Richard II: A reading list on political authority for the USC Bedrosian Book Club

I am reading Richard II for the next installment of the USC Bedrosian Center Book Club, and I think my leader (Raphael Bostic) is dubious that Richard II is important to today’s governance discussions. All of Shakespeare’s plays about kings tend to embody rather timeless themes about the sources of political authority, and what sovereignty means. These are some writings that have in them big thinky-thoughts about political authority:

Sophocles. Antigone

Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito.

Paul. The Book of Romans Book 13 (in Greek) and KJV

St. Augustine’s City of God (pdf)

William of Ockham on private property and independence from papal authority…a nice essay from John Kilcullen

Erasmus, Diderus On the Education of a Christian Prince.

Machiavelli. The Prince

Francisco Suárez De Virtute et Statu Religiois (1608-09) and Defensio Fidei Catholicae
(There has to be an English translation of this somewheres online. Any of you young digital natives find it for me?)

King James 1. The Basilikon Doron
Defense of the Divine Right of Kings.

Vindicate Contra Tyrannos (1600)

Robert Filmar. (1630) Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

John Milton. 1692. A Defense of the People of England.

John Locke.1679–1680. Two Treatises on Government.

Bossuet, Jacques-Benigne (~1679) Politics drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture.

Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776) or a free version

James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 51 (1787-1788)

Burke, E. (1790) Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Pateman, Carol. The Sexual Contract.

Mills, Charles. 1997, The Racial Contract, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Huemer, M. (2012) The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Obligation to Obey.

Everybody who does research should listen USC Bedrosian’s interview with author David Treuer

So far, one of my favorite books to read for Bedrosian has been David Treuer’s Rez Life. Just read it. I love David Treuer’s work–The Hiawatha was life-changing for me. Go read that one, too.

But we got very lucky with the Bedrosian Center, and Treuer agreed to do an interview with Raphael Bostic. In it, Treuer talks about his method of asking people to talk about their lives, and the importance of his own authenticity–not identity, but telling his own story–in the book. He’s so careful to share what he has with people before allowing publication to go forward. Post-colonial research ethics done right.

But, as he ruefully points out, it took him 7 years. Research worth doing, research that impacts people’s lives…takes time.

Find it here

Musing on “Happy Holidays”

I’m crabby, and out of sorts. The first reason, is simply that I already have a grade dispute already.

The second reason is that I am still working because I started the outline for Chapter Three, and now I need to finish it before taking off for Christmas. I don’t want to stop in the middle of the outline, so I have to work until it’s done.

But mostly, I am not in the Christmas spirit because of all the dumbshit “War on Christmas” stuff has now moved Christmas from the category of “Fun festive thing we could all enjoy” to “Divisive political issue where yer either fer us or agin us.”

To wit.

I used to say “Happy Hanukkah” at the beginning of the month to friends I knew were Jewish. And I’d say “I hope you have a wonderful holiday” to my students at the end of classes. And I’d say “Merry Christmas” the week and a half before Christmas. And after Christmas, I’d say, to few folks I know who celebrate Kwanzaa, that I wish them every blessing because I don’t know the separate daily greetings. But my wish to them always seemed to make them happy. And I’d say “Happy New Year!!” as we got towards the New Year.

It was fine.

And it was also fun, learning what my friends and acquaintances celebrate, and wishing them well.

But with people making an issue out of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”…well, if I say “Merry Christmas” now, I wonder if the people I am saying it to think I am doing in the aggressive, you-MUST-be-a-Christian-celebrating-Christian-Things-for-me-to-want-happiness-for-you kind of way that newest silly sally in the culture wars have wrought, or whether now it means the same thing it has always meant when I said it before: “Hey, I wish you well.” I’m an atheist myself, but winter is long, and there can never be too many holidays and celebrations as I far I am concerned.

I never said “Happy Holidays” before this, but now I feel like I kind of have to in order to avoid more nonsense. And I don’t like saying “Happy Holidays” because I DID like to wish Christians well in the same way I liked wishing Jewish friends well, until a particularly dunder-headed group of Christians decided to make it all about themselves and *demand* I say Merry Christmas all the time to everybody, no matter what or whom, or I was, somehow, being disrespectful to them and their practices.

I also had to drag myself up to La Crescenta last week in order to place a dog with my rescue, and I saw all the lights up, and I have thus made a decision: I am upping my outdoor decorating game next year. It was such a lovely gift to be able to see all the pretty decorations on such a dark evening that I have decided that NOT decorating, other than throwing up a wreath and plunking down some poinsettias, is ungenerous. So next year, this old house on Victoria Ave is going to be lit. For Festivius.

And I’m not doing it for Christians. I’m doing it for everybody, to light up the dark.

I’m going to need a barf bag if one more person tells me Donald Trump is the “anti-elite candidate”

I realize that in a prior presidential election, a candidate from one of the country’s oldest-money families used his consumption of pork rinds as a testimony to his “American Everyman” status, and that we don’t need further proof that discussion of class in the United States has become so utterly debased as to be insensible. Apparently, social class no longer involves wealth and power, but snack foods.

And that annoys me. It super annoys me when people apply the logic to the Trump candidacy.

Whether you like or dislike the guy, whether you think his ideas are important or not, Donald Trump is not an everyman. Viz:

1. He grew up in wealth and inherited a lot. His father was a very successful immigrant, and we are all glad for him, but there is nothing relative about the measure of wealth he inherited. Yes, compared to a starving kid in one of the world’s hellholes, I grew up rich. But Mr. Trump grew up wealthy by just about any measurement ruler you use.

