Spring 2020 PPE Reading Groups
The Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program is excited to offer four reading groups this spring!
The form is now closed. Thank you for your interest!
Reading groups meet, with a leader, over dinner to discuss a book relevant to Philosophy, Politics & Economics. The books will be provided and the cost of dinner will be covered. Each group will meet eight times over the course of the semester for approximately an hour and a half each meeting; groups meet after classes have ended for the day, between 6:30 and 7:00 pm, depending on the discussion leader.
Please keep in mind that, if you do join a reading group, attendance and participation at each meeting is expected. In addition, towards the end of the semester, we will ask you to provide an evaluation of your experience in the group. This is essential to our continuation of this program and we take your feedback seriously!
THE SPRING 2020 PPE READING GROUPS:
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
Z Quanbeck (meets Mondays)
Widely regarded as a foundational text of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke’s classic pamphlet entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France integrates eighteenth-century historical commentary with a discussion of political theory still relevant today. In critiquing the French revolution and the theory of abstract rights that served as the revolution’s philosophical inspiration, Burke articulates a vigorous defense of the value of tradition and the prudence of gradual political change. In this reading group, we will both interpret Burke’s political philosophy within its historical context to better understand this PPE classic, and evaluate whether or how Burke’s ideas ought to inform our contemporary political theory.
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt by Arthur Brooks
Si-Hua Chang (meets Tuesdays)
In a time of increasing political and cultural polarization, Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies calls neither for abuse and outrage nor for mushy moderation but for decency, integrity, and honest disagreement.Love Your Enemies brings both contemporary behavioral science and ancient philosophy to bear upon questions not just of civic cooperation but of interpersonal love that transcends differences. Love Your Enemies asks timely questions as the 2020 elections draw near.
Students will also have the exciting opportunity to hear Arthur Brooks discuss the issues raised by his book at a public lecture at UNC in March.
Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform by Tommie Shelby
Alexandru Marcoci (meets Wednesdays)
In Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, Tommie Shelby argues for a radical change in the way in which academics and policy makers approach the problem of poor black neighbourhoods in the United States. The received view is that policy makers should isolate one salient and disconcerting feature — joblessness, single motherhood, violent crimes — as the key to solving the problem of ghettos and propose cost-effective policy interventions to address it. Shelby argues such an approach fails on three different levels. First, it takes the underlying injustice that has led to the appearance of ghettos as given and asks the inhabitants of these stigmatized neighbourhoods to integrate in the wider society that marginalized them. Second, by ignoring the structural factors that maintain ghettos, policy makers misunderstand their denizens as passive, irrational, or recalcitrant. Finally, focusing on the disconcerting features of the ghettos hides the illegitimate privileges enjoyed by the advantaged. In this ground-breaking book, Shelby examines questions such as: should single parenthood be avoided or deterred? How should the criminal justice system treat the oppressed? Is intentional unemployment or crime an acceptable mode of dissent? Should the government work to integrate dark ghettos?
Students will also have the exciting opportunity to hear Tommie Shelby discuss his latest research this semester, when he will be giving a public lecture at UNC.
Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom
Samuel Schmitt (meets Thursdays)
How we care for the environment, how we check government overreach, and how to balance those two sometimes competing aims is of vital importance. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons (1990) is a modern PPE classic which helps us think more clearly about that complicated subject. Incorporating groundbreaking fieldwork, incisive theoretical invention, and practical findings, Governing the Commons helped Ostrom earn The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences (the Nobel prize for economists). The text chiefly concerns how agents overcome collective action problems in the context of common-pool resource management (e.g. fisheries, forests, water supply). In this reading group, we’ll ask and discuss what collective action means for us, our communities, our responsibilities, and our environment.
BONUS!!! We are also very pleased that the Parr Center is now offering two reading groups on the same model that you might be interested in. The PPE Reading groups are being handled in a single stream with the Parr Center’s new reading groups, so you can also express interest in the Parr Center groups through one and the same application (below).
