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 19, 2015

Piketty and Rawls on capitalism and inequality

I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century last year.  In fact, I was involved in two reading groups on the book, an online group organized by my friend Christopher Robichaud at the Kennedy School of Government (summer 2014), and one ‘in person’ group at the University of Toronto Law School (autumn 2014).  It was the longest book that I’d read, I think, since Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but well worth it.

In the book Piketty documents the long-term tendency of capitalist societies toward what he terms ‘patrimonial capitalism.’  A patrimonial capitalist society, roughly, is one in which the members of that society’s economic elite enjoy their privileged position primarily as a consequence of inheritance, not innovation or entrepreneurship.  Simplifying greatly, the reason for this tendency is that returns to capital (‘r’) generally grow at a higher rate than the overall economy (‘g’).  Consequently, the already wealthy within society tend to become wealthier at a much faster rate than anyone else, and, moreover, pass this advantage on to their descendants.  This economic elite becomes largely a class of rentiers.  The members of this class also are able to employ their wealth to influence the political decision-making processes of their society, thereby undermining the democratic equality of citizens. 

One thing that really struck my about Piketty’s book is how much it supports Rawls’s earlier, more speculative worries about the long-term tendency of capitalist societies toward growing inequality, decreasing political freedom for most citizens, and hence injustice.  Rawls’s preferred regime types – which are ‘realistic utopias’ that are to be created out of our existing societies (they are regime types that have never been realized) – are ‘property-owning democracy’ and ‘liberal socialism.’  Both of these kinds of societies counteract capitalism’s tendency toward ever-increasing inequality and plutocracy, despite being (to a great extent) market societies.  One way that these societies do this is by limiting the total amount of wealth that citizens can inherit.  This counter-acts the intergenerational concentration of wealth within a small portion of the population, and sustains the democratic equality of all citizens over time.

Anyhow, what motivated me to post something on Piketty now is that the blog Crooked Timber is wrapping up an online ‘seminar’ on Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ve only read Elizabeth Anderson’s piece so far, but the contributors are all impressive thinkers, so I look forward to checking out the other posts in the near future, as well as Piketty’s forthcoming response.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Logic of Estrangement by Julius Sensat

The new book by my friend and colleague, Julius Sensat, is now out. It's entitled The Logic of Estrangement: Reason in an Unreasonable Form, and is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Here is the abstract:
The Logic of Estrangement conceives of estrangement as an irrational or unreasonable embodiment of reason in the social world, rather than as a self-alienation of the human essence, its more usual characterization. It undertakes a unified historical and systematic investigation of the idea of estrangement and its significance for the social role of philosophy and critical theory. It traces the development of the idea in major works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and it explores the idea's significance for a critical understanding of John Rawls's political philosophy. In so doing it provides a way of understanding Kant and Rawls as part of a tradition they are not usually associated with, and it thereby offers new insight into their thought. It also puts forward a generalized reconstruction of the idea of estrangement, using concepts from game theory and decision theory. This analysis enables an extension of the idea to applications beyond its usual domain as well as a deeper understanding of the works of the above philosophers.
I've read drafts of -- and been quite impressed by -- the material on Kant, Hegel, and Rawls. Now I look forward to reading the whole thing!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The anti-freedom Kochtopus

Ah the Koch brothers, America’s most famous plutocrats. They claim to love individual freedom and be ‘libertarians.’ But in addition to the usual right-wing economic causes to which they give millions of dollars (and which really are concerned only with the freedom of the wealthy, not the freedom of most citizens), are some distinctly anti-freedom organizations. Among them are organizations that oppose gay marriage and abortion rights (according to recent reports at the HuffPost and Politico). The Kochs’ ‘Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce’ also gave millions to the National Rifle Association, which champions turning the United States into a hellish Hobbesian state of nature.

Not content with pouring money into various right-wing political causes and politicians, the Kochs also have their own spy agency. Yes, a spy agency – because nothing says “I love individual freedom” quite like spying on people!

And for years now the Kochtopus has been spreading its tentacles into academia. (At least there is now a counter-movement called “UnKoch My Campus.”)

Whenever I read or hear libertarians praising the Kochs for their ‘virtuous’ commitment to liberty and their ‘enlightened social views,’ I invariably think of all the millions of dollars that they give to right-wing Republican politicians like Scott Walker. Whatever the Kochs may say about how much they love individual freedom, the fact of the matter is that they financially support causes and politicians that are anti-refugee, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-education, anti-environment, anti-voting, and so forth. Hence my loathing for them – and the headache that I invariably acquire whenever I encounter a libertarian ‘scholar’ trying to defend them. (But I’m sure that such defences have absolutely nothing to do with the money that so many of them receive form the Kochs. Oh no, nothing at all…)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

AAUP statement against campus carry laws

The American Association of University Professors has come out with a very strong statement opposing 'campus carry' laws (such as the one currently being considered in Wisconsin, which I mentioned in my previous post).

