Blair: The Battle of the Philosophies

by Peter Blair | 9/22/11 10:00pm

Diversity is a popular buzzword these days, but for all the progress towards diversity that we've made in several particular areas, there is one major realm in which intellectual homogeny still reigns: our politics.

This homogeny exists both theoretically and practically. In theory, all major American parties and political leaders are classically liberal Lockeans. As I learned on the first day of Public Policy 5 freshman year, all Americans basically agree on the same list of political values, and really only differ in which they give priority to. Our intense disagreement about national issues may actually be an indication of how close all Americans are politically, rather than how far. Debate can often be fiercest in marginal skirmishes, if only because a certain incommensurability enters into debates the further apart the opponents are. American political discourse, then, is hemmed in by numerous intellectual third rails that constrict and limit our public deliberation.

This lack of diversity on the theoretical level is mirrored in our practical political arrangements. There are, as we all know, only two viable political parties in America, who are both committed to a particular combination of concrete policy positions. It should be clear that there are not merely two possible stances to take towards the contested political issues of our day, nor merely two possible combinations of policy positions. The strangeness of our situation is only further emphasized by the fact that there is no clear theoretical philosophy that can unite the disparate policy preferences of both parties. For example, Republicans oppose big government, but seem unconcerned by big business. They oppose abortion but support the death penalty. Democrats claim to speak for the little guy in economic matters, but aggressively support violence against the littlest among us, the baby in the womb. They fight poverty, but are silent about the breakdown of the family, which may be one of the biggest causes of poverty in contemporary America.

At first glance, then, both parties seem to suffer from internal contradictions. It is almost inexplicable that, in the face of such highly unstable policy combinations, new parties proposing more coherent programs have not arisen. It is possible that this is because the conflicts identified only exist at the surface level, and are actually resolvable through some philosophical synthesis. But even if such a synthesis is possible for both parties, all such attempts are going to take the parties' current positions as givens, and then attempt to work backward to a coherent philosophy. This, however, is to get the matter exactly backwards, for philosophy should inform policy.

What is needed nationally then is a revival of political philosophy a public conversation about which philosophical commitments should govern our policy preferences. It is an essential part of such a conversation, however, that no voices are excluded from it at the start, except for example, those of genocidal maniacs. All must be allowed to take the field and speak for themselves, even if their position initially seems implausible.

This is especially true of those philosophies like Marxism or Monarchism that are deemed radical, unrealistic or absurd. First, there may actually be good arguments for these positions. We must not mistake a contemporary consensus on an issue as a definitive mark of its truth it may be that things that have become unthinkable for us in 21st century America might actually be rather reasonable. Second, even if we find that these philosophies are as wrong as we initially thought (as we no doubt in most cases will), exposure to different philosophical systems can inspire us to intellectual creativity as well as give us a more objective sense of the merits and demerits of our position. The radical, even if he is eventually rejected by everyone, plays the essential role of devil's advocate, giving stimulus to the conversation.

There is no better place to start this kind of conversation than a school like Dartmouth. In fact, we have already begun it, with last year's debate on capitalism between professor Andrew Samwick and professor Russell Rickford. This is exactly the kind of intellectual exchange we should be having more often. As the Republican debate on policy specifics approaches, we should resolve to commit ourselves to the more fundamental debate over political philosophy, one governed not by ideology but by the dispassionate pursuit of truth.