Monday, April 13, 2009

Why John Rawls Didn't Win Us Any Senate Seats, And Why I Blog

Asks Ezra: "If John Rawls had never existed, it's very clear that American political philosophy would look very different. But is it actually clear that American politics would look even a little bit changed?" Probably not, I think. The lesser reason is that his political philosophy actually didn't have very distinctive consequences relative to the American political environment. The greater reason is that we're in a political climate where intellectuals don't have much influence.

I was teaching two weeks of Rawls in my political philosophy seminar this semester, and on rereading it struck me how similar the practical consequences of his views are to the utilitarian views he displaced on the American political philosophy scene. Rawls' difference principle, which basically says that social distributions of goods are better insofar as the people on the bottom are better off, isn't a theory about how happiness should be distributed. It's a view about how social primary goods, like wealth and opportunity, should be distributed. Given the diminishing marginal utility of such goods, a utilitarian will be most concerned with helping the people with the least. There are still going to be differences between the distribution I want and the distribution Rawls wants. But given the existing distribution of goods in American society, Rawls and I are going to be pulling for basically the same political proposals.

Of course, the deeper you get into the theory, the bigger my differences with Rawls get. I think his justifications for why people in the original position would choose the difference principle aren't very good, and he'd do better to just appeal to diminishing marginal utility. His point about the separateness of persons and how you can't make up for harming one person by benefitting another -- his key objection to utilitarianism -- isn't respected by his own theory, which allows you to trade off harms and benefits as long as you do it within classes of people. At least as it's written, the methodology of reflective equilibrium doesn't allow for the sorts of debunking moves that my defense of utilitarianism depends on. But inside baseball stuff like that isn't going to have a popular impact.

(A relevant boast: we utilitarians may be almost as dead as the logical positivists on the US philosophy scene, but which philosopher does Nicholas Kristof sympathetically cover in a very nice column? Peter Singer, taking the side of animals against the meat industry. This is what happens when you have distinctive and striking commitments that touch diverse and sensitive aspects of human life. Which isn't an objection to Rawls -- it's just an explanation for why he wasn't as splashy.)

But the bigger reason why Rawls didn't make a big splash is just that the forces governing American politics at present don't put any premium on intellectual opinion, or show any interest in mainstreaming intellectual debate. The same circumstances that make it possible for George W. Bush to beat Al Gore in 2000 and Sarah Palin to be chosen as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008 prevent any current political philosopher from making an impact. If I saw a bunch of American TV pundits eagerly speculating about which candidate would win the intellectual vote, I'd make sure not to drive or operate heavy machinery in the next twelve hours. Rawls may have a nifty argument that you're not entitled to the things you get in the free market, since those things are really just products of other things that you didn't earn any more than a prince earned his hereditary title. But even though that argument was able to keep the young Texans in my Business Ethics section in their seats, trying to figure a way out, several minutes after the bell rang, it's not the sort of thing that you're going to see on cable TV anytime soon.

Being a philosophy professor who's interested in politics, you might expect me to be rather unhappy about this state of affairs. And, yeah! I'd really like it to change. The funny thing is that I've grown up so fully within this political environment that I've come to accept its constraints. My plans for having political impact generally stand apart from my research. It's kind of a weird thing to say now, just as I'm finally starting to write up my big argument for utilitarianism, the theory that stands at the foundation of my political views. But as awesome as I think the argument is, and as dramatic as its consequences are for how the world should be, I don't really think about it affecting the way anybody outside philosophy thinks about anything.

My teaching might inspire a few kids to do good things or turn their energies in socially beneficial directions, though I'm not under any illusions about my ability in that regard. I can give away a big chunk of my salary to people and causes that will make the world a better place. I can do the sort of thing that all of us bloggers do (thanks to all you for reading!) And hey, maybe the American political environment will emerge from the anti-intellectual shadow of whatever it was that made this happen. But until I see that happening, I'm not expecting to write any journal articles that change the world.


Mary said...

OK, I think this might give me an opportunity to ask a question that has been burning in my mind. I respect that you give money to causes you believe in. And in any profession, there is a certain amount of service that is expected to be given away. And some people have more time and service than money to give.

Because I do respect people who have ways to carefully think things through, I'm addressing this to you: how much service can one give away related to certain skills before causing devaluation of those skills in the marketplace, thereby hurting and not helping others? For example, people who use those skills to make a living and don't have other resources available to them?

I know this was something of a feminist discussion at one time, and I'm not looking for you to give "The" answer. What I'm wondering is if this has ever been quantified, and if you can recommend resources for thinking this through. This is probably ever so marginally related to your post, but I'm taking the opportunity anyway...basically asking you to share your hard-earned expertise for free, so feel free to ignore or delete. :)

drip said...