The statement emphasizes this key point:
Colleges and universities … regard the presence of weapons as incompatible with their educational missions. College campuses are marketplaces of ideas, and a rigorous academic exchange of ideas may be chilled by the presence of weapons. Students and faculty members will not be comfortable discussing controversial subjects if they think there might be a gun in the room.
For the full statement go here.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An armed society is an unfree society

[Image from here.]

Having decided that they haven’t quite ruined the University the Wisconsin system enough yet, the Republicans in Madison are now are considering a bill that would allow students (if they have ‘conceal and carry’ permits) to bring guns into campus buildings.  Students sitting in classrooms during lectures and seminars, or in offices meeting with professors, may soon be packing heat.

This is a horrible idea, one manifestly harmful to the educational mission of universities, including especially the free and vigorous exchange of controversial ideas and views.  Moreover, it is premised on false beliefs about the role of guns in reducing violent crime, and a misguided conception of the relation between guns and freedom in society.

It sometimes is claimed by American gun advocates (including the two legislators pushing this bill) that the presence of guns reduce violent crimes.  The reasoning seems to be that guns act as deterrents to criminals and/or can be used by ‘good guys’ to stop ‘bad guys’ (to use some technical terms favoured by the NRA) in the process of harming or killing innocent people.

That this claim is false should be obvious to anyone who bothers to look at other liberal democratic societies.  The United States has six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and over fifteen times as many as Australia and New Zealand.  The reason for this is clear: “The US is an outlier on gun violence because it has way more guns than other developed nations.”  An American gun advocate might acknowledge this fact, but claim that guns nonetheless reduce the overall homicide rate.  That is, perhaps once homicides not caused by firearms are taken into account, it turns out that the United States has a lower homicide rate than, say, Canada thanks to the deterrent effect of all those guns.  But this is not the case either.  The homicide rate of the United States is three times that of Canada.  Again, this should be no surprise.  It’s a lot easier to kill people with guns than with hockey sticks.  Simply put, the idea that citizens legally permitted to carry concealed firearms are an effective force in reducing homicides is a myth.

Guns are inherently threatening.  If students are allowed to bring guns into classrooms, many other students will feel less safe.  It already is quite difficult to help students feel comfortable enough to discuss freely – and disagree openly with each other over – contentious issues like race, gender, and economic inequality, or the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion and euthanasia.  The presence of guns lurking in the background of future such discussions invariably will make them even more difficult.

The debate over gun control, at least within the United States, often is cast as a conflict between the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘welfare’ (or security).  Even defenders of robust gun control frequently characterize the debate in this way.  This is a mistake.  The debate instead should be construed as one concerning the distribution of freedom.  Should the freedom of gun owners take priority over the freedom of citizens in general?

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once famously declared, “An armed society is a polite society.” But the reason such a society is ‘polite,’ of course, is fear.  (The second sentence of the Heinlein quote is: “Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”)  The reality is that an armed society is an unfree society.

The threat of gun violence is coercive.  While easy access to firearms may expand the scope of (what the political theorist Isaiah Berlin famously called) the ‘negative liberty’ of those who like to carry around guns (such citizens can do something that they could not do, or not do as easily, in a society in which access to firearms was restricted), it restricts the scope of all citizens’ negative liberty.  It does so by introducing a coercive threat into all citizens’ public interactions.

To connect my discussion here with my previous post, a society in which guns are widely available is one that more closely resembles Thomas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ than do societies in which guns are rare.*  That is, making guns readily available creates a more miserable and insecure condition, one in which everyone becomes a potential threat to everyone else.  Such a society is less free overall; its citizens face a greater range of interferences (potential threats) than citizens in unarmed societies.

Of the four countries that I’ve lived in as an adult – Canada (where I’m from), England, Ireland, and the United States – I’ve felt the least free within the U.S., despite its self-conception as ‘the land of the free.’  And the prevalence of guns in the U.S. is one of the main reasons for this.  In Canada, if an argument breaks out in a coffee shop, a pub, or on a street, I think: “Ugh – How annoying.”  In the U.S., when the same sort of thing happens, I think: “Bloody hell! What if one of those idiots has a gun?!”  And I flee.

Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioural medicine at Stanford University, describes precisely this phenomenon: “In the U.S., whenever there is a angry argument, whether over a traffic accident, someone being fired from their job, or for that matter over nothing of any consequence, it always lurks in one’s mind that someone could have a gun and could start shooting.”  He describes this as “the oppressive psychological weight of America’s gun violence,” and explains how (perversely) this psychological weight “is part of what makes some gun owners scared of gun control (If I don’t have a gun, how will I defend myself against those who do?).”  (Notice the paradigmatically Hobbesian reasoning of the gun owner described by Humphreys.)

And now some Wisconsin legislators want to allow guns into university buildings, including classrooms.  Classrooms in which controversial ideas are debated, and feelings can become intense.  Classrooms in which professors sometimes have to give students bad grades.

