Philosophy 290-6

Fall 2005

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-6 Liberty and Need Munoz-Dardé Tu 2-4 234 Moses

A common, if tacit, assumption in much political philosophy is that the normative framework of philosophical questions about the political are autonomous of the more specific practical questions addressed in moral philosophy. As a consequence, political philosophers tend to focus on questions of political obligation, property, legitimacy, community and liberty independent of the grounding of these problems in a broader ethical context. Historically, this divorce of the political from the moral is eccentric – the great writers of the Enlightenment addressed political questions all as part of a broader theory of morals. In this seminar I want to return to this older tradition, and address political issues only through more fundamental ethical concerns, without assuming that such notions as political obligation have a clear understanding or a fundamental role in exploring issues.

The seminar divides into three broad elements:

First: Defining Problems. I want to raise questions about the distinctive content of political philosophy by looking at the import of the shift from comprehensive to political liberalism in the work of Rawls. This is often interpreted as a form of retreat on Rawls’s part from a more wholehearted liberalism in the face of a multicultural or relativistic challenge. An alternative reading sees the shift in Rawls as an attempt to be more exact in the commitments that a properly liberal framework should take in political debate. In contrasting these interpretations, we will be drawn back to some earlier problems and concerns within the history of political philosophy. Rousseau occupies a distinctive position within the Enlightenment tradition, not, as sometimes popularly portrayed, for offering an excuse for revolutionary zeal and offering an ostensible rationale for totalitarian impulses in the name of liberty, but because he offers us a distinctive alternative conception of contractualism and the questions that are to be posed or answered in a political theory from the dominant tradition tracing through from Hobbes and Locke to contemporary discussion. We can see Rawls’s liberalism, consistently espoused and maintained in his political liberalism, as tracing back to the Rousseauian tradition.

Second: Foundational Themes. I want to look at some very broad questions about the nature of value and practical reason in order to address questions of how social concerns bear on us individually and provide justification for the social constraints and demands on us.

What seems quite intuitive to many of us is that others can quite properly make demands on us that their needs should be met, and that we in turn can expect and demand that our needs should also be met by others. At the same time, we recognise that there are limits both to the demands we can make on others and that they can make on us. It would be unreasonable for one to make excessive demands on others, and reasonable for us to reject excessive demands of others on us. Early utilitarian thought is attractive in the emphasis it places on the idea that there are moral requirements to meet the needs of others; and historically this had a radical political influence. However, utilitarianism is widely taken to fail as a philosophical account of the political sphere because the associated consequentialist conception both of value and of practical reason fails properly to capture the limits that the demands of others can make on individuals. This raises the question whether any other approach can answer to the intuitive elements of early utilitarianism while better respecting the idea that there are limits on the demands that can be placed on an individual. One way of thinking of recent contractualist theories of ethical and political thought is that they attempt to do just that.

We shall address the question whether there is a distinctively contractualist approach to these social concerns which starts out from the needs of others but seeks to respect the limits on claims of need, by looking at a series of issues. First, questions of how the sheer number of people involved in a given claim can make a difference to what one is rationally or morally required to do. Many philosophers who reject consequentialism still hold that the number of people or claims involved has a direct bearing on what one should do. Is this supposition really so obvious?

We shall then look to questions about equality and the question whether equality or fairness are themselves things of intrinsic value which we are required to pursue in our lives. Intrinsic egalitarians claim that a just society should be organised to engage with and further these values. In contrast, we shall see a needs-based account can explain the political appeal of claims of equality without having to suppose the existence of such values.

This still raises a question about the existence and fostering of distinctively social goods provided by social institutions which claim resources from us that otherwise could be used for meeting needs. How are we to understand how the needs of individuals are to be balanced against the fostering of such goods as universities, museums, public art.

Third: Sample Problems.

I want to address some specific examples of questions of general political concern within the framework we have developed. I want to raise some questions of general concern about individual liberty and communal demands on us, familiar from general political debate but under-discussed within philosophical debate. In particular:

a.) The family. Most politicians make voter capital through claiming to protect and foster families and family life. Should a just society tolerate the institution of the family? Sociological evidence indicates that historical inequalities, advantages and disadvantages are passed on through family structure. Can the institution of the family be tolerated or justified within an individualistic perspective?

b.) Sexual Politics and the Market. Most Western societies regulate market transactions involving sexual behaviour. What justifies such restriction? Is there any particular area of human behaviour which should be removed from and preserved from economic transaction? Is there a special role or understanding of self-ownership which explains the distinctive attitude towards market transactions involving one’s own body?

c.) Charities and begging. Most Western societies regulate and restrict individual begging while encouraging and providing benefits to charitable organizations. Is it preferable for societies to prefer charitable activity over central taxation?