I've been persuaded to continue podcasting chapters from my book Philosophy: The Classics. So you can now listen to my summary of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty here. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or here (these podcasts are free - but I of course hope some of you will buy the book!).
I'm thinking about starting a podcast based on selected sections of my book Philosophy: The Basics - shorter episodes of perhaps 5 - 10 minutes each. I'd be really interested to know if there is any demand for this.
There is an interesting discussion between Gary Becker and Richard Posner on The Becker-Posner Blog (posts for 14th January 2007) about allegedly liberal arguments for paternalism (sounds a bit like being forced to be free to me). The supposed difficulty for those who take John Stuart Mill's arguments in On Liberty seriously is that recent research has shown that in some cases individuals may not have enough information to make the decisions that help them pursue their interests. Libertarian paternalists argue that in such cases government regulations should be imposed to help individuals pursue the interests they would have had if they had had better information.
Becker is very clear on the point that Mill's position doesn't rest on any misguided view that the individual is infallible about what will make his or her life go best. Rather for the classical libertarian the process of making one's own mistakes in the long term leads to 'more self-reliant, competent, and independent individuals' (Becker). The claim is that the process of making choices results in people who are more cabable of making good choices even though some of the choices made along the way may be bad.
Jo: After I finished writing my first book, which was on Robert Nozick (published in 1991) I realised that I enjoyed writing for students, and that there was no introductory text in political philosophy that I would recommend to my own students. The two things together led me to think about how I would write such a book; an idea came to me of linking together a series of questions with contemporary discussion and the ideas of the great political philosophers, and I wrote a two-page plan. However Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy came out just about then, and I thought it an excellent work that filled the gap in the market. A year or two later, though, I got an invitation from OUP to write a book in what was then their OPUS series. By this time I had realised that Kymlicka's book was a bit hard for beginners, and also covered much less ground than I wanted to, and so I dusted down the plan I had in my drawer and sent it off. They liked it, and signed me up. The aim was to write a book that was 'problem' driven, rather than 'concept' or 'thinker' driven. The point of this was to engage and inform readers who like to think in an active, philosophical way, rather than simply giving them a lot of information to remember.
Nigel: Do you think that philosophy has anything to offer politics or is political philosophy just an interesting and intellectually stimulating activity focussed on what we'd like to happen, yet which leaves everything as it is?
Jo: My own research over the last ten years has aimed to bring political philosophy into greater contact with issues in social and public policy. I started with the naïve view that one could formulate abstract theories of social justice and then use them to assess the actual world and suggest reforms. This turns out to be a poor idea. First many of the recommendations are utterly utopian, and ignore issues of feasibility, context and compliance. To take one example, many theories have the implication that there should be 100% inheritance tax. But if we did pass such a law, the main effect would be that clever lawyers and accountants would work out ways round it. Just as importantly, though, there is a lack of ‘fit’ between the concepts used in theory and practice. People in policy fields worry about health, education, housing, the material environment, land use, agricultural policy, and so on. Theories of equality, couched in terms of ‘preference satisfaction’ or ‘resources’ have no obvious direct contact with these issues, and so a lot of work is needed to make political philosophy applicable. For anyone interested, I have a book coming out in 2007, co-written with Avner de-Shalit, called Disadvantage, which tries to give one model of how it could be done.
I don’t want to give the impression, though, that I oppose very abstract, idealistic, political philosophy, which I think is very important. It is inspiring and a source of ideas that can then be used by others. I have chosen not to work that way because plenty of other people do, while the more applied side is terribly neglected.
Nigel: Which political philosophers do you most admire, and why?
Jo: There are not many surprises here. The political philosophers I find myself re-reading are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and Mill, and among contemporary figures Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin and my teacher Jerry Cohen. I have also found myself thinking about the ideas of Michael Walzer increasingly, and I also have a lot of respect for Alasdair MacIntyre. There are many younger people who do really excellent work, but I don’t want to pick anyone out in particular. The people I admire generally combine two features: imagination and argument. They make you aware of new possibilities - a new landscape of ideas - while at the same time showing how their ideas are connected, can be supported, and defended against opposition.
