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, 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!