Monday, September 29, 2008

Why study "the ideal?"

John Rawls. The name sounds familiar. He wrote something about justice, right? Trying to decide which Spindel lecture to attend, I finally settled on “Rawls on Race,” figuring I’d surely leave the conference with a better understanding of this John Rawls guy. Ironically, Rawls’ identity still remains much of a mystery to me, and I learned more about what Rawls didn’t write than what he actually did.

Charles Mills of Northwestern University presents a research paper in which he critiques John Rawls’ “systematic evasion” of racial justice. Apparently if you were to add up all the passages relating to race in over 2000 pages of Rawls’ writing, you might get 5-6 pages. Oh, “Rawls on Race.” How ironic.

Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971, so Mills finds it bizarre that someone who lived in the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement could discuss justice without delving into racial injustices. Mills argues that the significance and horror of racial inequality is “beyond the horizon of Rawls’ comprehension,” and attributes this blatant omission of race to Rawls’ “whitewashed” and “Eurocentric” mentality.

Mills questions the soundness of Rawls’ argument for not dealing with race. Rawls claims that he strives to emulate the classical Western philosophers by returning to ideal theory. In Rawls’ ideal society, racism is not an issue. Mills counters that since we live in a non-ideal society plagued by racism, Rawls’ theory is inapplicable to our current state. However, Rawls claims that his principles can be adapted to address racial issues.

“Instead of imagining ourselves behind Rawls’ veil in a timeless original position,” Mills believes we should study non-ideal theory that “starts from the foundational reality not of consent and inclusion but rather domination and exclusion.” Do we need a perfect model of justice to correct or recognize injustice? For Mills, the answer is no, and that trying to create such a model is a waste of energy.

In response, an audience member questions the role of historical evidence within a theoretical framework. Not only does he wonder if the inclusion of such evidence is unnecessary, but if it could potentially weaken the author’s message. If Rawls cites specific incidences of “injustice,” does it require a presupposition that those events are, in fact, unjust?

It appears that the answer Mills wants from Rawls is not the question Rawls tries to answer. Mills looks for ideas on how to both rectify injustices of the past and prevent those of the future. Rawls, on the other hand, only tries to provide a definition of pure, universal justice. Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between a diagnosis and a treatment. Like a diagnostic tool, Rawls’ theory can be applied to determine whether or not something is just. The antidote, Mills’ quest in this case, is solely dependent on the proper diagnosis. While Mills criticizes Rawls for spending so much time composing his theory, I ask, how helpful is an unreliable diagnosis?

Machiavelli in The New Yorker

"The Florentine"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why you should care about Hobbes and Locke.

Due to my observations of a general disinterest in the readings from Hobbes and Locke, I must, as a student of Political Science, make the case for their importance. These readings, like those Descartes, are largely responsible for the modern conception of the self. It is easy to read over arguments belabored by Hobbes and Locke with conclusions like “all men are equal,” because today ideas like these ingrained in society. Why then, would Hobbes and Locke waste their (and ours) arguing about something that is so obvious? It logically follows that Hobbes and Locke had to make such extensive arguments because their conclusions were once not so obvious.

Hobbes and Locke were writing XVII Century during a time of divine and absolute monarchies when the king had a God given right to rule. Pause. Today there is no way we consider anyone to have a “God given right” to rule.” But why doesn’t someone have a right to rule over someone else? This clash regarding the right to rule is hysterically and portrayed in the following excerpt from Monty Python’s Holy Grail:

ARTHUR: I am your king!

WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.

WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,

[angels sing]

her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur

from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,

Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

[singing stops]

That is why I am your king!

DENNIS: Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power

derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical

aquatic ceremony.

The radical difference between government then and now has to do with the idea of consent outlined in Hobbes and Locke. As stated in Locke, “[m]en being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of a another, without his own consent”(197). According to Locke, if humans were without government they would all govern themselves. That is to say, merely by living, humans are making a choice and therefore governing themselves. This means that all humans have the right to self-governance because all humans would resort to self-governance if left alone. This in turn means that in a legitimate government, the individuals are only allowing a government to rule—those governing do not actually have a right to rule.

