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, November 27, 2017

Political Utopias reviewed at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

As I mentioned last April, I have a chapter in the volume Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates (Oxford University Press, 2017), edited by Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier.

So I thought I would mention here that Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has a (generally positive) review of the volume out now, written by Patick Taylor Smith (of National University of Singapore).

Thursday, November 9, 2017

On the ‘anti-conservative bias’ of academia

Wisconsin Republicans like to whine about the ‘anti-conservative bias’ of contemporary universities. Such complaints have been used to help justify their ongoing destruction of the University of Wisconsin system (including: the recent de facto prohibition of student protests by the [Scott Walker-appointed] Regents of the UW system; the attack on academic freedom through the evisceration of tenure two years ago; the massive budget cuts to the system over the course of Walker’s time as governor; etc.).

For a helpful explanation for why this ‘bias’ exists in academia, read this post by Joe Heath (a philosopher at the University of Toronto).

One of Heath’s key points is something that I’ve long held to be obviously true—viz., universities are inherently ‘pro-reason’ (broadly understood to mean an overall pro-evidence, pro-argument, pro-logic, etc., outlook). So insofar as much of political and social conservatism is anti-reason (anti-evidence, etc.), then academia inevitably is going to be a hostile environment for most political and social conservatives. And to the extent that anti-reason conservatives go to university and become less conservative as a consequence, this is not (or at least not primarily) due to ‘brainwashing’ by Marxist profs, but rather because they become acclimated to a rationalist way of seeing the world. (In contrast to anti-reason conservatives, libertarians are massively overrepresented in academia, especially in the US. But of course libertarians think that they have arguments for their positions; they’re ‘pro-reason’, like their liberal and left-wing interlocutors.)

Another thing that I like about this post is Heath’s take down of the irritatingly influential Jonathan Haidt. What I find most grating in much of Haidt’s work is its unargued premise of moral non-cognitivism. (Heath also criticizes Haidt’s ‘political moralism,’ which strikes me as fair, but is not something that causes me to tear my hair out in annoyance.)

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!