Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Official Goodbye

Those of you who pay attention to this space may have noticed a substantial drop-off in the rate of postings on this blog. This has been a busy summer: I've been to North Carolina, Israel, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York, with stops in Connecticut in between and, finally, a trip out to Arizona at the end. My dad is remarried, I have sat through nearly a month of seminars, I've seen many of my friends from college, I somehow managed to not spend all of the money I saved from working this past year, and I have at long last arrived at the doorstep of the next major chapter in my life. I couldn't be more excited.

This semester will be my first as a student in the University of Arizona's philosophy PhD program. I will be taking a course in Environmental Ethics and Policy with David Schmidtz, a seminar on Equality with Thomas Christiano, and a first-year proseminar with Marga Reimer on a subject which has not yet been revealed to me. I'll also be TAing three sections of a class called The Economics and Ethics of Wealth Creation, taught by Michael Gill. Outside of my coursework and professional responsibilities, I have an incredible array of opportunities open to me. I can sit in on lectures, join reading groups, network with climate change researchers in other departments, enjoy the perpetual sun and magnificent mountains, spend time relaxing with some of the most brilliant philosophers in my age group, hang out with my mom, and explore the culinary awesomeness available throughout Tucson.

But one thing I've decided to cut from the roster is this blog. It seems to me that if I am going to be working on philosophy, there are much more pressing things I should be doing than posting here. I'm going to leave all of the existing content here, just the way it is, with two hopes. First, if there's anything on here that I've gotten right, I hope that people will find some use for my thoughts and that somehow all of this writing will help someone move across the terrain I've covered a bit more quickly than I did. But second, in the far more likely event that I one day look back on this blog as an amusing artifact of my mentality at a particular point in my young life, I hope that this site will serve as a set of snapshots of who I have been since I began writing here over a year and a half ago, and that I will be able to look fondly upon it in spite of its many shortcomings.

I want to thank all of the wonderful and brilliant people who have been a part of making this ongoing project as rich and productive as it has been for me. Dr. Hunt, Gene, Dr. Long, Dr. Chartier, Chip, Alex, Roman, Vichy, Michael, Greg, Dmitry, Dan, Jad, Giles, Stan, Alan, Joel, Radical Hippo, and JEK come to mind from the last several months, and I'm sure that there are a number of people who I'm leaving out but who played an integral role in helping me to refine my thinking. And that, of course, is leaving out the many fabulous anonymous commenters who have contributed substantially in their own right. Thank you all so much for making this such a worthwhile and educational experience for me!

I hope that this blog has been as interesting and thought-provoking for you to read as it has been for me to write. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you keep in touch.

The End.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Me From the Past!

So I was just alerted to the online availability of a brief presentation I gave at FEE's Young Scholars Colloquium last year, and I figured it would be worth posting here. I should note that the presentation was basically a response to not having enough student presentations to fill the time and needing one of the interns to jump in to eat space, so I don't pretend that anything particularly groundbreaking was said.

But without further ado, here's the link. My talk starts at 12:30, and discusses pollution taxes. In it, I make the claim that there are pollution taxes, and I'm not actually sure that's true...can anyone think of an example? That aside, I think it's pretty decent presentation, and I hope you all enjoy it!

My climate change presentation from this year's seminar will hopefully be coming online relatively soon -- and with video! -- so look forward to that...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

On Leviathan and Public Reason: A Reply to Chartier

So I've been having a discussion with Dr. Chartier over at the LiberaLaw blog about the role of the sovereign as a source of public reason in Hobbes' political philosophy, in response to an interesting post in which he discussed how a Hobbesian account might be consistent with market anarchism. Because I am a horribly verbose person, I wrote more in response to Dr. Chartier's last comments than the comments system would allow, and I am therefore posting my thoughts here. Hopefully this is of some interest to someone!

In order to understand this, it would probably be a good idea to read Dr. Chartier's post and the comments that have already been published on it, particularly this one (since this post is directly a response to that comment).


