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Does the liberal idea which is such a significant part of our modern conception

Does the liberal idea which is such a significant part of our modern conception of democracy that all people are created equal and are therefor endowed with the same rights have a philosophical or an empirical foundation? I've noticed it took a while for this concept to develop even though it has a pretty clearly written out partial foundation within the constitution of the U.S. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" Did the "founders" believe despite other powers that they couldn't control that slavery should be banned under this principle? I don't see how such a thing is self-evident and anyhow do we really think that severely mentally challenged people have the same rights for example? I even know that in at least one state some people can be adjudicated as unfit to vote - although I personally think that as a matter of principle even people who are very mentally challenged should be able to vote. But I think that there are other realms where very mentally challenged...

You've raised a good and complicated question. Let's leave the word "created" aside, since if it has its religious meaning, many people won't find it self-evident.

I take the claim that "all men are equal" to be a way of saying what philosophers put this way: "All persons are entitled to equal moral consideration." It's not an empirical claim, since we don't get the answers to broad questions of moral principle by adding up the facts, though as we'll note below, empirical facts can be relevant to applying the principle.

Notice a few things the principle doesn't say. First, it doesn't say what a person is; that's a hard question that we'll set aside. Second, it doesn't say that only persons are entitled to moral consideration. It might be that some animals are. It might even be - on some views - that parts of inanimate nature are too. Third, and perhaps more relevant to your question, it doesn't say that all persons have the same detailed rights. 10-year-olds don't have the right to marry or to enter into contracts. Murderers don't have the right to roam the streets freely. And people with intellectual handicaps may lack some rights as well, though the devil is in the details.

What specific rights a person has depends partly on matters of facts; what abilities a person has might well be relevant; past actions might be relevant; how others have treated him or her may be relevant. The point of the slogan is that in deciding if someone is entitled to certain rights, only the morally relevant considerations be applied, and they should be applied even-handedly. If some characteristic is relevant (intellectual capacity may sometimes be), then it doesn't violate the principle of equal moral consideration to grant people different rights depending on whether they have the characteristic or not. What would violate the principle is to ignore the morally relevant distinctions to someone's advantage or disadvantage.

Maybe the simplest way to put it is this: the principle says that people are entitled not to be treated arbitrarily. But paying attention to relevant distinctions isn't arbitrary and so this idea of moral equality doesn't call for granting everyone the same detailed rights.

I've been trying to learn a bit about communitarian philosophy, but I'm having a

I've been trying to learn a bit about communitarian philosophy, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around it. The thrust of the line of thinking seems to be that individuals are socially constituted beings and that the community should therefore be the focal unit of ethical and political action, rather than the individual (which is what is advocated by the liberal theorists communitarians criticize). That is, at least, the impression I'm getting. I may be confused, but there seems to be a problem here. Communitarians seem to want to exclude contingent "lifestyle enclaves" from their thought, defining community instead in geographical, historical and familial terms - i.e. communities we can't escape being defined into, no matter how hard we might try. But just because a person is part of a particular racial, geographical, linguistic and socioeconomic community does not mean logically imply that that community is the best place for them to flourish in the way they desire. What does...

Excellent set of concerns! The history of communitarianism is a bit complex; the term was first introduced by a German sociologist F. Tonnies (d1936), but the term did not really get a lot of philosophical attention until we get the mature work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. I suspect that the form of communitarianism is a very radical one that rules out appeal to concepts of human flourishing that may be used to critique or evaluate communities. Both MacIntyre and Taylor stress the vital importance of communities as philosophically significant contexts for moral, religious, and political reflection but both embrace moral theories that go beyond what a community happens to value. Although I am not positive, MacIntyre seems closest to an Aristotelian perspective in his latest work. Taylor may lean a little more toward the Platonic tradition, but for both of these figures who have promoted communitarianism, religious values (both philosophers are Roman Catholic) are viewed as having a great importance that is missing in secular communities.

Back to your original worry: I share it. More radical forms of communitarianism could well overwhelm and threaten an individual's bona fide flourishing, and that is indeed a problem.

