education philosopher

On NOT Throwing Away My Vote

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on March 22, 2010

I am going to take a little excursion from the world of education to discuss a political issue I feel strongly about: why I vote libertarian and do not see this as “throwing away my vote.”

If you didn’t donate all you could, if you didn’t volunteer for the Republican party or its candidates, if you didn’t get your friends out to vote – the blood for this is on your hands.

This was on an acquaintance’s blog and is typical of arguments that we third party voters hear quite often. The argument can be generalized thus:

If x and y are political candidates and you voted for z, you (in effect) are helping the front-running candidate win and are, indirectly, responsible for that candidate winning.

To make matters worse, the libertarian party (who often “takes” votes from the republican party more than the democratic party, for its Reagan-esque  belief in small government) is often accused of tacitly helping democrats win office. This is similar to those who vote with the green or socialist party being accused of tacitly helping republicans win seats (because green and socialist candidates often ‘take’ votes from disaffected democrats more than disaffected republicans).

So, am I throwing my vote away by voting for the libertarian party (who, as much as I would like otherwise, is almost always the losing horse)? Am I to blame for handing the democrats victories by ‘taking’ my vote away from the republican candidate?

I confess that, try as I might, I don’t see the logic in this charge. The above argument assumes that the republican candidate is somehow a better representative of my small-government beliefs than the democratic candidate is. In my early days, I must admit to having this idea: I always looked on republicans more favorably than democrats and even though they were the “lesser of two evils” they were always the lesser evil.
Then George W. Bush happened. (more…)


A Defense of Individual Choice in Matters of Curriculum

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, political philosophy, Politics of Education by KevinCK on February 19, 2010

Below is a passage I wrote for a PhD class in curriculum theory. The questions was “Who should decide what students learn?” particularly in regards to whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. I post it here because I think it is a decent articulation of my view that families, parents, and children (rather than either education experts or democratically elected board members) should have the ultimate authority over what children learn.

The question is: who is to decide whether intelligent design or evolution (or both or neither) should be taught in schools. Of all the readings assigned for this week, my views allign most closely with McClusky. The problem is that we live in a society that is simulteneously liberal and democratic, while also talking about an institution (schools) that, in some sense, has as its role something neither liberal or democratic. As long as these three ideals are in conflict – and I think they are – one must simply choose which authorty they thinks trumps the other two: experts (nondemocratic and nonliberal), the majority (non-liberal and non-authoritarian) or each individual/family (non-democratic and non-authoritarian). I believe the best way to decide the issue is to leave the decisions in the hands of each individual/ family.

But let me first explain why I believe we are dealing with three incompatible ideals. As a liberal society, we are committed to the idea that individuals have a right to conscience. As a democratic republic, we are committed to the idea that disputes are to be settled by appeal to the vote (at least to vote in representatives whose own votes will reflect that of the majority). And, in the case of schools, we are also committed to the idea that there are certain things which SHOULD be conveyed to children regardless of whether they, their parents, or the majority concur. (In other words, we believe that curriculum is too valuable a subject to be left to non-experts.)

These three ideas, then, are in conflict and, I believe, irreducibly so. That is because recognizing the one negates the other two. (By example, leaving curricular matters up to majority vote abridges individuals liberty to decide educational issues for themselves, and also takes a stand against unelected experts deciding them.) Why do I choose liberalism over the other competing values as curricular guides? (more…)

Murray Rothbard, Libertarianism, and Why Children Are Not Simply Houseguests

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, political philosophy by KevinCK on February 1, 2010

As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.

Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves.  But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.

But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.

Now, onto the Rothbardian argument, taken from an essay called “Kid Lib” (chapter 7 in the book Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature). (more…)

Is Democracy Really What We Want?

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on January 8, 2010

Here is an article detailing an upcoming court case seeking to overturn a prohibition on gay marriage in California. There is a serious problem I have with this case, even though I am a very fervent supporter of gays’ and lesbians’ right to marry. This paragraph illustrates the problem:

The case will decide a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban that was approved by voters in 2008, and the ruling will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. (My italics)

The problem is not that there is a challenge being brought over whether gays can be denied marriage rights. The problem is that we are asking a state court to set aside a democratic ruling about a state issue. And deeper still, I think that such an action helps illustrate what I think is the American public’s tenuous relationship with democracy. We tend to extol it as the most just way of government, want more of it when it isn’t being allowed to operate, but then try and trump it when it gives us results we don’t like.

