My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Monday, April 30, 2012


I have now finished proofreading and editing the paper I delivered a quarter of a century ago, called "A Critique of Keynes."  It runs about 7500 words, which should make a three-part post.  Interested readers will find it a companion piece to my essay, "The Future of Socialism."


My post, "Why Do I Work for Obama?" and the follow-up have triggered a substantial series of interesting, lengthy responses, for which I thank all of you.  I am going to say a few more things and then move on.

Note, first, that I titled the original post "Why Do I Work for Obama?," not "Why Should You Work for Obama?"  It was not my purpose to try to persuade people to do what I do.  Indeed, the whole point of my comparison of social change to an avalanche was that there are endlessly many different ways of being political, and all of them are needed.  So long as you are working on the left, not on the right, I salute and celebrate your efforts.  You may be staffing a free food center in your neighborhood, or taking part in an Occupy protest, or handing out petitions for the recall of Governor Walker, or volunteering for an environmental organization, or donating money to a progressive candidate somewhere in America -- or even doing data entry for the Obama campaign.

Two things seem to me to be clear:  First, all of these actions are praiseworthy; and Second, it will make virtually no measurable difference if you personally stop doing  them.  This second point needs a bit of elaborating.  This is a world of seven billion people.  The United States alone has more than three hundred million.  Progressive social change [or regressive social change, for that matter] requires the actions of vast numbers of people.  One might imagine that there are certain special individuals whose actions, all by themselves, have major consequences, such as an American president, or a politically active billionaire, or a Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks.  But that, I think, is a mistake.  These seemingly special individuals derive their power from the beliefs, support, and acquiescence of millions of others.  As Marx remarks in that wonderful footnote in Chapter One of Capital, "One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him.  They, on the other hand, imagine that they are subjects because he is king."  This truth is depressing because it means that no matter what you do, you alone will make scarcely any difference at all.  That is why I emphasized the importance of choosing a form of political action that you enjoy.  Lord knows, you won't keep at it decade after decade because of the enormous impact you alone are having on anything at all.

Even local action, by and large, requires the efforts of enough people so that any one shirker or no-show will not make a great deal of difference.  You have to go pretty local for it to be otherwise.  My wife and I once got ourselves elected as Jackson delegates to the Massachusetts state Democratic Party convention from the tiny town of Pelham.  We accomplished this political machination by getting two friends to ride with us to the meeting.  The four of us constituted an absolute majority of those present, and Susie and I were swept into office.  That is just about the only time in my entire life that I can say my actions personally made any sort of noticeable political difference.

So, I do not want to argue with anyone at all who is identifiably rolling down the same side of the hill as I am.  If voting gives you heartburn but working with the homeless makes you feel good about yourself, so be it.  Just so long as you are doing something that helps those who need help and advances in some way progressive policies.  There is a long history on the left, as in Christianity and Islam, of sectarian squabbles between groups only minutely different from one another -- what Freud famously called, in another context, the "narcissism of small differences."  I have been opposed to that sort of in-fighting all my life.  That is why I said political action is not like brain surgery.  One slip of the knife can kill the patient.  But nothing much hinges on my adopting this variation of Marxian economics rather than that one.

I hope that everyone reading this has found, or will find, some way of being politically active that contributes something, however insignificant, to the advancement of progressive principles and goals.  The only thing that is really unacceptable, in my view, is to mount an excoriating critique of everything, and then use that as an excuse for doing -- nothing.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


In response to my post "Why Do I Work For Obama?" "English Jerk" wrote a long and very thoughtful comment.  Rather than respond to it in the Comments section, I have decided to write a separate post addressing each of the three points he [?] makes.  To obviate the necessity of switching back and forth between this post and the comment, I will reproduce the relevant portions as I go along.

After an opening remark, EJ asks three questions.  Here is the first one:

"1) What if Candidate X is better on, say, unions than Candidate Y, but is worse on foreign policy? As an option 2 guy who is in the process of organizing a union, that issue has immediate practical consequences for my political activities. But do I really want better labor laws in the US at the cost of millions of people exterminated abroad? For that matter, do I want better labor laws in the US at the cost of the US government supporting the violent suppression of unions in Colombia (where a few hundred labor organizers are murdered every year)? In other words, it seems to me that, in order to make this assessment, we'd have to determine in some detail what a candidate is likely to do (which is no easy matter) and then to find some way to compare (or even quantify?) his various evils so that we can determine whether it's a net gain to have X rather than Y in office. In Obama's case, of course, we could at least look at his past record and assume he'll continue in the same vein. So I'd like to see what it would look like if we really try to balance out all the good and bad things he's done and see where the scales fall. To put this another way: many of your arguments hang on an evaluation of Obama's specific policies, and I'd like to hear more about your views on those details."
EJ is completely correct in his description of the problem we all face when called upon to choose between two candidates, or even among three or more, each of whom in all likelihood embraces some policies and actions we approve of and some we do not approve of.  EJ is also correct that we are obligated to consider the long term and indirect consequences of these policies as well as the direct, short term consequences.  There is simply no way around this dilemma, given the nature of American politics.  A parliamentary system might offer the opportunity to vote for a party, however small, whose platform very closely approximates one's own convictions, but we do not have a parliamentary system.  Indeed, this is one of the many reasons, as I explain in In Defense of Anarchism, why the state is not, and cannot be, de jure legitimate.

As I hope is clear, there are many issues on which I disagree with Obama -- America's imperial foreign policy and America's capitalist economy, both of which he embraces, to name the most obvious and important of them.  For me, the relevant question is not whether I agree with him on these crucial matters, but what the alternatives are.  Today's Republican Party offers a worse version of American Imperialism and a worse version of American capitalism.  Of virtually all the choices facing America in 2008, when Obama first ran, there was only one -- albeit a very important one -- on which Obama proposed to move in exactly the wrong direction, from my point of view, namely his espousal of an escalation in Afghanistan.  With regard to every other important issue -- LGBT rights, health care reform, regulation of financial markets, tax reform, the environment, immigration reform, and so forth, Obama proposed to move in what I consider the right direction.  What is more, on every single issue, including Afghanistan, Obama's positions were better than those of his opponent.  So the decision to support him was, for me, a no-brainer.  I was convinced that the world would be better, or at least less bad, with him as President than with McCain as President.  And as things have turned out, I think that judgment was correct.

Four years have gone by, and once again I am faced with a choice between supporting Obama, supporting [as it turns out] Romney, or sitting out the election.  Once again, the choice is, for me, a no-brainer.  If you accept my argument that someone in my position is morally obligated to do what he can to advance the better of the available alternatives, then it is easy to see how I have concluded that I ought to support Obama.  And if I ought to support him, then I ought to work for him.  That is what "support" entails, at least for me.