If an intellectual who publicly advocates for justice and claims to practice

If an intellectual who publicly advocates for justice and claims to practice fair ethics commits a plainly unjust act (e.g. if it's a professor, sexual harassment and assault of a student), does that discredit the merits of his work?

I wager that most philosophers would say 'no.' In fact, the term "genetic fallacy" is used when someone seeks to discredit a view due to its origin (or genesis) and if you were to say some professor's philosophy lacks merit because he assaults a student, you would probably be told that you are making an ad hominem argument (an argument against the person and not what the person argues or believes). A classic case in the 20th century has been to condemn Heidegger's philosophy because he was (at least for a while) a Nazi. Still, if someone is unfair and unjust in their action, I suggest that is one reason to raise a question about whether the person has been unjust or unfair in his thinking or beliefs. If I fail to respect my students--important people whom I am supposed to respect and honor-- I think that would be a good reason to question whether I have respected and honored the very practice of philosophy.

It is also worth noting that there is a tradition in philosophy going back at least to Plato and Socrates, that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, and so we should rightly expect philosophers to love wisdom in both their thinking and action. Philosophers in the Platonic tradition (the 17 century Cambridge Platonists, for example) would very much link action and thought.

A final point: Stepping back a bit, it might be worth observing that (sadly) someone might be profoundly just and fair with others rescuing students and others from assaults and yet be completely muddled in their philosophy!

Well, one more point actually: if your question stems from your awareness of an actual case of assault or harassment, I hope you will be able to report this in order for there to be a proper intervention.

It seems generally accepted that the human race has a social responsibility to

It seems generally accepted that the human race has a social responsibility to eradicate poverty; however, doesn't every economic system benefit in some way from the most impoverished element of society, or the people that are most exploited? What is the value of money if everyone has (approximately) the same amount? Is there any viable system where the economic playing field is more level? What might that system look like?

I don't know what it means for an economic system to benefit. But it seems plausible that some people benefit at the expense of those who are most exploited. I don't see how this benefit is supposed to defeat the proposition that the human race has a responsibility to eradicate poverty -- typically the cost of the exploitation to the exploited is much greater than the benefit of the exploitation to the exploiters and typically, moreover, the assignment of roles is deeply unfair (e.g., tarnished by historical wrongs that led to some being born privileged and others disadvantaged).

Currently, the poorest quarter of humanity has about 0.78 percent of global household income. This means that these 1.8 billion people, on average, have about 1/32 of the global average income. More than half of them are chronically undernourished, and most suffer one or another severe deprivation. Had the poorest quarter maintained its 1988 share of global household income, its share would now be greater by about half -- 1.16 rather than 0.78 percent of global household income -- and most of today's extreme poverty would then not exist (figures from Branko Milanovic, World Bank, reflecting market exchange rates). Had we allowed the poor to participate proportionately in global economic growth, the world would be much like it is today: still very unequal (with the poorest quarter, on average, at 1/21 of global average income). But the death toll and suffering from poverty would be much lower than they in fact are today.

For a viable system where the economic playing field is more level, you might look at the European Union, which displays only mild inter- and intra-national inequalities. The top fifth of EU citizens have about five times as much income as the bottom fifth -- the corresponding ratio for humankind is 162:1. A crucial cause and effect of lower income inequality is a fairer distribution of starting positions: in the EU, even those born into the bottom quarter have a fair chance to receive a decent education and to work their way into a satisfying job or even into a leadership position. As the percentage of those who have good educational and employment opportunities increases, the market premium for the more challenging jobs tends to diminish.

Some countries have considerably lower income inequality than the EU. In Sweden, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Japan, for instance, the ratio between the richest and the poorest fifths is below 4:1. What is the value of money in such a low-inequality environment, you ask. When inequality is low, then money has little value as a marker of hierarchy. You cannot feel very special on account of being able to afford things when very many others can afford them as well. But the institution of money is valuable in other ways: as a rough indicator of what people contribute to society and what they take from the social product, for example. Money is also extremely useful for facilitating exchanges and thereby for communicating demand and supply information throughout an economy so as to enable market participants to adjust their conduct toward better coordination and fulfilment of their individual preferences.

