Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What responsible discourse might look like

Peter Singer is a radical utilitarian philosopher, self-described as being on the political "Left," who believes in the justice of taxation that redistributes wealth. Yet when he reviewed in 1975 libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Union, in which Nozick gave an argument for a minimal "Nightwatchman" state as a rebuttal to his Harvard colleague John Rawls' argument for social democracy in A Theory of Justice (which itself was partly an alternative to utilitarian political theory), he wrote

When times are hard and governments are looking for ways to reduce expenditure, a book like Anarchy, State, and Utopia is about the last thing we need. That will be the reaction of some readers to this book. It is, of course, an unfair reaction, since a work of philosophy that consists of rigorous argument and needle-sharp analysis with absolutely none of the unsupported vague waffle that characterizes too many philosophy books must be welcomed whatever we think of its conclusions. The chances of Gerald Ford reasoning his way through Nozick's book to the conviction that he ought to cut back the activities of the state in fields like welfare, education, and health are not high. The book will probably do more good in raising the level of philosophical discussion than it will do harm in practical politics.

Robert Nozick's book is a major event in contemporary political philosophy. There has, in recent years, been no sustained and competently argued challenge to the prevailing conceptions of social justice and the role of the state. Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality; and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation. These assumptions may be correct; but after Anarchy, State, and Utopia they will need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted.
The rest of the review is worth reading, as it serves as a reminder of what civil discourse is supposed to look like, and that there is such a thing as nuance in political discussions. Rawls, Nozick, and Singer all have differing views of the conception of how society might best be ordered, but they all were able to respect and appreciate the arguments of the others (Nozick consulted with Rawls while writing his rebuttal of Rawls, for example.)

It's a matter of tone. Singer is able to present and praise Nozick's work even though he doesn't neccesarily agree with its conclusions. And he gives Nozick's argument fair representation so that a reader might make up his own mind about the strength of the argument.

Obviously, we can't expect all discussion to rise to this level, as Nozick, Rawls, and Singer are three of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th century, but it does provide an ideal that we can strive to achieve.

No comments: