Philosophy and Political Discourse

This is really idealistic on Ned’s part, and gets to the heart of the folly of his and others’ efforts to turn the political discourse into a political philosophy seminar:

Part of the reason why I’ve been writing about political philosophy so much lately is because I’m tired of bemoaning the lack of popular understanding regarding this issues. If we–meaning liberals and people who care about these questions in general–want people to learn, we need to fucking explain.

Incidentally, I no longer have any patience for arguments like, “The general public is dumb, we need to keep things simple when explaining it to them.” Besides being obnoxious and condescending, it’s an abdication of moral responsibility. Because just being photogenic and having a soothing voice may get you elected and in a position to exert some small amount of influence on national affairs, but it’s not a long term solution. Instilling in people a sense of the philosophical principles we believe in, and more importantly, a sense of how to deal with the questions from which we derived those principles, is.

You know what would happen if every pundit had a good grounding in political philosophy? Economic conservatives would cloak their ideological leanings in Nozickian rhetoric, liberals would make more nods to (preferably) greatest happiness and (preferably not) the original position, and the debate would more or less go on as it had before. The sides would be funded according to pre-agreed interests, and the overwrought rhetoric would be more or less irrelevant to the question of who can round up enough money and/or grassroots organization to buy the votes of relevant legislators. Which is, in the end, the only thing that matters. You may convince impressionable freshmen that Rawls is the bee’s knees, but no matter how many times Karen Ignagni reads A Theory of Justice she’s still going to oppose insurance regulation. And if she changes her position, she’ll get sacked and AHIP will find someone else to carry on their fight.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Philosophical rhetoric would be actively detrimental to progressive ideals. For one thing, it emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant. Ned is a Rawlsian. I think Rawlsianism is deontologist crap that distracts us from what politics should really be about, namely actually making things better for people. But I suspect we agree on 99% of actual policy issues. So while I argue with Ned about philosophy a lot, on things that actually affect people’s lives we’re a millimeter apart. That’s what matters, and that’s what arguments should be about.

Further, arguments about first principles don’t have victors. We’re not going to reach some endgame where everyone cowers in the face of Rawls’ astounding logic and we all agree to build a robust safety net. People get entrenched, whether due to self-interest, family upbringing, genetics or whatever. Ned can call that condescending, but acting like people will be anything but highly resistant to changing their beliefs just due to some philosophical arguments is terribly naive. So I think it’s more useful to have debates about how we can stop having people die from lack of insurance rather than arguing about whether it’s acceptable to use the government to reduce human suffering. The latter debate is stupid, can have no definitive winners, and distracts from the real human pain at the heart of the issue.

Moral arguments have a place in politics. But those moral arguments have to be connected to concrete examples of hardship if they’re going to have any force. Abstract ethical theory arguments almost never convince the other side, divide allies, and do nothing to address the underlying forces stopping progressive change.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy and Political Discourse

  1. I’ve been trying to find a way to say this clearly succinctly for a while, but you’ve really hit the nail on the head in my book.

  2. First of all, I’ve had my mind changed by abstract ethical arguments–not a single argument, mind you, but a series of arguments with various people, over the course of which I began to see that I was being stubborn for the sake of consistency rather than because my arguments continued to resonate with me. These were connected to concrete examples for the sake of illumination, sure, but unabashedly abstract in their fundamentals (otherwise you risk changing someone’s mind on a single policy without forcing him to come to terms with the fact that he should really change his mind on a bunch of related policies as well). I wasn’t brought over to my interlocutor’s side, but I was motivated to do some more thinking on my own and come up with a stance that I felt more confident in. I don’t think that this is something everyone would have if only they found the right person to argue with, but it’s silly to dismiss it as a possibility entirely.
    More importantly, though, there is no unitary “political discourse”–thank heavens! I don’t want to put words in Ned’s mouth, but I, at least, don’t want to see MSNBC segments on “Difference Principle, or INDifference Principle?” Nor do I want more philosophical namedropping in stump speeches. But I wouldn’t mind it horribly if a little bit of the energy that bloggers, political junkies, Young Democrats et al. devote to legislative vote-counting speculation, say, or poll analysis–topics that, while tangentially related to politics qua making lives better, don’t themselves actually make lives better to nearly the extent that the effort poured into them would suggest–were devoted to keeping philosophies sharp and reminding each of us not only why we believe the policies we support will help bring about a just world, but what exactly that just world looks like.
    (Dylan, sorry if this is a double-post; feel free to delete if so.)

  3. Rawls does want to make things better for people but through proper institutions.
    Also the left is already a circular firing squad. I doubt more philosophical rhetoric will make the internal divisions any worse then they already are.

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