Saturday, January 24, 2009

On The Side of Angels symposium: prologue

In Barack Obama’s inaugural address last week,Americans encountered their quadrennial moment of post-partisanship. Since Thomas Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” almost nothing has been so common in an inaugural address as a call to move past old partisan divides. (See recent examples below.) In many respects this is politeness and graciousness in victory: no one thought that Jefferson really was a capital-F Federalist, and no one is at risk of forgetting that Obama is a Democrat. An inauguration marks the transition from candidate to president, from campaign to governing, and from voice of a party to head of a government. There’s something appropriate in the new president’s acknowledgement that, while remaining a partisan, he is now responsible to and for an entire citizenry.

But there is still something odd about the trope. There is always a hint that, prior to the great man’s arrival, the parties disputed over petty and silly things, whereas now they shall unify behind his vision of greatness. It’s partly a result of presidentialism; where the head of state is separate from the head of government, the head of government doesn’t feel the same need to pretend to be above party, and doesn’t have the same presumptuousness that his or her program is now the whole nation’s program. But it’s also partly a legacy of a reflexive distrust of parties and partisanship—a disposition we’ll be considering here next week.

Reagan, 1985:

Our two-party system has served us well over the years, but never better than in those times of great challenge when we came together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans united in a common cause.

Bush, 1989:

For Congress, too, has changed in our time. There has grown a certain divisiveness. We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other's ideas are challenged, but each other's motives. And our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other. It has been this way since Vietnam. That war cleaves us still. But, friends, that war began in earnest a quarter of a century ago; and surely the statute of limitations has been reached. This is a fact: The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory. A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again. To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand. We can't turn back clocks, and I don't want to. But when our fathers were young, Mr. Speaker, our differences ended at the water's edge. And we don't wish to turn back time, but when our mothers were young, Mr. Majority Leader, the Congress and the Executive were capable of working together to produce a budget on which this nation could live. Let us negotiate soon and hard. But in the end, let us produce. The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan. "In crucial things, unity"—and this, my friends, is crucial.

Clinton, 1997:

To that effort I pledge all my strength and every power of my office. I ask the members of Congress here to join in that pledge. The American people returned to office a President of one party and a Congress of another. Surely, they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call on us instead to be repairers of the breach, and to move on with America’s mission.

Bush, 2005:

These questions that judge us also unite us, because Americans of every party and background, Americans by choice and by birth, are bound to one another in the cause of freedom. We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes—and I will strive in good faith to heal them. Yet those divisions do not define America. We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart. And we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Of what is political theory a subset?

The newly-engaged Will Wilkinson is back from southeast Asia and has been blogging up a non-stop storm of terrific posts for a week now. I keep wanting to put up one-line posts that say "what he said!" with a link, but that way lies Instapunditry and is best kept to a minimum.

In response to this post (and as much as I like Will as a commentator on current politics, I like him still better when he engages in political philosophy), I posted the following in comments.
Will, I wonder whether there are political facts which you think can be taken as given for purposes of moral inquiry in the same way that you take economic facts as given...?

Evidently you don't attribute to them just the same status. The gap between the Canadian and the Mexican dingus-tightener is to be the object of direct moral criticism in a way that the gap between the American dingus-tightener and the American widget-polisher is not. T

I know some of the moves that could be made here, but I don't want to provide too much of a prompt. So let me start with: Do political facts about the world occupy a categorically different status from economic facts about the world for purposes of moral inquiry? If so, why? If not, then why is the fact of the border-controlling 'nation-'state up for moral criticism in a way that market outcomes aren't?

(As always, I agree with your analysis of nearly everything! But I'm pulling on a loose thread to see what unravels, partly because it seems relevant to your argument and partly because I'm independently interested in it.)

Will says he'll answer at some point; I eagerly await his views. In the meantime, on to my own independent interests in it, as the exchange has crystallized some old thoughts in a new way for me.

I have a longstanding interest (dating, in my published work, to the first few pages of The Multiculturalism of Fear) in the puzzle of which facts of the world should be taken as given and which susceptible to deliberate reform in normative theory. This is closely tied to a favorite topic around here (see e.g. this post and the comments thread): the relationship of political theory to both political science and political philosophy. And today I was rereading parts of D’Alembert’s Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedie with its tree of domains of knowledge.

These all get me to the following framing:

Of what is political theory a subset?

The answer we get from the Rawlsian revival is: political theory/philosophy is a subset of moral philosophy/ethics. (As between the latter two categories, it doesn’t matter for my purposes which is a subset and which is a superset, or whether they’re distinct.) “What is the right thing to do?” has as a special applied case “what is the right thing to legislate?” or “what is the right thing for a judge to do?” It has other special applied cases: “What is the right thing for a doctor, a corporation, a biologist to do?” We call these medical ethics or business ethics or bioethics or… We don’t call “what is the right thing to legislate?” “political ethics,” because the person of the legislator disappears from that question; “political ethics” is reserved for questions that can’t be rendered actorless. (Should the legislator accept a donation? Should a bureaucrat resign?)

