What is this blog about?


What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Monday, January 21, 2019

AOC: Rawlsian?

Could John Rawls's conception of distributive justice -- 'justice as fairness' -- someday actually help shape public policy in the United States?

Perhaps ... if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to tax income above 10 million USD at 70 percent is ever realized in law -- or so claims Micah Johnson at Slate.

(Alas, the article gets some things wrong, e.g., that Rawls was a defender of the 'welfare state'; he in fact favoured 'property-owning democracy'. And the 'egalitarian' objection it mentions is accommodated by the 'fair value' of the political liberties guarantee. Still, it's always nice to see justice as fairness mentioned in the popular press!)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Elizabeth Anderson: champion of relational egalitarianism

Looking for a stimulating article with which to start the new year? Try this New Yorker piece on the work and life of Elizabeth Anderson (the John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan) by Nathan Heller.

I’ve mentioned Anderson’s important work here before. Her influence on my own research—especially her account of ‘relational equality’—has been enormous. Strangely, though, while Anderson was the Co-Chair of my dissertation committee at the University of Michigan, I have been far more influenced by her work post-PhD than I was while a graduate student. (The reason for this, I think, is that I only felt free to engage critically with her views once I had left the 'student-supervisor' relationship. This was my fault, I should emphasize, as she no doubt would’ve welcomed critical engagement with her work by graduate students.)

I do disagree with Anderson on some points. For instance, I remain critical of what I take to be her uncharitable characterization—and hence unfair criticism—of ‘ideal theory’ (as I explain in my chapter “Why Public Reasoning Involves Ideal Theorizing”.) But whatever disagreements I have with her are, so to speak, ‘minor quibbles’.

I’ve taught her criticisms of ‘luck egalitarianism’ and her arguments in favour of relational egalitarianism in many of my political philosophy courses over the years. And in my ‘political autonomy’ seminar last year I taught her book Private Government (which is mentioned towards the end of the article). Of all the works we discussed—including those by Rousseau and Rawls—this one generated the most intense discussions. No doubt part of the reason for this was that many of the students worked part-time—and hence were regularly subject to the arbitrary power of employers themselves.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Just Leisure?

Last summer I was asked by for The Forum (the LSE’s public philosophy website) to write up a shorter—and hopefully more readable—version of the argument from my recent Philosophical Studies article, ‘“The Kids are Alright”: political liberalism, leisure time, and childhood’. That essay—‘Just Leisure?’—was published a couple of months ago and is available to read here. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, and am grateful to The Forum’s editor, Elizabeth Hannon, for all her help with it.

I also quite like the picture that she used for the essay:

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Libertarianism = feudalism


Existential comics helpfully explains why libertarianism (of the sort endorsed by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia) leads to (a kind of) feudalism...

[For a more academic explanation, read Samuel Freeman’s article “Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 30(2):105-151 (2001)).]

Friday, October 5, 2018

Ted Cruz: Master Debater


This post, “Owning the Peanut Gallery,” by Maria Farrell at the ‘Crooked Timber’ blog is well worth reading—especially by anyone who ever participated in university-level debating in North America. It is hilarious and does a great job in capturing what it was like to take part in university tournaments in the early 1990s, especially from the perspective of Canadian teams visiting the U.S. And of course any post that further illuminates the comprehensive awfulness of Ted Cruz is worthy of praise.

The post brought back my own memories of debating in Canada around the same time (I represented University College at University of Toronto). I recall going to tournaments at Yale and Harvard, and encountering Cruz (and Austan Goolsbee, and others), although—thankfully—I don’t recall ever debating Cruz myself.

(Nitpick: A friend points out that this claim in the post is incorrect: “We’re the highest ranked Canadian team at a US tournament, ever, at that point [1993].” A team from the University of Toronto made it to the finals at Harvard in 1992.)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Freedom, liberal egalitarianism, and democratic socialism

[Campaign buttons for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]

Over the past couple of years ‘democratic socialism’ has been on the upswing in, of all places, that most anti-socialist of countries, the United States. This can be seen in, inter alia, the political successes of self-described ‘democratic socialists’ like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the skyrocketing growth in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America. Leaving aside the fact that the actual policy proposals championed by, for instance, Sanders during his 2016 campaign to become the Democratic Party candidate for the American presidency would be right at home in the ‘New Deal liberalism’ of FDR (or most versions of egalitarian liberalism), it is clear that the idea of democratic socialism is no longer beyond the pale in the United States, especially amongst younger citizens.

