Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/

Towards Constructive Politics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/05/2022 - 10:00pm in

It just isn’t true that the only problem that confronts people who are trying to learn the truth about their social system is that they haven’t talked to enough people who have less money than them, or a more marginalized racial or gender identity. That’s among the problems, but the problem is much deeper and has many more dimensions....

Read More


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:00pm in


Links, philosophy

Recent additions to the Heap of Links…

  1. “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think they should have a lever that allows any old idiot to divert the whole group of us to Westport on a whim” — the trolley is reviewed
  2. New: IPM Monthly – Medieval Philosophy Today — a site for news, opportunities, publication notices, profiles of philosophers, etc., related to medieval philosophy
  3. “What I loved about the history of jazz—namely, that subtle changes to chord sequences and key changes could reframe the entire realm of possibilities for musicians in the future—was also a feature of the history of philosophy” — philosopher Andrea Pitts (UNC Charlotte) is interviewed about their life and work in philosophy, with a particular focus on social identities
  4. What is the value of studying moral dilemmas? — an exchange between Paul Conway (Portsmouth) and Guy Kahane (Oxford)
  5. “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work” — Bertrand Russell on the value of leisure and its “wise use,” in a 1932 issue of Harper’s (via The Browser). It was Russell’s 150th birthday this past Wednesday.
  6. “If spectacular forms of white supremacy were to end tomorrow, whiteness as a structure of privilege, power and hegemony would continue” — George Yancy (Emory) on how “white-perpetrated, anti-Black murder is all too acceptable, consistent and inoffensive to the very fabric of this nation”
  7. “Passing is not without costs: it takes a significant emotional and psychological toll, both on individuals who pass and on the friends and family they may leave behind” — Meena Krishnamurthy (Queen’s) on the “burdened virtue” of racial passing

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, a collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!

Vallor Wins Covey Award

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 9:35pm in

Shannon Vallor, professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, holder of the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the university’s Edinburgh Futures Institute, and director of its Centre for Technomoral Futures, has been named the winner of the 2022 Covey Award.

The Covey Award recognizes “senior scholars with a substantial record of innovative research in the field of computing and philosophy broadly conceived.” It is awarded by the executive board of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy (IACAP).

In a statement, IACAP Executive Director Steve McKinlay writes: 

The board recognised Professor Vallors significant contribution to our field, both in academic as well as public spheres over the last two decades… Professor Vallor’s research explores how emerging technologies reshape human moral and intellectual character, and maps the ethical challenges and opportunities posed by new uses of data and artificial intelligence. Her work includes advising academia, government and industry on the ethical design and use of AI. Her current project examines responsibility gaps in the governance of autonomous systems, as part of the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems programme. She is the author of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting (Oxford University Press, 2016) and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Technology (2022).She is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching, scholarship and public engagement, including the 2015 World Technology Award in Ethics.

Professor Vallor will present the Covey Award Keynote address at the IACAP 2022 Conference this summer. A list of previous winners of the Covey award can be found here.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 12:44am in


Links, philosophy

Latest links…

  1. A missing color — cognitive scientist and artist Allen Tager tries to figure out what explains why violet was largely missing for much of human history
  2. Philosophy at the movies — some highlights from the film & philosophy podcast of Justin Khoo (MIT), “Cows in the Field”
  3. “The objection to violence has its limit at the point when fundamental freedoms are at stake” — understanding Habermas’ view on Germany’s role in helping Ukraine (via Darrel Moellendorf)
  4. “Raz’s legacy is a body of work united by dense and detailed tissues of understanding, spun between jurisprudence, political philosophy, ethics, and practical reasoning” — Jeremy Waldron (NYU) on the significance of Joseph Raz’s work
  5. If we conceive of time as a kind of veil of ignorance, perhaps the governance of space is a good subject for a Rawlsian approach—but not for long — more cynical headline: “Rawls’s Theory Finally Finds Suitable Application in Lifeless Void, according to Social Scientists”
  6. More on the metaphysics of farts, and the mysterious author of the article smelt round the world — by Elizabeth Picciuto in Slate
  7. “How much should we dress up for an event when the topic of the talk was body modification?” — a journalist reports on an event with philosopher Clare Chambers (Cambridge) about bodies, beauty, and shame

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, a collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!

