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.

Friday, February 10, 2017

No money needed for my article on money and freedom

My article, “Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness,” has just been published in the journal Philosophy, Politics & Economics (an ‘early online’ version was posted last June). PPE has made it available for free! So you can read it online or download the PDF version without spending a penny—which seems quite appropriate, given the argument of the paper.

Here is the abstract:
The first principle of Rawls’s conception of justice secures a set of ‘basic liberties’ equally for all citizens within the constitutional structure of society. The ‘worth’ of citizens’ liberties, however, may vary depending upon their wealth. Against Rawls, Cohen contends that an absence of money often can directly constrain citizens’ freedom and not simply its worth. This is because money often can remove legally enforced constraints on what citizens can do. Cohen’s argument – if modified to apply to citizens’ ‘moral powers’ rather than ‘negative liberty’ – threatens a core feature of Rawls’s conception of justice, as it is unclear why the parties within the ‘original position’ would endorse the lexical priority of the first principle over the ‘difference principle’ (which concerns the distribution of wealth) if both principles similarly shape citizens’ freedom. I concede Cohen’s point regarding the relation between freedom and money but argue that it is not fatal to Rawls’s conception of justice if the ‘basic needs principle’ is understood to enjoy lexical priority over the first principle and is modified to include a right to adequate discretionary time. Nonetheless, Cohen’s argument helpfully highlights the infelicitous nature of Rawls’s terminology with respect to liberty: the basic needs principle, the first principle and the difference principle all should be understood as shaping citizens’ freedom to exercise their moral powers.
I was interviewed a few months ago on the article for the UWM magazine In Focus. And if you’re curious about the Canadian lottery (‘Lotto 6/49’) that I mention at the beginning of the article, I posted a link to one of the lottery’s commercials here back in May.

My friend and fellow political philosopher Andrew Lister (of Queen’s University) also has an article on Rawls in the very same issue. It’s called “Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,” and also is available for free.

(Obviously PPE recognizes that the world needs unimpeded access to this important new work on Rawls!)

UPDATE: Alas, the articles no longer are available for free. *sigh*

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

UWM Philosophy Department condemns Trump's Muslim Ban

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee opposes Trump's Executive Order:
UWM Philosophy Statement on Executive Order 
We, the undersigned faculty of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, unequivocally condemn the immigration and travel ban enacted by President Trump on January 27, 2017 and express our strong support of our students, alumni and applicants to our programs affected by it. 
The Executive Order impedes our academic mission. It obstructs our ability to build richly diverse cohorts of students, including international students. Recent graduating classes from our Master’s program include students from the countries named in the Executive Order as well as from other Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries. Our current pool of applicants includes students from these countries as well. 
More fundamentally, the Executive Order attacks the values of mutual respect, diversity, and freedom of personal movement on which scholarship and higher learning depend. 
We express support for students, instructors, researchers and faculty who are affected by this ban across UW system and across the country. And we re-commit ourselves to the values intrinsic to our mission which are threatened by this ban. 
Margaret Atherton
Miren Boehm
William Bristow
Edward Hinchman
Stan Husi
Stephen Leeds
Michael Liston
Blain Neufeld
Nataliya Palatnik
Robert Schwartz
Joshua Spencer
Richard Tierney
Andrea Westlund 
I'm proud that this decision was unanimous. I have great colleagues!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Anti-Trump Overlapping Consensus

Only 11 days into the new American regime and its cruelty and incompetence is manifestly clear. But as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo notes, none of the horrible actions being taken by the Trump regime should surprise anyone. Trump ran on an anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, pro-authoritarian, white nationalist agenda. What I find disorienting is not so much the horrific substance of what the Trump regime is doing (which I expected), but its breakneck pace and incompetence—that is, its sheer chaos.

With respect to the ham-fisted Muslim ban announced on Friday, its immorality and imprudence is well explained in this Vox interview with the prominent political theorist Joseph Carens. (Carens has produced more important work on the ethics of migration over the past four decades than anyone else.)