Parr Center Reading Groups:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Delaney Thull (meets Tuesdays)
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption focuses on topics regarding the American justice system, including mass incarceration, the death penalty, private prisons, imprisonment of women and teenagers, mental illness, racial injustice, and poverty. The book details several stand-out cases from Stevenson’s career in public interest law in Alabama, as well as the work of his legal advocacy nonprofit called the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson argues that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but rather is justice. This book is an excellent starting point for understanding the ethical questions driving the contemporary policy debates about mass incarceration and prison reform. It’s also a great case study on taking a values-based approach to navigating a career in law, politics, policy, or advocacy.
Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear
Alex Campbell (meets Wednesdays)
“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” This is how Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation, described the events that rapidly deprived the Crow of their way of life. In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear uses Plenty Coups’ story to ask how we ought to respond to the very real possibility that we too may be deprived of our way of life? Drawing from anthropology, history, and philosophy, Lear argues that the ideas and values that gave meaning to the lives of the Crow people were embedded within their form of life, the narratives they told, and the rituals that they performed. When the Crow could no longer continue living as they had, they faced a particularly stark kind of meaninglessness–as Plenty Coups put it, “After this nothing happened.” Yet Lear finds hope and courage in the way that Plenty Coups faced the erasure of his culture, and this prompts Lear to ask what it means to be hopeful and courageous in such circumstances, how one might do that, and whether it is ultimately justifiable to have such radical hope. While we will be interested in Lear’s analysis of Plenty Coups’ story in its own right, we will also be concerned with how these timeless questions relate to us given increasing uncertainty about the future due to things like climate change, rapidly changing technologies, and the rise of populism. How should we conceive of our future? Does it make sense for us to feel hopeful?
Past PPE Reading Groups
Reading Groups – Fall 2019
Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform by Tommie Shelby
In Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform Tommie Shelby challenges what he sees as a current problem with how we frame questions about how to help the most disadvantaged black communities in our society. Many scholars and commentators attempt to isolate one factor—joblessness, single motherhood, violent crimes— as the key to solving the problem of these “dark ghettos” and propose policy changes to address that single factor. Shelby argues that these policy proposals fail to view the ghetto poor as moral agents who are responding to injustice and fail to recognize the existence of ghettos as a symptom of structural injustice that concerns both the privileged and the disadvantaged alike. Informed by philosophical and political science research, Shelby examines questions such as, should single parenthood be avoided or deterred? How should the criminal justice system treat the oppressed? Is intentional unemployment or crime an acceptable mode of dissent? Should the government work to integrate neighborhoods? What moral obligations do the ghetto poor have? Together we will develop an understanding of Shelby’s conception of justice and the philosophical framework that he using to examine these issues, and we will evaluate and critically examine his arguments and proposals. Students will also have the exciting opportunity to hear Professor Shelby talk about his latest research at public talks he will be giving this semester and next semester at UNC.
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt by Arthur Brooks
In a time of increasing political and cultural polarization, Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies calls neither for abuse and outrage nor for mushy moderation but for decency, integrity, and honest disagreement.Love Your Enemies brings both contemporary behavioral science and ancient philosophy to bear upon questions not just of civic cooperation but of interpersonal love that transcends differences. Love Your Enemies asks timely questions as the 2020 elections draw near, and especially so because Arthur Brooks will be delivering a public lecture at UNC in March.
Crises of the Republic by Hannah Arendt
In the subsequent essays, Arendt moves to address other timely concerns, including the increasing bureaucratization of modern states, the role of civil disobedience in democracy, the relationship between power and authority, and the difficulty of securing democratic life using political strategies that rely on violence and coercion.
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau’s oft-quoted line “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” pithily expresses one of political philosophy’s most enduring problems. In forming a political community, we each give up some of our individual freedom. Freedom is paramount. Can there be any kind of legitimate political authority? Is it possible for us to live together and remain free? In The Social Contract, Rousseau argues that we can and outlines how it could be done. The secret involves a particularly strong form of direct democracy, the general will, and personal transformation. The treatise, published in 1762, inspired revolutions throughout Europe as well as influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence. The work continues to inspire to this day.