How Economics Found Science …and Lost its Subject Matter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 11:52pm in



Re-evaluating the “equality-efficiency” trade-off

Herewith an article that was published by INET a couple of weeks ago, and Evonomics more recently. I’m republishing it here as it’s my ‘blog of record’ as it were, but also because it enables me to make notes to file as comments.

Vice always comes disguised as virtue. No exceptions.

Ryan Meade


The organizing ideas of a discipline determine what gets seen and what does not. Because they dominate disciplinary commonsense and operate as a system, those ideas are difficult and disruptive to change. This is a particular problem for economics. For it emphasizes technical mastery, far more than critical scrutiny of the ideas behind the techniques and the reformulation of those ideas as experience unfolds. This essay provides just one example of the costs of this unhappy arrangement.

One way economists describe their discipline to themselves has proven beguilingly seductive since it was codified by Lionel Robbins 90 years ago — that economics is the science of scarcity and that it is, therefore, paradigmatically about trade-offs. So ingrained is this approach that my questioning it may come as a shock. But that is my purpose here. As Mark Twain apparently didn’t say, “it’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, but what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Indeed, I show this approach has become a kind of counterfeit metaphysics — a means by which practice becomes increasingly thoughtless and alienated from economic reality whilst practitioners affect rigor and insightfulness.

Here’s an introductory example of the way in which trade-offs are assumed as necessary when they are anything but. In the 1970s, manufacturers presumed there was a necessary trade-off between cost and quality. Quality improved as one increased spending on tighter tolerances and more inspectors to catch production errors. But Toyota developed a profoundly different approach in which meticulous attention to getting it “right first time” in the production chain dramatically improved quality and lowered cost. Moreover, this set the stage for future productivity growth as production teams strategized and bug-fixed their way to endless design and workflow optimizations. Astonishingly, within two decades Toyota’s labor productivity was four times that of its American rivals. By the mid-1980s, the two car models with the highest build quality were luxury Mercedes Sports (assembled with more inspectors per car than any other) and the Toyota Corolla (assembled without any inspectors at all)!

Figure 1: Japanese and US labor productivity (1968-1992). Credit: Jeffrey H. Dyer, Kentaro Nobeoka, 2000. “Creating and managing a high-performance knowledge-sharing network: the Toyota case” Strategic Management Journal, March 21, 2000

Is it too much to expect that economics might be fascinated with such phenomena, and obsessed with finding and exploring such “free lunches” and bringing more of them into being? Alas, economics’ all-purpose method discourages curiosity about such things when it’s not altogether assuming them away. Numerous sub-disciplines of economics have emerged in the last generation, but they’ve all emerged from the internal imperatives of the discipline — from innovations in economic theory, econometric method, or data availability. None of these, of any professional significance, has taken its cue from emerging phenomena in the economy itself despite some remarkable developments that have shown us new forms of economic relations. Peer production and the collective debt obligations behind microcredit are some examples. Toyota’s production system is another example.

Toyota wrought far-reaching and subtle transformations to a whole socio-technical system. After a decade of denial, American firms spent the next decade trying to copy Toyota’s method. We can see this in the chart above as we can also see the Americans’ failure. As Edwards Deming (the American process control engineer who’d helped develop the Toyota system) put it mischievously, “American management thinks that they can just copy from Japan—but they don’t know what to copy!” Put differently, the methods of American management rendered how Toyota achieved its miracle invisible. By a similar means, the miracle remains invisible also to neoclassical economics, a subject on which we expand in what follows.

Economics Strives to Become a Science

Particularly since the late 1800s, economics has famously striven to become a science. It was rebuilt around the mathematics of classical physics. It was also given a singular focus — as the science of scarcity. But this method became the master rather than the servant of economic inquiry. Economic life as experienced was increasingly pushed out of view to make the chosen methods work.

Alfred Marshall was an early architect of the transformation. But he sought a methodological fusion, between formal economic theory and deep familiarity with economic life. The echoes of these disciplinary values survived through to the late 1930s. Thus, as they contributed to the edifice of neoclassical economic theory, theorists like John Hicks closely considered the compromises they made between the simplifying assumptions necessary to get the mathematics to come out and the extent to which this falsified economic reality.