Now, I confess that I did not anticipate just how bad the Republican Party would become in these past four years.  The full-scale assault on women's health is horrific.  The endless enrichment of the rich is appalling.  The punitive, racist attack on Hispanics is unconscionable.  This is no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, or even Nixon.  Anyone who cannot see the difference between them and Obama just is not looking.
Here is EJ's second question:  [By the way, every time I wrote "EJ" I think for a moment that I am talking about E. J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post.  I apologize to English Jerk for that.]

"2) What if capitalism is more adaptable than Marx supposed precisely because of these "progressive" strands in government, so that encouraging them actually prevents radical change? I know this line of thinking can be harnessed to the "making things worse until they get better" strategy, but it doesn't have to be. We might, for example, opt for direct action that helps people in our communities while pointedly avoiding any participation with state-corporate entities. If all participation in government makes capitalism stronger, then we'd need to find other avenues of political action—and, in light of the infinite capacities of humans, I think there are always infinitely many such avenues."

The first thing I must say in response to this point is that political action for change is not like brain surgery, where the slightest wrong move can bring disaster.  It is more like an avalanche, with rocks, trees, pebbles, bushes, and debris all rolling down a hillside.  Only a few of us in such a situation are boulders -- Martin Luther King, say, or maybe Noam Chomsky.  The rest of us are pebbles and bits of tree bark.  The important thing is to be rolling down the right hill.  To put the same point another way, political action is like exercising:  you will only stick with it, year after year, if you can find some form of it that you actually enjoy.  There are lots and lots of things that need doing -- circulating petitions, organizing street protests, carrying signs, writing letters, raising money, giving money, running guns [maybe].  They all need to be done if we are to see real change.  Now, I, for one, hate to march in street protests, but I like to raise money.  So by and large I do not turn out for street protests, but I do raise money.  Even when it comes to raising money, I cannot raise money for all the good causes in the world, or even in America, so I make choices, hoping that others will cover the bases I am leaving uncovered.  The important thing is to find something you enjoy doing, so that in bad decades as well as in good ones, you will keep at it.  I was lucky enough to live through the Sixties [which actually mostly happened in the Seventies, but never mind.]   I have also lived through the Eighties, Nineties, and Oughts, which were pretty bad.  That's life.  You have to just soldier on.
Now, with regard to EJ's second point, I don't actually believe the story about how you make things worse by "cooperating" with the world, by trying to engage with it.  That is not why revolutionary change does or does not happen, but that is another story.  I agree entirely with the thrust of EJ's point.  If you are more comfortable with local action, then commit your energies to local action, not because of some speculative theory but just because, of all the options available to you, that is the one you are comfortable with.  If you like it, you will keep doing it year in and year out, and that is what matters.  As far as I am concerned, you and I will be rolling down the same side of the hill.

Finally, here is EJ's third point"

"3) What if it turns out to be necessarily impossible to determine what political outcomes these particular circumstances make possible? We would, in that case, lack information that is crucial to the kinds of moral deliberations you describe. Marx seems sometimes to have thought that a given situation was fairly deterministically related to what could come next, but Hegel (on my reading, anyway) thought that contingency itself was necessary, which makes all real situations deeply unpredictable. My thinking is that it might be better to devote our energies to local action, since we are more likely to have sufficient grasp of the local situation to make a good guess about what that situation calls for. The energy would thus be better spent locally. And I know that the act of voting by itself doesn't require much energy, if all one does it to pull a crank in a curtained booth; but surely if one engages in the careful research and deliberation required to reach morally justifiable conclusions (and even more so if one actually advocates for the candidate, as one should of one really wants the candidate to win), then voting actually is going to take quite a lot of energy. I'm still not convinced that the energy wouldn't be better spent elsewhere."

It is in fact impossible as a general thing to " determine what political outcomes these particular circumstances make possible?" but I think it takes almost no energy to figure out that Obama and the Democrats are a more progressive option than Romney and the Republicans.  I don't think that conclusion should cost you more than a New York minute's worth of deliberation.  So decide to vote Democratic, go back to your local action, and on Election Day take thirty minutes to vote.  Any local action worth doing will be easier with a Democratic government than with a Republican government.  If you have doubts about that, ask the folks in Wisconsin!

If you have doubts even about this brief summary judgment concerning the relative merits of the Democrats and the Republicans, let me suggest that you carry out the following thought experiment:

Imagine that America had a political system in which the party that wins control of the House, Senate, and White House gets to rule without any opposition whatsoever from the other party.  So, if the Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House, then the Democratic Senators and Representatives simply evaporate, leaving the Republicans with 100% in both houses.  And the same of course for the Democrats.  It would still require majorities to pass legislation, and 60% of the Senators to impose cloture and end a filibuster.  Now, in this fanciful situation, what sorts of legislation do you suppose would be passed and signed into law?  I suggest that if the Democrats were in power, you would see legislation that moved dramatically to the left, because the opposition would only come from relatively more conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" [there being no Republicans in either chamber, in this thought experiment.]  The legislation passed if the Republicans were in power would be horrendous -- the end of Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, any sort of regulation of business, the outlawing of abortion, and possibly even of contraception, and so forth.

The point of this thought experiment is to make it easier for you to grasp just how different the two parties are.  I think you can do all the complex moral reasoning about this that you need to do while waiting for the light to change at an intersection.

Friday, April 27, 2012


For some time now, a woman who uses the webname "High Arka" has been posting abusive and insulting comments on this site.  Because she hides behind anonymity, not having the courage of her convictions, I have taken to deleting her comments.  I do not think that sort of discourse has any place on a site like this one.  Just recently, however, she has raised in a slightly more acceptable fashion the question why I engage actively in electoral politics, supporting Barack Obama despite all the ways in which I fundamentally disagree with him.  She takes this support [which she always characterizes in personally insulting fashion] as evidence that I cannot possibly be, as I claim to be, an anarchist and a Marxist.  Somewhat in support of "High Arka," Chris says ” Amongst the Anarchist crowd, I don't know a single one that actually votes, let alone has a single positive thing to say about the president or an executive branch in general."

I think the time has come to address this question in a serious fashion.  Nevertheless, I shall continue to delete High Arka's comments until she decides to observe the norms of courtesy in debate that I have tried to exemplify and encourage here.  Since she has her own blog, you are free to follow her there if you find her mode of discourse congenial.  This is, I might observe, one of the great attractions of the web.  As a professor, I occupied a position of status and power in the classroom.  It was, after all, I who handed out the grades at the end of the semester.  But as a blogger, I have exactly the same status and power as High Arka and all the other hundreds of millions of folks who have blogs.  Google makes its blogging utility available for nothing, so that if you are on line [or have access to an internet cafe], you have the same access to public opinion that I have.  If what you write draws a crowd, then you become a somebody in the world of blogging.  This blog, for example, has a rather small readership.  A famous blog like the Huffington Post or TPM probably pulls as many hits in a minute as I do in a day.

