(2) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

Let me start with the following advice. I am commenting on the videos of a course at Yale University presented by Ian Shapiro. For you to properly evaluate my criticism of the opinions of Ian Shapiro, you have to watch the videos; otherwise you are in no position to know whether I am misrepresenting his views, or whether his reasoning is more compelling than my.

In this blog, I wish to assess his views on the Social Contract theories. I was especially taken aback by his comments on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views presented in his “The Social Contract” (1761) in the following video:

Shapiro puts on a screen the following passage from Book II, chapter III: whether the general will is fallible:

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.

Shapiro does not know what sense can be made of “the general will” in contrast to the “will of all.” So, he sees no alternative to some kind of vote, and goes on to examine justifications for majority rule. This appeal to voting is not the intention of Rousseau as I will point out. By the way, this failure by Shapiro to appreciate what Rousseau was after is the same failure he exhibits with John Locke as well.

So, let me explain what both Locke and Rousseau have in common.

First, not all interests have the same importance. The fundamental interest is in self-preservation. And what is required for sustaining animal life, including our own is known in a general way by all people. If it was not known to some people, then they would not have survived — and they, as well as suicidal persons, are of no concern to us in our endeavor for self-preservation. In addition, science can be more precise in telling us what is necessary for survival. This will to survive and the means to survival constitutes what Rousseau calls “the general will.” And it has nothing to do with voting. All other interests are secondary, and can be voted on in some way or other.

Whether an individual lives alone or in groups, there are certain things which are needed for survival: air, water, food, clothes, shelter, fuel, temperature, tools. And all these can be obtained from a suitable area of land. So access to subsistence land is a necessity for a solitary individual. Unfortunately, a solitary individual is liable to attacks and misfortunes; so, banding together is more effective for safeguarding and sustaining life. But before any divisions of labor are agreed to, it is necessary, first, to have this access to subsistence land and to secure whatever one manages to get from one’s labor. This arrangement with others to keep what one gets from nature is a social agreement (contract) called “property.” And this is why Locke and Rousseau write a great deal about property, and which is the original rationale for social life.

Once we understand this idea that access to subsistence land is necessary for sustaining life, then any political action which denies us this access is against our will and consent, and can be done only through coercion and violence and is, therefore, amoral (because not freely agreed to).

Now, I find it odd that in John Rawls theorizing within the Original Position, in which the characteristic of human beings was known, it was not taken into account that all human beings need necessities for life, and that such necessities are obtainable by a free access to subsistence land.

As to Marx, Shapiro focuses on Marx discussion of exploitation without raising the question of how exploitation is possible. But the answer is given by Marx in pointing out that a proletariat class is required for capitalism. A proletarian is someone who does not have free access to subsistence land. And such denial of free access to subsistence land is only possible by force through a State — that is why States are amoral.

In conclusion, Shapiro is not really interested in finding the moral foundations for States — because, as David Hume pointed out, they were never formed by a social contract, and Shapiro cannot find the roots of legitimacy for States; so, he shifts his interest to the problem of how can the lives of people be improved under the present conditions of States through some form of democracy.

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