Possessive individualism

C. B. Macpherson was a political philosopher who placed a genuinely novel interpretation on the history of political thought in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke when the book appeared in 1962. Macpherson was a Canadian philosopher who influenced quite a few young scholars in the 1970s in North America and Great Britain. Macpherson offered the basis of a strong critique of a certain kind of liberalism — the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form:

The repair that was needed [to liberal theory] was one that would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual, and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community, which had been present in some measure in the Puritan and Lockean theory. (2)

But Macpherson feels the need to go further:

The present study … suggests that the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality. Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual. the individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and capacities. The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of exchange between proprietors. (3)

The individualism that Macpherson identifies is of a specific sort; it is “possessive” individualism. What does Macpherson mean by this? Here we have the heart of the theory of possessive individualism: the individual as solely an owner of himself. Here is his formulation late in the book:

  1. What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others.
  2. Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest.
  3. The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.
  4. Although the individual cannot alienate the whole o fhis property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labour.
  5. Human society consists of a series of market relations.
  6. Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.
  7. Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual’s property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves. (263-4)

The core of the book is a set of interpretive chapters on Hobbes, Locke, the Levellers, and Harrington. These chapters are careful, detailed, and closely textual and contextual. The book puts forward a fairly simple theory: the British tradition of political philosophy expresses a rather particular ideology that is pre-philosophical. The ideology (possessive individualism) is a very specific conception of the individual and his/her roles in the social world. The philosophical theories that are built on that ideology give shape to that set of assumptions, but they are ill suited to recognizing or critiquing those assumptions. Macpherson highlights the interpretive challenge of discovering these underlying assumptions: “Where a writer can take it for granted that his readers will share some of his assumptions, he will see no need to set these out at the points in his argument where we, who do not share those assumptions automatically, think they should have been stated to make the argument complete” (5).

What is the social context of this ideology? It is the reality of market society:

These assumptions do correspond substantially to the actual relations of a market society. (4)

One of Macpherson’s more indirect goals in his philosophy is to provide an intellectually sound foundation for the liberal democratic state — a state that recognizes the worth of the individual while also recognizing the social obligations that we all have towards each other and that need to be expressed through the social programs of the state. Fundamentally, Macpherson is interested in helping formulate a political theory that lays a powerful normative base for social democracy.

Macpherson’s interpretation of Hobbes’s philosophy provides an interesting discussion of “models of society” that is worth drawing attention to. He suggests that Hobbes formulates three models of society: customary or status society; simple market society; and possessive market society (47-48).

The concept of possessive market society is neither a novel nor an arbitrary construction. It is clearly similar to the concepts of bourgeois or capitalist society used by Marx, Weber, Sombart, and others, who have made the existence of a market in labour a criterion of capitalism, and like their concepts it is intended to be a model or ideal type to which modern (i.e. post-feudal) European societies have approximated. (48)

What Macpherson means by a model here needs some careful interpretation. He refers to it as an “ideal type” in this passage. More specifically, a model is a specification of several key structural features of a social order. Here is the model of a customary or status society:

  1. The productive and regulative work of the society is authoritatively allocated to groups, ranks, classes, or persons.
  2. Each group, rank, class, or person is confined to a way of working, and is given and permitted only to have a scale of reward…
  3. There is no unconditional individual property in land.
  4. The whole labour force is tied to the land, or to the performance of allotted functions, or (in the case of slaves) to masters. (49)

Macpherson thinks that these four characteristics create a specific form of system behavior for societies that embody them: “From these properties of a status society certain characteristics follow” (49).

The most complex model is the possessive market society, with postulates defining allocation of work, rewards for work, enforcement of contract, individual rational maximizing, individual’s property in his labour, individual ownership of land, individuals want more utility or power, individuals have differential energy, skill, or possessions. With these postulates (including institutions and actors), we get a certain kind of social functioning. This is an “aggregation dynamics” argument. In other terms, it is a micro-to-macro argument up the struts of Coleman’s boat.

It is worthwhile drawing out the connections between possessive individualism and conservative libertarian political groups in the present. The Tea Party seems to be a contemporary descendant of this ideology. Taxation is theft; the state has no legitimate role beyond protecting individual security and property; government regulation of private business activity is an immoral intrusion on liberty and property; individuals possess liberties and property that the state cannot limit; individualsdeserve what they own and owe nothing to society or other citizens. Justice is served by simply protecting the possessions of individual citizens. Robert Nozick seems to have represented many of these values in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Those who favor a more expansive vision of a democratic society have several core values that conflict with these: Individuals have obligations to other members of society; government has the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of the least advantaged in society; government has the responsibility of protecting the public good against harmful effects of private activities; decisions about public policies can and should be made through effective institutions of democratic self-determination; inequalities of wealth and power need to be restrained to ensure the political voice of the whole of society. Taxation is legitimate for at least three different reasons: it is a legitimate policy tool for limiting wealth inequalities to levels consistent with democratic equality; it is a legitimate vehicle for redistributing income to satisfy the requirement of providing a social minimum; and it is legitimate as a source of revenue needed to accomplish the public functions of the state, including provision of public goods and regulation of environment, labor, air safety, food safety, and the like. Justice is served by creating a system of legislation and policy that ensures the dignity and democratic rights of all members of society. John Rawls expresses most of these value in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.

Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas. So Macpherson’s voice is still relevant, almost fifty years later.

Here is a review of the book by the great English Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.

Global justice

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations/cultures can accept. This is grounded a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millenium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. This conception emphasizes several key values:

  • equal worth of all persons
  • value of freedom
  • value of democracy and self-determination
  • the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare
  • the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)

These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

John Rawls drew a strong distinction between ideal justice and imperfect justice, and noted that his contributions were directed to the formulation of a theory of ideal justice (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 13).  He did not believe that the ideal theory of justice would suffice to provide a road map for creating a more just society.  When we consider the complexity and difficulty of improving the justice of fundamental international institutions and relations, the program of arriving at an ideal theory seems unappealing.  Instead, we need to have some plausible and action-supporting principles that allow for practical improvement in the overall justice of the global system. We need to have some concrete ideas about how to get from here to there.

This approach — the idea that we can improve justice in a piecemeal way — spares us the heroic pretense of offering a general, universal theory of justice that we hope or expect all people can be persuaded to accept. It works from the point of view that injustice is more specific and more widely agreed upon. We don’t need to engage in irresolvable debates about whether there are universal human rights in order to agree that the world will be more just if fewer people are forced into famine conditions.

This is the approach taken by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden in their study of the ethics of global public health in Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy (link), and it has the clear advantage of pragmatism.  It is pragmatic on the side of moral agreement, in the sense that it makes no strong claims about abstract moral theories that may be controversial across perspectives.  And it is pragmatic on the side of policy, in the sense that it provides an incremental strategy for improving the conditions of justice in the world.  And in fact, the premises mentioned above conform fairly closely to the six dimensions of personal well-being that Powers and Faden highlight: health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination.

