From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

The poverty of psychology

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2017

Political philosophers have been arguing about equality for a very long time. We’ve argued about whether equality is a fundamental value or whether what matters is better captured by a focus on priority or sufficiency. We’ve argued about whether egalitarians should focus on securing equal amounts of something or on assuring people that they stand in relationships of equality of status toward one another. We’ve argued about the currency of egalitarian justice, and whether we should assess equality in terms of welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare or “advantage”. Luck egalitarians have argued that people should be rendered equal with respect to their unchosen circumstances but that inequalities that result from choices people freely are ok. All of these are arguments within the egalitarian camp.

So it is frustrating to read a paper in Nature, written by some psychologists from the Pinker/Haidt school of public pontificating that claims that people don’t care about equality but about “fairness”, where the inequalities that people tolerate turn out to be (a) inequalities in money and (b) inequalities that result from choices people make. Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally, and lots of people think that the value of equality, properly understood, not only allows but requires differences in outcome that result from choice. There’s one reference to Rawls in the paper (simply to mention the veil of ignorance) and one of Frankfurt’s sufficiency view, but Dworkin, Cohen, Sen, Anderson, Arneson et al are entirely absent. Perhaps Nature needs to pick its peer reviewers from a wider pool.

Durkheimian Utilitarianism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2017

This post continues what has evolved into my critical series on Jonathan Haidt (see parts 1 and 2). The burden of the first two posts was: probably a good time to talk about justice, eh? So let’s. I’m going to split it into two, so I can kvetch about how Haidt is confused about Mill (this post), then try to do better myself (next post).

I got email about my last post (not just comments!) suggesting Haidt could do better than I give him credit for. I am 100% sure this is correct. I reconstructed Haidt’s argument with a conspicuously cloudy Premise 3: “something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?” I am sure Haidt could tighten that one up. Yet it does not seem to me he, in fact, has. In this post I am going to lay out textual evidence. Having done my best to expose the logical worst, I’m going to close this post by trying to say how he got into this hole. Honestly, I think I get it. He wants to have his Mill and eat his Durkheim, too. Best of both. I also get why he might feel his bridge from Durkheim to Mill might be load-bearing.

First, a basic point about the sense of ‘justice’ at issue in this post. (A sense we will have to broaden if and when I get around to the follow-up.)

Haidt is, we know, concerned about under-representation of conservatives in academe. There are two possible grounds for such concern.

1) It’s distributively unfair, hence unjust to conservatives, if there is viewpoint discrimination against them, as a result of which they fail to gain employment (or they lose employment).

2) It’s intellectually damaging to debate to have few conservatives present in conversations in which, predictably, liberals and conservatives will find themselves at odds.

I have no idea what Haidt thinks about 1. His arguments concern 2, so I’m going to focus on that. Justice as in: optimal intellectual balance. Epistemic justice. Justice as in justification. Not distributive justice.

On we go. [click to continue…]

Purity, Partisanship, Pluralism

by John Holbo on February 7, 2017

A lifetime ago – in subjective Trump-time! – I made a post about how pussyhats are potent symbols. Social justice! Purity politics. Sacred values. This seems obvious to me. Then again, as a young man they made me read Durkheim. (There’s a myth about the U of Chicago: they make you read all Plato-Thucydides-Tocqueville, all the time, your first year. In my experience they had so many darn anthropologists, many of us spent our first year reading Geertz, Boas, Benedict, Levy-Bruhl, others. Not anything Allan Bloom might have approved for our tender-minded consumption. Anthropologists are mad, you see, so keep them busy lest they make trouble. They were tasked with instilling ‘core values’ in the young: relativism! Yes, yes, Durkheim is a structural functionalist. Close enough for scandalizing rubes and maroons! Ah, mid-80’s memories.)

