interference satisfies all three.

So at the very least, Pettit’s gloss of republicanism includes an adequate response to Corey’s challenge. It could be that Pettit is the only republican with an adequate response, but I can’t rule one way or another on that without learning more about how both Corey and non-Pettit republicans use the term “social hierarchy.” Corey would likely concede that some forms of workplace pestering and bullying (such as racist remarks and sexual harassment) are contingent on the presence of social hierarchy, but he also maintains that bullying can exist in the complete absence of hierarchy. I’m not so sure — I think we could construct an account of hierarchy that maps roughly onto Pettit’s “domination” framework, and also allows that any instance of bullying is an a priori example of a small-scale, informal hierarchy.

In the meantime, as it stands, I have yet to hear an adequate liberal response to the republican master-slave thought experiment.

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New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

In DC
September 26, 2010

Washington dc
Image via Wikipedia

Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.

“Philosophy is Dead” (Progressive Politics Edition)
September 17, 2010

Lost in the continuing scuffle between Dylan Matthews and various other parties over Mark Greif’s “gut-level legislation“ is that you can believe that unalloyed political theory holds some value and also that Greif’s proposal fails on that level as well. Here’s the passage that justifiably rankled Dylan:

§ Legislative Initiative No.1: Add a tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of $100,000 a year from all sources and no more.

Dylan responds here that this would “effectively set that as a maximum wage,” which I think—as Matt Yglesias argues—was sort of the point and that Greif was finding an indirect way to suggest that not having a maximum wage—thereby allowing people to compete for sums far beyond what they could ever possibly require for their own comfort, creating a yet greater chasm between the richest and poorest members of our society—is morally depraved.

But if that was his aim, then why argue for an effective maximum wage? Why not just say we should have a legal maximum wage? Unless Greif wants to argue that this proposal fulfills some moral need which a straightforward maximum wage would not. That’s a pretty strong claim, and I wish him the best of luck with it.

The problem with Greif’s proposal is not that it takes a philosophical, rather than empirical, approach to politics—it pretty much fails on both levels. With that in mind, it’s a shame that Dylan had to make his rebuttal all about his remarkably restrictive view of which disciplines have something valuable to contribute to contemporary political discourse and which do not.

John Stuart Mill on Partisanship
August 15, 2010

Mill, weaned on the philosophy of Jeremy Benth...
Image via Wikipedia

I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.

I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.

In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.

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Recommended Reading for the American Left
August 14, 2010

Via Crooked Timber, here are parts one and two of an excellent interview on the philosophy and theory undergirding leftist thought. I haven’t read the full thing yet, but the early portions are an excellent overview of some of the concepts and ideas that are all too frequently absent from the American liberal lexicon. Unsurprisingly, this interview comes by way of the UK-based New Left Project; the British left and right both have firmer intellectual and theoretical foundations than American liberalism or conservatism, the latter of which has a stalwartly anti-intellectual foundation. But even American liberalism, as I’ve written before, suffers for appearing more like a list of disconnected policy preferences and priorities than a cohesive political vision.

It’s important to understand the philosophy that unites these policy preferences, and it’s very important to understand that there is, in fact, philosophy involved. Mainstream liberal arguments often take root in this notion of American liberalism as a technocratic, empirically-based approach to governance. Conservatives are the ideologues, goes the subtext; we’re the logical pragmatists.

That’s a deeply unsatisfying, even anemic, understanding of liberalism. There is an ideology, and a set of moral principles underlying the liberal worldview which anyone interested in left-wing American politics would do well to engage with. This interview is a great place to start.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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The Stone Hits a Bullseye
June 28, 2010

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve done my fair share of ragging on The Stone, the New York Times’ paved-with-good-intentions attempt at bringing philosophy to a wider audience, but this pair of essays, intended to respond to the all-too-common complaint that philosophy is too abstract and esoteric to have anything to do with the interests and concerns of real, non-PhD-holding people, is quite good. At the very least, it’s a nice antidote to Simon Critchley’s embarrassing nonsense. And a couple parts in each column nearly had me pumping my fist in the air. To whit, here’s a great excerpt from AskPhilosophers.org founder Alexander George’s entry:

It certainly doesn’t help that philosophy is rarely taught or read in schools.  Despite the fact that children have an intense interest in philosophical issues, and that a training in philosophy sharpens one’s analytical abilities, with few exceptions our schools are de-philosophized zones.  This has as a knock-on effect that students entering college shy away from philosophy courses.  Bookstores — those that remain — boast philosophy sections cluttered with self-help guides.  It is no wonder that the educated public shows no interest in, or perhaps even finds alien, the fully ripened fruits of philosophy.

Yes!

And here’s Frieda Klotz:

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared. The philosopher should engage in politics, and he should be busy, for he knows, as Plutarch sternly puts it, that idleness is no remedy for distress.

Also yes!

The point that philosophers should be involved in politics is, I think, a particularly good one; if you believe that the study of ethics and political philosophy has any merit at all, then surely you believe that the people who devote their lives to studying it have something to contribute to, and gain from, the political sphere.

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