One of the greatest advocates for justice in global development is Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom).  Sen’s major contribution is the idea of the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities.  Sen’s most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice, in which he offers an alternative to Rawls’s approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice.

I turn now to the second part of the departure, to wit the need for a theory that is not confined to the choice of institutions, nor to the identification of ideal social arrangements. The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live. The importance of human lives, experiences and realizations cannot be supplanted by information about institutions that exist and the rules that operate. (17)

Tom Pogge’s work on global justice provides a good bridge between abstract moral theory and practical, real-world issues of justice in a developing world.  Pogge has sought to engage these issues in ways that have real, substantive engagement with the issues of poverty, hunger, and maltreatment that continue to set the stage for the majority of the earth’s population today.  In an important recent volume, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge have pulled together an extended working group of scholars and activists concerned with global justice.  The volume took its origin at a conference in Oslo in 2003.  (Here is an article by Pogge on global justice and poverty (link), and here is a video interview with Pogge on the consequences of the global economic crisis on poverty; link.)  Pogge and his colleagues focus closely on the actual workings of international institutions to attempt to measure the degree to which they disadvantage the people of the less-developed world.

Consider for example a long-term contract concerning the exportation of natural resources which the government of some African country concludes with a rich Western state or one of its corporations.  Within the traditional philosophical framework, it is self-evident that such an agreement must be honored: “People are to observe treaties and undertakings” says Rawls’s second principle of state conduct, and the third one adds: “Peoples are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind them” (Rawls 1999). But here is the reality. The African government is corrupt and oppressive, and its continuation in power depends largely on the military.  The sales it conducts impose environmental harms and hazards on the indigenous population. Yet, most of these people do not benefit, because the revenues are partly siphoned off by the small political elite and partly spent on arms needed for military repression. (These arms are suppled by other rich Western states in accordance with other contracts executed, without coercion, between them and the African government.) (5)

Why should gimlet-eyed policy makers take these arguments about global justice seriously?  What does justice have to do with the nuts and bolts of international economic policy reform?  Why should self-interested nations and their leaders adjust their policies to the demands of justice? The humanitarian and moral reasons are self-evident.  But it is also true that there is a powerful reason to care about justice that is based in self-interest.  This is because systemic injustice is itself a threat to national security.  Governments are destabilized, insurgencies are supported, cities experience riots, and anti-liberal violent movements flourish in conditions where masses of people are enmeshed in circumstances of injustice.  Barrington Moore, Jr. made these arguments in Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), and his conclusions seem even more compelling in the world today.

Ethical thinking for global public health

Here is a fine recent book that brings together recent thinking about development ethics with some of the specific issues faced in the field of global public health.  Madison Powers and Ruth Faden published Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy in 2008, and it represents a genuinely interesting extended essay on the topic of justice in global health policy.  Here is an early statement of their governing perspective:

Our central focus, only vividly appreciated in hindsight, was in a notion of social justice that went beyond issues of distributive justice, micro-allocational questions of priority setting in medical care, or any number of questions centered on how one individual fares relative to some other individual. Beginning, as we did, with moral questions in public health and health policy, it is perhaps not surprising that our focus in social justice is largely directed at the well-being of people in social communities or groups. (ix)

What is evident here is that Powers and Faden are bringing the perspective of public health into the discussion of issues that have been raised in other contexts (development ethics, bio-medical ethics) without the population-based starting point.

A second important difference in approach taken by Powers and Faden is to take seriously the finding within public health studies that inequalities come into populations’ health outcomes in ways other than inequalities of access.

We contend that it is impossible to make progress in our understanding of the demands of justice within medical care without looking outside of medical care to public health and to the other determinants of inequalities in health and indeed without situating an analysis of justice and health policy in the wider social and political context. (x)

This perspective brings Powers and Faden into a degree of connection to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (link).

A third distinctive feature of the project is the authors’ rejection of the goal of arriving at a simple, unified theory of health justice.

In place of some single theory of justice drawn from one of the leading contenders for being the “right” account of justice, we argue instead that most of these other contenders have it wrong.  Indeed, we use the term ‘theory’ somewhat  cautiously. … We choose to steer a middle course on the question, and we agree with Thomas Nagel’s conclusion that whatever we are likely to attach the label of ‘theory’ to in the realm of normative inquiry will reflect an aspiration to develop some systematic but noncomprehensive account of some part of the moral landscape. (x)

The job of justice, as we see it, is to specify those background social and economic conditions that determine whether certain inequalities, that may themselves result from the promotion of other indispensable moral aims, should be seen as unfair. Ours is an account of justice that denies that there are separate spheres of justice, within health policy or within social policy more generally. (x)

Ours is a nonideal theory of justice, intended to offer practical guidance on questions of which inequalities matter most when just background conditions are not in place. (30)

Their central concern is with justice in health; and this comes down to a theory about inequalities.

The central question we pose in this book is, Which inequalities matter most? The aim of this book is to develop a theory of social justice suitable for answering questions of this kind in a variety of concrete circumstances.  (3)

But they insist on the point that theirs is not an “ideal” theory of justice; rather, it is intended to provide the basis for reasoned decisions about the practical, real problems we face in a world of substantial inequalities in life prospects.  Moreover, their account does not begin with a principle of distributive justice, but rather with a conception of the human good.  They offer Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum as exemplars rather than John Rawls (4).

As Sen correctly notes, a theory of justice of this sort begins with some underlying account of what persons “can do and be” (Sen 1993). Theories in this tradition start with ideals, to be sure, but they are ideals of a very different kind from those that form the starting points of Rawlsian ideal theory. (4)

So their theory is one that begins with a rich conception of human well-being and flourishing, not with a contractual deliberation between hypothetical individuals behind a veil of ignorance.  Here is a general statement of their view:

Social justice is concerned with human well-being. In our view, well-being is best understood as involving plural, irreducible dimensions, each of which represents something of independent moral significance. Although an exhaustive, mutually exclusive list of the discrete elements of well-being is not our aim (and may not be possible), we build our account around six distinct dimensions of well-being, each of which merits separate attention within a theory of justice. These different dimensions offer different lenses through which the justice of political structures, social practices, and institutions can be assessed. Without attention to each dimension, something of salience goes unnoticed. (15)

The six dimensions of well-being that they identify include health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination (16).

This approach has a lot in common with Amartya Sen’s most recent thinking in The Idea of Justice (as well as Sen’s earlier work and that of Martha Nussbaum).  Here is Sen’s description of his work in The Idea of Justice:

What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense.  Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice. (kl 183)

Here the emphasis is on “enhancing” justice rather than providing a conception of ideal justice.  Sen’s work here is intended to be practical: it should assist policy makers in their deliberations as reforms are considered.  Sen refers to this approach as “comparative justice”.

We are engaged in making comparisons in terms of the advancement of justice whether we fight oppression (like slavery, or the subjugation of women), or protest against systematic medical neglect (through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or a lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including the United States), or repudiate the permissibility of torture …, or reject the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger. (kl 225)

In terms of the analysis offered by Powers and Faden, we improve justice by moving a population forward in any one of the six (or more) dimensions of human well-being that were noted.

