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.

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.

Sláinte!

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.)

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Kochtopus is poised to control the Trump administration

I’ve mentioned the threat that the Koch brothers and the various organizations that they fund and control – a sprawling plutocratic network of political influence and corruption often referred to as the ‘Kochtopus’ – pose to American democracy before in this blog. Given that the Kochs refused to back Trump during the 2016 election, they have not been subject to as much scrutiny in the most recent election cycle as they have been in the past. However, the Kochs are now poised to shape the policy agenda of the coming Trump administration in numerous horrible ways.

Theda Skocpol, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Caroline Tervo explain what is happening in their important article, “Behind ‘Make America Great,’ the Koch Agenda Returns with a Vengence,” at TPM.

Some key points:
During the election campaign, Trump relied upon well-established conservative organizational networks that could reach into many states and communities. … [H]e benefitted indirectly from Koch network operations centered in a nation-spanning, political party-like federation called Americans for Prosperity. Even more important, after his campaign squeaked through on November 8, an unprepared President-Elect Trump started to fall back on people and plans offered by the Koch network, which aims to dismantle not only Barack Obama’s accomplishments but much of what the federal government has done for 75 years to promote security and opportunity for ordinary Americans.

Despite loud pronouncements from Charles Koch that his network would not support Trump, the Kochs’ massive political operation worked over many months to turn out Republican voters in key states. Above all, AFP was deeply involved in get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in the critical swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Having helped to elect Trump and a fully GOP-controlled Congress, the Koch network is now positioned to staff and steer much that happens in Washington DC.

For the emerging Trump White House, Vice President Mike Pence, long a Koch network favorite, was put in charge of transition planning for federal personnel appointments – and one of his senior staffers for this effort is his long-time associate, Marc Short, recent head of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the lynchpin of the Koch network’s fundraising operation.

In addition to Pence and Short, newly-named White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has had strong ties to AFP’s chapter in Wisconsin – a chapter that has been central to all aspects of politics and policy in that state during the ascendancy of Governor Scott Walker.

After apparently denouncing and opposing GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan during the election campaign, President-Elect Trump did a quick about-face to fully embrace Ryan and his radical government-shrinking policy agenda. Speaker Ryan has been a featured politician at many Koch donor conclaves over the years, and Washington Post reporter Matea Gold has described Ryan as “clearly a favorite of the Koch donor network.” It is not hard to see why. Ryan’s main priorities, already spelled out in budgets that House Republicans have repeatedly passed, include slashing federal funding for Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other parts of the social safety net for the poor; privatizing Medicare for future generations of American retirees; instituting large and regressive tax cuts rewarding corporations and the very wealthy; gutting what remains of labor regulations and union rights; and eliminating business and environmental regulations.

With all of these leadership ties in place, is it no surprise that specific plans have rapidly emerged to advance the Koch agenda in the new Congress that convenes in January 2017, perhaps enacting bills so quickly that opponents will be disorganized and most Americans will not understand what is happening.

With total GOP control of Washington DC about to happen, the Koch network dream of an enfeebled U.S. domestic government is on the verge of realization.
Read the whole thing – and despair.


Is democracy coming to Wisconsin?

Finally, some good news for the sorry state of Wisconsin:
A federal court has ruled Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn legislative map unconstitutional, saying the plan constitutes a partisan gerrymander. 
In a 2-1 decision from a special panel of federal judges, authored by federal Judge Kenneth Ripple, the court agreed with a group of Democratic plaintiffs that the redistricting plan had systematically diluted the voting strength of Democratic voters.
(From Wisconsin's NPR website: "Wisconsin's GOP-Drawn Legislative Districts Unconstitutional." More information available at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)

Thank Crom!

Update:

Key to the decision was this:
The Democrats contend that they have found a way to measure unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that are designed to give an extreme and durable advantage in elections to one party, a measure that the U.S. Supreme Court has said it was lacking. The measure, called the efficiency gap, shows how cracking (breaking up blocs of Democratic voters) and packing (concentrating Democrats within certain districts) results in wasted votes -- excess votes for one party in safe districts and votes for losing candidates in those safe districts.
(From the Wisconsin State Journal.)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Wisdom of the Irish

If only more countries could have heads of state as wise and knowledgeable as Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins:
Teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric”, President Michael D Higgins has said. 
Speaking at a function at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark World Philosophy Day, which fell this week, the President expressed concern about an “an anti-intellectualism that has fed a populism among the insecure and the excluded”. 
Amid claims that we have entered a “post-truth” society, he asked how we might together and individually contribute to a “reflective atmosphere in the classrooms, in our media, in our public space”. 
“The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament.”  
[…] 
“The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said. 
“A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”
(From: “Teach philosophy to heal our ‘post-truth’ society, says President Higgins,” The Irish Times [2016-11-19].)

Also recently in Ireland, Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin spoke out with appropriate moral indignation against the Trump victory in last week’s U.S. election (despite receiving 1.6 million fewer votes than Clinton according to the most recent tally). His speech on November 10th was excellent. Watch it!

Erin go bragh!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Interview on freedom, money, and justice as fairness

Last September I was interviewed about my forthcoming article, "Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness," by Sarah Vickery for the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee journal In Focus. The interview can be found on page four of the journal (available here). I've reproduced it below.


FREEDOM AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (SOME RESTRICTIONS MAY APPLY)

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science (UWM)

“With freedom and justice for all” is the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance and a guiding ideal in American society, but there’s a caveat: freedom seem to be worth more the wealthier you are.

“You and I have an equal right to freedom of association,” explained Philosophy professor Blain Neufeld. “That right is protected equally for both of us. But if I’m wealthy, I can exercise that right more effectively. I can set up associations or travel to distant places to associate with others. We have equal liberty but I can make better use of it.”

That’s one of the principles forming the basis of Neufeld’s recent paper, “Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness” published in the journal Politics, Philosophy, & Economics. He seeks to answer a question that has sobering implications for our society: How do you reconcile the thought that we have basic freedoms with varying abilities to exercise them against the idea that money can grant access to freedoms that others without money will never have?

There are two seemingly conflicting views of freedom at work here, said Neufeld. The first is philosopher John Rawls’ conception of Justice as Fairness which claims that: (1) every individual has an equal right to a set of basic liberties, but (2) there may exist some inequalities in society, such as those regarding income and wealth, which can in influence the worth of those liberties. The first principle has lexical priority in Rawls’ conception of justice, meaning it will always take precedence over the second.