I’m gratified that the (US-based) professional organizations to which I belong—the American Association of University Professionals, the American Philosophical Association, and the Association for Political Theory—have all denounced Trump’s Muslim ban.

Here is the UWM (University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee) AAUP statement:
We, the UWM Chapter of the American Association for University Professionals, state our unequivocal condemnation of the immigration and travel ban enacted by President Trump on January 27, 2017, and affirm our support for our students and colleagues affected by it. We recognize the ban as part of a broader agenda that threatens the university and the very spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. 
Many colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students at our university are citizens of the seven countries affected by this executive order.  In Fall 2016, 104 graduate students from these nations attended UWM. Many other students are citizens of other Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. All these people are full members of the university community; the university belongs to all of us. The travel restriction interferes with their studies, their work as intellectuals, and their freedom of movement as people. 
We affirm that public universities are places of free inquiry and collective endeavor for all people, regardless of race, religion, sexual identity, or national origin. We are a nation of immigrant entrepreneurs and refugees, travelers, slaves and indigenous occupants; at UWM, our diversity is our strength in research, teaching, and community service. 
We likewise affirm our support for the many students, faculty, and staff throughout the UW System and across the country, facing discriminatory and exclusionary migration policies. We reiterate AAUP-UWM’s advocacy for the rights of our undocumented students to security and privacy. We call on our university leadership to speak out whenever and wherever possible on these pressing issues.
Here is the APA statement:
American participation in the global exchange of ideas depends on free movement of students and scholars to and from institutions of higher education, academic conferences, and other venues for study, research, and scholarly interaction. The executive order issued on January 27 limiting entry into the United States by refugees and those from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and deterring travel abroad by immigrants in the US, disrupts the work of philosophers and scholars in all disciplines around the world and impedes students, teachers, and researchers from engaging in their educational and professional pursuits. 
The APA’s mission is to foster open dialogue and the free exchange of ideas. Inclusion and respect for diverse people, religions, cultures, and ideas are at the very core of our work. This order goes against these values—values on which the United States itself was founded. 
The APA is working to assess the impact of this executive order on our members and participants in our upcoming meetings. We will take steps to ensure that those affected are able to participate in our meetings to the fullest extent feasible and to advocate for and support philosophers whose lives and work are harmed by this order. 
We stand with learned societies, colleges and universities, and others around the world in calling on the President and Congress to reverse this executive order and to denounce religious intolerance in all its forms.
And here is the APT statement:
The Association of Political Theory condemns, in the strongest terms, the travel ban recently issued by the federal government and demands that it be immediately rescinded.  As clarified in our mission statement, the purpose of the APT is to promote the study of political theory and political philosophy in North America by advancing scholarly interaction, collaboration, and debate among political theorists from diverse intellectual perspectives. Our membership includes scholars from many different parts of the world including those covered by this travel ban. As an Association, we stand both with these scholars and in solidarity with all refugees and immigrants who have been negatively impacted and endangered by this executive order. We now commit to taking concrete actions to prevent the harms to our members that this policy threatens.  We will begin exploring ways to do this and we welcome suggestions from our members about how best to help.
I’m also relieved to note that I have yet to interact personally with any academic who is remotely sympathetic to the new Trump regime and its manifestly malevolent policies. To use a Rawlsian term, there seems to be an ‘overlapping consensus’—amongst liberal egalitarians, centrist liberals, classical liberals, libertarians, democratic socialists, etc.—against the quasi-fascist regime now wreaking havoc in Washington D.C.  

To conclude this post, this strikes me as a spot on representation of the real power at work in the White House:

[Comic from here.]

Monday, January 9, 2017

Wisconsin Republicans' assault on academic freedom continues

This is getting tiresome, I know, but Republican legislators in Wisconsin seem to have a surfeit of enthusiasm when it comes to attacking the University of Wisconsin system, and especially the UW's commitment to academic freedom.

The most recent bit of nonsense is an inchoate proposal to somehow tie public funds for the UW system to more 'adequate' representation of right-wing ideas on UW campuses, irrespective of their intellectual or scientific merit, in the name of an ill-defined desire for greater 'intellectual diversity'. (I doubt that Republicans' concern for 'intellectual diversity' extends to the lack of leftish scholars and ideas at business schools...)

