PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Lecture 1

 - Information and Housekeeping


Professor Shapiro explains the format and structure of the class during this opening session. He reviews the syllabus, and asks the central question of the course: What makes a government legitimate? He briefly explains the five ways to answer this question that he will focus on throughout the semester. The first three traditions are those of the Enlightenment: utilitarianism, Marxism, and social contract theory. The fourth and fifth overarching ways to answer the central question in this course are the anti-Enlightenment and the democratic traditions. Professor Shapiro then introduces the topic for the next lecture, the Eichmann problem.

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PLSC 118 - Lecture 1 - Information and Housekeeping

Chapter 1. Introduction and Course Agenda [00:00:00]

Professor Ian Shapiro: This course presumes no prior knowledge of its subject matter. That is to say you can take this course without having done any political philosophy before. The materials we’re going to look at in this course can be approached at a number of levels of sophistication. Indeed you could teach an entire course on just John Stuart Mill, or John Rawls, or Karl Marx, or Jeremy Bentham, and this means that some of you who may have had some prior acquaintance with some of these texts will be able to explore them in a different way from newcomers. But the course is designed, as I said, to be user-friendly to people who are doing this for the first time.

There are a few parts of the course in which I make use of technical notations or diagrams. Now, it is true, it’s just as fact about human beings that if you put a graph, or a chart, or a curve up on a diagram there are certain people, some subset of the population that get a knot in their stomach, they start to feel nauseous, and their brain stops functioning. I can totally relate to it because I’m actually one of those people by disposition. And what I can tell you about our use of charts, and diagrams, and notations in this course is they’re simply shorthand for people who find it useful. But I will do nothing with diagrams and charts that I don’t also do verbally. So if you don’t get it the one way you’ll be able to get it the other way.

So you should never feel intimidated. As I said, for people who find graphs and charts useful they’re a form of shorthand, but obviously if they intimidate somebody and they make what’s being said opaque then they’re being self-defeating. And as I said, I will always walk verbally through anything that I also do with charts and diagrams.

Secondly, related to that point, it’s my commitment to you that this is a course that’s done from first principles and everything is explained from the ground up. I might forget that contract sometime and use a term that you don’t understand. I might use a word like “deontological,” and you’ll sit there and you’ll be thinking, “What does that mean?” And the high probability is that if you don’t know what it means there are probably seventy other people in the room who don’t know what it means either. And so if you put up your hand and ask what it means you’ll be doing those sixty-nine people a favor because they wanted to know what it means as well. So we shouldn’t have any situation in this course in which I’m using some term and you can’t follow what I’m talking about because you don’t understand what it means. It is a rather embarrassing fact about political philosophers that they don’t say in words of one syllable what can be said in words of five syllables. But part of my job here is to reduce them to words of one syllable. That is, to take complex theoretical ideas and make them lucid and intelligible to you. And I see that as a big part of what we’re doing here so that your takeaway from this course three months from now will include feeling very comfortable with the language of political philosophy and the central terminology in which it’s conducted. So hold my feet to the fire on that if you need to. If I use words you don’t understand put up your hand and stop me.

I will from time to time throw out questions and we’ll have a microphone that we can pass around so that people can answer the questions. It’s one of the ways in which I gauge how well the communication between us is going, so you should expect that.

Chapter 2. Enlightenment, Enlightenment Traditions and Anti-enlightenment Thinking [00:05:03]

So this is a course about the moral foundations of politics, the moral foundations of political argument. And the way in which we organize it is to explore a number of traditions of political theorizing, and these are broadly grouped into a bigger distinction that I make between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment thinking. That is to say we’re going to start of by looking at the Enlightenment.

Now you might say, “Well, what is the Enlightenment? How do you know it when you trip over it?” and that is a subject I’m going to get to on Wednesday and Friday. But for right now I’ll say just dogmatically, and I’ll elaborate for you later, that the Enlightenment revolved around two ideas. The first is the idea of basing our theories of politics on science — not on religion, not on tradition, not on superstition, not on natural law, but on science. The Enlightenment was born of an enormous optimism about the possibilities of science. And in this course we will look at Enlightenment theories that put science at the core of political argument.

The second main Enlightenment idea is the idea that individual freedom is the most important political good. And so if you wanted to get the bumper sticker version of the Enlightenment account of politics, it is, “How do you scientifically design a society to maximize individual freedom?” Now, within that, we will look at three Enlightenment traditions. We’ll look at the utilitarian tradition, the Marxist tradition, and the social contract tradition. And again, I’ll just give you the one-line version now and then we’re going to come back to all of these, of course, in much greater detail later.