Now let me address the question why I engage actively in mainstream politics.  The first point to make is that I am a well-to-do person who has for most of his life lived an upper-middle class existence.  I come from a lower middle class background [my mother was, until her heart attack, a secretary and my father was a high school teacher and then near the end of his career a high school principal,] but I did rather better financially, spending my life as a college professor.  I was never out of work for even a day until I retired, and thanks to a generous Commonwealth of Massachusetts pension, Social Security, and Medicare, I have a secure and comfortable old age.  I mention these facts because I believe they are important.  Since I have led a comfortable, secure, affluent life, I have, I believe, a more than ordinary responsibility to concern myself with the well-being of the many, many scores of millions of Americans who have been less fortunate.  I mean that quite seriously.  For me to turn my back on the public political world of America out of anger or disgust, and fail to do what I can to make things better for other Americans, would be in my opinion unconscionable.  High Arka may mock me for espousing leftwing opinions when I am one of the comfortable and fortunate, but I think she has it exactly wrong.  I have a greater obligation to express those views and act on them precisely because I am one of the comfortable and fortunate.

I am, as I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, a socialist.  But it is perfectly obvious that there is not the slightest probability that either major political party in this country will embrace and espouse, let alone implement, a socialist program.  Of course, not everyone who thinks of himself or herself as a Marxist or a socialist agrees with this assessment.  There was a time, after all -- roughly when my grandfather was active in the Socialist Party -- when many serious, committed socialists believed the world was on the brink of a revolutionary period during which there would be a real chance for the working class to seize power and put an end to capitalism.  I don't think that was a foolish belief, as I have made clear in my paper "The Future of Socialism," but it proved to be incorrect, again for reasons I have spelled out in that paper.

What, then, is someone with my beliefs and commitments and life situation to do?  There are, so far as I can see, five possibilities.

First, I can turn my back on the public world, out of disgust, despair, or simple disappointment, and refuse to have anything to do with it, not even bothering to vote, inasmuch as none of the alternatives presented on the ballot offers any hope of the realization of the socialist dream.  To do that is implicitly to say that it really makes no difference which political party comes to power.  Well, it certainly makes no material difference to me.  As I have indicated, I am quite nicely cushioned against the inevitable traumata and trials of old age.  Of course, it might make a difference to my children and grandchildren, who could find themselves deprived of a social safety net in a world of ever greater income and wealth inequality, but that, after all, is their problem, not mine.  I will be dead before they have to confront it.

But it does make a very great deal of difference to hundreds of millions of Americans, now and in the future.  The policies and proposals of the two major political parties are fundamentally different with regard to all of the economic questions that are summarized in the phrase "social safety net."  Is a nation with universal health care socialist?  Hardly!  Is a nation with secure rights of unionization socialist?  Of course not.  Is a nation that pursues an imperial foreign policy socialist?  That is actually a more complicated question, but I am happy to say No.  But a nation with universal health care and strong union protections is a better nation, for those who need the health care and belong to the unions, than a nation without them.  About this there seems to me to be no possibility of dispute.  Just speak to someone who, upon changing jobs, finds that she cannot get health insurance because of a "pre-existing condition."

Do I have the right to ignore the needs of my fellow Americans because doing something might require me to choose between imperfect alternatives?  I don't think so, especially because I am one of the fortunate whose life is comfortable and secure.  So I work for the party whose policies seem to me more beneficial for those whose life circumstances are inferior to my own.  So far as I am concerned, this first option, to do nothing, is simply unacceptable.

My Second option is to engage actively in politics in support of a party or individual candidates who openly and enthusiastically embrace the socialist principles I espouse.  This is, I think, an honorable course of action, but if I choose it, it is essential to be honest with myself about its prospects for success.  Now, this is always difficult to calculate.  For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which looked about as quixotic as anything one could imagine, has succeeded against all the odds in almost immediately transforming the public discourse in America, so that the notion of the opposition between the 1% and the 99% is now a part of mainstream discussions.  That is a triumph far beyond anything I have ever achieved or could have achieved with my involvement in mainstream politics.  [That is why I have supported the local manifestation of the Occupy movement here in Chapel Hill.]  If someone decides to take this route, and shun major party politicking, I think that is fine.  But not voting on election day is just irresponsible, regardless of how one has decided to act politically.

The Third alternative, much favored a generation or two ago by some folks who thought of themselves as revolutionary, is to embrace the thesis that things can only get better after they have gotten worse, and thus to retreat from the public arena and wait for the crash that will presage the great Revolution, or indeed even to do what one can to hasten the crash [perhaps by pursuing a career as a trader in Credit Default Swaps.] 

Marx held a version of this theory, of course, expecting that capitalism would be unable to moderate the ever greater booms and busts, so that eventually there would be a world crash, from whose ashes would rise a united working class to seize the reins of power.  Well, I am old enough to feel my heart begin to flutter at these words, but I am seriously doubtful that this is what the future holds.  If I am wrong, I will be delighted to admit, indeed to celebrate, my error.

The Fourth option is to go underground and work for violent revolution.  Or, if not that, then to hang out in countercultural coffee houses and talk about violent revolution.  Well, good luck with that!  There have been a number of successful violent revolutions in the past century -- the Russian, the Chinese, the Cuban.  In every case, there were objective circumstances that made the revolution possible.  Now, I really do not think the United States presents such circumstances.  Indeed, the real possibility at the present time is a counter-revolution, a religiously inspired reactionary destruction of whatever good has been achieved by struggling men and women in this century.

Finally, the Fifth option is to work within the existing political system, always supporting, in any election, the candidate who is farther to the left, recognizing that this means supporting candidates with whom one disagrees, and in any other way that one can, trying to build popular support for more progressive alternatives, hoping, but without much hope, that someday socialism will, in Marx's evocative phrase, emerge from the womb of the old order.

So, there we are:  Do nothing, work on the fringes of the system, scheme [or hope] to make things worse so that they will get better, plot violent revolution, or work within the system and try to pull it to them left.  I think that for someone in my material circumstances, only the second and the fifth are honorable and plausible.  If someone wants to tell me that the second is preferable, I will not argue.  I think it is just a matter of choice and preference.

However:  young people who refuse to vote because they do not like the choices presented to them had better not complain about how things turn out!  They have forfeited that right by refusing to use what little power they have.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Endless speculation about the presidential campaign has the effect of corroding the brain, I find.  As a refreshing change, I shall in a few days start a four part post of an essay I wrote some years ago explaining what I think is the fundamental inadequacy of contemporary mainstream economic theory.  It is actually a talk I gave at Williams College twenty-five years ago, when I was moonlighting a course on political theory there.  I hope it will be of some interest to regular readers of this blog.


The long comment by "Superfluous Man" to my most recent post is just fascinating.  There are, I suspect, huge numbers of such stories about people who do not rise to the level of historically significant actors, but who lived rich, complex, interesting lives nonetheless.  I often think about how desperately historians of the Middle Ages would love to get their hands on anything like these accounts, offering a detailed picture of the lives of common people in the eleventh or twelfth century.  Eileen Power wrote a little book in 1924 called "Medieval People:  The Story of Six Ordinary Lives in the Middle Ages," that very successfully did just that.