Nonetheless, I trust that the idea that political philosophy is a kind of applied ethics or moral philosophy is familiar enough. We treat a journal called Ethics as perhaps the highest-prestige place in which to publish political philosophy; the network of institutional interdisciplinary homes of political philosophy are often characterized as ethics centers, and the ur-center is a center for ethics and the professions; and the methodology of the canonical Theory of Justice is laid out and legitimized in an article called “the autonomy of moral theory.”

But political theory has (increasingly-atrophied) sister disciplines in the other social sciences: economic theory and social theory, both practiced by Montesquieu, Smith, Marx, and Weber, and at least one of which was practiced by Tocqueville, Foucault, Polanyi, Durkheim, Hayek, and Habermas. These are, broadly, descriptive and explanatory theoretical disciplines, attempts to understand the phenomena of the social world. They often analyze phenomena that are too broad and sweeping to be easily tractable by fine-grained and localized data analysis: modernization, modernity, industrialization, market society, nationalism, and so on. Stereotypically, these disciplines study such huge phenomena as to look like the sweep and tide of history, things that seem especially un-suited to analysis in terms of what the right thing for a person to do is. (Business ethics and economic theory in this sense are wholly distinct enterprises.) They are the study of necessity and given phenomena, not normative choice and deliberate reform. I regret the unavailability of the word “phenomenology” for this kind of study; let’s call it social-science theory.

(It’s obviously a little too simple to describe sociological theory, which has as one of its central axes the “structure or agency?” question, as all being about structural necessity—but the “agency” side of those debates isn’t about the deliberate normative choices people informed by social theory should make, but a descriptive/ explanatory claim about the world, about the efficacy of individual choices and actions.)

Political theory might—mightn’t it?—be a subset of social science theory. The political theorist might seek to be to states and wars and elections as Hayek or Marx or Polanyi or Weber are to markets, or as Foucault or Durkheim is to modernity, or as Gellner is to nationalism. I try to make a start in my article on David Miller's book, which gradually turns into an article on what normative political theory can look like if we take a social-science theory view of the world of states.

(Interestingly, legal philosophy, analytic jurisprudence as that field has come to exist since Hart, is not construed as a subset of ethics or as the study of the right choice to make; Hart characterized his enterprise as one of “descriptive sociology,” and even non-positivist or partly non-positivist successors such as Fuller, Finnis and Dworkin, have had to work out a theory of what law is in a way that has not been much paralleled in political philosophy. Legal philosophy, in this sense, looks more like social-science-theory than like political philosophy.)

Now, there are understandable reasons, both simple and complicated, for emphasizing politics as the domain of choice. One complicated reason has to do with the influence of Arendt and the idea of freedom in human action, located quintesentially in the realm of the political. One simple reason is that what politicians like to tell us about themselves is that they're always in the business of Doing Something, and that every Something they Do will dissolve some unpleasant thing in human social life. The domains studied by economists and sociologists tend to lack actors claiming those magical powers.

But here it's worth remembering my exchange with Will. He's far from believing in the magical ability of political officials to alter just any thing they wish in the social world. But he, too, treats politics as a domain differently from other domains; economic facts just are, whereas political facts are unjust results of human decisions that presumably could and should be decided differently. The world of states (and of states' relationships to borders and economies and labor migration) is up for normative grabs.

I believe in the importance and value of normative questions about politics, and normative theories that try to answer them! The possibility of freely-chosen deliberate normative reform is real. I don't think that political theory is best done as only a subset of a social-science theory of necessity. (Indeed, I suspect the same is true of theorizing about economics or culture or social structures.) But I also don't think it's best done as only a subset of ethics or moral theory. Our aspiration should be to do both-- to theorize the social phenomena of politics, and to analyze the morality of choices within politics, as well as to think about how each of those shapes the other. To be grandiose: we should try to reunify some of what's been divided in the human sciences, and to understand normative reflection and explanatory explorations as linked and complementary.

And I suspect that, even as we approach 40 years on from Theory of Justice, it's the social-science theory part of our vocabulary and intellectual toolkit that's currently underdeveloped. (This is truer in some parts of the field than others; those for whom Foucault or the early Habermas is more significant than Rawls aren't as likely to fit the "subset of ethics" model, and some of those explicitly reject normative theory as an enterprise. But that's not what I want, either.) I also suspect that developing that part of our intellectual toolkits will require abandoning the ideal/ non-ideal theory distinction. Perhaps individual moral decisions can be analyzed in an idealized abstraction; but social and political decisions, not so.

