I have some questions about violence

11736It looks like I’ll be co-teaching a course on violence with Daniel Levine in the spring, and I have some questions:

  1. Is it just me, or do philosophers rarely talk about violence? We talk a lot about killing, and war, and punishment, and even torture. We talk about peace and non-violence. But “violence” doesn’t come up often, and when it does it’s often (as in the Frankfurt School) mythologized or dealt with through a kind of negative theology. Am I right about that?
  2. Clearly there are some related concepts, like cruelty, domination, coercion, etc. But what do they tell us about violence? Is violence the worst thing that humans can do? Compare violence to cruelty, domination, destruction, and harm; are these the components of violence, or its frequent companions?
  3. Where does sexual violence fit? Is it an intensification, a different kind, or a mixture of violence and other things like domination and cruelty?
  4. More basically: is violence a natural kind? Is there a specific phenomenality attached to it, i.e. is there something all instances of violence are “like”? Or is it a family resemblance term? (Or is it worse than a family resemblance term, we don’t even know what it means in all the contexts where we’re using it?)
  5. Who is more violent: a sniper or boxer?
  6. Who is more violent: a drone operator or a torturer?
  7. Which is more violent: a bomb or a prison cell extraction?
  8. Is an explosion always violent? Are fireworks “controlled violence” or are firebombs “violent and destructive fireworks”?
  9. Why do we continue to speak as if peace is passive and violence active, even after generations of non-violent activists have shown us how active peace can be? What’s the bias, there?
  10. Can words and arguments be violent, or is it just that some words are backed by institutions of violence? Like, can philosophy be violent, or does it only get a little violence rubbed off on it when it’s justifying war or torture or the actual embodied violence of the state? Put another way, is an argument or aa discourse violent only insofar as it is an implicit but authentic *threat* of physical violence?
  11. Contrariwise: can violence be expressive?
  12. War is way more violent than most people  even give it credit for being, I think. There is a lot of peripheral violence, destroyed communities, and lost capacities, even in “just” wars. So is interstate and civil war more violent than totalitarianism? Is “legitimate” state violence better or worse than “illegitimate” non-state violence? Are they equal, i.e. violence is violence is violence?

Fear of Democracy

While there is much more to be said about the risks associated with advocating “experimental disenfranchisement,” I stand by the claim that we cannot ignore the widespread temptation towards disenfranchising ignorant citizens. We must at least acknowledge that the challenge is not simply coming from nowhere: Jason Brennan reflects a widespread, even common-sensical, fear of democracy: electorates too often seem to be ill-equipped to make good decisions.

My initial defense of Brennan was partly rooted in a respect for a fellow philosopher interested in epistemic problems in democracy, and partly rooted in a desire to defend norms of scholarly civility. After all, there’s a lot in The Ethics of Voting and “Polluting the Polls,” that I find challenging and useful. These are, to my mind, really hard and interesting problems: *should* the white supremacist vote if he recognizes that his motivations are based in racism? I honestly don’t think so, but I’d never deny him the right to do so. Certainly, the basic insight that the obligation to vote well may sometimes lead one to abstain seems indisputable. We can all ask ourselves: “Should I vote if I haven’t researched the candidates’ positions?”

Even this new paper of Brennan’s fits within the broad research agenda of epistemic institutional design. Apropos of the question about professional ethics, I’m kind of glad he wrote it, so that now we can criticize the argument itself rather than the crypto-disenfranchisement that Schliesser and others had accurately ascertained from the book (especially his use of the “pollution” metaphor for incompetent voters) while I was blinded by his explicit denial and purported libertarian credentials. Certainly, the real risks of disenfranchisement are already being realized without Brennan’s participation, and while they are more strictly partisan, they might someday find resources for rhetorical defense in Brennan’s research.

Brennan is hardly the first one to raise these questions, nor is he the first to suggest disenfranchising solutions. The most important kind of disenfranchisement is the liberal system of rights, after all: by restricting those issues which are proper matters of government intervention, liberal rights selectively disenfranchise voters on various important questions. Deliberative democrats have also tended to try to foreclose certain kinds of speech, whether it be theological speech or hate speech, in order to preserve a space where citizens can gather and reach reasonable agreements. The procedural democrats, in contrast, merely circumscribed what voters actually choose by turning important matters over to a purportedly-competent bureaucracy and reducing electoral partisanship to a few perpetually-unresolved cultural disagreements.