This notion of political liberty was (and is) as influential and important as the notion of spiritual liberty outlined in Luther’s On Christian Liberty. According to the definition of political rights by Hobbes and Locke almost every government in existence was illegitimate because the king was only able to execute his will by force and not by any actual consent by the governed. In the same way Luther described every Christian as a priest and king and so rejected the hierarchy of the Church, so Hobbes and Locke described every person as politically equal and so rejected the legitimacy of divine and absolute government. The modern perception of the self, especially in the United States is due to Hobbes and Locke and their influence on the founding fathers. So, thank you, Hobbes and Locke.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I see econ

In my law and economics class we have been going over property rights and after reading Locke, I’m going to go ahead and throw out there that he’s not so much a political philosopher as he is an economist.
An extremely famous economist (I believe it was Milton Friedman) said that the basis of freedom is property. Locke doesn’t go quite that far but he does certainly connect the two in a significant way. He even says that anyone who attempts to take away anyone’s property rights is actually attempting to enslave them. This is right in line with economics, the first principles of which are based on the right to own property and exclude others from that property. He does get a little extreme when he says that you can kill someone who tries to limit your property rights but then again, it is a state of war.
His solution to the state of war, government as the primary arbiter of justice and punishment, fits the economics textbook definition of government (ie. Government is an organization that has a comparative advantage in or monopoly on the legitimate use of force.) So for Locke, instead of killing the thief himself, he lets the government do it. But that’s just me getting really excited, I have a couple problems with Locke, despite my almost unnatural love of him.
And of course his section on property is one of the longest in the book. His principle of labor and ownership is…odd. It’s in almost perfect agreement with economics but it’s one of the places I tend to dissent. I simply don’t see why it is the case that just because I work on something it’s mine. I mean, it sounds nice, but not necessarily true, or even believable. If someone has some ore, and they give it to a blacksmith to fashion into a sword, is the sword the blacksmith’s or the person who originally gave the ore? When I say gave I don’t mean relinquished ownership, I mean simply put it in the blacksmith’s hands. It seems Locke would say it’s the blacksmith’s sword but did the owner of the ore really lose his ore simply because it changed shape? It just seems to me that labor and possession have a much more complicated relationship than Locke describes.
I also don’t entirely understand his view of slavery. From what I understand a man can’t give up his life because he does not rightly own it. However, he can have it taken from him, which means either death or slavery. Again, I simply don’t see why this is the case. It seems to me that if something can be taken, it can also be given. I’m pretty sure I’m missing something but I can’t seem to find it.

What Kind of Name is Rene Anyway?

Though I thoroughly enjoy reading Descartes and find his logic impeccable (usually), there are a few points of contention which I of course only articulate well after class is over. I am sure some of these points we’ve been over before, but I would like to re-iterate them for the sake of argument. Some of my objections are little more than quibbles with his argument, but hear me out.

1) Descartes states that the cause of an effect must be at least as great as its effect (Meditation 3). Even if this is true, why must “God” have implanted our idea of Him in our minds? When broken down, the concept of God is nothing more than a few characteristics (Omni benevolence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, etc), all of which humans have an idea of. Why then can’t it be that Human imagination created God, as an amalgam of these ideas. Descartes himself states that human will can err; perhaps we merely have willed this idea of a God into existence?
2) Descartes attempts to completely separate the mind and body, considering the mind a Res Cogitans (thinking thing), and the body a Res Extensa (extended thing). He goes on a long rambling set of proofs in order to prove this, however along the way he takes a very hard to follow leap of logic. Descartes states that the mind is a reality distinct from the body, and God can create a thinking thing apart from an extended thing (I.e. a mind independent of a body) and vice versa. He then goes off on the assumption that since God can do this, he has done it. The mind and body surely can not be separated so easily. When you feel pain, you can’t just hide in your brain and shut off your body’s sensory input. And is it anything less than absurd to think that a body could operate without input from the mind directing it to move and how to interact, as well as detecting essences? To put it simply, just because God can create a mind independent of a body does not mean that He did. Perhaps this point is where Descartes’ false judgment willed him to error.
3) Lastly, Descartes states that for every effect there is at least as great a cause. This means the cause must be separate from the effect. This also means that nothing can cause itself to exist. If this is true, then God could not create Himself, therefore THERE IS NO GOD AND DESCARTES IS A DIRTY LIAR. Unless I see some posthumous proofs for the creation of God by the Uber-God, I stand by my theory.

