Monthly Archives: September 2017

does every country have the same moral obligation to migrants?

About 1 million US citizens, mostly retirees, currently reside in Mexico. According to one study, 92 percent of them don’t have their papers fully in order to live there. Even if they are fully documented, they hold ambiguous civil and political rights. The Constitution of Mexico, after stating that everyone shall have the basic privileges and immunities guaranteed by Chapter 1, goes on to say, “However, The Federal Executive shall have the exclusive power to compel any foreigner whose remaining he may deem inexpedient to abandon the national territory immediately and without the necessity of previous legal action. Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country” (Article 33).

You might think that all human beings have human or natural rights to live anywhere. Then Mexico and the United States are both illegitimately blocking some migration. (This is a radical view with radical implications.) Or you might say that all people must have free speech and due process rights, regardless of their citizenship. Then Mexico’s Article 33 seems problematic.

My intuition is different. I favor equal rights for people who reside within the United States even if they don’t have legal citizenship. I recognize that in some cases, their entry was an illegal act, but I am inclined to weigh that very lightly, if at all. I am mainly concerned about how they may be exploited or dominated within this country if their rights are not guaranteed. I am particularly uncompromising about their civil and political rights. Meanwhile, I would object to US retirees entering Mexico against Mexican law and would not complain if they were deported. And while I’m not sure I’m a fan of Article 33, I can see plausible reasons for Mexico to ban resident aliens from political engagement.

In other words, I am sympathetic to people who migrate from the Global South to the US, but not vice-versa. I myself would enjoy living for a time in several foreign countries, but I would not claim a right to do so unless it was legal under those countries’ laws. And I would tend to respect any prohibitions they imposed on my political action within their borders. I might make exceptions if the local government had forfeited its legitimacy and I wanted to help the opposition, but even then, I would be inclined to defer to citizens of the country in question to be the leaders.

This is an inconsistent position if it’s all about human rights, abstractly. Why not treat migration the same way regardless of its direction? I think my view puts human rights in the context of justice among nations. Mexico is a lot less wealthy than the United States and has excellent reasons to worry about its national sovereignty. It is because I assume that the international order is unjust in this kind of way that I am prone to favor rights for migrants to the US, regardless of their legal status. I then end up favoring rights for wealthy migrants from wealthy countries only because it’s best not to discriminate within the class of immigrants. The paradigm case for me is a migrant from a nation that has been disadvantaged by global politics.

Two questions: 1) Is my stance justified? And 2) Does it help to explain the political disagreement about immigration? Many Americans don’t see the US as unfairly advantaged at the global level; some even think that we’ve been unfairly disadvantaged as a nation, as Donald Trump often claims. I wonder whether that premise helps explain why they are so unsympathetic to migrants.

twenty-five years of it

Now 50, I can see that my scholarly or intellectual life has turned out differently from what I had imagined at age 25. Then I had a 9-5 job in politics–for the “citizens’ lobby,” Common Cause. I had written a dissertation that became an obscure book, and I was working on a novel that was later published, albeit without much notice. My job left me time to work on other research. I had no idea what I’d achieve, but I thought I knew what the goal looked like. I’d produce writing. It would be helpful (I hoped), but also distinctive, original, and influential. Most of my intellectual work would be done alone. I would stand somewhat aside from society and its institutions, offering critical perspectives. I would find new things to say to readers about perennial authors and issues.

Today, my actual work consists of meeting with people, reading and writing, preparing talks, reading others’ draft papers, grant proposals, budgets, and planning documents, proposing projects, sending emails to groups of colleagues on timely matters, starting and editing Google docs, and facilitating discussions, whether in classrooms or elsewhere. When I ask myself why I do any of these particular tasks, the answer is almost always that someone has asked me to. (My blog posts are exceptions, and misleading ones if they’re all you know about me.) I care about the person who has asked me for each task–usually at a personal level, but often also because of our respective roles in organizations. When things go well, I feel that my work contributes to a network. Even when I’m the sole author of a document, it is usually destined for a publication that has been jointly planned by a group.

My work is much less original than I might have hoped or planned for it to be. Not only are my thoughts typically in the same vein as what others have already said, but often I have said the same things before. For example, I have already argued for civic education in k-12 schools many times. But perhaps I have not made yet that case to school superintendents, or historians, or people in Ukraine. If the cause seems valuable, I’ll find a new way to make the same points.

I’ve focused much more intensively and narrowly than my natural inclinations would predict. Starting all the way back in grade school, I had a tendency to grasp concepts superficially: just well enough to be able to say something that worked for the situation. Then I would get bored and want to learn something new. This is mostly a vice. But as things have turned out, I’ve worked on certain topics (civic education in US schools, youth voting, public deliberative forums, measuring civic life, aspects of political reform) for decades. My views may be wrong–they are certainly fallible–but they are not superficial. I’ve heard cogent critiques from all sorts of angles and have made appropriate changes. I’ve pursued some questions like a bloodhound with his nose to the ground.