Corey Robin—professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center—has an interesting essay on “The New Socialists” in last Saturday’s New York Times (2018-08-25). Especially intriguing is Robin’s description of what he takes to be the core political ideal and goal of democratic socialism:
What the socialist seeks is freedom. 
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired. 
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
The account of ‘freedom’ that Robin describes here is (somewhat ironically) known these days within academic political philosophy as ‘republican’ freedom, that is, roughly, liberty as ‘non-domination.’ (The label ‘republican’ is meant to evoke the conception of ‘free citizens’ within the ancient Roman Republic, not the contemporary American Republican Party; indeed, one would be hard pressed to think of a mainstream political party more hostile to the ideal of non-domination, at least for everyday citizens, than the contemporary GOP.) One is ‘free,’ according to republicans, insofar as one is not subject to the arbitrary will and power of another (such as one’s master, boss, husband, priest, etc.). While some political theorists, such as Philip Pettit, claim that republican freedom is distinct from the kind of ‘negative liberty’ championed by liberals like John Rawls, it always has seemed clear to me (and other scholars) that in fact non-domination is an intrinsic part of the Rawlsian account of free citizens. (Moreover, as I have explained elsewhere, Rawls does not rely upon Isaiah Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’ in his conception of justice.)

Given democratic socialism’s concern with non-domination, then, it should not be a surprise—despite how his theory was interpreted throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s—that John Rawls’s conception of liberal egalitarian justice, ‘justice as fairness,’ can be read as compatible with, and perhaps even requiring, a form of democratic socialism. Rawls’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (which came out about 17 years ago, shortly before his death in 2002, but draws upon lecture notes that he had used, and regularly revised, for many years) identifies ‘liberal democratic socialism’ as one of two political-economic systems capable of realizing the principles of justice as fairness. The other kind of regime is ‘property-owning democracy.’ In contrast to liberal democratic socialism and property-owning democracy, Rawls holds that ‘welfare-state capitalism’ (the political-economic system that most of us endure today), ‘laissez-faire capitalism’ (the form of society that lives in the dreams of libertarians), and (Soviet-style) ‘state socialism,’ are all incapable of realizing justice as fairness.

While most of Rawls’s own discussion about these political-economic systems (limited as it is) focuses on property-owning democracy—and that is the system that has generated the most discussion in recent years—the political philosopher William A. Edmunson recently has published an important book that argues that Rawls’s principles of justice in fact favour democratic liberal socialism over property-owning democracy (see this recent article at Jacobin for a quick overview).

Despite my commitment to (a slightly modified version of) Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness, I remain generally agnostic on which particular political-economic system would best realize that conception. I’m even open to the possibility that an egalitarian form of welfare-state capitalism—a form of ‘social democracy’ instead of ‘democratic socialism’—might be capable of realizing the principles of justice as fairness. And it seems possible that a society might include a mix of democratic socialist, property-owning democratic, and welfare-state institutions. One of my main goals over the next couple of years is to sort through what has been written on this topic in order to gain deeper grasp of these issues.

It is exciting that there is a lot of interesting new work is being done on this topic: in addition to Edmundson’s recent book, for instance, there is Alan Thomas’s book on property-owning democracy. Yes, the well of Rawlsiana is quite deep!



Monday, April 30, 2018

Academic corruption at George Mason University ('Koch U')

Finally, the corrupting influence of the Charles Koch Foundation at George Mason University has been publicly acknowledged:
"Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.
The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom."
(From: "Documents show ties between university, conservative donors" [AP]. See also: "George Mason president: Some donations ‘fall short’ of academic standards" [WaPo].)

*Sigh*... As someone who has been following the growing pernicious influence of the 'Kochtopus' in American academia for many years now, this is thoroughly unsurprising. But I'm glad that a court compelled this public university to at least be honest about its past academic corruption.

(It is worth noting that the GMU Economics Department is where the libertarian misogynist Robin Hanson works. Small world...)