Philosophy 235
Political Philosophy
Fall 2019

Click here for the syllabus.

Scroll to bottom for newest entry.  Please check this page frequently for announcements, additional reading assignments and videos, web links of interest, and so on.

To begin with, here are some sites you ought to get to know.  Our department web site includes this list of student research tools (with some amusements at the bottom). 

No course in political philosophy would be complete without this.

Weekly response prompt #1 - you'll recall the syllabus includes this item: "Weekly response: each week, with one or two exceptions, I will ask you to respond to some question or reflect on some problem.  You will reply via email not later than Sunday at noon.  Your reply need not be more than a paragraph, but must demonstrate critical reflection and real engagement with the material."  This one is due Sept. 15th, and remember it must come from your @bridgew email account.  No fancy document formatting needed, just open a new mail message to me and write your brief reply.  Watch this short video on social cooperation - do you think that social cooperation can arise organically, or that, as Hobbes says, this is impossible?

Watch these short videos: More on the different senses of "value."  More on the football helmets example.  More on incentives and why they matter.  And now:
Weekly response prompt #2
-- Read this short parable by economist Russ Roberts.  Given the two senses of "rational" we discussed in class, explain how the woman at the opera who spoke to Prof. Roberts might be considered rational or irrational.  What sort of behavior is incentivized by the phenomenon Prof. Roberts describes?

Bonus short videos on property rights: one here, another here

Weekly response prompt #3 -- In Kenya and Mozambique, you cannot own elephants, they are a protected national resource.  In Zimbabwe and Botswana, they actually allow legally recognized property rights in elephants.  What are your predictions for what this will do to the elephant populations in the different countries and why?

Regarding the division of labor and the coordination of dispersed knowledge, see the following two videos  First is a video about a sandwich (this is a short version, but it contains links to longer versions), which is apparently another thing no one can really do, at least not without spending thousands of dollars.  Then, similarly, a video about someone trying to make a toaster from scratch.  These, like the essay "I, Pencil" in your book, demonstrate something not only about Smith's discussion of the division of labor, but also something about Hayek's point about dispersed knowledge. Keeping those in mind, here's Weekly response prompt #4 -- While we primarily think of markets as competitive, and we often hear these words together, Smith more often suggests cooperation as the central feature of market exchange.  Can you explain why? 

Weekly Response prompt #5 - your thoughts on Prof. Brennan's talk.  Bonus videos: Prof. Brennan on cognitive biases affecting voter behavior and  why he opposes compulsory voting

Additional material for next week: Majoritarian voting seems quite simple, but turns out to engender a variety of paradoxes, independently of Brennan's argument and Plato's criticisms.  Here are some short videos on voting paradoxes.  Gray on "First Past the Post" voting, Prof. Thomas on the Condorcet Paradox, Prof. Munger on majority rule.

RE Prof. Brennan's argument concerning cognitive bias and other irrationality in the formation of our political beliefs, here's the video from class  How Not to Be Ignorant About the World 

More on democracy: As Munger mentioned, democracy can be at odds with a robust conception of rights, at least if we think of democracy as majority rule.  See this parable from philosopher Robert Nozick: The Tale of the Slave.  

No weekly response this week; get started on your first paper assignment.
First paper assignment:  Even though this will be submitted electronically, the paper should be formatted as if for printing: 2-3 pages, double-spaced, in Times New Roman, 12-point, with 1-inch margins on all sides.  Do not submit incorrectly formatted papers.   Put your name, date, and "PHIL235" on the top right of page 1, and number the pages.  Use MS WORD, and submit electronically, via Blackboard.  If you have trouble uploading to Blackboard, and cannot resolve the issue by deadline, you may send it as an attachment sent from your email account. Deadline: this is due NLT 5:00 pm Thursday October 31
TopicPick one of these three questions: Can rights coexist with democratic processes?  How can voting be effective?  What's your response to the question Nozick poses?

Update for Oct. 22: Here are bonus short videos on the "concentrated benefits/dispersed costs" problem: one here, another here.  Other sections of the book related to the material in chapter 5 that we were discussing today: 6, 9, 10.  We'll work through this before proceeding to chapters 7 and 8, so if you like to read ahead, do those first.

More: I alluded to this video from Prof. Munger on rent-seeking (then read his essay in chapter 10, p. 449) and  Prof. Thomas on the median voter theorem (cross-reference this with the essay by Downs in chapter 10).  In addition to the concepts of "log-rolling" and "rent-seeking," there's also the concept of "regulatory capture."  We'll discuss this on Tuesday, but here's some reading on how regulatory capture is facilitated by voter ignorance.  Also: not only is there corn in Coke, but there's corn in gasoline also.
Here's a longer and well-sourced article about the licensure issue.
Weekly response #6:  Go back to the Schmidtz article in ch. 9, on p. 412.  (Another version of the trade-offs point can be found here.)  Find an example of a policy or program which was promoted in a way which overlooked the trade-offs, and say what you think the overlooked part was.

