Globalisation and its Impact on Universities

With the advent of online teaching, pay-per-module, distance learning and MOOCs, we are in danger of losing our scholarly community. These models of globalisation further endorse the idea of students as consumers and institutions as the producers. They run counter to the original intention of education, and betray the economic strategies that underpin the urge toward globalisation. We should be doing what we can to resist the urge, or to at least build institutions that are capable of being both local and global whilst upholding the mission of analysing what is given to us as a normative state of affairs.

I found the following article to be particularly helpful when thinking about the effects of globalisation on universities:

Globalisation and its discontents

17 JANUARY 2013

Scholarship has long been international but the current vision of a ‘worldwide’ academy of rootless student-consumers and national economic competition is as contradictory as it is immoral, argues Thomas Docherty


Globalisation and its discontents

What is the relation of the university to the polity, to “citizenship”? In the autumn of 2011, Kenneth Clark, who was then Secretary of State for Justice, described August’s rioters as a “feral underclass, cut off from everything in the mainstream but its materialism”. What he called their “criminality” was conditioned and explained by their fundamental divorcement from regular forms of participation in the polity or society. This led to their disengagement from “the values of mainstream society”.

Such disengagement, however, could by no means be construed as the exclusive prerogative of a group of supposedly “feral” rioters in August that year. After all, it is precisely what is routinely threatened by senior financiers and others in our allegedly “global jobs market” when they indicate that they are prepared to abandon any commitments to the nation if they are required to pay more UK tax or to forgo inflated bonuses-for-failures. Nor is this local to the UK or even simply a product of the post-2008 crisis. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch famously became a naturalised American, abandoning his Australian civic commitments in order to circumvent US laws that preclude foreign nationals from ownership of US TV stations.

The question of disengagement from, or engagement with, national culture or community – citizenship – is surely among the most pertinent when considering globalisation in the university sector. Globalisation is an “imperative”, said Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, when he opened a World Universities Network conference at Bristol in February last year. Looking through the “visions” (that Blakean replacement for “mission statements”) of many UK universities, one finds an almost routine claim that we are “producing/delivering” graduates who are going to be “global citizens”.

A current danger is that, through endlessly rehearsed but unargued assertion, the sector will find itself endorsing uncritically that which it should critique. Globalisation may establish normative – but problematic – economic practices, and we may find ourselves simply conforming to those norms and ignoring the attendant problems of globalisation and its occasional consequence of disengagement from community or the modern commons. Yet if the university is to maintain its intellectual credentials at all, it must be our responsibility to expose and confront conformity. Our place is to critique and to call conformities into question, not to endorse unexamined norms set by others.

Globalisation, of course, is not global. It is unevenly distributed; it is experienced differently in Adelaide and Accra; it feels different on the sofa of a World Bank office to on a Washington park bench. Moreover, globalisation is not new, even for the university: it has assumed variant forms for well over a thousand years. However, let’s start from the assertion that, in its current form, it is accelerating so rapidly that it must be embraced if we don’t want to be left behind the modernising rush.

The claim often made is that globalisation responds to student demand. Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, breathlessly points out that the rates of global student movement are increasing rapidly. “There has been an increase of 57 per cent in the last ten years,” he wrote in a recent blog; and that looks undeniably huge. But to look at this another way, what it means is that over 10 years, among the roughly 140 million students worldwide, another 750,000 of them participate as “global”, international students. In fact, the total percentage of such global students is about 2 per cent of the total worldwide.

Furthermore, this 2 per cent includes students who remain in their home country while being registered for courses “delivered” from another country, so the numbers actually moving across borders radically decreases. And the fast-approaching deeply globalised future? Current estimations are that worldwide student numbers will roughly double by about 2025. The cohort of students newly entering higher education to make up that figure come predominantly from social groups that are among the least likely to leave even their home town, much less their home nation, for their university education. In fact, the “global citizen” students actually crossing borders are decreasing significantly in percentage terms.

Universities have always had massive international presence and reach. At the turn of the 15th century, about the time of the Great Schism in the Christian Church, with two popes fighting for power and control over Europe and its institutions, scholars sometimes found that their papal allegiance gave them local difficulty. Prior to the Schism – which ended the Avignon Papacy – it was commonplace for scholars to travel for education to one of a small number of institutions. Thus, people from this island attended universities in Bologna, Salerno, Paris, Orléans and Avignon itself. Those institutions were certainly international (if not yet global) in reach.

England boasted two institutions at that time. When Scotland and England backed different sides in the Schism (Scots were for Avignon, the English for Rome), the movement of Scottish scholars to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge became fraught. Similar things were happening elsewhere across Europe. The consequence was the growth of domestic institutions within emergent nation-states, and the determination of those nation-states to use the universities essentially as institutions that would help to forge emergent national identities, cultures and committed affiliations. Universities, as seats of independent thinking, helped to forge the new nation-states, and national “citizens”, that would constitute modern Europe.