By contrast, the leader of the post-war generation of economists, Paul Samuelson, regarded Marshall’s attempts to bridge the divide between economic theory and economic life as hopelessly confused. He was right that they were “fudges,” but matching thought to life is like that. And the new approach solved Marshall’s problem by essentially ignoring it. Those discussions carefully explained why the theorists’ choice of tools was the best solution to the specific intellectual dilemmas at hand became increasingly perfunctory. In the upshot, as Paul Krugman has noted, it became both normal and acceptable for major economic phenomena that couldn’t be easily captured in formal models to become invisible to professional economists, a pattern repeated again and again, including, Krugman admits — with remarkably little unease — in his own work.

By a strange alchemy, economists’ new method was projected back into economists’ presumptions about the nature of economic reality itself. Philosopher E. A. Burtt identified the phenomenon a century ago:

[If a man be] engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful… But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic.[1]

Samuelson understood the economic world to be so constituted that it would yield its secrets to his method. He had expected the new approach to “accumulate a convergent body of econometric findings convergent on a testable truth.” Forty years on he confessed that his expectation “has not worked out.”

Trade-offs As a Paradigm

Compared with other objectives, how much should we value economic efficiency — the effort in inputs like labor and capital required to produce a given output of goods and services. How much should we value equality? How important is people’s health compared with these other objectives? These are difficult questions of values with which economists rarely grapple directly. On the other hand, economists are more confident in their assertions about the relationship between these values in the wider world: They must be traded off against each other. Thus Arthur Okun titled his 1975 landmark work for the Brookings Institution Equality and Efficiency: The Big trade-off. His point is straightforward enough. Writing when America’s economy was suffering from overcommitment to various objectives — from the war in Vietnam to the war on poverty — Okun made the timely but obvious point that, taken too far, the promotion of equality can harm efficiency.

As he put it, governments redistribute income via “leaky buckets.” Both subsidies and the tax necessary to fund them impose costs both in administration and by changing incentives, and thus behavior. As redistribution increases, the leaks grow and policy effectiveness diminishes. At the limit, absolute income equality shears away all material incentives to work and invest.

However, except somewhere near the limit, it’s far from clear where the trade-offs between efficiency and equality become substantial. And, as I’ll argue below, efficiency and equality can also complement each other as much as productivity and quality complement one another in a Toyota factory. But economics is impatient with such complications, teaching its students that efficiency and equality are paradigmatically competing values — as in this 2016 explanation and the accompanying diagram:

Policies like taxes and transfers can contribute to ensure a more equal distribution of income. However, this comes at the cost of distorting incentives for work, education, investment and so on, which in turn leads to a worse economic performance.


It’s almost as if these two abstract entities “efficiency” and “equality” were two products an economy could produce. Oh, wait …. It’s exactly like that. This is the same diagram you’d get to illustrate your choice of how many apples or oranges you want to produce — or consume. Like so many things in neoclassical economics, a particular way of thinking — legitimate enough in its domain — is then totalized. The result is a discipline that’s rendered strangely incurious and emptied of empirical content.

The reason for the tradeoff relationship between equality and efficiency is the empty one that equality is not efficiency. In this schema, there’s a trade-off between efficiency (or the production of apples or anything else) and the production of anything that’s not efficiency (or not apples — like oranges). There’d be a trade-off between spelling performance and efficiency. Just change the x-axis to good spelling and the more effort you put into it (you know, with spelling bees in schools and old people’s homes, TV quiz shows, cruise ships, and so on) well it’s all at the expense of how far you can get on the Y-axis of efficiency.

This structuring of entire bodies of thought around the empty observation that one thing is not another thing is replicated endlessly. Thus this Health Economics textbook tells us of a health ‘trilemma’ constructed out of nothing more than three different abstract values embodied in health policy — health, wealth (or the efficiency of delivery), and (health) equity.

Figure 15.1 depicts the three-pronged trade-off inherent in health policy. In an ideal world, all three goals would be attainable at once: people would live long, healthy lives; pay very little for health care; and this happy state of affairs would be available to everyone in society.


In practice, though, it is impossible to have everything. Any attempt by a nation to move closer to one of these three goals necessarily involves a trade-off that moves that nation further away from some other goal. Any hypothetical policy X that effectively combats adverse selection and increases equity, for example, would either increase costs or lower health at least for some. That there are trade-offs between these three goals should not be surprising. If all three goals could be met simultaneously, health policy would not be a source of endless political acrimony – nor would it be interesting or important to study. (Emphasis added)

And yet, as was obvious from the get-go and made even more so by the COVID pandemic, a community’s health is a fundamental input to its economy.