Inherent in the idea of comparing the justice of several different scenarios, is the idea of reasoning across different perspectives on justice.  Sen is committed to the notion that it is possible to engage in reasoned dialogue with people with whom you have deep disagreements about starting points.  And this theory of comparative justice is intended to help facilitate those reasoned discussions. 

Sen contrasts his approach to justice with that of John Rawls in these terms:

In the approach to justice presented in this work, it is argued that there are some crucial inadequacies in [Rawls’s] overpowering concentration on institutions (where behaviour is assumed to be appropriately compliant), rather than on the lives that people are able to lead. (kl 203)

Several things seem important to me in both books mentioned here.  First, each is an innovative contribution to issues that are core to what we might refer to as “global justice” — hunger, health, abusive states, educational deprivation.  Second, each is aiming to create a philosophical framework within which practical, real-world issues can be handled in a reasoned way.  Third, each seeks to broaden the moral perspective of contractualism that has set the terms for discussions of justice for the past forty years.  And, finally, each shuns the goal of formulating a general system or a unified theory on the basis of which to judge all possible social arrangements in terms of justice.

These features make the moral ideas of Powers, Faden, and Sen particularly helpful when we turn our attention to trying to influence international practices and institutions in the direction of greater justice for the people of the world.  The arguments are pragmatic, modest in scope, and potentially less bound to a particular tradition of moral thinking.  (Sen makes this latter point quite explicitly: “Some of the reasoning of, for example, Gautama Buddha (the agnostic champion of the ‘path of knowledge’), or of the writers in the Lokayata school (committed to relentless scrutiny of every traditional belief) in India in sixth-century BC, may sound closely aligned, rather than adversarial, to many of the critical writings o the leading authors of the European Enlightenment” (kl 268).)

Economic thinking in Rawls’s thought

John Rawls’s (1971) A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (TJ) had a sizable impact on a number of disciplines, including economics and economic policy thought. (His ideas in this original version of the theory are clarified and further developed in his 2005 Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JF).)  Rawls’s influence on economics largely derived from one aspect of his theory of justice, the theory of justice in distribution, which has implications for economic inequalities, taxation, and social welfare benefits.  Did Rawls actually think about these issues in the ways that an economist would have done?

One of the primary goals of Rawls’s theory of justice is directly relevant to economic policy. He specifically wanted to work out the implications of the theory of justice for the justice of fundamental economic institutions:

My aim in this chapter is to see how the two principles work out as a conception of political economy, that is, as standards by which to assess economic arrangements and policies, and their background institutions. (Welfare economics is often defined in the same way. I do not use this name because the term “welfare” suggests that the implicit moral conception is utilitarian; the phrase “social choice” is far better although I believe its connotations are still too narrow.) (TJ, 259)

What is the purpose of this aspect of the theory of justice?

A doctrine of political economy must include an interpretation of the public good which is based on a conception of justice. It is to guide the reflections of the citizen when he considers questions of economic and social policy. (259)

Rawls is explicit in addressing the issue of the relationship between his own theorizing and the theories of the economists:

It is essential to keep in mind that our topic is the theory of justice and not economics, however elementary. We are only concerned with some moral problems of political economy. For example, I shall ask: what is the proper rate of saving over time, how should the background institutions of taxation and property be arranged, or at what level is the social minimum to be set? In asking these questions my intention is not to explain, much less to add anything to, what economic theory says about the working of these institutions. … Certain elementary parts of economic theory are brought in solely to illustrate the content of the principles of justice. (265)

So what use does Rawls in fact make of current economic theories? Does he think like an economist? Key to thinking like an economist is thinking in terms of incentives, markets, and institutions. Let’s start with incentives. Rawls pays attention to the incentives that citizens have within various sets of institutions:

Moreover, the theory of justice assumes a definite limit on the strength of social and altruistic motivation. It supposes that individuals and groups put forward competing claims, and while they are willing to act justly, they are not prepared to abandon their interests. (281)

He also does a good job of articulating and motivating the central insights of public choice theory — essentially, reasoning about public goods within a democratic public (TJ, 265 ff.). He analyzes the two key features of a public good — indivisibility and non-excludability. He explains the free rider problem and the prisoners’ dilemma clearly and accurately, and reproduces the conclusion that a public of independent citizens will not achieve public goods at an appropriate level without legislation. The discussion is compact, but it is solidly linked to the best available literature on public goods (Baumol, Sen, Buchanan, Olson). Rawls thinks this is a good place to start, because the institutions of the state have a very substantial role to play in establishing conditions in which public goods are achieved. He also addresses a series of reasons for favoring, and limiting, the institutions of the market as determinants of investments and incomes. He refers to allocative efficiency and personal liberty as positive features, while noting the possibility or likelihood that markets by themselves will create economic inequalities in excess of the requirements of the difference principle. “There is with reason strong objection to the competitive determination of total income, since this ignores the claims of need and an appropriate standard of life” (277).

When discussing the role of government in economic activity Rawls refers to four “branches” of fiscal and resource management activity (TJ 275 ff.). The allocation branch keeps the price system competitive and “prevents the formation of unreasonable market power” (276), and actively monitors market imperfections and externalities. The stabilization branch “strives to bring about reasonably full employment”. The transfer branch is responsible for managing the transfer of incomes necessary to establish the social minimum. And the distribution branch “is to preserve an approximate justice in distributive shares by means of taxation and the necessary adjustments in the rights of property” (277).

The primary implications of the theory of justice for economics cross several topics: distribution, taxation, and the idea of a social minimum. Rawls thinks about taxation in several places. The topic arises in TJ under “Institutions for Distributive Justice” (277-280):

The taxes and enactments of the distribution branch are to prevent this limit [in the range of wealth inequalities] from being exceeded. (278)

The second part of the distribution branch is a scheme of taxation to raise the revenues that justice requires. Social resources must be released to the government so that it can provide for the public goods and make the transfer payments necessary to satisfy the difference principle. (278)

A parallel discussion of taxation occurs under the topic of “Economic Institutions” in JF (160-162). There Rawls makes several comments on wealth and inheritance taxes:

First, consider bequest and inheritance: we borrow from Mill (and others) the idea of regulating bequest and restricting inheritance. … The principle of progressive taxation is applied at the receiver’s end. Those inheriting and receiving gifts and endowments pay a tax according to the value received and the nature of the receiver…. The aim is to encourage a wide and far more equal dispersion of real property and productive assets.

Second, the progressive principle of taxation might not be applied to wealth and income for the purposes of raising funds (releasing resources to government), but solely to prevent accumulations of wealth that are judged to be inimical to background justice….

Third, income taxation might be avoided altogether and a proportional expenditure tax adopted instead, that is, a tax on consumption at a constant marginal rate. People would be taxed according to how much they use of the goods and services produced and not according to how much they contribute. (JF, 161)

Another important economic idea that emerges from Rawls’s theory is the notion of a social minimum — essentially an income guarantee for low-income people, established through an income supplement system if needed. This principle derives from the difference principle, Rawls’s view that inequalities need to be the least system of inequalities consistent with the maximum result for the least-well-off segment of society.