Reading Groups – Spring 2019
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman presented one of the first arguments that women’s rights are human rights. She argued that girls should be educated and that women should work outside the home and contribute to politics. But while she’s famous for her very early contributions to feminist philosophy, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in the 18th century, was ground-breaking in many ways and is multiply still relevant today. She called for equal education for both boys and girls. She argued that that education should be free and public and that it should be available to everyone regardless of how wealthy their families were. She even discussed the ever-present nurture versus nature debate. In this reading group we’ll read the entirety of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and discuss both the historical context and the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s arguments are still relevant today.
The Cost-Benefit Revolution by Cass Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s The Cost-Benefit Revolution (2018) provides a historical overview of, and a justification for, the use of cost-benefit analysis in creating policy. Sunstein argues “government policy should not be based on public opinion, intuitions, or pressure from interest groups, but on numbers—meaning careful consideration of costs and benefits.” Quantitative cost-benefit analysis provides the best way to “make people’s lives better” while preserving autonomy. Sunstein does not argue all laws and policies should be determined by cost-benefit analysis, as such analysis might be subject to rights-based limitations. The Cost-Benefit Revolution also includes discussions of particular issues, like the role of courts, mandatory labels, national security, personal privacy, and freedom of speech.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, and the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything (from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation) can all be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.
Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
A classic of XIX century political philosophy, Democracy in America is the result of a long journey and an attentive study of America’s democratic experience by French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville. In this reading group, we will examine de Tocqueville’s reflections on the mechanisms and failures of democracy and compare his observations on early nineteenth century America’s legislation and social structure with today’s. Along the way, we will discuss de Tocqueville’s ideas regarding the influence of democracy on the shaping of political institutions, popular culture, religion, norms and customs. We will also consider de Tocqueville’s concerns for the future of the democratic experience of the United States, touching upon issues of inequality, the preoccupation for material well-being, and the risks of political corruption and oligarchy. Democracy in America is an essential text for understanding the past, present and future of democracy in the United States.
Reading Groups – Fall 2018
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne
In her Amazon bestseller, Kate Manne aims to construct a functional account of misogyny. Manne rejects the naive conception of misogyny understood as hatred toward women qua women, which makes the phenomenon appear as virtually nonexistent and politically marginal. Instead, she suggests that we view it as a property of social environments, which serves to preserve and enforce the patriarchal order by punishing, policing and deterring women who are challenging the norms of male dominance and female subordination. Misogyny, understood this way, is pervasive and deeply entrenched in major aspects of our social lives.
Having constructed this account, Manne moves on to examine misogyny featured in a series of current events, such as the Isla Vista killings by Elliot Rodger, the case of serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, the misogyny speech by the Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election where Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. This book attempts to demystify the much-debated, yet hard-to-boil-down phenomena of misogyny and sexism in moral and political dimensions of our lives and will prompt interesting and important discussions.
Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Philippe Van Parijs & Yannick Vanderborght
The idea of a universal basic income has recently received a great deal of attention in popular culture. A basic income program would involve a government giving regular, unconditional cash payments to each of its citizens, thus ensuring that everyone has an income above the poverty line. This proposal has attracted support from a remarkable range of people, with otherwise very different political orientations. Prominent supporters of basic income include: Thomas Paine, Friedrich Hayek, Martin Luther King Jr., Milton Friedman, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. Some advocate a basic income as a means to securing individual liberty, or social equality. Some recommend it as a far simpler (and perhaps even cheaper) replacement for current welfare programs. Others think that the rise of artificial intelligence will eliminate so many jobs that a basic income will become a practical necessity. In this reading group, we’ll think seriously about this intriguing idea by reading and discussing a new book, Basic Income, by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. We’ll cover: ethical/political arguments for and against basic income programs; the costs of such programs; how they might be sustainably funded; and their real-world political achievability. We’ll also get to look at some of empirical evidence from basic income pilot programs—many of which are going on now.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
Adam Smith is one of the most important thinkers of all time. His masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, is one of the foundational texts of modern economic thought. But Smith was more than an economist. He is also one of the most important moral philosophers of the 18th century. His central contribution to moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is the text that we will study in this reading group. It serves as both a fascinating contribution to moral philosophy, with its original insights into the nature of sympathy, justice, and beneficence (among other topics), and the essential moral background against which his economic writings ought to be read. In short, it is one of the most important books in the PPE canon.