An alternative (institutional) framing

Here’s a very different but equally general analysis. The queue above forms spontaneously between complete strangers. It’s simple, a little like an economist’s model, but its role in the analysis is not to produce mathematical tractability. Rather, it takes queuing — a simple and often spontaneous social phenomenon — as a paradigm of something more general that the philosopher William James expresses as follows:

A social organism of any sort whatever, whether large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the … faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.

The idea can be given a more modern point of departure via the scholarly consensus that has arisen since the late 1970s,[3] that humans’ extraordinary and unique capacity for shared intentionality is the foundation of our astounding productivity. The most fundamental means by which this is done is via what I have called generative orders — language and culture being preeminent examples, though markets and money are others. Within these generative orders, our cognition of the world, our intentions, and our mutual expectations of each other are entangled. This foundation enables us to build other special-purpose institutions such as those mentioned by James above.

The spontaneous queue illustrated above is an instant, informal, special-purpose institution — a mini-world within a wider world. As such it provides the seed for a “theory” of institutions. It is built from each member’s understanding that:

  • It helps them achieve something with others they couldn’t otherwise achieve individually; and
  • Members assume reciprocal obligations towards each other.

Our queue works well when people understand and honor those obligations. It breaks down if individuals exploit others’ goodwill for their own private gain. So there is an integral relationship between efficiency and equality of treatment in such cases. But as much as we can distinguish them in our minds as abstract concepts, they’re not to be experienced as such in economic life — where they only occur fused together, inseparable. Just as quality was made fundamental to efficiency on Toyota’s production line, fairness is fundamental to the efficiency with which we cooperate within and through institutions.


Does any of this prove that greater equality necessarily improves efficiency? Obviously not. My point has simply been to show one theoretical framing of the relationship between efficiency and equality that proceeds from careful, critical observation of and abstraction from reality. If this is well-judged, our understanding of reality improves as do our prospects of improving it. The textbook approach couldn’t be more different. Turns out that it is metaphysical fairy-floss. The “efficiency-equality” trade-off exists as a particular case of the general one that if you wish to achieve one thing, doing something else could get in your way. That applies whether the things in question are apples, oranges, efficiency, spelling prowess, bananas, Nobel Prizes, stop signs, or fortune cookies. Oh — I nearly forgot — and equality. Who knew?

Disciplines like economics can be worse than useless without proper attention to what Mary Midgely called their ‘philosophical plumbing’ — the way their organizing ideas are brought into relation to get us closer to reality — like the philosophical plumbing I’ve offered in this essay. Without it, the ideas and techniques economists use are unmoored from any wider accountability for actually helping us understand the world. Yet that kind of close-grained reflectiveness about the way ideas are used in situ is completely absent, both from learned journal literature and from the core economics curriculum. (Indeed, in my experience, it barely makes its way into the “philosophy/methodology of economics” literature and pedagogy preoccupied as they have been with various more ponderous set pieces — for instance, Popper’s falsificationism and Milton Friedman’s call to judge theory by the quality of its predictions rather than the realism of its assumptions).

Finally, note how frequently the kind of thinking I’ve been critiquing in this essay perpetrates the fallacy of the excluded middle — and how much damage this has done to the fabric of economic and political debate, and therefore to our economy and polity. Thus, Friedrich Hayek compellingly demonstrated the impracticability of managing a complex economy entirely from the center. But he took this demonstration of the impracticality of one extreme to justify a lurch towards the other and the general principle that less government was in principle preferable to more. This piece of motivated impatience in going from arguments to practical conclusions — so typical of intellectuals — was a spectacular non-sequitur from which many economists have still not freed themselves and from which the world has still not recovered.


[1] E. A. Burtt, 1925. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, Kegan Paul et al, p. 226.

[2] Samuelson, P. A., 1986. “My Life Philosophy”, in Crowley, K. (ed), The Collected Scientific Papers of Paul A. Samuelson, Volume 5, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. p. 793.

[3] Nicholas Humphrey’s 1976 paper “The social function of intellect” has pride of place as a kind of ‘ground zero’ in this story.