Once the difference principle is accepted, however, it follows that the minimum is to be set at that point which, taking wages into account, maximizes the expectations of the least advantaged group. By adjusting the amount of transfers (for example, the size of supplementary income payments), it is possible to increase or decrease the prospects of the more disadvantaged, their index of primary goods (as measured by wages plus transfers), so as to achieve the desired result. (285)

Here is what seems to come out of Rawls’s discussion of economic institutions and justice. It is a theory of political economy that holds that government has substantial obligations based on distributive justice. It has the obligation of maintaining and correcting the system of economic institutions so as to prevent “unacceptable” levels of inequalities of income and wealth. It has the obligation of providing the resources for securing public goods at an appropriate level. and it has an obligation of collecting taxes sufficient to fund the social minimum for all citizens. It is an account that is well informed about then-current thinking about institutions and public choice. It rests on realistic assumptions about motivation and incentives. And it appears to set the stage for a set of institutions that appear to be economically feasible, along the lines of Scandinavian forms of social democracy.

(Some readers may wonder, as I do, whether the concept of a “proportional expenditure tax” has been seriously explored by economic experts. Here is a review by Michael Graetz in the Harvard Law Review in 1979, arguing that the system is politically infeasible.)

Academic freedom from Hofstadter to Dworkin

Academic freedom is a core value in American higher education. At certain times in our history it is a value that has been severely challenged, including especially during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. But what, precisely, does it entail?

One way of starting on this topic is to consider Richard Hofstadter’s writings on the subject. Hofstadter was an historian who did an excellent job of tracking some deep currents in American political culture, including the powerful currents of progressivism, conservatism and paranoia that American politics have embodied over the past two centuries (The Progressive Movement: 1900-1915, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). (Here is an informative review of Hofstadter’s biography in the New York Times.

One of those currents on the progressive side is the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter was a champion of the value of intellectual discourse in a democracy, and Development of Academic Freedom in United States (with Walter Metzger, 1955) was a direct response to the attack on the academic freedoms of professors of the McCarthy period beginning in 1953. (The first part of this book was later published as Academic Freedom in the Age of the College (1961), which covers the history of the freedoms assigned to colleges and universities from the European middle ages to American colleges at the time of the Civil War.) The project as a whole is an interesting one. It was funded by the American Academic Freedom Project at Columbia as a response to Joseph McCarthy’s attack on universities and professors. Hofstadter’s part of the project was to write a history of the evolving idea of academic freedom from the European middle ages through the American colleges of the 1860s. Walter Metzger’s contribution analyzed the development of universities and academic freedom in America after the 1860s. Robert MacIver wrote a companion volume, Academic Freedom in Our Time.

What is lacking in Development of Academic Freedom is an analytical definition of the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter is clearest in his defense of the idea of the independent intellectual, whether in the medieval Italian university of the nineteenth century American university. But neither he nor Metzger give a succinct definition of the concept of academic freedom itself.

So what is academic freedom? And how is it distinct from the other kinds of freedoms we have as either constitutional protections or fundamental human rights — freedom of association, freedom of speech and thought, freedom of expression? Fundamentally the idea is that the faculty of a university have a more extensive and specialized version of each of these fundamental freedoms, and that their exercise of their academic freedom cannot be used as a basis for dismissing them from their positions within the university. (This is the fundamental justification of the system of faculty tenure.) The employees of a corporation have a right of freedom of expression; but their conditions of employment may set limits on their exercise of that freedom. For example, there are numerous examples of people dismissed from their jobs in the private sector as a result of their comments about the company they work for. The idea of academic freedom is that professors have a special right to think, reason, and express their ideas about subjects relevant to their teaching and research responsibilities without fear of sanction by the universities (or legislatures) that employ them.

A second dimension of the idea of academic freedom is institutional. The university ought to be significantly autonomous from the power centers of society in its internal organization and decision-making. The curriculum, the subjects that are taught and researched, and the processes of appointment and review of faculty should be governed by the processes of the university rather than external powers in society. And most fundamentally, this aspect of the idea depends on the notion that the pursuit of truth should depend on the rational procedures of the disciplines of the sciences and humanities, not on the particular interests of powerful segments of society.

The classical justification for the idea of a form of academic freedom more extensive than the general freedoms that citizens enjoy qua citizens derives essentially from arguments expressed in the nineteenth century in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: the pursuit of truth requires the untrammeled exploration of and expression of conflicting ideas, so that rational citizens can arrive at a better understanding of the issues. Here is how the 1940 AAUP statement puts the point (link):

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.[1]

The argument is fundamentally utilitarian: Society is best served when it embodies a university system that is fundamentally committed to the the principles of academic freedom.

Here is the classic statement of academic freedom from the AAUP Red Book, drafted in 1940 (link).

Academic Freedom

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[4]

This statement refers to three zones of academic freedom: in research and publication, in the classroom, and in “extramural expressions” by faculty members in the exercise of their ordinary citizens’ rights of expression. Essentially this final point comes down to the idea that a faculty member has an ordinary citizen’s right to express ideas that are unpopular to the public without punishment, “censorship or discipline” from the university for this expression. Noam Chomsky’s opinions about the Vietnam War or the Gulf War were often unpopular with officials and the public; but his academic freedom assured that he would not be censored by his university employer. An employee of Northrup or Krogers would not have had the same protections. (Note that principle 3 is the most qualified of the three, and sets somewhat vague limits on the content and form of extra-mural utterances by the faculty member.)

The AAUP statement does not separately justify its inclusion of the extramural principle; but presumably it goes along these lines. Determining public policy in a democracy requires open debate among well informed citizens. Faculty members are well positioned to develop their knowledge and arguments about important public issues — welfare reform, desegregation, war and peace. The public and the common good are well served by a set of arrangements that enable faculty members to speak their minds without fear of retaliation from their university employers. So it is felicitous to extend the protections of academic freedom to expressions by faculty members in the public sphere as well as within the university.

The philosopher of jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin provided a pivotal contribution to Louis Menand’s The Future of Academic Freedom (1998). Dworkin argues that the issues surrounding academic freedom have shifted since the 1970s, and that they have as much to do with criticisms of faculty speech from the left as from the right. Here is how Dworkin describes the essentials of academic freedom:

We begin reinterpreting academic freedom by reminding ourselves of what, historically, it has been understood to require and not to require. It imposes two levels of insulation. First, it insulates universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher education from political institutions like legislatures and courts and from economic powers like large corporations. A state legislature has, of course, the right to decide which state universities to establish — whether, for example, to add an agricultural or a liberal arts college to the existing university structure. But once political officials have established such an institution, fixed its academic character and its budget, and appointed its officials, they may not dictate how those they have appointed should interpret that character or who should teach what is to be taught, or how. Second, academic freedom insulates scholars from the administrators of their universities: university officials can appoint faculty, allocate budgets to departments, and in that way decide, within limits, what curriculum will be offered. But they cannot dictate how those who have been appointed will teach what has been decided will be taught. (183)

In addition to the utilitarian reasons for defending academic freedom mentioned above, Dworkin argues that there is also a principled ethical basis for these institutional protections based on his theory of “ethical individualism”.