The most problematic figure for me at the moment is Mill. I am a huge admirer of him as a writer and public intellectual, and his courage and rhetorical force is quite possibly unmatched by anyone else. However the more I read On Liberty and Utilitarianism the less able am I to think of him as a political philosopher. The arguments are more often hinted at than given, and often cannot be reconstructed in any plausible way. Opponents are dismissed rather than refuted, objections are noted but their implications ignored, and often repetition does service for argument. It is, perhaps, an irony that Mill’s most read works were those published for the ‘educated general reader’ rather than those intended for a serious philosophical audience, such as A System of Logic or An Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton, where the exposition is much more careful.
Nigel: What changes did you make for the second edition of your book?
Jo: Oxford University Press were keen for me to do a second edition, essentially to kill off the second-hand market, and to boost library sales. I didn’t find these especially honourable motives and so resisted for a few years. However the design of the book was looking more and more dated and old-fashioned, and eventually I had to agree that a ten-year old ‘Guide to Further Reading’ was less helpful than it could have been. There were also some mistakes in the book I wished to correct. I read through the text wondering if I should make substantial changes, but decided that if I started I couldn’t be sure that I would make it better, rather than worse. After all, the original version was the result of a period of intense engagement and concentration and I was unlikely to be able to recreate this mood of work. So I more or less left the text as it was. There is a new cover, an updated reading guide and a typeface that no longer makes me cringe when I look at it. Anyone who has the old version has no reason to update.
Nigel: You are unusual in managing to communicate to a wide readership without being patronising or oversimplifying the issues. Do you read your work aloud, get others to read it, or have some other way in which you edit your writing into a form that makes it accessible but avoids the charge of simplification?
Jo: On the whole, I do my all my reading and thinking before I start writing, formulate in my head the basic plan of a section or chapter, and then write very quickly with minimal revision. There are various traps I try to avoid. One is constantly to hint that you know a lot more than you are saying, as if you are worried that your old supervisor is going to jump on you for over-simplification. Another trap is that philosophical writers often introduce a distinction and then illustrate it with an example, which sounds like good technique but in fact makes the text flat and dull. It is much better to introduce a puzzle by means of an example, and then use a distinction to show how the puzzle can be solved. Exactly the same material is used but in a more engaging way. In general I try to use whatever tricks I can to have a dynamic driving the text forward. When thinking about writing for students I realised that it is not at all uncommon for me to simply stop reading a work of philosophy at some point, whereas this rarely happens for me when reading a novel. I wanted to write philosophy in a way in which the reader always wants to keep going, with enough tension or suspense to make the reader want to return.
I don’t read my work aloud; actually it has never occurred to me that this would be useful. But I do get others to read it. Because I write largely from memory, rather than with a pile of books on my desk, it is very helpful to have other philosophers read my work to point out ways in which I have got others wrong. My wife – a philosophy graduate who worked for many years in publishing – reads the work I write for students. If she has to read a passage twice to understand it, or gets too bored, I know I need to make changes. She also tells me when my attempts at humour fail. I’m not going to reveal how often this happens.
Nigel: Are there any other introductory books on Political Philosophy that you'd recommend to someone new to the subject?
Jo: I've mentioned Will Kymlicka's book, with is very good for somewhat more advanced students. Ian Hampsher Monk’s A History of Modern Political Thought is a very useful guide to the major political philosophers, and I also like Adam Swift’s Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians. None of these are direct competitors to my book. I have tried to avoid reading the many other introductory books in political philosophy competing for the same market slot as my book. I’m certain one will come along which will be better than mine, and maybe it is already published, but I’ll leave it for others to make that judgement.
Nigel: What part does writing more popular works like this one and your book on Marx play in your academic life? Are there any other books like this that you're planning to write?
Jo: This is a tricky area. My books for students do include original ideas and arguments, but I don't make a big fuss about it so they are easily missed, especially by people who do not know the area well. I was amused to see that a first year undergraduate wrote on a blog site that he got nothing from my Marx book as he knew it all already. I’m a bit slower than that: it took me about 25 years of thinking about Marx to come to the views I argued for there. [Listen here to Jonathan Wolff on San Francisco radio talking about Marx]
In a couple of cases I have written up ideas in my student books for a more academic audience, or given papers on the topics. There is a continuity between my writing for students, my teaching, and my other academic writing, but I don’t have any general plan to try to bring it all together systematically.