Our personal memories and connections take us back about a century -- to the lives of our grandparents.  I am seventy-eight, and I knew my father's mother and father, who were born in 1878 and 1879, so I am connected directly with life one hundred thirty years ago.  Beyond that, I must rely on documents, if they exist. 

I wrote the two books about my parents and grandparents so that my own grandchildren would know something about their great great grandparents.  When little Athena and Samuel are my age, they will be able to read about the doings of Barney and Ella almost two hundred years earlier.

I have one piece of advice for any of you who are fortunate enough to have collections of family papers and pictures:  Take a few moments to identify the people in the pictures with notes on the back, while there is still someone alive who actually knows who they were.  Along with all the letters and papers, I inherited shoe boxes full of pictures.  Some are of people contemporaneous with me -- my uncles and aunts and cousins -- and I can quite easily identify them.  But my mother, who knew whom everyone was from an earlier era, neglected to identify them on the backs of the photos.  Now, after sorting them all into piles by family, I am left with several big manila envelopes labelled "unknown."

I know this all must seem like the maundering of an old man, but each of us lives for such a brief moment and then is gone -- how nice to be able to keep ourselves alive in the memories of others for at least a little time.

It is possible, of course, that the Internet will fundamentally change our collective historical memory.  Since digital storage space seems to expand even faster than the flood of content that fills it, we may have now entered a time when all these personal stories and pictures will take on something akin to immortality.  I cringe at the thought of the task facing future historians as they struggle to manage this sea of data.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


I have now completed editing the 50,000 word section of the book about my grandparents that deals with my grandfather's political career in the Socialist Party of New York City.  For those who are interested, I think it gives a vivid snapshot of life on the left a hundred years ago.  In the next few minutes, I will post the entire section on, accessible through the link at the top of this blog.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


I have started editing the one hundred page section of the book on my grandparents dealing with my grandfather's political career as a Socialist, and once again I am struck by how much simpler and purer that age was.  It was a time when one could be a dedicated socialist and a fighter for workers' rights without hesitation or apology, without ritual nods to the "middle class," without the pretense that being rich in a society of poor working men and women is perfectly all right and imposes no obligation on you to work for the rights of all.  I know that old people always think the time of their youth is better [the myth of the Golden Past], but despite the enormous gains we have made in racial and gender liberation, in some ways it was a better time.  Perhaps posting this section of the book will help younger readers to get a sense for what it was like then.

Monday, April 23, 2012


I think I have mentioned on this blog -- certainly in my Autobiography -- that I have written two books about my family [neither of which has been published, of course.]  The first book deals with my father's mother and father, my grandparents Barney and Ella Wolff, who lived in New York from the 1880's until their deaths.  Barney was a major figure in the New York Socialist Party, running for various public offices on the Socialist ticket and once, in 1917, actually winning election to the New York Board of Aldermen.  The second book deals with my parents, Walter and Lottie, starting with their courtship as teenagers in a group of young Socialists called Circle One, and continuing until their deaths in 1975 and 1981.  Both books are reconstructed principally from an enormous cache of family letters that I inherited at my father's death, although for the first book I did a good deal of archival research on the New York Socialist Party and my grandfather's role in it.

It would be hopelessly and insanely narcissistic for me to post these books seriatum on this blog, but the section of the first book dealing with the New York Socialist Party actually has some legitimate historical interest, so I am going to clean it up and put it on, where anyone who is interested can take a look at it.

The letters are, in their way, quite marvelous.  They conjure a milieu that is now long past and mostly forgotten, a world centering on family life as well as on political commitments that today seem to come from another world.  Long before I read the letters, indeed long before I knew anything systematic about Marx and socialist theory, I knew that my grandfather had been an important Socialist, and that simple fact served as a guiding beacon for me, drawing me eventually into a deep study of the writings of Karl Marx that resulted in two books and a number of articles.  I remember my grandfather only as a genial old man who ran something called The Workman's Circle Sanitarium in Liberty, New York.  Through the letters, I discovered him as a romantic young man, a deeply committed Socialist, and something of a self-taught literary stylist as well.


In my lead-in to Phil Green's guest post, I said that I had a photo of the two of us at Camp Taconic, perched on big horses.  Naturally, Phil's son sent me an email asking me to scan the photo and send it to him.  So off I went to my closet, where there are boxes of Wolff family papers and pictures.  Sure enough, I found the photo, but it is not of me and Phil!  It is me and my childhood friend Peter Katz [we were known as Peter and the Wolff. if course.]  aaarrrggghh!

On the other hand, I did surface a lovely picture of Susie taken just exactly sixty years ago.  It is not hard to see why I fell in love with her.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


I am licked.  I admit it.  After four more or less preliminary posts on Kant's ethical theory, I realize that I simply cannot summarize what needs to be said in anything short of an entire book-length series of posts.  It is not as though I don't know what to say.  I have, after all, written a book about the subject. But I just cannot see how to be true to Kant's meaning in a manageable series of posts.

You might ask, How can it be that you managed to write a tutorial on the Critique of Pure Reason, which is surely more complex than the Grundlegung?  The reason is that I have been able to see into the bowels of the Critique and extract from it the core argument in a fundamentally simple way.  But I have never been able to do that with Kant's ethical theory.  As my book on the subject makes clear, I struggled without success to find a core argument that I could defend as coherent and at least initially plausible.  That is why, in the end, I came to the conclusion that Kant's theory is wrong -- that there is no fundamental moral law that all agents will embrace insofar as they are rational. 

So I am suspending my tutorial.  I may come back to it if I can see how to say something really useful without going into the morass of the argument.  But if I do that, I will not in any direct way be commenting on and explicating the text.

I apologize for this failure.  Maybe I am just getting old!  It is, after all, no accident, as we like to say in old Marxian circles, that where as the book on the Critique took me two summers to write, the book on the Grundlegung lingered for seven years before I could finish it, and even then, I was painfully aware of its shortcomings.  It was, I think  that hardest thing I ever wrote, and in many ways the least successful.

On a happier note, I have just been asked by the University of California Press to bring out a new edition of In Defense of Anarchism.  That book was written in 1965, published in 1970, and then, when Harper & Row finally allowed it to go out of print in 1997, reissued with a new Preface by UC Press in 1998.  I am going to take the opportunity to expand on the last paragraph of that 1998 Preface, incorporate into the new text the Credo for Progressives that I have just posted on this blog, and in general address the question how my political commitments and theory differ from those of the right-wing Free Market libertarians who have appropriated the anarchist tradition and turned it into a justification for exploitation and oppression.


