A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Saturday, May 24, 2003

-Martha Nussbaum writes in Newsday that what the world needs now is a little more cosmopolitanism, Grotius-style.

-Michael Walzer discusses just war, Iraq, and the necessity of supporting a "little Israel" in an interview with Ha'aretz. His position on Iraq is a significantly more critical than is commonly known:
"It was an unnecessary war, because the legitimate "It was an unnecessary war, because the legitimate purposes for which it was declared could have been advanced in other, much less destructive, ways. But once it began, I would not have marched to stop it. Because ending it while Saddam was still in power would have been a victory for him, and his war was even less just than ours."


Walzer is fearful about the nature of the American administration in Iraq, in light of American behavior after the war in Afghanistan.

"Our policy there was shameful. We fought in a just war, which I supported, but if you fight such a war, you have a responsibility to create a minimum of law and order in the country which you have invaded."
Indeed, I'm pleased to note that Walzer's position to a significant degree resembles mine. (via Junius)

-John Judis writes a bit of a fluffy piece on international order and Iraq. They're employed in a rather unsophisticated way, but, hey, it's not often that both Kant and Mill make a current affairs headline.

THE PROBLEM WITH POLITICAL THEORY is that it has such low perceived barriers to entry. At least, that's one of the problems that has crept into my mind, as I enter the Twilight Zone years of grad school.

Take for example, economist John Quiggan, who casually noted that "utilitarianism lacks serious competitors [as a public philosophy]."

I know this post is going to sound a little testy, but let me explain my irritation in terms that may produce a measure of empathy from economists like Prof. Quiggan: what he wrote is analogous to the statement that "dependency theory lacks serious competitors as a descriptive theory of international economics."

As far the domain of political theory/philosophy goes, utilitarianism has much more serious competition than it can handle: liberalism (64 flavours or so worth--my preference at the moment being a hybrid discourse theory), libertarianism, identity theory (gender/cultural/etc.), communitarianism/republicanism, various forms of Marxism, democratic theory, and so on. In terms of prestige, utilitarianism has dropped a long way since Rawls dealt it a telling blow in A Theory of Justice, both through his critique that utilitarianism "doesn't respect the separateness of persons," as well as through his ability to offer a plausible alternative (contra Quiggan, things are very different in the realm of [Anglo-American] ethics, where consequentialism is still a force to be reckoned with).

Substantively, Quiggan's statements about what utilitarianism entails have a number of problems:

1) Where is does the implication that utilitarianism entails the principle of equality of individuals come from? It sure doesn't come from Bentham's view that a "measure of government may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility...when...the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it." Without some additional postulate, maximizing the utility of a group respects only the equality of persons' units of capacity for utility, not the equality of the individuals. That's why all of the annoying dilemmas like the utility monster, organ harvest, and so on arise.

2) Why must a utilitarian hold that "what matters is each individual's happiness as they choose to pursue it"? Why would a utilitarian in the Benthamite mold, whose focus of ethical interest is on beings' capacities for pain and pleasure think that choice and happiness necessarily have anything to do with each other? Note that the denial of this linkage explains why Singerian utilitarianism lends itself easily to promoting the welfare of non-human animals. As the Putnam/Nozick/Wachowski brain-in-a-vat/Experience Machine/Matrix examples demonstrate, this is a serious problem for basic forms of utilitarianism. As with the notion of equality of individuals, the value of individual choice is not obviously implied by utilitarian philosophy and must be introduced by an outside postulate or some conception of "utility" that goes well beyond the basic intuition of preference satistfaction.

Both of these problems can be mitigated by clever utilitarians (e.g. J.S. Mill), but they are hardly entirely successful. Their proffered solutions (i.e. loading the concept of human utility so that freedom, virtue, justice, truth, and so on are constitutive of it) tend to have the distinct feel of "jerry rigging," to use Quiggan's phrase.

