Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas

An impressively comprehensive series of 36 half-hour lectures on political philosophy. I wanted a political philosophy survey to better understand some of the political articles I've been reading in Foreign Affairs, as well as have a better sense of context for the current moment.

The lecturer, Lawrence Cahoone, is an engaging speaker, and organized the material really well. He goes chronologically through some of modernity's most influential political philosophers, and summarizes their most important ideas. I found that Cahoone was able to summarize the philosophers I was familiar with pretty succinctly, although of course it's very hard to avoid oversimplification. I was also surprised by how many thinkers I hadn't even heard of.

This was not an easy course to follow for a layperson like me. I found myself having to re-listen to some of the more dense lectures multiple times before I felt like I grasped the concepts. Some philosphers remain shrowded in mystery. Most notably, Hegel and Strauss continue to defy summarization. In the latter lectures, he does a great job of tying more modern and controversial ideas surrounding feminism and multiculturalism back to older thinkers.

Here are some of the philosophers he covers, as well as brief summaries for me to index on later. As a note to myself, here are ones that I thought were most interesting, and would be worth delving into in more depth: Carl von Clausewitz, Alexis de Tocqueville, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Leonard Hobhouse, Hannah Arendt, Friedrich von Hayek, Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, William Galston, Michael Waltzer, Carol Gilligan, Charles Taylor, Aldo Leopold, Jürgen Habermas, Benjamin Barber, Ernest Gelner. What follow are a survey of a survey, brief notes on each philosopher that was mentioned in the course.

Formation of Liberal Republicanism (Lectures 3 - 16)

