Philosophy not for sale!

by Chris Bertram on March 15, 2004

As a non-American I find it annoying enough when discussion of important matters in the _blogosphere_ is held hostage to the pragmatics of American political debate and electoral campaigning : “You shouldn’t say X because it might give comfort to the baddies….”, but I don’t expect to see such considerations deployed in an (indeed _the_) top international journal in political philosophy. But how else to interpret the final sentences of Barbara H. Fried’s (Law, Stanford) review of Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner’s two edited collections “The Origins of Left-Libertarianism”: and “Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics”: ? Fried writes in _Philosophy and Public Affairs_ (Jan 2004):

bq. There is, of course, a long tradition of the left’s coopting natural rights talk to its own political ends. In the same spirit, left-libertarians may hope that, by coopting self-ownership to egalitarian ends, they can reclaim the moral high ground from right-libertarians. But in conceding that the libertarian notion of self-ownership is the moral high ground to begin with, they may well give up more than they bargain for in the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of those in the murky center of American politics, who harbor instincts of both liberty and equality (of the decent social minimum sort) that could be played to. At the very least, left-libertarians would do well to keep in mind the old adage: If you eat with the devil, bring a long spoon.

Philosophers, in discussing the _fundamental principles of distributive justice_ should have an ear to the “public relations battle” for the “murky center of American politics”?[1] For shame!

UPDATE: A version of Fried’s review is “downloadable from SSRN”: .

fn1. Of course the very idea that what is in these Vallentyne and Steiner collections might affect that battle is, anyway, pretty far-fetched for reasons largely unrelated to their content.



james 03.15.04 at 4:09 pm

Its the sheer banality, isn’t it? How boring.


Ophelia Benson 03.15.04 at 4:45 pm

Well, as a non-non-American, I find American parochialism and self-referentialism both annoying and embarrassing. That absent-minded tendency to forget that the US is not the only place on earth…



Keith M Ellis 03.15.04 at 4:52 pm

Same here.

To play devil’s advocate here, though, it seems to me that any national population pretty much isolated on its own continent and which dominates the world economically, culturally, and militarily would be parochial and self-referential. I don’t think this is a fault in American national character so much as I think it’s a typical human vice.


Jacob T. Levy 03.15.04 at 5:26 pm

I think this is oddly characteristic of PPA, though it’s an extreme example. I’ve never understood why it’s thought of as a superios journal to Ethics; and one of the things that bothers me about it is that it’s unusually likely to publish work that treats the categories of U.S. constitutional law or political discourse and the categories of ethical theory as interchangeable (to the detriment of clear thinking in both arenas). Every time I can think of that I’ve noticed something like this in a top journal, it’s been PPA. Ethics, Political Theory, and JPP just don’t seem as prone to it.

(Yes, I understand why this example is different from and worse than the usual slippage between US jurisprudence and ethical principles. And no, I don’t have a clear understanding of why PPA would be more prone to this than other journals, except that its subject matter is a little more current-eventsy than those of the other journals.)


Ophelia Benson 03.15.04 at 5:49 pm

Oh, sure, I agree that the parochialism is a result of situation and history rather than inherent character. I just wish we could Do Better anyway, that’s all.

(I’ve just been re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice, especially the chapter on Religion and Human Rights. Now there’s an example of almost staggering internationalism.)


Spencer 03.15.04 at 5:53 pm

I don’t want to corner myself defending an extreme, but…

What exemplifies the American pragmatist (or pragmaticist, according to C.s. Peirce) philosophical tradition is the understanding that even the most theoretical inquiries have “cash-value”, which is to say they have an impact upon the (political) world in which the discussants are situated. There is no such thing as a purely theoretical discussion in the disembodied intellects of its participants. Now the extreme position would be to censor a product of discussion because its impact could be negative, but according to Dewey a true democracy is stimulated by the difference that emerges out of various inquiries.

The passage you quote tells philosophers to have an ear to the PR battle for the political center. It seems to me that you take this in the extreme negative sense that philosophers must watch their mouths, or must misrepresent their own positions to win the battle, or something of this sort. I would like to propose another, softer interpretation. Philosophers discussing the fundamental principles of distributed justice are never isolated from their own political environment, and to have an ear to the American political battles is to understand _how_ one’s “theoretical” conclusions cash out in society, how they fit into the popular opinions that form the basis of political life. If anything, it is to keep an ear to how one might be wrong, since the center of American politics is precisely where the cash-values of the Democratic and Republican ideologies are measured. Most of all, however, it is simply to remember that a discussion of “fundamental principles” depends upon a long historical tradition, which has not only influenced the philosophers but also the political society in which the philosophers operate. If it were otherwise, if philosophers could merely discuss without an ear to the politics of their time, they would have no means to critique the current political situation, which is one of their most important roles, IMHO.


