Michael Sandel Reith Lectures A New Politics

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Sandel!

I listened to Sandel’s 4th and last BBC Reith Lecture today, ‘A New Politics of the Common Good’ (check archives for comments on previous lectures). It’s possible for a week after this is posted to listen to the lecture in BBC iPlayer or as a podcast by clicking here. Hopefully the BBC will archive the lectures. The first three lectures took place in the UK, but the last was in Washington DC. Like the lecture in London, this enabled people of power to participate in the discussion after the lecture, I don’t know that this is a great way of enhancing the discussion.

Listening to Sandel’s lecture reminded me of the South Park co-creator Matt Stone’s famous comment, ‘I hate conservatives,but I really f***ing hate liberals (liberal in the US sense of left wing/social democrat)’. Listening to the first question from a Republican led me to reverse this to ‘I hate social democrats, but I really f***ing hate conservatives’. Sandel’s argument and level of argument was truly sad, a series of sneers at straw man arguments, while arguing for more morality and high public purpose in politics. What this means in practice for Sandel is a return to pre-1980s social democracy. It was manipulative and sanctimonious rhetoric, delivered it must also be said with affable good humour.

My irritation with Sandel was quickly overwhelmed by my irritation with a questioner from the Republican Party. He started by saying ‘we Republicans’ as if all members of the Republican Party thought the same way. Last time I checked it was a mixture of Theocon Christian Conservatives. Neo-Conservative strong state international interventionists, Plaeocon weak state isolationists, libertarians, moderates and no doubt some other strands and shades. He moved onto claiming that America is unique in allowing anyone from anywhere to succeed. What does Johnny Rep think goes on in Europe, serfdom? Immigration flows into Europe are comparable with the United States as is social mobility, off hand I can think of at least one European country with greater social mobility (Sweden). Sandel’s social democratic sanctimoniousness versus Republican delusions of national uniqueness and grandeur taken to be uniquely represented by that one political party, not much of a choice. Fortunately the following questions were less absurd.

Returning to Sandel’s talk, he referred to ‘market fundamentalism’ and ‘market triumphalism’. I have referred before on this blog to ‘The Myth of Bush the Economic Libertarian’ (check archive), it really is a myth. Defence and non-defence spending shot up under Bush. The volume of economic regulation, the expense of economic regulation and the number of people employed in economic regulation also shot up.

Sandel traced this ‘market fundamentalism’ back to Reagan and Thatcher. Here there is some truth in referring to market oriented changes: Thatcher squeezed high inflation out of the economy. privatised, reduced public spending as a proportion of national wealth (though public spending kept increasing in real terms, just more slowly than economic growth), reduced the legal privileges of trade unions; Reagan also squeezed out high inflation, held back non-defence spending (but this was compensated by high defence spending) and removed some of the more intrusive aspects of economic regulation, though the volume of regulations continued to increased as it did under Thatcher.

The reduction in public spending as a proportion of the economy under Thatcher still left it at just under 40%. How is this market fundamentalism when public spending is nearly 40% of national wealth? This is much higher than Conservative and Labour governments earlier in the 20th Century. In the 19th Century public spending was often about 10%. Part of what Sandel means by ‘market fundamentalism’ is governments mimicking market behaviour when managing public services. He did not say too much about what this entails, what it entails is the following: more choice for users of public services, more competition between providers of public services, finding ways of pushing providers to provider better services for less cost which is what the market does on its own in the private sector. In what way is this an attack on public services or market fundamentalism? Such policies make public services more affordable and therefore secure. The real free market small state ‘fundamentalists’ do not want to make public services more secure by reforming then, they want to reduced and abolish them.

Sandel traced ‘market fundamentalism’ back to the technocratic fantasies of a politics without ideology pure concerned with technical choices, which did sometimes surface in the post World War Two era. However, the two politicians Sandel quoted, the UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and the US President John F. Kennedy in no way consistently followed such rhetoric. Kennedy famously emphasised civic virtue, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do dor your country’, the sort of thing Sandel apparently advocates.