And the following thought is also inaccurate:
utilitarianism only makes sense for a basically democratic society, in which everyone is equal in some formal sense. Obviously in an absolute monarchy, public philosophy is just individual ethics for the monarch, and something analogous is true for aristocracies, theocracies and so on.
First, Hobbes and Burke have plausibly argued that in a monarchy (absolute or not), public philosophy consists of significantly more than individual ethics for the monarch. This is practically true the moment the monarch feels the need to argue the regime's legitimacy before his or her subjects. Second, strictly speaking, utilitarianism is a political theory about the legitimacy of the outcomes of political decision-making and such a theory is orthogonal to theories about the legitimacy of the procedures of political decision-making. Yes, we can whip up many flavours of utilitarianism that would prefer democracy, or that might even entail it, but I could whip up many more that have serious anti-democratic implications.

This second point is clear enough: if an enlightened monarch had a device that allowed him to precisely measure all of subject's utility preferences (if we followed Bentham, such a device would measure cardinally, interpersonally comparable utilities; but we can drop both assumptions and still get the same result) and if he had benevolent inclinations and decided to structure public policy so as to maximize the satisfaction of utilities, there would be nothing about his regime that wouldn't fully satisfy the constraints of utilitarian justice (the challenge to utilitarianism in this hypo becomes more serious if we assume that only the monarch is capable of employing the device and therefore maximizing utility, and/or must use it in secret to carry out the utility maximizing policies).

(via Lawrence Solum)

A BIT MORE: Quiggan has a follow up post, in which he explains his position more carefully: "as an economist, I think of public philosophy as being concerned with the activities of politicians (and bureaucrats) rather than, say, those of judges or teachers."

But even considered in this light, utilitarianism is still not the dominant public philosophy. Any time a politician or an advocacy group utters words like "rights," "values," and "dignity," we enter a realm of policy discourse and contestation that cannot be resolved by solving a social welfare function. Both Canada and Australia share a large cluster of such issues: immigration, multiculturalism, aborginal self-determination, republicanism vs. monarchy (a much bigger issue Down Under; but we have to deal with Quebec nationalists instead). Even disagreements on distributive issues are often cast in this light: arguments about taxation and social spending are just as often based on competing theories of justice, liberty, or desert as they are based on competing theories of economic efficiency.

When people contest such issues, they enter the political domain with the assumption that they might be able to change other citizen's preferences not only through providing more information, but also through making arguments and sharing perspectives. And this of course touches on the big problem that will always stymie economics and those scholars of politics who view their discipline as a positive science: the (almost entirely) necessary assumption of fixed preferences completely misses a crucial aspect at the deliberative core of politics.

Finally, Quiggan misinterprets Rawls. Rawls argues that representative agents within a heuristic device of representation would employ the maximin criterion as a decision rule for selecting principles of justice for structuring the basic structures of society. Maximin is there part of Rawls' justification for his principles of justice, two of the three (if we treat the two parts of the second principle as separable) of which dictate equal rather than maximin distribution of primary goods. Clearly, the principle of maximum equal basic liberty and fair equality of opportunity (both lexically prior to the difference principles, which is an analogue to maximin) have no necessarily connection to fulfilling a maximin distribution of either liberty or opportunity (nevermind the maximin satisfaction of utility). Note also that the equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity principles cannot be properly expressed by social welfare functions, simply because they track values other than welfare (namely, the rightness of a different distributions of the primary goods of liberties and opportunities).

This last point is emphasized by John Roemer--an economist with a good deal of knowledge about political theory--in Theories of Distributive Justice. This book, by the way, is one that Prof. Quiggan and anyone else who is impatient with the verbal fluffiness of political theory may want to use to introduce themselves to normative issues of distributive justice.
Thursday, May 22, 2003
MOST PROGRESSIVES AGREE that Christie Whitman wasn't such a bad EPA head, given the alternatives, especially now that she's decided to resign. The American Prospect has a good Kreminology-type piece on possibly reasons for her departure, which includes the left-consensus thought that she has been "humiliated" by the Bush Admin's tendentious line on the environment--"poor Christie!" seems to be the not very subtle progressive storyline.

