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.