If I understand correctly, Hobbes sees the sovereign as existing to settle conflicts. In Dr. Chartier's post and comments, he's seemed to somewhat equated this to a notion of "preserving civil peace." And to an extent, this makes sense. With property disputes, for example, what the sovereign is being asked to do is to merely uphold some exogenous system of justice: the sovereign is just acting to make sure we maintain a peaceful environment, where we get our idea of "civil peace" from somewhere else.

But to Hobbes, this will treat too much as settled. He would likely want to say that we may disagree on what it is that even constitutes "civil peace." One person might have a desire to see all homosexuals put to death. Another person might have a desire to see his homosexual compatriots protected from this fate, and is willing to fight to defend them. Another person might want to see the bigoted guy put in the stockades for being such a jerk. Hobbes thinks that this kind of conflict is a serious problem. In the absence of any external norms and institutions to tell us who is right and who will get their way, and in the absence of any enforceable agreement between them, Hobbes thinks that the three people in our story will have no reasonable choice but to prepare for violence. So long as each relies on his private reason, they will be condemned to a state of war.

The liberal solution to this problem is the one which gives us the notion of "civil peace" that I imagine Dr. Chartier has in mind: this approach typically seeks to independently define some conception of right-of-way, so that we have a way of adjudicating disputes according to these independent norms. But Hobbes doesn't have this machinery in his system. He could say that there may be no standard of right-of-way that each of the three people in our story would accept if each relied on his private reason. The system of rights and duties that will appeal to the bigot will be seen as oppressive by the defender of the homosexuals, and vice versa. And even if they could strike an agreement, there's no guarantee that some new issue won't arise in the future to drive them apart. The only way for them to avoid the state of war, Hobbes thinks, would be to give some third party the authority to choose what constitutes the appropriate conception of "civil peace" that will underpin their society.

The problem with the limits Dr. Chartier seems to want to place on the sovereign, I think, is that it seems to be in conflict with Hobbes' desire that the sovereign have the authority to decide basically everything about how a society is going to function. If this authority is denied in areas where there could potentially be legitimate disagreements between people, then Hobbes is going to worry that conflicts will arise, where each side believes that his own private reasons are the right reasons. Hobbes wants to eliminate this possibility by giving the sovereign absolute authority to decide what's right and fair.

But all of this is drilling way further into Hobbes than I think Dr. Chartier was seeking to do. If all he wants to take from Hobbes is the idea that a government is necessary to adjudicate disputes, then none of these issues are going to be a big deal. In this case it seems to me that he's actually moving away from the substance of Hobbes' argument and actually moving closer to the sort of thing Locke was saying in chapter 9 of the Second Treatise. As Locke writes:
Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society. Hence it comes to pass, that we seldom find any number of men live any time together in this state. The inconveniencies that they are therein exposed to, by the irregular and uncertain exercise of the power every man has of punishing the transgressions of others, make them take sanctuary under the established laws of government, and therein seek the preservation of their property. It is this makes them so willingly give up every one his single power of punishing, to be exercised by such alone, as shall be appointed to it amongst them; and by such rules as the community, or those authorized by them to that purpose, shall agree on. And in this we have the original right and rise of both the legislative and executive power, as well as of the governments and societies themselves.

If Dr. Chartier is considering this sort of approach to thinking about government, then yes: I agree that it don't establish a whole lot about exactly what a government is supposed to do or how big it needs to be. As long as it addresses the "inconveniencies" of the state of nature, any system of government will seem to do, and insofar as a stateless, decentralized, or pluralistic system can address them, that would be fine too. But this shouldn't surprise us: this Lockean position is what underpins a great deal of the modern libertarian tradition, including Rothbard's market anarchism and Nozick's decentralized, pluralistic vision of Utopia. I should add, though, that it also shouldn't surprise us to find that we're led to conclusions very different from those that Hobbes professed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Interesting Things to Watch

Howdy, y'all. I just figured I should direct your attention to two conversations that have caught my interest recently, and which may be interesting to some of you as well.