Two Treatises Concerning Government & A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
Read the first two paragraphs of The Declaration of Independence and you’ll want to start a revolution right then and there. The ideas expressed there are so simple and yet so powerful. Where’d they come from? Answer: largely, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government—one of the most influential political treatises ever written. In it, Locke argues that human beings have natural rights that exist independently of any state’s say-so. These rights set the limits on what a government may permissibly do to, or for, its citizens. On Locke’s view, citizens give the state authority to use force, but only in the service of protecting their rights. The state and its citizens are thus engaged in a contractual relationship. If the state fails to hold up its rights-protecting end of the deal, revolution is permitted, and perhaps even required. Seems like John Locke is into conflict and violence, right? Wrong. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke calls for the separation of Church and State and a general attitude of toleration toward those with different religious views. The arguments for such an attitude toward religious views easily extends to an attitude of toleration toward those with different political views, too—an attitude desperately needed in our time. A common theme in each of these works is opposition to the (over-)use of force by powerful institutions. So, ordinarily I’d say, “Join this reading group or die!” but I’ve read my Locke, so I’ll just say, “Hey, join this group if you’d like.”
Reading Groups – Spring 2018
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek
Dan Kokotajlo (Wednesday evenings)
The political right often maligns the left by pointing out that Nazi is a shortening of “National Socialist,” while the left retorts that the Nazis were very definitely a right-wing phenomenon. The Road to Serfdom is an account of what really happened in Germany between the world wars. Written by the renowned Austrian economist F.A. Hayek in the middle of World War II, it argues that planned economies are the road to serfdom. It shows that in a variety of ways, when governments take more control over the economy, this creates the conditions for totalitarianism to arise—whether in a leftist regime (Russia) or a right-wing regime (Germany). Hayek’s arguments have since been championed by libertarians in the US, but Hayek was a classical liberal: John Maynard Keynes read this book and loved it; the editor of the book was a socialist himself. Moreover, the book was originally written to Hayek’s fellow economists in London who identified as socialists, though it has been embraced by the general public. Hayek was genuinely trying to persuade people who liked planned economies to be more cautious. We shall read his book, discuss his arguments, and determine to what extent we, too, are convinced.
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton et al.
Karl Adam (Tuesday evenings)
The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 short essays written to convince the skeptical population of New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution, have been called the greatest American contribution to political philosophy. They are essential reading for anyone interested in such topics as the legitimacy of anti-majoritarian institutions like the Electoral college, the Senate, and the Supreme court; the proper roles of the federal government and the states; how best to protect against foreign aggression, domestic tyranny, and civil conflict; and, in short, issues of institutional design. In this reading group, we will read the Federalist Papers in their entirety and use them to better understand, and evaluate, our political institutions.
Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Alexandra Oprea (Thursday evenings)
What are the historical and conceptual origins of inequality? Which inequalities are morally justified and which are not? In 1754, the Academy of Dijon posed these questions in a public essay contest. Rousseau’s entry was the (in)famous Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men. This short, elegant, and provocative response has been incredibly influential in the history of philosophy, politics, and economics. Adam Smith published a review of the book. Immanuel Kant kept a bust of the author in his study. Its political ideas were violently recited by Robespierre and other leaders of the French Revolution. Its critique of private property became a precursor for Karl Marx and later socialist thinkers. Our reading group will explore Rousseau’s wide-ranging critique of inequality, taking seriously the claims he makes about evolutionary anthropology, political economy, moral psychology, and political philosophy. We will also ourselves engage with the two driving questions at the core of the book – questions that continue to puzzle and inspire philosophers, political scientists, and economists today.