The criticism of ‘market fundamentalism’ was supported by attacks on cost-benefit analysis, though this is a completely different issue. A social democratic, even socialist, state needs to engage in such calculations, and in fact rather more of them as they refer to the public sector as they want a large public sector. Sandel looked for cheap laughs by finding a couple of silly sounding examples of cost benefit analysis: a cigarette company which pointed out to the Czech government that cigarettes reduce public spending because they lead to earlier deaths, reducing the number of people living on state pensions or dependent on long term care in state hospitals and homes for the elderly; someone in the US who tried to quantify the risks of using particle accelerators by putting a price on the destruction of the human race (there is a vanishingly small possibility that a particle accelerator could destroy the Earth). The cigarette company was lobbying against high taxes of cigarettes. It would in the end be obnoxious to argue that the smoking is good because of the reduced costs to the tax payer of killing some people off younger, but should we ignore the reality that smoking does save public money? Taxes on tobacco and other restrictions on tobacco are sometimes presented as saving public health spending. This is a dishonest argument and should be exposed. If we follow Sandel we will not uncover such dishonesty. There are other reasons for taxing tobacco and restricting its public consumption, and those should be discussed on their own merits. The pricing of the end of the world sounds weird but so what? Adventurous social science applied to public policy should sound weird. If anyone is arguing that we should only judge the danger of the end of the world with reference to a notional cash cost, that would be highly unsatisfactory but I doubt anyone is, and if anyone is eccentric enough to do so well good luck to them in their brave eccentricity. In the end what Sandel is doing is trying to ridicule attempts to put our intuitions about morality and public policy into an analysis of good and bad consequences. This is philistine and anti-intellectual. I don’t know of anyone who thinks this can replace moral judgement, but surely moral judgements should be informed by awareness of cost-benefit analysis. As Sandel rightly points out, cost-benefit analysis itself is variable and should not be treated as absolute knowledge, but who is saying otherwise? Like all scientific endeavour, cost benefit analysis is fallible and is an evolving enterprise, that is not a reason for abandoning it. Sandel may not wish to abandon it, he certainly wishes to reduce itwhich is an appeal to irrationalism, just as bad as those who say Darwinianism or earth sciences must be false if they contradict the literal reading of religious texts.

What Sandel offers as a substitute, or a superior instance, in relation to free markets and cost-benefit analysis is public goods and public morality. This is a false dichotomy, if public services are run according to command and control planning then they will not deliver a good service to the public. Sandel is very distrurbed by individuals using private services instead of public services, and that includes using a private gym instead of public sporting facilities. Increasing prosperity makes it inevitable over time that an increasing number of individuals will be able to purchase private substitutes for public services. In doing so they are reducing the burden on tax payers who finance public services and increase their own choice. By spending their own money and making their own choices they foster innovation and competition between providers to improve choice, quality and prices, These are public goods in the end, though they arise from private individual actions. They do not reduce public money to assist the poorest, they increase the amount of public money available to relieve poverty and exclusion from the social mainstream. Exactly why should public money go into crowding private choices out of the market instead of helping the poorest?

Sandel’s desire that everyone should only use public services in their lives is authoritarian, trying to restrict choices available to individuals, and based on a completely different set of considerations about the value of participation in public political life. I share Sandel’s concerns, as did the British Thatcherites in the 80s who thought government was so involved in the minutiae of managing the public sector that it had lost the great qualities of 19th Century democracy in Britain, when Parliament debated great issues of state, and the public was much more willing to go to political meetings and participate in the political life in the nation. There are some things I don’t like about Thatcherism (social conservatism, nationalist egomania, centralising and authoritarian actions, a tendency to value polarisation) but they were right about that. Is the wish to move politics from the details of public administration to major public issues a ‘right wing’ concern? Check the online essay by the (very moderate) Marxist Jürgen Habermas, ‘Law and Morality’, exactly the same concerns.

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Thoughts on the Philosophy of Peace Conference

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with pictures!

The ‘Philosophy of Peace III’ conference at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University, Istanbul ended two days ago. My last three posts write up each day of the conference. The biggest conference focus was on Kant’s essay ‘Perpetual Peace’ (‘Zum ewigen Frieden’). The front cover of the first German edition is shown above. Not every paper referred to Kant, but his philosophical view of the possibility of permanent peace was discussed many times. Those papers which did not directly refer to Kant still engaged with the issues that Kant deals with: how there can be universal peace, and associated issues of communication, justice and ethics.

