Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why Do Political Theory *Today*?

In previous posts I have offered a few reflections on what political theory is, what constitutes political "philosophy", what justice requires "many-things-considered", etc.

Today I want to offer some brief thoughts on why one might want to do political theory today.

When one reflects back on the greats in the canon, like Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx, one cannot help but feel the real heyday of political theory has passed us by. This is, in fact, a view I have much sympathy with. I don't think any of the twentieth century political theorists or philosophers come even close to rivaling the true greats in the canon (though I personally think John Dewey merits serious consideration as a real contender, and has not (yet) been given his due). Perhaps history will judge things differently.

But I think that the greats of the past should inspire us to continue to tackle the big questions in theory- What is justice? What is human nature? What constitutes the good life? And in many ways the opportunities for theorists to make substantive contributions to these questions is more ripe today than it ever has been.

What is so special about doing political theory today, versus in the 17th or 19th centuries (for example)?

Firstly, we have the wealth of insights the canon itself provides. We have access to the works of the giant intellectual figures (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, JS Mill, etc.). Their works are as close as a "google" search for anyone with access to the internet. Thus the "cognitive theoretical toolbox" we can employ is much more diverse than the toolbox available to any of these historical figures.

Secondly, we have the benefit of a longer, and wider, historical lens. Thus we have a more diverse, and representative, compilation of empirical insights concerning the things that have, and have not, worked well with the experiment of human civilizations all over the globe. We also have much more knowledge in general. Knowledge from evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, and economics.

The greats in the canon would, I believe, be envious of the wealth of opportunities and insights available to the theorist of today. Rather than merely speculating on what life was like in the "state of nature", or pondering "What is human nature?" from the armchair, today we can make informed judgements about the past based on extensive anthropological evidence. We can also utilize the findings of empirical experiments that provide key insights into human cognition and behaviour.

What could be more exciting than doing political theory today? A time of (relative) peace and prosperity for humanity, a time of rapid globalization and a time of incredible technological advancement (e.g computing, the biomedical sciences, etc.)?

So the number one reason to want to do political theory today is: there couldn't be a more exciting time for doing it!

One could also make the case that there couldn't be a more important time for doing political theory than today. With so many people alive on the planet, and the novelty of the challenges that face an interconnected, warming and aging world, the stakes of good governance have never been higher.

It is perhaps human nature to look to the past nostalgically. The ancient Greeks were experimenting with democracy, and that created the rich intellectual environment of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Hobbes lived through the English Civil War, and that experience helped lay the foundations of his political theory. And Marx was writing at the time of an incredible transition from feudalism to capitalism, as human societies transformed from the countryside to life in cities, and new technologies were rapidly developed.

The past sounds so exciting. It was indeed exciting. But is the past more exciting than the present (and future?)?

I don't think it is. I think today is the best time for political theory. We can tap the wisdom of the greats of the past, as well as incorporate the empirical findings of a vast array of scientific disciplines. This mixture of "old world" political ideas and ideals, mixed in with some "new world" empirical insights and challenges, should make for some pretty interesting and exciting political theory. And that is why I think one should have an interest in doing political theory today.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Teaching Burke and Conservatism

I am just wrapping up my lectures on Edmund Burke for my large (245 students) Introduction to Political Theory course here at Queen's. And this has inspired me to share a few thoughts, and items from the lecture, here on my blog.

Of all the historical figures we cover in this year-long course (from Plato to Marx), the section on Burke and conservatism is one of my favourite to teach. It is also, I believe, one of the most important topics students can cover in their time at university.

I realize saying this will surprise, perhaps even offend, many other theorists (though I would point out I am just as passionate about the importance of teaching them Karl Marx). So please permit me to explain.

"Why is it so important that students learn about Burke and conservatism?", you ask. Most students never seriously engage with conservative political thought. And I think this is a real shame. The result is our students leave university with a less diverse "cognitive toolbox" than they could have if they were exposed to a more balanced, and diverse, range of political thinkers and traditions. Higher education should open (not close) minds. As citizens our students will be expected to engage with conservatives and so, at the least, they should develop an understanding of (if not an appreciation for the potential value of) conservatism.

The need for learning about conservatism is evident if you ask your students to summarize what they believe constitutes (small "c") conservatism as a political theory. Some typical answers include "someone who is close-minded", "someone who is afraid of change", "someone who is motivated by religion and tradition", etc. Of course there is not one uniform, concise, statement of conservatism. Like liberalism, socialism, and feminism, there are a plurality of different variants of conservative political thought.