Monday, September 22, 2008

2008 Spindel Philosophy Conference

This coming weekend is the annual Spindel Philosophy Conference at the University of Memphis. This year's theme is "Race, Racism and Liberalism in the 21st Century." Speakers include some of the best philosophers working in race theory and political theory today, including Linda Martin Alcoff (Syracuse University), Bernard Boxill (University of North Carolina), Kathryn Gines (Vanderbilt University), Howard McGary (Rutgers), Charles Mills (Northwestern), Paul Taylor (Temple), and Naomi Zack (University of Oregon).

The Spindel Conference runs from Thursday evening (Sep. 25) through the end of the day on Saturday (Sep. 27). A full schedule for the conference can be accessed here. All sessions will be held in the Fogleman Executive Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. You can access a campus map here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Sitting here in the Middle Ground at nearly one o'clock in the morning, sniffling with the lingering effects of a cold, I cannot help but feel reading all of Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy was rather pointless. And yet, instead of getting the sleep that my body desires I am here typing on what I feel is a very trivial argument for a very trivial point. I have many qualms with Descartes' methods, although none really with his ends. So it is his means that I long to discuss.

First off, I would like to argue the inaneness of even writing the piece. For Descartes to try to argue about the existence of, well, existence, he must, of course, start with his self. But in writing down his meditations on his self and its existence he has already forfeited his starting point that nothing else exists (i.e. his "raz[ing] everything to the ground and begin[ing] again from the original foundations").  It is as if he is telling you that there is no doorway when he is in fact standing in the doorway. By addressing it to the reader, his independent existence is immediately undermined.

I also feel that Descartes' conception of God, mainly his idea that "the mere fact that God created me makes it highly plausible that I have somehow been made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive this likeness, in which the idea of God is contained, by means of the same faculty by which I perceive myself". Seeing as how this is a rather lengthy quotation, I will break my arguments against it in two. First is the idea that it is "highly plausible" that we are in the image of God for the seeming reason that God made me. That is like saying (and I will use doors again) that if I make a door, it will look like me. Apart from my being brown and the door (hypothetically made of wood) being brown as well, there is not much physical similarity between it and me. Secondly, this idea of perceiving God as much like myself brings up another (yet a little more disgusting) thought. If God made man, and thus man is like God, then God must produce some sort of feces (for if I am not mistaken, man produces bodily waste). At least in my mind, it is odd to comprehend the idea of a "most perfect being" that is also capable of waste. As Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being writes, "Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man's crimes. The responsibility for shit, however rests entirely on Him, the creator of man". Thus, the idea that man is created in the likeness of God is nothing less than problematic.

In doing what Descartes asks of me in his "Preface to the Reader"-- not "fuss[ing] over statements taken out of context (as is the custom for many)--I feel I have found a few contextual points by which Descartes is taken of off his high horse. And of course, there is his writing near the end of this lengthy treatise that "the hyperbolic doubts of the last few days out to be rejected as ludicrous". Thus, the triviality of his Meditations, comes full circle.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On Being Liked and Feared

After rereading the chapters I felt that there may be a little bit of disconnect between a few of Machiavelli's ideals.  I will be comparing a few chapters to the final one we read (XIX) and examining whether or not they can coexist.  

In Chapter XV Machiavelli stresses the point that a prince should virtue and/or vice, whichever on is more fecund for his desired result, on his people.  It would seem that if you ruled with more vice than virtue or simply vice alone your people would not like you.  This would go against the claim presented in chapter  XIX that one should avoid being despised or hated.  Ruling with the aforementioned the people even if fearing you would not like you.  We see another disconnect in chapter XVIII when he says that a prince "should be a great pretender" and that it is "very necessary to appear to have" the qualities that are pleasing to the public.  Here I think that Machiavelli underestimates the people, masses, sheep, electric heard, what have you.  If you say one thing to your subjects and do another the people will notice.  If you preach virtue and do the opposite it will not go unnoticed.  When people do start to raise an eye to these contradictory actions they will act accordingly, usually resulting in some kind of upheaval, general disdain, and both probably coupled with some sort of either rhetorical or physical conspiring.  I like the idea of garnishing good favor because it makes sense, obviously, but I feel with the two previous mentioned ideals of a prince, that it just does not mix.  Fear only goes so far before it is enough and the people take action. I would like to know what others think this notion is correct or if it is true we the sheep are "so simple".