Thanks to Steve Roth, Gene Tunny, Peyton Bowman, Reuben Finighan, Alexander Gruen and Martin Wolf for comments on earlier drafts and/or encouragement.



Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 11:54pm in


Links, philosophy

Recent additions to the Heap…

  1. “Faddish calls to… ‘center the most marginalized,’ which abound in the academic and leftist activist circles… ‘never sat well with me’” — a profile of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (Georgetown) in New York Magazine
  2. “If any woman could realize Sartre’s picture of self-defining ‘man,’ Iris might have fancied her chances” — When Iris Murdoch met Jean-Paul Sartre
  3. “For better or worse, most contemporary philosophers must engage either directly or indirectly with racist philosophers” — Brandon Hogan (Howard) on how to do it better
  4. How to participate in a philosophical discussion — a guide for students by Olivia Bailey (Berkeley)
  5. The television show that introduced existentialism to to Americans — the 10-episode series, “Self-Encounter,” aired in 1961 and was hosted by Hazel Barnes
  6. “All of this applying takes an incalculable toll… Maybe we need to imagine whole new worlds where people-picking happens very differently” — Adam Mastroianni (Columbia) on the costs of, and alternatives to, all the applying for everything we all do (via The Browser)
  7. Some people think that humans matter more than non-human animals because of what we can do, or what we’re like — but, argues Jeff Sebo (NYU) this “human exceptionalism has it backwards: if anything, we increasingly have capacities-based and relationship-based grounds for prioritising nonhuman animals”

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, a collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!


Ergo To Stop Requesting Submission Fee from Authors

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 10:06pm in

The philosophy journal Ergo will no longer be asking authors for a $20 fee or “donation” to consider a manuscript for publication.

The journal had implemented the optional fee in 2020 in order to defray the costs of operating the journal. It had also launched an institutional sponsorship plan to get philosophy departments and libraries to support the journal. The plan has been successful. Ben Bradley (Syracuse), one of the journal’s editors, writes:

We are very pleased to announce that we have secured enough institutional commitments to cover the journal’s expenses. We have received sponsorships from over 30 departments and libraries for $100-$600 each. We’d like to single out Cornell, Gothenburg and Toronto as giving especially significant support. Most crucially, we have recently received a substantial long-term commitment from the Syracuse University philosophy department that will cover the majority of our costs for the next three years, and likely longer. As a result, we will be discontinuing the practice of requesting $20 donations from authors, at least for now, and hopefully forever. (Of course, we still welcome any such donations, but they are no longer necessary for us to continue operating.) We expect to make this change on the journal website in a few weeks. We are very excited about this development, and grateful to the SU department as well as the many others who are making this change possible! We also thank the hundreds of authors who have donated to the journal over the last couple of years; your assistance helped us reach this point.  

You can view the list of institutional sponsors here.

Contemporary Philosophy That May Help You In A Difficult Time

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 10/05/2022 - 9:21pm in

At Shepherd, a book recommendation site, philosopher Michael Cholbi (Edinburgh) discusses his own book, Grief: A Philosophical Guide, and a few other works by philosophers he thinks can provide readers with an “emotional compass” to help “navigate the perennial challenges that being human presents us.”

[Edward Hopper, “Automat”]

These include books by Charlie Kurth (Western Michigan) on anxiety, Krista K. Thomason (Swarthmore) on shame, and Jennifer Gaffney (Loyola Chicago) on loneliness, among others. You can check out his remarks about them here.

In light of… everything, this seems like a theme worth expanding on, so I invite readers to share books and articles by philosophers they’ve read that they think offer something that can be of use for people experiencing emotionally challenging times. I’d ask of readers that the works they recommend:

  • be not just about some challenging emotion or type of difficult experience, but helpful in some way or another for someone grappling with that emotion or experience, and
  • be written in the past 50 years, so as to avoid trite suggestions and, with luck, to give exposure to some underappreciated writing.

Thank you.