My work is much more empirical than I’d expected: I deal more with statistics than with classic texts. It’s more collaborative. It’s less glamorous. Of course, glamour is in the eye of the beholder, but writing about famous authors has a certain cachet that seems missing in a grant proposal or a budget report.

I’m motivated much more by demand than supply, to use economists’ language; or by relationships rather than self-expression. Sometimes I chafe at that, wanting to say something more ambitiously distinctive. But working for and with other people increases the odds of making a difference. So does focus, and especially focus on relatively narrow and overlooked topics.

I also work much harder than I did at 25. I think that’s driven by demand. When you’re a young scholar, you do what you must to be employed. Beyond that, you’re motivated mostly by factors internal to you: curiosity, ambition or sheer love of the material. Once you’re securely embedded in a network, the importance of all those motivations diminishes. Often I find myself hard at work late at night because someone who’s doing something valuable needs my contribution (no matter how modest it may be) by the next morning. The net result is a lot more work per week than I thought I could do half a lifetime ago.

I think that if I could beam a message back to myself at age 25 that described my current life, the youthful me would probably be disappointed. But that’s just because this 50-year-old wouldn’t be able to convey the satisfactions of a life focused on participation in organizations and networks.

against state-centric political theory

What do all these statements have in common?

  1. “Republicanism is a consequentialist doctrine which assigns to government, in particular to governmental authorities, the task of promoting freedom as n0n-domination.” — Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  2. “Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.” — Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach
  3. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  4. “The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” — Milton Friedman, Capitalism as Freedom

These authors disagree about what the government should do and what powers it should have. Friedman wants as little government as necessary to protect a certain kind of freedom. Nussbaum and Rawls would assign the state the powers it needs to guarantee a range of social outcomes. Pettit starts with a particular conception of freedom and concludes with an argument for an assertive state.

But all agree that justice means getting the role of the government right.

One objection to this shared premise is that no government alone can determine whether people experience justice or injustice. Amartya Sen begins his book The Idea of Justice with a quote from Great Expectations (“In the little world in which children have their existence, nothing is so finely felt and perceived as injustice”) to support the point that non-state actors–in Pip’s case, an older sister–can be just or unjust in ways that no state would be able to determine.

I agree, but my objection is different and (I think) more radical. All the books quoted above are about justice, but their authors and readers are not governments. Instead, these books are written by people for people. People can adopt views of what governments should do, and sometimes people influence governments. But individual people–even dictators–cannot directly make governments either just or unjust. The question for these authors and their readers should be: What must we do?

From that perspective, governments do enter the picture, as do families, markets, customs, religions, ecosystems, laws of nature, and many other tools and constraints. The question for us is not how each of these things should ideally work (if so, I’d favor laws of nature that guarantee us all perfect happiness forever), but rather how we should deal with the constraints and opportunities that confront us.

In particular, the governments that we deal with differ greatly. Some of us live in Denmark; others in North Korea or Bukina Faso. All the authors cited above would agree that Denmark’s government is better than North Korea’s, but that conclusion has limited value for residents of either country. Further, citizens of Denmark can fine-tune the justice of their government’s policies by supporting the political parties that best reflect their views. In North Korea (because of tyranny) and in Burkina Faso (because of poverty), that approach to improving the world isn’t really available.

My objection is not that governments should play a more limited role than they play today or than some theorists recommend. As an individual voter, it happens that I would support more assertive government. My objection is to treating the question, “What is a good government?” as an answer to the existential question, “What should I do as a citizen?” Apart from voting for the party that recommends my favorite size and type of government, what am I to do?

I’d venture an analogy to a family of theological views. For many theists, God is the Unmoved Mover, ultimately responsible for everything but not subject to being changed. Our stance toward God should involve such virtues as hope and faith. We can pray for certain outcomes, and we can be confident that divine choices will be just. We can ask what God is likely to do, given that God is just. We cannot, however, choose how God will act.

Likewise, in all the political philosophies cited above, the state is the unmoved mover of a system of justice. Unlike God, a state can either be good or bad; it can merit admiration or criticism. And we can debate whether the state should be more or less powerful (in contrast to God, Who is all-powerful). But these theories all suppose that the question of justice is: What is the ideal state? This question resembles the theological question, What are the attributes of God? It is a matter for analysis and inquiry, but not a choice.

