Directing Culture
June 14, 2010

A while back my friend and former NYU Local colleague Charlie Eisenhood pointed towards a great blog called You Are Not So Smart. I’ve been following it for a few days and it’s been a really thought-provoking exercise, since it seems to me that a lot of the assumptions the blog challenges have significant philosophical implications.

For example, this post about the total randomness that separates becoming a cultural phenomenon from languishing in obscurity. It got me thinking about one of the major questions I’ve been going back and forth on in political philosophy: What role can the state ethically play in cutting down on that randomness?

This is tricky for me because it seems that creating any work of art (let’s hold off for now on defining “art” because that conversation is not only impossible to resolve but usually pretty masturbatory) is an ethical proposition. It always comes from the place of a certain set of values and assumptions (or an opposition to certain values and assumptions), and that can be either good or bad for both the individual and the community. Art is, simply put, a massive public good issue.

So one would think that the state has an interest in promoting art that does something for the public good. The big question for me is whether or not anyone beyond the individual can properly distinguish what that is, or if it’s proper for anyone beyond the individual to even try.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that state participation necessarily requires some level of censorship, and is therefore bad, but I don’t think it has to be that way at all. Think of an institution like the BBC. Admittedly, the United Kingdom has a spotty record on freedom of speech and the press, but I still think the British Broadcasting Corporation serves as an instructive example of how state-sponsored entities can play an active role in entertainment/cultural discourse.

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May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

Reader lulwa asks:

Where does freedom of speach starts and where does it ends ?

Like with every question in philosophy, there’s no single question to this. A lot of philosophers would even reject the premise—when we talk about freedom of speech, we’re talking about a right, and there’s by no means anything approaching universal agreement that rights even exist.

The very notion of rights is actually a fairly recent innovation, one that has its roots in Enlightenment-era thought. I think the first mention of rights as a concept was made in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (first published in 1651), in which Hobbes suggests that we have natural rights which we forfeit to a supreme leader in exchange for protection and various other benefits.

Personally, I’m a fan of the concept of rights, largely because I don’t think you can have a functional democracy without them. But the argument for natural rights is pretty dubious. Very few proponents of rights would dispute the existence of a universal right to a fair trial, but I don’t think it’s coherent to argue that this is a right that exists outside of human law and society, or somehow prior to the existence of courts that can provide for a fair trial.

So my own view on rights is a form of constructivism, which is the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society. Rights exist because there is a framework for them to exist in, and they expand along with society’s capacity to accommodate for them.

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