Well, at least explaining Hobbes's version of the state of nature will be a bit easier in my political philosophy courses if the legislators who cravenly are doing the bidding of the NRA in Madison get their way…

[* Allow me address a potential nitpick for any Hobbes scholars who might be reading this.  The state of nature, according to Hobbes, is a state of complete freedom, as there is no political authority to establish and impose laws upon persons.  But if we employ Berlin’s notion of negative liberty – according to which, roughly, interferences to potential courses of action count as restrictions on one’s freedom, irrespective of whether they are brought about by the state or by non-state agents – then people are quite unfree within the state of nature, as they face all kinds of interferences on what they can do, namely, continual threats from others.  It is this fear of others that compels rational individuals within the state of nature to act in certain ways (namely, to take pre-emptive actions against others whenever possible).  This is why within the state of nature there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  If we employ something like Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, then, the Hobbesian state of nature is a radically unfree condition.]

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Hobbes’s Leviathan and the peaceful Canadians

I found the article, “Canada’s History of Violence,” by Pascual Restrepo in today’s New York Times to be quite fascinating.

In the article Restrepo describes Steven Pinker’s hypothesis that the reason why Canadian society is less violent than American society can be explained, at least in part, by their different histories. 
“Before the settlement of the Canadian West…the Mounties established a series of forts. That’s where they exercised authority, enforced contracts and protected the property of settlers. Where Mounties were present, self-justice was rare. Canadians on the whole developed a less violent culture.”  
The American frontier, in contrast, more closely resembled Thomas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature,’ as settlers were responsible, to a great extent, for defending themselves and their property.  (I think that something like this claim is in fact quite old and is not Pinker’s creation.  I recall being familiar with some version of this hypothesis decades ago as a student.  So I suspect that Pinker, who is Canadian himself, simply reformulated a claim that has been around for some time.  But no matter.)

What is especially interesting is that those Canadian settlers who lived close to Mountie forts were more peaceful than those who lived farther away.  Restrepo writes: 
“I compared settlements that in the late 1890s were near Mountie forts with those that were not. There are no homicide statistics for that period, but the 1911 census reveals male mortality patterns. Settlements far from the Mounties’ reach had more widows than widowers, suggesting unusually high adult male death rates. In fact, remote Canadian settlements during this period looked a lot like those of the Wild West. We do not know for certain why male death rates in these communities were high, but homicide is the prime suspect. After all, men kill other men more often than they kill women.”  
Restrepo goes on to explain how these patterns remain today, as shown by the propensity of hockey players from different regions of the Canadian West to engage in violence on the ice (viz., those from regions near those early Mountie forts generally are less violent than those from regions farther away).

Here is what Hobbes says about the importance of the sovereign in Leviathan:
“The office of the sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly, consisteth in the end for which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature… But by safety here is not meant a bare preservation, but also all other contentments of life, which every man by lawful industry, without danger or hurt to the Commonwealth, shall acquire to himself.”
[From The 2nd Part of Leviathan, Ch. 30, “Of the Office of the Sovereign Representative”.]

So the agents and symbols of the Western Canadian version of Hobbes’s sovereign – the Mounties – managed to instill adequate awe and fear in those citizens directly subject to their effective authority, that is, near their forts.  This sovereign power allowed Canada to develop into a more peaceful society than the one to its immediate south.  And the impact on people’s behavior of living closer to or farther away from the institutions of sovereign authority and power, the Mountie forts, continues to this day (long after those forts have disappeared).  

Interesting stuff.  I think that I’ll use this article the next time I teach Hobbes.

[Agents of the Canadian Leviathan.]

Thursday, October 8, 2015

An open letter regarding the campaign tactics of the Conservative Party of Canada

