The Floating University


I. Introduction to Philosophy

A. Philosophy comes from the Greek for Love (philo) of Wisdom (sophos)

B. Every culture has a philosophical tradition; Western cultures derivate from ancient Greece, Eastern cultures trace back to ancient China and India. Africans and native tribes all around the world have rich philosophic traditions reaching back hundreds and thousands of years.

C. Philosophy asks the question: Why are things the way they are? The Western tradition can be divided into two main segments: a Descriptive Component that asks how things are and how we know that, and a Normative Component that asks how things out to be.

D. Questions under the aegis of the Descriptive Component: What is the fundamental nature of reality? Does God exist? Do we have free will? How do we know about the nature of reality? These questions are divided between Metaphysics (what there is) and Epistemology (how we know things)

E. Normative Component questions are about values, and split into three segments: Aesthetics (what’s beautiful and why), Moral Philosophy (what is morally right or good), and Political Philosophy (how societies should be structured to allow human flourishing, and what makes societal structures legitimate).

II. Political Philosophy

A. One of the most engaging branches of philosophy, as it lets us ask questions that we need to ask in order to be responsible participants in a society, such as: What’s the best way for society to be structured? What is the appropriate division of rights and responsibilities? How should liberty and equality be balanced?

B. Political philosophy is a practical branch of philosophy, and formed the world we know today. It brought us Greek democracy, the Magna Carta, the French and American revolutions, Communism, the Civil Rights movement, Feminism, Libertarianism, and even the Tea Party.

C. Start off by asking yourself these questions: Should the state provide healthcare? Should there be an inheritance tax? Should there be a draft army? Should you be allowed to sell your vote?

D. It’s been said that Political Philosophy asks two questions: Who should get what? and Who says so? The three authors this lecture concerns answer different parts; Hobbes tackles Who says so? and John Rawls and Robert Nozick are in a direct conversation about Who gets what?

III. Thomas Hobbes: State of Nature vs. State of Governance

A. Thomas Hobbes lived roughly during the time of Shakespeare. His book Leviathan asks the questions What would the world look like without a state? and Would that be better or worse than having a system of governance?

B. Hobbes asks the reader to imagine what it would be like to live in the State of Nature, where there is no external governing body.

1. In the State of Nature we are all roughly equivalent in the following ways: we’re all at risk of having the work we do disrupted by others; we’re all at risk of having our property taken by others; we’re all at risk of seeing the things we consider important destroyed by others.

2. Everyone sleeps and is away from things that are valuable at some point. In the State of Nature people must expend a huge amount of effort protecting themselves and their goods. No opportunity to do the things that make life valuable without a state protecting our basic rights and interests.

3. In the State of Nature life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So how do we get out of it and escape a situation of constant fear? Hobbes points out that active war isn’t what disrupts activity, it’s the fear of war.

C. Game Theorists have developed a way of approaching Hobbes' problem at the crossroads of philosophy and economics. The struggle between the State of Nature and the State of Governance can be illustrated through the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

1. The Prisoner’s Dilemma derives from a basic example: A police officer has captured two criminals and wants to entice them to confess. So he creates a sentencing structure where it’s advantageous for each to confess regardless of what the other does.

2. The Cold War struggle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. illustrates this. Both sides would rather have used the money they spent on the arms race to build schools and infrastructure but realized if they disarmed they’d be at risk. The rational thing to do for the U.S. was keep its weapons regardless of what the U.S.S.R. did and vice versa.

3. This situation arises over and over again in human history. Without an enforcement mechanism in place to mediate, both sides will end up in a non-optimal position. If we always behave rationally, we’ll always end up not cooperating.

4. People manage to move past this in local situations. In WWI German and British troops worked out a system of mutual ceasefire so soldiers from each side could leave the trenches to get fresh air. But because of the possibility of informal modes of cooperation breaking down, Hobbes insisted that we need a body that regulates human interactions. It’s ultimately in our rational self-interest to submit our will to a sovereign that he calls the Leviathan.

IV. Milestones in Political Philosophy After Hobbes

A. John Locke writes the The Treatises of Government in 1689 about the social contract. Rousseau writes a similar work in 1762. Both works refined Hobbes' conceptions about what makes a state legitimate.

B. The works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau allowed the founders of the American and French revolutions to articulate a picture of human rights that completely altered the trajectory of humanity.

C. In 1861 the serfs were freed in Russia, along with the general democratization of society, and the recognition that the ability to vote shouldn’t be limited to landholders.

D. In 1848 Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, and in 1917 Russia reshaped the structure of its society in response to a work of Political Philosophy.

E. The women’s suffrage movement arose in 1918 in England and America, and this idea expanded to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. All harkens back to the Hobbesian notion that “A government, to be legitimate, must be in response to the needs of its people.” The publication of Leviathan to the present encompasses a period of time with an exponential increase in human political freedom.

V. John Rawls: How Do You Create a Just Society?

A. John Rawls served in WWII, and returned concerned with the question of how it is possible to create a stable and just society. He spent most of his academic career working on this problem as a professor of philosophy at Harvard. In the early 1970s, during the Vietnam war, Rawls tried to articulate what a just society looks like and how it is structured in his book A Theory of Justice.