I won’t react to the conference by detailing my reaction to individual papers, all of which were summarised on the last three posts. I will list, in no particular order, some things I learned in general mixed in with some points I would like to work on in reaction to what happened at the conference.

The tension between ideas of natural law (law that supposedly all humans agree on if they are thinking clearly and which therefore come from nature rather than human institutions) and socially constructed order, in thinking about how human communities might move towards peace.

The permanence of war in the sense that peace can only be maintained by states (or possibly one integrated global state) using a monopoly of violence to repress threats to peace within the state and in relations between states. Since politics is the competition to control the state monopoly of violence, politics and all associated social conflicts must be seen as war of some kind.

The likely necessity of war in bringing the world closer to perpetual peace, as aggressive states have to be defeated. Efforts to defeat aggressive states, along with violent non-state organisations, are not only likely to require violence, they are likely to cause reactive violence. The movement towards perpetual peace must be labyrinthine.

There is no purely moral government, state or political leader. That may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but work on ‘Peace’ tends to be hovering on verge of assuming the goal of a purely non-violent ethical order, of law without force. This could only happen from a anarchist perspective. When I say anarchism, I do not mean chaos, I mean anarchism as a political project. In general the political project of anarchism is a society governed by laws which have been adopted by peaceful consensus of the community as a whole. I do not think this is a realistic project. As was pointed out in the conference, stateless ‘primitive’ communities fight each other and have a high rate of death by violence.

War as we know it is inevitable for many future decades, at least, and war in the general sense that politics always refers to the state’s use of force is inevitable in any conceivable society. In that case we must be concerned with the ethics of war, so we can pursue the highest ethical standards in all out military wars and in the war of politics. When I say highest ethical standards, I do not mean that ethical purity is possible, I mean that the labyrinth of individual and collective passions and interests needs to be regulated from the point of view of some ethical standard.

War cannot be taken in a purely negative sense, even though we should work for a world without war, at least in sense of the full out military conflict. Kant himself though war can be morally elevating if conducted according to laws of humanity. There are various ways in which military virtues have played a part in the history of moral thought, and taken in its broadest sense that includes the role of war and warriors in artistic works with moral qualities. War has often been associated with broad political and social changes, and all of us can think of some political or social changes associated with some wars, which we find desirable however much we hate the suffering of war. Military ideals have appeared in political thought in all traditions, liberal and Marxist as well as conservative and nationalists. Sometimes conservatism is more pacific than other political currents because of fear of the social and political changes brought about by war.

If Kant is a convenient starting point for the study of peace, then Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831, portrait at bottom of post) is a convenient starting point for the study of war, in his unfinished but still monumental On War (Vom Kriege, front cover of first edition at bottom of post). The lives of Kant and Clausewitz overlap and they were both German subjects of the Prussian monarchy. It is widely accepted that Clausewitz’ writing is marked by German Idealist philosophy. If Clausewitz belongs to the study of war, he must belong to the study of peace as Kant must belong to the study of war. Just as we can find antique precedents for Kant’s cosmopolitanism in antique Stoicism and Virgil’s Roman-Augustan universalism in the Aeneid, we can find antique precedents for Clausewitz in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad.

I will end just by referring to the classic explanation, and justification, of Samurai spirit in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s (1659-1719) Hagakure (The Book of the Samurai), which suggests that the Samurai warrior belongs with the Buddhist priest in the practice of compassion and of fearlessness before death. Tsunetomo himself was a samurai from the end of the Samurai era who became a Buddhist monk.


Istanbul Political Philosophy Conference: Day 3

Primary version of this post available at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, picture included!

Yesterday was the last day of the Philosophical Perspectives on Peace III Conference at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University (south campus where the conference was held pictured above). As I attended the social evening after the conference I was not able to report yesterday. The social side of the conference was very good, I couldn’t find the energy to go to the evening social events on the previous days, but by all accounts these were great evenings in local restaurants.