Lawrence Krubner 03.15.04 at 6:46 pm

Speaking of American narrowness, last night I went out and had some pizza with one of the activists who, in my town, helped organize the anti-war protests last year. He’s an old friend of mine. We hadn’t talked much about the war, because he’d been against and I’d been for it. We got to talking about it now. He was stunned to learn that Tony Blair was the leader of the left-wing Labour party. All this time he’d been assuming that Blair was a conservative, because he’d supported the war. I told him that Blair was actually to the left of most of the major American Democratic politicians, and I made the analogy to Johnson, who was both progressive and got us into Vietnam.

This fellow is an activist, he reads magazines and enjoys talking about politics with his friends. Most Americans know far less.

After the pizza, I walked home, and on the way, I had to wonder what percent of Americans think Tony Blair is the head of the Conservative Party? I’d like to see a poll on that.


SKapusniak 03.15.04 at 7:19 pm

(obligatory note to the effect that we in the .uk are also often stunned that ‘Tony Blair is leader of the left-wing Labour party’ :P)


Neil 03.15.04 at 10:55 pm

Chris, I think you’ve misinterpreted Fried’s claim. She’s attributing to Vellentyne and Steiner the desire to play a part in the ‘public relations battle’ for the American centre. As I understand her claim, it’s this: the only motivation anyone on the left could possible have for appropriating self-ownership or natural rights (which are on her view principles of the right – I’m inclined to agree but that’s neither her nor there) is strategic: to turn them against their natural base. Her further claim is that this won’t work.. She’s not arguing that philosophers ought to engage in public relations; she’s saying that these ones already do. She’s almost certainly wrong about their motivatons, of course, but that’ a different question.


Chris Bertram 03.16.04 at 9:30 am

Neil, if that’s what Fried believed, then it is a very weird thing to believe indeed. I think Hillel Steiner is Canadian and he’s based in Manchester, England. Looking through the contributors list for LLAIC , it includes sundry Canadians and a Belgian, many of whom are based outside the US. It is just strange to think those people are motivated by a public relations battle in US politics!

Very much agree with what Jacob said, btw about the PPA tendency to regard ethical categories and those in US constitutional law etc as interchangeable. Ronnie Dworkin is probably the main culprit here, historically, and has spawned lots of imitators.


Decnavda 03.16.04 at 9:04 pm

“What exemplifies the American pragmatist (or pragmaticist, according to C.s. Peirce) philosophical tradition is the understanding that even the most theoretical inquiries have “cash-value”, which is to say they have an impact upon the (political) world in which the discussants are situated.”

I need help from some of the experts here. My understanding is that Peirce, who orginiated the term “Pragmatist” later decided to called himself a “Pragmaticist” precisely to avoid that useage of his epistimology. He connected truth to usefulness in a more objective rather than subjective sense. So while some experimental results have contradicted the Standard Model of physics, we can still pragmatically call the Standard Model the “best truth” because it provides more reliable results than any other known model. But believing in God simply because such a belief is useful to the believer is a subjective pragmatism that was not at all what Peirce intended. For a non-consequentialist to worry about the “cash-value” of rights would seem to fall under the sort of use of pragmatism that Piece rejected.

Of course, I an REALLY out of my leage discussing this, but part of my reason for doing so is to be corrected and improve my understanding. So I would appriciate help with this.


Neil 03.16.04 at 9:52 pm

“Neil, if that’s what Fried believed, then it is a very weird thing to believe indeed.”

Interpreted narrowly, its weird – that is, if Fried thinks that Steiner, et al, are aiming to intervene in quotidian American political debates. Interpreted broadly, its not weird at all – presumably most people who do pol phil want to have some sort of effect on political debates at the sharp end. And if that is your motivation, you may want to engage in strategic thinking.

Of course, academic pol phil has little influence on politics. Part of the reason I do very little pol phil myself these days is that there seems no point: why argue over the best interpretation of egalitatarianism, for instance, when actual political debate consists mostly of irrelevant name calling and when politicians routinely lie, routinely get caught and routinely shrug it off? When minimum standards of decency and of argumentative rigor are ignored, philosophers have nothing to contribute.


Sigivald 03.16.04 at 11:46 pm

There’s a difference between “left-libertarians” and “philosophers”.

He appears to be talking about people using the “philosophy” to argue for specific policies.

Of course, I pesonally think that “distributive justice” isn’t “justice” at all, and that Rawls can go cheerfully rot. But that’s the libertarian/Old Whig/Hayekian in me, reminding me that “distributive justice” is naturally the enemy of the other, more normal kind of justice, which is not concerned primarily with “distributing” things.

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