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, January 29, 2016

In praise of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

There is a fine article at Quartz by Nikhil Sonnad on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ('SEP').

SEP is an amazing resource. I use it in both my teaching and research. I'm glad to see that it's receiving some praise outside of the academic philosophy community.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

History of liberalism course (Spring 2016)

The course that I've taught the most since I arrived at UWM in 2008 is "Political Philosophy." I teach the course as the "history of liberalism." Since the course is only one term long, though, I have to leave out some significant figures (Smith, Wollstonecraft, Burke, Constant, Hegel), and I provide only limited coverage of others (Hume, Kant, Marx). It's frustrating, but such is life. I don't see how I can fit any more readings into the course, which already is quite heavy.

This term, for the first time, I've removed Nozick from the course. I decided to use some selections from Hayek instead. One reason for this is that I wanted to reduce the overlap with a second year course that I also teach from time to time ("Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy"). I'll continue to teach Nozick in that second year course. (In my experience, not many students take both courses, but enough do that I don't want there to be too much overlap in the courses' required readings.) A second reason why I've removed Nozick is simply that I'm quite tired of teaching his version of libertarianism, which I find thoroughly implausible. (Hume effectively refuted it two centuries earlier.) Hayek, in contrast, is still worth taking seriously, in my judgement, but does not receive as much attention as he should.

In any case, for anyone who might be curious, here is the reading schedule for the course. (I've left out the various assignments, tests, review sessions, and so forth. Each meeting is 75 minutes long.)


Thomas Hobbes: The First ‘Modern’ Political Philosopher

Jan. 28. T. Hobbes, Leviathan (selections), pp. 12-26.
Feb. 02. T. Hobbes, Leviathan (selections), pp. 26-51.
Feb. 04. T. Hobbes – conclusion + review (no new readings).

John Locke: The Architect of Classical Liberalism

Feb. 09. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters I-IV.
Feb. 11. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters V-IX.
Feb. 16. J. Locke, Second Treatise On Government, Chapters X-XIX.

David Hume versus Locke on Property

Feb. 18. D. Hume, “Of Justice.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Champion of Equality and Democratic Self-Government

Feb. 23. J. J. Rousseau, “On the Origin of Inequality.”
Feb. 25. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Book I.
Mar. 01. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Book II.
Mar. 08. J. J. Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Books III [excluding Ch. 8] and IV [excluding Chs. 4, 5, 7].

Mar. 22. D. Hume, “Of the Original Contract.”  I. Kant, “The Contractual Basis for a Just Society.”


Jeremy Bentham: Social Reformer and ‘Philosophical Radical’

Mar. 24. J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (selection).  J. Rawls, “Classical Utilitarianism.”

John Stuart Mill: Utilitarian Champion of Liberty and Liberal Feminist

Mar. 29. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chapters 2 [pp. 238-59] and 5 [pp. 277-301].
Mar. 31. J.S. Mill, On Liberty, chapter 1 [pp. 3-16], chapter 2 [pp. 17-22; 36-49; 54-56], and chapter 3 [pp. 57-76].  J. Kleinig, “Two Arguments for State Paternalism.”
Apr. 05. J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, chapter 1 [pp. 123-52].  H. Taylor, “The Enfranchisement of Women.”


Apr. 07 K. Marx and F. Engels, “The Socialist Ideal.”
Apr. 12 K. Marx and F. Engels, “The Socialist Ideal.”


John Rawls: High Liberalism and the Return of the Social Contract

Apr. 14. Selections from J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice.
Apr. 19. Selections from J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

Susan Okin: Feminism and High Liberalism

Apr. 21. S. M. Okin, “The Family: Gender and Justice.”
Apr. 26. J. Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The University of Chicago Law Review 64 (1997), Section 5 only (pp. 787-794).

F.A. Hayek: Back to Classical Liberalism?

Apr. 26. F. A. Hayek, “Freedom and Coercion.”
Apr. 28. F. A. Hayek, “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice.”
May. 03. A. Lister, “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (And For) Rawls.”

