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.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

On the rise of Trump

Here are a few recent pieces that do a good job of explaining Donald Trump’s astonishing – and terrifying – rise:

Matt Taibbi. "How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable. He's no ordinary con man. He's way above average — and the American political system is his easiest mark ever." Rolling Stone.

Josh Marshall. "Inside the GOP Implosion and the War to Stop Trump." Talking Points Memo.

David Corn. "How the Republican Elite Created Frankentrump. To rouse its voters, the GOP exploited hate, anger, and paranoia—and set the stage for the tycoon." Mother Jones.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Armed students versus academic freedom

In an earlier post I explained that an armed society is an unfree society. By that I meant, roughly, that the more common guns are in a society, the more often people will be subject to coercive threats from others. Since coercive threats restrict individuals' freedom (even if we understand freedom simply as what Isaiah Berlin famously termed 'negative liberty'), it follows that the more armed a society is, the less free overall that society will be. In explaining this rather basic point, I unpacked the famous saying, "an armed society is a polite society." Why is such a society 'polite'? The answer is obvious: because of fear. And a fearful society simply is an unfree society.

That post was motivated in part by a recent proposal within Wisconsin to allow students to carry guns into campus buildings within the University of Wisconsin system (including, of course, the university at which I work). Fortunately, that insane proposal did not become law (or at least not this legislative session; I doubt that the NRA will give up its lobbying efforts anytime soon).

Public universities in Texas were less fortunate. Starting this summer, public universities within Texas will be forced to allow students to carry guns into classrooms and other campus areas (if those students have 'conceal carry' permits). Naturally, most faculty members are deeply opposed to this for the obvious reason that the presence of guns within classrooms invariably will chill speech. This point is nicely expressed by Elliott Hannon at Slate:
"The Republican-run Texas state legislature voted last year to allow students to carry concealed handguns into classrooms, dorms, just about anywhere on campus. If that seems like a bad idea to you, imagine how you’d feel if you were a professor. There’s nothing quite like the free exchange of ideas in an armed art history 301 seminar. The academic chilling effect seems pretty obvious for students and faculty."
Hannon is commenting on this slide displayed at a recent meeting of the faculty senate of the University of Houston on how professors should adapt to the new law:

I cannot comprehend how anyone could think that allowing guns into classrooms could be helpful or not have a deleterious effect on pedagogy and academic freedom. But as the (always excellent) Charles Pierce wryly observed: "It'll liven up that Philosophy 101 class, I'll give you that."

Monday, February 22, 2016

Walker still ruining Wisconsin

Those who follow American politics naturally have been focused on the presidential primaries in recent weeks. Yet one fellow who dropped out of the Republican presidential circus months ago -- a favourite puppet of the plutocrats, Scott Walker -- has not been idle. Apparently he has decided that destroying what is left of Wisconsin should serve as some kind of consolation prize. So now he has reinserted corruption and cronyism into the once well-respected state Civil Service system.
Wisconsin citizens thought they had abandoned the spoils system and patronage corruption a century ago when Civil Service was championed by Gov. Robert La Follette, the historic progressive who eloquently railed against the very abuses now being resurrected in the Wisconsin statehouse. Here it comes again.  […]
The patronage-friendly measure Mr. Walker signed in the name of better government is no more convincing than his presidential campaign. It undermines the welfare not only of the state’s 30,000 workers but of Wisconsin citizens who are losing an important part of their heritage of government fairness.
Of course, when Walker was busy crushing the union rights of public employees five years ago, he assured Wisconsinites that they did not need such protections given the state's fine Civil Service system, a system with which he professed no intention of meddling.

And of course he was lying through his teeth.

Friday, February 12, 2016

So Rawls, Nozick, and Marx are eating together in a restaurant...

Another brilliant strip from Existential Comics.

My favourite bit: the portrayals of Camus and Sartre as waiters.

My second favourite bit (from the "Didn't Get the Joke?" part at the bottom): "Karl Marx was a 19th century Marxist philosopher, best known for his Marxist political viewpoints."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Political Utopias seminar reading schedule

I'm teaching a seminar on 'political utopias' and 'ideal theory' this term. The seminar is for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.  It meets for 150 minutes every week.  

Here is the course description:
Many philosophers from Plato onwards have formulated ‘political utopias,’ that is, accounts of ‘fully just’ societies. Such political utopias have been advanced as ‘models’ or ‘exemplars’ of political justice. The role of such models typically is twofold:
  1. They are meant to help us evaluate critically our own societies, specifically, to help us identify the ways in which our existing political institutions and practices are unjust. 
  2. To provide us with a ‘target’ or ‘end state’ for our political reforms or revolutionary efforts. 
In this course we will focus on two contemporary exercises in utopian theorizing:
  1. John Rawls’s account of the ‘realist utopia’ of a liberal egalitarian ‘well-ordered society.’ 
  2. G.A. Cohen’s account of a fully just socialist society.
We also will consider criticisms and defences of the views of Rawls and Cohen.
The course will conclude by looking at some recent exchanges over the role of ‘human nature’ and ‘feasibility’ in normative political philosophy.
Here is the schedule of required readings:

1. The main elements of political liberalism and justice as fairness (Feb. 2nd)

J. Rawls (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press), Parts I and II (pp. 1-79).

2. Rawls on justification, public reason, and political legitimacy (Feb. 9th)

J. Rawls (1997) “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The University of Chicago Law Review 64/3, pp. 765-807. (Republished in: J. Rawls (2005), Political Liberalism, pp. 440-490.)
J. Rawls (1995) “Reply to Habermas,” The Journal of Philosophy 92/3, pp. 132-180. (Republished in: J. Rawls (2005), Political Liberalism, pp. 372-434.)