Of course, everyone realizes that people make and change governments. The modern Danish state didn’t arise spontaneously; Danes made it and sustain it. They have also made the Danish language and economy and the physical layout of Danish towns and the countryside. But the strategies and ethics of citizens’ action are sidelined in all these political philosophies–even in Friedman’s libertarianism. He wants the state to do little, and private actors to do what they want; but that’s still not a theory of how we can accomplish justice. Again, if we are Danes who agree with Friedman, we can vote for classical-liberal candidates; but if we are North Koreans, Friedman’s ideals are empty.

How did a strategy for influencing the world become available in Denmark that is absent in North Korea? Because of the past behavior of people, both inside these countries and beyond.

Perhaps political philosophers focus on the state because they believe that blueprints of just political orders influence history. Without Locke, no American Revolution; without Rousseau, no French Revolution; without Marx, no Russian Revolution. The social impact of abstract philosophy is a large question on which I claim no special expertise. However, my general premise is that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk and doesn’t see all that well. Locke writes after the actual English Revolution of 1688 and tries to make theoretical sense of it. He has some influence on the American framers, but they have many other influences as well, including their hands-on experiences in colonial government. Likewise, Robespierre may have carried his copy of Rousseau around with him–and Lenin, his Marx–but the actual revolutions that they led didn’t resemble these blueprints all that well. Not to mention that most sustainable change doesn’t occur during revolutions at all. It reflects slow, cumulative, experimental adjustments that are theorized after the fact.

Another reason that most political philosophers focus on the state rather than people may be that the actions of citizens appear to be theoretically uninteresting. Action is a matter of praxis, and the only question is empirical: Given the actual circumstances, what will work to move the society toward justice? That’s a question for strategists and empirical students of activism, lobbying, elections, social movements, revolutions, and so on, but not for political philosophers.

This is where I dissent. When we set out to change the world, we must decide what is right for us to do under the circumstances. The main way to test our answers to that question is to discuss them with other people. We must also coordinate our actions to increase our odds of changing the world. Unless we have already coordinated with some other people, we probably lack a venue in which to deliberate, because a deliberation is itself a shared activity, and it almost always takes place within an organization of some kind that we must sustain.

Deliberating and coordinating action generate relatively consistent classes of problems. They are hard problems, yet some groups of people have solved them. These problems are just as conceptually and ethically complex as the problem of designing a good state. But they are more pressing for us, because we can deliberate and coordinate, but we cannot implement our ideas of a good state. The only way that states will get better is if people (including those who work in and for states) deliberate and coordinate better. And–while we are at it–we can also change cultures, markets, religions, and even ecosystems. Theorizing that work is the task of Civic Studies.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)new book–Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field; and The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies

some notes on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil

Here–free for the digital commons–are some teaching notes for chapter 1 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil. Before discussing this text, my class had read Plato’s Apology; I present Nietzsche and the Socrates of the Apology as foils.

Socrates begins a quest for knowledge, claiming that he only knows that he knows nothing. Instead of writing or producing connected arguments, he merely interrogates his fellow citizens, testing what they think. He is a critic of rhetoric (who, however, speaks eloquently) and an ascetic who has renounced any role in society other than truth-seeker.

Nietzsche challenges this Socratic quest. He is a critic of language who uses it masterfully. He refuses to write connected arguments, instead employing an aphoristic style full of irony, paradox, and contradiction. He is a critic of asceticism who actually lives a solitary life devoted to writing.

What assumptions does Socrates make when he sets out on his mission? Maybe …

  • A good life, or perhaps the best life, is a life of pursuing truth. This is a demanding ideal that requires renouncing other entanglements, such as money, political power, and romance.
  • Customs and assumptions are unreliable and dangerous. You shouldn’t act on things that you can’t show are true. You should go through life with skepticism and doubt.
  • However, there is truth to be known and told in words. Specifically, there are knowable truths about human excellence or the good for us as human beings (moral truths).

What did we add to these assumptions in the 2,300 years between Socrates and Nietzsche?

  • Science and the scientific method. Socrates didn’t practice science. He was accused of studying the things in the sky and below the earth, but he denied it. Since his time, we have studied those things intensively. (What is science, anyway? Methods for understanding nature objectively, where nature includes human beings as natural phenomena. Science presumes that everything is understandable through these methods, unless it’s “supernatural.”)
  • Science as applied to human beings–social science and history–has revealed a deep diversity of values and basic beliefs.
  • We have developed various accounts of what “nature” is and how that might influence or even define morality or justice. (Natural rights, the state of nature, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Or Darwinism: nature as survival of the fittest. cf. Beyond Good & Evil §9: what if nature is “wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure …?”)
  • Beliefs in the underlying premises of the scientific method: math, logic, cause-and-effect, an objective world. (cf. §4 “… constant falsification of the world by means of numbers …”)
  • Some widespread moral premises? (“All men are created equal.”)
  • Confidence in the basic motivations of people, such as scientists, who say (and who probably believe) that they are seeking truth.