Although I wouldn't let Whiman off the hook completely for the EPA's actions over the past 2 years (she did take the job in the first place), I'm inclined to fall in with this analysis, given her record as a moderate Republican with a conservationist bent--lately, it seems, an endangered species. It's too bad, though, that she couldn't have confirmed it by doing her resignation with a bit more of a splash.
AND SO IT BEGINS: I am now a proud owner of a dossier at the FBI, as I voluntarily submitted to an FBI interview so that I could get permission to enter the law school and get my laptop and my accompanying life back. Looks like my days of flying under the radar as a subversive foreign communist element in the U.S. are over.

Although it took more time than I would have liked, I have to admit I found the process interesting--there was something highly aesthetic about the way in which they turned a neo-gothic reading room in Sterling Memorial Library into their data collection/interview center. I bet the agents got a big kick out of doing their interviews in high-backed padded chairs; must have figured that if they were at an ivy college, they might as well do it right.

My interviewer was an affable and very relaxed guy. Would have fit right in with Mulder & Scully et al. And I learned a bit about what constitutes "suspicious" behaviour--if you want to get away with doing something evil like setting off a small bomb in the nation's best law school, you should stop and stare a bit so as to blend in with the rest of the bewildered crowd before making your escape (not that you should think about doing anything like that, you sick puppy!).

Seriously, I'm very relieved that no one got hurt. The law school is home to some of the most interesting and bright people I know here at Yale--including the folks at The Kitchen Cabinet who have a good summary and links on all of this craziness.

I don't have much more to add, besides the observation that they're taking the incident very seriously, even though it didn't do much damage and appears "unconnected to international terrorism" (in the words of a Yale official). The New Haven PD officer who escorted me to get my stuff said that along with the FBI and ATF guys (who I saw wearing their neato explosives handling/evidence collection suits [?]--from a distance, they looked like all-white, full-body fabric jumpsuits), they also had visits from the State Department and (more) Secret Service (presumably for young Barbara).
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
QUICK UPDATE--EXPLOSION AT YALE: There was an explosion in an auditorium at the Yale Law School today, at around 4:40 PM. It doesn't look like it was that big, since I've spoken to people who saw the doors of the auditorium blown out. A couple students I spoke to said they saw debris, blown out doors, and debris and smoke. Other students said that the explosion was loud and that the building shook when it occurred. I was in the law school at the time, but I didn't hear anything as I wasn't that close to the auditorium; the alarms didn't even go off where I was, so I didn't leave until my friend saw people across the street waving at us to get out.

UPDATE: As of 6:55, some of the firecrews look like they're wrapping up, but the whole area is still cordoned off. And there's FBI agents on the scene, taking notes

No word on injuries, but I didn't see any ambulances. They sent lots of firetrucks and police, including a bomb disposal unit. They've cordoned off around 4 square blocks around the law school.

Some students speculated that it was a gas leak, because a similar, small explosion occurred as a result of such a leak last year--there's lots of other rumours floating around as well, of course. This should be up on the AP wire very soon, as there was a reporter who got onto the scene pretty quickly.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
THOUGHTS ON STRAUSS AND HIS FOLLOWERS: As usual, I'm a little late with my comments on influence of political theorist Leo Strauss on a bunch of high-ranking neo-cons. But here's a quick recap:

1. Recent Sources:
-The rather lightweight NYT piece that got everyone's attention.
-A characteristically arrogant but mostly accurate email response from philosopher (and academic scorekeeper) Brian Leiter.
-English version of a more substantive Le Monde article.
-The growing force that is The Invisible Adjunct has a nice set of posts on the subject.
2. Thoughts on Strauss: I lean toward the people critical of Strauss. From what I've seen of his writings, he was more of a scholarly polemicist than a serious thinker. It's difficult to rationally contest his much-vaunted interpretions of classic political thinkers as he and his followers claim that their conclusions--which often have only a tenuous connection to the text's plain meaning--are derived from esoteric meanings in the texts unavailable to those who haven't engaged in the Straussian method of "close reading." But an examination of the substance of this method of close reading reveals it to be close to a form of mysticism. Roughly, the skilled interpreter, if he or she is well-educated enough in the language of the small number of geniuses throughout history who have grasped the Truths at the heart of philosophy, will eventually "get it" after repeated readings. Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing does offer some concrete interpretive tips for decoding these secret meanings, but how seriously should we take an interpretive method that includes numerology (based on page and chapter numbers) as one of its components? His substantive political philosophy is even less rigourous--as a would-be political philosopher, it is nice to think that theory has the concrete impact that Strauss claims it does, but I don't think that anyone who takes history seriously could view his "three waves of history" thesis as anything more than a wildly speculative caricature.