The conference day began with Ulrich Steinvorth of Bilkent Univeristy, who presented a paper on

‘Formal and Material Liberalism and Globalization’. Steinvorth distinguished between formal liberalism as the aspect of liberalism which guarantees general rights, and the material aspect of liberalism which pursues a vision of the good life. Steinvorth argued that material liberalism is more important because it is dealing with the reality of social life, and focuses on developing individual capacities. Steinvorth illustrated this with reference to the debate in Turkey about permitting the headscarf in universities. He explained that he had changed his mind about this while teaching in Turkey, because of all the female students who had told him that families oppress daughters by making them wear the headscarf. In this argument, there is a gain for freedom in forbidding the headscarf in the university because it counteracts the oppression of young women by their families. Steinvorth went on to identify what he regards as the destructive consequences of unrestrained markets, in that easier production of basic needs leads to great unemployment instead of the redeployment of worker into more creative and interesting ways of working. In the discussion, members of the audience suggested that: there is anti-perfectionist element in Kant contrary to Steinvorth’s suggestion that Kant provides an alternative to a purely rights based value neutral liberalism; there are problems in deciding what is the best way of developing capacities for children since they are limited in the right to make choices; in Mill, formal liberalism is a pretext for material liberalism, and in general all liberal thinkers have been concerned with ‘material liberalism’ questions of what promotes human flourishing.

Thomas Baum of Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels presented his paper, ‘Checking the Promise of the Democratic Peace: Perspectives on Critical Peace and the Liberal Orthodoxy’. Baum recognised the difficulty of giving a single definition of liberalism but concentrated on Benthamite Utiliarianism because it strongly anticipates the kind of rational expectations model used by most practitioners of International Relations Democratic Peace Theory. He claims that in this field most practitioners are looking at a very narrow set of date and a very narrow set of examples, with the result that it is a very weak field. The effect of this is to exclude those stated which are not ‘mature’ democracies, with the possible consequence that the other states will not be given full rights in the international system, and force might be used against them. Audience discussion included the question of whether the exclusion of some nations is just an empirical fact or is a constitutive aspect of Democratic Peace Theory.

Yodenis Guirola, a Cuban currently resident in Barcelona who is researching international relations presented on ‘Peace as a Problem: Perpetual Peace between Philosophy and Practice’. His analysis of the current global system is that includes: dominant free market fundamentalism, domination of stronger countries, subordination of human values and public right to economic interests.

Audience discussion referred to how the global system could be improved and how far state actions on behalf of economic interests can be regarded as ‘market fundamentalism’.

Arthur Kok of Tilburg University spoke on ‘How Philosophy Contributes to Peace in Practice’

He started with the dichotomy between social order and natural (individual) right in Kant’s view of freedom. He looked at the struggle between these principles through a discussion of Hegel’s analysis of Sophocles’ play Antigone as a representation of the death of the Greek polis. That shows a conflict between individual rights and state authority which Hegel resolves through towards modern civil society as a third sphere between state and individual, which creates a non-political free sphere. Hegel sees labour at the centre of civil society. but has a more expanded view in the Phenomenology. Audience reaction focused on the accuracy of Hegel’s reading of Sophocles and his account of the Ancient Greek world.

The final speaker was Fülya Özlem, a doctoral student at Berlin Technical University, who had a paper with the title, ‘Travelling as a Condition of Peace’. This was an account of the philosophy of translation and language interpretation in Davidson’s theory of communicability and shared concepts, Wittgenstein’s theory of language games, life forms, and rule following, and Quine’s theory of translation. All three positions look at questions of language understanding in the frame of someone dealing with a new language or learning language, which brings in the traveller going to a new language community. Audience discussion was largely about how this model could be applied to ancient languages which are no longer in use.

Istanbul Political Philosophy Conference: Day 2

Primary version of this post available at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with scenic picture of the campus used!

Day two of a political philosophy event at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University south campus (pictured above), partly focused on Kant’s essay ‘Perpetual Peace’.

Harry Lesser of the University of Manchester began the day with a talk on ‘Machiavelli and Kant’. He argued that Kant disputes the idea of a political morality distinct from normal morality, unlike Machiavelli though Machiavelli’s intentions are moral in the long run in the sense he believe non-moral actions by normal standards can bring public benefits. Lesser avoided the more superficial representations of Machiavelli as simply immoral by suggesting that he is a virtue ethicist like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. At one level Kant agrees with Machiavelli in his more cynical remarks about human nature, as can be seen in his idea of radical evil (radical in the sense of deeply rooted and a deeply rooted tendency to act from impure motives rather than a tendency towards acts of radical evil).