Weekly response #7:  We have looked at several dimensions of analyzing policy making.  Generally we see a stated intention and an observed effect.  The effect might be what was intended, or not what was intended.  In another range of cases, there's a stated intention, and a real intention, and the observed effect may be what was really intended, despite not aligning with the stated intention. So:
SI -> OE -- great
SI -> ~OE -- bad news
SI/TI -> OE that fits TI/~OE with respect to SI (as with the hairdressing license - if the TI is "reduce competition," then OE is what it's supposed to be, but that doesn't serve the general public; and the SI, with its public-safety rationale, may be satisfied, but with no way to tell whether the regulation was necessary for that.)
Now: Consider minimum wage legislation. What is the stated intention?  Which groups are primarily affected?  What are their incentives?  Can you imagine a different intention other than the stated intention?  What countervailing effects might result?

For WR 8, please write your response to Prof. Dills' talk. Because of the long weekend, you may have until 10:00 PM on Sunday rather than the usual noon deadline.

One way to think about Nozick's criticism of Rawls is the idea that Rawls' attempt to distinguish economic liberties from political or civil liberties is not satisfactory.  Here are two short videos on that theme:  One  Two
Let's now segue into chapter 8, which is on equality.  Read as much of chapter 8 as you can by Thursday.

Weekly response #9: We've now considered at several perspectives on justice and inequality the last 2 weeks.  Some room for economic inequality seems advantageous (Rawls contra Marx), but what should our response be to extreme levels of inequality?  Frankfurt argues that we should be concerned with poverty, not inequality per se.  Either way though, one response is redistribution: policies that transfer resources from the higher quintiles to the lower.  Two sorts of objections arose to that: one a rights-based objection that such redistribution, if non-consensual, violates rights (Nozick contra Rawls); and the other a pragmatic objection about how certain redistributive mechanisms create disincentives to productivity, as illustrated in this short video.   The other response was to note that there are often structural barriers to economic advancement.  (More here.)  Note that in some cases, the barriers were deliberately designed to be disempowering to minorities, while in other cases they were not designed to be so but neverthless have that effect. Still others do not track race or sex but nevertheless make it difficult for lower-income people to become higher-income.  So: What are your thoughts on entrepreneurship and inequality?

Snow day mini-lesson, plus prompts:

Regarding chapter 13:
In general, it’s most helpful to think in terms of the following template:
What is the actual problem (P)?
What is the proposed solution (S)?

Now ask: will S actually solve P?  Will S make P worse in some way?  Will S create a new problem?  In many cases, these questions can be answered empirically.  This is a great advantage to doing political philosophy with a PPE methodology.

So, for example, the second section of chapter 13 deals with drugs.  What is the problem (P)?  (a) drugs used improperly can be harmful, and (b) some people regard intoxication as immoral.  What is the proposed solution (S)?  Ban drugs.  Note first of all that there is a purely philosophical approach here: one might invoke the principle “hey, it’s my choice whether to seek intoxication, no one else’s.  As long as I don’t drive (etc) under the influence, it’s my own business.  There’s a rights issue at stake here, so S is not a good solution.” Call this the first way.

True or not, though, this principle won’t be persuasive for people who hold some contrary principle, such as “it’s not a proper use of your freedom to harm yourself with intoxicating substances” or “the social disutility created by drug users is greater than the utility achieved by drug users” and so on.  So it might be more productive to use the three questions in the template.
Now: what results do we observe in this case?  Since people want drugs, banning them creates a black market.  When a product is only available this way, we see prices go up, increased crime, and increased corruption.  The price increases incentivize substitutions which tend to be worse (e.g., the transition from cocaine to crack to meth).   So, people still use drugs, health outcomes are worse as the products become even more dangerous, and large-scale crime and corruption have been added on top.  That sounds like S is not a good solution.  Note that concluding “S is not a good solution” this way, call it the second way, has greater potential to be persuasive than the first way, even if the first way is true.  Why?  Because people who disagree about the first way are disagreeing about moral principles which it’s hard to get people to agree about (not impossible of course, much of philosophy is precisely about trying to figure out which principles we should have), whereas people who disagree about the second way should (if they’re being honest) be responsive to new facts.  And then we can start to think of other possible solutions.

For WR 10, your last WR, do a similar analysis of one of the other sections of chapter 13.  Due Sunday as usual, then we’ll discuss several of them in our final meeting next Tuesday.

You can also get started on your second essay assignment, which is due 12/16.  Like the first paper, this should be 3 or so pages, formatted as if for print in Times New Roman 12-point font with 1-inch margins, page numbering on, your name, date, and "PHIL235" on the top right of page 1, and submitted electronically via Blackboard.  This should be a WORD doc (meaning the file name ends in .doc or .docx), and if for some reason you cannot upload to BB, email it as an attachment.  Most of you were able to upload last time with no trouble.
 Thinking about what you wrote for WR 7, 8, and 9, what policies and institutions will most effectively help people who aren't wealthy get more wealthy?  Does your answer scale up to global poverty, or is it US-specific?