Over at the Austro-Athenian Empire blog, Dr. Long has posted a discussion of the proper definition of "socialism," entitled "POOTMOP Redux!" (after an older post, "Pootmop!," in which he discussed private ownership of the means of production -- p.o.o.t.m.o.p.). If you want some background on the post, read Kevin Carson's initial contribution to the discussion, "Socialism: A Perfectly Good Word Rehabilitated," and Stephen Kinsella's response, "The New Libertarianism: Anti-Capitalistic and Socialist." I should point out for the time-starved, however, that Dr. Long's post is probably just fine on its own.

I've posted a fair amount in the comments section of the post, and Neverfox of Instead of a Blog has jumped in as well. Of interest as well may be Dr. Chartier's thoughtful contribution on the LiberaLaw blog, "Socialism Revisited," as well as Brainpolice's commentary on the Polycentric Order blog, "Anarchist and Socialist Semantics and Historicity (Or, Why Does Stephan Kinsella Act As If Individualist Anarchism Never Existed? Redux)."


The other interesting conversation going on at the moment is a new chapter in the debate over state involvement in marriage, this time with a post on the ThinkMarkets blog by Dr. Rizzo, "What Should Be The State’s Role In Marriage?." The time scale for this discussion is a bit longer than that for the previous one. For me, it started with an overconfident post on this blog last year, now-amusingly entitled, "Open and Shut: Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Legal?" In it, I argued that the state should get out of marriage entirely in order to avoid a choice between discrimination and offending religious groups who I took to have some legitimate claim to the institution of "marriage." (That post, incidentally, marked the one and only time that this blog has ever been linked to on The Huffington Post. Go figure.)

A few months later, Dr. Koppl posted his own discussion of the issue over at the ThinkMarkets blog, "Ideas Have Consequences," in which he argued that gay marriage should be legalized. In the comments section of that post, we had what I found to be an incredibly productive conversation in which he convinced me that the religious groups in question really did not have the kind of claim to the institution of marriage that I had attributed to them, and that having a legal understanding of "marriage" was quite valuable. I accordingly posted a follow-up on this blog in which I conceded the argument to Dr. Koppl, entitled, "Roger Koppl Is Right About Gay Marriage."

Dr. Rizzo's point intriguingly takes up the banner for the sort of position I initially defended, arguing that the government ought to get out of defining marriage altogether. In the comments section, I tried to draw attention to the conversation that had already taken place on the blog earlier this year, and eventually Dr. Koppl himself arrived on the scene to defend his position again. Gene Callahan of Crash Landing, the (now willfully abandoned!) Morality Debate, chance meetings at AIER, etc., has also joined in the discussion. This should be good!

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Basic Structures and Starting Points

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes (7):
The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different social positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others. These are especially deep inequalities. Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.

He elaborates (82):
The primary subject of justice, as I have emphasized, is the basic structure of society. The reason for this is that its effects are so profound and pervasive, and present from birth. This structure favors some starting points over others in the division of the benefits from social cooperation. It is these inequalities which the two principles are to regulate. Once these principles are satisfied, other inequalities are allowed to arise from men’s voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association. Thus the relevant social positions are, so to speak, the starting places properly generalized and aggregated.

In this post, I want to jot down some thoughts on why I find this a concerning aspect of Rawls’ approach. My concern arises from Rawls’ supposition that basic structures “contain” social positions, and thus the array of social positions in a society are the result of the choice of basic structures in that society. But the basic structure of society does not itself directly produce the distribution of starting places. In each instance where a person is born into a particular starting place, it is the consequence of some people having a child. It is somewhat difficult for me to imagine why we would think that the basic structure of a typical society could directly cause a baby to be born. Perhaps we could coherently say this if we lived in a mechanistic totalitarian society in which children were in an important sense a product of social planning, but this seems like an odd way to think about the way children are born in our society.