Humans need morality because they are not moral. Nevertheless, according to Kant advance towards a higher moral state is possible, in which there is perpetual peace. Machiavelli assumes war is normal

For Kant, morality in the form of justice is necessary to politics and there are moral politician who respects human rights. They respect the importance of promise keeping and following universal maxims. The discussion which followed included points about how far Abraham Lincoln can be regarded as a Machiavellian leader, and how far Machiavelli recommends immorality to the Prince, rather than virtuous prudence.

Lesset was followed by Andrew Norris of the University of California Santa Barbara who presented a paper on, ‘Rousseau on Political Self-Assertion and Otherness’ Norris compared Rousseau’s account of ‘man everywhere in chains’ (in The Social Contract) with Aristotle’s account of the slave as an incomplete human being. We are in slaves as we are in a state of alienation from ourselves, we do not feel that we are natural real selves. Rousseau’s solution is a the social contract, in which thete is total alienation from ourselves in joining a general will (the will representing the rational moral position for all in the community, which they may or many not work out. We legislate for ourselves through the general will, and we escape the feeling that out life is all outside the present moment, in the past or future, by living in the present, through the general will. In his way there is a relation of the activity and passivity in ourselves through Rousseau’s will, and this is what enable the movement from animal desire to human. We have responsibility for a nation whether or not you like that identity or agree with the acts of that state, because of the way we joined together in the social contract. The discussion which followed included points about why we should accept a general social contract rather than the series of smaller social unions to which we belong; Rousseau’s ideal of small self sufficient communities in relation to his articulation of larger communities with more complex structures.

Lunch followed and the first afternoon speaker was Jon Mahoney of Kansas State University, who presented, ‘An Argument against Religious Exemption’. Mahoney looked at a US court case concerning Old Order Amish who do not believe their religion allows children to be educated beyond the age of 14, though education is compulsory until 16 in the US. Mahoney used egalitarian liberal approach in which he argued that equality does not allow parents to deny education to their children, though he thinks religious exceptions from the law are allowable where no basic right is eroded. The argument was partly that equality is a better foundation for egalitarian liberalism that individual autonomy. The discussion covered the Muslim head scarf in Turkey and France, different definitions of liberalism, and how far it is possible to go in allowing religious exceptions.

The next speaker was Sergueï Spetschinsky of the Free University of Brussels, a main instigator of the series of conferences on Philosophy of Peace, to which this event belongs. His paper had the title, ‘Illegitimate Peace: On the Antinomy of Mastery’. He looked at the paradox that peace can only be enforced through the threat of violence,. He related the structure of the higher instance which enforces peace on lower instances in relation to Kant’s discussion of the relation between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ university faculties in ‘Contest (Conflict) of Faculties)’. The solution offered to the paradox was the role of the citizen as philosopher who resists the violent aspects of the institutions which enforce peace. The discussion covered the role of constitutional checks and balances in controlling the state that enforces peace, the relation to Foucault’s thoughts on the role of violence in sovereignty, the way that Kant rests os a natural law tradition to justify the state as non-violent.

The last paper of the day was given by Carlota Moiso of Italy’ who paper had the title ‘About Dynamic Identity’. Moiso looked at Said’s theory of Orientalist misrepresentations of the ‘east’ in relation to ways in which European writers have engaged more fully with the ‘east’ and what can be taken from the religious and spiritual traditions of the ‘;east’.

Istanbul Political Philosophy Conference: Day 1

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog. Include picture of the beautiful campus used for the conference!

PHILOSOPHICAL PERSPECTIVES ON PEACE III

South Campus of Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University (Pictured above)

Today I’ve been attending the first day of a philosophy conference in Istanbul, largely taking Kant’s essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, an essay on 1795 on the possibility of a peaceful world federation of republics. What Kant meant by a republic is essentially what we now call liberal democracy, representative, democracy, or constitutional democracy. The conference was hosted by the Boğaziçi Philosophy Department, and was largely organised by Lucas Thorpe who is teaching there over the Summer. I have know Lucas for some years in the Turkish philosophy scene. He has organised many international Kant events, and is himself a very good scholar of Kant, moral theory, and early modern philosophy.