Nudge by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein
Miriam Johnson (Monday evenings)
Historically, economists have assumed our economic decisions reflect a basic strategy to satisfy (as effectively as we can) our overall desires and preferences. Under this model, we might sacrifice one thing to better accommodate another thing we value more highly. The growing field of “behavioral economics” is proving this model mistaken. As it turns out, our decisions are frequently, and in surprising ways, influenced by factors we ourselves would consider irrelevant or arbitrary. Richard Thaler (a 2017 recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics) and Cass Sunstein (whose work has influenced White House policymakers) argue that our model of decision-making—and our public policy—should reflect these realities. In this reading group, we will be reading Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, which both serves as an introduction to behavioral economics, and defends a specific thesis about a new theory of decision-making ought to impact our policymaking. Participants in this group will get the chance to familiarize themselves with this highly influential and fast-growing area of research, as well as to better understand the hidden influences behind their own everyday decisions. As a special bonus, members of this group will also have the opportunity to prepare questions for Professor Sunstein, who will be giving a talk at UNC this Spring.
Reading Groups – Fall 2017
The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations is one of most influential books ever written. As well as being a foundational text of economic theory, it engages with important issues both in moral philosophy and politics. Despite its importance, however, Smith’s Wealth of Nations is not widely read. In this reading group, we will become familiar with the content of Smith’s economic and philosophical theories as presented in this key text—a must not only for any serious student of PPE, but also for anyone interested in understanding the modern world.
The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
What do liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have in common––and what divides them? Political debates are full of emotionally-charged moral judgments that emerge quickly but that are difficult to justify. In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt makes the provocative claims that ‘our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth’; that different political parties emphasize different aspects of a common ‘moral palate’; and that a propensity to embrace divisive religious claims is part of an adaptive set of dispositions that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in small communities. What should we to make of these claims? Does this evidence undermine our judgments about politics and religion? We’ll ask these and many other questions while exploring Haidt’s answers.
Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, by Tommie Shelby
What does it mean to help the ghetto poor? How should we do it? Despite a handful of public policy efforts, poor, black neighborhoods- or “dark” ghettos- persist in the United States. Scholars are often concerned with how to ameliorate the conditions of the neighborhoods by identifying some factor, such as single motherhood, joblessness, or violent crime, and then trying to “fix” that factor. In his new book Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, Tommie Shelby takes a different tack by looking at how to best think philosophically about these neighborhoods and residents. He argues that by looking at a framework of principles of justice, we can better understand how the creation and persistence of ghetto poverty have resulted from systematic injustice. Only with such an understanding can we make progress toward answering such questions as, what makes ghetto poverty different from other forms of poverty? What interventions by the state are justified in ameliorating the conditions of dark ghettos? Should integrated neighborhoods be fostered? Should single parenthood be avoided or deterred? What are the unjustly disadvantaged required or permitted to do in response to their unjust conditions? Is crime an acceptable mode of dissent? How should the criminal justice system take unjust conditions into consideration? Through the course of our reading group, our aim will be to develop an understanding of the principles of justices Shelby proposes and his answers to these questions, as well as to critically evaluate and engage with his proposal and answers.
Reading Groups – Spring 2017
Distributive Justice: Rawls and Nozick
Distributive justice obtains in a society when its political and economic institutions are set up so that social and economic benefits and burdens are fairly distributed. In this reading group, we consider two incredibly influential, but deeply different, theories of distributive justice. We begin with John Rawls’ defense of liberal egalitarianism espoused in his seminal work A Theory of Justice. We will then turn to Robert Nozick’s libertarian critique of Rawls’ theory and the pursuit of distributive patterns more generally, as defended in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Neither is the last word on distributive justice, but taken together they work to frame contemporary discussions of justice even among those who reject their views.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Why are there large differences in income levels, education levels and health outcomes across countries? What causes some countries to grow faster than others in the world? What determines prosperity or poverty? Why is Nogales, Arizona in the U.S. better than Nogales, Sonora in Mexico even though Nogales is a single city spread across two countries? North and South Korea are in the same geographical region and have homogenous populations but have vast differences in their income levels. Why? Similarly there are major differences in income levels among Sub-Saharan African countries. Botswana and Swaziland have grown rapidly in recent years when compared to some of the other countries such as Mali and Niger. “Why Nations Fail” is an attempt by two influential researchers, Acemoglu and Robinson, who have very carefully used historical evidence dating back to the Roman Empire, the Mayan City-states, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Africa, to try to define a new theory of political economy to explain the likely causes of differences across nations. You will find this influential book useful to answer the following questions:
- Why are some countries trapped in poverty?