On the other hand is philosopher Gerald Cohen, who argues that wealth can eliminate barriers to freedom, giving wealthy people certain liberties that others do not have.

“If Cohen’s right, why would (Rawls) insist on lexical priority? It doesn’t make sense,” Neufeld said. “The paper is an attempt to explain why you still want the lexical priority even if you’ve granted Cohen’s point – why you’d still want to have special protection for these basic rights, even if you acknowledged that the more wealth people have, the more freedom they have.”

Neufeld was inspired to write the paper thanks to a Canadian lottery commercial he remembered seeing regularly as a child. The ad showed happy lottery winners traveling and enjoying fun activities under the tagline ‘Imagine the freedom.’

“When I read Cohen’s article, that commercial popped into my mind. If you win the lottery, you’re free! You can remove all of these constraints,” Neufeld said. “I thought, if Cohen is right, does this spell trouble for Rawls’ conception of justice? I hope it doesn’t, or I’ll have to reevaluate what I’m doing with my life.”

Neufeld won’t have to reevaluate too hard; he concluded that Rawls can accommodate Cohen’s point if you apply to Justice as Fairness a “basic needs” principle – an insurance that everyone has adequate education, discretionary time, health care, and other fundamental needs met.

“If you secure those things, you already establish a level of freedom all citizens have to a more or less equal degree, even independent of whatever inequality might be necessary for economic efficiency,” Neufeld said.

That has implications for our own political system, he added, especially when we look at how current rhetoric and social systems have marginalized some groups of Americans, thanks to income inequality. This paper won’t change it, but, “It’s one of my on-going concerns, trying to resurrect another way of thinking about individual freedom that points out that inequality is incompatible with widespread liberty,” Neufeld added.

More concretely, Neufeld emphasized in his argument about the basic needs principle that one fundamental need is adequate discretionary time. People need time away from work to pursue leisure activities, to engage socially, and to think about important things – like what their political views should be. He’s been dismayed to see Americans working longer hours in recent decades, alongside attacks to benefits like overtime pay.

“What Rawls talks about in terms of a basic needs principle as a precondition of even being able to be free – if you’re not educated, if you don’t know what options are available to you; you’re not free to choose among those options. If you’re working constantly, you can’t, say, think about how to vote in an upcoming election,” Neufeld said. “This idea of a basic needs principle is important.”

Friday, November 11, 2016

Liberal democracy in a darkening world

There are some interesting observations from Joe Heath (Philosophy, University of Toronto) on the US election in his recent post at In Due Course.

This comment especially troubled me:
"Perhaps I am overreacting, but I do feel as though yesterday was one of those moments, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, that alters the trajectory of civilization. That’s because the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency is deeply discrediting to Western-style democracy. In fact, I think the big winner, globally, from Tuesday’s election, is Chinese-style authoritarianism."
I think that the possibility that what happened on Tuesday will be perceived in the way that Heath describes is a real danger. It reminded me of the following observation by John Rawls:
"If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and well-ordered society is impossible, then the quality and tone of [political] discussions will reflect that knowledge. A cause of the fall of Weimar’s constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime to be possible. Its time had past." 
(From the Preface to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism [my emphasis].)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The need for optimism

This post from Josh Marshall, "Observations on the Day After," is well worth reading (Marshall is one of the few American political pundits whom I read constantly, and with whom I usually agree).

In particular, I liked this passage:
"Optimism isn't principally an analysis of present reality. It's an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in."
We're in for some very dark times, people. Let's light a candle and conduct ourselves with honour, compassion, and dignity.

Worst case scenario

The worst case scenario for the 2016 U.S. election has happened: a Trump victory with Republican control of Congress.

I'm still in shock at this gratuitous act of electoral self-destruction, with all its national and international implications.

This Vox piece --- "5 winners and 4 losers from the 2016 election" --- succinctly hits on most of the main issues.

The things that terrify me the most about the forthcoming Trump regime are: (a) the further deterioration of the environment; (b) the destabilization of the international order (in part because of the emboldenment of Putin and the potential unravelling of NATO); (c) the entrenchment of a rightwing Supreme Court; (d) the likely end of the Affordable Care Act; (e) the erosion of other key social safety programs with a Ryan-authored budget (esp. Medicaid and food stamps); and (f) the emboldenment of racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, etc., discourse within American political culture.

On racism and xenophobia --- not just within the U.S. but throughout many other democratic societies -- this article, "White Riot," is a long and depressing read, but an excellent one. (The fact that Canada turns out to be the 'hero' of the story is cold comfort...)

One "what-could-have-prevented-this" comment: As my partner and most of my personal friends already know, I always thought that Bernie Sanders would've been a stronger candidate against Trump. This Daily Kos post nicely summarizes most of my reasons. (However, aside from a couple of posts on Facebook, I did not press this view because: (a) I was only about 70% confident in my judgement; and (b) I viewed Trump with such horror that I did not think it constructive to focus too much on the relative merits of Clinton versus Sanders.)

Finally, it looks like Clinton at least won the popular vote (the tally is 59,036,741 votes (47.6%) for Clinton versus 58,914,866 votes (47.5%) for Trump at the time of this post).

Now, to bed...

(Post updated at 6:22 with links and further thoughts.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

The soul of a tyrant


Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen draws upon the Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato's Republic to diagnose Donald Trump as "a walking, talking example of the tyrannical soul."

Indeed.

Trump confirmed (yet again) his malignant nature in tonight's debate when he threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton should he be elected president. That is an attack on the very heart of liberal democracy.

November 8th cannot come soon enough.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Philosopher Charles Taylor wins another award

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has won the first Berggruen Prize (which includes a cash award of 1 million USD). What is the Berggruen Prize? Here is the description from its website:
Berggruen Prize: For Ideas that Shape the World

The Berggruen Prize is awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity. It seeks to recognize and encourage philosophy in the ancient sense of the love of wisdom and in the 18th Century sense of intellectual inquiry into all the basic questions of human knowledge. It rewards thinkers whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life across the range of world civilizations.
[...]
Great transformations are reshaping almost every aspect of human existence today. The very idea of the human is challenged by new technologies that not only take on tasks once thought intrinsically human but also are increasingly able to change human bodies. Economic, social, and cultural changes are also profound. Established political systems confront pressure at both national and international levels.

