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Ideas of Will Kymlicka, by Text

[Canadian, fl. 1988, Taught by G.A. Cohen. At the University of Toronto.]

1990 Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro
2.3.a p.22 The quest of the general good is partly undermined by people's past entitlements
     Full Idea: The existence of past entitlements on the part of particular people partially pre-empts, or constrains, the utilitarian quest to maximise the general good.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.3.a)
     A reaction: In other words, there is never a clean slate in politics (except in some hideously violent revolution). You might be able to justify to someone a withdrawal of their past entitlements. E.g. confiscating a stolen painting that was bought in ignorance.
2.3.b p.29 Utilitarianism is not a decision-procedure; choice of the best procedure is an open question
     Full Idea: Utilitarianism is essentially a 'standard of rightness', not a 'decision-procedure'. ...It is an open question whether we should employ a utilitarian decision-procedure - indeed, this question itself is to be answered by examining its consequences.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.3.b)
     A reaction: The point is that the aim is to maximise happiness, and you might do that by just maximising baked bean consumption, and not even thinking about happiness. This idea is labelled 'indirect utilitarianism'. Happiness does seem to be a by-product.
2.4.a p.31 One view says start with equality, and infer equal weight to interests, and hence maximum utility
     Full Idea: The first main argument for utilitarianism is that people matter equally, and hence each person's interests should be given equal weight, and hence morally right acts will maximise utility.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.a)
     A reaction: The point is that this starts from the aim of equality, and infers maximum utility as its consequence. Equality has a primitive value. Whenever you dig down to a primitive value in a theory, I just find myself puzzled. What can justify basic equality?
2.4.a.ii p.135 Teleological theories give the good priority over concern for people
     Full Idea: Teleological theories take concern for the good (e.g. freedom or utility) as fundamental, and concern for people as derivative.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.a.ii)
     A reaction: There's a nice fundamental question with which to begin a discussion of value: which matters most - abstract values, or individual people? Placing a collective of people first (Stalinism?) seems to fall between them.
2.4.a.iii p.137 The most valuable liberties to us need not be the ones with the most freedom
     Full Idea: Different liberties promote different interests for many different reasons, and there is no reason to assume that the liberties which are most valuable to us are the ones with the most freedom.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.a.iii)
     A reaction: As I grow older I come more and more to think that freedom is overvalued. But have you tried the other thing? We complacently take huge freedoms for granted. Be passionate about fundamental freedoms, and relaxed about the rest.
2.4.a.iii p.138 The Lockean view of freedom depends on whether you had a right to what is restricted
     Full Idea: The Lockean camp defines freedom in terms of the exercise of our rights. Whether or not a restriction decreases our freedom depends on whether or not we had a right to do the restricted thing.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.a.iii)
     A reaction: My first instinct is to be sympathetic to this, since a detached and general notion of 'freedom' strikes me as suspect. He offers the rival 'Spenserian' view of freedom as just having the choice.
2.4.b p.32 To maximise utility should we double the population, even if life somewhat deteriorates?
     Full Idea: Morally, should we double the population, even if it means reducing each person's welfare by almost half (since that will still increase overall utility)?
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.b)
     A reaction: [He cites Derek Parfit for this] The key word is 'almost', which ensures a small increase in overall utility. I think this is a particularly good objection to utilitarianism, which aims to maximise an abstraction called 'utility'.
2.4.b p.33 A second view says start with maximising the good, implying aggregation, and hence equality
     Full Idea: The second main argument for utilitarianism defines the right in terms of maximising the good, which leads to the utilitarian aggregation standard, which as a mere consequence treats people's interests equally.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.4.b)
     A reaction: This takes maximum good as a primitive, and arrives at equality as the way to achieve it. So which is more morally fundamental, a maximum of goodness, or human equality? Kymlicka says this idea is too impersonal.
2.5.b p.42 We shouldn't endorse preferences which reject equality, and show prejudice and selfishness
     Full Idea: Equality should enter into the very formation of our preferences. ....Prejudiced and selfish preferences should be excluded from the start, for they already reflect a failure to show equal consideration.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.5.b)
     A reaction: This is meant to block utilitarian summing of preferences like racism, but it feels like a rather desperate attempt to get righteous liberal values in at the beginning, where they can't be questioned. How can you justify equal respect and treatment?
2.6 p.47 Utilitarianism is no longer a distinctive political position
     Full Idea: Modern utilitarianism, despite its radical heritage, no longer defines a distinctive political position.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.6)
     A reaction: This is his final sentence on the topic. I suppose utilitarianism exists as a moral theory at too high a level of generality to count as a political theory.
2.7 p.45 Using utilitarian principles to make decisions encourages cold detachment from people
     Full Idea: Acting directly on utilitarian grounds is counter-productive, for it encourages a contingent and detached attitude towards what should be whole-hearted personal and political commitments.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 2.7)
     A reaction: I've always seen this as an objection to utilitarianism, but I now see that it is only an objection to the decision procedure. We should be warm-hearted and committed, in the knowledge that this will increase benefits to all. Hm. A bit schizoid.
3.1.b p.54 Liberalism tends to give priority to basic liberties
     Full Idea: One way of differentiating liberalism is that it gives priority to the basic liberties.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.1.b)
     A reaction: [He is citing Rawls for this] This is not the same as extreme libertarianism, which makes liberty the only priority. The issue would be over which liberties count as 'basic'. Taxation would be a good test case.