It seems relatively clear that academic freedom is a fragile value that depends substantially on the willingness of the public to recognize its crucial role in securing democratic progress, and legislatures and elected officials who are prepared to resist the inclination to narrow its scope. And it also seems right that Hofstadter’s central intuitions about universities are still the strongest justification for the defense of academic freedom: the integrity of intellectuals and scholars seeking and debating the truth and the contribution they can make to a civil democracy. Here is how Robert MacIver puts this point in Academic Freedom in Our Time:

The search for knowledge, honestly undertaken, is a moral discipline. With the pursuit of this discipline goes the liberation from intolerance. . . Thus the intellectual mission of the university becomes also a moral one. Men sensitive to experience may learn the lesson in other ways, but the institution of learning is a major training ground. . . . Not knowledge itself but the free search for and the free communication of knowledge distinguishes the open mind from the closed mind, and the open society from the closed society…. The attack on academic freedom is an attack on all these values. (261-262.)

Here is a review of Hofstadter and Metzger, Development of Academic Freedom in United States as well as MacIver, Academic Freedom in Our Time. Here is an article in the Journal of Philosophy on MacIver’s book, including a fascinating letter by John Dewey the the New York Times in 1949 on the subject of academic freedom. And here is an AAUP piece in Academe on what it regards as a different kind of threat to academic freedom — from commercial and corporate interests.

Social media and social cohesion

The current topic on the UnderstandingSociety blog poll is a proposition about social cohesion:


The poll is still open, but as of today 70% of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that the Internet creates a basis for new forms of social cohesion, while only 16% somewhat or strongly disagree. On its face, a large majority of readers are optimistic about the ability of the Internet to contribute to a stronger national community. What the poll question doesn’t reveal is the respondents’ underlying thinking as the basis of their judgment. So let’s see what some of the considerations might be.

First, what do we mean by “social cohesion”? Along with Durkheim, we can approach the concept by relating it to the bonds of morality and loyalty that lead members of a society to adapt their behavior to the perceived needs of society. A willingness to sacrifice in times of crisis, a willingness to defer to the common good, a willingness to conform to widespread social norms — these are the sorts of things that go into the concept of social cohesion. A society that lacks all bonds of social cohesion is one in which individuals care only about their own interests; who pay attention only to their own individual ideas about morality; and who find the idea of sacrifice for the greater good to be for the gullible. (Interestingly, this is a state of affairs that Durkheim describes as “anomie”, and it is the factor that he believes conduces to a heightened rate of suicide in a population; Suicide.) (Here is a nice contemporary survey of the sociological literature on social cohesion by Noah Friedkin; link.)

Where would the social basis of this kind of cohesion come from? Ferdinand Tönnies characterizes a traditional society with a strong basis for social cohesion in terms of the idea of “gemeinschaft“; whereas he describes a modern liberal-market society in terms of the idea of gesellschaft (Community and Society: (GEMEINSCHAFT AND GESELLSCHAFT)). According to Tönnies, traditional societies maintain social cohesion through traditional social mechanisms: face-to-face relations in a village, common religious institutions, and other institutions representing and inculcating collective values. And as these traditional mechanisms have lost traction in modern civil society, the intuitive idea is that modern societies are generally declining in the level of social cohesion that they reflect.

So how might the mechanisms of social connection provided by the Internet potentially influence the facts about social cohesion in a twenty-first century society? How might Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and webpages have effects that are either favorable or unfavorable for social cohesion? It seems that these capabilities of the Internet have the potential for working in both directions — both undermining cohesion and enhancing cohesion. So overall, it is very difficult to assess the net impact of these capabilities.

First, consider a few tendencies in the negative direction. Much as Internet-based news sources have fragmented the audience for the network news — and thereby have reduced the degree of commonality citizens have through their regular interactions with Walter Cronkite — we might speculate that the Internet facilitates a fragmentation of social groups into smaller and smaller segments. So instead of a set of attitudes that bind citizens together as part of American society, we get micro-sets of attitudes that bind individuals together into micro-constituencies. This would seem to be a force working against social cohesion at the level of the population as a whole.

A related point stems from the evident ability of Internet tools to create ever-more strident groups of people around very specific issues and concerns. If each issue has its own website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, social media management strategies, and the like, individuals are drawn into greater engagement with ever-smaller groups of like-minded individuals. So it is increasingly difficult for politicians to create mass-based constituencies around a core set of values; there is a declining basis for a social consensus in a world in which individuals gravitate towards divisive social and political advocates.

These points suggest that the Internet has effects that are corrosive of social cohesion. What are the tendencies of the Internet that point in the other direction? The example of the use of Facebook during the democracy demonstrations in Egypt provides one positive indication. It would appear that activists were able to gain strong support from thousands of interested Egyptians through the real-time communication and social expression that Facebook pages enabled. This was a process of agglomeration rather than fragmentation for some period of time — a process through which a broader and broader group of individuals became actively engaged with the values and current happenings associated with the pro-democracy movement.

Second, a little more generally, it is possible that social media like Facebook or YouTube may facilitate the development of more other-oriented interest on the part of the people who use them. If the United Way of Chicago or San Francisco can begin to attract tens of thousands of followers to a Facebook page with powerful, current information about the social needs of other Chicagoans or San Franciscans, we can imagine that there might be a rising level of willingness to get engaged in United Way fundraising and community efforts throughout the community. So YouTube and Facebook can become a contemporary alternative to the face-to-face relationships that Durkheim and Tönnies highlighted.

Third, several recent national elections have demonstrated that millions of people are willing to get involved in presidential and congressional campaigns through social media — including the act of making online political contributions. The success of these efforts since 2006 suggests the faint possibility that online communities may begin to regain some of the pervasiveness that a fragmented television audience has lost. Perhaps this capability for aggregating large numbers of citizens around online communities of political interests suggests that the Internet can begin to help citizens build a broader consensus.

These considerations suggest that social media and the Internet have tendencies in both directions — fragmentation and agglomeration — with the result that its overall influence on cohesion may be neutral. In fact, we might speculate that social media enhance small group cohesion while undermining national cohesion.

In short, I’m inclined now to change my vote in the poll. I had supported the idea that the Internet is mildly favorable to increasing social cohesion. I now think that it’s a wash, with negative as well as positive tendencies at work at the same time.

Academic freedom and faculty email

There have been several efforts recently by partisan groups in Michigan and Wisconsin to gain access to faculty email messages on subjects that fall within the scope of the faculty member’s research or personal political opinions. These groups have made use of state Freedom of Information laws, on the basis that faculty members are “state officials” and their communications are therefore “business records” of the university.