All this, of course, says nothing of what else was happening in the non-European world. In Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Karaouine (founded around AD859 by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri) has some claim to be the first modern university. Alongside this, between about AD760 and AD820, Bayt al-Hikma (Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, essentially a library) was constructed. Its project was the gathering and translation of the great knowledge of the world as it was at that time, from all languages. This was, perhaps, the first exercise in what we might now think of as scholarly globalisation.

Yet the contemporary formulation of globalisation is very distinctive, and it is disturbingly marked by a fundamental self-contradiction. On one hand, it praises the idea of the post-national world in which we live; at the same time, globalisation is important if the UK is to “compete” against other nations worldwide. This latter view of globalisation is really an economic strategy of competition, designed to enhance one nation’s wealth over that of others, and is a matter for politicians and government. Should the university institution simply rehearse and endorse, uncritically, the pronouncements of our politicians – especially when those pronouncements lapse into self-contradiction? Our business is reasoning, and here is an example of false reasoning to be exposed.

When we fail to engage in constructive criticism of such arguments, we fall into that version of globalisation that involves us in self-contradiction and places economic competition at the heart of our system. This reduces the university to a brand name to be “traded” elsewhere, primarily to bring in tuition fees. In this way, the academy becomes explicitly politicised, essentially in favour of advancing a neoliberal economic agenda.

We become party to an exacerbation of the already troubling worldwide trend – the global trend – towards increased inequalities. A 2004 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All, found that the current processes of globalisation generate “unbalanced outcomes”. It agrees that “wealth is being generated” but adds immediately that “too many countries and people are not sharing in its benefits”, and concludes that the resulting “global imbalances” are “morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable”. Yet in 2010, the American Council on Education could issue a Blue Ribbon report on “Global Engagement” that reduced the issues around globalisation to two simple questions: a) the free international movement of staff, students and ideas; b) the question of US economic competitiveness and sustained dominance. The concerns expressed in 2004 are thus simply ignored.

The contradiction between national supremacy/economic competitiveness on one hand and “free” cross-border movement on the other is glaring. It can be explained in a simple formulation: globalisation requires the existence of national political boundaries in order to transgress those same boundaries economically.

Put this way, we can see who benefits from the very high stakes of the globalisation imperatives. The investor and philanthropist George Soros offers a “narrow definition” of post-1960 globalisation as “the free movement of capital and the increasing domination of national economies by global financial institutions and multinational corporations”. Soros is chilling as he explores the logic. He points out that the development of international institutions has not kept pace with the development of financial markets, with the result that political arrangements lag well behind the globalisation of economies. This provokes a crisis in democracy (which is perhaps all too apparent today). There is a visible crisis of legitimacy in our institutions. For Soros, the greatest threat to our democracy comes “from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business”. It is an arrangement of affairs that, as he points out, is not new: “It used to be called fascism…The outward appearances of the democratic process are observed, but the powers of the State are diverted to the benefit of private interests”.

Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel prizewinner, endorses these views. He and Soros (hardly regular bedfellows) agree on one fundamental point: we have not established the necessary international institutions to deal with the problems of globalisation. Instead, we have simply started to endorse the general tendency to accept it as a truistic imperative, as something with whose demands we must comply. But who is giving these orders? Where can we find the institutions adequate to our global predicaments?

The university is perfectly placed to be such an institution: a location of critique that can address inequalities and threats to democracy. Another name for this democracy is “widening participation”; such that our supposed “feral underclass” and our finance sectors start to find that they can share civic commitments, or that they can at least engage each other in democratic dialogue. Surely the university should be recalled to one of its central civilisational functions: to enable more people to engage in reasoned debate, in a polyglot House of Wisdom, democratically open. The contemporary version of university globalisation, however, does not seem to centre itself on widened participation in democratic politics, or even on the relation of the university to the civic polity.

Instead, some institutions are determinedly growing branded campuses abroad. Others strive to implant the voices of their academic community through the massive open online course, or Mooc. The New York University academic Andrew Ross has pointed out that, despite the growth in foreign campuses worldwide – a development that is fundamentally intended to deal with domestic economic shortfalls – the real globalisers are organisations such as the Laureate Education group. Laureate now has well in excess of 600,000 customers in more than 20 countries. Everything is 100 per cent online and everything, including teaching, is done on a pay-per-module basis. Instructors need no previous experience of online teaching but will get a four-week course that “qualifies” them; contractually, they must be prepared to be on call and ready to respond to customers who can be in any time zone worldwide, on a 24/7 basis. Is this the globalised university system that we want? Without students, without scholarly communities at all?

These models of globalisation require us to think of ourselves as commercial producers of human capital or human resources who will fit neatly into a world that is organised around the primacy of competition for private financial greed. Indeed, one major UK university – in a statement typical of many – describes its graduates as a “product”, to be “delivered” to the waiting world as recognisable “global citizens”. Such a position is entirely inadequate to our situations and it represents a fundamental betrayal of the sector, its students and citizenship.

