Instilling Public Virtue
June 16, 2010

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...
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My earlier post about the ethical limits of state interference in culture ties into one of my major concerns in political philosophy: public virtue. Namely, what it is, and how to get some.

It seems to me fairly self-evident that a strong sense of public virtue is necessary for the continued survival of a democracy. After all, in an ideal democracy or republic (which, admittedly, we don’t have), accountability and legitimacy ultimately ends with the decisions of the people. So the state, then, would only be as virtuous as its citizens.

Maybe you disagree. The counterargument is that voting should be done purely as an exercise in self-interest, because if everyone votes in their own self-interest then the result will be candidates and policies that benefit the majority of the people. But very few would argue against some basic limits on the ability of the majority to assert its will, and the reason given tends to be pretty simple: letting the majority enslave the minority and trample on its rights would be unjust. Which makes me think there’s a consensus that justice is a greater priority for a society than making 51% of the society as happy as possible.

So an ideal democracy, then, would be one in which as many people as possible—a bare majority, at the very least—make rational voting decisions based on the outcome most likely to produce a more just state.

So the next question—and, I think, the truly difficult one—is this: Is there a just way to guide voters into freely making decisions like that? Is it just to even try?

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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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Prescriptive Constructivism
May 26, 2010

Apropos of my last post, I should add that Rawls’ constructivism is distinct for being prescriptive, rather than descriptive—Sharon Street’s metaethical constructivism (as in, constructivism regarding the entire field of ethics, not just a certain subset) is descriptive in that she seeks to explain how we make ethical decisions right now where as Rawls is offering a vision of how he thinks we should make ethical decisions, at least with regards to governance. Obviously there will never be an original position or a veil of ignorance, but he uses this thought experiment as the foundation for an entire philosophy of governance that follows.

Substantive Constructivism and Rights
May 26, 2010

John Rawls
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Clearly I didn’t do an adequate job of explaining my position on rights in this post, leading one commenter to suggest that my view came down to suggesting that rights and laws regarding rights are basically identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that the way governments respect human rights can be evaluated by an independent standard; I just think that evaluation needs to be done without reference to supposed natural laws of which we have no evidence.

In that post I referred to constructivism as “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.” What I left unsaid is what those terms are. And while there are a lot of different forms of constructivism, the one I tend to favor when it comes to political philosophy is the Rawlsian concept of the original position.

This is the view that John Rawls (pictured)—the founder of modern political liberalism (which is to say philosophical political liberalism, which is not the same thing as what we normally understand to be liberalism)—outlines in his landmark work A Theory of Justice. He writes that the ideally fair society is one in which all the laws and structure of government are decided and mutually agreed upon by its citizenry while this citizenry is in the original position. To be in the original position is to be behind something called the veil of ignorance; it means that while you are capable of rational reflection, you have no idea where you will fit into this society. You have no idea what your race, social class, income, religion, gender, sexual orientation (which I don’t think Rawls mentions, but I’m going to throw it in there anyway), etc. will be. Any rational individual in this position, Rawls argues, will advocate for laws and policies that are fair to even the worst off in the society, because they know that could be them.

I’m not completely onboard with everything Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, but I think the concept of the original position is a good starting point for thinking about what an ideally fair society, one that respects human rights, would look like.

Incidentally, Rawls’ original position is what Sharon Street—an NYU professor, and, I think, one of the leading explicators of constructivism—would call restricted substantive constructivism. In other words, it is a theory of ethics that applies to a restricted field (politics), and is substantive in that you can’t rationally try to construct ethics within this system without (or at least Rawls would argue) ultimately deciding that universal fairness and respect for everyone’s rights are good things.

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Rights
May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
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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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This is How Not to Defend Abortion
April 4, 2010

I’m currently at work on1 a paper responding to Judy Thomson’s A Defense of Abortion. No doubt a lot of you are in the same position I was in until this week: you know about the famous violinist thought experiment, but you haven’t read the whole paper. The thought experiment itself has what I think are some pretty clear problems, but I went into the full work hoping that the main thesis could still be rescued from those.

Sadly, this just reads like a total mess to me. For one thing, the thing with the violinist is the most relevant thought experiment, and the way they pile on top of each other and the metaphors bleed and mix together makes me think of what would happen if Thomas Friedman had a PhD in analytic philosophy. But the biggest issue for me is this recurring confusion–and conflation–of what one has the right to do, and what it would be right for one to do. It gets sorted out a little at the end, but I can’t help but feel like Thomson sacrificed a lot of coherence and conceded way too much to the anti-abortion position in a basically noble but misguided attempt to contribute something new and interesting to the debate.

Not to rehash this old debate,2 but it’s papers like this that make me sort of understand where Dylan’s coming from on political philosophy. I disagree with him for the most part, but it’s certainly true that stuff like “A Defense of Abortion” provides neither enlightenment nor guidance. Thomson ends up at roughly the same prescriptive conclusion I do, but builds up to it using a series of premises and arguments that I find wholly unconvincing.

1Okay, so “blogging to put off getting to work on” would probably be more accurate.

2Translation: “To rehash this old debate…”

A Constitutional Convention is a Really Bad Idea (For Now)
April 1, 2010

Dylan, subbing in for Ezra Klein, makes a sad but true point I’ve been thinking about for a while: In the abstract, a constitutional convention sounds like a really good idea because we desperately need some sweeping reforms right now, but in reality it would probably be disastrous because those proposals would be shoved to the side in favor of crazy bullshit concocted by crazy people.

