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Back to the Basics

Occasionally we go back to the basics, including by considering basic questions about the nature of the society we want to inhabit. Philosophy students and devotees do this all the time, and the preeminent philosopher John Rawls devoted his entire career to focusing on “the basic structure of society.” Yet for many people, seriously reconsidering the basic structure of society – what it is, and what it ought to be – occurs only on occasion, during a shock, a crisis, an extraordinary event, or an overwhelming challenge. Think 9/11, perhaps the onset of the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the riots that followed, the 2016 presidential election, and COVID-19. At such moments, so many things taken for granted are suddenly in question. We are now at such a moment. The basic structure that most of us more or less accepted (even if reluctantly) now feels unsustainable, and indefensible. There is intense desire and pressure to remake society, to become better, to pursue what the American founders called “a more perfect union.”

I refer, of course, to the visible spate of violence, brutality, and racism toward African-Americans, and to the excessive force unleashed by many authorities. Though long simmering, these boiled over when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd (with the casualness of kneeling to tie his shoe), and when federal authorities used tear gas and rubber pellets to clear peaceful protestors across from the White House (and referred to American cities, including the Capital, as a "battlefield"). We’re shocked, saddened, frightened, filled with outrage and disgust - and united in believing that things simply must change.

But change to what? In participating in recent protests and vigils, and in confronting my own attitudes and privileges, and searching my soul, I’m struck by the frequent vagueness and simplicity in the calls for change, for what comes next. Vagueness is not surprising in such a dynamic environment, nor is simplicity surprising when clear, unequivocal protest seems absolutely necessary. I say this not as someone who is somehow floating above the fray (indeed, had I arrived at Lafayette Square when I intended I would have been amongst those peaceful protesters tear-gassed). Rather, I say this as an engaged and outraged participant in this struggle, as someone insisting on major change. Protestors often chant, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!,” which captures our adamant demands and understandable impatience.

But if I’m honest with myself, many of the slogans and solutions on display – including those coming from my mouth - need much greater development, clarification, analysis, and refinement. Perhaps philosophy can help. Perhaps it can offer now what it has offered from the start – insight into the sort of society that is best for us, the most just social order we can expect to attain – as Socrates sought in Plato’s Republic, as Locke presented in the Second Treatise, as Marx and Engels expressed in the Communist Manifesto, and as the philosophically erudite Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated in sermons and speeches.

Of the innumerable fundamental issues raised in this moment of peril and promise, I note the following as needing philosophical attention. First, the nature of the pluralistic, egalitarian democratic order we seek, in contrast to the bellicose, divisive, often brutal order we seem to have now, but also in contrast to the aspirational “beloved community” that many of us yearn for. Second, the use of violence to right wrongs and pursue noble ends - which is inherently problematical (and which I am in no way advocating), but which has been effectively used so often in history, including to found the United States, and to abolish slavery, and which must be used – judiciously – by any and every government. Third, the extent to which total transformation of consciousness is a realistic goal, and whether it is necessary in order to achieve the pluralistic, egalitarian, democratic order which I believe is profoundly necessary, and largely within reach.

I intend to reflect philosophically on these topics and more in the coming weeks. Please do so yourself, and return here for further reflections. Stay safe and be well.

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