What is this blog about?

What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Nonsensical Rifle Addiction

This video—a segment within the Dutch comedy show ‘Sunday with Lubach’—does a brilliant job of conveying just how insane the rest of the civilised world regards the American obsession with guns. And it is quite funny as well. (The narration of the video is in English—in fact the narrator sounds a lot like Patrick Stewart, at least to my ears.)

Of course, a standard reply from those within the United States who worship firearms is to declare that the right to own lethal weapons is necessary for ‘freedom’. But this is in fact wrong—widespread gun ownership actually reduces citizens’ overall freedom.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A public discussion of free speech at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

I'm heading back to Milwaukee for a couple of days to take part in a public panel discussion on: “When Free Speech Collides with Impermissible Speech: A Civil Discourse.” It will take place at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Student Union on Wednesday (27th September) at 10:30 (11:30 EST). If you’re so inclined, you can watch a ‘live stream’ via the link above.

Also taking part will be: Chris Ott (ACLU Wisconsin), Rick Esenberg (Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty), Dr. Michele Bria (Journey House of Wisconsin), and 3 UWM students. Moderating the discussion will be Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, whom I remember from his regular appearances on the PBS political discussion show, The McLaughlin Group.

Frankly, I'm a bit nervous about this, as the topic is rather broad and vague, so I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say about it (“say what you want, but be nice about it?”). I do hope to be able to criticize Wisconsin Republicans’ ongoing assault on academic freedom.

(Here is the UWM Philosophy Department’s announcement.)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Understanding Kant's Categorical Imperative

I've endured a number of short introductions to Kant's moral philosophy in my time, and this one -- on BBC Radio 4's "In Our Time" programme --  is (by far) the best one yet.

(And I'm not just claiming this because one of the participants, John Callanan of King's College London, is an old friend of mine. That would be most unKantian!)

[Image from here.]

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Guns versus freedom of speech

The nature of freedom and its social preconditions is one of my central research interests. Most of my past academic work on this topic has been on the role of ‘money’ (economic resources) and education (intellectual resources) in facilitating citizens’ effective freedom. But of course citizens’ freedom can be constrained or expanded by other things. In the case of the United States (and pretty much only the United States, at least amongst Western liberal democratic societies), widespread civilian ownership of firearms—including the right to freely carry them in public places—greatly constrains most citizens’ freedom.

This view is contrary to the mainstream American view concerning this topic. Many people on both sides of the ‘gun control debate’ within the United States agree that allowing citizens to own firearms enhances their freedom—the question (as it’s generally framed) is whether this freedom is sufficiently important or valuable to outweigh the foreseeable costs for citizens’ health, safety, and lives. Proposals to limit or regulate citizens’ access to and use of firearms are justified by American gun control advocates, for the most part, on grounds of public health and safety.

This way of framing the issue is mistaken. It unjustifiably cedes intellectual ground to firearms advocates. Permitting anyone to own and carry in public places deadly firearms decreases the overall freedom of the citizenry; it does so by increasing the overall level of private, arbitrary coercive power (via threats of force and exercises of force by individual citizens) within society. Or so I have argued in the past.

I’m pleased to see others articulating something like this way of construing the relationship between firearms and freedom. Focusing on freedom of speech, at Slate Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern have great piece entitled, “The Guns Won: Charlottesville showed that our First Amendment jurisprudence hasn’t reckoned with our Second Amendment reality.”

Here are some of the key points from their article:
“When demonstrators plan to carry guns and cause fights, does the government have a compelling interest in regulating their expressive conduct more carefully than it’d be able to otherwise? This is not any one judge’s fault. It is a failure of our First Amendment jurisprudence to reckon with our Second Amendment reality.
Charlottesville proves that this issue is hardly theoretical anymore.”

“This conflict between the right to bear arms and the right to free speech is nothing new, but the sudden surge in white nationalist activism has made it painfully obvious that, in the public square, the right to bear arms tends to trump the right to free speech.”

“The result is an alarming form of censorship: Nonviolent demonstrators lose their right to assemble and express their ideas because the police are too apprehensive to shield them from violence. The right to bear arms overrides the right to free speech. And when protesters dress like militia members and the police are confused about who is with whom, chaos is inevitable.”

“It’s perfectly reasonable for courts to consider the speech-suppressing potential of guns when evaluating a city’s efforts to keep the peace. And it will be perfectly lethal if they fail to take the Second Amendment reality into account, as they reflect upon the values we seek to protect with the First.”
The core problem posed for freedom of speech by guns is expressed succinctly by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his piece for the New York Times (“Why the Nazis Came to Charlottesville”): “There is no ‘free speech’ if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed.”

An armed society is an unfree society.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Explaining Canadian Exceptionalism

Joe Heath (of the University of Toronto) has an interesting post on ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ at the In Due Course blog.

‘Canadian exceptionalism’, roughly, refers to the absence of any significant anti-immigrant or anti-diversity sentiment—and the consequent absence of a nativist or right-wing populist political movement—in Canada.