The fact of the matter is that drafting a constitution–or even tweaking one–is an impossibly demanding, complicated task that should only be undertaken by brilliant people. That is, in part, why I think a lot of post-revolution governments don’t look so great. And sadly for us, we’ve got more Michelle Bachmanns than Thomas Jeffersons right now. So I think the more worthwhile project is, rather than trying to solve the difficult problems, solving comparatively the easy problems (climate change, financial reform, etc.) and trying to get ourselves to a place of basic sentience/functionality where we can tackle the difficult ones.

That, incidentally, is why I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about Romney’s potential candidacy in the GOP primary. I’m assuming right now that he’ll lose the general either way, but would the GOP nominating him get us closer to or further away from the possibility for interaction between two relatively sane political parties? On the one hand, if the Republicans nominated, say, Sarah Palin or someone, that might be the final nail in the coffin for them as a party governed by adults (or indicate that the nail already got hammered in awhile ago). On the other hand, if he did get nominated, he would lose, and the GOP base might take that as an indication–as they did with McCain–that their candidate was insufficiently nuts. I guess right now I’ll tentatively root for him as the Republican candidate least likely to blunder us into a nuclear war.

It’s Not Liberalism Versus Conservatism Anymore
March 26, 2010

To be clear, I don’t think it’s even entirely coherent to talk about liberalism versus conservatism as the fundamental political/philosophy conflict in the United States anymore. What I call mainstream American political conservatism is really just incoherent, violent rage. And the nominal liberalism of the Democratic Party under Barack Obama is so measured, heavily qualified and internally diverse (spanning the ideological spectrum from Dennis Kucinich to Bart Stupak) that it can barely be called liberalism at all.

The real split in this country now is between people (left or right) who are actually concerned with solving problems and people (left or right, Code Pink or Tea Party) who just feel like blindly emoting.

Although, of course, blindly emoting without resorting to violence, vandalism and death threats is obviously vastly preferable to what we’re currently seeing from the Tea Party fringes.

The Political Right and the Death of the Normative Right
March 26, 2010

I’m not done talking about this.

It’s not hard to draw a line between modern far-right nihilism and the ethical outlook of the Bush administration. For all of the latter’s high-minded rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, their national security approach was founded on a policy of complete disregard for human rights. In defending this disregard, people like Marc Thiessen make the claim that torture and indefinite detention are necessary to preserve America; I’m not going to rehash the rebuttals to this claim, but suffice to say it’s a huge old crock of shit.

The principles the Bush administration violated weren’t superseded by greater principles; America would have remained alive and well (and, in fact, even more secure) had we not waterboarded detainees into insanity. So how to account for the right’s vociferous defense of atrocity? Simple: these principles were, in fact, superseded by emotional states. The slightest potential threat of terrorist attacks put the right into such a state of blind terror that it immediately justified the most inhuman acts.

Now you see the same thing happening in the far right’s excuse-making for domestic terrorism. People are angry. Specifically we are angry. And this is somehow supposed to be a reasonable defense, or at least mitigating factor.

But any principle that can be obliterated by an emotional state is no principle at all. The whole point of normative claims is to subject our behavior to something above an emotional state. Which certainly puts the right’s grand tradition of high-minded moralizing into perspective.

The takeaway point is one that we’ve heard before but worth repeating again: the modern American right wing has ceded claim to any sort of moral values at all. So please, spare me the misty-eyed, Andrew Sullivan-style paens to “conservative principles.” If you want to be extremely charitable, you can call those words a quaint anachronism; if not, call them incoherent noise.

The Nature of Rights Isn’t Necessarily to Be Natural
March 12, 2010

I wanted to blog this earlier in the week, but couldn’t: On Tuesday, Jamelle had an interesting point about human rights when he wrote:

The reality is that our conception of “rights” changes and expands with time. For a large chunk — if not most — of American history, for instance, voting was understood as a privileged extended to certain classes and not a right to be exercised. And the same can be said for the right to a quality education and the right to reproductive freedom. Sure, you can argue that we did fine before either of those was a basic human right — and we did — but as we recognized their importance to human flourishing, we accorded them to standing of “rights.” In much the very same way, the internet is becoming an important part of human flourishing. Since its creation, the internet has revolutionized human communication, and is an increasingly critical part of global finance and governance. The internet is an integral part of billions of lives, and I can easily imagine a future where internet access is a virtual (no pun intended) prerequisite for meaningful interaction with with society, both locally and at large.

Right. There’s a tendency in certain circles to think of human rights as being “natural” rights, or rights that somehow existed prior to civilization. You sometimes see this used as an counterargument against the concept of positive rights; most recently the positive right to some basic level of health care coverage.

But I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to talk about natural rights. The right to vote that Jamelle brings up is a pretty good example of why; does it really make sense to talk about the right to vote existing prior to anything to vote for? Can someone have the right to a fair trial before the existence of a criminal justice system?

As a result, I think it makes more sense to think of rights as something that are produced as the result of an interaction between man and society. That doesn’t mean I think they’re completely relative, but it does mean that our conception of rights must necessarily expand in tandem with society’s ability to provide for basic needs.

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