- To what extent can political and economic institutions determine economic growth in the poorest countries?
- Will China’s economic growth make it a superpower overwhelming the West?
- Are America’s best days over? Is American creating a growth cycle that enriches and empowers a small minority thus increasing income inequality?
Impact: How Law Affects Behavior, by Lawrence Friedman
Does the law affect our decisions about how to live our lives? The answer is not as straightforward as it seems. Drawing from evidence provided by a variety of disciplines — sociology, psychology, economics, and political science, among others — Lawrence Friedman shows that law has a good many unexpected consequences. Our knowledge of the law, it turns out, is quite limited, and much of it is plain wrong, and consequently all kinds of people (e.g., doctors, taxpayers, drivers, drug dealers, murderers, government employees, filmmakers, investors, pregnant women, married persons, to name a few) respond in ways that are unintended by lawmakers. Even when we do follow the law, the reasons are often complicated; carrots and sticks can combine with social pressures and our own consciences to affect when and how the law guides are actions. This reading group will introduce you to a rich and fascinating set of research on the role of law in society.
Reading Groups – Fall 2016
John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy
In this reading group, we will read selections from three works by John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women. Mill is, by all accounts, one of the central figures in the history of moral and political philosophy. His work has had profound impacts not only on moral and political thinking, but also on economics and public policy. Utilitarianism is Mill’s classic defense of the moral theory of the same name. On Liberty is one of the great works of political philosophy and stands to this day as one of the best defenses of political liberalism ever written. The Subjection of Women is one of the first published defenses of the rights of women and remains one of the great works in feminist philosophy. One advantage of reading selections from each of these great works is that it gives us a chance to try to understand how Mill’s thought coheres. So not only will we study each work individually (a worthwhile endeavor in itself), but we will also try to understand better the unity of the thought of one of the great philosophers of all time.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the finest books ever written about political life. The central task of the book is an investigation of why democracy flourished in America despite having faltered in numerous other nations (including de Tocqueville’s native France). What effects did America’s distinctive qualities have on its democracy, and what effects did America’s democracy have on its distinctive qualities? De Tocqueville offers profound insights into early nineteenth century American democracy––some of which vividly apply to early twenty-first century American democracy and some of which vividly fail to apply to early twenty-first century American democracy. Democracy in America would be well worth reading even if it were (as some classic texts are) a plodding and unpleasant read. Happily, de Tocqueville has a profoundly elegant command of language, and his work is a thoroughgoing pleasure. This reading group will meet on Monday evenings.
Danielle Allen’s Education and Equality
Should the primary purpose of education be providing students with the basic competencies needed to be good workers? Should education equalize economic opportunity? What role ought the humanities play in public education? Should education teach students political values? To investigate these questions, we will be reading Danielle Allen’s book Education and Equality. In her book, Allen draws on thinkers from Plato to Rawls to argue that education ought to reorient itself toward participatory readiness in democratic society rather than vocational preparation. Through our reading, we will critically engage with and respond to Allen’s arguments and the commentaries from contemporary theorists included in her book. We will also consider the implications of the arguments for policy and practice in education, including our own aims in pursuing higher education. This reading group will meet on Wednesday evenings.
The Federalist Papers
Maybe you’ve seen Hamilton or you’re obsessed with the soundtrack, or maybe you’re just curious what all the fuss is about. What better way to understand the man behind the musical than to read the Federalist Papers? These short essays–written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay–are essential to understanding the Constitution and its historical context. This semester, we’ll explore some of the most important questions the Federalist Papers raise–about democracy, the Constitution, and our rights as Americans–and discuss how the answers to those questions have changed over time, and how they’ve stayed the same. This reading group will meet on Tuesday evenings.