While greater equality would massively increase efficiency by allowing many more people to develop their talents and then to compete for the more important social roles, the abolition of money would greatly reduce efficiency in any modern economy above the size of a village.

How can we justify using juries in our court systems when there are significant

How can we justify using juries in our court systems when there are significant problems of discrimination and stigmatization against certain groups? Don't such common biases in society undermine the role of the jury as a supposedly neutral judge of evidence?

I'm reminded of (I think) Churchill's observation that democracy is a terrible form of government, but it's the least bad of all the alternatives .... You are surely right in your observation, but what alternative would be better? *Every* individual may well be subject to the same biases, even "experts," and you have to put the accused up for judgment before *someone*: at least if you make it a reasonably large group of people, and do your best to avoid "biased" people, and to select "peers," you seem to maximize your chances of getting something resembling "objectivity" or neutrality ...


It seems today that in mainstream media and political discourse proponents of

It seems today that in mainstream media and political discourse proponents of neoliberalism equate freedom with consumer choice. Many arguments about the restructuring of safety net programs, such as social security and medicare, along market logic of private competition and less government involvement, usually mention how this would bring about more "choice" for individuals and thus more freedom. Neoliberalism has brought a shift in discourse about freedom and liberty more inline with market type of discourse. The shift seems to be from having the freedom OF choice, to freedom IS choice. Much can be said about this from many different philosophical perspectives (an interesting one that comes to mind being Foucault and governmentality), but I want to go back to further, to Kant. My question is what would Kant say about this idea of freedom, that freedom is equated with choice - specifically- consumer/market choice? This type of questions plagues me because this neoliberal logic seems to reduce,...

Back in 2010, somebody asked a question about group rights, and mentioned the

Back in 2010, somebody asked a question about group rights, and mentioned the right to transmit one's language. Thomas Pogge replied by saying: "You have a right to speak to your children in the language of your choice; but do you also have a right that they be taught this language in school? Not, presumably, if you're the only speaker of this language far and wide. But if thirty percent of the adults in your town speak Spanish as their native language, then that could be a very compelling reason for requiring that Spanish be taught in the local schools." My question is: Isn't this what democracy is for? If a sufficiently large proportion of a community has an interest in one thing or another, deliberative democracy ought to provide them with a way to satisfy that interest (opening their own schools; mandatory Spanish classes in all schools; extra funding for schools with Spanish classes; etc.). Is that all group rights are, then? People negotiating situations favorable to their interests within a...

It would be nice if democracy delivered this outcome. But in some cases the thirty percent may not have enough bargaining power to achieve it. In this case, Spanish-language classes may not actually happen. If so, I would think, the minority's group right would be violated by the majority.

Like in many other cases, the right outcome here is not whatever results from a democratic process. Rather, the right outcome is the one that accommodates any large minority's expressed desire in the preservation of their language; and that's what members of the majority ought to support and vote for, even if there's nothing valuable they can extract from the minority in exchange. This is not meant to reject democracy -- which may well be the best feasible procedure for reaching the right outcome. It's meant to reject a certain conception of democracy according to which any decision is right merely because it has resulted from a certain democratic process. What has been successfully negotiated in a democratic process may assume the status of a legal right but may nonetheless be morally wrong. And many non-democratic regimes are violating human rights even though there is no democratic process in which these rights so much as could have been successfully negotiated.

In a democratic society, we are often called to vote. However, I don't believe

In a democratic society, we are often called to vote. However, I don't believe there is a clear understanding of how one should vote. Are voters supposed to vote according to what they believe to be the best policy for everybody? Does democracy intend that everyone express some normative opinion about how society ought to function, and that the dominant opinion triumphs? Are voters supposed to vote according to what policy would be most beneficial to themselves? Does democracy intend that everyone express their personal interests, and that government builds a consensus or favors the dominant interests? Are voters supposed to vote strategically, in an attempt to maximize the likelihood of their desired policies being enacted? Does democracy intend for us to vote for options that don't necessarily represent something we believe in, if we believe that such a vote would best guarantee the success of the policies least abhorrent to us?