The following letter was published today in the Ottawa Citizen:
We are a diverse group of academics with different political views and different political allegiances. We are united by a common interest in the integrity of democratic processes and a concern about the ugly and dangerous turn we have recently witnessed in the election campaign. 
In democratic electoral politics there is an ethical line that distinguishes spirited partisan strategy from cynical tactics that betray the values of mutual respect and toleration that lie at the heart civil democratic discourse. Honourable politicians do not cross that line even when they think doing so will be politically advantageous. Disreputable politicians ignore the line when they find it convenient to do so. 
The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper has already come perilously close to this line by suggesting that religion is an appropriate basis to select refugees and by fanning fears of terrorism as a pretext for revoking citizenship from some Canadians. Distinguishing ‘old-stock’ Canadians from new ones was also divisive and problematic. Increasingly, the Conservatives seem to have been opting for a particularly nasty form of “wedge politics.” 
However, by injecting the inflammatory rhetoric of “barbaric cultural practices” into the current campaign, the Conservative Party has flagrantly crossed the line. The repeated use of this phrase along with a proposed tip line to root out undesirables are cynically calculated to distract and divide citizens by insinuating that some law abiding and peaceful members of the community are freedom-hating barbarians who threaten Canadian society. The Conservatives know that Canada faces no such threat and that the vast majority of citizens, irrespective of their religious commitments or cultural backgrounds, embrace the basic rights and liberties upon which our democracy is based. By conjuring up a phantom menace to the country and implying that some immigrants and religious minorities are enemies, the Conservatives hope to pit Canadians against one another. Like many sophisticated forms of vicious propaganda, the invocation of barbarism is meant to create fear and anxiety rather than to identify a real problem.
We enjoy the rule of law in Canada and it requires the equal application of the law. Those who break the law should be treated within a common system of criminal justice. A special mechanism that targets some minorities for extra scrutiny is as unnecessary as it is odious. The devious strategists who have devised this campaign know that their objectives are not well served by employing racist or anti-religious epithets, so they ask us to imagine unspecified but supposedly real barbarians. So we are encouraged to demonize those who are different from ourselves and whose religious or cultural practices we do not share or understand. In the present context, this is hate mongering, and it has no place in Canadian democracy. 
We do not deny that there is room to discuss and debate how contemporary democracies should respond to religious, cultural and linguistic pluralism. Indeed, Canadian legal and political theory is at the forefront of exploring such matters. But a common point of departure for these debates and discussions is a commitment to civility, decency and toleration. 
Toleration does not require that one like or endorse the cultural or religious practices of others, but it does require that we refrain from insulting the dignity of those with whom we disagree. The Conservatives have shown contempt for a politics of mutual respect. We condemn the unethical Conservative strategy that brings shame to Canadian politics. We hope that Canadians will join us in repudiating the politics of hate. Instead let us embrace a nobler vision of civil discourse that is truly oriented to achieving the common good for all Canadians. 
By Avigail Eisenberg (University of Victoria), Colin Macleod (University of Victoria), Jocelyn Maclure (Université Laval), and Daniel Weinstock (McGill University). At time of posting, this letter has had over 530 signatories.
(The full list of signatures is here.)

For some background on this issue, this post by Joseph Heath may be helpful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New department website

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my department was constructing a new website.  Well, it's now active, and I think that it looks pretty good (even the part for which I was partially responsible).  I previously did not think that such a change was necessary, but I must concede that the new site definitely is an improvement from the earlier one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Plutocrats pull the plug on perennial political puppet Walker

As I have noted earlier here, the current political system within the United States, to a great extent at least, is a de facto plutocracy.  And one would be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of this than Scott Walker.  Almost all of his important political decisions since becoming governor of Wisconsin in January 2011 have furthered the interests the plutocratic class, and harmed the interests of everyone else, especially the poor, women, and workers.  Much of Walker’s harsh right-wing legislation is pulled directly from ALEC

(If you would like to witness some vivid examples of Walker’s craven appeasement of the wealthy, there is this video of his interaction with Wisconsin billionaire Diana Hendricks, as well as the prank phone call in which Walker mistakenly believed that he is speaking with David Koch.)

And now Scott Walker has dropped out of the race to become the Republican nominee for president. 

While I always thought that is was unlikely that he would become the GOP nominee, let alone win the presidency, it never struck me as impossible.  Even a 1-in-50 chance of Walker becoming most powerful person on earth terrified me.  In recent weeks, fortunately, his odds of winning the nomination declined precipitously, driving him to increasingly desperate measures, such as promising to ‘wreak havoc’ on Washington, and doubling-down on his ongoing anti-union crusade.  But, thankfully and unsurprisingly, these manic and malevolent gestures were to no avail.

Amusingly, in his exit speech, Walker said: “Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race.”  Simply put, he is ‘leading’ by quitting.  Well okay then!  I very much hope that he exercises such leadership again soon as governor of Wisconsin.

As the plutocratic candidate par excellence, it seems clear that Walker decided to abandon his quest for the presidency once his wealthy funders told him that the gig was up.  Following two lacklustre debate performances, some bizarre policy statements (e.g., considering a border wall with Canada to be a ‘legitimate issue’), and numerous flip-flops (e.g., his various positions concerning birthright citizenship), Walker’s stock was in free-fall.  Throwing more money at the Walker team would not help at this point.  Money may be far too powerful in contemporary politics, but it couldn’t help Walker’s intrinsic shortcomings as a national candidate, such as his aggressive lack of charisma and his dim-witted demeanour.  So, as Josh Marshall points out at TPM, Walker “lived by the Koch,” and now has “died by the Koch.” 

Gee.  It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving puppet.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

What is 'practical philosophy'? What is 'social philosophy'?

I was charged by my department with the task of writing up some brief explanations of 'practical philosophy.' (This is for a new department website, which will become active sometime in the near future. I don't know why we need a new website -- the current one seems fine to me -- but the decision has been made by the powers-that-be, and so I must comply.)

By 'practical philosophy,' apparently, the department means: (a) ethics and moral philosophy; (b) social philosophy; and (c) political philosophy.

