I teach political theory, along with other subjects I find interesting, such as the politics of urban land use and urban design, constitutional law, contemporary legal issues, and the politics of the modern Middle East, among others.
My primary research is on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I am interested especially in Rousseau as a philosopher of truth.
“Vitam impendere vero”
Rousseau borrowed this motto (which means “to consecrate one’s life to the truth”) from Juvenal’s Satires and adopted it for himself in 1758.
What is truth? Is it the sort of thing that is susceptible to human understanding, and, if so, how? My current research focuses on Rousseau’s approach to asking and answering these questions.
The argument continues on the pages of the Beverly Press. Here is my latest post:
As a resident of Beverly Grove, I am gratified at this good news out of the Planning Commission. This decision is an important victory in the fight to protect Beverly Grove from overdevelopment.
I feel compelled to correct some of the mistakes in Charles Tarlow’s characterization of the ordinance. Those interested in finding out what the ordinance actually says can consult it here: http://www.beverlygrove.org/uploads/6/0/9/3/6093311/beverly_grove_rfa_ordinance_for_cpc.pdf.
The primary error in Mr. Tarlow’s analysis is his assumption that garages will count against the allowable square footage. This is the case only if homeowners choose to build ATTACHED garages. So long as the garage is DETACHED, it will be exempt from restrictions on square footage (see 4.a. in the ordinance).
It’s true that attached garages will count against the maximum square footage restriction. And for good reason! The simplest way to prevent oversized homes and ensure that neighbors’ light and privacy are protected is to incentivize detached garages.
In short, those choosing to build detached garages will be able to build up to 3050 sq. ft. (on the typical 6100 sq. ft. lot). This is larger than even the bigger older homes in the neighborhood. The ordinance allows for upgrading, remodeling, and even upsizing. The only thing it prevents is overdevelopment that intrudes on the rights of neighbors and undermines the character of the neighborhood.
As for the assertion that the ordinance does not reflect the will of the community, I would just say that the only official survey on the matter confirmed that more than 60% of the neighborhood was in favor of this ordinance. Anything else is mere speculation.
Thanks and congratulations to Paul Koretz and Shawn Bayliss on this. Now we just have to hope that they finish the job soon and shepherd the RFA across the finish line before more of the neighborhood is bulldozed.
I had the privilege of participating in a tercentenary commemoration of Rousseau’s birth at Colorado College in December. The program for the conference can be viewed here.
The paper I presented on Rousseau and truthseeking is forthcoming in History of European Ideas. Here is the abstract:
The Sublime Science of Simple Souls: Rousseau’s Philosophy of Truth
Though it has rarely been the subject of academic criticism, there is a philosophy of truth that animates Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s broader philosophical system. This philosophy of truth was unique for its time in the same way the whole of Rousseau’s thought was—in its emphasis on feeling over reason, the heart over the mind, the simple over the sophisticated, the useful over the demonstrable, the personal over the systematic. Rousseau’s philosophy of truth might be more accurately called a ‘philosophy of truthseeking’ or an ‘ethics of truthseeking,’ because its focus is on the pursuit and acquisition of truth rather than on the nature of truth itself. What is needed, Rousseau believed, is a guide back to the simple truths of human happiness, truths that were immediately apparent to us in our natural state but have become opaque in society. This article describes Rousseau’s normative philosophy truthseeking, of what human beings must do if they hope to (re)discover the truths of human happiness. This philosophy can be summarized as utility, autonomy, immediacy and simplicity in pursuit of what Rousseau called the ‘truths that pertain to the happiness of mankind.’
Coordinated racism (of which Oak Creek shooter is at least in part a product) ought to concern us more than the truly random violence of Aurora. Yet the latter took over the public discourse for days, while the former has not. Robert Wright makes many of the important points, but I would add that James Holmes is probably especially interesting to the people who drive the public discourse, because he isn’t so far from being “one of us.” Same goes for the victims. Going to see a blockbuster is a pretty universal experience.
This made me think of Leigh Bienen’s “A Good Murder.” The perpetrator and the victims have to be properly cast in order for us to pay attention. When violence merely conforms to a pre-existing narrative, it doesn’t have much impact on public consciousness.
I’ve been working to stop mansionization in my Los Angeles neighborhood for five years. Last week, we had a substantial victory, as Paul Koretz, our councilmember, publicly announced a serious proposal. Our local paper covered the announcement and published my response:
Kudos to the Beverly Press and to Tim Posada for giving mansionization the coverage it deserves.
Paul Koretz’s handling of the mansionization issue is a simple case of a public official doing the job he was elected to do. That this is newsworthy is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary politics. Nevertheless, Councilman Koretz deserves credit for identifying an issue of public concern and responding to it.
A simple walk through the Beverly Grove neighborhood confirms what the councilman’s survey makes abundantly clear: mansionization threatens the integrity, livability, and beauty of the Beverly Grove neighborhood.
McMansions subvert the long-term interest of the community in favor of the short-term, economic interests of developers and realtors. In the end, homeowners pay the price as neighborhoods degrade. Councilman Koretz is to be applauded for standing with homeowners in a political climate that is usually far too deferential to unfettered development.
Beverly Grove homeowner
There are those who see the theory of evolution as a threat to the viability of their faith tradition. Why they fear science is itself a question worthy of investigation. Science can neither validate nor invalidate a faith tradition, although it may provide compelling reasons to reconsider particular doctrines or interpretations of scripture. Whatever their reasons, these folks have waged a two front war on the theory of evolution. On one front, they have called into question the evidence for the theory itself. On the other front, they have advanced various Creationist alternatives, the most recent of which is the theory of “intelligent design.”
