The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally?
The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well asThe Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.
What is political obligation?
To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.
So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?
The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.
The argument from fair play
The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.
Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.
There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.
One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?
On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.
Against political obligation?
This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.
If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.
On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)
So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.
And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.
Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.
Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.
Shame and Necessity
by Bernard Williams
After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?
However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).
So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.
Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.
It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.
The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.
Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney
The Philosophy Book
by Will Buckingham
Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.
With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.
The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.
The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.
There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.
The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.
This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know
by Ben Dupré
Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.
Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.
The book’s blurb asks:
Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?
It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.
There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.
This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
by Harry G Frankfurt
When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.
But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.
So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.
Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.
In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.
Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.
The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.
The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher
by William H F Altman
Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.
Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.
The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).
Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.
The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.
Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.
This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).
But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.
Matt Sharpe, Deakin
Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot
This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.
It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.
The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.
Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.
I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:
Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.