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Obama’s Philosophical Muse: John Rawls
U.S. presidents aren’t often asked to explain their governing visions in terms of political philosophy. References to the Founding Fathers (Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Washington et al.) are ubiquitous and safe, and Obama likens his challenges to those of President Lincoln. But we don’t hear much in the way of serious engagement with the history of ideas from our chief executives.
Maybe it’s better that way. When the candidates for the Republican nomination were asked during a debate in 1999 “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?” George W. Bush set the tone with his response: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” The rest of the field took this non-answer as a cue to flaunt their own religious credentials rather than articulate a set of political principles rooted in a particular thinker’s corpus. Though Steve Forbes cited 17th-century theorist John Locke as his patron saint, names like Rousseau, Paine, Montesquieu and Tocqueville were never uttered. It was all about Jesus.
If you Google the terms “Obama + Marxist,” you’ll come up with about 6.5 million hits. But Obama is no Marxist, and no socialist, as some sane commentators take pains to explain. He has never copped to the term, but, as I argued at the Economist this week, Obama is pretty clearly a Rawlsian. For John Rawls, a Harvard philosopher who died in 2002, inequalities of wealth and income become morally problematic when they systematically disadvantage or disenfranchise the least-well-off members of society.
Some Economist readers are raking me over the coals. This cantankerous comment is presently the “most recommended” by other readers:
‘Looking at the speech a week later, I am even more convinced Mr Obama hit it out of the park... Another virtue of this approach is to provide an overarching vision for the republic. The narrative Mr Obama articulates to frame the debates seems to flow directly from the pages of John Rawls’s "A Theory of Justice". In that 1971 masterwork and in "Justice as Fairness" (2001), Rawls developed a political philosophy of liberalism that puts a premium on the value of equality.’
Jesus Christ! Can we put an end to this ridiculous notion that America is a nation of overgrown babies who need the Great White Father in Washington to set us on his knee and tell us a bedtime story?
What exactly did Obama knock out of the park? And what park exactly? Maybe I'm only speaking for myself, but I don't need an "overarching vision for the republic." I need the roads to not have potholes in them. I need to know whether or not I'll see any of this FICA money again. I have plenty of purpose in my life - my family, my friends, my hobbies and career - and to the extent that I may need more, I ain't looking to the federal government to provide.
First, pass a budget for the first time in 4 years and then these clowns can try to impress me with their grand national visions.
Beyond the amusing reference to our first black president as the “Great White Father,” this response startles me for its equation of “an overarching vision for the republic” with a purported penchant for infantilizing the American people and telling them bedtime stories. I wonder how effective a State of the Union address would be if it focused questions as small as filling potholes in Peoria. As for ensuring the future solvency of Social Security and passing budgets: yes! These are examples of real government priorities that a Rawlsian lens helps bring into tighter focus. Given the rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor in the United States, Rawls’s guidelines for how to imagine an economically productive society that treats its people as free, equal citizens worthy of respect and decency are just what we need right now. I can’t think of a better muse for an American president.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.