The first speaker was Howard Williams of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, editor of the Kantian Review and well known for his work on Kant’s political thought. His paper title was ‘Natural Right in Perpetual Peace’. Williams discussed the move in Kant from early modern theories of natural right to his own metaphysics of morals. Natural right, refers to those ideas of what is just that are so universal amongst humans that they can be said to be ideas of what is just by nature. Kant moves from ideas of what is right by nature, and is naturally know to be right by nature, to an abstract set of moral principles created by human intellect and clarified by philosophical inquiry. Williams looked at two problems in the theory of natural law: 1 the place of individual freedom. 2. the place of state sovereignty. Wiiliams identified Hobbes as someone whose solution was to subordinate individual freedom. This is based on Hobbes’ theory of authorisation, according to which if I accepted the law and order offered by a sovereign body, I have become the author of all its actions because I have consented to this sovereign. Hobbes made this a theory of the individual state only. He though that the ‘law of nations’ (law governing nations) is the same as the violent chaos of relations between humans in the time before sovereign governments are established. In Kant the state becomes like a moral person bound by law. Williams thinks there is a tension here here between the law that exists now guiding nations towards law governed peace in Kand the existence of peace in the future. Morality and natural providence (the way we behave by nature) combine to lead us to become aware of the moral and practical advantages of peace. In the discussion after the talk, Williams offered the following further explanations: the state is a moral person in relation to other states, not in relation to individuals in the state as this would destroy their status as free moral persons; unlike Locke (and more recently Nozick), Kant does not see rights as belonging to individuals ontologically (by virtue of existing as individuals) but through the moral development of civil society over history.

Lucas Thorpe was the next speaker, with the title ‘Perpetual Peace and Impossible Ideals’. He concentrated on the ideals of peace and the moral will needed to come closer to peace. Thorpe suggested that in Kant, perpetual peace may be impossible, but we should still will to achieve the necessary moral will in order to at least raise ourselves above our existing moral level.

Jacob Beck of Texas Tech University spoke on ‘The Roots of War: The Evolutionary and Cognitive Origins of Human Warmongering’. He discussed human tendencies to war from the point of view of anthropological and psychological evidence, including comparison with chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees are unique amongst all animal species in ‘lethal raiding’. That is males from one group murder males from other groups, and rape and kidnap females from other groups. This kind of activity in hunter gathered leads to a death rate amongst young males of 30%, much higher than in modern societies despite continuing wars. There is a genetic reason for such behaviour, as makes who do not die have more descendants. That genetic motive may be shared between humans and chimpanzees. However, Beck also discussed the possibility that ‘lethal raiding’ might be the accidental outcome of intelligence; and also discussed the difficulty of distinguishing generic determination from psychological adaptation.

Next, Bill Wringe of Bilkent University, Ankara (someone else I have known for several years in the Turkish philosophy scene) spoke on ‘Armed Humanitarian Intervention and the Duty to Promote Peace’. He discussed differences between the state of nature between individuals in Hobbes and his theory of international relations, there cannot be a complete correspondence though it might sometimes look as if Hobbes thinks there is. Wringe thinks it’s difficult to defend armed humanitarian intervention in other states (to prevent mass killing in particular), because Kant demands the renunciation of any future use of force. In the discussion, it was suggested that Kant might allow for intervention where state authority collapses because of civil war.

Keziban Der of UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) finished the day with ‘Peace and Global Poverty’. This was an exposition and defence of Thomas Pogge’s view that poverty in low income countries is the result of an unjust world economic order, in which for example natural resources are extracted without full compensation for the local population. This is understood through ‘double effect’, the ways in which action with good intentions may have bad consequences. Der argued for bad consequences to be taken more fully into account and for the global poor to receive income transfers from the rich of the world. The discussion moved into the issue of whether inequality is necessarily the result of injustice. It was suggested from the audience that economic life must be competitive and it is not unfair for there to be a winner in any competition for an economic reward, and that national law income comes from poor governance. I presume that could be developed into the claim that competition generates wealth for everyone though in any individual competition there have to be losers as well as winners. The total effect of a series of competitions over time is to improves everyone’s welfare. It was also pointed out from the floor that Pogge is adotping an idea from Rawls, ‘the difference principle’ in which inequality within a nation is only justified if it benefits the poorest. Pogge tries to turn that it into a global principle, justifying global income transfers. It was also suggested that this would be very difficult to achieve and that in practice Pogge was arguing for a more limited income transfer than full application of the difference principle would suggest.