This is an alarming intrusion into the zone of academic and personal freedom of the faculty member, and it threatens to create a chilling effect on the faculty member’s ability to freely communicate his or her ideas with colleagues without fear of retaliation or punishment, or premature disclosure of ideas not yet fully developed. It is vital that universities think very carefully about these issues before complying.

Once a scholar’s ideas are published, they are in the public forum and are readily available to anyone who is interested, including the partisan groups who are now attempting to gain access to private emails. But before the scholar chooses to publish his or her ideas, she needs and deserves to have a zone of private conversation and expression through which she can test and refine her ideas. This is part of being a human being. It is a key reason why academic freedom is so important, to allow the free expression and refinement of ideas through intellectual interaction. And being able to control the publicity or privacy of one’s thoughts is essential for this process, and is very close to being a human right.

So accepting the principle that a faculty member at a public university is a state official and his/her communications about research ideas or social and political opinions are “business records” represents a huge erosion of academic and personal freedom. Academic freedom requires a zone of untrammeled private expression and discussion through which the individual can develop and refine her ideas.

If public universities are to be successful in maintaining their commitment to academic freedom for their faculty, they need to draw a bright line between business records and intellectual, critical, and creative documents. Freedom of information laws pertain to the former but should not require disclosure of the latter.

So what is the distinction? Here is one way of drawing the distinction. Business activities have to do with decision making about material issues within the organization. They have to do with concrete decisions involving such issues as purchasing, contracting, personnel decisions, hiring, and other material administrative actions. Intellectual, critical and creative documents are those that express the faculty member’s ideas, thoughts, judgments, and hypotheses about subjects of interest. Transparency about business deliberations and decisions is essential in order to prevent conflict of interest, favoritism, and other improper business activities within any institution. But privacy with regard to “intellectual, critical, and creative documents” falls outside the scope of business activity, and should be protected.

The argument is sometimes made that professors are hired to think and do research; therefore their writings, even in email, are part of their employment work; therefore these writings are business records. But this line of thought is incorrect. The faculty member is hired to teach courses. An expectation of their work is that they will be active intellectuals and scholars. They will exercise their talents, it is expected, in an autonomous and self-directed way, to arrive at their own original results. But the content and product of their intellectual works are not themselves paid work products. Evidence of this, in part, is the fact that the university does not claim ownership of the copyright on faculty writings. Originality, autonomy, independence, and creativity are key to intellectual work, including faculty work. And this in turn underlines the importance of the zone of privacy within the context of which their intellectual and personal thinking and expression take place.

There are extreme and untenable results that ensue if you take this paradigm to its limit. Right now the FOIA requests are for a range of emails delimited by a list of keywords. But if the principle is accepted that the faculty member’s intellectual products, in whatever form, are a business record, then preliminary drafts of scholarly work, laboratory notebooks, the jottings of a creative writing professor in preparation of a short story or novel — all these products ultimately lead to a research result, which is a part of the expectations of the faculty member’s work. And therefore, by this paradigm, they would be discoverable.  Therefore it would be possible to FOIA a poet working for a public university to make available preliminary drafts of a poem. Likewise, paintings, drawings, and sculptures are the work of faculty in the arts. By this same principle, it is hard to see a basis for denying a FOIA request for drawings, sketches, and clay models.

On the subject of the expression of political and social opinions, observations, and judgments: Clearly this set of ideas and expressions by the faculty member does not fall within the scope of faculty employment under any description. The university does not hire faculty members to have political opinions. Rather, as citizens they may or may not have such opinions, and it is entirely within their rights to hold and express them. Further, neither the state nor the university has a right or an interest to surveilling or observing or criticizing or delimiting their expressions of political opinion. So any emails that are primarily expressive of political opinions or judgments are not part of their work, do not have business content, and should not be provided under the scope of a FOIA request, even though they are expressed by a faculty member hired by a public university.

These FOIA requests, it should be noted, do not depend on the issue of whether the email account is owned by the university or is a private account. FOIA requires university officials to provide emails that have business content relevant to a particular subject, without regard to the platform on which these messages were transmitted. If the judgment were to stand that the faculty’s intellectual products are in fact business records, then it wouldn’t matter whether they are expressed in an email owned by the university or a private account.


Here is a story in TPM about the Mackinac Center FOIA request in Michigan (link). Here is a summary of Michigan’s FOIA law. Here is a posting from Inside Higher Education that describes the decisions the University of Wisconsin administration made with respect to requests for some of history professor William Cronon’s email (link). And here is a thoughtful piece from the Center for Free Speech on Campus on the issues (link).

Rawls on political liberalism

Long after the transformative impact Rawls brought to social and political philosophy with A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (1971), Rawls continued to wrestle with the question of how a just society ought to work.  One major part of this question is how a just society ought to encompass major disagreements among its citizens about values and “conceptions of the good;” and much of his thinking is reflected in his 1993 collection of essays, Political Liberalism.  Here is how he formulates the central problem:

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines.  No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally.  Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens.  Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime.  Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)

So, to start, Rawls recognizes that modern society is not based on consensus around the major values or issues; rather, individuals differ in their commitments about rights, justice, and the good human life.  How in the context of this pluralism of important value systems, is it possible for a modern society to nonetheless possess the features of civility and stability that we would desire?

Here, then, is what Rawls calls the problem of political liberalism:

How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines? Put another way: How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime?  What is the structure and content of a political conception that can gain the support of such an overlapping consensus? (xviii)

One prior thought we may have had about a liberal society is that the state establishes no more than a neutral system of law, within the context of which individuals can pursue their own separate and incompatible conceptions of the right and the good.  So the liberal state is a neutral state — one that gives no privilege to one conception of the good over another.

Neutrality is certainly part of the ideal of a liberal state; but it isn’t quite enough.  The reason is that some conceptions of the good and the right require the intervention of the state for enforcement.  If the Alpha group believe that fetal stem cells are nascent human beings and therefore should never be used for the purpose of scientific research, while the Beta group believe that fetal stem cells are no more than useful compounds of organic molecules that can relieve human misery; then both sides of the debate want to prevail through legislation — either to prohibit stem cell research or to permit stem cell research.  Each side sees its position as being driven by a moral imperative — and therefore not to be compromised without an unacceptable loss of moral integrity on the part of the losing group.

To overcome this contradiction, neutrality is not enough.  We need to add a commitment to democratic, constitutional procedures as being the moral trump card when it comes to legislation about areas of conflict based on fundamental disagreements about the right and the good.  Essentially this comes down to a second-order commitment that every citizen needs to share:  When policy issues arise that lead to profound disagreement among blocs of citizens, the right solution is the procedurally correct solution arrived at through legitimate democratic processes.  In other words, all citizens need to put their commitment to legitimate democratic procedures ahead of their commitment to a particular conception of the good and the right. Democratic values supersede religious, political, and moral convictions when there is no choice but to legislate an issue.  Citizens are entitled to argue their case for or against proposed legislation; but they are then morally obligated to accept the democratically chosen outcome as a legitimate resolution of the issue.