2. He attended an expensive private university (Fordham) and then Wharton. Wharton is either the most or one of the most elite business schools in on the planet earth and enjoyed this status even back in the 1960s, when Trump attended.

If you think your kid is going there, you must have some connections and wealth, too, because statistically, that’s the likelihood.

3. He marries supermodels. Everybody does that.

4. He names buildings after himself. Do you do that? INCLUDING A BUILDING CALLED THE TRUMP TAJ MAHAL. Ok?

5 He has owned a sports team. Granted, not an important one, but when was the last time your neighbor did that?

6. He has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. You?

Sarah Palin had a credible claim as a grassroots, non-elite candidate, before she went all-out media persona, with her little college degree from a Idaho U and whatnot.

But let’s call the guy what he is: an elite with a marketable persona.

I think ethicists and scientists owe an apology to the trolley problem now that driverless cars are here

I’m going to do a little of the thing that I don’t like other people doing, which is vague attribution, because I don’t have a ton of time this morning, and I don’t think it’s important.

For years,some people who thought about ethics decided to make themselves somewhat irrelevant by insisting on casuistry. Now, casuistry has its place in any system of thought–after all, the point of learning about history is to learn from it and see if there is anything you might mine from it to apply to future situations. Toy examples are mere bourgeois naval gazing. Oh, so nuanced! Oh, so much more practical in the real world than all you naval gazers with your simplified, artificial non real case things.


That approach also carries its own intellectual trap. By insisting you can not abstract in ethics, and that “toy” examples are useless to ethics because you can never, ever, ever understand a choice until you are deep in the thick of it, with all its complications and exigencies, you render just about any conclusions outside of that case invalid.

That prescription basically means you can never really learn anything because every situation is different and contains different actors with different obligations and different preferences and values. Just because I read about what you did in your situation, and drew moral judgment on what you did in that situation, does not mean that I should do what you did, or the opposite, in a similar situation because how similar is similar enough to overcome all those particular exigencies and details unique to each context and particular decision?

Taken to its extreme, if you really think you can’t evaluate choice without all the information, then every case is, simply, a highly complicated toy example because you are reading it or writing it rather than living it. That doesn’t mean casuistry is worthless; it just means people try to learn from cases and do the best they can. Learning from “real” cases involves storytelling and representation…which is basically what simple toy examples are, too.

Toy examples are type of story telling that help illustrate abstract concepts and provide people with practice runs for moral thought in less fraught, less high-stakes contexts than real choices in the real world. Toy problems are like starting with the tricycle before you get the big kid bike. That’s the reason I like them. You don’t stop with toy problems, but they are a decent place to start.

Probably the most famous, and thus most derided, toy example, is the trolley problem. You’ve probably heard it. Here is a lovely explanation.

The trolley problem is an oldie and a goodie, and I am fond of it because it first got me excited about moral choice. I spent a lot of time in my intro to philosophy class (where there was WAYYYYYYY TO DAMN MUCH FREUD because that my proffie’s pet interest) thinking about it, arguing about it, pestering other people to think about it. To this day, I still actively consume any attempts at a new take on the problem because it combines my two lifelong loves: public transit and ethics!

The trolley problem is great because it gets students to thinking about the idea of weighing life against life and active versus passive moral choice. It also illustrates the nonvoluntary nature of such choices. It’s possible that, should you be driving the trolley, instead of just being the person who can switch it, that your poor driving made the trolley go out of control and the situation is of your making. But it’s also just as likely that some trolley mechanic made a mistake, or simply, that luck is against us and something necessary broke, putting us into a position where we have to make a choice that is, by all accounts, shitty no matter what we do. There are so many riffs on the answer of what you should do that I won’t got into them, save to note that the BBC illustration, while simple, does a good job of outlining the issues you must weigh in making the decision.

The trolley problem is important to questions of public policy. The decision to use the atomic bomb was a real-world, horrible example of the trolley problem.

And after years of having both ethicists and scientists sniff that the little trolley problem is irrelevant because it is neither solvable in a “Science” way (with a Capital S) or, from the ethicists, nuanced (my new least-favorite word) in the manner of real-world ethical problems, driverless vehicle technology brings us back here again.

Here is a really nice discussion of the question from MIT: why driverless cars must be programmed to kill. The problem that the trolley example tries to help us work through never become irrelevant. Once all the solvable problems get solved–the technology, the engineering–we are always left with ourselves, and the problems we make solving all the solvable problems.

In reality, we’ll probably program cars to do what results in the least liability for the manufacturer. But it’s worth thinking about.

Irwin Edman’s lovely writing on Epicurus and the momentary span of human life

I’ve been reading Epicurus (and no, I haven’t forgotten Aristotle), but I happened up on Irwin Edman’s essay introducing the volume, and it’s lovely:

There is no ecstasy and no adoration in Epicurus’ dream of the good life. But there is a decent, half-sad content, the resigned pleasure in what may be made of an earth where, lost amid the wide spaces where our world is but one among many, we may briefly and decently make a lovely and harmonious interval. The senses are avenues to delight; so are those impulses which enable us to enjoy the companionship of our friends; so is the mind which enables us to contemplate without fear that nature which has produced us, which will destroy us, which will generate others after us. The material surface of things, these make a quiet joy for a quiet garden. Better far are these, Epicurus thinks, than the turbulences of affairs of the anxieties bred by hopes an fears such as ambition or supernatural religion breeds. Epicurus is an almost melancholy, secular saint who tells us what we must renounce impossible and illusory happiness, for the modest content which mortal creatures may enjoy in their momentary span.

Oooooooo how I wish I could write like that.