In writing up the explanations I faced an immediate problem: I don't know what 'social philosophy' is! More precisely, I don't know what makes 'social philosophy' distinct from moral and political philosophy.  So I ended up lumping (b) and (c) together.  But if any gentle readers have a clear idea of what makes 'social philosophy' distinct from political and moral philosophy, please let me know, as I'd be grateful for the clarification. (Indeed, my ignorance here is somewhat embarrassing, as I've published a couple of articles in the Journal of Social Philosophy. Those articles, though, seem pretty clearly to me to be essays in 'political philosophy.')

In any case, here are my blurbs:
Ethics and Moral Philosophy: Moral philosophers ask what we ought to do in various circumstances.  In doing so, they often find it necessary to ask more general questions about what is good and what is right, as well as investigate the nature and basis of ethical claims.   
Moral philosophers explore such questions as:
What is good? What makes actions or people good?  What makes one’s life a good one?
What is right? What makes actions right?
What is the relation between rightness and goodness?
What are the virtues?  How are the virtues related to other moral principles or values (like rightness or goodness)?
How should I treat others?
Is morality objective or subjective?  If morality is objective, how can we explain moral disagreement?
Do we have moral duties to non-human animals?  Do we have moral duties to the natural world?  Do we have moral duties to future generations?  If so, what justifies such duties? 
Political and Social Philosophy: Political and social philosophy concerns the political and social relations and actions of people, including the nature of social practices and the organization of political institutions.  Political philosophers ask how political institutions ought to be organized, what justice is, and how power ought to be distributed and exercised. 
Questions that political and social philosophers explore include:
What is the nature of political liberty?  What is the nature of equality?  What is the relation between liberty and equality?
What is the most just political system for a society?  
Are there principles of international justice?  If so, what are they? Are there any universal human rights?
Do citizens have a duty to obey the law?  
What is the nature of law?
What should be done to address social attitudes and practices like racism, sexism, and heterosexism?
I hope those blurbs make sense! If readers see any problems with what I've written, or have any suggestions on how to improve my descriptions, feel free to let me know.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The end of ‘New Labour’ in Britain

In what looks like the end of ‘New Labour’ – the ‘centrist’ or ‘Third Way’ form of Labour championed by Tony Blair and his fellow travellers, which positioned the party closer to the ‘political centre’ of British politics following the Thatcher era (the ‘centre,’ or course, having been moved dramatically rightward by the policies and ideology of Thatcher and her minions throughout the 1980s) – Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the British Labour Party.  (For readers unfamiliar with British politics, Vox has a pretty decent overview of Corbyn.)

Whether this leftward lurch means the end of Labour as a major party within the United Kingdom, or the revitalization of Labour, especially given Corbyn’s strong rejection of the Conservatives’ (economically self-destructive) austerity spending cuts, I do not know.  I certainly hope that the latter is the case, despite my disagreement with a number of Corbyn’s foreign policy views (many of which, such as the withdrawal of Britain from NATO, I suspect will be downplayed and/or revised significantly in the coming years).

And what was the alternative for Labour?  Another ‘Tory lite’ New Labour leader?  Labour failed in Scotland in the last election in large part (if not mainly) because the Scottish National Party ran to Labour’s left, especially in opposing further austerity.  Although I don’t follow British politics as closely as Canadian or American politics these days, I’m sceptical that another New Labour candidate would be in any better position to challenge the Tories in the next election.  Given a choice between ‘death in glory, or death in boredom,’ then, it makes sense for Labour to opt for the latter.  But perhaps, just perhaps, glory without death might be achievable...

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labour/Labor Day

I’m back in Wisconsin now, where in recent years the Koch-puppet governor of this declining state, the college dropout and life-long politician Scott Walker, has implemented ALEC-written legislation to eviscerate the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsinites.  (Walker seems to enjoy championing Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson in his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, including riding a Harley motorcycle around Iowa and New Hampshire.  Unsurprisingly, he seems oblivious to the fact that Harley-Davidson is a government-supported union shop, and ‘union made’ is proudly stamped on their products.)

Of course, Walker merely is one loyal pawn within the larger force assaulting working people within the United States.  In this piece from two years ago, Zaid Jilani notes five kinds of hard-fought benefits – namely, pensions, the right to organize, income equality, access to healthcare, and fair working hours – that presently are under attack from plutocrat-funded right-wing operatives like Walker.

Perhaps surprisingly, Labour Day has a Canadian origin.  In the United States, its emergence as a holiday was rather violent.  Very roughly, recognition of Labour – er, ‘Labor’ – Day as a federal holiday was pushed for by President Grover Cleveland in the immediate aftermath of the violent suppression of the Pullman strike in 1894.  Cleveland hoped that this move would mitigate any political backlash against him and his actions.  (A brief explanation of the origins of the holiday within the U.S. by Prof. Ben Railton can be found at Talking Points Memo.)

In a just society – something like what John Rawls (drawing upon the work of the British economist James Meade) calls a ‘property-owning democracy’ – wealth and political power would be widely and roughly equally dispersed amongst citizens.  There would be little or no need for unions in such a society (though as voluntary organizations they certainly would be legal). 