The second argument to which the soi-disant defenders of religious freedom resort, is the appeal to “conscience;” without, however, actually displaying any. What do we mean by submission to the commands of conscience? One of the most well-known of all historical examples answers the question with clarity: In 1942 in Vichy France, in the Huguenot town of Chambon-sur-Lignon, Pastor Andre Trocme preached a sermon to his parishioners, in which he exhorted them to give shelter, despite the danger they would incur, to Jews fleeing the deportations, “lest innocent blood be shed.” In the next three years 5000 Jews passed through or were sheltered in the town; not a single one was ever betrayed to the Vichy police or the Gestapo. Years later, asked by an interviewer why his family harbored Jews knowing that execution awaited anyone caught doing that, a peasant farmer shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably and replied, “someone in trouble comes to your door–what can you do?” To act from conscience, in other words, is not to submit to the commands of a coercive or threatening authority (unlike Catholic Bishops, Pastor Trocme had no ecclesiastical power over his congregation); nor merely  to follow unswervingly the rules of whatever association you belong to: Sandy Koufax was being a good Jew but not following conscience when he refused to pitch in a World Series game on Yom Kippur. Rather it is willingly to put ones own self in jeopardy in order to protect, or avoid doing harm to, or secure justice for, others. (In fact, those who’ve investigated conscientious resistance during the Holocaust--e.g., Kristin Monroe and Norman Geras--have found no correlation between acts of resistance and religious belief.)  Recently, for example, the Vatican reprimanded and demanded submission from an organization of American Catholic nuns, who were charged with promoting “radical feminism” and having “serious doctrinal problems,” due to their support of the poor and marginalized. In other words, they have been acting in accordance with their consciences, and have been commanded to cease and desist. So much for “conscience:”

it is a rare Catholic physician indeed who has to fear sanction for refusing to perform an abortion–or to prescribe birth control pills.       

            As for the argument that religious ethics ontologically stand upon a higher ground, or what is sometimes called the “divine command theory” of ethics, it is not only dogmatic but also  self-contradictory, in that its force is contingent upon the existence of one true religion. If there is not one true religion but rather there are conflicting theistic versions of the Good and the True--conflicting divine commands--then to invoke “religious principles” against a particular instance of coercion is at the same time to deny the religious principles of those who favor that kind of coercion, or who simply favor the toleration of a plurality of different belief systems. Should Jehovah’s Witnesses go to jail for refusing to register for the draft, while Catholic gynecologists and priests should be rewarded with praise for refusing to allow the prescription of abortifacients by health care plans that receive direct or indirect public subsidy? Should Islamists who believe, correctly or not, that fidelity to the Koran compels honor killings or retaliatory rapes, be indulged for engaging in those practices? Given that religion is by nature based on faith and not observable facts, there is no simple resolution to the brute fact of two religions or religious variants having differing moral codes. Moreover, the pejorative distinction that the godly always make between their reasoning and that of their allegedly “secular” opponents is merely self-serving. Anyone can claim to be doing what god wills; or can insist, the way Unitarians or Friends or various liberal Protestants might do, that in their conception of things “god” in fact has the values associated by theocrats with secular humanism.

            On the other hand, if there is but one true religion, one unerrant set of moral rules, then theocracy is being institutionalized, and the one true church has implicitly declared war on all of those of us who do not follow its precepts. There may be reasoned arguments, e.g., against abortion–that personhood begins at conception, that the fetus feels pain–but they stand or fall on their strength as arguments. They are no stronger because they are said to be god-given, and perhaps even weaker, in that when implemented through legislation by a numerically dominant voice the high ground of principle becomes merely the amoral stance of might makes right. If having the most votes to coerce others is the goal of debate, then the ethical high ground has already been ceded. In the real world of political action, even abortion is like any other object of political determination: it is not outlawed because it is wrong, it is wrong because it is outlawed. In any event, all arguments from inerrancy of scripture or ecclesiastical authority raise the epistemological question of how anyone comes to know the will of God, and why any of us should believe that someone else’s scriptures reveal anything of the kind. Furthermore, few if any religions can claim to be based on texts that detail their deity's will concerning every possible situation. These gaps often concern situations that the writers of ancient religious scriptures couldn't have foreseen, such as those involving advanced technologies, especially biological and medical ones. In this respect scripturalism is much like constitutional originalism: it reads our own present interpretations into the minds of other beings, or in this case non-beings, whose otherness to us is both total, and totally opaque. Any of us making an ethical case may call on endless witnesses from heaven or earth, but there is still no more in the end than the person making that case, just like every other person who makes an ethical case.

Thus arguments purporting to rest on the high ground of principle or conscience based on religious doctrine or membership in a religious association are either arbitrarily self-serving, dogmatic, or self-contradictory. They deserve neither more nor less credence than any contrary principle based on any equally cogent set of assertions. At this point though the theocrats make their final stand on the alternative high ground of the First Amendment to the American Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”

            All of us, though (except perhaps Catholic bishops) know what the “free exercise of religion” consists of: the right to state one’s religious beliefs, to congregate together to “exercise” or live by them, to pray in public, to proselytize others. It not only does not mean but could not conceivably mean the “right” to do, in the public sphere, whatever one feels like doing, whether or not contrary to legitimately established public law, because according to your religion that’s the right thing to do, and contrary behavior is wrongful. To be sure, the Supreme Court has held on various occasions (not always without dissent) that there certainly is and ought to be a private sphere into which the State cannot be allowed to intrude. The State, e.g., cannot force Catholic women to purchase birth control aids (most of them will do so in any event), nor prohibit women in general from doing so (ditto). It also cannot force women to have abortions; nor–though this obvious corollary is under threat from the Church and its allies–prohibit them from doing so.  These invasions of privacy the Church is happy to see enforced. But whether such items must be included in public or publicly subsidized health care packages, is no more or less a matter of “the free exercise of religion” than any determination about “public health:” the person who doesn’t want to use them doesn’t have to, and if he doesn’t want others to use them, that’s none of his business until and unless public law makes it his business. The only argument the Church attempts to make in this context is that if it self-insures its employees, it is not acting “publicly.” But that’s perverse: there would be no health insurance of any kind without the full panoply of public policies, commands, and exemptions that make it possible in the first place.

            In sum, that leading the life you want to lead can consist of preventing other people from leading the life they want to lead is not a principle of religious freedom; it is rather, as John Stuart Mill put it, “so monstrous a principle” as any that exists. It is the end of religious freedom.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Today I start a two-part post by Philip Green.  Phil is a retired professor of Political Science from Smith College, a member of the editorial board of The Nation, and long a strong voice on the left.  Phil and I go back eight decades, to the neighberhood of Sunnyside in Queens, New York, where, it is said, we rode in the samwe baby carriage on occasion.  I have a yellowed picture of the two of us at Camp Taconic, maybe ten years old, perched atop what look like enormous horses for our riding lesson.

Phil's essay is called On "Religious Freedom."