3. The institutions of a Rawlsian just society (Feb. 16th)

J. Rawls (2001) Justice as Fairness, Parts IV and V (pp. 135-202).
R. Krouse and M. McPherson (1988) “Capitalism, ‘Property-Owning Democracy,’ and the Welfare State,” in Democracy and the Welfare State, ed. A. Gutmann (Princeton University Press), pp. 79-105.

4. Rawls’s ‘realistic utopia’: a property-owning democracy (Feb. 23rd)

S. Freeman (2013) “Property-Owning Democracy and the Difference Principle,” Analyse & Kritik, 35/1, pp. 9-36.
T. Williamson and M. O’Neill (2009), “Property-Owning Democracy and the Demands of Justice,” Living Reviews in Democracy, pp. 1-10.
M. O’Neill (2012), “Free (and Fair) Markets without Capitalism,” in M. O’Neill and T. Williamson, eds., Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Wiley-Blackwell), pp. 75-100.
T. Williamson (2013) “Constitutionalizing Property-Owning Democracy,” Analyse & Kritik 35/1, pp. 237-253.

5. Alternatives to POD? Liberal socialism & welfare-state capitalism (March 1st)

K. Vallier (2014), “A moral and economic critique of the new property-owning democrats: on behalf of a Rawlsian welfare state,” Philosophical Studies (early online version).
R. Taylor (2014) “Illiberal Socialism,” Social Theory and Practice, July 2014, 40(3), pp. 433-60.
T. Malleson (2014), “Rawls, Property-Owning Democracy, and Democratic Socialism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 45, pp. 228-251.

6. Criticisms of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 8th)

C. Farrelly (2007) “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation,” Political Studies 55, pp. 844-864.
C. Mills (2005) “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia (20), pp. 165-184.
A. Sen (2006) “What Do We Want From a Theory of Justice?” The Journal of Philosophy CIII/5, pp. 215-238.

7. Defences of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 22nd)

A. J. Simmons (2010) “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38/1, pp. 5-36.
A. Hamlin and Z. Stemplowska (2012) “Theory, Ideal Theory and The Theory of Ideals,” Political Studies Review 10/1, pp. 48-62.
B. Neufeld (forthcoming) “Why Public Reasoning Involves Ideal Theorizing,” in M. Weber and K. Vallier (eds.) Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates (Oxford University Press).

8. Not ideal enough?  Cohen’s critique of Rawlsian ideal theory (March 29th)

G.A. Cohen (2003) “Facts and Principles,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 31/3, pp. 211-245.
M. Ronzoni and L. Valentini (2008) “On the Meta-ethical Status of Constructivism: Reflections on G.A. Cohen’s ‘Facts and Principles’,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 7/4, pp. 403-422.

9. Cohen’s socialist utopia (April 5th)

G.A. Cohen (2009) Why Not Socialism? (Princeton University Press).

10. Debating Cohen’s socialist utopia 1 (April 12th)

R.J. Arneson (2015) “Why Not Capitalism?” in A. Kaufman (ed.) Distributive Justice and Access to Advantage: G.A. Cohen’s Egalitarianism (Cambridge University Press), pp. 207-234.
P. Gilabert (2011) “Feasibility and Socialism,” Journal of Political Philosophy 19, pp. 52-63.
M. Ronzoni (2012) “Life is not a camping trip – on the desirability of Cohenite socialism,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 11/2, pp. 171-185.

11. Debating Cohen’s socialist utopia 2 (April 19th)

R. Miller (2010) “Relationships of Equality: A Camping Trip Revisited,” Journal of Ethics 14.
C.V. Schoelandt (2013) “Markets, Community, and Pluralism,” The Philosophical Quarterly (advance access).
A. Archer (2016) “Community, Pluralism, and Individualistic Pursuits: A Defense of Why Not Socialism?” Social Theory and Practice 42.

12. Human nature and the demands of justice (April 26th)

D. Estlund (2011) “Human Nature and the Limits (if Any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 39/3, pp. 207-237.
D. Wiens (2015) “Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice,” European Journal of Political Theory (online first version).
D. Estlund (2015) “Reply to Wiens,” European Journal of Political Theory.
D. Wiens (2015) “Rejoinder to Estlund,” unpublished note.

13. Feasibility, justice, and ‘utopophobia’ (May 3rd)

A. Gheaus (2013) “The Feasibility Constraint on the Concept of Justice,” The Philosophical Quarterly 63/252, pp. 445-464.
D. Wiens (2014) “‘Going Evaluative’ to Save Justice from Feasibility – A Pyrrhic Victory,” The Philosophical Quarterly 64/255, pp. 301-307.
D. Estlund (2014) “Utopophobia,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 42/2, pp. 113-134.

Optional readings:

I plan to provide a list of optional readings as well. (Any suggestions would be most welcome!) I probably will post the optional readings here when I have them sorted.