Saturday, November 30, 2002

Via Chris Bertram: An excellent article on Bernard Williams from the Guardian. (This week I'm much envying Britain its newspapers' coverage of philosophy.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

I've been continuing to update my Rawls post below rather than adding new little posts.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Oh, boy-- here we go again. A new website,, has decided to emulate all the worst aspects of Campus Watch, and none of the mitigating ones: anonymous student comments on in-classroom bias of any sort. No links to research or public statements, no... oh, never mind.

Stanley Kurtz is unsurprisingly a supporter of the site, though he's surprisingly moderate in his article. (Kurtz's enthusiasm for Campus Watch has been embarrassingly uncritical.) Erin O'Connor, whose judgement I trust more than I trust Kurtz's on these questions, has written extensively on NoIndoctrination, most recently here. But I'm not remotely persuaded. This is a bad, bad idea. Students: if your professors are crossing the line, write about it in your own university's evaluations. Alert your fellow students, and your professors' departments. Don't encourage the online slanderhouses.

Monday, November 25, 2002

John Rawls died yesterday at age 81. One of the twentieth century's most important philosophers of any sort, and the thinker who revitalized political philosophy as an academic study in the English speaking world, Rawls' intellectual contributions to the study of justice were all but unmatched.

By setting the agenda for a discipline to an almost-unheardof degree, Rawls of course invited inevitable backlash after backlash, and these have followe din due course. So has much very serious and thoughtful criticism, some of which I agree with. But the sheer accomplishment of Rawls' work is-- as one of his sharpest critics, the late Robert Nozick, said quite forcefully-- tremendous. Within Anglo-American philosophy it renewed the sense that it was possible to engage in rigorous, serious, meaningful debate about moral and political questions. And it serves to this day as the most influential, most important critique of both aggregative-utilitarian substitutes for a theory of justice and radically-egalitarian versions of such a theory. He was, in addition, a famously effective teacher who shaped two generations of Harvard philosophers, and a gracious gentleman who sought conversation and shared intellectual progress.

Rawls spent a semester at Princeton, while I was there at grad school; he was developing his Amnesty Lecture on The Law of Peoples into the (I think underappreciated) book-length version of that project. He presented it in several parts at University Center for Human Values seminars, and-- shy though he was-- also spent some time socializing with graduate students afterward. (At Princeton's Nassau Inn, where pictures of the school's athletic teams over the years are hung, he showed us a picture of himself with his crew teammates from the 40s.) I certainly can't claim to have known him well, but I was much impressed by his eagerness to reach an understanding with those who criticized him. Sometimes, I think, this was a weakness; he spent a disproportionate amount of time in his written work responding to mild criticisms from immediate friends and colleagues. But it made watching him act as a presenter and seminar leader a real pleasure.

A few words about the traditional-but-contested claim that Rawls recreated and revitalized a field that had been moribund since Mill. I think that this is much overtstaed-- and that the overstating obscures what is true about it. The mid-20th century saw a great deal of fruitful and important work done in political theory. The (roughly) two generations of theorists before Rawls-- Berlin, Oakeshott, Popper, Hayek, Arendt, Strauss -- had done work of towering importance. Some of Rawls' contemporaries-- Shklar, Kateb, Wolin, Buchanan-- had also done work of great import in the decades before 1971.

But none of these was a practicing Anglo-American analytic philosopher (Berlin had been trained as one but had given it up for the history of ideas), and few of them were read in English-language philosophy departments. Economics, political theory-not-philosophy, philosophy of science, and history of political thought were their idioms. Within analytic philosphy, normative work was considered more-or-less dead, because merely emotive and non-rigorous.

Much of what some people dislike about Rawls-- the aridness, the detachment from history and psychology, the characteristic Americanness of his uninterest in plumbing the depths of the soul-- is precisely what made his work a success in the way that it was. Leo Strauss and F.A. Hayek (both, in different ways, understanding themselves to be restating old truths) were already there for the reading, if that's what one wanted. They were not what analytic philosophers wanted-- not because of their politics but because of their method. To this day they are not what many philosophers want; a philosopher is much more likely to read Nozick than to read Hayek, Finnis than Strauss, late-Habermas than Arendt. This is in part because Rawls created a common disciplinary discourse within which arguments could be had-- so unlike the sense that one had to be an initiate into the mysteries in order to engage in the argument, and that disagreeing with the normative conclusions was proof that one wasn't an initiate. (Rawls, Nozick, and Sandel understood one another and argued with one another. Berlin, Strauss, Arendt, and Hayek scarcely acknowledged one another's existence-- despite the fact that the latter three were all on the same faculty (at the University of Chicago) and that two of them had been students together.) And it was in part because Rawls' discipline was analytic philosophy.

