December, 2016
December 29, 2016
Judith Butler on Difficult Writing

Judith Butler is often held to be an icon of bad academic writing, and Martha Nussbaum’s withering critique of Butler is one of the most biting philosophical pieces I remember reading; where you come out on the Butler—Nussbaum row might well be a shibboleth for where you stand more widely regarding matters of style in philosophy. But I’ve only recently become aware that Butler hasn’t been silent on her own writing style, but has actually written in its defence. The most interesting part of Butler’s response is that she fully accepts that her writing is “difficult”, though of course she rejects that it is “bad”. Butler’s crucial defence is neatly contained in the following passage:

Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: “The intellectual is called on the carpet. … Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don’t talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you.”

The accused then responds that “if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”

Several ideas combine into one in this passage. First, demands for “clarity” should be seen as attempts to chastise radicals who deviate from the conventionally expected. Second, because radical writers mean to challenge and subvert the mainstream, form has to follow content: difficult writing is meant to shock placid readers out of their expectations. And third, perhaps it’s not even possible to formulate radical thought in “ordinary language”, as that language presupposes the “universe of discourse” the radical wishes to undermine.


December 26, 2016
Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press 2016.

Many books will be written trying to explain Trump’s electoral success. But perhaps the best book about Trump has already been written, based on research just prior to the election. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has spent five years living with supporters of the Tea Party in rural Louisiana. Trump isn’t a political force for the first two thirds of her book; he starts to cast his shadow only in the last third as a candidate in the Republican primaries, quickly gaining in prominence. It’s to the great credit of Hochschild’s book that Trump doesn’t feel like a surprise at this point, but rather as a natural conclusion to what she has found.


December 20, 2016
Modelling the Pursuit of Justice

Following up on my previous post, one of the most interesting aspects of Gaus’s work on ideal/non-ideal theories of justice is that he suggests a formal model in which we can think about the issue. Gaus is quite explicit in stressing the advantages of formal modelling in the introduction to his book. In particular, the outlines of the model Gaus develops are clearly inspired by the idea of fitness landscapes from evolutionary biology; and the contrast between his ideal and non-ideal theories of justice looks a lot like the search for an efficient search algorithm on such landscapes.

So Gaus liberally exploits models from the sciences to think about the pursuit of justice; and this strikes me as a valuable, interesting strategy. But while Gaus sketches a formal model, and spends lots of time on developing various aspects of it, it remains seriously incomplete. In particular, Gaus never suggests—or comes close to suggesting—a way how we can translate the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theories into concrete algorithms within the context of a specified mathematical model. Nor does Gaus spend much time at all on evaluating the success of actual search algorithms, or surveying the literature on the success of such algorithms.

This is a curious omission. In fact, in the crucial part of his book, when Gaus levels his ultimate charge against “ideal” theories of justice, he falls back on mostly non-technical arguments that I found rather unconvincing (though this is a story for another day). Here I’ll make some preliminary observations about how Gaus’s hints could be translated into an actual model, and which challenges we face along the way.


December 16, 2016
“Rogue One”

“Rogue One” is supposed to be a “Star Wars story”: a film set in the Star Wars universe, but falling outside the plot of the main movies. This was a great opportunity, then, to expand and deepen the universe, and especially to experiment with it: to introduce not only new faces and planets—a must-have for any Star Wars movie—but also new concepts, visuals, factions, and ideas. “Rogue One” does decently enough on the first part, but it utterly fails in the second. It obligingly delivers the thrills that come with the modern blockbuster, but in everything else, it is exceedingly cautious in saying or showing anything controversial or original that doesn’t toe the established Star Wars line.


December 14, 2016
The Tragedy of Truth

The following is a somewhat sketchy, programmatic attempt to combine some of my central beliefs about liberalism into a coherent whole. 

There are truths, I presume, in politics about what we ought to do. That is, there are certain ways how we ought to design our societies, how we should distribute rights, duties, resources and opportunities across people, which types of actions and behaviours we should prohibit and which permit, and so on; and these facts are so, to a large degree no matter whether we believe or desire them to be so, or whether many people believe them to be so, or whether democratic majorities decide them to be so.

Finding out these truths is difficult. What policies we ought to implement depends on a variety of normative and empirical facts which are hard to know, and the interaction of which is difficult and non-trivial. This reveals the first tragedy of truth in politics: we might fail to be right. We might find out that our societies have been deeply unjust and repugnant. When we look back at the patterns of sexist, racist, colonialist (etc.) injustices of almost all past societies, then we might even come to the shattering conclusion that our current way of organising our society is also highly likely to be unjust in some way, even if we do not know precisely how. This is the tragedy of truth for any non-relative view, any view which allows for the normative truth to seriously deviate from our current beliefs and conventions.


December 3, 2016
Libertarianism for Doubters

Libertarianism in its classical form is a radical doctrine. At its core is a belief in strong, virtually absolute property rights for individuals and the absence of enforceable duties to help others, based on some doctrine of self-ownership. Libertarianism also has radical implications. It would entail that large amounts of the activities of the modern state are unjust, in particular any type of social redistribution. Indeed, libertarianism arguably requires us to be anarchists of some kind, and abandon states altogether. (I’m dealing with one strand of libertarianism here, deontological “right”-libertarianism.)

The radicalism of the libertarian project should give you pause if you’re a libertarian. It is a minority position both in the academy, and across the history of political thought. Many thoughtful, clever intellectuals have offered serious objections to libertarianism from both moral and economic perspectives. Furthermore, there have been no real-life implementations of libertarianism, so any belief in libertarianism must rely on lots of empirical stipulations and unreliable guesswork about the real-life nature of such societies. Moreover, from many competing moral views a libertarian society would not merely be a mistake, but a moral disaster, insofar as a such a society would not fulfil crucial duties of justice, e.g., of social redistribution.

So here’s the central question: what type of political society should you advocate if you’re a libertarian who enjoys significant, heavy doubts about whether libertarianism is true? (To be clear, I’m in the opposite position—I consider myself a liberal who enjoys doubts that libertarianism might be true.) An intuitive answer is that you should hedge your bets as a libertarian. Irrelevant of any possible reasons internal to libertarianism to advocate a social welfare net (some have been offered in the literature), you have reasons to favour a minimal safety net supported by forcible taxation because you might be catastrophically wrong in your belief that libertarianism is right.

The same line of argument applies mutatis mutandis to virtually all utopian, radical political theories. All, I suspect, have serious reasons to morally safe-guard their own implementation—that is, to make practical accommodations for the possibility that their theory is wrong. If you’re a socialist, for example, who wishes to radically abandon all kinds of property rights, it should give you pause that most competing views allow for at least a moderate version of such rights, and who see their abandonment as an injustice. But I’ll limit my discussion here to libertarianism specifically.