Rawls captures this conundrum with the idea of toleration: the idea that citizens must tolerate and respect the strongly-held convictions of their fellow citizens, even while participating in a political process that leads to legislation that is inconsistent with those convictions.  This means that if the Alphas prevail through the political process, the Betas need to accept the outcome as morally legitimate — even though it contradicts their own firmly held moral convictions.  But why would one accept the moral necessity of toleration?  Doesn’t this mean sacrificing one’s own moral convictions to the will of a contrary majority?  And doesn’t this imply that one’s own convictions are tentative and conditional?

The answer seems to go along something like these lines.  When one is a member of a society, one recognizes the inevitable fact of the kind of fundamental pluralism Rawls has described here.  This means that society will sometimes legislate about issues concerning which reasonable citizens disagree, based on fundamental moral convictions on both sides.  So the citizen is asked to bracket his/her particular moral convictions when considering outcomes, even as he/she is free to vigorously argue on the basis of those convictions during the process leading up to legislation.  The citizen is asked to take a double perspective on his/her own moral convictions: first-person, that these are my convictions and they seem binding and justified from my point of view; and third-person, that there is disagreement about these matters, and the only defensible process for resolving the issue is the democratic process in which each person’s reasons count as much as every other person’s.  This is something like Thomas Nagel’s understanding of altruism in The Possibility of Altruism; the individual is asked to recognize the moral reality of other persons and not to assign a privileged role to his/her own perspective.

A key part of Rawls’s own solution to this problem of democratic pluralism is the idea of an “overlapping consensus” among citizens.  Here is how he defines that idea:

Such a consensus consists of all the reasonable opposing religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines likely to persist over generations and to gain a sizable body of adherents in a more or less just constitutional regime, a regime in which the criterion of justice is that political conception itself. (15)

In such a consensus, the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view.  Social unity is based on a consensus on the political conception; and stability is possible when the doctrines making up the consensus are affirmed by society’s politically active citizens and the requirements of justice are not too much in conflict with citizens’ essential interests as formed and encouraged by their social arrangements. (134)

So the ideal here is the notion that some set of constitutional arrangements may be acceptable from all points of view — from Christian to libertarian to Muslim to socialist.  This hope seems to rest on the idea that a neutral, democratic set of political institutions give the best opportunity for the adherents of any particular theory of the good to pursue their interests; so each of the “reasonable opposing religious doctrines” may have good reason to endorse the neutral democratic constitution.  (This is a kind of “original position” argument, applied to opposing comprehensive doctrines.)

What makes this a consensus of any kind is not the notion that there is an overlapping set of values that persist across all the comprehensive doctrines; rather, it is the hope that there will be at least one political arrangement that can serve as the consensus choice of all the incompatible comprehensive doctrines.

The preceding account says that the consensus goes down to the fundamental ideas within which justice as fairness is worked out.  It supposes agreement deep enough to reach such ideas as those of society as a fair system of cooperation and of citizens as reasonable and rational, and free and equal.  As for its breadth, it covers the principles and values of a political conception … and it applies to the basic structure as a whole. (149)

So — what is a political liberal, according to Rawls?  It seems to boil down to this.  It is a moral individual who has his/her own conception of the good and set of fundamental doctrines; who recognizes nonetheless that he/she is a member of a polity that is fundamentally plural when it comes to conceptions of the good; who recognizes that there is no basis for insisting on privilege for one’s own conception of the good; and who recognizes the moral legitimacy of constitutional democratic procedures when it is necessary to decide among policies that involve conflicting conceptions of the good.  It is a person who puts civic commitment to constitutional democratic processes ahead of one’s one fundamental convictions when necessary.  And it is a person who is fully committed to ensuring the neutrality of the state across fundamental convictions.  Neutrality of law across persons and conceptions of the good, full recognition of fundamental pluralism within a modern society, respect for the equal worth of all other citizens, and a recognition that one’s own beliefs have no basis for being privileged over those of other citizens — these are the fundamental commitments of a political liberal.

We can now give a fairly simply explication of illiberal thinking as well.  It is moral, religious, or political fundamentalism — the idea that one’s own moral convictions are so compelling that no democratic process could legitimately override them.  It is the idea that the individual has a persistent right to oppose the state when the state’s actions are inconsistent with one’s own moral convictions.  It is authoritarian — it endorses the idea that one’s own group or party has the right to override the majority’s will when the state contradicts one’s fundamental convictions.  And it is, of course, a position that is fundamentally disrespectful of democracy and of the equal dignity and worth of one’s fellow citizens.

Hobbes in context

We often think of Hobbes as being an originator in English philosophy, a strikingly innovative thinker who burst on the scene with the first formulation of a social contract theory of government. And we sometimes think of his justification of absolute sovereignty as a fairly direct reaction to the disorders Britain experienced during its Civil War and Glorious Revolution.  Richard Tuck’s Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction puts Hobbes into a much more nuanced position.

Fundamental to Tuck’s approach as a historian of philosophy is to problematize the idea of “philosophy”.  Rather than assuming that the subject matter and methodology of philosophy were fixed once and for all by some traditional authority — perhaps Aristotle and Plato — Tuck takes the position that thinkers have defined themselves in ways that have eventually come to be described as “philosophy,” but that nonetheless cover a very wide range of intellectual approaches and concerns.  Here is a particularly striking set of ideas from Tuck’s contextualization of Hobbes:

It is sometimes tempting to think that the heroes of the various histories of philosophy or ethics — men as different as St Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Kant, or Hegel — were all in some sense engaged in a common enterprise, and would have recognized one another as fellow workers. But a moment’s reflection reminds us that it is we who have made a unity of their task: from their own point of view, they belonged to very different ways of living and had very different tasks to perform. They would have seen themselves as intellectually kin to men who do not figure in these lists — priests or scholars who had on the face of it no great philosophical interest. (1)

I think his point here is an important and insightful one: philosophy was reinvented in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, and swerved dramatically away from ancient and medieval philosophy. It was a new project, motivated by different problems, assumptions, and goals.

Tuck gives a good deal of attention to Hobbes’s biography, with the implication that these historical, social, and familial circumstances contributed to shaping the philosophical imagination of the maturing thinker.  The situation of service as tutor and secretary to the household of William Lord Cavendish that occupied Hobbes for most of his life plays an important role in his intellectual development.  It also provided him with direct access to some of the great intellectuals and scientists of France and Venice, including eventually Mersenne, Descartes, and Galileo.
A central intellectual theme in the air during Hobbes’s early development was that of humanist skepticism about empirical and ethical knowledge.

