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April 4, 2008

philosophy of the middleground

1. Should the government require national service?

That's a question that modern political philosophers are primed and ready to address. It concerns the proper power of the state and the responsibilities of its citizens. Libertarians, communitarians, civic republicans, and others have fundamental principles that they can easily apply to this question. I call it a "background" issue because it deals with the fundamental rights and duties that define a whole society. It's like a question about whether everyone has a right to health care or free speech, or whether the government may compel taxation. These "background" issues are central to modern political theory.

2. Should I enlist in the military or join a civilian service program such as CityYear?

This is also a topic that political philosophers are equipped to address. It raises fundamental ethical questions about the use of force, membership in hierarchical organizations, duties to the community, and the shape of a good life. Pacifists, communitarians, various kinds of virtue-ethicists, pluralists, and others have fundamental principles that apply pretty directly to this question. I call it a "foreground" issue because it deals with a matter very close to the individual--a personal choice. It is like questions about whether to marry, have an abortion, or join a church. Such foreground issues are central to modern ethics.

3. What would a good service program be like and how could we make such a program come into being?

This is the kind of question that modern philosophers are not very good at addressing. One cannot easily answer it by applying the fundamental intuitions that drive mainstream theories of ethics and political theory. There isn't necessarily a libertarian or communitarian answer.

As a result, the question tends to be addressed in thoroughly empirical, administrative, or tactical ways. The empirical issue is what consequences result from various types of service programs. The administrative issue is what rules or processes increase the probability that the program will be run well. And the tactical issue is how one can build and sustain political support for the program.

All these questions have crucial moral dimensions. It's not enough to know whether a given program causes a particular outcome (such as higher incomes, or more civic duty). We must also decide whether those outcomes are good, whether they are distributed fairly, whether any harms to others are worthwhile, and what means for deriving these consequences are acceptable. Further, it's not enough to understand how to run or structure a good program. We must also decide what forms of governance or administration are ethical. (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but that was not an adequate defense of fascism). Finally, it's not enough to know that a given argument or "message" would produce political support for a program. We must also decide which forms of argument are ethically acceptable.

Thus it's a shame that philosophers tend to cede the "middleground" to social scientists, administrators, and tacticians. As a result, no one raises the serious, complex moral issues that arise when one thinks about political tactics, the design of programs, and their administration. This is not only bad for policy and public discourse; it is also bad for philosophy. Theories are impoverished when they miss the middleground. For example, it would be a decisive argument against requiring national service if it were impossible to build and sustain a good service program. So any argument for national service that depends entirely on first principles is a lousy argument. It needs its middleground.

Some areas of philosophy have developed a middleground and thereby not only served public purposes but also enriched the discipline. Medical ethics is the best example. It's no longer restricted to matters of individual ethics (e.g., should a physician conduct an abortion?) or matters of basic structure (e.g., is there a right to life?), but also to matters of administration, politics, and program design. Medical ethicists work in hospitals, advise commissions, and review policies. Harry Brighouse has argued that the philosophy of education should follow the same model. I would generalize and say that across the whole range of policy and social questions, it is worth asking moral questions not only about basic rights and individual behavior, but also about institutional arrangements and political tactics.

April 4, 2008 10:06 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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