In this context, people seek wisdom in both new ideas and renewal of old traditions. But which new ideas should be welcome and what old traditions remain important?

To answer these questions, philosophy is vital not just as an academic discipline but as a source of intellectual and moral orientation in the world. Philosophy adequate to this task depends on advancing knowledge of the world as it is and as it changes, on ideas that both grasp and shape it, and on critical reason and debate that continually interrogate those ideas. Such philosophy is strengthened by a capacity to learn from the different forms of scholarship and intellectual perspective embedded in different civilizations. It also draws widely on humanities and social science and engages natural science and technology.

The Berggruen Prize is awarded for philosophy in this broad sense – deep intellectual work and cultural creativity that can help individual human beings and humanity as a whole find direction and wisdom in a rapidly changing and constantly challenging world. 
Last year (as I mentioned here) Taylor won (with Jürgen Habermas) the John W. Kluge Prize.

The essay by Taylor that has had the greatest impact on my own work is “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?” Not only did it influence the way in which I understand liberty and its value, but I regularly teach it in my seminars on ‘political conceptions of freedom.’

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: Martin Carcieri (2015), Applying Rawls in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave MacMillan)


[Note: this is the penultimate version of this book review. The ultimate version will appear in the journal The Review of Politics.]

Martin D. Carcieri. Applying Rawls in the Twenty-First Century: Race, Gender, the Drug War, and the Right to Die. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 2015. 194 pages. 100 USD.

In this provocative book Martin Carcieri attempts to apply John Rawls’s conception of justice – ‘justice as fairness’ – to a number of contemporary political issues. While Rawls’s work in political philosophy has been discussed more than that of any other Anglophone political philosopher of the twentieth century, surprisingly little work has been done in applying his conception of justice to pressing legislative questions. Rawls did sometimes note certain implications of his political principles for public policy. He supported, for instance, the public funding of political campaigns, the provision of health care for all citizens as a basic right, and a right to physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill persons. In recent years, furthermore, there has been an upsurge of interest amongst philosophers, political scientists, and economists in Rawls’s idea of ‘property-owning democracy’ as an alternative to ‘welfare-state capitalism.’ Nonetheless, for those sympathetic to Rawls’s liberal egalitarian conception of justice, more ‘applied’ work needs to be done.  This book tries to do some of this work – with mixed results.

Carcieri’s book consists of six chapters. An overview of Rawls’s conception of justice is provided in the first. Chapters two and three apply justice as fairness to some policy questions concerning race, whereas chapter four focuses on a question of ‘professional ethics’ with respect to illicit gender discrimination in hiring. Chapter five argues against the prohibition on the recreational use of marijuana, whereas chapter six defends a limited right to physician-assisted suicide. Throughout the book Carcieri mixes discussion of Rawls’s political philosophy with analyses of American constitutional law, so the book has a decided US focus. Almost half of the book is devoted to endnotes (pp.103-179).

The first chapter does a solid job in outlining some of the main elements of Rawls’s political philosophy (the ‘original position,’ the two principles of justice as fairness, the idea of the ‘basic structure’ of society, the priority of ‘the right’ over ‘the good,’ and so forth). In characterizing Rawls’s conception of justice for readers unfamiliar with it, Carcieri states: “On the conventional continuum of Left to Right, […] Rawls is within the broad liberal Center, although to the Center-Left” (p.8). This is a surprising claim, given that Rawls holds that all forms of welfare-state capitalism are incapable of realizing the two principles of justice. The economic inequality which Rawls thought inevitably would characterize capitalist societies over time prevents them from satisfying justice as fairness. In place of welfare-state capitalism, Rawls endorses two alternative political-economic systems: property-owning democracy and liberal socialism. (See Rawls (2001) Justice as Fairness (Harvard University Press), Part IV (Carcieri very briefly mentions property-owning democracy at p.9).) Both of these regime types are more egalitarian – to the ‘Left’ in economic terms – than the social democracies of contemporary Scandinavia.

Carcieri notes Rawls’s distinction between ‘ideal theory’ and ‘nonideal theory.’ He explains that Rawls’s accounts of civil disobedience (public noncompliance with unjust laws) and ‘militancy’ (secret noncompliance with unjust laws) fall within the latter category (p.6). Surprisingly absent, however, is any mention of Rawls’s idea of a ‘well-ordered society’ – a society with a basic structure that realizes the two principles of justice as fairness, and in which citizens freely cooperate in ensuring that their basic structure complies with those principles over time – and the role that that idea should play in guiding nonideal theory (Rawls (2001), p.13).

Chapters two and three focus on the problem of racial inequality within the US and policies aimed at addressing it. Carcieri holds that a certain form of ‘legislative reparations’ (defined on p.21) can be vindicated on Rawlsian grounds. Such legislation – because it promotes fair equality of opportunity and helps improve the economic condition of the least advantaged within society – can be supported by Rawls’s conception of justice. In contrast, Carcieri contends that race-based affirmative action policies – specifically, policies that allow race to play a role in admissions decisions by public universities – cannot be supported on Rawlsian grounds.

Rather than discuss the details of Carcieri’s arguments against affirmative action, I will comment on an assumption that underpins those arguments. Carcieri notes Rawls’s distinction between ideal and nonideal theory. But he construes this distinction in a novel way. “The former [ideal theory] provides principles and rules that govern domains of activity at the core of civil society, like […] public education,” Carcieri writes, “Nonideal theory, by contrast, provides the guidelines needed to administer domains of state action at the periphery of civil society, at the border of the Hobbesian state of nature” (p.39). So while deviations from the requirements of justice may be permissible or even necessary at the ‘periphery’ – with respect to questions of national security, for instance – such deviations are not permitted within the ‘core’ of civil society. Hence admissions policies at public universities must comply strictly with the requirements of Rawlsian justice.

