While more interesting conflicts were ongoing else, I went to a panel on political thought with the Columbia professors Carol Rovane and Akeel Bilgrami. CR asked the question why individuals matter in the context of considering the limitations of traditional liberal approaches to rights located within a social contract tradition of how the power of the state is restraints by the rights and liberties of citizens. Her argument really asked the question –what do we mean by an individual or even a person and how this conflict brought up the conflict and tension in liberalism between two fundamental commitments that derive from the Enlightenment tradition:
• The moral importance of the individual human being that posits rights, whose integrity is central and whose rights it is wrong to sacrifice for the great good (against utilitarianism)
• The moral importance of rationality (understood minimally through the presence of a first person perspective although one weakness that is clear was the lack of an account of rationality in the presentation)
Solving this tension requires an account of the individual because of the following assumption that rights pertain to individuals:
• I possess rights because I can claim them for myself
Personhood implies membership of civil society but also that anything that can be treated as a person is a person. But how about those who are not rational such as young children, the unborn and the mentally damaged, the old – morally we still do think they are important. Nevertheless we have a basic problem that the rational idea of the individual is not equivalent to the individual human person. Humans are not basic blocks of individualism: deliberation, commitments and the totality of mental states and beliefs suggests that individuals for moral and legal reasons may either be less than one actual person (i.e. with respect to multiple personality disorders) or corporate entities with similar beliefs (and hence have 1st amendment etc rights – CR seems particularly worried about this). But some objections: what about personhood over time? How do we make sense of that? The example given of collective personhood (i.e. the married couple or corporation) does beg the question to what extent it is really position for there to be some form of shared rationality and first person perspective? Does the simple fact of having common goals and shared beliefs really confer personhood and individuality? But the basic take home message that the liberal conception of the individual as the seat for claims to rights needing to be modified and revised seems fair enough.
AB’s paper was related and focused on religious identity and why it clashes with liberal notions and for him this is because of the difference of mentality (and required him to present a schematic and rather generalised view of the too – I look forward to the fully reasoned argument in his forthcoming book). His basic point is that the clash lies at the level of moral psychology and not the rather simple conflict between individual and community. Identity relates to intense commitments and are predicated on reinforced beliefs where reinforcement concerns the linkage between different beliefs/preferences that are held and points towards coherence in will and action (although along the way the issue of weakness of will was discussed). Now in terms of liberalism, he outlined one central proposition:
• Individual citizens must be left unimpeded///to pursue their own conception of the good life
So basically two issues – non-interference and pursuit of the good but which are distinct and can be mutually exclusive (Rawls and Mill). Rawslian position is that one ought to choose liberty for itself regardless of one’s self-interest. He insisted on a present-minded approach to what would happen in the future with liberals open to reversibility of positions held and religious minded committed to irreversibility. However, it seems unclear why one should have such a simplistic opposition. There are religious minded individuals who hold reversibility with respect to postulations of religious truth just as there are liberals committed to the irreversibility of their position. This brought to mind the basic conflict that John Gray discusses between a universalist liberalism that insisted its values represent the ‘end of history’ and those who are open to reversibility and to diversity of positions within society – and in fact one finds the similar tension of positions among the religious. One objection raised including by Tu-Wei Ming was the basic point that there is a distinction between identity politics and identity in politics: the former might well be essentialist, irreversible and highly dangerous, but the latter is unavoidable. After all, none of us are disembodied autonomous selves capable of rational deliberate and its communication in isolation of others. We are rather all rational agents that are products of our communities and our contexts.
Overall, this was a key and excellent panel on analytic approaches to political thought (one of the few properly analytic panels – the absence of many analytic philosophers especially from Iran seemed to be quite striking to me).