I wish I could say I’m as ambitious as Dylan seems to think I am. But my point isn’t that abstract discussion of first principles should be at the forefront of public debate; rather that it’s already an implicit part of the debate, and we do ourselves a disservice by not dragging it out into the open and making it explicit.
As I mentioned earlier, plenty of liberals are already proto-Rawlsians. Plenty of libertarians are proto-Nozickians. And we’ve got a hell of a lot of Utilitarians in the house. And a lot of popular political arguments are framed in terms that make this pretty clear. But because methods of philosophical scrutiny aren’t a part of the conversation at all, there’s no pressure to make this arguments coherent or internally consistent in any meaningful sense.
Of course, that’s because most of it is based on personal prejudices and predispositions. But that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and give up on those arguments entirely. I was a liberal before I began studying philosophy, and my political views have shifted very little since then, but one thing my studies have done is helped me take a step back from the specific policies I favor and think about, broadly speaking, what kind of society I want to live in overall. It got me thinking about the long game, and that’s important. And more importantly, it got me thinking about the long game in a coherent, logical framework; something that can be picked apart and examined piece by piece. It’s made me a better critical thinker than I used to be, and, I think, a better citizen, because I’m in a better position to deconstruct those implicit philosophical arguments and pit them against my own.
The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make. By rejecting an ultimate theory of justice, we do not paralyze ourselves, or surrender our intention to improve the world. Quite the contrary. We liberate ourselves for the full complexity of the challenge before us, and equip ourselves with all the elements of comparative reasoning that the evaluation of an injustice requires. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions.
That’s a team effort. It requires a diverse electorate with diverse views, but it also requires one that’s able to critically evaluate those views. And that’s really the point of a philosophical education: Not to turn everyone into Utilitarians, Rawlsians, Kantians, etc., but to introduce that logical rigor into a public discourse that suffers greatly from its deficit. Of course many people will be resistant, and of course it’s going to be a long and hard slog, but I’m convinced it’s worth the effort even if it gets just a small handful of Americans thinking about this stuff who weren’t doing so before.