This way of characterizing the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory is not Rawls’s. In an endnote Carcieri acknowledges as much. “[T]he core/periphery distinction,” he writes, is “parallel to Rawls’s distinction between ideal and nonideal theory” (n.59, p.144, my italics). That acknowledgement aside, though, Carcieri’s discussion in the main text of the book largely – and misleadingly – presents his core/periphery distinction as though it is Rawls’s distinction between ideal and nonideal theory. But Rawls’s theory applies to the entire basic structure – society’s main political and economic institutions understood as an overall system of cooperation. Ideal theory – the idea of a well-ordered society with a basic structure that satisfies the principles of justice – is meant to guide nonideal theory. Nonideal theorizing, such as Rawls’s account of civil disobedience, concerns transitional justice, that is, questions of how to move our existing (nonideal) societies closer to the ideal of a just well-ordered society. According to Rawls, the United States falls short – even at its ‘core’ – of being a just society. (And given developments since Rawls’s death, such as growing economic inequality and the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, it is doubtful that the US is moving in a Rawlsian direction.) To assume that the contemporary United States is anything close to being just by Rawlsian standards, as Carcieri seems to do (p.31), conflicts with Rawls’s own comments and his rejection of welfare-state capitalism. In any case, given that (a) the core/periphery distinction is central to Carcieri’s argument against affirmative action, but (b) is not the same thing as Rawls’s ideal/nonideal distinction, much more needs to be said about (a) by Carcieri in order for his arguments to be convincing.

The fourth chapter concerns gender discrimination in hiring by public universities. Readers are asked to imagine a situation in which public universities aggressively but secretly discriminate against male applicants in their hiring decisions. Carcieri asks us to consider what ‘Ed’ – a professor at a public university who is committed to Rawlsian principles – should do. Would Ed be justified in secretly discriminating in favour of male applicants in order to mitigate (at least somewhat) the injustices he witnesses?

I found this chapter to be quite strange. Carcieri appeals to no data to support his characterization of the role of gender in hiring decisions within public universities. Presumably Ed should at least first investigate whether his personal experiences and impressions reflect a more widespread problem? (My own experience of the role of gender in hiring committee decisions within a public university differs from those described in the book.)

Fortunately, the book improves significantly in the final two chapters. Carcieri’s arguments for ending the prohibition on marijuana and for granting citizens seventy-five years or older the right to physician-assisted suicide (a proposal he terms ‘75+’) are generally well presented and convincing. Nonetheless, I think that Carcieri misconstrues some Rawlsian ideas in these chapters. For instance, I think that he incorrectly deploys Rawls’s idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ (pp. 86) and the 'difference principle' (pp.98-99) in support of his arguments. These are minor quibbles, though, and I think that his main conclusions are correct.

Overall, then, Applying Rawls in the Twenty-First Century is a mixed bag. The arguments against affirmative action rest on a core/periphery distinction that has no basis in Rawls’s theory. The final two chapters on marijuana legalization and a right to physician-assisted suicide, however, are interesting – indeed, I would consider using them in a course on applied political theory.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Inching towards justice: what a more liberal US Supreme Court could accomplish

In an earlier post I explained why I think that US citizens have a moral duty to do whatever they reasonably can to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. For the vast majority of US citizens, of course, this involves voting for Hillary Clinton.

For the most part, regrettably, I find that the strongest arguments in favour of voting for Clinton to be ‘negative’ in nature. Simply put, whatever her shortcomings (e.g., her record of insipid political ‘third-wayism,’ her hawkish tendencies in foreign policy, etc.), she is worlds better than Donald Trump. So I see this election to be far more about preventing a disastrous Trump presidency than about achieving a Clinton presidency.

But there is one genuinely positive argument for voting for Clinton: namely, the impact that another Democratic president can have on the composition of the US Supreme Court. Given the considerable power wielded by the USSC and the lifetime tenure of the justices – both aspects of the American political system that I find lamentable, but which I recognize are not likely to change anytime soon (if ever) – the prospect that the court might move in a genuinely liberal direction does give me some hope for the future of the country.

If you are curious to know more about the ways in which a more liberal USSC might move the US towards greater freedom and justice for its citizens, I highly recommend reading Dylan Matthews article for Vox, “How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America.”

Here are the article’s main points. A more liberal USSC likely would:

1. End long-term solitary confinement.
2. Reduce mass incarceration.
3. End the death penalty.
4. Restrict/limit the impact of the “Citizens United” decision regarding campaign spending.
5. Expand, or at least better protect, all citizens’ voting rights.
6. Limit the scope for gerrymandering.
7. Better protect the right of women to control their own bodies.

It is also possible that a more liberal USSC would recognize education as a constitutional right.

So all liberal/progressive/left-ish/Berniac US citizens who care about the overall direction of their society have at least one very important reason to vote for Clinton.

Monday, July 18, 2016

On the radicalization of the U.S. Republican Party

Following up on the topic of my previous post, I thought that I should mention that Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have an excellent article in today’s Vox: “The Republicans waged a 3-decade war on government. They got Trump.” The article refers back to the authors’ 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, and their related Washington Post article, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” Here is the key passage from their 2012 argument:
The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
As Ornstein and Mann point out in the Vox article, the nomination of Trump – and the collapse of any serious opposition to that nomination amongst the party’s elites – vindicates their earlier thesis.
In the end, the exploitation of anti-government sentiment by Republican leaders, and the active efforts on their part to make all government look corrupt and illegitimate, reached its logical conclusion. The Republican political establishment looked no less corrupt, weak, and illegitimate than the Democratic one, and the appeal of a rank outsider became greater.
It’s grim reading. And it underscores how vital it is that Trump be defeated in November. Even if that happens, though, Ornstein and Mann are skeptical that the Republican Party can become a constructive force in American politics for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Trump is a horror – but then so is the Republican Party

In an earlier post I claimed that it was the moral duty of all American citizens to oppose Donald Trump’s attempt to become U.S. president by the most effective means available to them. For most citizens, of course, this means voting for Hillary Clinton.

My favourite American pundit, Charles Pierce, points out (for the nth time) what a danger Trump is in his recent post: “This Isn't Funny Anymore. American Democracy Is at Stake.” Pierce doesn’t pull any punches (not that he ever does): “Anyone who supports Donald Trump is a traitor to the American idea.” 