Vice-chancellors seem to be obsessed with global visions. It might serve us better if, instead of having grand visions of this kind, they really just opened their eyes to see what is happening locally as a result of the too-easy acceptance of the globalisation agenda. Globalisation has many discontents: is it not more properly the task of the university to be the international institution that can analyse those discontents and that can offer people the means of engaging more democratically in our social being and welfare?

Global citizens? Just citizens might do for the moment, to replace the primacy of conformist consumers of an ill-assorted world order.



Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.



Davidson and Triangulation

The metaphor of triangulation appears first in Three Varieties of Knowledge in Davidson’s discussion of radical interpretation. Interpretation must adopt a compositional approach in the determination of meaning. That is, it must recognise the interconnectedness of attitudes and behaviour; in turn attributes and behaviours are constrained by normative principles of rationality.

The holistic consideration is married with an externalist position in which attitudinal content determined by the interconnectedness of attitudes and behaviour is seen in the light of its dependence on causal connections between attitudes and objects in the world. Attitudes can only be attributed and attitudinal content determined through a triangular structure. The triangle is based on the connection between two creatures, and a creature and her connection to a set of common objects in the world.

The content of attitudes is causally fixed by the objects of those attitudes; in turn, the cause of an object is reflected in the cause of those attitudes. Identifying beliefs involves a process of triangulation, whereby the position of an object is determined by taking a line from each of two already known locations to the object in question — the intersection of the lines fixes the position of the object. Similarly, the objects of propositional attitudes are fixed by looking to find objects that are the common causes, and so the common objects, of the attitudes of two or more speakers who are capable of observing and responding to one another’s behaviour.

We may think of it as a form of triangulation: each of two people is reacting differentially
to sensory stimuli streaming in from a certain direction. If we project the incoming lines
outward, their intersection is the common cause. If the two people note each others’ reactions (in the case of language, verbal reactions), each can correlate these observed reactions with his or her stimuli from the world. The common cause can now determine the
contents of an utterance and a thought. The triangle which gives content to thought and
speech is complete. But it takes two to triangulate. Two, or, of course, more. (Davidson
1991, 159)

The metaphor of triangulation is extended by Davidson to explain the interconnectedness of knowledge of oneself, of others, and of the world. It is not possible, Davidson claims, to have knowledge of oneself without having knowledge of the other two concepts of others and of the world.

Triangulation has the implication that interpreting attitudinal content must proceed in conjunction with interpreting objects, be they in the world or in language, for otherwise we would not understand the cause of the belief in question. In the case of language, this takes the form of interpreting linguistic utterances or sounds. Thus, if we cannot understand an utterance we are unable to attribute attitudinal content. For Davidson, this means that non linguistic animals are incapable of thought, since thought is the possession of precisely that attitudinal content disclosed by a linguistic utterance.

‘Commonsense’ Definitions 1920s/30s


Commonsense, I suggest, is that native practical intelligence by which men test the truth of knowledge and the morality and prudence of action. I suppose that we can use it to describe not only this faculty of testing, but the product of thinking; at least common usage seems to indicate that we may.

Now, this native intelligence is, I further suggest, an hereditary factor in a man; a factor raised or lowered by the activity or sluggishness of the thyroid or pituitary glands, or both of them, or by some other gland. Individuals with their glands adjusted in a certain way have commonsense or the faculty for testing, etc; those with their glands ill-adjusted have a lack of it. No census could ever reveal how many people have this faculty for prudent action, so there is never likely to be any way of determining whether any group of people, or any nation, will act with commonsense in any emergency, or in its legislative halls. This conclusion if sound is disturbing, but it explains a lot of things.

R.S. Maynard, ‘What is Commonsense’ (1934)

The word commonsense is, I fear, a bête noire of philosophers, partly because it is used and quoted to defy their theories, and partly because it is very difficult to find any clear or precise meaning in its usage. I do not mean by it what may be called horse-sense, nor is it to be confined to sense knowledge, still less to public opinion. The word is chosen as convenient to express and cover certain activities of the mind and their content, which can, I think, legitimately be put under one category. By sense is understood what comes by way of experience. Experience, however, is also a vague word, and so I mean by it and sense what can be classed under perception, direct knowledge and judgement; all, in fact, that is opposed to speculation or reflective thought. I should add that in the use of these terms so far, no particular theory is insinuated; they are words of everyday use, and are intended to be taken according to that use.