Anti-intellectualism has a long and glorious history in America; it's not a new feature. From the bigots who derailed the populists, through the social darwinists, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy and Spiro Agnew, Americans have worshiped the egghead haters. The fact that we've elected 2 on the last 30 years (twice each, for god's sake!) doesn't make it better or worse. It is important, it seems to me, to try to instill respect for education, intellect and judgment. I just keep telling myself that the world isn't worse than it used to be, it's just louder. OTOH Idiocracy made just enough sense to me to make me very nervous. So, I try to read blogs, like this one, that try to put out reasoned thought for discussion. I know you do real work and it's more important than what you do here, but I think it helps. So, thanks for writing. I'll keep reading.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I don't have a general-purpose answer to give you, Mary, because it's going to vary from field to field depending on the conditions. In some areas, like philosophy, sharing your expertise for free may just get people more interested in the issues and increase the demand for everybody else's expertise. Yay! Unless you do a bad job and get people annoyed with those who share your skill.

In other fields it's going to be somewhat different. But my guess is that in most places this isn't going to be a big problem. It's especially safe if you're giving your skills away to people who need them but wouldn't be able to pay for them. There you're not stepping on anybody's economic opportunity. (You're more likely to be raising the social esteem in which your skill is held, since people generally want to see the needy be helped.)

Joe said...

I don't entirely disagree with your assessment about the relationship between political philosophy and politics. Indeed, part of the reason I'm no longer an academic is my frustration at the disconnect between my professional writing and anything resembling an idea that actual pundits might discuss.

But if you're really as pessimistic as you seem to suggest here, I sort of wonder why you're still in the profession at all. If your students don't carry any of the arguments with them outside of class, the public never hears your arguments at all, and the political class steadfastly ignores anything coming out of academia, then why are you bothering?

Don't get me wrong; I have heard all the standard lines about knowledge being its own reward and the like. Which is why I keep reading and writing about philosophy on my own time. But if you really do hold the views that you say you do here, then isn't there maybe something odd about a utilitarian taking money to do something that he thinks is pretty much pointless?

Or, to ask the question slightly differently, why continue in a profession where, if what you say is true, your main function is to contribute research that is of interest only to other people working in the same profession.

Or, to put it yet a third way, why think that professional philosophers aren't just free-riding on the rest of society?

Again, don't take any of this the wrong way. I don't actually think you are free riding. But that's because I think that your function as a teacher isn't nearly as hopeless as you seem to suggest in this post. I don't think what you are doing lacks value. But, given what you say here, it's not clear to me why it is that you should think that what you are doing has much value.

John Emerson said...

My short answer is that academics, especially philosophers, have not done a very good job of figuring out which political questions most need philosophical treatment. The problem, essentially, is before they start. Changing the questions is something that philosophers have done in the past (Dewey, Nietzsche, Marx, Hegel, Mill) , but by and large I don't think that contemporary professional philosophers do it.

A much longer answer can be summed up by saying that when you define all knowledge as the product of specialized experts, as philosophy and much of academia does, the zone of general-public thought and action basically disappears. Either it's a form of expertise, in which case the experts should handle it; or else it's not, in which case it's subjective, undecidable, private, unscientific, not rational, wisdom literature, cracker-barrel philosophy, etc.

There are contemporary and recent philosophers who do specialize in talking about practical philosophy (Stephen Toulmin, Chaim Perelman, Michel Meyer), but by and large they're not at the center of the philosophical dialogue, if they're part of it at all. All of them say, especially Toulmin, that almost all contemporary philosophy has a theoreticist bias making it ill-fitted to the discussion of concrete, contexted practical actualities in real time at all.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Good questions all, Joe. (BTW - thanks for reading, drip!)

It's not that I'm unable to change the world as an academic -- just that I'm unable to change the world through research. There's a lot about the academic lifestyle that puts you in good position to have an impact. The hours are flexible, so if I want to put research on hold and spend 30 hours a week in the months before elections doing political stuff, I can. (That was what I was doing this fall.) I also make good money that I can devote to election-related projects or give away.

There are also a bunch of useful side projects that I'd be well positioned to engage in. Starting some big push to get high schools to take Ayn Rand books off the curriculum would be one example. Someday when I'm in America, I'll be in good position to do stuff of that sort.

There's also a hope that my views end up having political effect in the relatively distant future, either because it gets absorbed in other areas, or because the political climate shifts. Of course, everybody thinks that's going to happen with their thing, and it really can't work for everybody at the same time, so I shouldn't be too confident about this.