Helpfully, today's New York Times has a piece by Donald P. Moynihan (professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) -- "Who’s Really Placing Limits on Free Speech?" -- that does an excellent job in explaining what is happening in Wisconsin. Moynihan discusses the various policies that Republican legislators and Governor Scott Walker have used in the recent past (e.g., the evisceration of tenure), and in the future may use (e.g., the monitoring of course offerings at UW, allowing guns into classrooms), in order to stifle academic freedom. Worries about 'political correctness' (an 'issue' that I never have encountered during my 8+ years at UW-Milwaukee) are manifestly trivial in comparison to these real threats to free scholarship and intellectual liberty.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell 2016

Regarding the Brexit referendum and the Trump election:
2016 was a pretty terrible year. Alas, 2017 threatens to be even worse.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A creative way to address the prospect of guns in the classroom

In 2017 it looks like some Wisconsin GOP legislators will be pushing (yet again) for a law that would permit people to bring concealed firearms into campus buildings within the University of Wisconsin system. This is a terrible idea that just won't die (at least not while Republicans remain the enthusiastic thralls of the National Rifle Association).

Professor Larry Shapiro (UW-Madison), however, is planning on pursuing a rather innovative strategy for dealing with this problem (should the proposed bill eventually become law). He's preparing two syllabi for his "Introduction to Philosophy" course. The first syllabus includes a wide variety of topics, among them things like whether God exists, the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion, and conceptions of social justice. The second syllabus eliminates those topics and replaces them with philosophical debates less likely to provoke strong reactions in students.

Why the two syllabi? Prof. Shapiro explains:
The reason for the second syllabus is this. The topics on the first syllabus that get my students so excited are also the topics that arouse the most passion. And, if some of our state legislators have their way, passion is the last thing I’ll want to provoke in my students. You see, my campus may soon become a concealed carry campus. This means that while I am presenting an argument in favor of a right to abortion, or against the existence of God, or in favor of tax policies that would strip these students of their inheritances (I also present arguments on the other side of these issues), I will at the same time be worrying that a depressed or disturbed or drunk or high college student is in the audience, armed, and fed up with what I or fellow students are advocating. 
It’s of course obvious that gun violence in my classroom is far more probable given the legal presence of guns than not, and even if the danger remains remote, why should I bother to keep on my syllabus those issues that promise most likely to incite gun violence? Why teach topics that increase the probability, however small, of provoking an unstable but legally carrying shooter? 
So, my plan is this. On the first day of the semester I will explain to my students that I have prepared two syllabi for the course. One they’ll find much more interesting than the other, but we’ll adopt it only if I receive a promise from the students that they will not carry weapons into my classroom.
(Read the whole piece by Prof. Shapiro here. [Hat tip to the Daily Nous.])

I formulated a less creative strategy to deal with this problem when the idea was proposed last time (during autumn 2015): (a) switch all my lower-level undergraduate courses to online only; (b) hold my office hours in an off-campus coffee shop with a 'no guns' policy; and (c) request all students in my seminars (mainly graduate students and 4th-year undergraduates) not bring guns to our meetings (I would trust that students that mature would honour this request). But perhaps I'll adapt a version of Prof. Shapiro's strategy as well.

(In an earlier post at this blog, I explained why the possession of firearms actually renders everyone within American society less free.)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The AAUP defends academic freedom in Wisconsin

The American Association of University Professors has issued a reply to the threat to academic freedom posed by GOP legislators in Wisconsin (as mentioned in my previous post). 

Here is a part of the AAUP's statement:
[T]hreats to the university by government officials related to instructors offering specific courses stifles the free exploration of ideas...
Further, by calling on UW-Madison to fire Professor Sajnani for his public comments, these legislators ignore one of our most fundamental rights as U.S. citizens: the right to speak freely, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. ...
This is not merely an issue of freedom for academics, but an issue of freedom for all citizens.
Read the full statement here (pdf).