Indeed, someone like Burke would contest the suggestion that they even have a political "ideology". Burke was really a political practitioner rather than "theoretician". Having students read Burke can help them develop a more sophisticated understanding of the diverse principles and perspectives people can embrace and contribute to politics.

Before we delved into Burke and the historical concerns of his day, I played the following video clip, from an interview with Harvard's Harvey Mansfield, to give them a sense of what a contemporary conservative political theorist thinks:

For their tutorials my students read this piece entitled "What is Conservatism?". Kekes argues that “the fundamental aim of conservatism is to conserve the political arrangements that have shown themselves to be conducive to good lives”. And, he continues, "the conservative view is that history is the best guide to understanding the present and planning for the future because it indicates what political arrangements are likely to make lives good or bad".

Why is the week on Burke one of my favourites to teach? Well, let's say I teach the week in a rather unorthodox manner. Not to get into all the details here, but it involves a debate with myself, between the characters of Rousseau and Burke. So we debate political theory, private property, equality and religion.

During the class I get the students to fill out a handout which asks them to summarize what they take conservatism to mean. I also ask them to come up with some questions they would like to ask either Rousseau or Burke.

Most questions are for Burke. In particular, most students (understandably) contest Burke's defence of social and economic inequality. Inequality, argued Burke, is both natural and beneficial. For democrats living in the 21st century the claims about social inequality will be rejected. Though of course we have to remember that Burke was living at a time when a very small percentage of the population were literate, and the experiment of "rule by the people" had, at that stage in human history, no proven track record as a stable and prosperous form of government.

To conclude the lecture on Burke I thought I would give Burke the opportunity to respond to some of my student's questions, especially to their questions about global inequality and poverty. Burke was a genuine political thinker (rather than an abstract theorist), immersed in the pressing issues of his day (e.g. French revolution, religion, political economy, etc.). So to get a real flavour of what Burke might offer us today I stipulated that Burke had to respond to my student's questions as a 21st (rather than 19th) century conservative. So he had to answer the questions with the benefit of the knowledge of how things unfolded in the two centuries after his death.

Speculating on what Burke might say if he were alive today can help illustrate the importance of the conservative's judgement that history is the best guide to understanding the present and planning for the future. History provides us with important insights into the social arrangements that improve or worsen human lives.

The video below is my attempt to make Burke come "alive", by providing him with a venue to offer some reflections on the current situation of global inequality. The goal is to provoke you to consider the value of the conservative perspective. This is not to say I agree with everything Burke might argue (in fact I don't). But I think it is useful to consider what insights he might make into the contemporary state-of-affairs of humanity.

So here is the video:

After my lecture on Burke a student asked me what my own political views were. The student noted that he couldn't tell what my personal views were from the way I teach (which I take as a compliment, as I don't think the classroom should be used as a pulpit for ideologues). I told him that I myself was partial to JS Mill, but left it at that. The truth is I don't identify myself with any one particular doctrine or political theorist. Those who read my published work will see I can be partial to virtue ethics and democracy, and have an interest in Marx's theory of history.

I do however have this poster (below) hanging in my office, which might lead one (reasonably) to assume I am in fact a Burkean conservative.

While I do believe there are elements of Burke's theory that are very important to study, indeed, perhaps even correct (e.g. the importance he places on history) I am not a Burkean conservative. For starters I am an atheist. And I think my arguments for de-criminalizing incest and tackling biological aging mean I am too radical too qualify as a "true" conservative thinker.

So to wrap this long post up, I want to conclude by emphasizing how important it is that we, as teachers, expose our students to a wide variety of political theories and perspectives. And that we provide a balanced account of the potential pros and cons of these different ways to think about politics (so our students can sort out for themselves what they think). The world does not need (more) narrow-minded zealots who reduce the complexities of human life to a simple battle between "good folks [i.e. the smart and noble] and bad folks [i.e. the stupid and dishonest]". Things are infinitely more complex than this.

What humanity needs is more intellectual humility, and a diverse cognitive toolbox.

I thus end by encouraging you to watch this excellent Ted Talk on the roots of our moral psychology and the importance of balancing different political perspectives:


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Detective's Virtues

This post is a contribution to two onging blog threads, the virtue epistemology thread (part 1, part 2 and part 3) and the thread on "Where the Action is: On the Site of the Playful Life".

The joys of parenthood are many. One of parenthood's greatest pleasures is that it provides a parent with the valuable opportunity to re-discover your own childhood (loving and caring for young ones helps keep you feeling young!).

For me, as a father to three young boys, I have re-discovered the joys of trying to learn the piano again, bike riding, playing video games, fishing, just to name a few.