  • Plato - we need a philosopher king.
  • Machiavelli - Realpolitik. Politics is amoral. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
  • Hobbes - the state of nature is a war of all against all. In the social contract, you give up rights for security. (Social contract)
  • Locke - people have natural rights to life, liberty and property. The government isn’t your master, it’s your servant. (Liberty)
  • Rousseau - the noble savage was better off than the modern man because everyone was equal. Independence, equality and community are most important. "Man is born free yet is everywhere in chains". (Equality)
  • Kant - morals are derived from reason and not experience. And you must always act according to the categorical imperative. Kant is a non-consequentialist, outcome doesn’t matter. (Deontology)
  • Adam Smith - self-interest can be good. The invisible hand guides private self interest to create public benefit. (Emergence, Markets)
  • Montesquieu - checks and balances will prevent despotism. Separate powers into legislative, executive and judicial branches. (Checks and Balances)
  • Jefferson - inherited wealth and inherited debt is bad for society.
  • Hamilton - too much federation is bad, leads to internal conflict. Feared “Petty republics without any shared unifying purposes”. Centralize for strength: banks, patent office, etc.
  • Madison - tyranny of the majority is real. States/communities should have equal power in some sense (eg. electoral college, 2 senators per state)
  • Richard Price - the French rightfully replaced King’s with laws. In favor of elections and explicit consent. (Republicanism)
  • Edmund Burke - England depends on traditional institutions: royalty, the church. Political norms don't come from reason but from tradition. (Conservatism)
  • Thomas Payne - there is no power above the people other than god. Natural rights exist, according to reason. Burke is irrational, tradition is bad.
  • Joseph de Maistre (far right) - nature is inherently evil. Man must submit soul to god and body to the state. The order is not rational. (Counter-enlightenment)
  • William Godwin (far left) - government coercion is bad. Moral individuality and rationally derived conduct is good. (Anarchy)
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (far far left) - there is no such thing as absolute dominion. Property rights over indefinite timescale don’t make sense. (Anarchy)
  • Leo Tolstoy - war and church are sources of violent coercion. Violence is always evil even when monopolized by government. Logical continuation from turning the other cheek from Christ. (Anarchic pacifism)
  • Johann Gottlieb Fichte - "For each people, a country, for each country, a people". This means pan-German unification, mass literacy, etc. A sort of celebration of diversity on a country level. (Nationalism)
  • Napoleon - The draft changed warfare forever. No more chivalrous knights, fealty for the king and hired mercenaries. Just a 600k strong standing army. (Conscription)
  • Carl von Clausewitz - "War is the continuation of politics by other means". "Real war" is ritualized, chivalrous, traditional. But "ideal war" is pure conflict, fewer rules, objective is to make your opponents surrender. (War theory)
  • Isaiah Berlin - negative liberty (freedom from x, liberty from coercion) vs positive liberty (freedom to do y, self determination). Positive liberty means there are multiple “goods”, requiring a pluralistic society.
  • Hegel - Everything has a thesis, a counter thesis, and then a synthesis combining both. (Dialectic?)
  • Alexis de Tocqueville - Traditional society gave aristocratic individuals freedom, provided structures of mutual obligation. Modern citizens are independent free and equal but alone so the government will have to do many things that family, guilds, feudal structures did before. But in America this can be mitigated with clubs, churches, other “civil society” outside of politics. (Civil society)
  • Jeremy Bentham and James Mill - natural rights is “nonsense on stilts”, the guiding star is general utility. And this means what people actually value (from experience, not kantian intuition). Bentham: “push-pin (a children's game) is as good as poetry” (Utilitarianism)
  • John Stuart Mill - there is a hierarchy of pleasures. “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Act to maximize total pleasure overall. Also the harm principle: be free up to the point of harming others. Harm here is specifically utilitarian (eg. affecting others concretely, ie. not eating pork in private). Diversity of opinion is important, marketplace of ideas brings us closer to the truth. (Liberalism)
  • Henry J. S. Maine - the individual surpasses the family as the unit to which law applies. (Individualism)
  • Eric Weil - loss of community is part of modernity in favor of a looser association and voluntary groups.
  • Émile Durkheim - Modern society is characterized by specialization. Traditional society was fractal - every hunter gatherer group was the same, now they vary. (Specialization)
  • Georg Simmel - Money dehumanizes.
  • Max Weber - work is good in itself, a sign of higher character. Modernity is all about instrumental rationality: refining means to achieve ends. Modernity is polytheistic. Each context provides its own value. This leads to a permanent identity crisis. Weber’s options are: bear with it or return to an all encompassing religion. (Protestant capitalism)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche - "God is dead" and modern society is sick. What are the values that increase the viability of a society? Definitely not equality, since without ambition it turns mankind into a herd. Need Übermensch to transcend the Judeo-Christian tradition by finding meaning in chaotic modernity.
  • Sigmund Freud - people are still basically primitive and have drives that contradict modern values. This leads to inevitable regressions like world war 1 and 2. (Drive theory)

The Crisis of Liberal Republicanism from 1914 to 1953 (Lectures 17 - 20)

  • Leonard Hobhouse - Laissez faire capitalism didn’t work and reduced the world to “Manchesterism” - terrible industrial dystopia. Sought a softer mix of liberalism and socialism. “Organic liberalism” is consequentialist, and should improve society. People are inherently social, and any impact they have must be reflected there. Communitarian, interactionist, prescient.
  • William J. Brian - empower the poor against the elites. Hallmark of populism is railing against the economic hegemony and social conservatism. (Populism)
  • Roosevelt - large monopolies have too much power. The wealthy few form a tyranny of the minority. 3 C’s: consumer protection, control of corporations, conservation of natural resources. A shift to more presidential/executive power to reform the constitution and modernize it.
  • Wilson - again shift to more presidential power. Checks and balances are too constraining. Political society is evolving.
  • Eduard Bernstein - capitalism will evolve to be more socialist organically, and markets don’t need to be fully abolished. What’s important is that workers are treated better. (Soft socialism)
  • Lenin - communism won’t come on its own. Bernstein is a political prostitute. Communism needs a revolution and a hard line proletarian government that is wholly dedicated to ushering the new era. Freedom isn’t possible until then so all spheres of life, including art, must serve this goal. (Totalitarian socialism)
  • György Lukács / Theodor Adorno / Max Horkheimer - capitalism lacks any reference point from which to criticize it. It commodifies everything too well. But despite western leanings they were quite sympathetic to Leninism. “parliamentary democracy is like having a debate club at the edge of the abyss.” The enlightenment wears away at beliefs, so all that remains is power.
  • Georges Sorel - True morality requires martial virtue, readiness for violence, and self sacrifice. (Anarcho syndicalism)
  • Carl Schmitt - Fascism is an enlightened rationalist dictatorship. Politics is above economics, morality, etc. Social contract theory is wrong. Even Locke wanted there to be an emergency valve where the executive branch takes over. But then the executive must also decide if there’s an emergency in the first place. Ultimately it comes down to a non-rational decision. It’s a theological politics. (Fascism)
  • Peter Drucker - Fascism is disappointed socialism. Need something less international, less economic centric. Especially in light of standing armies of WW1, nationalism is key, and there needs to be a bigger idea. (Nationalism)
  • Hannah Arendt - totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin is unlike anything that came before. Total organization of society is mobilized for the state. Nothing remains of civil society. No more art or chess for its own sake. She characterized Nazis as banality of evil, just following orders while comma unthinkable atrocities. (Totalitarianism) Distinction between labor, work, and action:

    • Labor is recurring and pure maintenance: cooking, dishes, chores, ephemeral output.
    • Work results in durable output: fixing the car, wiring poetry.
    • Action: deeds and speeches of free and equal individuals.

    For Arendt, action > work > labor, but modernity focuses too much on economics and so devalues work in favor of labor and action in favor of work. Powerful argument against both capitalism and marxism framed in art. For capitalists, the value of art is financial, for marxists, it's instrumental: for the sake of advancing communism. For her, it's intrinsic.

  • Giulio Douhet - since so much depends on military technology, produced in factories, factories and civilians are legitimate targets.

Political theory during the Cold War (Lectures 21 - 24)

  • Michael Oakeshott - political behavior cannot be deduced from rationalism alone. Politics can be engineered and must be guided by practical knowledge. Great analogy to recipes: you need cooking skills to make a great dish, not just rule following.
  • Ludwig von Mises - a planned economy is actually impossible. It’s too complex. Markets have emergent properties and no central planner can know it. (Anti-communist)
  • Friedrich von Hayek - Government should ensure equal rights but not equal outcomes. Avowed anti-rationalist, believes in limitations of rationality, and so spontaneous order created by multiple individuals. Markets are both good and bad, you must have losers to have winners. The market must remain free, but the losers can be propped up by the government. The market isn’t a meritocracy, but based around value, or willingness to pay. Hayek is in favor of free market regulation, for some domains: safety, sanitation, breaking up monopolies, even health care. The worst is when prices, wages, and production schedules are fixed by the government because it breaks emergent spontaneity.
  • Milton Friedman - in favor of negative income tax or basic income. Opposed to professional licensing run by governments. (Libertarianism)
  • Leo Strauss - Philosophy is fundamentally always inconclusive. Athens vs Jerusalem: religion has all of the answers, but the ancient philosophers could deal with the uncertainty of taking philosophy seriously.
  • Alexandre Kojève - history ended with Napoleon and Hegel. No more qualitative changes in human thinking.
  • Herbert Marcuse - Advanced capitalism is totalitarian, integrating everything into itself. Example: music that may have begun as counter culture like jazz, hip hop, rock eventually gets played at the Super Bowl. In post capitalism, work becomes play. “One dimensional man” was the Bible for the new left and SDS of the 60s (New Left)

Domestic political arguments (Lectures 25 - 28)