The adjective “common” limits the kind of “knowledge” contained under “sense”, and again it is useful as excluding the ephemeral the conventional, the technical, and the trivial. There is a common stock of knowledge which all men and women use in the ordinary concerns of life gained from the primitive and inevitable experiences which every human being must undergo. This common experience is found in language, and used in literature and conversation, and presupposed and added to in the conduct of art and commerce. Were there no such commonwealth of meanings, language could never have become the easy means of communication that it is, and we should be perpetually in a worse plight than the builders of the Tower of Babel. When we are puzzled, as to-day, by certain modern writers of a new prose or Futuristic art, the cause is a conflict of a new set of meanings created by a theory with the old and established, and the latter will win the day unless the new can rid itself of the esoteric and show itself a legitimate development of what is sound in tradition.

M. C. D’arcy, ‘The Claims of Commonsense’ (1927)

Social Norms

Social norms are the unplanned, unexpected result of individuals’ interactions, a kind of grammar of social interaction which codifies what is and is not acceptable in a society or group. As with grammar, social norms are not the product of human design, and so the study of the conditions in which social norms arise is important to our understanding of their distinction from other types of injunction, for example hypothetical imperatives, moral codes or legal rules.

Though norms develop in smaller groups, they often spread beyond the narrow boundaries of the original group: how does this happen? This is a question to which an evolutionary model of social norms might attempt an answer, in terms of the dynamics of propagation from small groups to whole populations.

Norms can die out, but it is unclear how this happens, since corruption of social norms is not by itself powerful enough to generate an overhaul of the system. Thus, efficiency cannot be said to be a necessary and sufficient condition of social norms.

Maybe it’s because social norms, and normativity more generally, are groundless grounds?

Reasons for Action

In modern philosophical literature there are two types of reasons for action, explanatory and justifying. The necessity of the distinction becomes clearer when we consider that reasons that explain may fail to justify, and that reasons that justify may fail to explain. For example, I explain that my reason for shouting at my boss was that she made me angry but this reason does not justify my action. Similarly, I might be justified in pursuing a healthy lifestyle but actually am motivated by winning the affection of the girl I am in love with. Furthermore, justifying reasons can apply to actions that are not performed at all and for which explanatory questions fail to even arise.

In addition to contexts of explanation and justification, we have contexts of deliberation, in which we look for and evaluate candidate-justifying reasons for doing or refraining from various actions; deliberative contexts provide a framework from within which we can determine what to do without necessarily having to act upon reasons to help guide our overall decision about whether to do something or not. Thus, our concern in such contexts is always normative rather than explanatory, though the reasons we determine for action or otherwise may subsequently be cited in explanation of what we do.

Importantly, the distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons is distinct in turn from the distinction between subjective and objective reasons. The latter distinction is actually two kinds of justifying reasons, either the reasons that apply to my circumstances as I, perhaps incorrectly, understand them (subjective) or the justifying reasons that apply to my circumstances as they actually are (objective).

Externalists adhere to a strict distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons. Internalists are charged with conflating the two together. The charge might be unfair to contemporary internalists such as Bernard Williams, however, who can be read as appreciating the distinction but questioning whether, if justifying reasons has little to do with what explains and motivates action (as externalists suppose), we are able to talk meaningfully about reason giving at all. For internalists, then, to talk of reasons is to talk about considerations that speak to our desires, either as they are or subject to some idealising constraint.

Desire-based theories of reason are appealing because they promise to make naturalistic sense of normativity, and thus explain why reason is of such interest and importance to us. However, making reasons contingent on facts about our motivation can have negative consequences, such as, if my motivational system is unusual enough, I might have reason for doing very odd things, or if moral concerns failed to speak to my motivational system then I would have no reason to act morally.

For some contemporary theorists, motivating reasons explain our actions via psychological states of an agent that make it possible to give a rational explanation for why the agent behaves in the way that he does. Motivational reasons contrast with normative reasons, which are more connected with whether an action is justified. For Michael Smith, following Davidson, for example, motivating reasons are complexes of beliefs and desires that motivate action and which can be cited in explaining them where the explanation in question is taken to be causal. Normative reasons, however, can also play an explanatory role, for example where beliefs about normative reasons motivate people who are practically rational.

For others such as Richard Norman, the theory of reasons outlined above is simply a redundancy theory where the sentence ‘x is motivated to §’ can be reduced to ‘x believes he has a reason to §’. As such, the phenomenon of acting in accordance with beliefs does not require a philosophical account of motivation to explain it. Rather, we simply offer a dispositional explanation along the lines of ‘human beings tend to do this’ just as we explain trees losing their leaves in autumn as ‘trees tending to do this’. Thus, the reasons why we ‘tend’ to do something are a matter for the empirical sciences, not a philosophical theory of motivation.

Europe: The Faltering Project


I came across this quote from Habermas, written in the early 2000s, which seems now more prescient than ever. His analysis of Europe may not always be right – faith in the single currency, for example, prevented him from seeing that monetary union must be married with fiscal union – but his remarks about the democratic deficit provide us with stark analysis of the problems facing the European Union in the second decade of the twenty first century. Confidence in the EU is at an all time low according to polls of citizens in the six richest countries in the union. What is the solution? I wouldn’t dare to claim I could answer that, but the quote below provides fruitful avenues for continuing discussion.