Recently I re-discovered my favourite books from my early youth, when I first started reading (at least reading for fun, not for school or church).

The series was called the Three Investigators. I remember reading my first book, this one, when I was 11 years old. I was instantly hooked. I then purchased and read almost every book in the collection.

For the last quarter of a century my collection of Three Investigator books collected dust. But over the last few months they have come alive again. I introduced these books to my two eldest sons, and starting reading the series to them. And now they are hooked! We try to spend 30 minutes each weeknight reading about the adventures of Jupiter, Pete and Bob. Reliving these stories as an adult, and sharing them with my children, is a special treat.

Reflecting on my attraction to this series of books made me realize something about myself. Almost all of my favourite books and TV shows involved detectives! Another of my favourite book series was Encyclopedia Brown. And my favourite TV shows growing up included Magnum PI, Simon and Simon and Murder She Wrote.

More recently I have fallen in love with Midsomer Murders. And my two "all-time"/"hands down" favourite shows, which I still watch to this day every time I get the chance, are Columbo and this series of Sherlock Holmes. And my kids also love watching these two shows with me.

So what is my attraction to these detective shows and stories? Why do I have such an interest in seeing how the human mind can solve life's mysteries? To be honest I don't know. I just enjoy it. And I never realized how important they have been to my childhood and adulthood until very recently.

In Virtues of the Mind Zagzebski (1996, 114) characterizes the "detective's virtues" as an intellectual virtue. More specifically, she defines this virtue as "thinking of coherent explanations of the facts". The detective's virtues also require the exercise of other intellectual virtues- like the ability to recognize the salient facts and sensitivity to details (perhaps best exemplified by Sherlock Holmes); Intellectual humility (better exemplified by Columbo and Mrs Fletcher than Sherlock Holmes); Intellectual perseverance, diligence, care and thoroughness (traits often demonstrated by Magnum PI); and adaptability of intellect(a trait exemplified by Simon and Simon's ability to take on different identifies, and balance their different temperaments, as circumstances necessitated).

I believe that exposure to, and an appreciation for, the detective's virtues can help enhance our moral and intellectual development in important ways. These virtues extend far beyond obvious instances of the detective's virtues (e.g. Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery of a crime), for they also apply to science (e.g. unlocking the mysteries of our biology), democracy (e.g. unlocking the mystery of phronesis) and love (e.g. unlocking the mystery of human relationships and emotions).

The detective virtues are also important to political theory. I hope to blog about this particular point in detail later.


Friday, January 14, 2011

The Science of Loneliness

The latest issue of Science has this interesting news item about the rise of the "science of loneliness". A sample from the story:

Everyone knows what it's like to be lonely. It often happens during life's transitions: when a student leaves home for college, when an unmarried businessman takes a job in a new city, or when an elderly woman outlives her husband and friends. Bouts of loneliness are a melancholy fact of human existence.

But when loneliness becomes a chronic condition, the impact can be far more serious, says John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Cacioppo studies the biological effects of loneliness, and in a steady stream of recent papers, he and collaborators have identified several potentially unhealthy changes in the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems of chronically lonely people. Their findings could help explain why epidemiological studies have often found that socially isolated people have shorter life spans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression. Their work also adds a new wrinkle, suggesting that it's the subjective experience of loneliness that's harmful, not the actual number of social contacts a person has. “Loneliness isn't at all what people thought it was, and it's a lot more important than people thought it was,” Cacioppo says.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

David vs Goliath

*originally posted Nov. 2009*

The story of humanity is a fascinating and inspiring one.

Despite the great adversity our species has, and continues to, face, we are capable of great compassion, imagination and inspiration. Indeed, it is perhaps these human traits that have helped us overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles we have faced in our species' evolutionary history.

What we are today reflects the challenges we have had to overcome in the past. From our two eyes and two hands, to our emotions like love, hope and fear, we are a complex history of biological and, more recently, cultural evolution. The inhospitable and unpredictable environments in which our species lived has given us aggression and compassion, emotion and reason, fear and happiness.

To help us overcome starvation we developed tools for hunting and farming. To help us overcome infectious disease we created the sanitation revolution and vaccinations. Our ability overcome diverse and complex forms of adversity is admirable.

The history of humanity is thus one of struggle (with all of its accompanying tragedy) but also one of hope (with all of its accompanying inspiration). Hope for a better state of affairs. One where humans have more opportunities to enjoy health, love and happiness. This aspiration to make things better is, I believe, what makes us truly human. And it is an aspiration that links us to our distant ancestors.