His conclusion:
Here is the truth. Nobody called for a moment of silence for Micah Johnson. Eleven U.S. cities are not on the brink of racial violence. He, Trump just made that shit up so his followers can stay afraid and angry at the people he wants them to fear and hate. This lie was a marching order and the Party of Lincoln is right in step with him, straight into the burning Reichstag of this man's mind. 
Welcome to the 2016 Republican convention: a four-day celebration of the ritual suicide of American democracy. 
With balloons.
Sadly, the fact of the matter is that most of the candidates whom 'the Donald' vanquished were pretty horrible as well (they simply were more subtle in expressing their racism, misogyny, homophobia, inegalitarianism, and intolerance). The Republican Party has become an extremist party, one now closer in its rhetoric and agenda to France’s National Front or Britain’s UKIP than the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower.

But lest despair overwhelm us, I recommend the following two pages that mock the Donald:

1. This one mocks Trump by imagining what kind of Dungeons and Dragons ‘Dungeon Master’ he would be in a series of tweets. It’s called (appropriately enough) ‘Dungeons and Donalds.’

2. This one replaces Calvin’s head with Trump’s in a number of classic ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ strips. No dialogue is changed! The aptness of Trump uttering Calvin’s lines indicates that intellectually he on par with a six year-old cartoon boy. (And the expressions on the photos of Trump’s face that are pasted into the strips are perfect.)


Monday, June 13, 2016

Guns versus liberty

In light of the horrific mass shooting last weekend in Orlando, I thought that I would link to a post I wrote last October: “An armed society is an unfree society.” It expresses (more or less) the reasons why I think that easy access to firearms reduces the freedom of citizens (in addition to all the other harms it causes with respect to loss of life, health, etc.). In other words, the debate over gun control in the US should not be construed (as it generally is now) as a debate between 'freedom' on one side and 'security' (or life) on the other. Rather, it's really a debate about the just distribution of freedom. And the gun control side is the one that promotes greater overall freedom for citizens.

On this topic, well worth watching is this hilarious rant about guns from Australian comedian Jim Jefferies (from 2014).

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The moral duty of American citizens to vote against Donald Trump

Political theorist (and friend) Julia Maskivker has a recent piece in the Washington Post: “Yes, you do have an obligation to vote for the lesser of two evils. Here’s why.” I think that her position is spot on.

The forthcoming American presidential election will be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is clear which of these two candidates is the greater evil: the unstable, narcissistic, quasi-fascist Donald Trump. Trump plays to, and is in large part supported because of, the authoritarian impulses and racial resentments of many white American men.

I am no fan of Hilary Clinton. Her foreign policy record is too hawkish for my comfort. And based upon her past positions and ties to Wall Street, I have little confidence that she will pursue genuinely liberal and egalitarian domestic policies, especially within the economic domain. But Clinton is the candidate whom the Democrats have chosen, and whatever her flaws, I cannot comprehend how anyone can deny that she is several worlds more competent than Trump. His destructive and incoherent policy views aside, I find it unimaginable that someone so manifestly unbalanced – a person in the grip of a juvenile ‘dominance’ view of political relations – could have control over the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

There is no grey area in – or room for ‘reasonable’ debate concerning – this US election. American citizens have an overriding moral duty to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. And voting for Clinton is simply the most effective means that most citizens have to fulfil this duty.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Update on the Wisconsin GOP's unending efforts to thwart democracy

This is just a quick follow-up to my earlier post on the real aim of the recent GOP-passed Wisconsin 'voter ID laws': namely, to suppress the franchise amongst Democratic-leaning voters.

These laws presently are being challenged in court, and the former chief of staff to then-Senator Dale Schultz (Republican), Todd Allbaugh, has named names and presented some of the comments made by key Republican legislators in a 2011 closed caucus meeting. As Allbaugh makes clear, preventing (practically nonexistent) 'voter fraud' had nothing to do with the law; rather, it was all about suppressing the ability of people to vote in Milwaukee and on college campuses. Apparently, many GOP legislators were 'giddy' at the prospect of preventing many citizens from voting. (Unsurprisingly, the dim-witted and contemptible Glenn Grothman said this: "What I’m concerned about is winning. [...] [W]e better get this done while we have the opportunity"[.])

Update 1: Some further coverage at The New York Times and Talking Points Memo.

Update 2: My favourite American political commentator, Charles P. Pierce, has weighed in on the matter: "Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their Midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin, has conspired with his pet state legislature to make it harder for Wisconsinites to vote."

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Happy May Day!


I thought that I would mention that I have a paper coming out in the journal Philosophy, Politics & Economics somewhat related to this occasion. It's called, "Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness." (I'm not sure when it will appear in print; I submitted the final version less than a month ago, and I have yet to receive the proofs.) One of the things that I argue for in the paper is a basic right to discretionary ('leisure') time ("8 hours for what we will") for all citizens.

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, G.A. 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.

Growing up in Ontario, I regularly was exposed to commercials for "Lotto 6/49" on television. These commercials annoyed me to no end, but the slogan "Imagine the Freedom" became firmly imprinted onto my brain. Many years later, when I read G.A. Cohen's paper, "Freedom and Money," the slogan leapt back into my consciousness, as it seemed to express perfectly Cohen's core thesis (roughly: the more money one has, the more 'negative liberty' one has). So I became determined to incorporate a reference to those blasted commercials in the paper itself.

In case any readers are curious, here is a relatively recent Lotto 6/49 commercial:

video

Cheers!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

From Macbeth to political philosophy


William Shakespeare died 400 years ago today. It is partially his fault that I became a professional political philosopher.

In high-school we (the teenagers of Ontario) had to study one Shakespeare play every year. In grade 12 it was Macbeth. The students in my class were allowed to design their own assignments, so I decided to write a "Machiavellian" assessment of Macbeth's strategy and actions in achieving and using political power. This involved reading The Prince, summarizing the main points, and applying them to Macbeth.

I don't remember much of what I wrote now, but it was one of the very few high-school assignments that I did not put off until the night before it was due. I loved it.

When I went to university afterwards, I decided to take some courses on political theory because of that experience. And, many years later, I ended up teaching political philosophy for a living -- though not Machiavelli, alas, as he's generally not covered within philosophy courses.  (This is one of the noteworthy differences with respect to 'the canon' between 'political theory' as taught within political science departments, and 'political philosophy' as taught within philosophy departments. I started out in political science, and indeed began a PhD after completing a politics MPhil at Oxford, but eventually moved to philosophy.)

So to the Bard: happy 'death day'!

Friday, April 8, 2016

The banana republicanisation of Wisconsin continues

[Cartoon from here.]

