Monday, August 31, 2009

What is the Common Good?

By Hanno

There are at least three conceptions of the common good. The first is the view of J.J. Rousseau, who is heavily influenced by the Greeks. On his view, there is a general will, which is the will of the community. This will is analogous to the private will, the will of each individual. Just as we want what is good for us as individuals, so the community wants what is good for the community. Just as what is good for Hanno is not necessarily good for his leg (he may have to amputate is leg, for instance, to save the individual), so what is good for the community may not be good for each individual. just as we always want what is best for us, but we may not know what that entails, so the community always wants what is best for the community, but it may not know what that is, either.

This conception is neither socialist, nor capitalist, nor any other 'ist' until more assumptions/beliefs are added. For example, if you believe that the economy of a country requires Capitalism to develop, then Capitalism is part of the good of the community, and desired by the general will. But if you believe that the economy requires Socialist controls, then that is what you think is dictated by the general will. The conception of the common good is neutral, but the details never are.

Another way to conceive of the common good is simply common interest. Here the community as a whole is not an entity that has a good, or wills what is good. Rather, invididuals within the community recognize that they have the same interest. It may be good for you and good for me to keep land undeveloped. Thus, we have a common interest. This does not imply that you and I form a community, and hence it does not require that the good of the community may diverge from our own particular good. This sort of conception is liable to many difficulties, like the free rider problem, or any other where the good of the community clearly does diverge from each individual that makes up the community. Thus, it may be in our interest to make an army for the common defense, and it may be in our interest to include the draft to fill its ranks. But it will never be in our common interest for me to sacrifice myself towards that end, since it is not part of my individual interest to die.

The third conception is that of the Utilitarians. Here, the good of the community is defined by the greatest good to the greatest number of people. 'Good' can be defined in various ways, but usually, some sort of hedonism is assumed: good = pleasure. The defining characteristic of this view is that it is irrelevant how this is distributed in the community. The only thing that matters is the total aggregation of each individual's good. This then is used to justify certain economic systems which, no matter how unevenly, are said to maximize economic production.

When philosophers and politicians use the term, then, it is not clear which conception they are using, and hence what they are saying.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

3 Quarks Daily Prize in Philosophy open for nominations

Whether you have been reading or contributing to this blog over the last year, now is the time for you to start nominating your favorite blogsophical posts from the last year. Maybe you enjoyed the multi-part series on Johnny Rotten, the number of posts on copyright and music, or any of the most recent posts on Socialism...this is starting to sound like a PBS fundraising pitch. Anyway, use the search button to locate an archive of philosophical discussions. Once you have found a post you enjoyed, nominate it for the 3 Quarks Daily Prize in Philosophy:

In May of this year we announced that we would start awarding four prizes every year for the best blog writing in the areas of science, philosophy, politics, and arts & literature. We awarded the science prizes, judged by Professor Steven Pinker, on June 21st. We have decided to do the prize in philosophy next, and here's how it will work: we are now accepting nominations for the best blog post in philosophy. After the nominating period is over, there will be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this period, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add upto three wildcard entries of their choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Professor Daniel C. Dennett, who, we are very pleased, has agreed to be the final judge. Professor Dennett will also write a short comment on each of the winning entries.

The first place award, called the "Top Quark," will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the "Strange Quark," will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the "Charm Quark," along with a two hundred dollar prize.

For more information on the prize and how to nominate a post visit 3quarksdaily. The winners of the philosophy prize will be announced on September 22, 2009


Monday, August 24, 2009

The Common Good

By Hanno

Hand in hand with the discussion of Socialism last week is the notion of 'the common good.' Some political commentators as well as ordinary citizens equate actions done for the common good with Socialism.

Socialism arises out of the rise of Capitalism and the industrial revolution. Well prior to that, John Locke argues for a system of government dependent upon the consent of the people governed, rooted in the ownership of real estate (property) and the laws of nature. Government is created to solve certain problems, such as the need for impartial judges to end feuds and the miscarriages of justice due to its vigilante nature in the state of nature. Government was also created to protect property, i.e. the ownership of land. Is governmental authority limited? Yes, argues Locke, by the laws of nature. A governmental official may not violate the laws of a state when he abuses his power, but can violate the laws of nature, and hence justify revolution in the defense of those laws. This may create some other problems, but it should be clear that Locke's view was used by the Founding Fathers (Jefferson in particular) to justify the revolution they started.