               An unsettling development in public discourse is the way spokesmen for organized religion, especially the Catholic Church, have been able to claim a fictitious high ground, in which “moral beliefs” and “principle” and “conscience,” counterposed to the mere desire of women to avoid pregnancy, deserve special protection from the state; and in which efforts to subordinate those beliefs and principles to any analysis at all demonstrate instead moral tone-deafness and a hostile approach toward organized religion.

             The argument, expressed quite concisely by Michael P. Warsaw (the “president and C.E.O. of EWTN Global Catholic Network”) in a New York Times op-ed page contribution on February 22nd (and earlier by Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, as well as more recently by a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in The Sunday Review of April 15), comes in three parts. First, it is wrong, it amounts to religious persecution, for the state to “coerce” members of religious groups to act against their beliefs or principles or conscience (the three words tend to be used interchangeably in this context). Second, religious beliefs or principles stand on an especial high ground compared to other kinds of beliefs or principles. And third, whether or not one accepts that contrast, it is indubitably true for the United States, in that freedom to follow the tenets of one’s religion is uniquely granted protection by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Every one of these arguments is not only plainly wrong, but perniciously wrong.

            The first leg of the argument, especially as coming from spokesmen for one of the more repressive and authoritarian of human institutions, is breath-taking both in its scope and its absurdity. To put it simply: Outside primitive tribes, the beliefs of groups of people constantly run into fierce and potentially hurtful or lethal conflict with those of other groups; dealing with this unavoidable fact of life, by compelling some people to act contrary to their beliefs, is not only what governments do, it is in large part what they come into existence to do.  Nor do we mean by this violations of the Ten Commandments: murder, rape, theft, etc. Those are individual crimes and for the most part centralized states are not necessary to deal with them; localities can often do just as well, for large numbers of individuals do not go around declaring that it’s ok to commit those crimes according to their beliefs. Psychopaths aside, no one really has an expressed  belief about these matters contrary to the beliefs of the mass of any population. It is when groups oppose other groups, and that opposition is grounded in beliefs about who is good or evil, who is just or unjust, who is oppressive or oppressed, who has rights or is denied rights, that the state must and invariably does take action.

            The belief, e.g, that free enterprise exists if and only if human labor can be treated as a commodity like any other, and the contrary belief that human labor can never be thought of and treated as a commodity, are mutually incompatible, and two fundamentally different political regimes are based on them. The history of anti-trust legislation, of the use of the injunction, of violent strikes and violent strike-breaking, testifies to this opposition: strikers were killed, company property dynamited, factories occupied and police sent in to rout the occupiers. In the end, in the wake of factory occupations that totally repudiated the “law and order” upon which capitalism depends, the National Labor Relations Act coerced the owners of capital into compromising with the unions whose very existence was anathema to the rights of private property. Those owners have been struggling, sometimes with great success, against that settlement ever since: struggling for the right to use all the coercive means at their command to prevent workers from forming trade unions and calling strikes.

            Indeed, as the child of a union household, I still remember the thrill that went through us all upon seeing the iconic 1944 photograph of Sewell Avery, the President of Montgomery Ward, being dragged from his office by National Guardsmen, kicking and screaming (“to hell with the government, you fucking New Dealer,” he shouted at Attorney-General Francis Biddle), because he had refused to allow unionization efforts at the company: taking a principled stand against “coercion,” the very word that he used. It was even more thrilling to watch Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, and the rest of the Little Rock Nine being escorted by armed soldiers into Little Rock Central High School; or to compare the moral courage of Autherine Lucy to the malignant racism of George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” These were clashes of beliefs and principles, and not only was state coercion unavoidable, but whatever the outcome both sides were going to think they’d been right, and the losers were going to think they’d been unjustly coerced. It is not, after all, as though Autherine Lucy was uniquely principled; George Wallace had (or at least claimed to have) his principles too–they were just wrong. But the fact that for decades state power had contrarily been deployed on behalf of a malign principle doesn’t make the existence of coercion wrong, but only the uses to which it had been put. That is what must be discussed, not whether anyone is or is not being coerced.

            But it is not necessary to advert to world-historical events to demonstrate the emptiness of the Church’s objection to being coerced. Every month my pension fund withholds taxes on my income, a significant portion of which will go to pay for what I consider to be an unremitting immersion in American war crimes as part of an undeclared and indefensible war in Afghanistan. One way or another I must pay that tax or I will be punished, perhaps jailed. Some have defied the State but I do not, for I think the principle of universal obligation is more important than would be my (purely symbolic) taking of an individual moral stance. As opponents of disobedience from the time of Socrates onward have argued, there would be no social order if disobedience were general. And this means not only disobedience to the traditional criminal law, but disobedience to public laws in general (in the instant case, implementation of the 2009 Health Care Reform Act): laws that inevitably raise up one set of beliefs about social organization and group behavior, and proscribe action on behalf of another.

            But then we need not resort to our own personal beliefs or principles to see the problem here; we need only to let the spokesmen for the Church speak for themselves. For what they desire above all, more passionately than any other desire they have expressed an opinion about in recent times, is to reinstitute laws that coerce women into not having abortions and to punish them, and their doctors, if they then do so. They believe, much more deeply than I do in fact, in the right and duty of the state to punish people who have or act upon wrong beliefs; who lack their principles. Nor is this a case of persons with principles opposing persons with “merely” naked self-interest. On the contrary, whatever the needs and thoughts of individual women seeking abortion might be, for four decades both liberal and radical feminist thought have stood firmly on the principle that women ought to have control of their own bodies; and that the contrary stance of the Catholic Church is not so much a principled desire to save “innocent lives” as it is an all-out, no-holds-barred effort of an uncaring patriarchy to keep women in their place: their place of subordination. But leaving the rightness or wrongness of competing  beliefs about conception and life aside, how can it be a matter of inconsequence to be forced to bring into the world a child that one does not want to have, and from then on to live a life that one did not want to be living; or a matter of inconsequence to be forced to violate one’s beliefs as an obstetrician as to whether women deserve to have the medical procedure they desire; and yet be a matter of deepest consequence to be forced to pay, not even personally but rather institutionally, a “tax” which one does not wish to pay on behalf of a belief--about contraception--that most people do not share? This is not moral reasoning; it is the rejection of moral reasoning, in favor of religious dogma. It is unscrupulous in its contempt for contrary principles in the name of principle.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Someone I know was recently diagnosed with Huntington's Disease, sometimes known as Huntington's Chorea, and it got me thinking about some really perplexing moral dilemmas posed by the disease.  Huntington's, for those of you who do not know [there is a long and very informative article on Wikipedia, if you are interested] is a genetic disorder that afflicts between 5 and 10 persons per 100,000 worldwide, with Europeans much more likely to have it than Asians or Africans.  It is genetically dominant and not sex-linked, which means that if either parent has the gene on one chromosome [and hence will eventually come down with the disease, since it is dominant], a child has a 50% chance of having the disease as well.  If each parent has the gene on one chromosome, the probability is 75%, and if either parent has the gene on both chromosomes [a rarity] the probability of each child being affected is 100%.  Note that because the genetic disorder is dominant, it is not possible to inherit it from parents neither of whom develops the disease [assuming they live long enough.]

