Hello, my name is Alex Sparrow. I mainly deal with issues in ethical, social, and especially political philosophy and some political science. All that can cover a lot of ground though, so I have plenty of things to say about the other topics on the Helmet.
My main concern is what is sometimes called the “central problem” of political philosophy, in play since the Age of Enlightenment, whose philosophers probably gave us the best answer, even in their variety. The problem is how is the individual justly reconciled to coercion? Put another way, “Why should I obey?” And the answer from the Enlightenment was, “you shouldn’t.” Or rather, you should only obey yourself, and therefore you only need to obey the laws crafted by you, at least in part, and the people you chose to remind you of those laws. We can call this the Principle of Autonomy, in which every person is expected to be “self-legislating,” in the literal translation of “autonomy.” This can taken in different ways depending on the philosopher, and the terms may vary – “self-determination,” “self-governance,” “self-rule,” or “sovereignty.”
Why autonomy as a founding principle of social organization? Philosophers have given various reasons as to why they make this claim, the most common being that if we conceive of unorganized persons (in a state of nature) making a fair contract detailing the particulars of their social organization (a social contract), then they would prefer to retain the autonomy they would supposedly have in their unorganized state of nature. Social contractarianism has a long pedigree, but evokes a strange mixture of plausibility mixed with incredulity. In any case, I find it unconvincing. The Principle of Autonomy though has stronger legs, despite standing on a shaky foundation. For now, I offer this suggestion for accepting the Principle as the organizing principle of any human society: obedience to one’s own will is self-justifying. I may ask why I ought to obey any other person or principle alien to myself, but it does not make sense to ask why I ought to obey myself. This is notwithstanding the fact that I do not always actually obey myself.
Generally, the Principle is taken to imply a democratic polity, but this is not so transparent. After all, we cannot all be authors of our own laws, nor have as our officers only those each of us wishes. Although democracy ensures that most of us are winners, a minority is always out of luck. Robert Paul Wolff, in his 1970 work, A Defense of Anarchism, claims that the only reconciliation between individual autonomy and political sovereignty is negative – there can be no State. Only “unanimous direct democracy” is normatively possible. Unless there can be found reasons otherwise, Wolff is correct. Thus we are presented with a challenge: can we have a just democratic State satisfying the Principle or should we settle for anarchy, with all its practical problems? Democracy taken as far as possible may be identical with “anarchy.” In any case, we must imaginatively discover the form of the democratic organization of society which most satisfies the Principle of Autonomy.
What does all this mean in practice? How does this relate to the actual practice of representative democracy in the United States? If we hold up the reality of contemporary America to the furthest implications of the Principle, modern America doesn’t look too good. The Constitution of the United States is now an ancient document, already moldy at the time of its failure in 1860, now disregarded and reinterpreted as needed by the American ruling class. The document, and the irrational reverence held towards it, has become a contributing factor of the continuing decline of American society in all ways possible. Political immobility is killing us slowly, allowing the many problems to accumulate beyond solution. By developing a new democratic model, however minimal, and fighting for a new constitution and the requisite assembly to draft it, American society may not degenerate into a collective troglodytism.
More on all these topics to come!