For my own part, despite the tremendous importance that Hayek, Berlin, and Shklar have had on my thought, the subdiscipline that Rawls created has been, more-or-less, my intellectual home since freshman year of college (though perhaps less so lately, as I turn increasingly toward the history of political thought). The Rawls-Nozick argument, the communitarian critique and Kymlicka's Rawlsian rejoinder to it, and the field of liberal normative studies of multiculturalism begun by Kymlicka are what have excited me, what have motivated me to become a political theorist. Without the publication of Theory of Justice, and the intellectual energy it infused into liberal normative political thought, I wouldn't be doing what I am now doing.

See Thomas Nagel's review essay in TNR ; Martha Nussbaum's appreciation in The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Richard Epstein's on NRO. (Charles Larmore's excellent TNR review of the Lectures in the History of Moral Philosophy doesn't seem to be online.) See Kieran Healey's remembrance, Matthew Yglesias', and Chris Bertram's. See also The Harvard Crimson's obituary, The Washington Post's , The New York Times', [which both calls Nozick a conservative and claims that Nozick saw Rawls' work as "egalitarian nonsense," patently untrue statements], The Boston Globe's. Via Chris Bertram: and this one by the political philosopher Phillipe van Parjis in Le Monde, the Times' (UK) (by far the best of the bunch), The Daily Telegraph's, The Guardian's.

The Crimson's has the most wonderful quotation from Michael Sandel: ' "In my first year as a young assistant professor at Harvard, the phone in my office rang,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail. “The voice on the other end said, ‘This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.’ It was as if God himself had phoned to invite me to lunch, and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.” '

On the NYT's claim that Nozick viewed Theory of Justice as nonsense, I quote from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 183:
"A Theory of Justice is a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then. It is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls' theory or explain why not... Even those who remain unconvinced after wrestling with Rawls' systematic vision will learn much from closely studying it. I do not speak only of the Millian sharpening of one's views in combating (what one takes to be) error. It is impossible to read Rawls' book without incorporating much, perhaps transmuted, into one's own deepened view. And it is impossible to finish his book without a new and inspiring vision of what amoral theory may attempt to do and unite; of how beautiful a whole theory can be. I permit myself to concentrate here on disagreements with Rawls only because I am confident that my readers will have discovered for themselves its many virtues."

UPDATE: The 11-27 NYT carries the following notice:

"RAWLS - John Bordley, James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, Harvard,
died at his home November 24 in Lexington MA. Survived by wife Margaret Fox Rawls,
children Anne Warfield Rawls of Beverly Hills, MI, Robert Lee Rawls of Woodinville, WA,
Alexander Emory Rawls of Palo Alto, CA and Elizabeth Fox Rawls of Cambridge, MA and
grandchildren Tyhib, Martin, Nadia and Desmond. A memorial service will be held Tuesday,
December 3, at 9:30am in the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Harrington Rd, on
the Battlegreen, Lexington. Interment at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. There will be a
memorial celebration at Harvard University of John Rawls' life and work to be arranged and
announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in John Rawls' name
to Amnesty International, attn: Memorial Gifts, 322 8th Ave, New York, NY 10001; or to the
John Rawls Memorial Fund at the Cary Memorial Library Foundation, 1605 Mass Ave, Lexington, MA. 02420.

Also new: Alan Ryan's piece in The Independent, Brian Barry's in the FT. Joshua Cohen's in the Boston Globe. The LA Times. Matthew Miller. A really quite poor piece in the NYT Week in Review.

Update, 12-2: The NYT finally ran a piece about which I have no complaints, by my colleague Martha Nussbaum.

Update, 12-7:From the NPR show Odyssey (based at Chicago's WBEZ), a special on the legacy of John Rawls.

Update, 1-31: From the Princeton Alumni Weekly, an essay by Amy Gutmann (disclaimer: my graduate advisor).
Maybe it's just me, and maybe it's the translation, but... the Osama letter doesn't smell right to me. Now we're supposed to believe that the Michael Moores had it right all along, and bin Laden's mad about Kyoto? Kyoto? Maybe he'd decided to deploy some Euro-lefty rhetoric in order to gain sympathy from that segment, but... has there ever before been any indication that he wanted European support? Cared about it in the least?