The point of my pussyhat example was to to illustrate my allegations about blindspots and contradictions in Jonathan Haidt’s popular writings on the subject of partisanship, PC and pluralism. Things got hot in comments. (Not everyone has read Durkheim, it must be.) Then Haidt showed up in comments (Crooked Timber gets results!) He linked to a post he made, rebutting mine. So now I’m going to rebut the rebuttal. [click to continue…]

Snitching on those in breach of immigration law

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2017

Kwame Anthony Appiah, of whom I have only had positive feelings up to now, has produced an opinion for the Ethicist column for the New York Times that it is “a good thing” when citizens report violations of immigration law to the US authorities. He produces this opinion in the context of a question about “green-card marriage” entered into merely in order to gain an immigration advantage, so it is unclear how far he relies on the specific features of the case he describes to generate a more general moral conclusion, but I, for one, find his reasons highly problematic.

First, he operates on the assumption that US migration policy is reasonable and reasonably fair and that states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally. Whether or not legitimate states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally (I’m a sceptic), I think it hard to argue that US policies are currently fair given who they exclude (and a fortiori who they are now excluding). Appiah argues that people who enter by unlawful means are queue jumpers who thereby act unfairly towards others. But the very idea that there is an immigration queue that people can join and wait their turn is preposterous. There is no such queue and many many people will never be in a position where they can realistically have a chance of a visa. The claim of unfairness to other would-be migrants is therefore unfounded. [click to continue…]

Moral Polarization and Many Pussyhats

by John Holbo on January 22, 2017

I agree with a lot in this piece by Will Wilkinson. But I disagree with stuff he says after asking the question ‘why is our moral culture polarizing?’

One place to start is to ask why it is that people, as individuals, gravitate to certain moral and political viewpoints. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” theory—which shows that conservatives and liberals have different moral sensibilities, sensitive to different moral considerations—is perhaps the best-known account. But there are others.

In a 2012 piece for the Economist, I surveyed some of the research in personality psychology that indicates a correlation between political ideology and a couple of the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—conscientiousness and openness to experience, in particular—and then connected that to evidence that people have self-segregated geographically by personality and ideology. It’s an interesting post and you should read it.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

Wilkinson goes on to talk about other, non-Haidt stuff that contributes to polarization. I like that better. (I think Wilkinson does, too.) But I want to grouse about Haidt, who I think has done interesting empirical work but who commits what I regard as terrible howlers when it comes to moral theory, and when it comes to reasoning about practical, normative implications of his work. [click to continue…]

On the alleged failure of “liberal progressivism”

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2016

The other day, an article by Chris Deerin, a writer for the Scottish Daily Mail, appeared on my twitter timeline, retweeted and endorsed by several people I respect. The article argued Trump and Brexit mean that “liberal progressives” have lost and that “the model that has more or less dominated Western politics for the past three decades is defunct. It could not be more dead.” “We” misused that hegemony and are responsible for our own downfall:

We used our hegemony to take down barriers and borders, to connect and build, to (yes) line our own pockets and smugly luxuriate in the goodness of our ideas and intentions. Meantime, we forgot about those who weren’t able to take part, who weren’t benefiting, to whom free trade and open borders meant greater hardship and uneasy cultural compromises. Or, let’s be honest, we didn’t forget – we just chose to conveniently ignore. We stopped asking for their permission, ploughed on through the warning signs, and fell off the end of the road.

Now “liberal” is a funny old word, mostly used as an insult these days by the Jacobin crowd on the one hand and conservatives on the other. Still, I can’t help but feel that my politics is being condemned here as infeasible and dead whilst wondering whether it is in fact true that I’ve enjoyed such “hegemony” for the past 30 years, because that certainly doesn’t gel with my experience. [click to continue…]

No doubt Corey is too modest to toot his own horn, so here you go. You should read the book, too.