The democratic deficit is especially drastic in the European Union. Without a European public sphere, even a sufficient extension of the competences of the European Parliament would fail to enable the citizens to monitor the ever-denser and ever more invasive political decisions of the European Commission and of the European Council of Ministers. Because no European public sphere exists, the citizens elect the European Parliament on the basis of the wrong issues – that is, national ones. At the same time, the legitimacy of the governments of the member states is being undermined because now they can only ‘implement’ the insufficiently legitimate decisions taken in Brussels. Since the public spheres within the national societies do not accord sufficient prominence to European issues, citizens cannot intervene in a timely manner in European decision-making processes. When these decisions finally trickle down to the national level, the political opinion and will formation of the citizens is no longer consulted.

Habermas, ‘Political Communication in Media Society’, pp. 182 – 3

Liberalism: Some Key Definitions

All liberals start off from the principle that liberty is the primary political value. After this, liberalism fractures along a spectrum of views: positive, negative and republican liberty. These are fundamentally to do with differing conceptions of liberty.

i) Humans are in a perfect state of freedom to order their actions (Locke); the burden of proof is on those who are against liberty, the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom (Mill); contemporary liberal thinkers (Feinberg, Benn and Rawls) agree.

Basic normative assumption = those who would limit freedom are under the onus of justification, particularly if they would limit freedom through coercive means

§ Political authority, its laws and policies, must be justified because they limit human freedom

–       Social contract theory (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Locke) is usually viewed as liberal even though the political prescriptions of each thinker have distinctly illiberal features. Nevertheless, all take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal and so argue that the limitations imposed must be justified in terms of the social contract theory § expresses the fundamental liberal principle

ii) In addition to the fundamental liberal principle, paradigmatic liberals such as Locke argue that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest i.e. only a limited amount of government can be justified because the basic task of the government is to protect the equal liberty of the citizens.

Negative Liberty

Disagreement about the concept of liberty has led to different conceptions of the task of government. Isaiah Berlin, for example, advocated for a negative conception of liberty:

‘If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability…Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings’.

§ Liberty = the absence of coercion by other human beings. The government’s role is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without justification in order to protect liberty. Negative liberty is an opportunity concept: being free is a matter of what we can do, regardless of whether or not we actually do it.

Positive Liberty

British neo-Hegelians such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet developed a positive conception of liberty that acknowledges freedom as the exemption from compulsion by another. However, the other might not be human; someone can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse that cannot be controlled. Thus a person is only free if he is autonomous. In the sense that a free person’s actions are said to be his own, positive liberty is an exercise concept.

§ Freedom consists in the degree to which a subject has effectively determined and shaped his own life, apart from compulsions and unreflectively following customs, to the overall benefit of his short and long term interests.

As well as this concept of freedom as autonomy being present in Rousseau, Kant and Mill, contemporary theorists such as Benn, Dworkin and Raz also enshrine this liberal principle in their political theories.

Another concept of positive freedom is freedom understood as the ability to act on or pursue one’s own ends; freedom is ‘the ability act’ (Tawney). Positive freedom as effective power to act closely ties freedom to access to material resources: I cannot become a member of a Country Club because I am too poor to afford the membership though in principle I could become a member if this resource was available to me.

Republican Liberty

In the Roman, republican usage (Cicero and Machiavelli), the opposite of the liber was the servus and so the dominant connotation of freedom was not having to live in servitude to another § freedom is the opposite of domination. The ideal government ensures that no agent, including itself, has arbitrary power over any citizen, in order to ensure that every citizen’s liberty is protected. The method by which this principle is enacted is equal disbursement of power; by according each citizen power, this offsets the power of another citizen to arbitrarily interfere with his or her activities.

Unlike positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realising one’s true nature or becoming one’s higher self.

Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty traces the mere possibility of arbitrary interference to a limitation of liberty, rather than the actual occurrence of interference.

Classical Liberalism

As well as fracturing over the conception of liberty, a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order.

Classical liberals insist upon the close relation between liberty and private property for it is through the ownership of private property that a citizen is able to live her life as she sees fit. Thus, private property is consistent with individual liberty. Some people (Gaus, Steiner, Robbins) argue that liberty and property are the same thing thus a market order based on private property is the embodiment of freedom. A secondary argument from classical liberals claims that ownership of private property is the only effective means of protecting liberty, because the individual is protected from encroachments by the state.