To accuse the United States of hypocrisy, betraying its principles, and so on, to say that it has violated the human rights principles it is supposed to stand for, is to give moral credence to human rights and American principles to begin with. (Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, which implies that the principle being betrayed is really a virtuous one.) Even the moral vocabulary of human rights is alien to bin Laden's conceptual system; the complaints about Guantanamo just don't ring true to my ear.

The "tragedy of Andalusia" speech last year was filled with deluded grandeur and lies of breathtaking historical scope. This statement is filled with... jabbering about Monica Lewinsky. This seems like a bad internet joke-- either a dimwitted lefty trying to tar "Clinton-haters" and "the Taliban wing of the Repblican Party" with the bin Laden brush, or a dimwitted righty trying to embarrass the left by saying, "see? You have to choose between loving Arabs and loving Clinton."

The Benjamin Franklin myth is one circulated online, and not one we have any reason to think bin laden would have a) come into contact with or b) cared about.

Or take this paragraph:

The freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves
and for white race only; as for the rest of the world, you impose
upon them your monstrous, destructive policies and Governments,
which you call the 'American friends'. Yet you prevent them from
establishing democracies. When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted
to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your
agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks
and guns, to imprison them and torture them - a new lesson from the
'American book of democracy'!!!

In other words, winning elections and practicing democracy are good things. Any sign that bin Laden has ever thought this?

And--- "white race???" Saudi Islamists have no conspicuous history of claiming to be non-white. Nelson Mandela said that Israel is white and Iraq is black; but this is not a view widely accepted among Arabs, to the best of my knowledge...
Much of the document is vintage bin Laden... and I do mean "vintage." The jurisprudential arguments about the legitimacy or targeting American civilians are from his fatwa of the mid-90s. Much of the rest of this sounds like someone who is much more familiar with European or American-leftist complaints about the U.S. government than bin Laden is-- albeit not someone so familiar as to speak that language without an accent. I think this pastiche is the product of a British Islamist surrounded by conventional European anti-Americanism and trying (none too successfully) to blend it with al Qaeda's ideology. [NB: I am not comparing European leftism to Islamism; just the opposite. I'm saying that the presence of so much Euro-leftism in the document should lead us to doubt that it's really bin Laden's.]

As I said, maybe it doesn't matter. The core ideology is unchanged, and as vicious as always. But the tone of the historical indictment is much, much different from bin Laden's past statements, and deploys arguments that I would think are alien to that ideology.

Or am I missing something?

UPDATE: The Weekly Standard online has a piece saying much the same.
Rachel DiCarlo, at the Weekly Standard's website, repeats the claim that Libertarian Kurt Evans cost Republican John Thune the South Dakota Senate race. As I've blogged before, this claim is almost certainly not true. While Evans did indeed get more votes than separated Thune from Johnson, that was weeks after Evans had dropped out of the race and endorsed Thune. This means that the Libertarian-Republican swing voters are very likely to have swung to Thune. (The 3,000 votes represents a much smaller share of the vote than Evans was picking up in polls before he dropped out.) The remaining 3,000 probably wouldn't have voted for Thune in any event; and on net Evans helped Thune (first, by swinging his way those voters who could be swung; second, by keeping 3,000 of the other voters from voting for Johnson).

It's true that, most of the time in most states, Libertarians drain more Republican votes than they do Democratic ones (though not by nearly the same margin as Greens drain more Democratic votes than Republican ones). But in this race it wasn't. Kurt Evans did something that was most unusual for a political candidate. He genuinely tried to help one of his opponents to win. For the Republican commentariat to keep criticizing him for costing their guy the race is deeply unfair.

Pointing out the idiosyncratic facts about this race of course seems like a distraction from the big argument about whether voting for Libertarians hurts freedom by hurting freedom-minded Republicans, or helps it by focusing the minds and energy of Republicans on protecting their libertarian flank, the argument over third parties and strategies and tactics. But I want to insist on the details of the particular case, before "Evans cost the Republicans a seat" becomes too entrenched in people's memories.

After my first post on this topic, I recieved an e-mail from Evans himself. He said that he's been "trying to lay low and be quiet," but he's clearly irked by the unfair attacks on him. (Some of those attacks have been from Libertarians calling him a traitor, others from Republicans who believe the story that he cost Thune the race.)

"First of all, my actual support of roughly 3
percent was acquired mostly by positioning myself
as a protest against attack ads. My opponents both
said I was drawing from them about equally.