The New Yorker headline is too strong: The Book That Predicted Trump. That’s beefed up from what Matt Feeney actually says: “From Robin’s argument, we could predict that a conservative party would be unlikely to nominate the idealized conservative as its standard-bearer, but that it would absolutely yoke itself to a populist nut job like Donald Trump.” That’s better than the headline. Better still, however, not to defenestrate Karl Popper quite so dramatically as all that. Robin advances an empirical hypothesis about the nature of conservatism. If possible, we should model hypothesis testing as an exercise in disconfirmation. It is plain that Trump does not disconfirm Robin. Trump fits the Robin model to a T, but it goes too far to say the model predicts him. Obviously 2016 has been an unusual year for Republicans. It may yet prove to be the year in which the Republican Party cracks up, like the Whigs. There is nothing whatsoever in Robin’s model that predicts 2016, in particular, shall be a special year. You could have made money in the prediction markets, betting according to Robin’s model, because you would have snapped up Trump back when he was selling for fractions of pennies. Clearly he was an undervalued property, by Robin’s theoretical lights. But recognizing a long shot as not so long as people think is not the same as it being a lock. So, to repeat: Robin did not predict Trump. I belabor the point because I predict some folks – our Corey does have his detractors, strange to say – may dismiss this New Yorker squib on the grounds that it is puffing Robin up as a prophet to an irrational degree. That right. It is.

But the Robin point can be reformulated. It’s not that he predicted Trump and, therefore, his hypothesis is confirmed. Rather, nearly everyone else predicted Not-Trump and, therefore, their hypotheses are disconfirmed by Trump. ‘Since conservatism is X, Y and Z, conservatives won’t vote for a -X, – Y and -Z guy like Trump.’ Something like that. (OK, I’m fudging a bit. Point is: Trump tests everyone else, NOT Robin.)

The headline ought to read “The Book That Didn’t Predict Not-Trump”. There. Fixed it. [click to continue…]

The latest issue of Law Ethics and Philosophy has an open access symposium on Family Values, with contributions by Sarah Stroud, Anca Gheaus and Luara Ferracioli, and a fairly comprehensive response by me and Adam Swift. To simplify, Stroud criticizes us for being too unforgiving of parental partiality; Gheaus criticizes us for being too permissive with respect to parental authority over children, and Ferracioli introduces two adequacy criteria that, she argues, our theory does not meet. Of course, you’ll want to be sure to read the book first so you’ll know what it’s all about! It’s a good symposium in that there is enough, and sharp enough, disagreement to be interesting, but enough common ground that several issues get clarified, and progress is made.

While you’re at it, you might also want to check out the other symposium in the same issue, prompted by Philippe Van Parjis’s provocative (to put it mildly) and brief piece “Four Puzzles on Gender Equality”. Here’s the abstract:

There are dimensions along which men seem to be disadvantaged, on average, relative to women. For example, they can expect to live less years; in a growing number of countries they are, on average, less educated than women; they form an electoral minority; and their greater propensity to misbehave means that the overwhelming majority of the prison population is drawn from their ranks. These disadvantages, if they are real, all derive from an unchosen feature shared by one category of human beings: being a male. Does it follow that these advantages are unjust?

The interesting responses are by Paula Casal, Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, Jesus Mora, Valeria Ottonelli and Gina Schouten. It’s entirely accessible to non-academics, not just because it is free on the internet, but also because most of the papers (including Van Parijs’s) are short, and largely free of technical language. I mainly don’t teach my own work, so despite its pedagogical value I probably won’t use the Family Values symposium, but I can’t wait to teach the Van Parjis symposium in my undergraduate political philosophy class in the spring!

Locke + Nozick = Locke

by John Quiggin on October 16, 2016

In the discussion of my threepart critique of Locke, I mentioned my view that Rothbard and Nozick added nothing of value, and promised to expand on this when I got some time. I discussed Rothbard here, and have finally got around to Nozick.

Someone (I think Jerry Cohen) remarked that Nozick was be taken very seriously by Marxists and not nearly as much by social democrats and (US) liberals. Obviously, my reaction (that of a social democrat) illustrates this. The reason for this divergence is obvious enough. If you would like to derive property rights from a notion of self-ownership (and the Marxist concept of exploitation is close to this), Nozick provides a reductio ad absurdam. So, a critique like Cohen’s is essential.