Reading Groups – Spring 2016
Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
Roughly a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and another two billion people live on less than two dollars a day. What is the best way to help these people escape poverty? Some advocate massive investments in foreign aid, others argue that such aid is wasteful or otherwise problematic, still others advocate for various structural or institutional reforms. Why does economic development happen in some nations while others are still mired in poverty? In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo discuss the empirical evidence (or lack thereof) for these and other theories in development economics, which should have implications for how we ought to respond to the pressing problem of global poverty. Along the way we will consider relevant ethical questions about economic development: Why is economic development a good thing? Do people in rich countries have a duty to aid the global poor?
Emotions in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: Selected Readings
What are emotions and what do they do? Are they opposed to reason? These questions undergird many foundational questions in philosophy, politics, and economics from moral theories grounded in sentiment to economic models that assume perfect rationality. In this group we will read and analyze two different views of emotion: Robert Frank’s Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of Emotions which uses ideas from economics to explore how emotions have helped humans survive and develop as well as parts of Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding From Humanity which discusses whether shame and disgust are legitimate bases for policies and legal judgments. Through the two books we will explore ways emotion informs, supports, or is part of what might be called rationality as well as ways emotion might obscure good reasoning.
Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
The Hebrew Scriptures are arguably the most influential texts in western literature and thought, having implications for a range of issues relevant to Philosophy, Politics and Economics including just war theory, distributive justice, the formation and purpose of the state. In this reading group, we will read Yoram Hazony’s recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, alongside passages from the Hebrew Bible that bear especially on questions of organizing a state and its economy. Following Harzony, in the reading group we will be focusing on the Hebrew texts not as “texts of revelation” but as “texts of reason” and engaging directly with the arguments they offer. Readings and discussion will all be in English, and no background in ancient history, theology, Jewish studies, or related fields will be presupposed.
Reading Groups – Fall 2015
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion
Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique
Reading Groups – Spring 2015
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century
What exactly is the relationship between capitalism and inequality? This was the topic of Karl Marx’s Capital in the 19th century, and it is the topic of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book draws on many years of collaborative economic research, and a huge amount more data than Marx had available. Piketty argues that capitalism leads to greater inequality. He maintains that the period of increasing equality of opportunity in the middle of the 20th century was anomalous, explained by high tax rates and the nationalization of capital during the wars. These claims and arguments have been widely praised and widely condemned. This book is a rare example of scholarly work becoming a best seller amongst non-academics. Piketty writes elegantly and accessibly, and provides historical and academic context to his arguments, which makes his claims interesting to both those with and without a background in economics. In this reading group, we will work through Piketty’s book and survey one or two of the many responses to it.
Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority
Modern states deploy coercion in a wide variety of circumstances in which the resort to force would clearly be wrong for any private person. For example, most people believe that if I discovered my neighbor was ingesting dangerous drugs or selling her body for money it would be wrong for me to kidnap her and lock her up in my basement. Yet many people believe that when governments do this they should be commended rather than condemned. What entitles the state to behave in this way, and why should citizens obey its commands? Do the dictates of governments have any independent moral force? And what would happen if widespread belief in political authority were undermined? We will examine these and related questions raised by Michael Huemer in his new book, The Problem of Political Authority. This reading group will be led by Jonathan Anomaly.
Reading Groups for Fall 2014
Ridley’s The Rational Optimist
Ever since Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would inevitably lead to war, famine and resource depletion, economics has been called “the dismal science.” But in his recent book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley challenges the pessimistic predictions of Malthusians and argues that market exchange has produced so much wealth and innovation that we have become “the only species that grows more prosperous as it grows more populous.” Ridley weaves together insights from Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Friedrich Hayek to argue, among other things, that the prosperity markets make possible diminishes the incentives for slavery and war, and increases both food production and natural resource conservation. This reading group will discuss and critically assess Ridley’s core arguments and evidence. This reading group will be led by Jonathan Anomaly.