In recent years Republicans around the United States have been pushing for and passing demanding new ‘voter ID’ laws. Wisconsin, under the malign leadership of Governor Scott Walker, has been no exception. Republicans claim that such laws are necessary to deal with the menace of ‘in-person’ voter fraud. But such crimes are exceptionally rare: far, far more people are struck by lightning than commit voter fraud by impersonation. And implementing voter ID laws costs money (something about which Republicans often pretend to express concern). So what is the actual rationale for these laws? It is no mystery: to suppress the ability to vote of people who tend to support Democratic candidates, such as students, the poor, and members of minority communities.

Of course Republican politicians are careful to avoid making explicit the fact that voter ID laws are about disenfranchising their political opponents. But following last Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin, one especially nasty and dim-witted congressman, Glenn Grothman, noted that voter ID would help the GOP in Wisconsin this November: “now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well." Apparently Grothman forgot that he was not supposed to explain the real reason for Wisconsin’s voter ID law on television!

At the same time, former Republican Todd Albaugh explained that he had abandoned the Wisconsin GOP in disgust in 2011 over precisely this issue:
“[T]his was the last straw: I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American's constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power.”
(There is an interview with Albaugh here. And for an amusing takedown of these kinds of laws, check out this video by Seth Myers.)

Of course, the voter ID disenfranchisement strategy is but one symptom of Wisconsin’s collapse as a legitimate democracy under the Republican Party. The judicial election on Tuesday was pretty much decided by ‘dark money’ spending, which favoured the right-wing homophobe (and winner) Rebecca Bradley by 4:1.

Every day I find myself stunned (at least for a few moments) at how badly this state has declined since I began my job at UWM in 2008. It has been transformed from a reasonably politically progressive place (at least for an American Midwestern state) – one with strong anti-corruption institutions and laws, and the best protections of academic freedom within the country – into a corrupt, plutocratic, economically stagnant backwater with only faux tenure for professors within the UW system. The ‘Wisconsin Idea’ and the legacy of ‘Fightin Bob’ LaFollette and other Wisconsin progressives have been thoroughly shredded.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Wisconsin's assault on academic freedom

Over at Slate, Rebecca Schuman does a solid job of summarizing the current assault on academic freedom within the University of Wisconsin system in her piece, "The End of Research in Wisconsin."

Some especially important bits:
“This past June, American academia went into an uproar over Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget in Wisconsin, which not only cut $250 million from higher education, but also severely weakened shared faculty governance and effectively destroyed professor tenure at state universities.”
“[T]he situation in Wisconsin is worse than your garden-variety corporatization. […] Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.”
“Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their ‘bosses’—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.”
“What’s happening in Wisconsin is a worst-case scenario come to life, and $9 million will do nothing to stop the demise of the integrity of research produced there—and everywhere else, too, if we don’t start electing lawmakers who actually value research.”
Unsurprisingly, morale at the place where I work, the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, has been horrifically low this academic year.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

Trump and the rise of racism and violence in contemporary American political discourse

The Republican party ‘establishment’ is in a state of panic over the likely nomination of Donald Trump as their party’s 2016 presidential candidate. Of course, they have no one to blame but themselves, having cravenly catered to the prejudices and fears of the ‘Tea Party’ movement (a movement funded heavily by the plutocratic Koch brothers) over the past several years. Trump is the Frankenstein monster that the Republican elite created but no longer can control.

It’s highly unlikely that Trump will prevail next November, given that his campaign thus far has alienated women, Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, and pretty much everyone else who is not a white, male, heterosexual, angry ‘true American’. (“Stories of Trump piñatas flying off the shelves in Latino communities aren’t myths.”) Trump would need to win 70 percent of the white male vote this November in order to become president. That’s just not going to happen.

Nonetheless, Trump’s candidacy will have – and indeed already has had – a corrosive effect on American political discourse. Trump’s campaign is rendering acceptable racist and violent language and messages (including threats aimed at political rivals) that less than a year ago would’ve been considered completely beyond the pale.

This is the central point of philosopher Jennifer Saul’s short piece, “Habituation and Hate.” I recommend reading it in order to understand better the dark turn that American political discourse has taken over the past 10 months. (A similar point recently was discussed on the Nightly Show, as mentioned in this piece at Vox.com.) Sadly, things look to be getting only worse…

Sunday, February 28, 2016

On the rise of Trump

Here are a few recent pieces that do a good job of explaining Donald Trump’s astonishing – and terrifying – rise:

Matt Taibbi. "How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable. He's no ordinary con man. He's way above average — and the American political system is his easiest mark ever." Rolling Stone.

Josh Marshall. "Inside the GOP Implosion and the War to Stop Trump." Talking Points Memo.

David Corn. "How the Republican Elite Created Frankentrump. To rouse its voters, the GOP exploited hate, anger, and paranoia—and set the stage for the tycoon." Mother Jones.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Armed students versus academic freedom

In an earlier post I explained that an armed society is an unfree society. By that I meant, roughly, that the more common guns are in a society, the more often people will be subject to coercive threats from others. Since coercive threats restrict individuals' freedom (even if we understand freedom simply as what Isaiah Berlin famously termed 'negative liberty'), it follows that the more armed a society is, the less free overall that society will be. In explaining this rather basic point, I unpacked the famous saying, "an armed society is a polite society." Why is such a society 'polite'? The answer is obvious: because of fear. And a fearful society simply is an unfree society.

That post was motivated in part by a recent proposal within Wisconsin to allow students to carry guns into campus buildings within the University of Wisconsin system (including, of course, the university at which I work). Fortunately, that insane proposal did not become law (or at least not this legislative session; I doubt that the NRA will give up its lobbying efforts anytime soon).

Public universities in Texas were less fortunate. Starting this summer, public universities within Texas will be forced to allow students to carry guns into classrooms and other campus areas (if those students have 'conceal carry' permits). Naturally, most faculty members are deeply opposed to this for the obvious reason that the presence of guns within classrooms invariably will chill speech. This point is nicely expressed by Elliott Hannon at Slate:
"The Republican-run Texas state legislature voted last year to allow students to carry concealed handguns into classrooms, dorms, just about anywhere on campus. If that seems like a bad idea to you, imagine how you’d feel if you were a professor. There’s nothing quite like the free exchange of ideas in an armed art history 301 seminar. The academic chilling effect seems pretty obvious for students and faculty."
Hannon is commenting on this slide displayed at a recent meeting of the faculty senate of the University of Houston on how professors should adapt to the new law:


I cannot comprehend how anyone could think that allowing guns into classrooms could be helpful or not have a deleterious effect on pedagogy and academic freedom. But as the (always excellent) Charles Pierce wryly observed: "It'll liven up that Philosophy 101 class, I'll give you that."