OTOH, if you start from the ground that property rights are social structures, and that their justice or otherwise is inseparable from that of the society in which they operate, Nozick is of no real interest. All the important errors in his work were already made by Locke. However, I’ll point out some new ones.

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Shock and Aw, we knew it already

by John Holbo on October 8, 2016

So Trump said something truly horrible in 2005. And, it would seem, Hillary’s Wall Street speeches have leaked. Or bits. And internal emails concerning them. (I guess it could turn out that these have been doctored by the Russians, in collaboration with Wikileaks. But it looks like the real deal.) This is going to make that Town Hall debate hot. But, as bombshells go, it’s hard for me to imagine anything less surprising. Everyone already knew – how could it not be? – that Clinton said cosy-cosy stuff to Wall Street folks. And Trump? Is there a single person on the planet surprised that he talks this way? (And surely it isn’t just talk.) Dog bites man. Donald gropes woman. His defenders aren’t even feigning surprise. [click to continue…]


by John Quiggin on September 29, 2016

In my final post on Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation, a while back, I mentioned that his latter-day successors, Nozick and Rothbard didn’t offer any improvement. I said at the time I would spell this out a bit more. I’ll start with Rothbard who is more politically relevant, and also, in my opinion, more interesting. As an example, at least during his 1960s flirtation with the radical left, and at the time he developed the theory of ‘homesteading’, he favored reparations for slavery.

The core of Rothbard’s position is that appropriation of property justifies ownership even without the Lockean proviso that ‘enough and as good’ is left over for others. Rothbard doesn’t, as far as I can see, go far beyond presenting this as a self-evident truth, and in any case, I don’t propose to argue about in detail. Rather, I want to look at Rothbard’s choice of the term ‘homesteading’ to describe this process. This choice of term is self-refuting in two ways, one that applies to any historical process of appropriation/expropriation and the other specific to the US.

[click to continue…]

Against Locke: Part 3

by John Quiggin on August 15, 2016

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

Swords Against Punditry!

by John Holbo on August 14, 2016

In the hopes that everyone will stop commenting on Corey’s post, hence at considerable risk to myself: a fresh Trump post.

Since becoming aware of this thing called ‘US politics’, some decades ago, I have been addicted to the consumption of punditry. I don’t say it with pride, or because I suppose it makes me special. I just thought I’d mention that one thing that makes Trump’s candidacy weird – in a phenomenological sense, I guess – is that there is no pro-Trump pundit class. This makes his candidacy inaudible along one of the frequencies I habitually tune in. By and large, I can’t go to NR or The Weekly Standard or Red State, much less Ross Douthat or National Affairs, to get pretzel logic confabulations on Trump’s behalf, because they actually haven’t gotten on board. To their credit. Twitter is a snarknado of negative partisanship. Breitbart and Drudge are entropically dire, in a Shannon-informational sense. Hugh Hewitt? Nixonian party loyalist. He’s defending Trump the way he defended Harriet Miers, i.e. it really has nothing to do with the quality of the candidate. The only Trumpkins comfortable in their skins are the alt-right folks, reveling in rather than regretting the fact that Trump is constantly escaping from the Overton Straitjacket; and pick-up artists who regard Trump’s alpha male posturing as a feature, not a diagnosis. Oh, and there’s Scott Adams. “The fun part is that we can see cognitive dissonance when it happens to others – such as with my friend, and CNN – but we can’t see it when it happens to us. So don’t get too smug about this. You’re probably next.” Duly noted. [click to continue…]

More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

It seems Gary Johnson/Bill Weld have been disappointing to conservatives and right-leaning libertarians (fusionists), looking for an alternative to Trump. For example, Ilya Shapiro, in “Is Johnson-Weld a Libertarian Ticket?”
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