This is a lightly revised version of a paper I gave last week at a very enjoyable conference on "Philosophy in the Public Sphere" at the Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, near Delhi; the abstract:
The idea of “public philosophy”—that is, philosophy as contributing to questions of moral and political urgency in the community in which it is located—is paradoxical for two reasons. The first is that normative philosophy has no well-established substantive conclusions about the right and the good. Thus, philosophers enter into moral and political debate purporting to offer some kind of expertise, but the expertise they offer can not consist in any credible claim to know what is good, right, valuable, or any other substantive normative proposition that might be decisive in practical affairs. But philosophers—at least those in the broadly Socratic traditions--do bring to debate a method or way of thinking about contested normative questions: they are good at parsing arguments, clarifying the concepts at play in a debate, teasing out the dialectical entailments of suppositions and claims, and so on: Socratic philosophers are, in short, purveyors of what I call “discursive hygiene.” This brings us to the second paradox: although philosophers can contribute no substantive knowledge about the good and the right, they can contribute discursive hygiene. But discursive hygiene plays almost no role in public life, and an only erratic, and highly contingent, role in how people form beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency. I call attention to the role of two factors in moral judgment: non-rational emotional responses and “Tribalism,” the tendency to favor members of one “tribe” at the expense of others. The prevalence of emotional responses, especially tribalist ones, undermines the efficacy of discursive hygiene in public life.
I conclude that the role for public philosophy is quite circumscribed, though public philosophers should learn from their cousins, the lawyers, who appreciate the role that rhetoric, beyond discursive hygiene, plays in changing moral attitudes and affecting action. Along the way, I discuss Stevenson’s emotivism, what we can learn from Peter Singer’s schizophrenic role as a public philosopher (lauded for his defense of animal rights, pilloried for his defense of killing defective humans), evolutionary explanations of tribalism, the lessons of American Legal Realism for the possible relevance of discursive hygiene, and Marx and Nietzsche as "public" philosophers.
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
How long will it take us to understand that the entire neoliberal project – the puritanical mania for cutting taxes, cutting social services and cutting budget deficits that has dominated the Western world’s economy for more than 30 years – has been a disaster? And guess what, liberals: You don’t get to point the finger at Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher and Milton Friedman and claim it was all their fault. The reformist center-left, whether it took the form of Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats,” Tony Blair and “New Labor” or the watered-down social-democratic parties of Europe, has enthusiastically rebranded itself as a servant of global capital. If you were genuinely surprised that the Obama administration loaded itself up with Wall Street insiders, or that it failed to punish anyone for the massive criminal scheme that resulted in the 2008 financial collapse, you haven’t been paying attention.
I make that point because it’s almost impossible to have a serious discussion about this country’s economic problems without getting trapped into partisan political bickering, which is almost irrelevant in this context. The activist Tea Party right (at least in its populist, non-elite form) and the activist Occupy left are essentially reacting to the same phenomenon – worsening inequality, and the long-term economic and psychic decay of the United States – but interpreting it in different ways. Working-class whites who feel an immense loss of relative privilege and social status are not wrong, for example – but it doesn’t have much to do with the Kenyan socialist Muslim in the White House, or his namby-pamby and admittedly screwed-up healthcare law. As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently noted, census data reveals that men with high-school diplomas but without college degrees earn about 40 percent less today (in real terms) than they did in the 1970s. Obama didn’t do that; capitalism did.
Stiglitz concluded his essay on inequality – which argued that it was a political choice, rather than the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces – by writing that he saw us “entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok.” Which kind of country do we live in? That was the question that ran through my mind this week while I was watching Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial documentary “At Berkeley,” a portrait of America’s most prestigious public university as it wrestles with piecemeal privatization and the near-total abandonment of its historic mission.
Reagan was the decisive President in my lifetime, just as Roosevelt was for a prior generation. Neither Clinton nor Obama has turned the tide, though perhaps Obama laid a foundation for someone more courageous to do so. We will see.
Interesting piece from Jacobin. (Its partial target is Mark Oppenheimer, one of the scummier journalists I've encountered, but the piece is of interest independent of the easy mark. Adorno even makes an appearance!)
Not really, superficial similarities notwithstanding. When he endorses the theory of ideology and non-teleological historical materialism, that will be different. Right now he's at the moralizing utopion socialist stage.