I remember very well the protests when the election of 200o was effectively decided by the Supreme Court (whether justly or unjustly): “More democracy!” was a commonly heard cry. And in many political tracts, the  word “democratic” is often used as an adjective synonymous with “just,” “good,” and “egalitarian.” But here we are in a bizarre predicament: scenes like the one in California are forcing us to face up to the idea that democratically chosen policies do not always lead to egalitarian and just results. As our founders feared, sometimes democracy really does mean the right of some to vote against others. (more…)

Liberalism is Not Neutral or All-Inclusive: So What?

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on December 1, 2009

In political theory, a big deal is often made about critizing liberalism (small “l”) for not being the neutral, value-free, set up it allegedly pretends to be. Liberalism, of course, is the idea of a society set up so that the government refrains from the business of telling us how to live and leaves people free to pursue goals as they wish, short of harming others. Critics point out that liberalism still is not value neutral: it constrains certain things from being done (certain anti-liberal practices like refusing to send a child to school) and debate to be conducted in a certain way (in a secular way that leaves personal religious views at the door).

But here is a question: so what? What if liberalism draws lines that will inevitably restrict some from acting in ways they wish? Show me a social vision that doesn’t. (This, of course, is never done because it can’t be done. The only social vision without rules is anarchism which, as anarchists tell us, is not a system but the antithesis of one.)

Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish, two thinkers with little in common, have both seperately argued this criticism against liberalism: it pretends to be a value-free system whereby individuals can pursue their own visions but, at some point, it has to take a stand. As it is a vision of justice, it must take a stand and by taking a stand it must presuppose that certain values are superior to others. (What about the people that DON’T want to be left alone by the government? Supposing that non-interference is the highest good is to choose one good above all others.)

But the obvious retort to this is one seldom heard, and that is to affirm what is at issue. (more…)

The Dragon’s Den and the Reciprosity of Capitalism

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on October 29, 2009

dragon's denLast night, my wife and I watched the BBC program The Dragon’s Den, where five venture capitalists listen to various pitches from struggling entrepreneurs, deciding whether to give them money in return for a stake in the business. Today, I read Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Coincidence? Yes. Is there a connection? Yes! The former helps to prove the latter wrong by showing that, contra Marx’s assertions, capitalism functions reciprocally for mutual benefit rather than in a master/slave relationship.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes of the proletariat (the working class) as if they were slaves to the bourgeoisie (capitalists):

Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

…and again…

And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Marxism sees employer/employee relations – and all other capitalist dealings – as a one way master/slave relationship; “I will pay you what I want and you will work for me regardless of whether you want to.”

The irony is that supporters of capitalism recognize that this is not at all the truth. In fact, defenders of capitalism (rightly) note that capitalism is the one and only economic system where employers may not enslave employees; in fact this is so by definition. A slave, to be a slave, is enslaved involuntarily. Her wishes are not taken into account, she is treated only as a means, and has no say in her fate. Capitalism, though, puts emphasis on contract; an employer cannot force unwilling participants into its employ, and employees are free to leave a job if they can find something better. The entire relationship is quite voluntary on both sides.

The further irony is that the same cannot be said about communism. Marx has it backwards: communism is the type of social structure that takes away choice from members by telling them that they will make what the government says they will make, will work where the government says they will work, etc.

How does this come back to BBC’s Dragon’s Den? (more…)

On the Basic Human Desire to Control Other People

Posted in Philosophy, political philosophy by KevinCK on October 21, 2009

Today, I watched a television interview on a news program. The interviewee was asked what I think to be an absolutely stupid question: should there be a law authoritymandating salary caps on company executives? (to which the interviewee smartly answered in the negative.) Why do I say this is an idiotic question? Because the question is asked as if the answerer’s opinion is at all relevant to whether other people should be allowed to conduct affairs in the way they please.

Tno smokinghe question is, in other words, a brilliant illustration of an unfortunate human tendency: the desire to control the actions of others.

Let’s look at the question again: should there be a law mandating salary caps on company executives? The question can be generalized this way: should there be a law mandating that x behavior (that some find appalling) not be allowed? So, we are asking whether the fact that some people feel that an act is wrong, offensive, or outlandish is sufficient to force others not to engage in it. And those who answer “yes” to the above questions are literally saying that their objection to a particular act is enough to warrant exactly this forcible restraint.

In some cases, of course, this may well be justified. If a person is doing something that actively harms someone who did not asked to be harmed, then we have a matter of coercion offsetting coercion. We are coercing one person to refrain from coercing another. This is similar in kind to to teacher breaking up the schoolyard bullying, or the police arresting and imprisoning the arsenist. We can, if we want, argue that the coercive restraint is more coercive than the action it tries to prevent (the police arresting someone gently pricking a person with a pin) or that stopping coercion with coercion is contradictory (it is, but often there is no other good alternative). But mostly, these are easy cases where it is assumed that individuals shall not coerce each other and the penalty for such action is coercion in defense of this idea.