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Unfreedom in Wisconsin

I always feel a certain dread when I have to return to Wisconsin after a break in Canada.  It’s not about the teaching (usually), but rather my sense that some further horrible decision will be made by the state government that will make life there even more unnecessarily unpleasant than it already is.

A New York Times piece from a week ago, “The Destruction of Progressive Wisconsin” by Dan Kaufman, does a good job in summarizing the transformation of Wisconsin over the past five years under Governor Scott Walker and his henchmen within the Republican-controlled state legislature; the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) also is discussed.  (ALEC is one of my bĂȘtes noires.)

Individual freedom is a central concern of mine, both politically and in my philosophical work.  So I find it fascinating, and at the same time deeply depressing, to see the ways in which pro-plutocracy organizations like ALEC, and the politicians that implement ALEC’s ‘model legislation,’ deploy the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ to justify their policies.  So-called ‘right-to-work’ laws are a perfect example of this: such laws, of course, do not ensure anything like a ‘right to work.’  Moreover, they do not remove a restriction on employment.  People always are free to accept or decline a job at a unionized firm.  Nobody is every ‘forced’ to join a union.  What ‘right-to-work’ laws do is restrict freedom of contract, encourage freeriding, and coercively (through the force of law) undermine the viability unions.  It’s an Orwellian term.

Having smashed the unions of Wisconsin – and thereby undermined the freedom of workers there – Walker and his minions have turned their sights on the state’s civil service.  Kaufman explains:
By adding the Civil Service bill [to previous ‘right-to-work’ legislation], Mr. Walker brings Wisconsin closer to the achievement of a long-sought goal of the libertarian right: universal “at-will employment.” Unlike union workers or state employees, whose collective bargaining agreements or Civil Service rules generally require employers to demonstrate “just cause” for them to be fired, at-will employees can be terminated at any time for any reason. At-will employment is promoted by the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council, which disseminates model bills to state legislators benefiting its corporate members and conservative private backers.
The ‘libertarian right,’ of course, interprets a law that permits ‘at-will employment’ as one that is ‘freedom enhancing’ in nature.  And at-will employment does increase freedom – but only the freedom of those individuals who already enjoy considerable wealth and power, namely, employers.  It increases their freedom to dominate others, by entitling employers to fire arbitrarily – and thus to threaten more generally – their employees.  The flipside of this kind of freedom for the powerful, of course, is unfreedom or subjugation for employees.   Employees are rendered even more vulnerable to the will of their employers under an ‘at-will employment’ regime. 

The less that employees are subject to arbitrary firing – and subject to ongoing threats of arbitrary firing – the more they enjoy what some political philosophers who write on liberty call ‘freedom as non-domination’ or ‘republican liberty.’  (The reference to ‘republican liberty’ by political philosophers such as Philip Pettit, it should be stressed, refers to the Roman Republic, where a freeman enjoyed a certain status under the law, and obviously is not a reference to the contemporary American Republican Party, which generally opposes republican freedom for most citizens.)  In contrast, the more that employees are subject to arbitrary firing – and thus subject to ongoing threats of arbitrary firing – the more they are subject to domination, and thus the more they are unfree.  

So while the libertarian right, and the contemporary Republican Party more generally, portrays itself as championing individual freedom through such policies, it in fact is championing only the freedom of the already powerful, whilst further restricting and undermining the freedom of most citizens. 

Professors such as myself hardly have been exempt from the Republicans’ assault on liberty within Wisconsin.  After all, the recent attack on tenure is precisely about undermining academic freedom and rendering academics more vulnerable to the will of the politically powerful. 

Sadly, the dark days in Wisconsin do not look to be ending any time soon… 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Some developments within the academic philosophy community

I thought that I would start the year with a rather lazy post (in keeping with my akratic nature).

First, the American Philosophical Association now has a blog.  I’ve added it to the blog roll at the bottom of the page.

Second, the number of high quality, free, online philosophy journals seems to be growing every year.  Recently, Prof. Kate Norlock put together a list of these journals.  I encourage all professional philosophers and students to support these journals, as they facilitate the dissemination of research and new ideas far more democratically and effectively than the current model of print publications.  (One of my articles has been published in one of these excellent online journals, the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.  I plan to submit more papers to such journals in the future.)

Happy 2016!