The disease causes increasingly severe motor problems, cognitive problems, and eventually dementia, leading to death.  Although there are cases of the disease appearing in childhood, it typically becomes manifest in young or middle-aged adults [which is to say, at or after child-bearing age].  There is no cure, and although drugs can to some extent ameliorate the symptoms, especially in the early phases of the disease, its progress is inexorable.  Life expectancy after the initial manifestation of the disease is about twenty years.

The moral dilemmas are obvious:  Should parents who know that they are gene carriers tell their children?  Should they have their children tested?  Should adults who know they are at risk for being carriers [and hence eventually sufferers from the disease] have themselves tested before they have children, and if they are carriers, should they have children at all?  Is someone who knows that Huntington's runs in the family obligated to tell a partner before marriage or procreation?  Does that person have a responsibility to be tested before entering into a committed relationship that might result in children? 

There is virtually no medical advantage to be gained for the individual from genetic testing, since knowing that one has the gene does not make it possible to do anything at all to lessen the inevitability of developing Huntington's.  To tell a child or young adult that he or she has the gene is to give that person a very hideous death sentence, albeit one that may not be imposed for several decades.  But knowing that one has the gene would allow a man or woman to deliberate about whether to have children, inasmuch as there would be a 50/50 chance of passing the disease on to each child.

One of the peculiarities of a genetic disorder like this is that it can be eliminated from the human genome in one generation if every carrier chooses not to reproduce.  Although an incidence of one per ten thousand [more or less] is very low, in a population of three hundred million, one would expect to find perhaps 30,000 persons who have manifested or will manifest Huntington's at any given time.  From a Public Health perspective, eliminating such a genetic disorder from the human genome would seem to hold out the prospect of avoiding a very great deal of human suffering.

So, there are the dilemmas [and many more, which I am sure my readers can conjure up.]  I have to confess that I have very few secure moral intuitions about this matter.  The one thing that seems obvious to me is that anyone who knows that he or she is at risk for carrying the gene has a moral responsibility to be tested before contemplating procreation.  It also seems to me clear [although perhaps not quite as clear] that such a person ought to inform anyone with whom he or she is considering entering a relationship that might lead to procreation.

I would be very curious to know what folks think about this.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


[As I begin this fourth part of my tutorial on Kant's ethical theory, I am forced to confront once more the fact that there is vastly more to be said than can be squeezed into even the most capacious tutorial.  I shall try not to make too great a shambles of it.]

The core idea underlying Kant's analysis, about which we must be very clear, is the distinction between what we may call behavior and action.  By behavior, I mean any physical movements [including speech, of course, as a physical movement of the larynx, etc.] that a human being exhibits.  This is a tricky matter, because to be completely clear, we would have to decide whether we mean to include as behavior physical movements whose proper description makes essential reference to social meanings -- a bit of behavior such as giving a command, for example, or playing a game.  But assuming that we can sort all that out, all behavior, on Kant's view, is causally determined.  This follows directly from the Second Analogy teaching that to be real in the Realm of Appearances just is to stand in thoroughgoing causal relationship to what has gone before and what comes after.  Because behavior is causally determined [and hence, Kant thinks, at least in theory totally predictable], it is morally neutral.  A bit of human behavior cannot be characterized as either virtuous or vicious, good or bad.  It simply is.

By action, on the other hand, I mean things done by agents [human or otherwise] in accordance with and because of reasons.  [There is a very useful discussion of this distinction in an old book by the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood.  See The Idea of History.]  To act, according to Kant, is to be guided by reasons.  Now, all reasons are in their logical structure general, not particular.  [This is, of course, totally independent of whether they are good or bad reasons.]  If I choose to do something for a reason, I implicitly commit myself to a subjectively general rule concerning all other cases that are like this one in the relevant ways.  Kant calls such subjective rules maxims.  It follows, on his view, that whenever we act, we do so in accordance with a maxim of action.  Maxims, as we shall see, have the syntactic form of imperatives.  Generally speaking, they are of the form:  "Having as your goal or purpose G, do A."

Kant has the reputation of being a rather rigid and rigoristic moralist, very much an old school Puritanical prig.  His teaching about maxims feeds into this stereotype.  We can just imagine him, in every situation, pausing to ask himself, "What is the maxim of my action?" before doing anything at all.  Not at all a swinger, let alone a Dionysian!  Now, leaving to one side the fact that as a young man Kant had something of a reputation as a billiards player and bon vivant [no kidding], this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Kant's position.  The point is that action, as opposed to behavior, is brought about by reasons rather than causes, and reasons, by their logical structure, are implicitly general, hence expressible in the form of maxims.  Whether we pause sententiously to reflect on our reasons or act seemingly spontaneously, it remains true that insofar as we are acting, we are determining ourselves by reasons.

The central question of the Grundlegung, and for Kant of all moral philosophy, is whether there are any subjective maxims that all rational agents as such necessarily adopt as the rules of their action, simply in virtue of being rational agents.  If there are, then those subjective maxims will be Objective Laws, binding on all rational agents regardless of their desires, sentiments, purposes, or other differentiating characteristics.  If there is one such objective maxim from which all other objective maxims can be derived, then it will be The Moral Law.  Its validity for us will be absolutely unconditional.  That, in a nutshell, is what Kant is looking for in his moral philosophy.  Anything less, in his view, does not deserve to be called moral philosophy at all.

If you are paying very close attention, it may occur to you that there is a really big problem here.  Action takes place in the Realm of Appearance just as much as behavior does.  Kant thinks, for example, that I am morally obligated to keep my promises, [more of this when we get to Section Two.]  Now, a promise is a commitment made by one person to another person in the Realm of Appearance.  The keeping [or breaking] of the promise also occurs in the Realm of Appearance.  But since both the making and the keeping [or breaking] of the promise occur in the Realm of Appearance, they must be bits of behavior standing in thoroughgoing causal relation to everything else that happens.  How on earth can the making of a promise be both a bit of behavior falling under universal causal laws and also an action undertaken in accordance with a maxim?

This is a simply huge problem, to which Kant devotes Section Three of the Grundlegung, and about which we shall have a very great deal to say.

A second point of information and clarification before we turn to the Three Propositions listed at the end of Part Three above.  Because Kant is searching for rules of action that are binding on all rational agents as such, he conceives these rules as equally valid for non-human rational agents as well, which to him meant angels.  [No snarky laughter please.  If it makes you more comfortable, substitute aliens for angels]  Our human condition -- our desire for pleasure, our aversion to pain, our mortality, our talents, sentiments, and predilections -- are all, from Kant's point of view, limitations or constraints on our nature as rational agents.  Because of them, we have difficulty obeying The Moral Law, and find ourselves tempted to ignore it.  Hence, we experience the Moral Law as an unconditional command, a Categorical Imperative.  But it is at least possible that there should be rational agents unconstrained in this fashion, who recognize the objective validity of the Moral Law and abide by it simply because it is dictated by the universal principles of rationality.  Such beings, Kant sometimes says, possess a Holy Will.  They do not experience the Moral Law as a command, because they are not tempted to disobey it.