In the current literature, G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality (about which more in another post, or follow the beginnings of the symposium at Crooked Timber) seems especially strongly committed to the view I’m implicitly criticizing here. So too is David Estlund, a critic of what he calls "utopophobia." Any thing which is not naturally impossible (as Blackstone described Parliament’s legislative competence) is within the scope of what our normative political principles might legitimately demand. I haven't here offered any substantive argument against their views. I'm trying, however, to alter the terms of debate a bit. I think that there's a sense in which that substantive position is allowed to follow too quickly on an implicit sense of what our intellectual enterprise just is.

(NB: In an inchoate but real way this post is indebted to Jeremy Waldron's old essay "What Plato Would Allow," from Nomos: Theory and Practice, and to a related talk I heard him give at ANU sometime in the 1993-94 school year.)

Noted without comment from the Gazette:

A Quebec billionaire at the centre of a messy and very public airing of his 10-year tumultuous relationship with a young Brazilian summed up yesterday why he never married her, despite having three children together.

“It’s not my cup of tea,” the man, who can’t be identified under Quebec family law, told a packed Quebec Superior Court room.

His ex has launched a constitutional challenge to Quebec’s unique family law in order to receive financial support – an issue he conceded he finds interesting.

“I just wish I wasn’t in the middle of it,” he said. “I’m disappointed that what was supposed to be a constitutional debate has evolved into an airing of our dirty laundry.”

As it stands now in Quebec, couples living common-law only have to pay child support but are under no obligation to provide support to the spouse, or to divide assets once the union ends.

The woman’s lawyers, who expect the case to go all the way to Canada’s highest court, want couples in de facto unions for three years without children or one year with children treated the same as people who are legally married, just as in other provinces.

The woman is asking for $56,000 a month plus $50 million – a figure she says reflects the kind of spending power she had when the two were together. But the man, who is now with a model with whom he is not married but has two children, says he gives the three children ample support.

They and their mother are in the process of moving out of their Westmount home, which has a mould problem, into a $2.4-million Outremont home which is in the man’s name. He pays for the nannies, chauffeur, cleaning lady and cook, as well as all the children’s school fees. He gives the woman $35,000 a month child support.

Yesterday, his testimony sounded like a script from a soap opera, as he recounted details of their on-again off-again relationship. It was peppered with details of jetting off to Europe, Brazil, Fiji, Japan and Dubai, house parties with 2,500 guests and denials of drug overdoses.

“We were incredibly in love and our three children were made with love,” he said. “But on the other hand, I was constantly criticized for my lifestyle, that I worked too hard and for the people I hung out with.

“And I had problems with her behaviour, too.”

He met the girl, then 17 and 15 years younger than him, on a beach in Brazil in 1992. She didn’t speak English or French, and he couldn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, so for the first few years of their relationship, he said, they used a lot of sign language.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For what it's worth...

I think both Battlestar Galactica and Lost are back in good form.

The two bits of my pre-premiere talk on "Lost" last night that I'll now cherry-pcik to make myself look smart:

1) Hume's philosophy includes a funny combination of apparent determinism with skepticism about [what we can know about] causation. Desmond [David Hume's] unique status with respect to the timeslip parts of the story-- he was the first character to get knocked loose from the timestream, the first whose consciousness went time-traveling, the first to experience the impossibility of changing history, and the first to nonetheless make use of timeslips in non-paradox-inducing ways-- and his unique status off the island [he's not one of the Oceanic Six and so far there haven't been any indications that he's included in the mandate to return, but he's still an island escapee and therefore tied to it-- in a way that seems more important than, say, Walt]-- will be centrally important as the story becomes more and more about time.

2) One of the three possibilities I laid out for why Locke becomes Bentham is that, in between then and now, he learned that he had to sacrifice his life to maximize the well-being of the greatest number of Islanders for whom he now had responsibility. Locke (philosopher) not only supports individual rights but also insists on the moral priority of life and condemns suicide. An act of utility-maximizing self-sacrifice is commemorated by his ceasing to be Locke at all and becoming Bentham. (But I admit that this was not my *preferred* possibility.)

A thought about Lost that doesn't have anything to do with political theory: Hurley always seems like he's in a slightly different show, and somehow the actor and the writers make that work very effectively. It's not just that he's comic relief, or that he's the one to stand in (very obviously) for the viewers ("I was never too clear on that part"). More generally he seems like his world only occasionally intersects with the dark, grim, meaningful, trumpet-heavy world of the rest of the characters, and that he's only intermittently interested in that world.

