Grad course on “Social Justice and Desert”

Here is the draft course description for a course I’m teaching in Winter 2016:

Social Justice and Desert

One of the standard criticisms of the welfare state is that social provision of income, housing, etc. rewards the imprudent, the irresponsible, the feckless, the lazy – in short, the undeserving. Recent increases in high-end inequality have raised similar questions about whether the market system itself rewards the undeserving; what have the top 1% done to deserve their enormous share of total income and wealth? Are CEOs today really so much more deserving than they were in the 1970s? The association between justice and desert has a long history, and is an important part of common sense thinking. However, the main political theories of the 20th century assign little or no fundamental importance to desert. The classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls – none of these views hold that in order to be just institutions must match shares with individual merit. The purpose of this course is to get a better understanding of this disconnect between theory and common sense. The first part of the course covers the free market critique of the “just deserts” interpretation of marginal productivity, Rawls’s rejection of the common sense position on desert, and the criticisms this rejection led to on the part of people such as Miller, Nozick, and Sandel. The second part of the course examines theories that attempt to accommodate the intuitions about desert that motivated the critique of Rawls and the welfare state without explicitly appealing to desert. So-called luck egalitarians emphasize the importance of responsibility, and of people “paying the costs” of their choices. An interesting alternative is to appeal to the idea of reciprocity, connecting liberal egalitarianism with social democratic thinking from the first part of the twentieth century. The final part of the course will focus on specific issues that present challenges for a theory of justice-as-reciprocity: disability, global justice, and economic incentives.

Reading that over, I see that it might suggest that Rawls was a welfare-state liberal, as if his theory would be satisfied by the formula ‘laissez-faire + enough social provision so that the poor don’t starve and the system remains stable’. Will have to work on that.

POLS 456, Libertarianism and Its Critics

That’s what POLS 456 is going to be about this year, not “the politics of identity” as it says in the calendar and on our departmental website.  POLS 456 will likely return as the politics of identity in future years, however, taught by Prof. MacDonald

For a fuller description of my Winter 2010 POLS 456, see my previous post

Using TW + Wikispaces

Like many other profs, I started using the internet by posting lecture outlines online – PDFs of PowerPoint slides.  But a friend of mine who knows something about the web asked why I didn’t just email the files, since I was using the web purely as a distribution mechanism.  Good point!  The potential benefit of the web over emailed PDFs would lie in converting the slides into linked pages, so that students could navigate from one idea to a related idea, or between multiple instances of a single idea, rather than having stacks of slides organized in one linear fashion.  The logical structure of the material is web-like, so why shouldn’t it’s physical structure online be web-like?  So I started making webpages to go along with presentation slides.

Immediately I ran into a problem. Continue reading Using TW + Wikispaces

Student Notebook

I like to use slides in lecture because I think it can help students follow the argument – to see its logical structure.  So long as there isn’t too much text on the screen, it can be helpful to be able to see how I distinguish the different points I’m making, and to note when I’m moving from one point to another, and to see that one point is a “level 1” point, while another is a “level 2” point.  I also want to provide these slides to the students, because I don’t want them to feel that they have to furiously scribble down everything I say.  If they have my slides, then they can have more time to listen and think and ask questions in class, because they only have to take notes to fill in the details, to make comments or indicate questions, and so on.  

Once students have my slides, however, there is a question about how they integrate their own notes with my slides. Continue reading Student Notebook

Reading Course on Political Liberalism / Public Justification

Following this fall’s graduate reading course on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, I am considering doing another such course during winter term on Rawls’s Political Liberalism, plus some of the surrounding literature on public justification.  Enrollment would be limited.  If anyone in politics or philosophy is interested, please let me know.  You don’t have to have taken the first course to take the second, but familiarity with the arguments of Theory would be helpful.

POLS 451

POLS 451 will be about religion and politics.  The first third of the course will look at the history of debates about religious toleration in Europe.  The second third of the course will be about the attempt of recent liberal theorists such as John Rawls and Charles Larmore to “apply toleration to philosophy itself” and so develop a “political liberalism,” based on the demand for public justification; the exercise of political power is justified only if justifiable to every member of society, which means reasonably acceptable by each without anyone having to give up the religious, philosophical or ethical doctrine they (reasonably) espouse.  The last part of the course will involve debates about this idea of public reason or public justification in the context of specific policy debates, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.  If you have any questions about the course, please let me know.