The point of voting in a democracy is that one votes in accordance with whatever principles one likes, or none. It is perfectly valid to vote for the best looking candidate, the candidate who has an attractive spouse or partner, the candidate who won when a coin was tossed, and so on. It is perfectly plausible to use any of the principles you mention, but far simpler and subjective impressions are fine too.

There are certain people who, when hearing of a person's complaints about their

There are certain people who, when hearing of a person's complaints about their working conditions, are fond of saying that those complaining should "just leave" and get work elsewhere, instead of demanding that employers foster better working conditions (which would presumably amount to restricting the freedom of the employers). In some cases, the suggestion might be even more extreme, telling the person that they ought to change fields entirely. My question is, is a system in which people's only options for improving their quality of life on the job is to leave and hope to find work somewhere better a fair system? Are the conveniences of employers more important than the needs of the employees?

A great question! I believe (perhaps wrongly) that the question, especially the last one, does not have a single, general answer, however there are factors we can identify and find some agreement about. Some of these factors seem to involve loyalty, reasonable expectations, gratitude, fairness, and the availability of alternative employers and employees. So, in terms of loyalty: if a worker has faithful in executing her job and done so with integrity and then requests that, say, the uncomfortable temperature of a room be adjusted or that there be longer and more regular breaks in order to prevent injury due to tiredness, the burden would seem to be on the employer to change, whereas if the employer requested regular, fully paid trips to Disney world there would seem to be little reason to take this seriously. Matters of fairness might also rightly give reason for an employer to change; imagine an employee works with others who are free riders (not pulling their fair share) or, worse, what some call parasites (not only not doing one's fair share but making the organization worse by taking advantage of it). An employer might have an obligation to respond to an employee's demand for fairness in the workplace.

As for the "just leave" response, this might reflect a failure of an employer to be grateful for past service. Perhaps this response may be legal, but it may be cruel. But if a worker is making unfair demands and there are available alternatives where the worker might be happier, it is hard to say that such a response is simply wrong.

Your question reminds me of the attitude some take to dissent to one's country: "Love it or leave it." As a general attitude, this may be problematic because it underestimates the extent that we expect in a democratic culture for patriotic citizens to dissent to their nation's policies and it also may underestimate the cost of leaving one's country. If I asked my students something like the following, they would hardly take me up on the request: "If you disagree with what I have said today, cut off your right arm. Otherwise, no matter what you say, I shall assume you are in full agreement with me." Other things being equal, I believe we expect that citizens or students may actually love a country or class while at the same time not loving a great deal that is being done.

Many pundits speak about the erosion of personal responsibility by the "nanny

Many pundits speak about the erosion of personal responsibility by the "nanny state". But personal responsibility isn't exactly fun; it can be taxing and costly to have to suffer for your mistakes, your free choices or even your nature. Why shouldn't the government ease the burden of personal responsibility on citizens?

Great question. I suppose that the general assumption in liberal democracy is that there should be a presumption of liberty in most areas of life except in cases of harm or extreme offense or in some cases where there is a substantial risk of avoidable suffering. So, in most states in the USA I believe that motorcyclists do not have a choice about whether to wear a helmet, something that may reduce head injuries. And motorists are required to wear seat belts in order to cut down on harm. These do not appear to me to be cases of when the state is acting as a "nanny' --a metaphor (I take it) of treating adults as though they are children. These might be good cases of when the government rightly eases the burden of personal responsibility on citizens (to use your language). And perhaps the government rightly restricts the freedom of people to make some choices such as the choice of whether to sell organs or blood or (in an extreme case) their very freedom (slavery is illegal, even if an individual consents to becoming someone's slave). But I suggest liberal democratic tradition (from Mill to Rawls) thinks that basic liberty is a good, no matter how vexing or taxing. And at the end of the day, many of us (I suggest rightly) would prefer the state to restrict personal responsibility only in extreme cases, lest we win up with, not a nanny for a state, but a tyrant.