Nietzsche raises doubts about everything listed above. He thinks (§5) we’re “not honest enough” when we assume that we’re pursuing truth. We haven’t had the courage to turn that pursuit back on itself and ask hard questions about truth-seeking.

  1. Suspicion of words as representations of reality. §16 “I shall repeat a hundreds times: we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words!” Proceeds to investigate “I think” and all its linguistic assumptions. (That there’s an I, that we know what thinking is.) §14 “pale, cold, gray concept nets which they threw over the motley whirl of the senses.”
  2. We’re not deliberately thinking at all. §16: “When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence ‘I think,’ I find a whole series of daring assertions …. ” §17 “A thought comes when it wishes, and not when I wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to think that subject I is the condition of the predicate think. It thinks. …”
  3. We believe we’re discovering things about the world, but we’re expressing things about ourselves. §6 “Every philosophy is the involuntary and unconscious memoir of its author.” §9 You physicists pretend to find laws in nature, but you’re actually egalitarian democrats who want to believe that nature obeys laws because you like laws.
  4. He doubts the motivations of truth-seekers. §6 “I do not believe that a drive to knowledge is the father of philosophy, but rather that another drive  has … employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as its instrument.”
  5. We make an assumption about value: that truth would be better than falsehood. Why?  §4. “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection. The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, even species cultivating.” Falsehoods might do that better than truths. He says that this stance places us beyond good and evil. Why?

What does Nietzsche actually believe? The secondary literature discusses a set of “doctrines” that he may have held. One of them is explicit in Beyond Good & Evil, chapter 1: the Will to Power. According to §13, life itself is Will to Power (not self-preservation but the will to discharge strength). Nietzsche also says (§23) that he’s developing a psychology of Will to Power. Willing is “something complicated.” §19: “Freedom of the will” is “an expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition. Here Nietzsche concedes that one drive might be for knowledge. It operates in scientists and scholars, but not in philosophers, because philosophy is “the most spiritual will to power.”

What does Will to Power mean? Some interpretations:

  1. A normative position: Nietzsche likes power and the powerful. Might is right. This interpretation was typical between 1900 and 1950 (and Nietzsche inspired fascists during that era), but is very marginal in the academic secondary literature today.
  2. A different normative position, and one that we might appreciate (i.e., not fascism): Will to Power is not about dominating other people but enhancing the individual and the species–making us somehow more creative. The reason to drop the will to truth is that it sometimes blocks our potential and creativity. “Why not rather untruth?” (Cf. §12, where he condemns himself to invention.) We should move beyond Good and Evil only in the sense that certain premises of traditional morality have limited our growth.
  3. A view of nature and human nature. Perhaps Nietzsche believes that every biological entity actually is a center of power rather than something stable. And perhaps this metaphysics (or physics?) is defensible.
  4. An intentional paradox that is meant to shake our convictions, roughly analogous to a koan. Start with the premise that everything is a manifestation of our Will to Power. Develop all the implications of that premise to make it plausible. Then apply it back to itself: the creature that envisions Will to Power is expressing its own power, not discovering truth. Then we know nothing. We don’t even know that “we” “know” nothing. What does it mean to live that way? In what style would one write?

Tufts Political Theory Workshop

(Please contact me if you would like to attend.)

September 28th and 29th at Fung House. 48 Professors Row, Tufts Campus, Medford MA

Thursday Sept. 28

5 pm “(Un)equal Respect and Agents of Justice”
Benedetta Giovanola, Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy
Department of Political Science, Communication, and International Relations, University of Mascerata, Italy Commentator: Dennis Rasmussen, Associate Professor of Political Science

6:15 pm “The Nature and Design of Robust Institutions”
Speaker: Brian Epstein, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Commentator: Peter Levine, Lincoln-Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

7:30 pm Dinner for all participants

Friday, Sept. 29th
9:00 am “Justice, Self-Sufficiency, and Commodious Living: Hobbes’ s Commercial Republic”
Speaker: loannis Evrigenis, Professor of Political Science Commentator: Vickie Sullivan, Professor of Political Science

10:15 am “Grounds for Coverage: Considering the Basis for Entitlements of Immigrants to Health Care”
Speaker: Keren Ladin, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine and Occupational Therapy
Commentator: Alecia McGregor, Assistant Professor of Community Health

11:30 am “We, the Mediated People: Unconventional Adaptation in post-Cold War South America”
Speaker: Joshua Braver, Jonathan M. Tisch Post-doctoral Fellow in Political Science Commentator: Abiodun Williams, Director, The Institute for Global Leadership

12:30 pm . Lunch

Sponsored by the Tufts Department of Philosophy, the Department of Political Science, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life