The title of this post is "David vs Goliath". Humanity is David, and Goliath represents all the things that have, and continue to, challenge the health and welfare of humans. The specific form of Goliath alters over time. Reflecting on the causes of death in the 20th Century, for example, we see that Goliath was warfare (including two World Wars), totalitarianism, and, most importantly, infectious disease. The Flu pandemic of 1918, for example, killed an estimated 50 000 000 people, which is more than 3 times the estimated number of deaths caused by four years of “Great War” in 1914-18. And small pox is estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people in just the 20th century.

In the 21st century, Goliath is CHRONIC DISEASE (e.g. cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.). Just 1 year of chronic disease today kills as many people as 300 years of the Black Plague.

In the decade from 2005 and 2015, the World Health Organization estimates that 220 million people will die from chronic illness, 144 million of these deaths will be in lower middle income countries like China and India.

To slay the Goliath of today humanity must be more compassionate, more imaginative, and more inspiring than it has been in the past. Slaying Goliath in the 21st century will require, I believe, an aggressive effort to understand the biology of aging, and then the development of interventions that modulate the rate of aging, so that humans can enjoy more disease-free life and a compression of morbidity at the end of life.

Why we age, and become frail and diseased, is a legacy of our evolutionary history. In short, because life in the state of nature was "nasty, brutish and short" the force of natural selection does not apply to the post-reproductive period of the human lifespan. So most disease and death today are caused by evolutionary neglect. And given the size of today's aged populations, unprecedented numbers of humans will suffer the ravages of chronic disease.

The vision of David battling Goliath came to me today as I happened across the following video this morning and was deeply moved by it. It is an interview with J.M. Smith, an evolutionary biologist who died in 2004. While a student Smith studied fruit fly genetics with J.B. Haldane.

In this interview Smith discusses the illness and death of his teacher, who died of cancer. This brief video moved me in many ways. It captures the human ability to display humour and determination in the face of adversity, as well as love and friendship. It captures humanity's most redeemable qualities, as told by one the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

It is only fitting to quote a passage from Haldane's famous poem on cancer:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma
Which kills a lot more chaps in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked

To slay Goliath this century we must build on the work of great minds like Haldane and Smith. We must transcend the "disease model" approach to the medical sciences, and develop Darwinian medicine.

And aging research is at the frontier of this more robust and ambitious vision of medicine. Modifying the biological clocks we have inherited from our Darwinian past would be this century's most important advance in public health. For age retardation would help protect the 2 billion people who will be over the age of 60 by 2050 from the chronic diseases that currently ravage unprecedented numbers of aged people in the world today. In order for this biological revolution to occur we must also undergo a cultural revolution. We need a rational and humane culture. We need more compassion, more imagination and more (new sources of) inspiration.

And we all have a moral responsibility to help spur on this cultural revolution and become 21st century humanists.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Compression of Morbidity?

I just came across this comprehensive study of mortality and morbidity trends in the latest issue of The Journals of Gerontology. It makes for sober reading and illustrates the enormity of the challenge of promoting health for aging populations.

The abstract:

Objective. This paper reviews trends in mortality and morbidity to evaluate whether there has been a compression of morbidity.

Methods. Review of recent research and analysis of recent data for the United States relating mortality change to the length of life without 1 of 4 major diseases or loss of mobility functioning.

Results. Mortality declines have slowed down in the United States in recent years, especially for women. The prevalence of disease has increased. Age-specific prevalence of a number of risk factors representing physiological status has stayed relatively constant; where risks decline, increased usage of effective drugs is responsible. Mobility functioning has deteriorated. Length of life with disease and mobility functioning loss has increased between 1998 and 2008.

Discussion. Empirical findings do not support recent compression of morbidity when morbidity is defined as major disease and mobility functioning loss.

A few samples from the article:

In the following sections, we summarize what we have learned about recent trends in morbidity and mortality, primarily in the older population, as well as the interaction between mortality change and morbidity change. We begin with a discussion of the compression of morbidity hypothesis and then we discuss trends in morbidity and mortality. We provide empirical evidence of recent changes in morbidity and mortality and link these together to provide estimates of life expectancy with and without diseases and with and without loss of mobility functioning. This provides a link between changes in parameters of population health and the expected life cycles of individuals.

....There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date to eliminate or delay disease or the physiological changes that are linked to age. For example, the incidence of a first heart attack has remained relatively stable between the 1960s and 1990s and the incidence of some of the most important cancers has been increasing until very recently. Similarly, there have been substantial increases in the incidence of diabetes in the last decades. Although we have examined the increased prevalence in a number of individual diseases, we should note that the proportion of the population with multiple diseases and the number of diseases comorbid in an older individual has also increased (Crimmins & Saito, 2000).