Then, there are cases like that above: should legislation be enacted to prevent companies from paying huge sums to top executives (or athletes)? Should Peter be prevented from smoking crack cocaine or injecting heroin? Should James be prevented from being from finding willing clergy to marry him and his partner, Steve?
Should Walmart be prevented from employing people at lower wages than many people are just? (more…)

Why Justice Asks the Impossible, or, Why Generalities are Always Imperfect in the Concrete World

Posted in Philosophy, political philosophy, Uncategorized by KevinCK on October 8, 2009

One of the most important yet longest and least resolved quests for human beings is to define what is just as devise a way to achieve justice. It is a most important quest because in many things that we do socially, justice is what we strive for. But for such an important discussion – what is justice and how can we achieve it? – there seems to be so little resolution. One group defines justice this way while the other points out how that concept leads to some unjust results, and vice versa. (For a concrete example, some see justice as substantive – justice is when everyone has the same amount of x. Others point out that this can lead to unfair results when people receive equal desserts for unequal contribution. A different group conceives of justice procedurally – justice is equal application of rules and procedures. Their detractors point out, of course, that this leads to unfair results when some rules put disproportionate burden on justicesome than others.)

For any conception we can come up with (with the exception of divine justice which is not subject to human constraint and fallibility), all we have to do is to think hard enough and we can come up with examples where such a conception of justice leads to unjust results.

While thinking about this today, I began wondering why all of our human conceptions of justice fall short. Is it that humans are fallible and as fallible beings we are bound toward fallible results? I’m sure that’s part of it. But there is another bigger reason why all concepts of human justice (in my view) are bound to fall short of the ideal: there is an inevitable disjunct between using abstractions to deal with a world of particulars. As humans, we have to abstract – what else are rules but abstract principles to be applied irrespective of context? – but abstractions, as abstractions, ignore particularity. (more…)

On Natural Inequality?: Huxley’s Rebuttal of Rousseau

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

There is much to be said in favour of the view that Rousseau, having got hold of a plausible hypothesis, more or less unconsciously made up a clothing of imaginary facts to hide its real nakedness. He was not the first nor the last philosopher to perform this feat. – Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Natural Inequalities of Man” (309)

RousseauIf I had not doubted Rousseau before, and I had, having cats would have led me to doubt Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is in large part known for his Discourse on the Nature of Inequality. In the book, he writes that inequality did not exist in humans’ “state of nature” but only came after society was invented and entered into.

Now why would cats make me doubt such a story? Well, even though my cats have “entered into society” (they sleep on couches rather than grassy plains, and eat processed food rather than raw meat), they are quite instinctual animals; their instincts give us a glimpse into their natural inclinations. And cats’ natural instincts know nothing of such concepts as fairness or equality.

In fact, right now , my cats are eating. I have to look over every few minutes to make sure that one cat doesn’t “kick the other cat out” of the room in order to eat their food. I’ve tried many times to let the three cats know that this is wrong behavior  – that each cat gets to eat only from her own food bowl – but the cats simply don’t learn this. I have also tried to “unlearn” their behavior of order establishing, with one cat being the most dominant and another being the most submissive, but again, too much travail. According to the several books I’ve read and websites I’ve consulted, cats are just naturally this way – territorial, opportunistic, caring not  a lick for equality.

It simply makes one wonder whether humans could also have been this way in their natural state. (Hint: science has been proving Rousseau wrong for years, as evidenced in such works as Lorenz’s  On Aggression.)

One of the best critiques of Rousseau’s work, though, was Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay, “On the Natural Inequalitythomas huxley of Man.” This is so, I think, not only because Huxley was a biologist every bit as good at philosophy as Rousseau was (better, I think).

To me, the most notable thing about Huxley’s critique is that he essentially turns Rousseau’s view on its head, arguing that equality is not something the establishment of society removed from nature, but something that it imposed on nature.

Huxley did not necessarily agree with Hobbes that humans lives in a state of nature were “a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” war of everyone against everyone. Using the best anthropological evidence at the time, Huxley postulated the view – that has endured into today – that

The particular method of early landholding of which we have the most widespread traces is that in which each of a great number of moderate-sized portions of the whole territory occupied by a nation is held in complete and inalienable ownership by the males of a family, or of a small number of actual or supposed kindred families, mutually responsible in blood feuds, and worshipping the same God or Gods.  (324) (more…)