B. In Rawls’ system each person possesses basic rights that can’t be violated, even if it benefits society as a whole. This alters long-standing thought developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills in the form of Utilitarianism.

1. Utilitarianism holds that an act is morally right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If you have the choice between saving one person and saving five people you always go for the five-person group.

2. Rawls’ problem: In both far-fetched and plausible scenarios Utilitarianism holds that we violate the rights of the individual to help the many. Justice should be the principle characteristic of a just society. Rawls complicates the Utilitarian picture by asking how the benefits and burdens of living in a community should be distributed in order to best realize justice.

C. Rawls says a just society is one in which rational, free, and equal people would choose to live in. But in real world communities we enter into the social contract with many inequalities in place. There are income disparities and disparities between the abilities of individuals.

D. To solve the problem of baseline inequality, Rawls proposes that people choose a system of governance based on the fact that they won’t know where the chips will fall ahead of time. The fairest way a cake will be cut is when the cutter doesn’t know which piece he’ll get. Rawls calls this concept the Veil of Ignorance.

1. What’s more important, fundamental rights or the distribution of income? Faced with the choice of three societies with different income and rights distributions, without knowing what income bracket or rights set they will possess, people overwhelming (95%) choose the society with a liberal distribution of income and universal rights. Even when people are guaranteed a greater income with a 15% chance they won’t have full rights, people decline this option.

2. This result supports Rawls’ notion of the Veil of Ignorance, and he further posits that to the extent that inequalities must exist within a society, they should satisfy two conditions: (1.) the benefits of those inequalities should be accessible to all; and (2.) inequalities should be distributed in a way that is to the benefit to the least well-off.

3. If having low taxes on the rich produces a trickle-down benefit to the poor, then Rawls says it’s okay. But if that’s only advantageous to the rich, then that inequality isn’t permissible in Rawls’ notion of a just society.

4. When asked to choose an income distribution, only 8% of Americans will choose the American distribution of income from behind the Veil of Ignorance.

5. In  reality we operate outside the Veil of Ignorance, and the wealthy are in a position to encourage a system that allows them to accumulate more wealth and influence. The poor, likewise, are less and less able to alter their positions. According to Rawls, this makes our society unjust.

VI. Robert Nozick: Individual Liberty Trumps All

A. While a seasoned Rawls was formulating his theory of justice, a younger professor at Harvard took up the cause of rebutting Rawls’ work. Robert Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia three years after Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Nozick believed Rawls put the wrong principles at the center of his conception of justice.

B. Nozick believed that the only just state is a minimal one that provides defense and enforces contract and property rights. This replaces justice with liberty as the principle foundation of a just society.

C. Nozick says property is legitimately held when it is acquired legitimately when it was un-owned, or if you acquired it in a legitimate way from someone who already owned it. No one has any right to take that legitimately owned property away. Extrapolating this, there is no way that a system where 1% of people own 99% of the wealth is illegitimate, as long as all transactions were voluntary.

D. The problem with this conception of liberty: When the wealthy own the capital, they are able to influence politics in an unjust manner, and control the narrative of the media, and segregate their children at better schools than are available to the public. This makes it difficult for the less advantaged to exercise their rights and enjoy full liberty.

E. This leads to the concept that individual decisions that are acceptable can become problematic if large numbers of people make those decisions. This problem is known as the Tragedy of the Commons.

1. Letting your cow graze in a public field is fine to do, until hundreds of people bring their cows to the public space to graze. This happens in the real world all the time: overfishing and pollution are salient examples.

VII. Your World According to Rawls vs. Nozick

A. Should we have universal healthcare? Rawls would say yes, Nozick would say no. Rawls would say health is a precondition for participation in a civil society, and would be a feature people would choose from behind the Veil of Ignorance. Nozick would say no, as it would be paid for by an illegitimate interference in people’s lives through taxation and other requirements.

B. Should there be an inheritance tax? Rawls would say yes, and Nozick no. Rawls would say that we all have a right to be born into a roughly equal community, and those who inherit large sums are advantaged in ways not to the benefit of the least well off. Nozick would say that it’s no one’s business to tell you whether or not you can give money to your children.

C. Should there be a draft army? Rawls would say yes, if only under wartime conditions. The burdens of society must be as equally distributed as the benefits. Nozick would want only a volunteer army, based on the individual’s right to contract into situations with a lot of risk. He wouldn’t be bothered that people who do so probably lack other viable options for livelihood.

D. Should it be legitimate to sell you vote? Rawls says no: that’s an unalienable right that would unbalance society if it were allowed to be given away by individuals. Nozick thinks it’s fine; it’s under the purview of individual discretion.  

E. Common between all of the political philosophers discussed is the acknowledgement that individuals want more rather than less of a share of the resources of society. Political philosophy allows you to step outside of the locus of your personal self-interest to consider the health of the society in which you live.

VIII. What can you do with a degree in philosophy?

A. Philosophy has always been connected to other fields of study. Aristotle not only worked on metaphysics, he catalogued the governing systems of other Greek city-states. He also did biological experiments and pondered the nature of physics.

B. Great thinkers not only think about their own discipline, but also how it relates to the world around them. People with philosophy degrees go on to pursue a multitude of professions, but on the whole they go on to be thoughtful, reflective participants in our civil society.