I find it interesting to compare this to the rules of formal logic, such as the Law of Contradiction. Mathematicians do not find themselves tempted to break the Law of Contradiction, secretly asserting "p and not p" when no one is looking, or wondering whether they can get away with an argument cast in one of the invalid syllogistic forms [Some A are B; some B are C; therefore Some A are C, for example.]  If I may speak somewhat oddly, all of us, as mathematicians or logicians, have a holy will when it comes to reasoning in those disciplines.  That is what it would be like to have a Holy Will in general.

By the way, there are lovely echoes here of the New Testament teaching that those reborn in Christ act naturally and spontaneously in conformity with the Law, as laid down in the Old Testament.  Paul, of course, had some difficulty with several of the communities of followers of Jesus, who were doing some rather hinky things in the belief that, as reborn, they could do no wrong.  He put a stop to that nonsense, I am happy to say.  :)

Well, enough of throat clearing.  Next part, I will address the three propositions directly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Well, I never did get to Paris.  A sinus infection intervened.  But with the assistance of, I purchased a copy of the Lewis White Beck translation of the Grundlegung from a little bookshop in Oregon, so I am ready to continue the tutorial.

If you approach the Grundlegung knowing that it is widely considered one of the two or three most important texts in the history of Western Ethical Theory, the first thing that will strike you is how short it is:  barely eighty pages in the Beck translation [seventy-five in the original German edition.]  Now, I am myself given to writing short books, so I do not disparage a work merely because it does not spread itself over five or six hundred pages, but eighty pages does seem a bit slight.  Not to worry.  We shall find that it has more than enough powerful philosophy in it to keep the most dedicated student busy for quite some time.

The structure of the work is somewhat unbalanced.  After a six page Preface, there are three Sections.  The first runs a bit more than thirteen pages, the second is fully forty-two pages long -- more than half of the total book -- and the last section, the third, is seventeen pages.

The logical structure of the exposition is quite straightforward.  In Section One, Kant begins with what he takes to be the ordinary moral beliefs of good, decent Prussian peasants, and attempts to show that contained within those beliefs, if one thinks about it carefully, is a form of the principle of action that he calls variously The Moral Law and The Categorical Imperative [I shall explain the distinction a bit later on.]  Kant does not for a moment imagine that he is putting forward a new principle of morality.  Indeed, he thinks that such a notion is absurd.  But a good deal of over-intellectual philosophizing has served to confuse good people about what they all know in their bones, so he proposes to put our common understanding of morality on an absolutely firm footing.

However well-argued Section One may be, its conclusions are open to the objection that they are at all persuasive only to someone who happens to share the common understanding of morality that Kant there assumes, so in Section Two, Kant begins all over again with the concept of a Will, and undertakes to demonstrate what he has in Section One assumed.  This is quite obviously a daunting task, so we ought not to be surprised that it consumes fully half of the little book.  In Section Two, we find an explication of the notion of a Categorical Imperative and a derivation of its several of its alternative formulations, as well as the famous Four Examples of the Categorical Imperative, and the equally famous discussions of Humanity as an End in Itself and the Realm of Ends.

Section Two, I should note, contains a brief paragraph with the heading "The Autonomy of the Will as the Supreme Principle of Morality," in case anyone has ever wondered where I got the central, idea for my little book, In Defense of Anarchism.  This is of course also the source for the title of my Commentary on the Grundlegung, The Autonomy of Reason.

Section Three is devoted to dealing with the extremely tricky question of the precise logical status of the conclusions of Section Two.  Inasmuch as Kant has, he believes, established in the First Critique that we can never have knowledge of things as they are in themselves, and since he believes that it is as a self-in-itself, and not as a phenomenon in the Realm of Appearance, that my Reason can be practical, which is to say that I can in the full sense act, it is incumbent upon him to explain just what the status is of the propositions he purports to have established about rational willing and the principles that guide us as moral agents.  It is in this Section that Kant resolves the conflict between Free Will and Determinism, insofar as that conflict can in fact be resolved.

Well, that is the big picture.  Now we must descend into the weeds a bit.  Let us consider these sections in sequence.

Section One

In the Western tradition, there are several very different questions that seem to have motivated philosophers to write about what we can recognize as Ethics.  The first, historically, is the question posed repeatedly by Plato in the Dialogues:  What is the Good Life?  Is it a life devoted to the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?  Is it a life of contemplation and meditation?  Is it a life of virtuous action?

A second question is posed by the philosophers known as Utilitarians:  Is there a way of calculating what I ought to do, especially when confronted by difficult choices among competing claims upon my allegiance?  Ought I to weigh the pains and pleasures that my actions will cause myself or others?  Ought I to try to formulate some general rules to which I can adhere when faced with hard choices?

Neither of these questions seems to be what motivates Kant.  Instead, we might put his question in this way:  Knowing as I do, indeed as all good, decent people do, what I ought to do, how shall I understand and deal with the inner struggle between this knowledge and the many temptations to be ignore what I know to be my duty and to stray into a path of immorality?  In short, what is it my duty to do?

"Nothing in the world -- indeed nothing even beyond the world --can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will."  Thus Kant begins Section One.  It is, when you think about it, a rather odd place to start.  Neither Plato nor Aristotle nor Hobbes nor Hume nor Bentham would have recognized that statement as an appropriate place to begin an investigation of ethical theory, or indeed as an appropriate component of such an investigation at all.

It is worth quoting several passages from this opening Section of the Grundlegung to convey the flavor of Kant's ethical discourse.  Let me offer just two, from the first four pages:

"Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, and perseverance as qualities of temperament,, are doubtless in many respects good and desirable.  But they can become very bad and harmful if the will, which is to make use of these gifts of nature and which in its special constitution is called character, is not good.  (and so forth.)"

"[T]he more a cultivated reason deliberately devotes itself to the enjoyment of life and happiness, the more the man falls short of true contentment.  [This at least Aristotle would have agreed with... ed.]  From this fact, there arises in many persons, if only they be candid enough to admit it, a certain degree of misology, hatred of reason."

It comes as a surprise to learn that in his youth, Kant played billiards and was thought to be something of a man about town, although to be sure that town was Kรถnigsberg.

The bulk of Section One is devoted to stating and arguing for three propositions, each of which, Kant believes, is either acknowledged by common moral opinion or else follows directly from propositions that are so acknowledged.  The three propositions are:

First:  To have moral worth, an action must be done from duty [and not from inclination.  ed.]

Second:  An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim by which it is determined.

Third:  Duty is the necessity of an action executed from respect for law.

In the next part, we shall explore these three propositions a bit and see where they lead.