The utilitarian tradition says that the way in which you create a scientifically organized society is you maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This is the slogan of utilitarianism. Maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number. You’ll find there’re huge disagreements among utilitarians about how you measure your happiness, and how you maximize it, and how you know when you’ve maximized it and so on, but the utilitarians all agree that that’s the goal, and if you can do that you will do more to maximize human freedom than anything else.

The Marxist tradition has a very different theory of science, what Marx called the science of historical materialism, but it too was based on this idea that we can have impersonal scientific principles that give us the right answer for the organization of society. One of Marx’s famous one-liners was that we will eventually get to a world in which politics is replaced by administration, implying that all forms of moral disagreement will have gone away because we will have gotten technically the right answers. Another formulation of that same idea actually comes from a different Enlightenment thinker who we’re not going to read in this course, David Hume, who said, “If all moral disagreements were resolved, no political disagreements would remain.” So that’s the idea of a scientific solution to what appear to be the moral dilemmas that divide us. So for Marx we’ll see a very different theory of science, but for him too, he thinks that freedom is the most important good.

That might surprise you. Most people think, “Well, Marx was about equality. He was egalitarian.” We’ll see that that’s only true in a somewhat derivative sense because in the end what was important for Marx was that people are equally free, that they are in a situation of not being exploited, and he too, therefore, is an Enlightenment thinker.

Then the social contract tradition says that the way we get a scientific theory of society is to think about what agreement people would make if they were designing society for the first time. If society was going to be based on a contract, what would it look like? And this is what gives us the right answer as to what is — rational scientific principles tell us how we should organize society, and it’s a world in which people’s freedom is preserved because it’s what they choose to do. Again, as in these other Enlightenment traditions there’s massive disagreement about who makes the contract, how they make it, what the content of it would be, but it’s the metaphor of a social contract that shapes all reasoning about the way in which you can organize society scientifically in order to preserve freedom.

So in the first two-thirds of the course we’re going to work our way through those three Enlightenment traditions. But every current has it undertow, and even though the Enlightenment was this enormously energetic and captivating tradition that really starts in the seventeenth century and gathers steam in the eighteenth century, there was always resistance to the Enlightenment, both it’s preoccupation with science and its view that individual freedom is the most important good. And so after we’re done looking at the Enlightenment, we’re going to look at anti-Enlightenment thinking, and the tradition that resists the idea that there are scientific principles around which society can be organized, and resist the idea that the freedom of the individual is the most important good, and we’ll explore that tradition.

And then in the last part of the course we will turn to the democratic tradition which tries, at least in the way I will present this to you, to reconcile the anti-Enlightenment critique of the Enlightenment with those elements of the Enlightenment that survive the anti-Enlightenment critique, if you see what I’m saying. So democracy becomes the resolution, at least in the way I’ll describe democracy in this course.

Chapter 3. What to Expect from the Course [00:13:00]

Thereby hangs another tale that I want to tell you about this course. The course is introductory and presented in a user-friendly way to newcomers, but it also is an argument. That is, I’m presenting an argument, a point of view, which some of you will be, “I’m persuaded by,” and that is totally fine. The idea is not to make you think what I think or what your teaching assistant thinks. It’s rather to make you understand the logic underlying your own views better than you have before, and perhaps see the appeal of views you have hitherto rejected more clearly than you have before. So the idea is to enhance the sophistication of your own understanding of politics, not to have you parrot my views, or teaching fellows’ views, or anybody else’s views. It’s rather to understand the nature of your own views and how they might connect or live in tension with the views of others.

One thing you’re going to find, I should also say just as a matter of truth in advertising, we’re going to look at a number of what I would call architectonic theories of politics, the theories that try to give the whole answer. This is Jeremy Bentham. This is his scientific theory. These are all the pieces. This is how they fit together and this is what it means for the organization of schools, and prisons, and parliaments, and all the rest of it. He’s got an architectonic theory of the whole thing. John Rawls, as well, you’ll see [has] an architectonic theory of the whole thing.

One of the takeaway points of this course is going to be that architectonic theories fail. There is no silver bullet. You’re not going to find a takeaway set of propositions that you can plaster onto future political dilemmas. What you’re going to find instead, I think what’s going to help you in this course, what’s going to be the useful takeaway, is rather small and medium sized insights. You’re going to find things to put in your conceptual bag of tricks and take and use elsewhere, and they’re going to be very helpful to you in analyzing a whole variety of problems. I think if you talk to other students who’ve taken this course that tends to be the most useful takeaway that you get, that you’ll find. When somebody brings up an argument, say, about what people are entitled to you’ll have a whole series of questions you would ask about that argument that you wouldn’t have asked if you hadn’t taken this course. So you’ll find a lot of small and medium sized bits and pieces that you can take and use in other contexts, but you’re not going to find a one-size fits all answer to the basic dilemmas of politics.

