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.

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 (Universit√© 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.