Alex Rosenberg (Duke), a leading philosopher of economic and biology, shared the following apt thoughts about this year's unusual prize:
So, the Swedish Central Bank's ersatz Nobel Prize for “economic science” gets awarded to a guy who says markets are efficient and there are no bubbles—Eugene Fama (“I don’t know what a credit bubble means. I don’t even know what a bubble means. These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning”—New Yorker, 2010), along with another economist—Robert Shiller, who says that markets are pretty much nothing but bubbles, “Most of the action in the aggregate stock market is bubbles.” (NY Times, October 19, 2013) Imagine the parallel in physics or chemistry or biology—the prize is split between Einstein and Bohr for their disagreement about whether quantum mechanics is complete, or Pauling and Crick for their dispute about whether the gene is a double helix or a triple, or between Gould and Dawkins for their rejection of one another’s views about the units of selection. In these disciplines Nobel Prizes are given to reward a scientist who has established something every one else can bank on. In economics, “Not so much.” This wasn’t the first time they gave the award to an economist who says one thing and another one who asserts its direct denial. Cf. Myrdal and Hayek in 1974. What’s really going on here? Well, Shiller gave the game away in a NY Times interview when he said of Fama, “It’s like having a friend who is a devout believer of another religion.” Actually it’s probably two denominations in the same religion.
I suppose The New York Timeswould not have printed this except for who the author is. If he believes what he's written, I trust he will allocate his Foundation's resources to radical political parties. (The increasing number of philosophers who seem to think charitable giving is an ethical imperative would do well to contemplate the issues raised by Mr. Buffett.)
A system in which liberals tolerate massive inequality, exploitation and structural dysfunction on the one hand, and then lobby rich people to "give back" in various ways - creative and sometimes effective though those give-backs might be - is an embrace of injustice and the prerogatives of power, not a challenge to it. Charity-state liberalism and the cult of philanthropy are neoliberal capitalism's way of defending itself against structural change while buying indulgences for its sins.
These authors make fair points, but it is indicative of the depraved circumstances under which we live that the argument has to be made in this form ("studying humanities can make you employable"!). The point of humanistic study is to make students human, that is, to allow individuals to realize some distinctively human abilities, such as having and understanding values, reflecting upon and understanding the past, cultivating aesthetic appreciation or achievement along the many dimensions that the world has offered us, and refining the intellectual tools necessary to understand, interpret, and interact with the broader world as something other than an automaton. Or, to borrow from Nietzsche, the point of disciplined humanistic study is to cultivate everything that "makes life on earth worth living--for instance: virtue, art, music, dance, reason, intellect--something that transfigures, something refined, fantastic, and divine" (Beyond Good and Evil, 188). The real scandal is that purportedly serious universities let students study "business" and "engineering" and other fields that have their uses--they make life livable, but not worth living.
Chattel slavery may be history in most parts of the world, thank goodness, but wage slavery is not, and these defenses of the humanities are, alas, depressingly realistic testimonies to that fact.
What took him so long? Krugman has been such a relief to those of us in the United States, because the public culture is so bereft of critical perspective, but the fact remains that he's an apologist for the capitalist system, just not as bonkers as some of the others. I quote from his recent posting on the implications of the displacement of human labor power by robots, which means profits go to those who own capital, not those who actually work:
Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.
I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.
The public culture of the United States is obviously an embarrassment, so I don't want to knock Krugman too much, since he's been the most visible voice for civilization in recent years...BUT look what he wrote: "the capital/labor dimension of inequality....didn't seem crucial back in the 1990s." He at least does a mea culpa, so kudos to him for that. Now that the Repugs have been trounced in the latest national elections, we need a real revival of the labor movement in this benighted country to recapture a larger portion of capital from its current heirs, and insure that it meets human needs in the decades ahead.
UPDATE: The Ed Asner video, produced by the California teachers' union as I understand it, is timely.
There is only one problem confronting urban public schools, and it has nothing to do with the schools or the teachers, contrary to all the blather by idle-rich busybodies and the intellectually feeble politicans who do their bidding. The primary problem with urban public schools is that they largely serve a population that lives under conditions of economic hardship, sometimes grotesque economic hardship, with all the attendant problems of poor nutrition, physical safety, availability of adult supervision after school, and suitable environments and incentives for school work. That, of course, is why suburban public schools in affluent communities--with unionized teachers who are no different than those in the urban schools--always do better on measures of academic performance and outcomes. If you don't have to worry whether there will be food for dinner, or whether you will be mugged, or if anyone will be available to take care of you, or whether you'll have a quiet place to work, it turns out to be easier to do well in school. It's got nothing to do with the teachers, and everything to do with the environment. (Here and there, fabulous teaching makes a difference, but you can't make policy around atypical cases.)