American history as imagined in liberal political philosophy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/05/2022 - 7:59pm in

I was reading a book on migration ethics recently – I may write a review later 1 — and it reminded me how a certain picture of the normal liberal state and its place in the world figures in a lot of political philosophy. Although the normative arguments are supposedly independent of historical facts, history is to be found everywhere, but only in a highly selective version that reflects the dominance of the United States within the discipline and the prominence of prosperous white liberals as both the writers of the important texts and as the readers and gatekeepers. 2 Their assumptions about the world and the US place in it shine through and form a "common ground" that is presupposed in much of this writing.3

In this vision, all the world is America 4 — though not one that corresponds to the actual history of the US — and the rest of the world mostly consists of little proto-Americas that will or should get there in the end (thereby echoing Marx’s dictum that the more developed country shows the less developed one a picture of its own future). This imaginary, but also not-imaginary, state is a sort-of cleaned-up and aspirational version of the actual one, cleansed of embarrassing details that are mere contingencies that detract or distract from what US liberals suppose to be its real essence or telos. Crucially, it is also considered as a basically self-contained entity, where all the important relationships are ones among people on the territory.5 It is an association of free and equal persons that has simply arisen on virgin soil. Both the actual United States and other countries fall short of this model, of course, but with time and good will wrinkles and carbuncles will be removed. 6

Now nobody believes that actual United States is anywhere near where its supposed essence directs it, so proponents of the model have certainly conceded its gross and deep injustice. But I think that what they take that great and deep injustice to be and the necessary mode of its correction, is both revealing and problematic. In brief, the apparently wise and noble vision of "the Founders" is soiled by the great uncorrected "anomaly" (henceforth the Anomaly) of race and the bringing to full citizenship and equality of the United State’s black citizens. In this narrative, then, slavery, the Civil War, Lincoln, Reconstruction, the struggle for civil rights and Martin Luther King all loom large and the central political task is overcoming that legacy of civic exclusion and subordination so that all take their place as full American citizens, recognizing one another as equal members of the Republic.

Corresponding to this is a characterization of White Supremacy (though this term is rarely used explicitly) as the domination of White Americans over Black Americans, with White Supremacy conceived of as being overcome once true civic equality is realized. (On the Left there is a variation of this story in which race is an epiphenomenon of class and in which the Anomaly is overcome once black and white recognize their commonality as American workers.) 7 Anyone who consumes the liberal output of Hollywood will also recognize the narrative in innumerable movies, but Selma is a recent example. The narrative of essential purity contaminated by the Anomaly explains some of the angrily defensive reactions to the New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Now the narrative isn’t exactly false: the struggles of black Americans for equality are of very great historical importance: those who fought and fight for civil rights were and are heroic. They really did make immense sacrifices against racism and injustice, something that is rather diminished in a narrative that has them as redeeming the essential goodness of the very polity that brutally oppressed them and in large measure continues to do so. The trouble is that the bordered national and historical frame that the narrative is set in leaves so much else out of the picture, most significantly, perhaps, three things: first, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, overwhelmed by the aggressive imperial expansion of the original white settler-colonists; second, the fact that black Americans have another commonality that is tacitly suppressed in the focus on US citizenship, namely with the African diaspora elswhere in the Americas that also results from the Atlantic slave trade; third the fact that White Supremacy was not simply directed at black Americans but also had as its antagonist — and not just in the United States — immigrant workers from China, India and other Asian countries (and more recently from Latin America).

On the first of these, the place of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the story, there is either silence or the the thought that it was all a long time ago and we can’t unpick it now (and certainly not without causing great injustice in the present). And maybe that’s right, at least to the extent that claims to resources on the part of indigenous populations have to both settle the thorny and contested question of who counts as indigenous,8 and to upset the lives that have been blamelessly built by many in the very places that indigenous people used to hold. Hence various attempts by philosophers to address the supercession of historical injustice. 9 But it is one thing to think that we cannot roll the clock back and quite another to deny the exclusionary claims of past holders of territorial and property rights while asserting very strong claims for oneself against people now characterized as non-citizens and hence as “outsiders” but who may well include descendants of past holders. Anyway, my purpose here is not even to begin to settle these questions of restitution, compensation and the like — which many people have worked on — but to note how little the issue features compared to other intrusions of historical detail into the central texts of liberal political philosophy.

