Category Archives: Moral Philosophy

Honoring Sidney Poitier and the Black Struggle

James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley

Gideon Rosen on Culture and Value

Prof. Jonathan Wolff on Social Justice, Economic Efficiency and Political Legitimacy

In the video posted below, philosopher Jonathan Wolff of University College London addresses the problems of political legitimacy; the justness and practicality of exporting elements of liberalism to foreign lands; the compatibility of social justice and economic efficiency; and whether endless economic growth is actually good.

Throughout the video he gives a basic and comprehensible overview of the Rawlsian theory of social justice, but he also points out some oft-neglected issues regarding how we can best actualize such a commitment.

In his discussion of whether we can export elements of liberalism to foreign lands he raises the important point that such attempts will fail if the recipient society’s culture is not hospitable to liberal institutions. This is a point that Hayekians tend to make, and one that both Hegel and Rousseau made. In fact, Wolff acknowledges Rousseau on this point by noting that the great philosopher knew that politics must be grounded in a common culture. However, Wolff points out that the diversity of modern society renders Rousseau’s project problematic and in turn advocates the Rawlsian position that a polity be grounded in the shared public reasoning of its citizens.

It is refreshing to have a world-class philosopher provide a lucid discussion of such important issues for public consumption.


Prof. Benhabib on The Morality of Migration

The Morality of Migration

by Seyla Benhabib

New York Times
July 29, 2012

In announcing the Department of Homeland Security’s policy directive on June 15 stating that undocumented migrant youths who meet certain conditions would no longer be deported, President Obama said that “It was the right thing to do.” What he did not say was whether he meant “the right thing” legally or morally.

Obviously, he considered the action to be legal, even though this invocation of his administration’s power drew strong criticism from many, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But the president’s grounds for believing it moral were much less clear.

This should come as no surprise: the morality and politics of migration are among the most divisive issues in much of the world. In the United States, discussions of immigration flow seamlessly into matters of national security, employment levels, the health of the American economy, and threats to a presumptive American national identity and way of life. Much the same is true in Europe. Not a week goes by without a story of refugees from Africa or Asia perishing while trying to arrive at the shores of the European Union.

Nor are such developments restricted to the resource-rich countries of the Northern Hemisphere. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Singapore, Israel and Jordan are countries with the highest percentage share of migrants among their total population, while the United States, the Russian Federation, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada and France lead in the actual number of international migrants. Migrations are now global, challenging many societies in many parts of the world.


J.M. Bernstein on Social Subjectivity and Dependency

Interview with Robert Brandom on Normativity

Robert Brandom is one of the most influential and innovative philosophers in the world. He studied under the late Richard Rorty and like his teacher he has made a career out of integrating analytic philosophy (Wittgenstein, Sellers, Dummett and McDowell) classical pragmatism (Pierce, James and Dewey), and continental philosophy (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Heiddegger and Habermas) so as to render explicit what is implicit in our rational and normative practices.

In a 1999 interview, when asked what he has learned from his teacher, he stated that:

I have taken from Rorty the normative pragmatist insight that all matters of authority and responsibility are ultimately matters of social practice, and never matters of ontology (that is, never just a matter of how things in fact are in the nonhuman world).

In the interview below he discusses discursive scorekeeping, normativity, and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. In part 2 of the interview he explains the relationship between Kant’s and Hegel’s respective accounts of normativity and how the latter advanced beyond the former. Many Brandom resources are available at his personal website:

Brandom is currently completing a book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit titled, A Spirit of Trust, draft chapters of which can be found here. As any good student of Hegel I am excited to read the final version of this work, but for those who just want a light taste of Brandom’s analytic pragmatic interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology I recommend reading his excellent but relatively short essay,”Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism: Negotiation and Administration in Hegel’s Account of the Structure and Content of Conceptual Norms”

Social Anxiety: Friendship and the Problem of Belonging in the Modern Political Order

Philia: bromance in the polis

In Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes: “Friendship is most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” By philia Aristotle comprehends a love that is not (necessarily) erotic or romantic. Distinguishing between friendships aimed toward utility, pleasure, and the good, the presentation of friendship in the Ethics must be understood in light of both arête – human excellence – and eudaimonia – happiness or human flourishing. Precisely for this reason no one would choose to live without philia, for the goods of human life are felt in its expression.

Intrinsic to primary social relationships (family members, neighbors, and friends), philia is the medium through which the world outside of the self is first made known to the individual, who is the eventual citizen. According to the Ethics, friendship, which ennobles existence and teaches virtue, is in fact the ideal model for the political community. Plato joins his interlocutor’s observation in his Lysis dialogue, indicating the tremendous importance Western political philosophy has accorded this love, both with respect to fostering societal cohesion and as an emblem of what the political community might, at its best, become. “For Aristotle and his successors, it was precisely the moral component of friendship that made it the indispensible basis of a good society,” as the sociologist Robert Bellah concludes in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Because both friendship and politics were thought to be concerned with the moral development, the two were naturally intertwined. As John von Heyking puts it in his essay “The Luminous Path of Friendship” (2008), “One senses a profound agreement [of Augustine] with Cicero on how networks of friends form the micropolitics of political society and how the highest friendships cultivate the virtues.”

Although the polis ought to emulate the perfect community of friends, it can only do so to a limited extent. Whereas politics exists in order to arbitrate (and instruct) the carriage of justice, the Ethics teaches: “if people are friends, they have no need of justice.” In a perfect community of friends, there would be no need for an external body to resolve disputes, for love itself would intervene. Acknowledging that perfect friendship cannot be reliably achieved among all men at all times, the political community attempts to conform to the Platonic ideal of philia, while providing institutional assurances of justice. Because the ancients understood politics to be an imperfect practice, the best friendships were thought to be emblematic of and integral to politics. Friendship could raise “mere life” to the Good life, and, in doing so, reveal the heights humanness might attain.

Considerations about friendship continued to inform the political thought of the early Christian and Medieval eras up through the French Renaissance. In fact, as John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko remark in the introduction to Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, “it is only in the modern era that friendship has lost its prominence and been relegated to the backbenches of political philosophy.” Von Heyking and Avramenko propose that at the heart of pre-modern traditions is an understanding of friendship as “an activity that engages the entirety of the human personality – including the rational, moral, and spiritual – and [the essays in Friendship & Politics] consider what the engagement implies for our sense of belonging in a political society.”

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Neuhouser on Social Inequality and Rousseau’s Theodicy of Self-Love

Dworkin on Unearned Skepticism