The post has the virtue of identifying institutional, geographic, and policy factors that help explain this exceptionalism, rather than appealing to some kind of amorphous 'spirit of toleration' that makes us Canucks so welcoming. More specifically, Heath identifies the following factors as relevant: (a) the existence of very little illegal immigration to Canada; (b) the policy of bringing people in from all over the world; (c) a political system that encourages moderation; (d) the policy of including immigrants within the larger nation-building project; and (e) the institutional protection of the majority cultures (French and English) throughout the process.

Happy (belated) Canada Day!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Interview with Elizabeth Anderson on Private Government

There is an interesting interview at Jacobin with Elizabeth Anderson on her new book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about it). 

I especially liked these passages:
Fundamentally, egalitarians care about eliminating oppressive social hierarchy, including relations of domination and subordination under which subordinates can be arbitrarily subject to humiliating and oppressive conditions, and arbitrary restraints on their freedom.
[L]ibertarians and the politicians associated with them, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus, blindly repeat ideas from Smith, Paine, and Lincoln, not recognizing that they thought markets would liberate workers precisely by liberating them from the oppressive authority of employers. They continue to advance Paine’s and Lincoln’s promise of self-employment to any enterprising worker, but without being willing to give away the capital needed to realize that promise.
By contrast, Paine and Lincoln were rooted enough in reality to recognize that self-employment for the typical worker would be impossible if the state did not figure out ways to distribute capital to workers.
We are used to rhetoric that casts “government” as a threat to our liberties. By making it clear that the workplace is a form of government (that the state is not the only government that rules us), we can make clear how the authority that employers have over workers threatens their dignity and autonomy. By naming that government as “private” — that is, as kept private from the workers, as something employers claim is none of the workers’ business — we can make more vivid the fact that workers are laboring under arbitrary, unaccountable dictatorships.
I'm really looking forward to reading Liz's book!

(Disclosure: Prof. Anderson co-supervised my dissertation at the University of Michigan many years ago.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates

I’m delighted to have received my contributor’s copy of Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates, edited by Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier. The other contributors are: David Estlund, Gerald Gaus, Pablo Gilabert, Alexander Guerrero, Keith Hankins, Robert B. Talisse, Rosa Terlazzo, Laura Valentini, Danielle Wenner, and David Wiens.

Here is the description from the Oxford University Press website:
Political theory, from antiquity to the present, has been divided over the relationship between the requirements of justice and the limitations of persons and institutions to meet those requirements. Some theorists hold that a theory of justice should be utopian or idealistic--that the derivation of the correct principles of justice should not take into account human and institutional limitations. Others insist on a realist or non-utopian view, according to which feasibility--facts about what is possible given human and institutional limitations--is a constraint on principles of justice. In recent years, the relationship between the ideal and the real has become the subject of renewed scholarly interest. This anthology aims to represent the contemporary state of this classic debate. By and large, contributors to the volume deny that the choice between realism and idealism is binary. Rather, there is a continuum between realism and idealism that locates these extremes of each view at opposite poles. The contributors, therefore, tend to occupy middle positions, only leaning in the ideal or non-ideal direction. Together, their contributions not only represent a wide array of attractive positions in the new literature on the topic, but also collectively advance how we understand the difference between idealism and realism itself.
I’m pretty happy with the final version of my contribution (“Why Public Reasoning Involves Ideal Theorizing”). But the first draft of the paper, which I presented at the conference on Political Utopias at BGSU three years ago, was (to put it mildly) very rough. In fact, I thought that the presentation was a disaster, and contemplated (at least for a few hours) leaving academia forever. Thanks to helpful and friendly feedback at the conference, though, as well as at a subsequent presentation (at the APT), and from friends and colleagues kind enough to comment on later drafts (as well as anonymous referees for OUP), I feel pretty ‘okay’ with the published version of the essay. The whole experience was a helpful reminder of how vital exposing one’s ideas to others for critical feedback is for improving one’s philosophical work.

Here is the abstract for my paper:
Why Public Reasoning Involves Ideal Theorizing 
Some theorists—including Elizabeth Anderson, Gerald Gaus, and Amartya Sen—endorse versions of “public reason” as the appropriate way to justify political decisions while rejecting “ideal theory.” The chapter proposes that these ideas are not easily separated. The idea of public reason expresses a form of mutual “civic” respect for citizens. Public reason justifications for political proposals are addressed to citizens who would find acceptable those justifications, and consequently would comply freely with those proposals should they become law. Hence public reasoning involves “local ideal theorizing”: the justification of political proposals includes their consideration and evaluation under conditions of compliance with them by the citizens to whom those justifications are addressed. Local ideal theorizing, moreover, can lead to “full ideal theorizing,” wherein citizens outline and evaluate an amended version of their society’s “basic structure.” This argument is illustrated by some recent empirical work on inequality within the United States.
Finally, the book’s cover is quite beautiful (the image is from Thomas More’s original Utopia).

Kudos to Kevin and Michael on putting together such an excellent volume!