Commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

In a previous blog Professor Ian Shapiro’s course at Yale University: “Power and Politics in Today’s World” I praised and recommended his course “Power and Politics in Today’s World.”

However his other course titled “Moral Foundations of Politics,” is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is admirable in introducing some of the key figures and in providing plausible interpretations of some of their thoughts. But, on the other hand, I have objections to several key tenets.

Before I make my comments, be aware that there are two sets of videos for the course “Moral Foundations of Politics.” One set consists of his preliminary presentation to two students as to what will be covered in the course, and then there is the course itself.

In discussing his intentions for the course he says that he will examine the views presented from his own perspective. This means that he will (1) selects the material to be examined, and he will take a (2) critical perspective.

Formally, this amount to the position that he will examine hypotheses H1, H2, . . . , Hn. At the end of the course, he finds fault with all the hypotheses which he has examined.

This reminds one of Socrates in his dialogues, where all the examined hypotheses have been rejected, and we are left in the dark as to a solution, except to say that we know that we are ignorant of the solution.

Let me take a stab at introducing my own critical remarks as well as my own selection of some hypotheses which Shapiro has omitted.

Shapiro, in his preliminary discussions of his intentions, states that he wants to answer the questions: “What makes government legitimate?” and “Sources of State Legitimacy?” And, as he explains, legitimacy for him means morally justifiable.

These questions assume that there is a moral foundation to States, or, put otherwise, that States can be legitimate. But, really, is there a moral foundation to States? And even: Can there be a moral foundation to States? Or: Is a moral foundation of States possible?

Before continuing, let me distinguish a government of some primitive tribe from that of a centralized government (with its bureaucracy) as in modern countries. The governments of primitive small tribes are direct democracies to which all consent, and I do not call them States. It is the governments of huge populations which are to be called States. And States were not formed through consent, and if consent (or agreement) is the foundation of morality, then States are not founded on morality.

By not asking these preliminary questions, he is leaving out of account, the whole Anarchist Tradition, and he is failing to take into account the views of perhaps the greatest public intellectual anarchist of our times, Noam Chomsky.

An indicator of Chomsky’s attitude toward States, i.e., centralized governments, can be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry for “Pirates and Emperors”:

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World is a book by Noam Chomsky, titled after an observation by St. Augustine in City of God, proposing that what governments coin as “terrorism” in the small simply reflects what governments utilize as “warfare” in the large. Yet, governments coerce their populations to denounce the former while embracing the latter. In the City of God, St. Augustine tells the story
Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”.

Below is a clip which extends this idea:

Let me add another writer and book which Ian Shapiro fails to include in his survey. This is Franz Oppenheimer’s book: The State (1919). The thesis of the book is that States have originated through conquest, and have morphed from monarchies into modern constitutional States while retaining their monopoly on violence.

I think of States in the same way as did King Louis XIV, who said, “L’État, c’est moi.” [“I am the State”], or as as President George W. Bush said: “I am the decider.” And these “deciders” tend to be Hitlers, Stalins, and other megalomaniacs who act on their whims like tigers in the wild. To think of Hitler as acting immorally sounds too weak. He is evil, just as any natural disaster is evil. A Hitler, who is the State, is like a mentally retarded person or a tiger. Consider how you would describe a tiger which attacks you. A tiger is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. In an analogous sense, an enemy soldier (or pirate, or emperor, or a Hitler) who attacks you is also amoral. So, perhaps it is more proper to view the State as an amoral phenomenon, which like the tiger, or an enemy soldier, pirate, or emperor, or Hitler, must be imprisoned or destroyed; and not morally justified.

To be fair. Perhaps my initial criticism is really an appeal to what Shapiro undertakes to examine in his 3rd lecture: Natural Law Roots of the Social Contract Tradition, and the 13th lecture: Appropriating Locke Today.

As an aside, I believe that all such courses involving controversy should be taught by at least two teachers: a person like Ian Shapiro, and someone like me, his critic.

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