Even within classical liberalism there is a spectrum of views on the relationship of private property to a free society, ranging from near anarchists to left leaning views that allow for a modest social minimum. Although today classical liberalism is portrayed as extreme libertarianism, the tradition’s central concern was bettering the lot of the working class. As Bentham put it, the aim was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer. As such, liberals reject redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

New Liberalism

New liberalism challenges the link between private property and individual freedom. New liberalism emerged out of a period in which the sustainability of a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned (c. late 19th/early 20th century). At the same time as losing faith in the old market order, faith was increasing in the government as a means of supervising economic life partly due to the First World War and partly due to more sophisticated democratisation in Western countries. For the first time, elected officials could truly be representatives of the community, or so it was thought. Thirdly, the growing conviction that property rights generated an unequal society to the detriment of the working class’ liberty. The first suggestion of this is found in Mill, later developed by Rawls, both of whom believed that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private property.

New liberalism is deeply concerned with developing a theory of social justice, a consequence of the impact of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ claims that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off group in a particular society. For Rawls, only inequalities that enhance the long term prospects for the least well off are just. The difference principle constitutes the principle of reciprocity, whereby no group of people is allowed to advance at the cost of another. In contemporary political thought, followers of Rawls are committed to cashing out the difference principle in terms of equality (Dworkin) hence the development from ‘welfare state’ liberalism to ‘egalitarian’ liberalism.

Defining Democracy

Defining Democracy

Method of group decision making characterised by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making.

Key points: ‘collective’ therefore concerns a particular group; there can be lots of different groups both political and familial; normative weight is not entailed or implied; could be more or less deep i.e. formal definition ‘one person one vote’, or more robust including a definition of equality in the process of decision making; participation can be either direct on the part of the agent or indirectly through selected representatives.

Schumpeter is an example of a thinker that argues for a formal kind of democracy in which elites are representative of the people rather than the dangerous ambition of equality across membership of the group.

Rousseau is an example of a thinker who connects the formal kind of democracy with slavery, whereas robustly egalitarian democracies are the only forms that have political legitimacy.

Is democracy desirable at all?

Justification of Democracy

Evaluation of democracy can be along at least two different lines:

Consequentially – by reference to the outcomes of using it over other methods of political decision making; also can be termed instrumentalism

Intrinsically – by reference to qualities that are inherent in the method

Instrumental Arguments in Favour of Democracy

Two instrumental benefits are commonly attributed to democracy: relatively good law and policies, and improvements in the characters of the participants.

J.S. Mill argued that the democratic method of legislation is better than a non-democratic method in three ways: strategically, epistemically, and morally.

Strategically: democracy forces decision makers to take into account the interests, rights and opinions of most people in society. Each person in society has a little bit of political power, so more people have to be taken into account than in an aristocracy or monarchy.

Epistemically: democracy is more reliable in helping participants to come to the right decision. This is because there are more people in the process of decision making thus more sources of information and critique of the status quo. Thus, democratic decision making tends to be better informed than other forms about the interests of its citizens and the best ways in which to advance those interests.

Morally: because more people are encouraged to enter into the decision making process and are accorded political power, democracy encourages individuals to become more autonomous. In addition, people have to listen to the interests of others, to justify their opinions to others, and to take on other people’s perspectives to see their point of view.

Instrumental Arguments against Democracy

Plato believed that democracy devalued the importance of expertise in well governed societies. Democracy favours those who are expert at winning elections, and gradually this will dominate democratic politics at the expense of other expertise. As such, people in power may not have a clear handle on the different issues politics entails, they will just be good at appealing to the people’s sense of what is wrong or right, and so the state will be guided by poorly thought through ideas and leaders who are expert in manipulation.

Hobbes believed that democracy is inferior to monarchy because democracy fosters a destabilising dissension amongst members of the group. Because it feels that no individual makes a significant impact on the decisions being made, people are apt to not have any sense of responsibility for the quality of legislation in the state. Neither citizens nor politicians are directed toward the common good because they are too busy being manipulated by the process of representation.

Contemporary economic thought expands the Hobbesian criticisms, arguing that the majority of citizens are ill informed about politics and are often apathetic, leaving room for special interests on the part of the representatives to enter into the process of decision making thus furthering themselves rather than the majority. Contemporary economics theorists have also argued for the market to have near complete control over society on the grounds that more democracy has often resulted in serious economic inefficiencies.

Non-Instrumental Values (Intrinsic Arguments)

As well as being evaluated in terms of the outcomes or consequences of having/not having democracy, some people argue that it can be evaluated purely on its own terms i.e. morally desirable independently of it consequences.


Basic principles of democracy are founded on individual liberty; democracy is an extension of individual liberty into the arena of collective decision making.

1. An individual’s life is deeply affected by the larger social, cultural, or legal environment in which she lives.

2. It is only when she has an equal voice and vote that the individual will have some form of control over this larger environment.

§ Democracy is the only method of collective decision making that enables the individual to have a shot at self-government. A right to self-government entails a right to democratic participation. Moreover, the individual also has the right to get things wrong and by extension a group of individuals also have a right to make bad decisions for themselves too.

Whereas the instrumentalist argument would appear to diminish a person’s power in the process of making decisions and not find this morally problematic, the liberty argument points against this and says that our right to control our lives has been violated.