However, we do not live in anything like a just liberal egalitarian society.  There is no property-owning democracy anywhere within the world today (though, of course, some existing capitalist welfare-states fare far better in terms of justice, equality, and freedom than others; for instance, the Scandinavian countries are considerably less unjust than the United States).

Given the overwhelming political power of the extremely wealthy within capitalist societies, unions have played a necessary role in promoting the interests, rights, and wellbeing of workers of all kinds since their emergence in the 19th Century.  The existence of weekends and 8-hour workdays were not granted to citizens out of the kindness of capitalists’ hearts!  It is no coincidence that that the re-emergence of the political power of the plutocratic class, and the parallel stagnation of most citizens’ income and wealth, within the United States has coincided with the decline of union membership in recent decades.

Societies in which union membership is common and widespread enjoy higher levels of wellbeing than societies in which union membership is minimal.  It is hard to see how the United Stated might become a more equal and just society without a reinvigorated labour movement.  And the prospects for such a movement, sadly, seem quite bleak today.  But perhaps ‘millennials’ might be a source of optimism on this front?  (The hope strikes me as a rather faint one, alas.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Superman the liberal egalitarian!

Or if not a liberal egalitarian exactly, at least a defender of the welfare state.  (While I've seen this comic a few times before, I finally saved it from a recent piece at Vox.)

Happy Labour Day weekend!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

APA statement on the erosion of tenure within the University of Wisconsin system

Kudos to the Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association for its criticism of the recent (entirely spiteful and politically-motivated) undermining of tenure by the Wisconsin State Senate, Assembly, and Governor:
Tenure is the most important safeguard of academic freedom, and academic freedom is a bedrock principle of philosophical inquiry. The Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association deplores the assault on academic freedom in Wisconsin, whether it affects the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or any other universities in the UW System, and we deplore the precedent it sets. We call on legislators, regents and other campus administrators to work towards restoring recognized standards of tenure in Wisconsin.
Read the full statement here.

What has been happening in Wisconsin since Scott Walker's election as Governor and the seizure of control of the State Assembly and Senate by the Republican Party in 2010 -- especially, from my perspective as a professor, the evisceration of a once-excellent public university system -- has been incredibly depressing. Morale at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, where I teach, is at an all-time low. I'm dreading returning to Milwaukee next week...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Two reviews of recent volumes on Rawls’s political philosophy

Last month, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews published reviews of two recent volumes on the political philosophy of John Rawls.

The first review, written by Jeremy Williams of the University of Birmingham, is on the volume Rawls and Religion (Columbia University Press, 2015), edited by Tom Bailey and Valentina Gentile.  The review is quite positive overall: “It [Rawls and Religion] has…plenty to offer to aficionados of, and newcomers to, the debate over Rawls and religion alike.”  However, Williams comments that the volume “tilts a bit too far in” the direction of accommodating “Rawls’ pro-faith critics,” that is, critics who hold that Rawlsian political liberalism “is unfairly demanding because it requires religious citizens to alienate themselves from their deepest convictions.”  My own view is that Rawls goes quite far enough in his final writings in accommodating the concerns of deeply religious citizens.  Such citizens enjoy full freedom of religion (and more generally, liberty of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech).  Rawlsian public reason simply requires that any question concerning a constitutional essential or matter of basic justice be decided via shareable public reasons.  This has never struck me as an especially heavy burden for citizens to bear.  So I agree with the following observation from Williams: “It would have been welcome had the volume offered a greater counterbalancing sense of what can be said in favour of a stricter, exclusivist public reason account and against Rawls’ move to the wide view.”  In fact, I know of an article that would have served this purpose quite well!  It’s by my friends Christie Hartley and Lori Watson: “Feminism, Religion, and Shared Reasons: A Defense of Exclusive Public Reason” (Law and Philosophy (2009) 28).

The second review, written by Catherine Audard of the LSE, is on the volume A Companion to Rawls (Wiley Blackwell, 2014), edited by Jon Mandle and David Reidy.  I’ve read about one third of the chapters myself since receiving the book in January 2014, and based on that sample, I found the review to provide a fair overview of the volume’s quality.  This definitely is a book worth getting, at least for scholars working in contemporary political philosophy, though it is not quite as excellent, I think, as the Cambridge Companion to Rawls (edited by Samuel Freeman) published a dozen years ago.  In particular, I agree with Audard’s comment: “One must…note that the level of scholarship is sometimes uneven, with some very philosophical essays, others by contrast remaining too descriptive.”  I think that this is right, and wish that the more descriptive pieces had been replaced with more critical ones.  After all, the main purpose of the Cambridge Rawls Lexicon – also edited by Mandle and Reidy – is precisely to provide explanatory essays on the various topics, arguments, and concepts of Rawls’s political philosophy.  (I should mention that I contributed the entry on ‘Public Reason’ to the Lexicon, which benefited enormously from Jon Mandle’s editing.)  Why have some of the essays within the Companion do, more or less, what the entries within the Lexicon do?  That quibble aside, though, I think that this is a valuable volume overall, and already have used some of the essays in my teaching and research.