Hobbes: Difference between Law, Contract, Custom

Primary version of this post (with picture of Hobbes!) at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

‘They confound law and covenant who conceive the laws to be nothing else but certain […] forms of living determined by the customs of men’

Thomas Hobbes

De Cive (Of the Citizen)

XIV, 2


Thoughts here are rather provisional reflections while reading De Cive, but are very much what I have to think over time are the problems in Hobbes’ political theory.


Hobbes here refers to Aristotle, quoting in Greek and an English translation. He does not give references to the Aristotle quotation, and I cannot find the source except that I have found similar passages in Politics VI 1. The broad point is that what is legal or sovereign in Aristotle is what citizens are use to agreeing on.


Hobbes point is that his antique and republican predecessors have confused contract with law and also custom with law. When Hobbes refers to antique and republican predecessors he is referring to Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca. All see government coming from consent of the citizens through law and custom. The idea of Plato as a Republican thinker of government based on consent is somewhat against current stereotypes about Plato, but those stereotypes need reassessing.


The most direct point Hobbes makes here is that law is more than covenant. Covenant is the term Hobbes used for the contract which establishes a sovereign body to represent and rule a people. It seems to me that there is some trouble for Hobbes in wanting to make covenant the basis of sovereignty and then make covenant less than the sovereignty of law. Leaving that aside, Hobbes’ point is that we must distinguish between particular contracts as agreements between citizens and the agreement to which maybe no living individuals have explicitly consented, that is the agreement to obey the laws passed by the sovereign body.


In this way, Hobbes makes a clear distinction between anarchy, which he refers ti as the state of nature, and civil society. When i say anarchy, I do not mean in the negative sense of chaos, I mean in the positive sense of a social order based on purely voluntary co-operation.


Both senses appear in Hobbes. When he talks about a state of nature, he refers to constant war. As far as I am aware, there is considerable evidence that the earliest human societies of small bands were frequently at war with each other and lost a higher proportion of the population to war than modern industrial societies, even allowing for the 20th Century European wars. However, Hobbes also seems to allow for a city which has yet to establish a covenant for instituting sovereignty. In this case, he must believe in a civil society of a kind before sovereignty. There may be a problem for Hobbes here.


Hobbes makes a strong case against anarchism, or a purely contractual voluntary, view of relations between humans. He also refers more obliquely to the belief that laws are based on custom, which looks like criticism of some kinds of conservative thought. In the context of his time though, it is maybe more another way of criticising antique republicans and their early modern followers. For the ancient thinkers Hobbes criticises , the best laws and constitutions are those which spring from the customs of a city and are not imposed by the law making body. I think Hobbes detects anarchist undertones, the idea that laws can exist and be applied without a sovereign body to make and enforce them. What Hobbes criticised does not disappear in the early modern period. A century later, Montesqueiu and Rosseau conceive of a republic in its ideal form as an almost stateless state, in which laws are customs. These aspects of Montesquieu and Rousseau were of great interest to radical republicans like Robespierre and Saint-Just in the French Revolution. In power, they took this to mean they should enforce the kind of virtue which can be found in the customs of ancient republics.


When thinking of Hobbes, we should not just think of the idea of the unlimited sovereign power, but also of a distinction between law and custom or contract, which leaves custom and contract distinct from political questions of sovereignty, and therefore free of state intervention and domination.

Michael Sandel Reith Lectures Genetics and Morality

(Primacy version of this post, with picture of Sandel! is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

Sadly I have to say, an argument for restricting individual freedom, and a worrying tendency to confuse eloquence in explaining why Sandel does not like something at the level of subjective preference with circumstances which would justify legal restrictions.