The extent to which the basic structure of our society impacts the array of starting places is the extent to which it has some influence on the range of opportunities that prospective parents are able to offer their children, in those cases where these people actually do choose to have children. Approaching things with this mindset, we can see that any society will “contain” an infinite number of potential starting points, and in certain relatively rare circumstances, a child will actually be born into a particular starting point. But these starting points will be the product not only of the principles governing the basic structure of society, but also (and undoubtedly more importantly) the incredible confluence of events that led up to the possibility of a particular child being born into a particular set of social circumstances, almost all of which are only tangentially related to the basic structure of society. And significantly, the way that we characterize a starting place will be significantly conditioned by the kind of parenting the individual in question will receive. I would at least be hesitant to think of the quality of one’s parents’ personal contributions to one’s childhood as being entirely the product of the basic structure of society (I would actually be a bit hesitant to make these claims about pretty much any of the social interactions that help to shape a child’s life, but for our purposes it will not be necessary to raise this challenge). If it’s true that the distribution of starting points is at least partly determined by the way that people choose to treat their children, then Rawls’ claim that the basic structure of society “contains various social positions” (where the relevant social positions are “starting places”) seems a little worrisome.

But Rawls might counter that even if the basic structure of society does not solely determine the array of starting points into which people will be born, it still has some impact on the range of opportunities that will be available to individuals whose parents decided to have them. And this, he could say, may be cause for some concern. Intuitively, this seems fair enough. I think it’s entirely reasonable, for example, to think that we may want to consider the idea that we have some duty (as individuals, social groups, communities, or whatever) to ensure that people have certain opportunities provided to them if we can help it (I don’t intend to engage this question here, but I certainly wouldn’t want to rule this out). Rawls might say that we ought to help poor families to provide education, food, or clothing for their children. He might say that we ought to help children from less fortunate backgrounds get into college or enter the workforce. Though these suggestions might be problematic for one reason or another, they don’t seem totally unreasonable on their face.

But this isn’t what Rawls wants to argue: he wants to suggest that by allowing a certain array of starting points to come into existence, the basic structure of society might itself be seen to be unjust, and would thus need to be replaced with another basic structure. This, I think, is where Rawls might be running into real trouble.

Here’s what I have in mind: Individuals who are born into particular starting points are the products of particular reproductive events. These events are the products of long histories of social changes and reproductive events which produced the circumstances in which these events occurred. Altering the basic structure of society would bring it about that a different set of reproductive events would occur, and so a different set of starting points would come about, but into these starting points would be born a totally different set of people. This is a problem because Rawls’ view is built on a scenario where the members of society are supposed to try to agree on the basic structure of society -- a mutually beneficial system of cooperation. But if we assume that living is not itself a bad thing (I have heard this disputed, but whatever), then it seems clear that the most beneficial choice of basic structures for any individual would be whatever structure brought that individual into existence. No one would really have any grounds to complain about their starting place because it would be a necessary precondition for them existing in the first place. Altering the array of starting points in society might be justified, but not on the basis that it would somehow benefit the people whose “undesirable” starting points would be eliminated. And if we’re not trying to benefit these people, then it’s sort of difficult to see how we’re still talking about a contractarian view that’s focused on starting points.

(To be honest, I’m sort of unsure about this conclusion. In this case, when I say that it’s difficult for me to see how this could be accommodated, I am not saying that rhetorically; I don’t know how it works. If anyone can explain to me how Rawls’ approach could accommodate the fact that no one will benefit from the choice of any basic structure besides the one that causes them to come into existence, that would be sweet.)

So hopefully, this post has served to establish two points on which I am confused: a) the basic structure of society doesn’t itself produce the distribution of starting places, and b) messing with the basic structure in order to alter the distribution of starting points in fundamental ways would bring about an entirely different population, which would most certainly not benefit the people whose starting points are being eliminated, and would therefore seem not be an appropriate goal of a contractarian view like Rawls’. As should be clear from the above, none of this should be taken to be “damning criticism” of Rawls; I am just hesitant about the way that Rawls is proceeding, and I think he might have made a big mistake. Even so, these do seem like the sorts of things that would need to be addressed.
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"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."