Tag Archives: bentham

Edit: When the Paul duo associates itself with the neo-Confederates at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, it’s hard not to accuse them of racism. But I don’t think this interview is an instance as such, and that’s the point of this post.

Brad DeLong takes us to Ian Millhiser on Rand Paul’s recent interview. The interview is seething with a dedication to states’ rights and “localism” but is not, ultimately, racist as Millhiser suggests with this picture:


The thrust of Paul argument is captured in the sentiment of private property rights:

You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.


This is the hard part about believing in freedom—is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example—you have too, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things […] It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior.

Surprisingly, I think Paul is correct about everything. Except the distinction between private and public property. The State has the same right to proscribe certain practices – such as discrimination or cruelty – as it does to levy any form of taxation. An Obama soundbite, “you didn’t build that”, understanding the sentiment that every business can succeed only through a melange of government support and subsidy: of education, of law and, maybe most importantly, of contract.

Oh and the network is so much more complicated than that. Local businesses (and Coke) receive greater demand through government transfers for the poor. Tax breaks for small companies realign incentives to their benefit. I can name a million reasons why a local shop exists because of, and only because of, a government.

And this doesn’t mean, literally, that “you didn’t build it”. It doesn’t undermine private enterprise. Indeed, at its best, it only kindles such entrepreneurial spirits. But that’s a different story. When Rand Paul cedes that public resources have no place in discriminating against black or white, he must tacitly cede whichever position he holds on local, privately “owned”, entities.

“Owned” because property is derived from the State. This is a controversial logic for the libertarians who see private property antecedent to the State which is (in its only legitimate form) a collective action of the holders thereof. This is similar to the classically liberal attitude towards property, John Locke:

believed that ownership of property is created by the application of labour. In addition, he believed property precedes government and government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.

However, for Rand Paul’s beliefs on abortion to be internally consistent, he must accept a Benthamite interpretation of property rights. Only when private property is delegated by the State, and exists solely under its existence thereof, can pro-life policy exist. The right of full agency on a women’s womb is retained by the State.

This further compounds his confusion regarding the Civil Rights Act. Since property rights are ultimately mediated through the State, it would be improper for a free society to grant the right of cruelty and discrimination to property “owners”. In this sense, by holding the deed to a restaurant, I have many rights. I have the right to block involuntary seizure or unwarranted search by the State. I have the right to bake pizzas. These are my rights as a citizen of the United States. But until unless the government condones discrimination itself, I do not have the right to discriminate unfairly.

Because Republicans are so fond of slippery-slope arguments (remember? if you legalize same-sex marriage men are going to get married to pigs, or something), I’m going to make one here. The strong form of Rand Paul’s argument suggests that I have the ultimate right to do what I will on my property. (In other words, he mistakenly applies Lockean values of liberalism). This would mean owners could kill, maim, torture, and steal those who enter their property.

Of course, the libertarian argument might go that if the market learned of such cruel acts, the shop would be snubbed until it modified its practices. In the mean time, I’m happy to live in post-1964 America, run by Kenyan, anti-market, socialist (has anyone heard of Chained CPI?), Muslims.

So Rand Paul isn’t racist, just wrong. If he had a more open approach to abortion, he could even have an internally consistent ideology supporting a crippled version of the Civil Rights Act. Millhiser doesn’t seem to think Paul’s ideology is compatible with a free society. It is, just not our free society.

Though it fails to answer its titular question, “what’s the right thing to do”, Michael Sandel’s Justice is a highly worthwhile read. Sandel illustrates questions of moral agency with rich examples relevant to anyone who reads a newspaper. Ultimately, however, its success comes from an eminently accessible read that will enlighten all but the most educated not from presenting a novel way of thought, as suggested by some reviewers.

In a time of rife unrest about the so-called “one percent”, Sandel offers a book for the rest of us. He makes accessible ideas otherwise locked to students of expensive courses or to those with the time to actually understand dense translations of Aristotle’s Greek. Sandel’s ability to make his both book readable and relevant speaks volumes about his role as a modern day political theorist.

Though we learn of his neo-Aristotelian sympathies late in the book, his description of Kantian and Rawlsian  philosophies are hardly biased, offering an unobscured snapshot of their respective theories of justice.

The most irritating flaw was the very cursory consideration of the “trolley problem”, introduced in his discussion of utilitarianism. While Sandel gives a detailed explanation of this age-old puzzle, as well as a historical parallel in R v Dudley and Stephens the resulting discussion is rather staid, predictable, and lacks the animation found in his lectures.

Well, obviously we find it harder to push the fat man off a bridge – but Sandel leaves the question as a simple check on Bentham’s utilitarianism rather than a powerful question of ethical agency that is relevant in almost every political and legal discussion. While this beautiful puzzle is an excellent way to catch the mind of an uninterested reader, Sandel does not do justice to the rest of his book by considering this question as a teaser rather than as a culminating feature of the book, as it ought to have been.

I also found his discussion of Kantian and Rawlsian flaws to be rather vague. While it would be nearly-impossible to address completely every flaw of a political theory in a book as accessible as Justice, there was a glaring flaw in each theory which I sorely wish Sandel mentioned. I am sure I am not the only one.

When Sandel noted Kant’s dislike of sex outside of marriage, prostitutes, etc. as such unholy institutions undermined our autonomy, representing base instincts rather than a higher purpose, I couldn’t help but wonder, who decides that which is ‘higher purpose’. Kant seems to give us a few vague tools to gauge our autonomy (i.e. would we give to charity even if ripped of all human emotion?) but nothing worthwhile. I feel I am doing great disservice to a thinker like Kant, but I can hardly help but wonder if he was just another man that preached what he considered to be morally virtuous and defended it with contrived reason to maintain an illusion of secularism.

I liked Rawls much more, but I wish Sandel had spent more time discussing the “veil of ignorance”. My greatest qualm – one I am sure many share – is its impossible nature. Rawls wants those who craft the world, behind this veil, to be devoid of any human emotion (such as a predilection for risk), any knowledge of race, sex, sexuality, etc. Yet, by virtue of having the gift of thought (as someone crafting our world ought to have), by virtue of having the ability to philosophize about tax laws, about regulations one must have an opinion. One must have a bias. Even in the hypothetical world so romantic to political philosophers, I find it unbelievable to conceive a so called veil of ignorance that has un-opinionated men, entirely clueless of their station in life, someone able to create law and institute a government. I am sure Rawlsian thinkers would beg to differ, but I would have at least liked a greater discussion of this point.

Towards the end, it becomes clear that Sandel is racing towards Aristotle, who dominates the last one hundred pages. By virtue of length, Sandel provides a great glimpse into both the triumphs as well as flaws of Aristotelian thinking. He does an excellent job of advocating for what seems like a limiting and highly moralistic ideology. I was left wondering, however, who determines the purpose of an object? The maker? The patrons? The market? Ultimately it seems Aristotelian thinking, through the lens in which it is viewed, can be used to defend each of the previously studied philosophers. Its versatility makes it strong, but fails, then, to answer the guiding question “what’s the right thing to do?”

While the absence of eastern philosophers seems to be a common thread of complaint among reviewers of philosophy books, I thought Justice was already somewhat overambitious in its mission. However, in a failed attempt to answer so grand a question, Sandel provides a solid and entertaining journey through moral philosophy.

It would be very difficult to find a better way to spend the three to four hours required to read this rich if not riveting book.