A major difficulty with the liberty argument is that it appears to require complete unanimity or consensus amongst the group with regard to the decision being made for to settle for anything less would be an imposition on an individuals environment that is not compatible with our right to self-government. The rouble is that there is rarely agreement of this strength on the major issues in politics. Decision making processes are supposed to settle matters of disagreement, but it is hard to see how they can do this whilst respecting every single individual’s liberty.

Democracy as Public Justification

The core principle of this approach is that laws and policies are legitimate to the extent that they are publicly justified to the citizens of a community where public justification is the result of free, rational debate amongst equal participants. Democracy is the context within which people give reasons for their decisions.

A major problem with this approach comes when we ask what happens when disagreement remains. A possible response to this is to say that weaker forms of consensus are appropriate for most instances of public justification i.e. there is consensus on general abstract reasons but disagreement about their particular interpretation; or there may be consensus on the list of legitimate reasons available but disagreement about the weight given to each reason.

Another problem presents itself when we ask about the need for consensus for though reasonable consensus among reasonable persons might be achievable, this does not entail actual consensus and there may well be unreasonable members of the community who can reject the terms in which consensus has been legitimated. The notion of reasonable is supposed to be fairly weak on this account and to work on the principle of reciprocity, whereby one only offers principles that others, who restrain themselves in the same way, can accept. Thus individuals are constrained from proposing laws or policies on the basis of controversial principles. One aims at the part of the whole truth that others can accept, and, as such, regulation is in a weaker sense based on overlapping consensus, thus obviating the need for complete consensus on every issue. However, it is still not clear why we should aim at consensus.


Proponents of equality argue that democracy is a good way of treating people as equals when there is a good reason to impose some form of organisation on their lives but they disagree about how best to do it. Democracy is thus a peaceable and fair compromise amongst those with conflicting claims to rule. This argument still falls prey to the argument against liberty, however, for how are we to agree in the first place on the particular form that democracy is to take? If it is by reference to a higher order, does that need to be democratically decided as well? Thus there is potential in this approach for an infinite regress.

Another argument is from the idea that public equality has a great value because all interests are taken into account equally when there is disagreement. Each individual has interests in living in a world that makes some sense to them that accords with their sense of how the social world ought to be structured. The principle of equality entails an equal say in determining common laws and policies under which the individual’s life is structured; if she does not have an equal voice, then she has grounds to claim that she is publicly being treated as inferior. However, there are a number of problems with this view.

1. Majority rule would seem necessary because it is neutral with regard to alternatives in decision-making. Unanimity tends to favour the status quo to the exclusion of persistent minority groups and ultimately the threat of majority tyranny.

2. Is the ideal of equality coherent, in particular in the modern state anyway?


Glossing Heidegger on the Essence of Truth

The Questionworthiness of Our ‘Self-Evident’ Preconceptions Concerning ‘Essence’ and ‘Truth’

When we ask the question ‘what is that?’ we are asking after the essence of the thing. But do we not already know the ‘that’? ‘Indeed, must we not know them in order afterward to ask, and even to give an answer, about what they are?’ Must we not be able to use the word ‘table’ in order to even point to the object, and in so using the word be able to call to mind functional characteristics of the object at the very least? Questions so phrased seem to push us toward an a priori understanding of essence. But what is it about essence itself that makes a thing what it is? The essence is the universal, the common feature, the something in general. And yet, it is precisely in our grasp of the particular that we are able to formulate generalisations. By observing what all particular objects hold in common, we are able to extrapolate and pronounce the class of objects as universals. ‘Thus too,’ Heidegger says, ‘in the case of our question “what is truth?”’

So we unpack our question ‘what is truth’ by asking ‘what is the essence of truth?’ We are already familiar with particular truths – from the mathematical to the observational – but what is the essence of these particular truths? They contain ‘something true’. And wherein is that truth contained? It is in the propositions themselves, such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘it is cold outside’. Thus, truth consists in the content of propositions corresponding with the facts about which they are saying something. We can verify that 2+2 does equal 4 through a simple calculation, and that it is cold outside by opening a window. And we can generalise these particulars through the maxim: being-true consists in correspondence. ‘So truth is correspondence, grounding in correctness, between proposition and thing’.

This is a quite peculiar situation. For not only do we know particular truths, but it would seem that the question we asked previously on the essence of truth is also answered! Not only do we know the essence of truth, we must necessarily know it for how could we otherwise name truths? ‘We could not otherwise bring forward what is stated and claim it as truth’. Not only do we know the essence of truth (correspondence), we also know the meaning of essence itself (universal) and in what essence consists (essence-hood). So why do we still inquire into the essence of truth? What is intelligible is what is understood by us, through our ability to measure, survey and comprehend a thing’s basic structure. What is intelligible is thus self-evident. But is the maxim ‘truth as correspondence’ really intelligible?