I’ve just listened to Michael Sandel’s third Reith lecture with this link which is only available for another week. Hopefully the BBC will archive this link and those for Sandel’s other Reith lectures.

Sandel begins by explaining his role in a committee advising George W. Bush on stem cell research. Sandel was in a minority in the committee which favoured allowing federal funds for such research. Objections to stem cell research refer to the need to create and then destroy a human embryo, while carrying out medical research into possible therapies using such cells. The follow up to Sandel’s permissive position on stem cell research is his restrictive position on genetic enhancement.

Sandel’s position is that genetic manipulation is permissible for medical curative purposes, but not for enhancement. Forms of manipulation he thinks should be banned include parents choosing genetic modification with regard to: sex of a child, height of child, beauty of child, sporting abilities of child, intellectual capacities of child.

It only becomes clear at the end of the talk in the question and answer section that Sandel favours banning these things. That might be considered implicit in the main body of his talks where he is very eloquent on why he does not like these things. However, there is a big difference between an eloquent explanation of why you do not like something and giving reasons for making it a criminal offence. It worries me that Sandel did not follow that distinction, and unfortunately could probably rely on his audience to perceive that he was arguing for bans, not merely explaining a preference. It worries me that so many people many not see a big jump between saying you don’t like something so that you would prefer it not to happen and saying that the coercive power of the state should be used to stop something ever happening,

Sandel’s general argument for opposing ‘non-medical’ genetic modification is that it undermines our humility in relation to nature. It undermines the sense of the ‘unbidden’ that parents have towards their children as something they cannot control. In general it leads to a Promethean sense of hubris. When Sandel refers to the Promethean, he is referring to Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods so that humans could have it. ‘Hubris’ has a modern meaning of pride and excess, but I’m sure Sandel was thinking of its origins in Ancient Geek morality, and the belief that humans should stay within bounds. I’ve always regarded Prometheus as admirable and I believe many people always have. Why does Sandel think the human restlessness and desire to improve the human condition, symbolised by Prometheus, is such a bad thing? Big changes in human society, going back to the primeval use of fire are good things, unless you believe that we should live like pre-literate pre-historical, pre agricultural humans in bands of hunter gatherers. The first use of fire, the invention of agriculture, the construction of towns, the invention of writing are all crossings of boundaries as are all the cultural, political and technological developments since we value.

Of course Sandel is not arguing for some kind of obscurantist primitivist return to the the earliest kinds of human life, but then why use terms which taken seriously might lead in such a direction. If that’s what Sandel has got to throw against genetic modification then he has not got much at all.

I suppose Sandel is distrurbed by the way technology can ‘interfere’ with our ‘natural’ genetic make up, but the whole history of human development is that of changing nature in ourselves and in our environment. That can have harmful aspects, as in pollution of the environment, but that in itself is not an argument against using genetic engineering to get more of things we think are valuable: beauty, athletic ability and intelligence.

On the specific issue of choosing the sex of babies, Sandel could have a point, presuming that parents are too inclined to prefer one gender over another. The consequences of a big imbalance between men and women in the population are very negative, certainly for heterosexuals in the bigger gender group, and I think it’s reasonable to restrict this possibility through the law. However, Sandel clearly goes beyond this. He just finds it intrinsically repulsive, i.e. Promethean and hubristic, to choose the sex of children. That’s a good reason why he might choose not to participate in the practice and might argue for that preference with others, but how is it a basis for coercing others unless there is a demonstrable negative consequence. That is a negative consequence beyond Sandel own feeling of reverence for creation and nature, which strikes me as a remarkably poor basis for coercing others.

Sandel thinks that potential parents are showing less love for their future children if they choose genetic modifications which make them more beautiful, athletic, or intelligent. I find it peculiar to say there is a lack of love where parents seek an advantage for their future children. Sandel thinks this shows a lack of love for any children they might have who are not beautiful, or athletic or intelligent. This simply does not follow. If parents make every effort to get a good school for their children, but their children are in the end very weak in academic achievements would that mean that the parents would have to love them less? Certainly not.

An eloquent talk by Sandel but overall a frightening tendency to believe that the state should coerce other people to follow certain standards of his own about not being Promethean. What’s wrong with being Promethean? Many people have considered Prometheus a hero. I certainly do.