Let me say one other thing about this course as being an argument, that the argument’s presented from a particular point of view. You might say, “Well,” looking through this syllabus, “Hmm, this guy is pretty arrogant. I mean, here we have John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and he’s got his own, some of his own work here on this syllabus. Who does he think he is? I mean, these are the greats of the tradition and he’s putting his own work here? It takes a lot of chutzpah to do that.” And let me tell you a little vignette that I think will give you the spirit in which my work is on this syllabus. When I was an undergraduate there was a great Kant scholar called Stephan Körner who was here in the Yale Philosophy Department for many years and also taught at the University of Bristol in England. And I attended his lectures on Kant, and he stood up in the very first lecture and he said, “Kant was a great philosopher, und I am a minor philosopher, but with me you have the advantage that I am alive.”

So this is the spirit in which my work is there, and it’s not remotely intended to be a suggestion that 200 years from now or 300 years from now people will be reading it or that it stands on a par with the classic works of the tradition. But one of our agendas in this course is not just to get you up to speed in the great text of these different traditions, but to give you some sense of how people who currently do this for a living argue about these ideas.

So in each one of the five traditions that we look at, we’re going to begin with a classic formulation. So Jeremy Bentham is the locus classicus of classical utilitarianism. He’s the major formative statement of that view. So we’ll start with Bentham, but then we will bring utilitarianism up to the present day. We’ll explore how the utilitarian tradition evolved since the eighteenth century and we will bring you up to contemporary considerations about utilitarianism, what people argue about in the journals today, and the book literature, and so on. Likewise with Marxism, we’ll start with Marx and Engels themselves and then bring you up to contemporary debates about Marxism. Social contract tradition, we’ll start with John Locke who has famously formulated the social contract idea in the seventeenth century, but we’ll bring it up to modern contract theorists like Robert Nozick and John Rawls. The anti-Enlightenment tradition we go back to Edmund Burke, the great anti-Enlightenment thinker, an opponent of the French Revolution, but we’ll bring anti-Enlightenment thinking up to contemporary thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre. And finally with the democratic tradition, we’ll go back to the Federalist Papers, which is in many ways one of the most important statements of what’s at issue with democratic principles, if not a defense of democracy we’ll see later, and bring that up to the contemporary literature on democracy which is where my own thinking comes in. But as I say, you should remember Stephan Körner’s admonition that you’re getting the benefit of the fact that I happen to be around in the first decade of the twenty-first century, not that I’m attempting to put myself on that kind of a pedestal.

Chapter 4. Four Distinctive Aspects of the Course [00:20:53]

Now, I want to say a few more general things about the course just to give you a sense of the flavor of what we do here. You might say, “Well, what is distinctive about this course as compared with other introductory political theory and political philosophy courses that you could take around here?” And I think there are four senses in which this course is distinctive, not necessarily better but just different. And so that you can give you some sense of what it is that you would be letting yourself in for here. The first is what I’ve just mentioned that with each of these five traditions we really are going to take them from a classical formulation up to contemporary discussions. So you’ll have a, at least, working sense of how these traditions have evolved over the course of two or three hundred years and what form debates about them today take.

The second is that this course is really going to mix the theoretical with the applied. We are going to look at first principles. I use the terms foundations advisedly in the title of the course there. It’s something of a loaded term in that there are some people who think we should do political philosophy without foundations. And I’ll have something to say about those arguments later in the course, but I do want to signal with that term we will be interested in foundational questions, the most basic questions you can ask about politics, but we will never limit our intention to those questions. We will work these doctrines through a huge array of contemporary problems ranging from abortion, to affirmative action, to the death penalty, to all kinds of other things that are of concern to you as we go through. So it’s very much a part of what we do in this course is to look at how these doctrines actually play out on the ground. So we go back and forth from particular examples to general arguments and back to particular examples a lot in this course, and in that sense it’s more of a course, I’d say, in applied political philosophy than many courses one might take, here or elsewhere.

A third distinctive feature of the course is that I’m going to organize it centrally around one question, which seems to me at the end of the day to be the most important question of politics. And that is the question that I put in the first sentence of the syllabus there. When do governments deserve our allegiance and when should they be denied it? When and under what conditions should we obey the government, when are we free to disobey the government, and when might we even have an obligation to oppose the government? Another way, if you want to translate this into the jargon of political theory, what is it that makes governments legitimate? What is the basis for legitimate government? That is going to be the core organizing idea or question with which we’re going to interrogate these different traditions that we examine, utilitarian, Marxist, social contract, anti-Enlightenment and democratic traditions. We’re going to look at how does each one of those traditions answer the most basic questions about the legitimacy of the state.