This has always been true of him, though he didn't always seem quite so on his own. The grimmest characters from the first season have tended to have the highest survival rate into later seasons; Rose and Bernard excepted, the major surviving Survivors are people with pretty heavy baggage and major Issues. Charlie, Boone, and Shannon had all of that too-- but they often featured in lighter scenes and exchanges. Now: well, everyone else's world has Alan Dale as a glowering presence in it, whereas Hurley's has Cheech. And Linus seemed not to understand this; he showed up in Hurley's kitchen making the kind of grim, opaque, meaningful speech that works on someone like Locke, Jack, or Sayiid. And Hurley responded appropriately-- which meant that he responded like a character from a different show. I got a kick out of it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Leiter reports: political philosophy rankings

The 2008-09 round of the Leiter Report on philosophy departments is being released on Leiter's blog piecemeal, and today there's a list of interest to many readers of this blog: political philosophy.

Top 9 Faculties in "Political Philosophy" in the English-Speaking World

In the specialty rankings, faculties are grouped according to their mean score, rounded to the nearest .5. In parentheses after the school's name, the median and mode scores are listed. Within the grouping, faculties are listed alphabetically.

Group 1 (1-3) (rounded mean of 4.5) (median, mode)

Harvard University (5, 5)
New York University (5, 5)
University of Arizona (4.5, 4.5)

Group 2 (4-9) (rounded mean of 4.0) (median, mode)

Brown University (4, 4)
Oxford University (4.25, 4.5)
Princeton University (4, 5)
Stanford University (4.5, 4.5)
University College London (3.75, 3.75)
Yale University (4, 4.25)

This is a very good list, and shows the value of the Leiter Reports. Even though Arizona has been an excellent program in legal and/or political philosophy more often than not in my lifetime, I think it still gets undervalued in some circles just because the university as a whole isn't a traditional name-brand research powerhouse. Brown and Stanford have made important new commitments to political philosophy over the past several years, and I think either would now be a terrific place to study the field, but that's relatively new, and the kind of thing that could take a long time to become conventional wisdom.

Compared with the 2006 list (I assume that at some point that link will start pointing to the new list, but it hasn't yet):

Oxford has dropped to group 2 (G.A. Cohen has retired and not yet been replaced)
NYU has risen to group 1 (Samuel Scheffler has been hired)
Michigan has dropped out of group 2 (lost Darwall, but I'm still surprised at the drop)
Berkeley has dropped out of group 2 (lost Scheffler)
Toronto has dropped out of group 2 (lost Sreenivasan and Hawkins, but I'm still surprised at the drop)
Rutgers has dropped out of group 2 (probably some obvious reason for this but I don't recall)
Yale has risen into group 2

For what it's worth, I would still think that Michigan ought to be somewhere near the top.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hither and Yon, local edition: "Lost in the state of nature"

I'll be giving a talk called "Lost in the state of nature: the political theory of the Island," Wednesday, January 21, 7 pm, in the Shatner Building cafe at McGill; the talk will of course be followed immediately by the season premiere of Lost.

Sponsored by the McGill Political Science Students' Association.

RSVP on facebook if you like.

Theories about the conversion of Locke into Bentham may be ventured in comments below...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

CFP: Theories of federalism

European Consortium of Political Research

5th ECPR General Conference, Potsdam
10 - 12 September, 2009

Section Title: International Political Theory
Panel Title: Theories of federalism

Name: Nenad Stojanovic
Institution: Universität Zürich & Université catholique de Louvain


Name: Helder De Schutter
Institution: University of Oxford

ABSTRACT - Submit a Paper to this Panel
While recent decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in empirical research on federalism, normative approaches to federalism have only very recently started to appear. Interest in these normative issues has coincided with the emergence of a normative interest in forms of self-government for nations. This manifests itself in two related areas: 1. Multinational States. Multinational states are typically confronted with claims to self-government rights by substate national and/or linguistic groups. With respect to these claims, a number of theorists have focused on federalism’s ability to provide self-government to national groups while maintaining a state-wide level of political decision-making. 2. Transnational political constellations. A number of theorists have argued that the form of democracy that is desirable above the level of the domestic state (such as for the EU and other regional multinational associations, as well as at a global level) should not be unitary but federal in nature, because federalism is better able to combine transnational decision-making with significant forms of political autonomy for national groups. Both debates ('domestic' and 'transnational' federalism) overlap extensively and tackle similar issues. The objective of the panel is to contribute to the development of normative theories of federalism in both fields. Here is a tentative guideline of questions for paper givers: - Is federalism in multinational states normatively superior to unitary forms of decision-making, or to secession? - Is federalism in the EU normatively superior to a unitary EU or to a more confederal EU? - How is federalism in transnational political contexts different from federalism in multinational domestic states? - Is federalism democratic? - Is federalism divisive? What are the sources of unity in federal political constellations? - What is the theoretical relationship between federal and consociational arrangements? - Is it unjust that in a multinational federal political constellation resources are distributed on the basis of territorial units instead of individual needs? Could/should we opt for non-territorial forms of federalism? Does federalism disadvantage non-territorial minorities? - What are the relations between the ethnocultural rights of national groups and those of immigrants?