Bernard Williams’ “basic legitimation demand” (BLD) — some thoughts

I’ll be making a series of posts on Bernard Williams’ essay “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory.” (David R. and Derek B. and I have read and discussed this recently.)  My purpose is pretty narrow: to get some idea of the content (and normative status) of what BW calls the basic legitimation demand (BLD). According to BW, when a state, in addition to adequately solving the “Hobbesian” problem of providing basic security (“the first political question”), meets BLD, it is legitimate (it comes to be permitted to make and enforce laws within some range of possible laws).  

Of note, in contrast to Rawls’ liberal principle of legitimacy, BLD is supposed to apply generally –  not just to liberal states or to states in conditions that are ripe for liberal constitutional democracy.  According to BW, at least in principle and in some historical contexts, non-liberal states can be legitimate and BLD is meant to explain how this could be (or is or was) so.  I don’t think Rawls denies this, but neither does he formulate or justify a general principle for state legitimacy. I’m interested in BW’s attempt at doing so.  I have some thoughts. Continue reading

The Cloud Is Moving Nearer Still

Consider two countries, X and Y.

X and Y sign an agreement. X unilaterally pulls out of the agreement at will, then attacks Y through the imposition of sanctions. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

X then imposes secondary sanctions on any countries that do business with Y. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

Time passes. X attacks Y again with more sanctions. The sanctions begin to take their toll. Y still complies with the original agreement.

Eventually, Y, the weaker party, decides to attack a third party, Z, which X had (unilaterally) pledged to defend. Y’s rationale: in attacking this third party, Y pulls X into a conflict where it, Y, enjoys a certain advantage that it doesn’t enjoy in a direct, frontal attack on X, which Y cannot win. The attack creates physical damage but no human casualties. Continue reading

Sing It Again, Y’all

From a Bret Stephens column on the “Gulf of Oman” crisis:

Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isn’t. There are lingering questions about the types of munitions that hit the ships, and time should be given for a thorough investigation. But it would require a large dose of self-deception (or conspiracy theorizing) to pretend that Iran isn’t the likely culprit, or that its actions don’t represent a major escalation in the region.

How many fallacies do you see there? I was at first tempted to count two.

The first  is a begged question: the U.S. military’s version of the event is true because the U.S. military doesn’t lie.

The second is either a poisoned well or two of them: if you don’t believe the U.S. military’s version of the story, you are (1) self-deceived or (2) engaged in conspiracy theorizing. Continue reading

1 Rule for Life

They started down the shallow trench behind the crest of the hill and in the dark Andre smelt the foulness the defenders of the hill crest had made all through the bracken on that slope. He did not like these people who were like dangerous children; dirty, foul, undisciplined, kind, loving, silly and ignorant but always dangerous because they were armed. He, Andres, was without politics except that he was for the Republic. He had heard these people talk many times and he thought what they said was often beautiful and fine to hear but he did not like them. It is not liberty not to bury the mess one makes, he thought. No animal has more liberty than the cat; but it buries the mess it makes. The cat is the best anarchist. Until they learn from the cat I cannot respect them.

–Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, ch. 36 (decades before Jordan Peterson)

The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): An Ongoing Series

I’ve previously written two posts on the Scot Peterson case under the title of “The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Here’s the first post, and here’s the second. Here’s background on the criminal case.

Having revisited and followed the case for the last few weeks, and having had a couple of conversations both with Peterson and with one of his colleagues, I’ve decided to turn this into an ongoing series. But there’s no need at this point for the overly cautious title I initially used. The demonization of Scot Peterson isn’t just “premature”; it’s an act of collective irresponsibility verging on hysteria. I so far have not been convinced that Peterson deserves to be called either a “failure” or a “coward,” much less a criminal. It seems more apt to describe him as the unfortunate victim of a society addicted to loose talk and unrestrained vindictiveness. As I see it, even commentators properly skeptical of the criminal charges against Peterson have bought too easily into the claim that he “failed” to stop the shooter out of “cowardice” (and have irresponsibly repeated those claims). Continue reading

Randians vs. Stoics

Stoicism, particularly in its ethical and political aspects (a defense of individual self-mastery on the one hand and commercial society on the other – for the latter, see, e.g., Cicero’s De Officiis), has been enormously influential throughout western history. During the Roman period it took on something like the character of a mass religious movement; Stoics were also statistically overrepresented among assassins or attempted assassins of Roman emperors. (One third of all Roman emperors died by assassination, so that’s not an insignificant number.) Later on, philosophical thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Adam Smith, and Kant would draw on Stoic ideas (though always selectively) in crafting their own ethical and political views.

