Despite what one may be led to believe by breathless reports in the media, the acme of misery in America is not the woes, financial and otherwise, of Donald Trump and Michael Jackson. People lose their jobs, have their assets drained by reversals of fortune, suffer from illiteracy, malnutrition, lack of shelter, and other mishaps. The circumstances in which they find themselves are genuinely distressing. It would be an odd understanding indeed that failed to find these circumstances directly relevant to (...) what morality asks of us. If morality is to count for anything, then surely it must take notice of exigent need. This is not merely the deliverance of a late twentieth-century Western moral consciousness massaged by the blessings of comparative affluence and graced with a newfound awareness of social justice. All traditional ethical codes of which I am aware, sacred and secular, demand that one take the distress of one's neighbor as bearing on one's own activities. “Am I my brother's keeper?” is the question; the well-nigh universal answer is “ Yes .” The disposition to be moved by and respond to distress is the virtue of charity. (shrink)
Contract is the dominant model for political philosophy's understanding of government grounded on the consent of the governed. However, there are at least five disabilities attached to classical social contract theory: the grounding contract never actually occurred; its provisions are vague and contestable; the stringency of the obligation thereby established is dubious; trans-generational consent is questionable; interpretive methods for giving effect to the contract are ill-specified. By contrast, the biblical story of the covenant Israel embraces at Sinai is shown to (...) be more adequately attentive to each of these five desiderata. The essay then focuses on the U.S. Constitution, arguing that in many ways it is more reflective of covenantal legitimating themes than those of social contract. The result is a promisingly different mode of understanding government by the consent of the governed. (shrink)
The genre of public service advertisements that appear with two- and four-year cyclical regularity is familiar. Cameras pan across scenes of marines hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima, a bald eagle soaring in splendid flight, rows of grave markers at Arlington. The somber-voiced announcer remonstrates: “ They did their part; now you do yours.” Once again it is the season to fulfill one's civic duty, to vote.
In this essay I wish to consider the implications for theory and practice of the following two propositions, either or both of which may be controversial, but which will here be assumed for the sake of argument: Libertarianism is the correct framework for political morality. The vast majority of our fellow citizens disbelieve. 1.
The financial Crunch of 2008 was easily explained by both the left and right–too easily. Each insisted that events thoroughly confirmed its own long-held views and utterly refuted those of the opposed camp. This essay argues that there are indeed new lessons to be drawn from the Crunch, lessons that involve balancing the bounty of the Invisible Hand against perils of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Liberal moral imperatives are traced to variables of Personal Choice and External Cost that are typically in (...) tension with each other and thus generate needs for institutional reconstructions that change according to time and circumstance. Personal bankruptcy protection, limited liability corporations, and intellectual property are cited as examples. It is argued that the Crunch occurred because of failure adequately to balance these variables. Three paradoxes came to a head in 2008: Paradox of Efficient Markets; Paradox of Reduced Risk; Paradox of Hard-won Knowledge. The essay concludes with suggestions concerning specific lessons to be drawn from the Crunch and a corresponding list of lessons not to be drawn. (shrink)
A small puzzle: the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ initially present themselves as contraries, the one affirming what the other rejects. However, once removed from the dictionary, they function otherwise. The theory of capitalism is very much contained within the science of economics. The positive theory of capitalistic institutions, but also its normative superstructure, rest most easily within the language and methodology of the economist. What distinguishes the free market? It is efficient ; allocation of factors of production are optimized ; (...) individuals maximize their utility ; and so on. These are the terms with which justifications of capitalistic production typically begin – begin, and often end. (shrink)
Individuals care deeply about with whom they associate and on what terms. A liberty to avoid entanglement in the disfavored designs of others is counterposed by an entitlement not to be excluded from valued modes of activity. These interests generate not one but two freedoms of association, the former negative and the latter positive. Often they conflict. This essay begins by setting out several respects in which negative free association is crucial to a liberal order and then examines several pleas (...) for positive association, at least one of which is judged to be compelling. Because the two freedoms of association are in conspicuous tension, the essay concludes with strategies for reconciling their competing claims. (shrink)
Readers of Sartre's biographies often have the impression that they reveal more about Sartre than about Baudelaire, Flaubert or Genet. The reason for this is our awareness of Sartre's philosophy which serves as an explicit paradigm for the construction and explicitation of his literary and his biographical works. We speak of a Sartrean play, a Sartrean biography, because they lay bare not only characteristic features of the genre but also of the author and this also is true of a Hegelian (...) or Marxist history or a Freudian psychology. These writers have all invented their own paradigms and if one decides to use their paradigm one is considered a Hegelian, Marxist or Sartrean follower. These followers are judged by some to have been persuaded by a vision, a way of seeing, a style. (shrink)
When economists pay homage to the wisdom of the distant past it is more likely that a work two decades old is being admired than one two centuries old. Economics is a science, and the sciences are noteworthy for their digestion and assimilation of the work of previous generations. Contributions remain only as accretions to the accepted body of knowledge; the writings and the writers disappear almost without trace. A conspicuous exception to this rule of professional cannibalization is Adam Smith. (...) Since 1776 he has not lacked for honors that have escaped even his most illustrious peers. Who, after all, wears a David Ricardo necktie? So to the author of The Wealth of Nations, all praise! (shrink)
How may we best understand the motivational structure that stands behind individuals' acts of voting? In “The Impartial Spectator Goes to Washington” we suggested that expressive concerns swamp narrowly consequential motivations, in contradistinction to normal market transactions in which the priority is reversed. A striking consequence of this fact is that individuals will be led to vote for outcomes that they would reject were they in a position to act decisively. In this regard we found the moral psychology Adam Smith (...) develops in The Theory of Moral Sentiments remarkably fecund in suggesting alternatives to what we call the standard theory of electoral behavior. (shrink)