Although none of these competing theories have established themselves as scientifically viable, they have been culturally influential. In particular they have exploited (and deepened) scientific illiteracy. Put simply, the theory of evolution is not something that one “believes in” or does not “believe in,” as the contestants for the most recent Miss USA pagaent answered when they were asked whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools. (Only two answered that it should be.) The theory of evolution, like all scietific theories, is something that one evaluates the evidence for.
The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain an empirical phenomenon. It is the prevailing scientific explanation of that phenomenon because the preponderance of evidence supports it. That is the standard for scientific validity. The arguments for creationism trade on a willful disregard for the application of the scientific method. To say there are multiple explanations for an empirical phenomenon is a commonplace. What proponents of creationism and intelligent design have managed to do is to transform the notion of competing explanations into the notion of competing, equally valid explanations. If there is more than one expalanation, then fairness would seem to dictate that they all be given equal weight. What this ignores is the all-important fact that the evidence for these various explanations differs massively. There is no evidence for Creationism and substantial evidence for the theory of evolution.
And yet we have the vast majority of Miss USA contestants taking the position that both intelligent design and the theory of evolution should be given equal weight in discussions of the origin and evolution of species. Now, Miss USA contestants are not generally known for their scientific expertise, and one might be tempted not to worry too much about their scholarly dispositions. The reality is that these contestants were offering an opinion that is commonly expressed in American society (and in Republican primary debates). Does it matter that so many people don’t understand science? Maybe not, although I think it probably does–particularly with regard to environmental policy. But, even if it doesn’t have much impact on public policy, I can’t help but be offended by (and feel some responsibility for) the prevalence of scientific illiteracy.
As the Ryan plan and the debate over cutting funding Planned Parenthood and the EPA make clear, the ongoing budget battles are really just the latest incarnation of the same old arguments over the role of the budget. There is one difference, though, and it is a difference that works to the clear advantage of conservatives: this time around, (almost) all parties to the debate have accepted the premise that there is an imperative cut government spending (over 1/6 of the budget at least) and to cut it dramatically.
Since conservatives tend to favor smaller government (philosophically, at least), they will have the upper hand in any debate that begins from the premise that a successul outcome requires large cuts in spending. Moreover, the spending cuts passed for the 2011 budget are restricted to the 1/6 of the budget that includes most of the programs that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose. They do not touch military spending, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Barack Obama’s framing of the debate presupposes that it was about cutting the budget, rather than about the role of government. Consequently, he has described the Democrats’ success in terms of the number of dollars that were cut from the budget. As Ezra Klein argues, this sets up a discursive context, under which the ongoing budget debates will be constrained by the imperative to make further cuts. This hurts Democrats in two ways. First, they will probably have to make further cuts to their favored programs. Second, they will likely be forced into austerity measures in the midst of an ongoing employment crisis.
Democrats would be better off if they stop competing with Republicans over who can cut more discretionary spending. They ought instead to recognize that this is a debate about the role and size of government and to make their case on the basis of the programs they have managed to defend and the role of government spending in spurring employment. They may have to agree to cuts, but that doesn’t mean that they have to agree to allow the debate to be determined by who proposes to cut the most.
Yes, I would say it is. But I would add a couple of caveats:
First, this applies only to politicians, not to those who comment on politics or judge politicians.
Second, although there will always be incentives for politicians to be dishonest, these incentives can be minimized if constituents are themselves committed to knowing the truth and acting on the basis of solid facts and sensible arguments.
Politicians care about be re-elected, passing legislation, and accumulating power. The may or may not also care about honesty in their discourse. Say they do. Is it reasonable to expect them to be honest when honesty is not the best route to re-election, the passage of legislation, and/or the accumulation of power? Probably not. The base we can do is understand this brute fact of politics and try to call them out when they lie.
Part of the reason lies and manipulation work so well is because constituents often prefer them to the truth. The more we insist on getting the facts right and keeping the arguments straight, the more politicians will discover that their interest lies in keeping public discourse honest.
We intuitively sense that honesty is a disposition toward the truth. In particular, it is a disposition to tell the truth or at least a disposition against lying. But, when we begin to think about honesty in more detail, several questions arise, and these questions sometimes make it difficult to determine when and if people are lying or telling the truth:
- Must we always tell the truth?
- Is it permissible to withhold truths? If so, under what circumstances?
- Is it ever permissible to obscure the truth or outright lie about it? If so, under what circumstances?
- Is it sufficient to believe that what we say is true, or must what we say actually be true?
- How much are we obligated to verify that what we believe to be true is actually true?
- Is it a requirement of honesty that we share all the relevant information we know to be true, or is it permissible to withhold some of this information?
As these questions demonstrate, what it means to be honest is not as simple as it might initially seem. This is why it is so difficult to call someone a “liar” or something they’ve said a “lie.” By withholding certain information or presenting it in a tendentious way, speakers can claim to have told the truth. While they may not be able to claim that they have been honest, they can at least escape the charge of having lied. They do this by what we call “innuendo,” “hype,” “propaganda,” “deception,” “insincerity,” “salesmanship,” “casuistry,” ”rhetoric,” “bullshit,” “jive,” or “crap.”
Then there are all the errors in reasoning that philosophers refer to as “fallacies.” These are mistakes rather than lies or dishonesty, but they are often used by people who know better so as to make people believe things that are not true.
Needless to say, politicians make use of all of these tools to convince us of what they want us to believe. This is probably an inevitable part of politics, and we may not even want our politicians to tell the whole truth all of the time.