[John Rawls]

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Philosophers Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas are Kluge Prize Winners for 2015

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and German philosopher Jürgen Habermas are the recipients of the 2015 Kluge Prize.

[Charles Taylor]
[Jürgen Habermas]

What is the Kluge Prize?  It is an award given by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress:  
"The Kluge Prize celebrates the importance of the study of humanity and recognizes individuals whose outstanding scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has shaped both public affairs and civil society" (from here).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Rawls on the bombing of Hiroshima

Seventy years ago today the United States dropped the uranium atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later the plutonium bomb ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.

Twenty years ago the political philosopher John Rawls wrote a piece for Dissent magazine, “50 Years After Hiroshima,” in which he argued that “both the fire-bombing of Japanese cities beginning in the spring of 1945 and the later atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 were very great wrongs, and rightly seen as such.”

Here is the full piece.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On voting rights and Members of Parliament for non-resident Canadian citizens

So there will be a federal election in Canada on October 19th.

I’m a Canadian citizen.  But from 2007 to this year I was not able to vote in federal Canadian elections.  The reason is that – despite living in Canada on a regular, albeit sporadic, basis (2-3 months every year, depending upon my teaching schedule) – my primary residence was abroad (Ireland until 2008, the United States from 2008 to 2014).   Fortunately, my year in Toronto has ‘re-booted’ my residency here, so I will be able to vote in the forthcoming election.  But more than a million other Canadians who live abroad will not be able to do so.

Since 1993, Canadians who live abroad for more than 5 years have been ineligible to vote.  Until 2007, however, merely visiting Canada was enough to ‘reset the clock’ with respect to one’s status (that is, after a visit, one would have to be away for another 5 years in order to lose the right to vote).  In May 2014, Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Penny ruled that this part of the Canada Elections Act was unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision, thereby once again taking away the right of non-resident citizens to vote.  Hopefully this case will now go to the Supreme Court of Canada.  If it does, I’m optimistic that the voting rights of all Canadians will be affirmed and protected.  But until then, over a million Canadian citizens are denied the right to vote.

There has been a flurry of editorials and opinions pieces in the Canadian press recently over this issue.  The actor Donald Sutherland would like to be able vote again, and made his case in The Globe and Mail.  I admire his refusal to become a dual citizen.  Disappointingly, however, his piece is little more than a rant.  Given his fame, though, it has prompted further public discussion (e.g., this episode of CBC Radio’s ‘The Current’ [the host of which is terrible, but the first two guests have intelligent things to say]).

Central to the decision by the Ontario Court of Appeals is its claim that non-resident citizens should not be able to vote because the laws of the government of Canada do not affect their lives significantly, unlike the lives of resident citizens.  This strikes me as both irrelevant and incorrect.  I’ll explain why it’s irrelevant below.  Why it is incorrect seems obvious: Canadian foreign policy affects non-residents’ lives in significant ways – far more than it does the lives of most residents.  Moreover, Canadian citizens have the right to return to Canada at any time.  So any laws passed by the government will affect profoundly citizens’ lives upon their return to the country.  And of course, many non-resident Canadians have family and other significant relations in Canada, as well as property and other ties.  The laws of the Canada directly affect these interests.

Mark MacKinnon, a journalist for The Globe and Mail, makes a solid case that the Court’s reasoning is misguided in his opinion piece, “I am Canadian – but now not as much as I used to be.”  A piece at Rabble.ca by Raksha Vasudevan also does a decent job in rebutting the Court’s claim that the laws and policies of the federal government have no significant impact on the lives of non-residents.

In any case, as I mentioned earlier, the ‘impact’ or ‘profundity of effect’ justification for denying non-resident citizens the right to vote is irrelevant.  Voting rights are based on citizenship. According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons.”   If impact were the criterion for determining who should be able to vote in elections, then non-Canadians who reside in Canada should have that right.  (And maybe they should have the right to vote.  There certainly is an interesting discussion to be had on that question.  But the current understanding of ‘citizenship’ and its associated rights and duties, within Canada and most other liberal democratic societies, is not residency-based.)  Jackson Doughart makes something like this point in his piece at The National Post.

The five-year limit on non-resident citizens’ right to vote, I should point out, applies to all non-resident citizens, not simply dual citizens who do not reside in Canada.  (I mention this because such dual citizens seem to be the focus of some conservative defences of the law.)  Now I can understand – and indeed agree with – a requirement that dual citizens vote in only one country’s elections (presumably the one in which they currently reside, or most recently resided).  But most Canadians who live abroad are not dual citizens.  I am not a dual citizen.  (And I probably never will become one.  I think that the concept or dual  or plural citizenship is philosophically incoherent.  However, I’ll try to defend that claim on another day).