The second omission, in some ways more interesting to me, is that of the black diaspora. It is interesting because of what neglect of it implicitly erases. The Anomaly is that there exists on the territory of the supposedly liberal-democratic state a group of people who have been wrongfully excluded from the civic status of equal citizenship and so the "solution" is to turn them into (or to recognize them as) regular citizens alongside other Americans. Presented like this, the Anomaly is a problem that is purely internal to the liberal democratic state and the "solution" is the re-establishment of a kind of normality that is consonant with the alleged essence of the political community. Perhaps this re-establishment also involves some kind of compensation in recognition of historical injustice, and perhaps it does not, but either way the goal is to bring it about that the hitherto excluded are brought to a position where they have a set of rights and duties towards the other members of that political community that are more extensive to those owed to "outsiders". Indeed, the primacy of these "internal" rights and duties over external ones is presupposed by the assumption that the state or nation is the privileged site of co-operation for all its inhabitants.

However, alongside the commonality that black Americans share with those who live within the state that they inhabit is another history, that of all the descendants of those forcibly brought to the Americas by Europeans, some of whom ended up in the United States, others in Brazil, elsewhere in Latin America or in the Caribbean. That the descendants of the victims of this legacy of forced kidnapping, transportation, rape and murder ought to, in the first instance, be bound by ties of civic equality to the children of their kidnappers and exploiters (and others, of course) rather than to their fellow victims who contingently ended up behind other borders, may have something to recommend it given that we live in a world of bordered national states, but it is surely an argument that deserves to be set out in the open rather than something that disappears behind a theory’s founding assumptions. Too often I have read some white American migration theorist arguing that "we", ie the set of American citizens, ought to protect poor black Americans from labour competitition from immigrants, but why are those poor black Americans part of a "we" that excludes a "they" of whom other descendants of slavery are a part? (Commonality with one’s fellow victims beyond borders is also something that bears on the indigenous case.)

The third omission is the failure to notice that the United States (like other white settler states such as Canada and Australia) has historically pursued policies of racial exclusion to preserve white supremacy that have little to do with the dominance of whites over black Americans. 10 The chief exhibit here is the Chinese Exclusion Act and related measures at the end of the 19th century and the subsequent making explicit by leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt of an approach that saw the United States as part of a group of white countries determined to preserve racial dominance against the threat of labour competition from Asia. These days, if work on migration ethics mentions these measures at all it is as another unjustified "anomaly" that disgraces the constititional liberal state which really ought not to discriminate in matters of immigration. This rather neglects the fact that such measures of racial exclusion were not unjust deviation from the state’s legitimate exercise of the right to control its borders but rather the central motive to getting immigration control started in the first place.11 Moreover, while the focus of racial anxiety has shifted its location somewhat, the central motive behind restrictionism remains the worry that the white core of America may be overwhelmed by the undesirable other: nowadays "Mexican rapists" instead of Chinese labourers and "prostitutes".

The centrality of the Anomaly in the historical imagination of liberal political philosophy and the pretence that White Supremacy would be defeated once civic equality for all, irrespective of race, is realised within the borders of a liberal constitutional state that remains free to restrict immigration obscures much from view that we ought to take seriously if we oppose both inequality and racism. First, there are consequences for the realization of civic equality within the state. Historically, the creation of a national citizenship and pressure to conform the the expectations of what a citizen is like has not worked well for indigenous people and their children. In the present, the equal status of citizens who look and sound like the people that the state is trying to keep out is often compromised as they and their families suffer the consequences of aggressive immigration enforcement.12 But in focusing on equality within the state taken as a discrete unit, as a little world unto itself, the methodological nationalist gaze simply fails to notice that White Supremacy both historically and in the present is maintained by keeping the non-white Other (Chinese labourers then, Central Americans now) on the outside. Liberals caught in an epistemic frame that is limited to citizens within borders can therefore complacently congratulate themselves on their anti-racism, because they favour equal status of all irrespective of race, while upholding in practice a system of white dominance. To my mind the lessons ought to be that we cannot easily separate questions of equality among citizens from the unequal statuses that are produced by nationality and bordering and that in doing political philosophy we cannot easily escape from the contingent unjust histories that have deposited particular people in the places where they now are.

[Many thanks to the friends who gave me feedback on drafts of this post]

  1. It was Michael Blake’s Justice, Migration and Mercy, (Oxford University Press, 2021).?

  2. As as British person I’m aware that we could tell a similar story about Britain, racism, exclusion etc as I refer to here and we could even find examples of historical amnesia and selection in the work of British political philosophers to illustrate the point (perhaps David Miller, and see for example Lorna Finlayson’s "If This Isn’t Racism, What Is? The Politics of the Philosophy of Immigration" Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 94 (1):115-139 (2020)). But US institutions are so dominant within the discipline that it is American historical narratives of self-congratulation, messianism, guilt, anxiety that loom largest.?