Less understood was the role of the common good in Locke's thought. Locke argues, though not necessarily consistently, that the authority government has is limited by the common good. If a government (Parliament, Congress, King, President) orders something which is not in the common good, then it transgresses its authority. This in turn allows for the legitimacy of revolution. The difference between a tyrant and a King, between the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of power, is the common good. He writes in section 131 of the Second Treatise of Government that "Men... be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of society shall all require...", meaning that the power of the law is allowed for anything the good of society requires, and "can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good."

There is more to say about just what that means. But for the moment, I want to leave with this: If the view that the exercise of political power for the common good is the same as socialism, then Jefferson and Locke were Socialists.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Apologies all around.

Good to see Hanno and everyone blogging again. I do have some news to pass on to all of you. Philosophy Club meetings will be starting again next Monday at 2:30. I figured no one would even think to come on the first day of school. Boy, was I wrong. Apologies again. See you all next week.


We posted a new song, to those who care.


by Hanno

'Socialism' is a word that has re-emerged as a key political term, used the the recent Presidential election ("Do you think Obama is a Socialist?") and in the current health care debate. But what is Socialism? This is not an easy question, because it means different things.

To get to the old school meaning, we need to think about economics. There are three key features to an economy. First, are the means of production. These are the factories, workshops, or tools used to make the goods which allow any society to produce goods. Second, are the means of distribution, which allow for those goods to be brought to different places. Roads, rails, ships, etc. are examples of the means of distribution. In all but the most primitive economic system, there must be some means of getting the goods produced to the people who use them. Third, there are the means of exchange. These include banking systems, money, monetary system, etc. they are the means by which goods are exchanged for goods, or services are exchanged for goods.

These can be split up in a variety of ways. In Capitalism, these are held in private hands. Individuals, either as individual investors, or working in groups through an exchange system such as a stock market, own the means of production, and as a result, are allowed to keep any excess capital created by those means. This is also called 'private property.' In Socialism, these are held in some way in non-private hands. they can be held by the State, or by some collective, or in some other way. According to Marx, Socialism is the distribution of good 'according to one's ability.' That is, in Capitalism, the worker gets a share by how many hours he produces, (but economic forces at play limit this through competition for jobs). The people who own the factory, however, receive their share even though they may do little or no work. Maybe this is justified or not, I will not worry about such political questions. In Marx's vision, everyone receives their share based 0n how much they produce.

There is no pure capitalism, at least not anymore. And there never was a pure Socialism. And whether the systems that called themselves 'Socialist' were actually Socialistic is up for grabs. Typically, in the USA, when competition fails, some sort of non-capitalistic framework of ownership is used. Roads are a good example. Bridges work, too. And Louisiana's Huey Long shows us the problem.

There was a private company that built a long bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, and it had a monopoly, and charged accordingly. It made money owning the means of distribution. Because it had a monopoly, there was no competition. So instead of the efficient transmission of goods, something only competition can ensure, there was the most inefficient transfer possible. Now consider another company thinking of getting in on the action. They would like to share in those huge profits. Excellent. Capitalism in action. But as soon as they build the bridge, they will compete with the original company. And when there is competition, profits die. So instead of sharing in the huge profits the first company was making, a second company would destroy them. So while Capitalism provides excellent incentives to build the first bridge, it provides little or no incentive to build another, thus preserving the monopoly.

That is, until Huey build a bridge right next to the private one, charged no toll, drove the private one out of business, and bought the now bankrupt bridge next to his public one. And now goods and people can cross free of charge, aiding commerce, not hindering it. That public ownership of the means of distribution is socialist. But its all a matter of degree. The degree to which you support public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, the more socialist you are. Everyone with half a brain supports some non-private ownership of some of these things. And everyone with half a brain supports some private ownership of these things, too.

The army, public utilities, health care in the army, social security, roads, airports, public education are just a few of the things we currently do not have in private hands. We did so because leaving them in private hands failed to do what we think is necessary or good.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Examined Life: Philosophy Is In The Streets

Although I am no longer in Lake Charles physically, you still have access to my library skills virtually. A great film for the Filmosophy Film Series that requires no presentation would be Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets

In Examined Life, filmmaker Astra Taylor accompanies some of today’s most influential thinkers on a series of unique excursions through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.

Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques. Slavoj Zizek questions current beliefs about the environment while sifting through a garbage dump. Michael Hardt ponders the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure. Judith Butler and a friend stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism. And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West—perhaps America’s best-known public intellectual—compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be. Offering privileged moments with great thinkers from fields ranging from moral philosophy to cultural theory, Examined Life reveals philosophy’s power to transform the way we see the world around us and imagine our place in it.

Featuring Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwarne Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.