  • John Rawls - what distribution of material wealth is just? Socialists usually focus on outcomes, neoliberals on history. Rawls is a progressive deontologist. Veil of Ignorance forces people to make ideal laws for a society without knowing what their position will be. In this case, take the maximin approach: best worst case. The only acceptable inequality is due to talent & hard work, not birth status. “Fair opportunity“. Difference principle: remove inequality until it hurts the least advantages. Contrast to Pareto efficiency principle, which doesn't care about individuals, but just overall outcome. (Fair opportunity)
  • Ayn Rand - hates altruism from a Nietzsche perspectives. Selfishness is good because people have value in themselves. So capitalism is the only moral system of government. Society is only great in so far as it’s individuals are great. In favor of minimal states: optional taxes for police and military. (Objectivism)
  • Robert Nozick - Any distribution scheme is unjust because it requires too much intervention to maintain. Inevitably people will gain a promotion or lose a job, disrupting the distribution. Also you don’t owe anyone for your fortune in life: analogy of musician who plays outside your house and then comes with a bill the next day - you don’t owe them. The veil of ignorance is contrived. It works for “life boat” cases and other emergency cases, but not in society where how you got your money matters. Imagine living your life based on how others want you to live, and you sell shares in your decisions. This is the opposite of free society, some degree of slavery. (Libertarianism)
  • Michael Sandel - Rawls and Nosick are wrong because some values are unchosen: community, family, etc. the rest are chosen on top. In some cases, individual liberty can impact community from which that individual liberty is partly derived. Therefore some things should not become commodities to be bought and sold: a mother child relationship, surrogacy, outsourcing child rearing etc is wrong. (Communitarianism)
  • Alasdair MacIntyre - Meaning can only be found in narrative, which is based on the culture and community you belong to. He rejects modernism and prefers premodern Aristotle to postmodern Nietzsche.
  • William Galston - positive liberalism is important but is one of many worthy values. He rejects moral monism (foxes > hedgehogs) and thinks these values are in general conflict. Ultimate values are: life itself, purposiveness, instrumental rationality.
  • Michael Waltzer - distributive justice is important but not why Rawls thinks. A just distribution of a good depends on the good and cultural conditions. Food, swimming pools, education are all different so distribution should vary. What is bad about income inequality? Tyranny of one type of good over another: it’s that money can buy everything: security, healthcare, better cars, sex, political influence, commutation (avoiding the draft). It’s bad when different “spheres of justice” become too asymmetrical. Free market rules only apply to the bazaar, but treating everything as commerce ruins things.

Feminism, Multiculturalism, Environmentalism, Postmodernism (Lectures 29 - 32)

  • Susan Okin - progressive justice doesn’t take into account women’s special rights. Women in reality make less, so no fault marriage is equal but unjust. Wife beating is political in the same way that racially motivated crime is. The private is political. Women are generally more focused on the private. (Feminism)
  • Carol Gilligan - normal development for humans is masculinized by society. In fact women are fundamentally different (essentialist). Men think in terms of rights and rules. Women focus more on care, community.
  • Iris Marion Young - identity is often construed as negative. Example: Who am I? I’m not like this cis-gendered white male! Critical of negative identity because individuals belong to many groups.
  • Charles Taylor - all cultures deserve to be recognized but what is their respective value? Should Shakespeare and Achebe get the same amount of coverage in school? Cultures are of equal value is nonsensical, muzzles critical powers.
  • Bhikhu Parekh - the majority culture should adjust to its immigrants. For example, wearing a turban is a disadvantage for motorcycling, hence the Sikh helmet exception law in the UK, which is just to normalize the disadvantage.
  • Brian Barry - individuals should not be disadvantaged by the groups they are born into. The Amish must stop preventing their children from going to high school. (Assimilation)
  • Will Kymlicka - in liberalism, a group has as much rights as the sum total of rights of its individuals. But this doesn’t work for small groups like indigenous tribes. This gets tricky if liberties undermine the culture of the minority community. (Multiculturalism)
  • John Muir - preserve nature as it is because it is sacred. (Preservation)
  • Gifford Pinchot - conserve nature but still allow it to be used for human purposes. (Managed Conservation)
  • Peter Singer - argues for animal welfare on a utilitarian basis. Their suffering should be reduced wherever possible. Applies to mammals and probably birds and amphibians. Speciesism is the analogue of sexism, racism etc. (Animal rights)
  • Tom Regan - non human animals have deontological rights. They have an identity and so have inherent value and rights. (Kantian animal rights)
  • Aldo Leopold - animals eat one another in the wild, but we now have control over ecosystems. We must "think like a mountain". This is a communitarian approach often driven by the desire to keep biodiversity high. (Moral ecology)
  • Richard Rorty - there is no non circular justification for any philosophical argument. (Anti-foundationalism)
  • Jean-François Lyotard - everything is mediated by culture, which
  • manifests as a series of signs. Beyond that, it’s all language games. (Radical structuralism)
  • Michel Foucault - truth is defined by society and is intended for controlling the people. Society has constructed its canon out of straight white men. This is a problem, and blacks, women, and homosexuals need to be brought into the fray. Biases inherent in western ideals, feminist, multicultural ideas are all legacies. (Postmodernism)
  • Jürgen Habermas - attempts to defend enlightenment and modernism from both Nietzsche postmodernism and conservative premodernism. Expands notion of rationality to communication. Kinds of rationality:

    • Epistemically rationality: what is true.
    • Instrumental rationality: rational action.
    • Communicative rationality (Habermas): we can decide together what we should do. If what parties are saying is expressed dishonestly, it’s strategic communication.

    Democracy is all about communicative rationality. There is a conflict between “the system” and the “lifeworld”, first of which is money and power driven, second is democratic communicative action. System infringes on the life world: less is decided conversationally and more moneyed.

Post cold war (Lectures 33 - 35)

  • Francis Fukuyama - History is about the slaves seeking and achieving equality (Hegel, Kojev). We're well on our way now, and nothing will really beat liberal democracy ever. Problem is that the end-state (universal equality) is bad because it leads to Nietzches “last man”, an ambitionless passiveness. So there must be room for individual thriving, or Thumos. (End of History)
  • Benjamin Barber - We accidentally flooded the world with mcworld, the 3 Ms: McDonald’s, Macintosh, MTV, but not with the civil society requires for democracy. “Neither Jihad nor McWorld promises a remotely democratic future”. Model: Tocqueville. (Jihad vs. McWorld)
  • Samuel Huntington - Culture matters to how states govern. Listen 9 modern civilizations: Eastern Europe, greater China, Islamic belt, India, Japan, etc. Conflicts will occur at the borders between these civilizations. Western culture is not replicable. Elements are exportable, but it won’t be a full package. Globalism will increase tension and resistance because identity is often constructed negatively. (The Clash of Civilizations)
  • Ernest Gelner - airlifting free elections and market economy into Soviet block countries isn’t sufficient. What you need is modern civil society, by which he means a plurality of ideas: neither church, nor market, nor govt can dominate. Life is modular and each part follows different rules. So pluralism is key. In the West this loss of identity was OK because of nationalism. Most countries are no longer Ideocracies (single moral idea, no pluralism) with the exception of those dominated by political Islam.
  • Mahatma Gandhi/Martin Luther King - forceful non violent resistance but inspired by Tolstoy. (Non-violent resistance)
  • William T. Sherman - open to war as needed. "War is hell". (War Realism)
  • Michael Waltzer (this time on war) - War is sometimes justified but is regimented by rules for going to war and then conduct during war. (Contrast to Just War Pacifism, which thinks modern technology is too dangerous to ever use.) Codified in Geneva and Hague conventions. But tricky for civil wars: are the rebels criminals (to be punished) or combatants (protected by Geneva)? Terror against civilians is never ok, and tricky for combatants. Peacekeeping is justified if the target country is no longer able to guarantee rights to its people ("the right to have rights"). For example if there’s a genocide the country is unable to protect its citizens or is complicit in the act and must be stopped. Less clear who needs to intervene though. Dirty hands: politicians cannot be deontologists but must consider the utilitarian outcome for their people. (Just War theory)

This is a great overview of some philosophical underpinning of politics. I learned a ton, gleaming new things about philosophers I was already familiar with because of superior summarization, and learning about completely new philosophers I hadn't even heard of before. Well worth a listen, and a re-listen.