The following opinion piece is one of a series of five being released this week and next to celebrate World Philosophy Day and to publicise the upcoming workshop entitled Editor’s Cut – A view of philosophical research from journal editors. the workshop will take place at the University of London on Friday 13th of January 2012.
In 1689, John Locke published two treatises on government. Locke’s Second Treatise is a staple of introductory political philosophy courses, pored over by generations of scholars and undergraduates. His First Treatise is barely read today. This differential treatment reflects neither the importance Locke himself attached to the two treatises, nor the comparative cogency of Locke’s arguments, but rather the contemporary relevance of his themes. Locke’s First Treatise attacks Robert Filmer’s defence of the divine right of kings. As events outside philosophy have rendered absolute monarchy irrelevant, so Filmer’s arguments – and thus Locke’s demolition of them – have faded from the philosophical canon.
To illustrate the role of historical contingencies here, consider the fact [reported by colleagues who teach this material in the South Pacific] that students from Tonga find Locke’s critique of Filmer’s biblical defence of the divine right of kings both timely and inspiring. For them, an absolute monarch who claims descent from Adam is not some quaint historical relic.
The dominant figure in twentieth-century Anglo-American political philosophy was John Rawls, whose defence of liberal democracy set the scene for much current debate. Reflecting on the divergent posthumous fortunes of Locke and Filmer, it is sobering to pose this question: When the history of twentieth-century philosophy comes to be written, will John Rawls play the role of John Locke or of Robert Filmer? [If you think Rawls is already passé, then substitute your own candidate for ‘philosophical representative of our age’.] Will future teachers of the history of philosophy struggle to explain to their incredulous pupils how any intelligent person could have defended such an absurd and unsustainable political system as late-affluent liberal democracy? And if Rawls is our Filmer, who is our Locke? Imagine what informed observers in 1689 might have predicted. Will our own predictions be any more reliable?
This may seem purely whimsical. Surely no plausible event could render Rawls’s commitment to liberal democratic ideals as absurd as Filmer’s commitment to absolute monarchy? As Rawls’s self-proclaimed ‘disciple’ Burton Dreben says: today, we simply take it for granted that ‘only a fool’ would not want to live in a liberal democracy. Surely this will not change?
I am not so sure. There are possible futures where Rawls makes no more sense than Filmer. (And I mean ‘possible’ in the everyday sense of ‘might very well happen’, not the philosopher’s sense of ‘logically conceivable’.)
These possible futures involve what I call the broken world. This is not some post-apocalyptic nightmare, but simply a place where two founding empirical assumptions of traditional political philosophy – especially in the Rawlsian liberal tradition – no longer apply. These are the assumption of favourable conditions (where we suppose that our society can meet all basic needs without sacrificing any basic liberties); and the optimistic assumption that business-as-usual will leave future people better-off than present people. If we do what is best for present people, then future people will inherit our stable liberal democratic institutions, thriving economy, and scientific advances. If we pursue our own interests – follow our natural inclinations – then future people will inevitably be better-off than us. They will be healthier, wealthier, and enjoy longer and richer lives. What is good for us, is also good for them.
These optimistic assumptions allow political philosophers to ignore the future. Consider Rawls himself. His magnum opus (A Theory of Justice) devotes just ten pages to justice between generations; and even then his focus is tellingly limited. As we accumulate wealth, we must decide how much to consume for ourselves and how much to invest for the future. For Rawls, the only ethical question is: How much better-off should we leave our descendants?
Rawls wrote in 1971. Like paisley shirts and psychadelic music, his complacent approach has not aged well. We no longer take it for granted that we will leave our descendants better-off, or even that we can. And future people are no longer an afterthought. They have moved centre stage, both in popular debate and in moral philosophy.
Climate change – and other environmental or economic threats – may produce a broken world where the resources of the earth cannot support all human beings; where the climate is very unpredictable and extreme weather events are common; and where some parts of the globe are simply no longer inhabitable by human beings – think of African deserts too hot to bear, or Pacific atolls sunk forever beneath the waves.
A broken future may not be inevitable, but neither is it merely imaginary. This is one possible future – and perhaps the most likely one. And, of course, the longer we do less than we should, the more likely that future becomes.
The prospect of a broken world raises many sobering questions. My present topic, rather parochially, is how the shift to a broken world might impact on philosophy.
In our affluent world, political philosophy revolves around moral concepts – need, rights, entitlement, justice, happiness – that are coloured by these two optimistic assumptions. And moral philosophers build elaborate theories on the shifting sands of intuitions tailored to our world of plenty. Will future philosophers find any use for the scholastic niceties of current debates between liberals, libertarians, egalitarians, communitarians cosmopolitans, deontologists, consequentialists, and contractualists? Will they even have a use for our notions of justice or rights?
I address these sobering questions in my new book – Ethics for a broken world: imaging philosophy after catastrophe (Acumen, October 2011).