Now one difficulty for defending the right of non-resident Canadians to vote concerns the role of ‘ridings’ (electoral districts) in the Canadian parliamentary system.  In theory, every Canadian lives in a particular riding, and during an election the candidate who receives the most votes from the people who live in that riding becomes the Member of Parliament (MP) for that riding.  But many non-residents don’t have a riding in any meaningful sense.  While letting non-resident citizens vote for candidates in the ridings in which they last resided is better than denying them the right to vote altogether, there is, I think, a better option.

This brings me to the opinion piece by Mark Kerten, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  He points out that some other democratic societies provide special representation for non-residents:
Instead of constructing barriers to democratic participation, what a progressive government could, and should, do is to create a handful of members of Parliament to directly represent Canadians who live abroad. France and Italy already have parliamentarians who represent their respective diasporas. Why not have MPs on Parliament Hill to represent the unique interests and diversity of Canadians living abroad? Surely that could only enrich our democracy.
I’ve long thought that Canada should adopt something like the French model and allocate a number of seats in the House of Commons (perhaps 10-12) to non-residents.  (If this should ever happen, then my dream of becoming the MP for the riding of the ‘Greater Great Lakes Region West’ might finally come true!)

In any case, I have the right to vote in this election, and I look forward to exercising it on October 19th.  Hopefully a new government will come to power on that day, one that takes seriously the rights of all Canadians.

[UPDATE: This is now a 'guest post' at the blog 'In Due Course' (which is an excellent blog, one of the few that I regularly check).]

Monday, July 27, 2015


The political system of the contemporary United States is a de facto oligarchy (a ‘plutocracy,’ to be precise).  And the organization that shapes much of its legislation these days, especially at the state-level, is ALEC (the ‘American Legislative Exchange Council’).  The ‘model bills’ that ALEC drafts – and which subsequently often are passed with only minor tweaks by Republican-controlled state legislatures – aim at serving the interests and increasing the power of the wealthy (by weakening or destroying environmental protections, regulations on corporations, taxes on the wealthy, regulations on campaign contributions, and so forth), and at disempowering the less advantaged (by weakening or destroying collective bargaining rights, voting rights, local self-government, public education, workplace protections, and so forth).

This excellent cartoon – a spoof of the old ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ cartoon “I’m Just a Bill” – nicely summarizes what ALEC is about and its thoroughly negative impact on contemporary American politics.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The two families of liberal egalitarianism

This is a blog about liberal egalitarianism.  So what is 'liberal egalitarianism'?  There are two main varieties in contemporary political philosophy: 'luck egalitarianism' and 'relational egalitarianism.'  I endorse the latter kind.

Here is a very rough overview of these two families of views from my recent review of Shlomi Segall's book Equality and Opportunity:
Two families of liberal egalitarian conceptions of justice have emerged over the past few decades: luck egalitarianism and relational egalitarianism. Both families share a common ancestor: the account of justice presented in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (originally published in 1971; revised edition published in 1999).  
Luck egalitarians have understood their project, at least in part, as developing the implications of Rawls's comments on the 'moral arbitrariness' of the distribution of unchosen social and natural advantages in Theory (e.g., pp. 63-65, 87-89, 274) into a distinct approach to theorizing about justice, one that is egalitarian in nature but also sensitive to individual responsibility. According to luck egalitarians, roughly, the aim of justice is to neutralize any disadvantages that people are born into or acquire as the result of brute luck, disadvantages for which they are not responsible and consequently do not deserve. In a fully just luck egalitarian society, people would fare well or poorly solely in conformity to those decisions and actions for which they are responsible. 
Despite helping to inspire luck egalitarianism, Rawls's conception of justice, 'justice as fairness,' is a form of relational egalitarianism. While not all relational egalitarians endorse justice as fairness, they generally follow Rawls's 'constructivist' approach to thinking about justice. (Some relational egalitarians, like Elizabeth Anderson, prefer to speak of 'contractualism' rather than 'constructivism.' I understand contractual devices like Rawls's 'original position' to be constructivist in nature. But this matter is not relevant to my comment here.) According to this approach, broadly speaking, principles of political justice should be understood as rationally constructed in order to specify the requirements of free and equal citizenship under conditions of relative scarcity. A fully just relational egalitarian society, then, is not one that 'neutralizes luck,' but rather one in which citizens relate to each other as social equals on the basis of mutual respect, and freely govern their lives on conditions fair to all.
Perhaps that summary generates more confusion than clarification.  However, the rest of the review fleshes out some of the key differences between relational egalitarians like Rawls and Anderson on the one hand, and luck egalitarians like Segall and G.A. Cohen on the other.  So if you'd like a better picture of what is at stake in this debate — and some reasons why I think that the Rawlsian relational egalitarian approach is superior — then I'd recommend reading the full review.  (I'd also recommend reading Elizabeth Anderson's article, "The Fundamental Disagreement between Luck Egalitarians and Relational Egalitarians" (2010, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 40: sup1, pp.1-23).)