Monday, February 22, 2016

Walker still ruining Wisconsin

Those who follow American politics naturally have been focused on the presidential primaries in recent weeks. Yet one fellow who dropped out of the Republican presidential circus months ago -- a favourite puppet of the plutocrats, Scott Walker -- has not been idle. Apparently he has decided that destroying what is left of Wisconsin should serve as some kind of consolation prize. So now he has reinserted corruption and cronyism into the once well-respected state Civil Service system.
Wisconsin citizens thought they had abandoned the spoils system and patronage corruption a century ago when Civil Service was championed by Gov. Robert La Follette, the historic progressive who eloquently railed against the very abuses now being resurrected in the Wisconsin statehouse. Here it comes again.  […]
The patronage-friendly measure Mr. Walker signed in the name of better government is no more convincing than his presidential campaign. It undermines the welfare not only of the state’s 30,000 workers but of Wisconsin citizens who are losing an important part of their heritage of government fairness.
Of course, when Walker was busy crushing the union rights of public employees five years ago, he assured Wisconsinites that they did not need such protections given the state's fine Civil Service system, a system with which he professed no intention of meddling.

And of course he was lying through his teeth.

Friday, February 12, 2016

So Rawls, Nozick, and Marx are eating together in a restaurant...

Another brilliant strip from Existential Comics.

My favourite bit: the portrayals of Camus and Sartre as waiters.

My second favourite bit (from the "Didn't Get the Joke?" part at the bottom): "Karl Marx was a 19th century Marxist philosopher, best known for his Marxist political viewpoints."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Political Utopias seminar reading schedule


I'm teaching a seminar on 'political utopias' and 'ideal theory' this term. The seminar is for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.  It meets for 150 minutes every week.  

Here is the course description:
Many philosophers from Plato onwards have formulated ‘political utopias,’ that is, accounts of ‘fully just’ societies. Such political utopias have been advanced as ‘models’ or ‘exemplars’ of political justice. The role of such models typically is twofold:
  1. They are meant to help us evaluate critically our own societies, specifically, to help us identify the ways in which our existing political institutions and practices are unjust. 
  2. To provide us with a ‘target’ or ‘end state’ for our political reforms or revolutionary efforts. 
In this course we will focus on two contemporary exercises in utopian theorizing:
  1. John Rawls’s account of the ‘realist utopia’ of a liberal egalitarian ‘well-ordered society.’ 
  2. G.A. Cohen’s account of a fully just socialist society.
We also will consider criticisms and defences of the views of Rawls and Cohen.
The course will conclude by looking at some recent exchanges over the role of ‘human nature’ and ‘feasibility’ in normative political philosophy.
Here is the schedule of required readings:

1. The main elements of political liberalism and justice as fairness (Feb. 2nd)

J. Rawls (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press), Parts I and II (pp. 1-79).

2. Rawls on justification, public reason, and political legitimacy (Feb. 9th)

J. Rawls (1997) “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The University of Chicago Law Review 64/3, pp. 765-807. (Republished in: J. Rawls (2005), Political Liberalism, pp. 440-490.)
J. Rawls (1995) “Reply to Habermas,” The Journal of Philosophy 92/3, pp. 132-180. (Republished in: J. Rawls (2005), Political Liberalism, pp. 372-434.)

3. The institutions of a Rawlsian just society (Feb. 16th)

J. Rawls (2001) Justice as Fairness, Parts IV and V (pp. 135-202).
R. Krouse and M. McPherson (1988) “Capitalism, ‘Property-Owning Democracy,’ and the Welfare State,” in Democracy and the Welfare State, ed. A. Gutmann (Princeton University Press), pp. 79-105.

4. Rawls’s ‘realistic utopia’: a property-owning democracy (Feb. 23rd)

S. Freeman (2013) “Property-Owning Democracy and the Difference Principle,” Analyse & Kritik, 35/1, pp. 9-36.
T. Williamson and M. O’Neill (2009), “Property-Owning Democracy and the Demands of Justice,” Living Reviews in Democracy, pp. 1-10.
M. O’Neill (2012), “Free (and Fair) Markets without Capitalism,” in M. O’Neill and T. Williamson, eds., Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Wiley-Blackwell), pp. 75-100.
T. Williamson (2013) “Constitutionalizing Property-Owning Democracy,” Analyse & Kritik 35/1, pp. 237-253.

5. Alternatives to POD? Liberal socialism & welfare-state capitalism (March 1st)

K. Vallier (2014), “A moral and economic critique of the new property-owning democrats: on behalf of a Rawlsian welfare state,” Philosophical Studies (early online version).
R. Taylor (2014) “Illiberal Socialism,” Social Theory and Practice, July 2014, 40(3), pp. 433-60.
T. Malleson (2014), “Rawls, Property-Owning Democracy, and Democratic Socialism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 45, pp. 228-251.

6. Criticisms of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 8th)

C. Farrelly (2007) “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation,” Political Studies 55, pp. 844-864.
C. Mills (2005) “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia (20), pp. 165-184.
A. Sen (2006) “What Do We Want From a Theory of Justice?” The Journal of Philosophy CIII/5, pp. 215-238.

7. Defences of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 22nd)

A. J. Simmons (2010) “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38/1, pp. 5-36.
A. Hamlin and Z. Stemplowska (2012) “Theory, Ideal Theory and The Theory of Ideals,” Political Studies Review 10/1, pp. 48-62.
B. Neufeld (forthcoming) “Why Public Reasoning Involves Ideal Theorizing,” in M. Weber and K. Vallier (eds.) Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates (Oxford University Press).


8. Not ideal enough?  Cohen’s critique of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 29th)

G.A. Cohen (2003) “Facts and Principles,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 31/3, pp. 211-245.
M. Ronzoni and L. Valentini (2008) “On the Meta-ethical Status of Constructivism: Reflections on G.A. Cohen’s ‘Facts and Principles’,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 7/4, pp. 403-422.