Correspondence is a being-toward the thing; the measure for the proposition consists in the correspondence between it and the thing. So do we not know what and how the thing is about which we speak? ‘Such knowing can only arise from knowledge, and knowledge grasps the true, for false knowledge is no knowledge at all’. What is the true? True is what is known, that which corresponds with the facts. The proposition corresponds with what is known and thus with what is true. So are we then left with the definition: true is correspondence with something corresponding?! And so to leave ourselves open to correspondence ad infinitum? What was the first correspondence? Is it not itself a ‘resemblance’, correspondence under another name? ‘Since everything is discussed in a groundless and formal way, we obtain nothing at all intelligible with the concept of truth as correspondence. What presents itself as self-evident is utterly obscure’.

We began by defining true in terms of propositions. But we also call things and beings true. ‘What does true gold correspond with, if being-true means correspondence?’ True is – in truth! – more ambiguous than we first thought. Are we to conclude that truth means something different in different cases? What then is its proper meaning? Does one usage have priority over another? If neither has priority, must we conclude instead that the common derivation consists in something expressed other than correspondence? ‘Truth as correspondence (characteristic of the proposition) is thus ambiguous, insufficiently delimited in itself or determined in its origins. It is therefore not intelligible, its self-evidence is illusory’.

Before, we defined essence as that which determines particularities in general, ‘in respect of what they are’. Essence is the universal, the what-being. And we applied this definition through the example of things – tables, chairs – quite different indeed from truth. Does it follow that the essence-hood of essence is also quite different in both cases? More pertinently, were we justified in ‘transposing’ our conception of essence-hood in things to truth? Even if we grant that essence-hood is the same in both cases, do we really understand the what-being – the definition of being that is at stake in the case of things and truth? The answer is we don’t understand it, we cannot clarify it, and yet we speak of it in such assured self-evident terms. ‘At bottom, what we are asking about remains unintelligible’.

We have said that we have knowledge of particulars, and that through our knowledge of these particulars as such, we already know the particulars in their essence. Indeed, we held that it is necessary to know the essence of the particulars otherwise we would not be able to recognise particulars at all from within their universal class. But why is it necessary? ‘Is it an accident, simply a fact that we register and submit to? Do we understand the essence-hood of essence if we stand helplessly before this peculiarity? Not at all. Essence and essence-hood are also in this respect unintelligible’.

Even assuming that the essence of truth is as we originally claimed, correspondence between proposition as fact and concerning universals governing particulars, are we really able to take this self-evidence as the ‘foundation for our investigation, as vouching for itself and as something secure and true?’ On what have we secured this understanding, how is self-evidence a guarantee for truth in and of itself? ‘How much has been self-evident and obvious to us humans and yet later turned out to be illusory, the opposite of truth and sound knowledge! Thus our appeal to self-evidence as the guarantee of truth is ungrounded and unintelligible’.

That which is self-evident enters into us without us having to do anything, without us having to actively perceive or take anything on. We find it so. But, and this is the devastating question in the whole piece, who are we then? And why is it that we are the ‘court of appeal’? Is what is self-evident to us really to be taken as the ‘ultimate and primary criterion? We don’t even properly understand what is at stake, let alone why it must be us to arbitrate the debate. ‘Do we know whether in general, within which limits, and with which deficiencies, the self-evident can and may be a standard for human beings? Who tells us who the human being is? Is this not all completely unintelligible?’

And so Heidegger has unraveled what at first seemed unshakeable. I will quote his concluding paragraph in full:

‘We began by defining the essence of truth as correspondence and correctness. This seemed self-evident, and therefore binding. Now, already after a few crude steps, this self-evidence has emerged as thoroughly incomprehensible; the concept of the essence of truth in two respects, the concept of the essence-hood of essence in two respects, the appeal to self-evidence as the measure and guarantee of secure knowledge again in two respects. The seemingly self-evident has become incomprehensible. But this means, in so far as we want to linger over and further examine this incomprehensibility, that is has become worthy of questioning. We must first of all ask how it comes about that we quite naturally move and feel comfortable within such self-evidences. How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close. We take care, for example, that this and that is in order, that we come here with pen and exercise book, and that our propositions, if possible, correspond with what we intend and talk about. We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it’.



Another device which philosophical liberals use to escape the nitty-gritty of politics is neutrality. Once again, the idea is to set up constitutional procedures, or something like them, to discipline day-to-day political activity: the state aims to be neutral or impartial between different conceptions of the good life, such as political ideologies or religious creeds. Where it can’t avoid taking a position (as, for example, with public policy on abortion, even if the state does nothing), neutralists shift their attention from the policy to the procedures which generate it. Neutrality, which has taken hold as a sort of new-variant liberalism, has claimed a number of prominent victims, including John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Brian Barry and even Jürgen Habermas.

Glen Newey in the London Review of Books