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, 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).

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

More Republican contempt for academic freedom in Wisconsin

Yet again Wisconsin Republicans display contempt for the principle of academic freedom. Two fascistic legislators in particular want to exercise domination over the university, ensuring that it comply with their ideological preferences.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Two leading state Republican lawmakers are threatening the University of Wisconsin System that if it doesn't remove a course called "The Problem of Whiteness" from UW-Madison's spring semester offerings, the UW's requests for more state funding and a bump in tuition may be denied during budget deliberations next year. 
One of the lawmakers, Rep. Dave Murphy of Greenville, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that he also has directed his staff to look further into UW-Madison's course offerings to make sure "they're legit."

UW-Madison must drop the class, Murphy said. "If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the University can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

Asked what exactly he would be looking for, Murphy did not elaborate. He said his staff would not need to look at many disciplines such as chemistry and business, but "we'll be looking at the humanities."

This is the second time in less than six months that a legislator has threatened UW System funding over course offerings at the state's flagship university. 
In July, Sen. Steve Nass, the vice-chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and a frequent UW critic, warned in a letter to UW leaders and regents that UW-Madison lecturer Jason Nolen's decision to assign an "offensive" essay on gay men's sexual preferences in a sociology class could have budget ramifications.  
Not content to destroy the University of Wisconsin system through underfunding and the elimination of tenure, these malevolent ignoramuses want to conduct a witch-hunt to expunge anyone who dares to deviate from what they think universities ‘ought’ to teach.

It is clear that we should now speak of ‘freedom’ in Wisconsin in the past tense.

Monday, December 19, 2016

What makes philosophy an academic discipline?

In the future when non-philosophy (and especially non-academic) people ask me what it is that we philosophers do, I think that I'll just recommend that they read this blog post by Joe Heath (University of Toronto).

Some key bits:
Philosophy has what could best be described as an adversarial disciplinary culture, something that manifests itself most clearly in how the Q&A goes after a research talk. Basically, after people present their philosophical views, the audience members try to tear them apart. Every question is a variation on “here’s why I think you’re wrong…” It is not supportive.
[T]he discipline as a whole is a very negative one. Basically, colleagues exist to tell you why you’re wrong.
So what makes philosophy an academic discipline, rather than (as my former teacher, James Johnson used to put it) “the department of data-free speculation”? Part of the reason that I don’t have to work very hard thinking of ways that my view might be wrong is that I have colleagues who enjoy nothing better. In other words, if there are obvious blind spots in my reasoning, I can be quite confident that they will be pointed out to me, in one of those unsupportive, adversarial Q&A sessions.
We’re doing pretty abstract work, and we’re often trying to see how things fit together at a very general level. What makes us different from conspiracy theorists, or people who claim to see Jesus in their toast? Or what stops us from just making stuff up and believing it? I really think that the only thing keeping us tethered to the world is the disciplinary culture, and the fact that we have to defend ourselves, in a room full of people who have spent decades listening to arguments, and identifying bad ones.
The whole thing is worth reading -- and quite entertaining to boot.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Coming soon: voting rights for non-resident Canadians

Over a year ago I wrote: (a) that Canadians who live abroad for five or more years should retain their right to vote in federal elections, and (b) that such Canadians should have special representation in Parliament (say, a dozen or so MPs) rather than voting for MPs in particular ridings. (See my post here or at In Due Course from August 2015.)

Well, it looks I got my wish for (a). Here is the official statement from the Canadian government.

So while 2016 has been a complete disaster politically in many parts of the world, at least something good is happening for people like me (the roughly 9 percent of Canadians who live abroad*).

(*One reason why I especially care about this issue is that while I work and live abroad, I spend roughly one-third of my time [about 4 months of the year] in Canada, so I find the 5-year limit on voting especially vexing given my strong, ongoing connection to the country.)