Continue reading

El Que La Hace, La Tiene

Nay, the extent of ground is of so little value, without labor, that I have heard it affirmed, that in Spain itself a man may be permitted to plough, sow and reap, without being disturbed, upon land he has no other title to, but only his making use of it. But on the contrary, the inhabitants think themselves beholden to him, who, by his industry on neglected, and consequently waste land, has increased the stock of corn, which they wanted.

–John Locke, Second Treatise, sect. 36

“Is the land there owned by the peasants?”

“Most land is owned by those who farm it. Originally the land was owned by the state and by living on it and declaring the intention of improving it, a man could obtain title to a hundred and fifty hectares.”

“Tell me how this is done,” Agustin asked. “That is an agrarian reform which means something.”

Robert Jordan explained the process of homesteading. He had never thought of it before as an agrarian reform.

“That is magnificent,” Primitivo said.

–Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, ch. 16.

‘S’ is for Slander

Below the fold, I’ve reproduced (with permission) the text of a letter regarding the P Is for Palestine controversy by Michael Lesher of Passaic, New Jersey, addressed to the Trustees and Director of the Highland Park Public Library, in Highland Park, New Jersey. More on the controversy from Jewish Link of New Jersey: Rochelle Kipnis (May 9), Elizabeth Kratz (May 17). From the Newark Star Ledger: Rachel Kleinman (May 9). From ABC News. From Fox News.

The library will be holding a public meeting on Wednesday, June 5th at 7:30 pm to discuss the matter. Continue reading

The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson Revisited

The Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, aka the Parkland shooting, took place on February 14, 2018. At the time, I wrote four blog posts posing unanswered questions about the shooting, questions that (it seemed to me) weren’t being asked or answered by press reporting at the time. Here are the first, third, and fourth. I could well have written another four, but lost track of the issue for lack of time and initiative.

The second of those posts was on what I called the “premature demonization of Scot Peterson.” Peterson, you’ll recall, was the police officer assigned to the high school as security (the “SRO,” or School Resource Officer), and accused of “cowardice” for his “failure” to enter the building where the shooting was taking place. In my original post on the subject, I raised questions about the appropriateness of both of these judgments. It wasn’t obvious, at least from the facts reported at the time, that Peterson had “failed” at anything, nor was it clear that he was guilty of “cowardice.” Continue reading

Pedagogical Failures

A dialogue, paraphrased from reality:

Me: Ok, so we agree that this character was in part causally responsible for the death. But should we think that he bears some moral responsibility, too? Isn’t he in part to blame for it?

Student 1: Wait, what do we mean by ‘morally responsible’?

Me: I intended it as equivalent to blameworthy, at least in this context; maybe if he were morally responsible for a good thing, he’d be praiseworthy, so they’re not equivalent, but they come to the same in this case. But maybe we should distinguish them?

Student 2: Well, wait, I don’t think it makes sense to think of ‘responsibility’ as anything other than that. Like, to be responsible is to be morally responsible. It’s weird and confusing to say that someone is responsible when they just helped cause a thing but can’t be blamed for it.

Me: Ok, what if we describe him instead as a ‘causal contributor’? Can we agree that being a causal contributor might or might not be necessary for being morally responsible or blameworthy, but it isn’t sufficient?

Student 2: Yeah, I just think it’s weird to talk about ‘causal responsibility.’

Me: I think I agree with you; it’s a bit odd to call it a kind of responsibility when you aren’t really answerable for the outcome because you can’t be blamed for it.

Student 2: Well then why did you write the term ‘morally responsible’ on the board? Phhbbbbt.

Me: Oh, because that’s the terminology that people often use in philosophical and legal contexts.

Student 2: Hrmp. That’s stupid.

I’m not sure my students understand that part of what I try to do with them is help them understand the language and concepts that educated people actually use. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Student 2 thinks of her participation in class as aimed at learning anything. Nor am I at all sure that she differs wildly from her classmates in this respect.

But hey, at least sometimes we talk seriously about serious things, occasionally even the things I have assigned for them to read.