Feminist Arguments For and Against the Market
Feminism has been among the most important reformist movements in the past century, focused on the promotion of gender equality and to the freedom of all. It has had a complex—sometimes even contentious—relationship with the free market. Many feminists have seen institutions protecting private property and the right to free trade as essential to the feminist project; others have argued that the free market—at least in the context of a sexist society—inevitably contributes further to women’s oppression. In this reading group, we will survey a eight styles of feminist arguments for and agains the market, locating these arguments within the various forms of feminism that give them context. Readings will include classical liberals, Rawlsians, anarchist feminists, Marxist feminists, feminists who argue for an ethic of care, and radical feminists who reject the formal equality of the market. This reading group will be led by John Lawless.
Justice — Rawls and Nozick
John Rawls and Robert Nozick produced what are arguably the two most influential books in political philosophy in the 20th century. In this reading group, we will read key passages from both Rawls and Nozick side by side. In so doing, we will compare and contrast Rawls’ liberalism and Nozick’s libertarianism as they are applied to a variety of problems. Hence, our discussions will be as wide-ranging as theirs, covering theories of rights, entitlement, the role of the state, property, the nature of justice, utopian ideals, reflective equilibrium, and much else. This reading group will be led by Joshua Blanchard.
Reading Groups – Spring 2014
de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Democracy in America has been called both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America. Published in two parts, one in 1835 and the second in 1840, its insights about democracy and the American character have led both liberals and conservatives, including every President since Eisenhower, to claim de Tocqueville as their own, but his work is more often cited than understood. In the Fall we discussed Tocqueville treatment of the influence of democracy on political institutions, and this Spring we will examine Tocqueville’s provocative ideas and arguments regarding the nature of democratic society, discussing his analysis of the influence of democracy on intellectual currents, popular sentiments, social customs, and political society broadly. This semester’s reading group does not presuppose that students have already read anything by Tocqueville and is open to both newcomers and those who were enrolled in last Fall’s reading group.
Karl Marx’s political and economic thought left vivid marks on the twentieth century, and he remains one of the most influential and systematic critics of classical liberalism and capitalism. At the heart of much of his work are a host of compelling but deeply controversial ideas: that persons are set apart from nature through their labor; that it is our labor—and in particular, our productive relations with those around us—that give shape to our art and culture and drive history forward; and that these productive relations under capitalism leave us alienated, render our lives meaningless and make us inhuman. For Marx, these ideas justify a hope for a communist society in which capitalist relations will be undone and, for the first time, all persons will be truly free. In this reading group, we’ll be examining Marx’s concepts of the human being, of labor, and of alienation, and come to grips with his philosophy of history before turning to important liberal critiques of Marx’s system.
Reading Groups – Fall 2013
Economics in Literature
Economic concerns infuse almost every aspect of our lives. Many of the fundamental oppositions that structure human experience— independence and confinement, opportunity and disappointment, identity and difference—hinge on economic institutions, policies, and innovations. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the world’s most talented literary authors have found fertile subject matter in economics. In this reading group, we will read and discuss a selection of important works of economically-oriented literature with a view to appreciating how economic commitments and concerns spanning the entire political spectrum have come alive in literary classics. The reading list will include the following: George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London; Ayn Rand, Anthem; Upton Sinclair, The Jungle; Virginia Wolf, A Room of One’s Own.
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Adam Smith was one of the most influential theorists of the 18th century. Economists know him mainly for his groundbreaking text The Wealth of Nations, but it is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that Smith develops his accounts of human psychology, value, and rights. Like most important thinkers, Smith was a powerfully systematic thinker; in this reading group, we will be reading all of The Theory of Moral Sentiments both in order to make sense of it as a work, and to develop a sense of the ways in which it might relate to Smith’s broader economic and political theories. We will focus heavily on the primary text, but secondary readings and selections from elsewhere in Smith’s corpus will be added to provide further insight and context.