The central feature of this literature was a pervasive scepticism about the validity of the moral principles by which an earlier generation had lived. (7)

The response of many of Lipsius’s generation (he was born in 1547) was to give up strongly held and publicly defended beliefs of all kinds, and to retreat to a dispassionate and skeptical stance. (9)

Tuck argues that Hobbes defined his thought in terms of an effort to create a new, though more modest, basis for knowledge in both empirical and ethical matters.  He was greatly influenced by the example and thinking of Galileo.  Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World appeared in 1632, and during 1634 Hobbes purchased a copy of the book for Newcastle.  One of the key issues in the philosophical world was whether the senses deceive us; and Hobbes followed Descartes in holding that the observable features of the world (color, smell) should not be understood to directly correspond to real characteristics of the invisible reality of the object.  Hobbes was interested in optics and mathematics — the areas of science that appeared to be most relevant to the question of the real features of the world. In fact, Tuck leaves the impression that philosophy of science is as important in Hobbes’s work as the philosophy of politics.
Another core theme in Hobbes’s itinerary is a visceral opposition to government religion — religious requirements embodied in the state.  And Tuck shows with repeated examples why this issue was so important during the Civil War; the struggle between contending sides had very much to do with the scope of religious discipline to be imposed by the state.  Hobbes was opposed to religious law and mandates of belief, and therefore found himself in roughly the camp of the Tolerationists.

The ecclesiastical regime put into place by the new republic after 1649 was very close to what Hobbes seems to have wanted on general grounds, and which he may well have enthusiastically preferred to traditional episcopacy.  This is because, like almost all the most interesting 17th-century political theorists (including Grotius and Locke), he seems to have feared the moral and intellectual disciplines of Presbyterian Calvinism far more than anything else. (39)

Hobbes’s primary object in arguing like this was to elevate the power of the sovereign over the churches — bands of fanatics (in his eyes) who wished to enforce absurd opinions upon their fellow citizens, and whose activities were primarily responsible for the civil wars of Europe.  They could only be controlled if the soverign was empowered to determine public doctrine and silence disputes. (85)

Tuck argues that Hobbes’s earliest and most important influence on Hobbes in the area of moral and political philosophy was Hugo Grotius and his book, The Laws of War and Peace.  Tuck describes this influence in these terms:

[Grotius] could play the same role for him as Galileo’s Dialogues did for all members of the Mersenne circle, as a represntation for them of the kind of science which was to be put on their new, post-sceptical foundations. (25)

Tuck summarizes Grotius’s core theory in two fundamental principles: “All men would agree that everyone has a fundamental right to preserve themselves, and wanton or unnecessary injury to another person is unjustifiable” (26).  Tuck finds that these principles have counterparts in Hobbes’s arguments in Leviathan.
So Tuck seems to be putting forward several important strands of interpretation that run against the grain of the customary telling of Hobbes’s philosophy: first, that his philosophy of science and sensation plays a larger role than we might have thought; and second, that his most famous theory, the theory of unlimited sovereignty, has rather specific roots in Hobbes’s immediate intellectual context (Grotius) and political environment (struggles over the extent of religious legislation).  It is not the result of a purely abstract reflection on the situation of rational persons in a state of nature, but rather a complex argument that intertwines with England’s own political tensions in mid-seventeenth century.
Steven Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a nice complement to this line of thought, in that it offers a fundamentally new reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.  Here is how Pincus describes his project:

England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688-89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.  Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688-89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation.  All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688-89.  Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. (Introduction)

(Two articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes’s philosophy are worth reading (linklink).)


Fresh thinking about government

The eminent neo-Confucian scholar Tu Weiming argues for the importance of bracketing our Western-centric ideas about society, progress, and justice when we think about our global futures. (Here is an interesting article by Tu titled “Mutual Learning as an Agenda for Social Development”; link.) So for a moment let us put aside the familiar rhetoric about “democracy” that usually surfaces when we talk about how societies ought to be governed. Much of that language derives from Western political theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Mill, and arguably shows the signs of times and places very different from current social realities. Can we begin to rethink the task of collective governance in a way that might help frame current discussions more fruitfully?  Is it possible to rethink democracy in a way that is less Western-centric?

In order to think carefully about the idea of government, we need two different sets of assumptions: first, what the social realities or conditions are within the context of which “government” needs to function; and second, a core set of value assumptions that define the standards to which government ought to conform.

What are the fundamentals? There are several basic social realities that are hard to seriously question, and there are a few normative ideas that have credibility but could be debated.

Large social groups require governance.

Let’s define a large group as a population of greater than 50,000 people living in proximity to one another, involved in a range of interactions and exchanges with each other and sharing access to a set of resources. This establishes interdependence and mutual effects among persons.

Here are some core governance needs: Maintenance of public order, management of conflicts, provision of some set of public goods, establishment of a system of rules and laws, collection of taxes to support the activities of government.

Persons have interests and commitments that they care about.

People have interests, desires, and commitments, and these interests lead to competition and cooperation, predation and defense. They behave purposively and strategically to further their interests and protect themselves against predation.

There are perhaps other basic facts about individuals that would be important from the perspective of other civilizational values systems — for example,

Persons are psychologically and socially defined by the social relationships within which they exist.

Here is another salient fact:

Governments take actions that affect different people differently.

And another fact:

The powers of government create opportunities for corruption, preferential treatment, and favoring of the powerful by government officials.

So citizens care deeply about the outcomes of governmental action, and they are especially concerned at the possibility that others may gain great advantages through corrupt influence on officials and agencies.

Now consider a few values that most people would probably accept.

  • Government should pursue the public good, not the private good of officials or private individuals.
  • Government should not favor some persons over others.
  • Government should take the desires and needs of citizens into account when formulating rules, policies, and laws.
  • Government policies and laws should reflect the preferences and interests of citizens.
  • Government should establish a neutral framework of law and policy that is applied without regard to persons and private interests.
  • Citizens should have the ability to express criticism and disagreement with government actions.
Designing government requires that we take account of these basic facts and do our best to embody the values we agree about.  We need a set of institutions that will be durable, that will reinforce the fundamental values around which they are designed, and that will be difficult to distort when self-interested actors occupy roles within them.  Most fundamentally, we need a set of institutions that embody pursuit of the public good; that reflect citizen preferences; and that secure a just system of law for all citizens.

So what kinds of governance institutions are compatible with this list of facts and values?

This is where the mechanisms of constitutional electoral democracy come in. Western political theorists argue that a constitution sets the regulative framework for governance — the fundamental legal protections defining citizenship and the scope and role of government. And electoral democracy permits citizens to express their preferences and enforce good performance by officials.  So policies are selected that correspond to the preferences of citizens; and they are implemented in good faith under the enforcement mechanism of representative electoral democracy.

But here is the more challenging question: are there other institutional arrangements that might fit these facts and values about as well? In particular, could we imagine a Confucian single-party state with an energetic anti-corruption office, an energetic and independent “investigative journalism” office, and a robust social survey office that serves the functions of gathering citizen preferences and concerns? Could such a system genuinely embody the public good in a hypothetical modern Asian society? In other words, could we imagine an administrative-authority system that effectively embodied the public good and protections of the fundamental interests and preferences of citizens? Could the “checks and balances” represented by an electoral system be established through other means?

It is easy to see objections to this hypothetical possibility; they largely come down to the problem of independence and effectiveness when a regulative office finds it necessary to criticize powerful officials or private persons. But it’s worth asking the question of alternative governance design, and it’s not inconceivable that solutions to these problems could be created.

(Here is an interesting collection of Tu Weiming’s writings; Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought.)

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