As I say, I think it’s ultimately the most important question in politics. It’s not the only question in politics. It’s not the only way to organize a course in political philosophy, but it is the way in which we’ll organize this course. We’ll focus our questions on legitimacy, and it’ll provide the template for comparing across these traditions, right? We will be looking at how utilitarians, or social contract theorists, or democratic theorists look at this basic question of what it is that makes governments legitimate, how we know that when we fall over it, and what we should do about it.

So that’s the third sense in which the course is distinctive, and the fourth one I want to mention is that we’re going to go back and forward between two modes of analysis which for want of better terms I call internal and external, and let me explain what I mean by those terms. When you look at an argument that somebody puts forward, and you look at in the way that I’m describing as internal, what you’re basically saying is does it make sense? Is it persuasive? Are the premises plausible? Do the conclusions follow from the premises? Are there contradictions in what the person’s saying? Does it all hang together? Should I believe it? Is it a good argument? That’s what internal analysis is about, okay.

External analysis is looking at the argument as a causal force in the world. What social and political arrangements is this argument used to justify, or what social and political arrangement is it used to attack? How does this operate as a political ideology in the world out there? What effects does it have if I embrace this argument? So it’s not a question about whether or not it’s a good argument or you should believe it, but a question about how this argument is efficacious in the world. Because there could be terrible arguments that are nonetheless very efficacious in the world, right? And there might be very good arguments that nobody takes seriously in day-to-day politics. And one of the great aspirations of the Enlightenment is to produce arguments that both make good analytical and philosophical sense on the one hand, and can be influential in the world on the other, but those things don’t necessarily go together. And we’re going to ask a question, why, in the context of exploring all of these traditions, if there are good arguments that are not efficacious, why that is? If there are bad arguments that are efficacious, why that is?

But in any case we’re going to, even if we can’t answer that why question, which is a very hard question to answer, we’re going to look at these arguments and these traditions both internally and externally. You’re going to look at them as arguments and you’re going to look at them as ideologies, as systems of thought that get trafficked in the political world. And I think that that is another feature of this course that differentiates it from other introductory political theory courses. So I think that gives you something of a flavor of what is distinctive in what we do here.

Any questions about any of that? If any of it’s puzzling to you it’s probably puzzling to somebody else.

Chapter 5. The Eichmann Problem [00:29:25]

So in the spirit of getting us going we’re going to start with a real world problem. We’re going to start with the problem of Adolf Eichmann, who was a lieutenant colonel in Nazi Germany, who was responsible for organizing the shipment of Jews to Nazi death camps. And at the end of the war, he was captured along with a lot of other former Nazis, and he was inadvertently released. They didn’t realize that he was a significant player in the organization of the so-called final solution of the Jews, and they released him and he escaped. And like many other former Nazis who escaped he went to Argentina and he lived under an assumed name for many years until the late 1950s when the Israeli Secret Service, the Mossad, figured out that he was there and figured out who he was. And they sent a group of people who, essentially commandos, who captured him, spirited him out of Argentina, took him to Israel where they brought back the death penalty which had not existed at that time in Israeli law, tried him for crimes against humanity, which was the same concept that had been employed at the Nuremberg Trials of his cohort after World War II in the late 1940s, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people and they executed him.

And at that time young political theorist, not particularly well known, called Hannah Arendt, covered the trail for The New Yorker magazine in a series of articles which were subsequently published as a book called, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is what I’m having you read for Wednesday’s class. And we’re going to use this Eichmann problem as a way into the central conundrum of the course, which I said is what is it that gives states legitimacy? When should we obey the government, when are we free not to, and when should we perhaps even be obliged to oppose the government? Because this problem was thrown into sharp relief by the conduct of Eichmann during World War II.

And I want you to think about two questions while you read this, which is essentially, this book is essentially a compilation of Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The first is up here. What I want you to do is to think about what the two things are that make you most uncomfortable about this man, who you’ll get know quite well through reading this book. What is it about him that is unnerving? What is it that makes your flesh crawl about this guy? What are the two things that are the most appalling about him? And then the other question I want you to address is the second one. What two things make you most uncomfortable about the events surrounding his apprehension, and his trail, and his execution in Israel? Those are your reading questions for Eichmann in Jerusalem, and write them down, and bring them with you to class on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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