Following the Frankfurt School and especially the work of Max Weber, Claude Lefort, and Louis Althusser, there has been increasing attention to the ways in which these various strategies of disenfranchisement preserve elite rule. Notably, these critiques have tended to come from sociologically-oriented philosophers: scholars who noticed that attention to institutions and personalities might sometimes be needed to supplement arguments and ideas, and who returned to simple questions like “Who is speaking?” and “Who is being dominated?” It helps, also, to have strongly egalitarian moral intuitions, or to lack deference for expertise.

Starting with my dissertation, I have been interested in contemporary democratic theories of deliberation and public reason, focusing on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the growing power of the administrative state as a response to public ignorance. Arendt held that communities of like-minded individuals supply the foundations of political action, and that the increasing interconnection of governance and economic management is detrimental to this civic springboard. In addition to devoting their attention to the distribution of public goods, state institutions are obligated to supply a space and an opportunity for action and mutual engagement. A thick conception of democracy as isonomy requires that we have the opportunity to act consequentially with respect to the constitution of our shared world.  In my view, institutions cannot duck substantive citizen participation in matters that concern our shared world, because one of the fundamental public goods that state institutions must “distribute” is the opportunity for civic engagement itself.

If Hannah Arendt is right, the history of political philosophy has been a long history of anti-isonomic disenfranchisement, ultimately grounded in the desire to defend elite thinkers like Socrates against the dangers of demagogues and their crowds. In this sense, fear of democracy is certainly rational, and all the more so when we see polls that demonstrate the indifference of the electorate to matters like environmental degradation, global warming, and economic inequality that threaten not just elites but the least advantaged. But it is not just.

By the way, I think Brennan is on to something when he argues that “Restricted suffrage is about as unjust as voting age laws.” Perhaps the approximation of the two is off by several orders of magnitude, since most who are restricted by voting age laws will eventually be old enough to vote, but perhaps too we ought to experiment with lowering the voting age.


A candidate trying to decide between graduate schools recently asked me which

“types of public administration, political, or civic problems you are attempting to provide solutions to with your research?  For example, which questions are you tackling right now?”

Of course, right now I’m grading. But in a slightly more general sense of “right now,” I’d say that I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Does the bureaucratization of public policy sap its legitimacy? What can be done to preserve administrative institutions’ efficiency and egalitarianism while rendering them responsive to citizen concerns? How important are concerns about ‘psuedo-consultation’ or top down mobilizations that create the appearance of legitimacy while squelching dissent?
  2. What is the source of legitimacy, in general? Is it consensus? Fair procedures? Just policies? Citizen participation?
  3. How should we think of the relationship between global poverty and domestic politics? What role does inequality play within a polity? What role does it play in international relations? What can be done to reduce the intense suffering associated with global poverty? Are some strategies self-defeating?
  4. Which is more important: having one’s needs met, or having unhindered access to the political process? When they’re equally important, is it acceptable to forgo the meeting of some needs for the least advantaged in order to bolster political accountability to the middle class?
  5. Can participatory democracy (either activist or deliberativist varieties) adequately plan for, and respond to, risks and hazards? If constitutional essentials are regularly at risk, are we obligated to rely on experts to properly manage such risks?
  6. What problems typically face transitional democracies? What kinds of lessons can established democracies learn from these newly minted republics?
  7. What role does pluralism play in bolstering (or weakening) civic engagement?
  8. How should we think about the relationship between market-oriented solutions and institutional solutions? Can the market’s tendency to exacerbate inequality (both economic and political) be resolved adequately with the use of transfer payments and guaranteed services?
  9. I’m hoping to start working more on policing and punishment. One aspect of that interest has to do with the question of testimonial privilege and the culture of deception in police departments. The other aspect is related to the hidden costs of over-incarceration and the status of Pell Grants for prisoners.
  10. Do Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum supply a solution to conflicting accounts of political justice in their accounts of entitlement and capabilities?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it captures many of my concerns. Because of the nature of the request, these questions are primarily in public policy. There’s a related set of questions in philosophy proper having to do with things like identity and authenticity, the relationship between one and many, the metaphysics of personhood and freedom, the distinction between rights and privileges, and the difference between what evolutionary psychogists and x-phi types call ‘moral intuitions’ and the traditional use of intuition in epistemology.

This is not to mention various authorial questions in the history of philosophy, primarily related to Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, and the classic “M” civic republicans: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Madison, and Marx. What’s striking, however, is how often those questions now seem to be subsidiary to the general policy and normative questions, rather than primary as they did when I first began to pursue philosophy.