Of course, it would be hard to generate enthusiasm among hedge-fund billionaire busybodies for doing something about the economic environment in which the victims live, so instead we are presented with the absurd idea that if only the teachers were better, everything would be dandy, as well as the destructive idea that to make the teachers better, we need to measure their performance based on standardized test results. (That idea, by the way, started with George W. Bush when he was Governor of Texas, and it successfully destroyed the public schools, as the curriculum devolved into "teaching to the test," rather than teaching.)
Rahm Emanuel's kids attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where 99% of the kids go on to college (and about 50% go on to what would be generally considered highly selective or "elite" colleges and universities). There are some very good teachers at "Lab," and some not so good ones. But no one ever dreams of suggesting that to be even better, those teachers should be paid according to standardized test results. Lab School is successful for simple reasons: it has resources and it has good students, half of whom come from academic families and the other half from with families with family and monetary resources to support them. The school's financial resources support a good curriculum, a well-compensated teaching staff, arts, enrichment programs, after-school activities, and more. No one ever suggests we should "stop throwing money" at the school, that what "Lab" really needs is teachers whose students get higher test scores. But this bullshit and blather is standard fare when it comes to the public schools.
The pathological liars of the right are out in full force to smear the striking teachers. Typical are the headlines on the site of "Matt Drudge," one of the ringleaders of the Right-Wing Blob, a man whose crimes against truth and moral decency are well-known. One headline reads that the teachers "Turn Down $400 Million Deal, 16% Pay Raise..." Of course, you have to go to the article and read till the end to learn that that was a 16% pay raise over four years, and that it was in response to an even greater increase in the workload of the teachers. Another headline then reports, falsely, that Chicago public school teachers "have highest average salary in Nation," linking to a blog post at The National Review (!), which cites no sources, since in fact it's not true. Corey Robin has more relevant details. And here's a good takedown of the disgusting Mayor. Jim Nichols has a good round-up of links and information.
UPDATE: A colleague elsewhere correctly observes that if "there is really high teacher turnover and/or burned out teachers who are dramatically overworked and under-resourced, then teachers really do become problematically bad," and that's, of course, part of what the teachers' union is trying to prevent. The key point is that the problems confronting urban public schools are not primarily problems about the quality of teaching, let alone problems that will be solved by gimmicks like standardized testing and merit pay, which will produce, among other things, precisely high teacher turnover.
ANOTHER: A profile of the head of the teachers union.
MORE: A terrific speech by a Chicago lawyer, Matt Farmer, about what parents want from education.
ANOTHER RESOURCE: Diana Ravitch, who was actually in the Bush Education Department, though has subsequently recanted on the right-wing myths about public education, charter schools, and teachers' unions, has a good and on-going set of posts about the Chicago situation. (Those right-wing myths continue to be championed by the Obama Administration in large part.)
A LATE ADDENDUM: This post raises an important point about how we are taught to think about compensation in the capitalist utopia.
SEPTEMBER 12 UPDATE: Leave it to the "liberal" New York Times to come down squarely on the side of the idle-rich billionaire busybodies!
Culture industry edition. How refreshing to see the products of the culture industry correctly described (e.g., Paris Hilton referred to as a "narcissistic parasite"). You can see the full movie here (I haven't watched the whole thing, so can't vouch that it's as apt as the excerpt on the culture industry.)
The NY Times has published some essays on the subject, adjudged by a rather, shall we say, partisan (and mostly intellectually lightweight) panel. (Thanks to David Auerbach for the pointer.) The whole thing is most interesting, to me at least, from a sociological point of view, i.e., that the subject is even thought to be a subject, which should be addressed in a mass media publication, one whose own record of actual ethical lapses is long enough to make factory farming look like charity. That the main audience for the NY Times is the "morally sensitive", but ideologically deluded, New York City bourgeoisie is no doubt part of the explanation. It is, in any case, a clear victory for the Singerite pop utilitarian movement that this question is even deemed worth discussing.
ADDENDUM: Given my e-mail correspondence, this post was clearly a triumph of ambiguity, so let me try to dispel some of it. Many topics are worth discussing by philosophers, but the NY Times discusses almost none of them, let alone calls for essays from readers on the subject. Why, then, would the NY Times single out this particular topic for this kind of special treatment? (That it does so is clearly a victory for the Singerite pop utilitarian movement, a sign of the extent to which it has permeated aspects of mass culture.) And, of course, it singles it out for discussion in a very particular way, i.e., premised on the idea that the eating of meat requires ethical justification (most of the essays are rather half-hearted defenses as well!). Imagine the analogies for other topics the Times might have addressed: e.g., "Given the criminal war of aggression against Iraq, should Bush and Cheney be hung or merely imprisoned for life?" or "Is it ethical to defend American capitalism, given its failure to meet human needs?" That these questions are not, and certainly will not, be discussed in a similar forum is what strikes me as sociologically interesting. I'll have a bit more to say about the philosophical merits later, though that wasn't what really caught my attention about this display.