  3. Olúfémi O. Táíwò discusses Stalnaker’s notion of common ground as presupposed in conversation in his new Elite Capture (Pluto/Haymarket, 2022). It is "a shared resource that participants in a conversation use to build and perform social interactions." "When we act in social contexts, we treat the information in the common ground as if it were true…." Elite Capture pp 40–41.?

  4. See what I did there??

  5. Most liberal political philosophy therefore resembles the approach that Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Shiller have called "methodological nationalism". See e.g. their "Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences", Global Networks 2, 4 (2002) pp. 301–34. In political philosophy, both Alex Sager and Speranta Dumitru have been prominent in challenging the assumption of methodological nationalism. See e.g Alex Sager, "Methodological Nationalism, Migration and Political Theory", Political Studies. 2016;64(1): pp. 42–59 and Speranta Dumitru, "Qu’est-ce que le nationalisme méthodologique : Essai de typologie". Raisons politiques, 54, 9-22.?

  6. The relationship between the liberal state in ideal political philosophy and actual states has, of course, long been a topic of controversy, on which see for example Charles Mills’s classic article "Ideal Theory as Ideology" (in Peggy DesAutels and Margaret Urban Walker, eds., Moral Psychology: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 163-81). On the one hand people will say that something like Rawls’s well-ordered society (as an example among others) is a purely philosophical construct to enable the discussion of abstract principles, on the other hand critics have long suggested that Rawls, Dworkin et al are merely parochial rationalizers of something like existing states. Personally, I think that claims of purity are often belied by the intrusion of actual facts into the discourse, most notably facts concerning civil rights but also, for example, Dworkin’s discussions of workfare programmes in his Sovereign Virtue. In our conversations with students, moreover, there’s often an implied "we" and a shared social and political context against which classroom argument takes place. But I also think that the "merely" of the parochial rationalization attack vastly overstates that case. Anyway, here I’m in the business of noticing which bits of reality and history intrude and which don’t, and suggesting that this might be symptomatic of something.?

  7. A proper academic article making the points of this blogpost might look through the works of, say, John Rawls, and note how often the Anomaly, Martin Luther King, Lincoln etc are mentioned compared to the lacunae outlined here and then look at later work by others in journals such as Philosophy and Public Affairs. The answer for Rawls himself is that even the Anomaly gets rather thin engagement, though one can extrapolate from his concerns with topics such as civil disobedience. Later work could include Elizabeth Anderson’s Imperative of Integration (Princeton 2010) and Tommy Shelby’s brilliant Dark Ghettos (Harvard 2016) (which both shows how much can be done to address racial injustice from within a Rawlsian paradigm but also stays firmly rooted within the boundaries of the nation state).?

  8. On which, see Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Migrants and Natives (Duke 2020) pp. 46­–50.?

  9. The key reference here is Jeremy Waldron’s "Superseding Historical Injustice", Ethics , Oct., 1992, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Oct., 1992), pp. 4-28. For reasons why past injustices in the acquisition of territory might not necessarily impugn the justice of later holdings see Lea Ypi "A Permissive Theory of Territorial Rights" European Journal of Philosophy 22 (2):288-312 (2014).?

  10. The key text here, which will transform your thinking (guaranteed!) is Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge University Press: 2008).?

  11. As Sarah Fine has pointed out, race and discrimination are central to popular discourse on immigration but almost absent from philosophical discussion of it, despite the roots of modern immigration control in the desire to discriminate on grounds of race. See her “Immigration and Discrimination” in Fine and Ypi eds Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (Oxford, 2016).?

  12. See, for example, the work of Amy Reed-Sandoval, such as her Socially Undocumented (Oxford, 2020).?

Two Philosophy Students Among Newcombe Fellows

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 7:12pm in



The Institute for Citizens & Scholars has announced its 2022 class of Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellows, which includes two philosophy students.

They are:

Magnus Ferguson of Boston College, whose dissertation is entitled On Responsibility for Others’ Harms,


Emma Prendergast of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose dissertation is entitled The Moral Authority of Citizens.

22 fellows were selected in all. The fellowships include a 12-month award of $30,000 to support the final year of dissertation writing.

(via Frances Hannan)