....Can the increase in life expectancy continue? The recent reduction in the rate of progress for U.S. women is sobering. We have always assumed that each generation will be healthier and longer lived than the prior one. The growing problem of lifelong obesity and increases in hypertension and high cholesterol among cohorts reaching old age are a sign that health may not be improving with each generation. The increasing prevalence of disease may to some extent reflect better diagnostics, but there is little indication of less disease.

The compression of morbidity is a compelling idea. People aspire to live out their lives in good health and to die a good death without suffering, disease, and loss of functioning. However, compression of morbidity may be as illusory as immortality. We do not appear to be moving to a world where we die without experiencing disease, functioning loss, and disability.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Importance of History

This term I am teaching two courses- a second year course on the history of political thought (which is actually a year-long course) and a fourth year/graduate seminar on "science and justice". As I was preparing my intro lectures for both courses I was struck by the importance an understanding of history has in both courses. So I thought it would be useful to write some (brief) thoughts down here about this topic.

What we are today, as societies and as a species, has been shaped by our history. Thus an understanding of our history can help us make better sense of the present and better prepare us to meet the challenges of the future.

The importance of history for the first course- a course on the history of political thought-might appear obvious. But one might wonder what role history could play in the second course I am teaching- science and justice. What unifies both courses is that they trace different dimensions of the evolution of the human species. In the history of political thought course the focus is on the cultural evolution of political ideas and ideals. In my science and justice course the focus is the on intersection of our species' biological and cultural evolution. More specifically, how advances in science might permit us to directly alter our biology in novel ways, and the consequences this might have for the way we conceive of the demands of distributive justice.

Having taught, over the past 12 years, courses on the history of political thought at 5 different universities in the UK and Canada, I am well aware of the reality that most undergraduate students do not come to the first lecture of such a course with a clear and concise understanding of why it is important to study the history of political ideas. For most students it is the first time they will seriously engage with political thinkers that have been dead for centuries, even millennia. For most students it will be the first (and for many the last) time they read the actual works of Plato, Hobbes, Mill and Marx. So I approach my course knowing that an appreciation of the importance and value of political theory is something that must be cultivated. And the best way of doing this is, in my opinion, to get one's students *doing* political theory. To have them engage with the questions that the greats take on- What is justice? What is human nature? Why is there inequality?

Bringing the ideas of the past to life in this way connects students to the past in important ways. By helping students to see how ideals of equality (for example) helped shape the events of the French Revolution or the women's suffrage movement, they learn to appreciate how much power (for good as well as evil) the "realm of ideas" can have on human affairs. Students begin to see that they themselves are active participants in this cultural revolution. And so learning about the past helps them understand (at least part of the story) of how they arrived here, but it also helps equip them with the skills needed to meet the challenges of their own time.

To help engage my students with the thinkers of the past, I have a "theme" song and accompanying video for each of the 14 thinkers covered in the course. I choose songs and images that evoke the themes, emotions and stakes involved with author's political theory.

Below is a sample, the video I use to help get the students excited about reading JS Mill's On Liberty. The music and images have been chosen to try to make Mill "alive" in their minds, and to demonstrate the power of political ideals like freedom.

In my second course, titled Science and Justice, we focus on technological advances in the biomedical sciences. And this requires us to develop an understanding of our evolutionary history, for that history has shaped many of the health challenges we face today.

Because life in the state of nature was, as Hobbes aptly put it, "nasty, brutish and short", humans are vulnerable to morbidity and mortality in late life. The diseases of aging, diseases that threaten to ravage the 2 billion persons who will be over the age of 60 by the middle of this century, are the product of evolutionary neglect. Seen through the lens of our evolutionary history, the imperative to develop novel health interventions that can remedy the shortcomings of natural selection can be rationally and cogently addressed. Taking the "long view" of our species' history, from the "Young" world plagued by infectious disease, poverty and violence, to today's "Aged" world dominated by the chronic diseases of aging is an effective way of framing the importance of knowledge and well-ordered science.

For a more extensive discussion of how our evolutionary history impacts our health prospects in late life see the following interesting video by this evolutionary biologist:

The health challenges of the 21st century are novel challenges, and understanding the importance science and innovation have played in helping humanity get to where we are today will help students develop the critical skills needed to think sensibly about the regulation of new biotechnologies that can help them best meet the challenges of tomorrow.