I am always having ideas for new books, but my enthusiasms typically only last a few months and then I get another idea. At the moment I’m thinking about a couple of possibilities, and have talked to various publishers about them, but experience suggests that it would not be sensible to say what they are at the moment.
It was interesting to see Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, citing John Stuart Mill in his defence of multiculturalism in yesterday's Independent newspaper (28th Nov. 2006, p.29 'To defend multiculturalism is to defend liberty'). Livingstone described the current assault on multiculturalism as 'simply one manifestation of the age-long struggle between liberty and its opponents.' For him John Stuart Mill's On Liberty provides the foundations of multiculturalism, and justifies why people should be free to choose to wear 'a yarmulke, a turban or a hijab or none'. He explained the Harm Principle (Mill's view that individuals should be immune from state interference unless harming others), though reinterpreted it somewhat by emphasing not harm to others, but 'interference' with others.
He also distanced multiculturalism from moral relativism (the view that there are no universal moral values, that values are always relative to particular cultures or subcultures): ''The very statement that people should be able to do only such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value.' Livingstone is admirably clear that some culturally relative practices, such as female circumcision, are morally unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
This is for the most part admirable. It is unusual to find a politician giving such a clear and principled account of the values he or she espouses. Yet I wonder if Livingstone realises that Mill was not willing to extend such liberty to everyone. He did not allow that liberty was appropriate to
'those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage...
And, contrary to the sorts of values I believe Ken Livingstone believes in, Mill went on
Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. [from John Stuart Mill On Liberty, Penguin edition, p.68-9.]
Nevertheless, it is excellent to see this kind of reasoned philosophical defence of a position entering public debate about multiculturalism. It is a good antidote to the knee-jerk assertion of values and patronising rhetoric that is so commonly the stuff of editorials.
Philosophers at least since Socrates have traditionally played the role of gadfly. Plato’s Socrates’ wisdom lay in how little positive he actually knew; but also in his knowledge that other people on the whole knew even less than him. Socrates delighted in revealing this to them through critical questioning. Philosophers today still niggle away, find fault with other people’s arguments and generally get under people’s skin. Often this is because they challenge cherished assumptions; though sometimes, we should admit, it is just because some of them are irritating nit-picking people who enjoy putting other people down because it makes them feel clever (some of these get an extra thrill from conducting their put downs in inpenetrable jargon that makes them feel even cleverer) - oops! there I go being negative again.
So, should philosophers be so relentlessly negative? Is there any value in this apparently destructive style of thinking? Should we praise or despise those philosophers who, armed with the martial arts-like skills of critical thinking, stand ready to knock down just about any generalisation with a killer countermove? John Stuart Mill in Chapter Two of On Liberty (1859) recognised the charge and took it seriously:
‘It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic – that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice without establishing positive truths.’
This is as true today as it was nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Think of the appeal of ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘critical’ thinking. His response:
‘Such negative criticism would indeed be poor enough as an ultimate result, but as a means to attaining any positive knowledge or conviction worthy the name it cannot be valued too highly; and until people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great thinkers and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and physical departments of speculation.’
His reason for believing this is appealing. Mill argued that no one’s opinions, unless challenged and disputed, (and preferably by someone who really believes in what they are arguing) amount to much. It is the process of contestation, the presentation of putative counterarguments and counterexamples, the analysis of the structure of argument that should test our opinions to the very limit. This is the source of life in what we believe: otherwise we are likely to cling to our assumptions as dead dogma.
Rather than despise these critical people, we should thank them, even if their objections turn out to be ill-founded:
‘If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour ourselves.’
What Mill didn’t address was the difficulty of engaging in this sort of illuminating debate with those who take every criticism of an argument as a criticism of the person who is its source…or who cling so dogmatically to their beliefs that any questioning of those beliefs and their underpinning is considered a kind of sacrilege.