...in this interview with Richard Marshall. (Point of personal privilege: I think he's rather silly on Nietzsche [the proof, for Nietzsche, that the "Jewish" slave revolt in morals was victorious is that the Catholic Pope now rules in Rome] but that's OK, it's very much worth reading anyway!) Here's a nice quote:
The US is the leading militarist power in the world and will be, even broke, very hard to stop. The US has for instance 1280 bases abroad; France its leading “competitor” has 5 in former French colonial Africa. Even Obama, the anti-“dumb” Iraq war candidate – the war was one of aggression, crimes of torture to the fore, and to call it merely “dumb” is to say something, unfortunately, at best ambiguous and, prima facie silly – is waging aggressions or occupations in 6 countries, not counting Iran. The use of drones in Pakistan, irrelevant to taking out Bin Laden, has murdered many civilians – called “collateral damage” by the killers – created justified mass hatred of the US, and turned a nuclear power into, increasingly, an enemy of the US. The addiction to war and the forces in imperialism/capitalism that lead to it – particularly given US dependence on militarism as the main productive and innovative part of the economy (creating both the internet and drones for murder abroad/internal surveillance) – will be hard to turn around. If one adds in the speculative casino of finance capital – it has always been parasitic, but with derivatives it now beats the band for perversity (Goldman Sachs advised and made loans to the Greek government and simultaneously took out derivative bets that the Greek government would fail, driving up interest on renewing loans) - and the encouragement of consumer and student debt, one sees the causes of economic collapse.
As to the immiseration of the vast majority under capitalism, I wonder whether it is a "relative" one to our times after all. Those marvelous inventions of our age, the iPhone and the iPad, simply didn't pop out of the head of that genius, Steve Jobs, as all the encomiums after his death had it. Rather, the reality of how those devices are actually manufactured in the prison-houses in China reveals something far more horrifying, something that I doubt that even the London of Dickens could have competed with at its nadir. And why is this tolerable today? Because, "Paul Krugman says so." I kid you not.
And anyone who thinks that that's what happens in a "communist" state, should sober up to the fact that the median wage of the retail worker in this country, which used to support a middle class existence for much of the post-war era, is no longer a subsistence wage; indeed, it often doesn't even comply with whatever weak labor laws that have not yet been dismantled by the political class in the race to find the bottom against China.
Wilkinson begins on a silly note. After insulting me as a "bullying ideologue" (misusing, as all these cry-babies do, the label "bullying"), he then admits that I've "treated [him] disrespectfully on a few occasions for what I assume are political reasons." I guess his assumption is as comforting as it is baseless; the simple fact is I don't respect his intelligence (and I'm not alone), and most of his criticisms are a case in point. They themselves are mostly not interesting, but the ideological blinders on offer are, and it is to those I will turn my attention.
Let's dispense with the confused parts of Wilkinson's criticism quickly: (1) he's beside himself that in listing Marx's "faults" I didn't mention "the labor theory of value" and "the tendency of Marxism when applied to produce totalitarian dictatorships that have caused upward of 100 millions deaths." The latter has nothing to do with Marx, and everyone knows the former is defunct--one reason the interviewer presumably didn't ask about it is because he'd bothered to read the paper he was asking about, whereas Wilkinson apparently couldn't be bothered (I've even blogged about this, to make it easy for lazy readers like Wilkinson!); (2) he's equally confused about immiseration, as several commenters point out (the issue is relative, not absolute); everyone knows, including most importantly Marx, that capitalist societies produce large amounts of wealth, the problem starts when technological advances replace the need for human labor power, as they have been doing in all the advanced capitalist societies for more than a generation now, with predictable effects on wealth distribution (though as I noted in the interview, Marx was wildly off on the timing); (3) that Wilkinson thinks Cohen's reconstruction of historical materialism in terms of functional explanations "was doing Marx a favor" by showing historical materialism to be "a credible form of social-scientifc explanation" shows he has no idea what explanatory paradigms are dominant in the social sciences, what the relation is between functional and causal explanations (class conflict being the causal mechanism, even on Cohen's account!), and the kinds of explanations Marxist historians have developed utilizing class conflict as the relevant explanatory mechanism. (Hint: read some Robert Brenner to start).
I'll note in passing that Wilkinson concedes the correctness of Marx's theory of ideology, though, for reasons known only to him, thinks it "vacuous."
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)