"But let's assume that *every vote* finally cast
for me (91/100ths of 1 percent) would otherwise been
cast for Congressman Thune.

"When I gave him my endorsement, I drew attention
to the voter fraud controversy and said it was a
reminder that our entire political system depends
on truth and honesty.

"I went on to say that it had become apparent
to me that Congressman Thune shared my commitment
to being a man of integrity and character.

"The announcement got tremendous media play
on television and radio and in the newspapers.

"If my endorsement shifted 46/100ths of 1
percent of the vote away from Johnson and toward
Thune, the net effect of my candidacy was to narrow
the margin of victory."

Republicans: Send this gentleman an apology, and a thank-you note, not continued flak.
Have a look at Andrew Sullivan's Bradley Lecture on the political thought of Michael Oakeshott. A nice analysis of the ways in which Oakeshottian skepticism sits oddly with a variety fo ways of understanding conservatism.

A poltical theory dissertation ripe for the writing, it seems to me, concerns the turn to skepticism in the mid-twentieth-century liberals. The connections between Oakeshott and Hayek, and between Hayek and Popper, are fairly well-known. But Popper's skepticism has some fascinating echoes in Isaiah Berlin's; indeed, Berlin like Popper threw skeptical water onto claims of historical determinism. Shklar and Oakeshott each had Montaigne as a major point of reference. Shklar and Hayek shared Montesquieu in a similar way. (Note that, excpet for Oakeshott, each of these came from one of the European lands that spent the middle part of the century under totalitarian rule-- Berlin and Shklar from Lithuania/ Russia, Hayek and Popper from Austria.)

Now, Berlin didn't much like Hayek, and Shklar seems to have really disliked him. Berlin and Shklar were on the social-democratic side of Cold War liberalism, not on Hayek's and Oakeshott's free-market side. (Popper is a complicated case on that question.) But in all sorts of ways it seems to me that these thinkers shared insights that are more interesting than are the political questions that divided them. Yet-- except for the peculiar case of John Gray-- very few students of Hayek have also been students of Berlin. Those who know their Oakeshott don't often also know their Shklar. I have a suspicion that the study of each of these thinkers could be much enriched by the study of the others, and skepticism as part of the defense of freedom would be a major unifying theme.

Not, mind you, that the skeptical defense of freedom is clearly right. I'm inclined to think that skepticism leads us down John Gray's relativist and nihilist pathways pretty quickly. Skepticism, to be an ally of liberalism, must be something more like a temperment than like a comphrehensive theory of knowledge. Of the five philosophers, Oakeshott's skepticism ran deepest; and I can never shake the sense that Oakeshott is a philosopher of and for England only, for a country in which freedom feels organic and evolved and in little need of deliberate promotion. Each of the other four struggled with the question of how to reconcile skepticism with reform, with deliberate planned political and social change-- since one could hardly look at the world of 1935 or 1945 or 1955 and think that freedom was to be had by just leaving things alone. And I'm not sure that any of the four was fully successful in reconciling a skeptical account of the limits of knowledge and certainty and rational planning with the spirit of radical reform that liberalism required in the face of totalitatianism. Indeed-- but now I'm starting to sound like the book that I'm writing-- I think that that tension is a terribly difficult one to overcome at all points in liberalism's history. There's something importantly true in both of those liberal impulses-- the skeptical and the reformist-- but those truths sit exceedingly uneasily with each other.

But the heart of my book is in 1740-1850, not in 1930-1960; that work is for someone else to do...
How odd is it that this article about a butchering of Animal Farm in China and this one about a butchering of it in an English-language "parody," independently reported, appeared within a day of each other?

And no, it's not because of the Orwell moment we're currently living through; it's not because of the ways in which Mr. Blair is part of the current zeitgeist. The Chinese director-adaptor in the first article shows no signs of being part of, or having the least interest in, the current Western fascination with Orwell and his legacy. At least Reed's attack on Orwell is on-topic; he understands what Orwell was for, understands the relevance of Orwell to the current climate in the west, and he's against all of it. Shang has created a play that is so utterly orthogonal to Orwell's concerns, so irrelevant to the Sullivan-Hitchens-Cockburn-Amis-etc debates, as to be jaw-droppingly bizarre. That he's created it right now is simple, but disturbing, coincidence.

The Reed parody sounds utterly vile to me; and the Orwell estate is right to be outraged. But it does seem to me clearly and rightly protected under U.S. law; I would not want to see the satire-and-parody exceptions to IP law narrowed.