If we assume that there are people in power who take Strauss' stuff seriously, though, it does feature a number of worrying elements. Strauss' political theory, like his interpretive theory, is unapologetically elitist and infused with esotoricism. He roughly proposes that rights are best protected when an elite class of "liberal gentlemen" are ascendant and that there are truths that the masses are simply not equipped to handle. As such, the impulses of those regular folks should be tamed by the bromides of religion...stop me if any of this sounds applicable to the current situation...

3. Strauss and Neo-Cons: I'm guessing that claims about the influence of Straussianism on neo-cons is a little overblown and draws the causal arrow incorrectly. Yeah, you might think that the paternalistic esotoricism that I've just described is pretty on-point considering the neo-cons' arrogant and elitist attitude toward "lesser" allies and cultures, as well as the mendaciousness of their justifications for attacking Iraq (did I mention the growing evidence that everything they said about WMD might just be a load of bunk?). But I suspect that the type of people who are neo-cons weren't influenced by Strauss' political into taking the political positions they have now, so much as drawn to it because it supports the impulses they already possessed. I suppose that the relationship between people and political theories frequently works in fashion, but it's probably even more likely to be true in this case. Consider that neo-conservatism is a piecemeal ideology that grew out of think tank scholars, not out of academic philosophy. Indeed, actual practicing academic Straussians aren't much of a force when it comes to debates over contemporary theory, as they prefer to make their impact in the sphere of intellectual history and interpretation.

4. Straussian Conspiracy Theorists and Anti-Semitism: Some people on the 'Net--as well as a colleague of mine-- have bristled at the recent speculations about a Straussian (or neo-con) cabal near the top of Bush's foreign policy team, arguing that it seems worryingly close to anti-semitic rumblings about a "Zionist conspiracy." I probably shouldn't "go here," but this general topic has bothered me for awhile. I don't want to dismiss offhand these people as simply trigger-happy folks who have recently been ready to slap the label "anti-semitism" on their political opponents, because I think they are correct in asserting that everyone has an obligation to be sensitive about the way in which the conspiracy smear has been used in the past and the horrors to which it has led. But at the same time, we have to have enough practical judgment to meet this obligation without falling into willful blindness (paleo-cons might have just used the epithet "PC" here).

There is no Zionist conspiracy, but there are a bunch of folks who currently near the top rungs of the Bush Admin who are more friendly to Israel's interests than 98% of the rest of the world. The reasons for this tendency I think can at least partially be attributed to both internal and external aspects of neoconservative ideology. Some of these people are Jewish and some aren't, but clearly, one shouldn't be too surprised to find that an ideology that involves strong support for Israel has a disproportionately high number of Jewish adherents.

The thing is, we should be able to talk about issues of group identity politics, whatever the group, in a mature manner--just as we can maturely talk about why African-Americans regularly turn out 4 to 1 in favour of the party that is perceived as giving more attention to issues that affect them as a group. For a great column on this sticky issue, check out this very necessary Eric Alterman piece.

So although I think the speculations about Straussian ideology are a bit misguided, they're understandable without imputing anti-semitism, given the facial similarities between this ideology and the current neo-con agenda, as well as the conspiratorial and esoteric elements of Straussian interpretive and political theory. And, more importantly, I also think we should be able to talk about all of this stuff in a reasonable manner.