9. Cohen’s socialist utopia (April 5th)

G.A. Cohen (2009) Why Not Socialism? (Princeton University Press).

10. Debating Cohen’s socialist utopia 1 (April 12th)

R.J. Arneson (2015) “Why Not Capitalism?” in A. Kaufman (ed.) Distributive Justice and Access to Advantage: G.A. Cohen’s Egalitarianism (Cambridge University Press), pp. 207-234.
P. Gilabert (2011) “Feasibility and Socialism,” Journal of Political Philosophy 19, pp. 52-63.
M. Ronzoni (2012) “Life is not a camping trip – on the desirability of Cohenite socialism,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 11/2, pp. 171-185.

11. Debating Cohen’s socialist utopia 2 (April 19th)

R. Miller (2010) “Relationships of Equality: A Camping Trip Revisited,” Journal of Ethics 14.
C.V. Schoelandt (2013) “Markets, Community, and Pluralism,” The Philosophical Quarterly (advance access).
A. Archer (2016) “Community, Pluralism, and Individualistic Pursuits: A Defense of Why Not Socialism?” Social Theory and Practice 42.


12. Human nature and the demands of justice (April 26th)

D. Estlund (2011) “Human Nature and the Limits (if Any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 39/3, pp. 207-237.
D. Wiens (2015) “Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice,” European Journal of Political Theory (online first version).
D. Estlund (2015) “Reply to Wiens,” European Journal of Political Theory.
D. Wiens (2015) “Rejoinder to Estlund,” unpublished note.

13. Feasibility, justice, and ‘utopophobia’ (May 3rd)

A. Gheaus (2013) “The Feasibility Constraint on the Concept of Justice,” The Philosophical Quarterly 63/252, pp. 445-464.
D. Wiens (2014) “‘Going Evaluative’ to Save Justice from Feasibility – A Pyrrhic Victory,” The Philosophical Quarterly 64/255, pp. 301-307.
D. Estlund (2014) “Utopophobia,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 42/2, pp. 113-134.

Optional readings:

I plan to provide a list of optional readings as well. (Any suggestions would be most welcome!) I probably will post the optional readings here when I have them sorted.


Friday, January 29, 2016

In praise of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

There is a fine article at Quartz by Nikhil Sonnad on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ('SEP').

SEP is an amazing resource. I use it in both my teaching and research. I'm glad to see that it's receiving some praise outside of the academic philosophy community.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

History of liberalism course (Spring 2016)

The course that I've taught the most since I arrived at UWM in 2008 is "Political Philosophy." I teach the course as the "history of liberalism." Since the course is only one term long, though, I have to leave out some significant figures (Smith, Wollstonecraft, Burke, Constant, Hegel), and I provide only limited coverage of others (Hume, Kant, Marx). It's frustrating, but such is life. I don't see how I can fit any more readings into the course, which already is quite heavy.

This term, for the first time, I've removed Nozick from the course. I decided to use some selections from Hayek instead. One reason for this is that I wanted to reduce the overlap with a second year course that I also teach from time to time ("Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy"). I'll continue to teach Nozick in that second year course. (In my experience, not many students take both courses, but enough do that I don't want there to be too much overlap in the courses' required readings.) A second reason why I've removed Nozick is simply that I'm quite tired of teaching his version of libertarianism, which I find thoroughly implausible. (Hume effectively refuted it two centuries earlier.) Hayek, in contrast, is still worth taking seriously, in my judgement, but does not receive as much attention as he should.

In any case, for anyone who might be curious, here is the reading schedule for the course. (I've left out the various assignments, tests, review sessions, and so forth. Each meeting is 75 minutes long.)

THE CLASSICAL SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORIES

Thomas Hobbes: The First ‘Modern’ Political Philosopher

Jan. 28. T. Hobbes, Leviathan (selections), pp. 12-26.
Feb. 02. T. Hobbes, Leviathan (selections), pp. 26-51.
Feb. 04. T. Hobbes – conclusion + review (no new readings).

John Locke: The Architect of Classical Liberalism

Feb. 09. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters I-IV.
Feb. 11. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters V-IX.
Feb. 16. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters X-XIX.

David Hume versus Locke on Property

Feb. 18. D. Hume, “Of Justice.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Champion of Equality and Democratic Self-Government

Feb. 23. J. J. Rousseau, “On the Origin of Inequality.”
Feb. 25. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Book I.
Mar. 01. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Book II.
Mar. 08. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Books III [excluding Ch. 8] and IV [excluding Chs. 4, 5, 7].
HUME’S CRITICISM OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT AND KANT’S REPLY

Mar. 22. D. Hume, “Of the Original Contract.”  I. Kant, “The Contractual Basis for a Just Society.”

UTILITARIANISM: LIBERALISM WITHOUT CONTRACT

Jeremy Bentham: Social Reformer and ‘Philosophical Radical’

Mar. 24. J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (selection).  J. Rawls, “Classical Utilitarianism.”

John Stuart Mill: Utilitarian Champion of Liberty and Liberal Feminist

Mar. 29. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chapters 2 [pp. 238-59] and 5 [pp. 277-301].
Mar. 31. J.S. Mill, On Liberty, chapter 1 [pp. 3-16], chapter 2 [pp. 17-22; 36-49; 54-56], and chapter 3 [pp. 57-76].  J. Kleinig, “Two Arguments for State Paternalism.”
Apr. 05. J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, chapter 1 [pp. 123-52].  H. Taylor, “The Enfranchisement of Women.”

MARXISM: LIBERALISM AS CAPITALIST IDEOLOGY

Apr. 07 K. Marx and F. Engels, “The Socialist Ideal.”
Apr. 12 K. Marx and F. Engels, “The Socialist Ideal.”

20TH CENTURY LIBERALISM

John Rawls: High Liberalism and the Return of the Social Contract

Apr. 14. Selections from J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice.
Apr. 19. Selections from J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

Susan Okin: Feminism and High Liberalism

Apr. 21. S. M. Okin, “The Family: Gender and Justice.”
Apr. 26. J. Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The University of Chicago Law Review 64 (1997), Section 5 only (pp. 787-794).

F.A. Hayek: Back to Classical Liberalism?

Apr. 26. F. A. Hayek, “Freedom and Coercion.”
Apr. 28. F. A. Hayek, “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice.”
May. 03. A. Lister, “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (And For) Rawls.”