Saturday, October 14, 2006

Review of Stephen Nathanson's Should We consent to be Governed

Lately I have come to think of political philosophy as the study of four questions. (I think I read this in a paper by Dudley Knowles.) (1) Are governments legitimate?; (2) What is the best form of government?; (3) Are governments constrained by the rights of their citizens?; and (4) what is the proper distribution of resources. Stephen Nathanson's book is a short introduction to political philosophy, though it really only gives us a discussion of question (1) only touching on the others. This is not a criticism, but it does show that the question that Nathanson discusses is really only one of the big questions.

Though it is one of the big questions, it is also the least important. After all, you have to be a philosopher to think that the question of the legitimacy of government is really up for grabs. It is a really interesting theoretical question, or rather the reasons are really interesting theoretical answers, but the question?. . .c'mon. In high school we were all anarchists. We hated the government, the man, and authority. But then we grew up.

Nathanson's discussion is what you have when you grow up and you try to explain to your former high school self why you sold out. We all sold out. I hope there aren't many people who were thinkers in high school, and still think now what they thought then. Nathanson's discussion however is geared to the high-schooler. Nathanson clearly does have the ability to be subtle as a philosopher, though it is not exhibited here. (Though he has one argument in the final chapter that kept me tossing and turning for hours last night, and I cannot think of a good satisfying refutation.)

Nathanson Claims that there are 4 positions we can take on whether we should be governed. (1) No. (2) Accept your government. (3) Assume your government is an instrument of repression. and (4) be a critical thinker about your government, but accept the fact that governments are legitimate.

Naturally Nathanson takes the safe route and argues for (4) and against the others. The arguments are mostly simple and straight forward. Use the standard anarchist arguments for (1) and refute them. Take Plato's Crito as an argument for (2) and refute it. Take the Leninist/Thyrsamachus argument for (3) and show how misguided it is. And finally, show how Martin Luther King had a view of (4) and how true and widely acceptable it is. So there were no surprises.

Besides for its simplicity and limited scope, I shan't critique the book. I would actually recommend it to someone if they were a precocious high-schooler and wanted to know what political philosophers talk about, and what the opening moves in a discussion of one of the major questions in political philosophy are.


Shosh said...

what was the argument that kept you awake at night?

Karl said...

Nothing important. I realized just after I wrote the review that he misrepresented an argument, but sort of subtly. I am over it now. I sleep easier.

Also, as long as I am writing here, I am really starting to get pissed off at people who keep on tacking on to the word "justice", like social justice, economic justice, and racial justice. (The first is now common, and the other two are used in the book.) As if just using a word and putting justice after it means that what ever you are advocating has something to do with justice. I would propose "genocidal justice" "ass-kicking" justice, and "segregation justice" to be used too. I'm not sure what they are, but I am sure that they stand for just concepts.

Shosh said...

O has been very curious about what kinds of jobs he can do when he grows up and I found a newsweek opinion piece by a professional philosopher. He discussed how unnerving it is to have people ask "you're a philosopher?, what do you *do* ??"
I read the article to O and I thought of you.
He says it would be too easy to be a philosopher. He wants to be an astronaut instead.

p.s. I'm all for ass-kicking justice.

Karl said...

I tend to see it as my job spending the semester teaching introduction to philosophy - to explain what exactly it is that I *do*. It is not an easy job, but it is fun.