3.2 p.56 Equal opportunities seems fair, because your fate is from your choices, not your circumstances
     Full Idea: The ideology of equal opportunity seems fair to many people in our society because it ensures that people's fate is determined by their choices, rather than their circumstances.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.2)
     A reaction: Is it that we surmise that people have 'free will', and then engineer a situation where it can be exercised? Is it that the rest of us don't want to feel guilty when someone else's life goes awry (because it was 'their fault')?
3.2 p.57 Equal opportunity arbitrarily worries about social circumstances, but ignores talents
     Full Idea: The prevailing view [of equal opportunity] only recognises differences in social circumstances, while ignoring differences in natural talents (or treating them as if they were a choice). This is an arbitrary limit on the theory's central intuition.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.2)
     A reaction: Of course we (society) can do a lot about your social circumstances, but very little about your talents, other than to develop them or thwart them. Talented children need more than mere 'opportunity'.
3.3 p.59 Social contract theories are usually rejected because there never was such a contract
     Full Idea: Social contract theories have all been subjected to the same criticism - that there never was such a state of nature, or such a contract. Hence neither citizens nor government are bound by it. Contracts only create obligations if they are actually agreed.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.3)
     A reaction: Even if they have been agreed in the past, why should subsequent generations be bound to them? Modern Germans aren't bound by their grandparents' oaths of allegiance to fascism.
3.3 p.65 Utilitarianism is irrational if it tells you to trade in your rights and resources just for benefits
     Full Idea: Utilitarianism is an irrational choice, for it is rational to ensure your basic rights and resources are protected, even if you thereby lessen your chance of receiving benefits above and beyond the basic goods that you seek to protect.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.3)
     A reaction: [He's discussing Rawls] Utilitarians would obviously respond to this by saying that the rights and resources are needed to protect future benefits, so it would be short-termism to trade them in now.
3.3.b.2 p.75 The difference principles says we must subsidise the costs of other people's choices
     Full Idea: The difference principle does not make any distinction between chosen and unchosen inequalities, ....but the difference principle requires that some people subsidise the costs of other people's choices.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 3.3.b.2)
     A reaction: We do this in education, allowing people to study things in which we can see little point. We subsidise public ceremonies which strike us as ridiculous.
4.1.a p.95 Libertarians like the free market, but they also think that the free market is just
     Full Idea: Not everyone who favours the free market is a libertarian, for they do not all share the libertarian view that the free market is inherently just.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 4.1.a)
     A reaction: Illuminating. It would appear that exploitation is possible within a strictly free market, so it seems unlikely that free markets are inherently just (unless you don't acknowledge that 'exploitation' is wrong).
4.2.c p.124 If everyone owned himself, that would prevent slavery
     Full Idea: The best way to prevent enslavement of one person to another is to give each person ownership over himself.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 4.2.c)
     A reaction: [The idea comes from Nozick, but Kymlicka is assessing how it should be understood] The best way to block any social evil like slavery is to make it unthinkable. Legislation is second best. Presumably I could sell myself into slavery (like Faust)?
5.1 p.164 Marxists say justice is unneeded in the truly good community
     Full Idea: Marxists believe that justice, far from being the first virtue of social institutions, is something that the truly good community has no need for.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 5.1)
     A reaction: This seems to imply that in the truly good community there are nothing but truly good individuals, which is taking social determinism to its limits. Are all the citizens of a bad community inherently bad?
5.1 p.169 Justice corrects social faults, but also expresses respect to individuals as ends
     Full Idea: Justice is more than a remedial virtue. It does remedy defects in social co-ordination, ...but it also expresses the respect individuals are owed as ends in themselves, not as mean's to someone's good, or even to the common good.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 5.1)
     A reaction: That is, I take it, that justice operates at two different levels in our theoretical social thinking.
5.2.a p.171 Marxists say liberalism is unjust, because it allows exploitation in the sale of labour
     Full Idea: The fundamental flaw of liberal justice, Marxists claim, is that it licences the continuation of the worker by the capitalist, since it licences the buying and selling labour.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 5.2.a)
     A reaction: I can't see that all sale of labour is exploitation, if (for example) the wage paid was extremely high (maybe even higher than the employer's wage, which is possible). So exploitation involves something more.
6.2 p.206 Communitarian states only encourage fairly orthodox ideas of the good life
     Full Idea: A communitarian state can and should encourage people to adopt conceptions of the good that conform to the community's way of life, while discouraging conceptions of the good that conflict with it.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 6.2)
     A reaction: This is the conservative aspect of communitarianism which many people (notably liberals) find uncongenial. This conservatism is implicit in Aristotle's account of virtue. I have become more conservative to accommodate it.
6.3 p.207 The 'Kantian' view of the self misses the way it is embedded or situated in society
     Full Idea: Communitarians believe that the 'Kantian' view of the self is false, because it ignores the fact that the self is 'embedded' or 'situated' in existing social practices, so that we cannot always stand back and opt out of them.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 6.3)
     A reaction: [Hegel and Charles Taylor 1979 seem to be the sources for this] I have several times been told that I am so typical of the culture I arose in that it is almost comical. This was quite disconcerting, but I got used to it, and now I love it.
6.3 p.207 The 'Kantian' self steps back from commitment to its social situation
     Full Idea: The 'Kantian' view of the self strongly defends the view that the self is prior to its socially given roles and relationships, and is free only if it is capable of holding these features of its social situation at a distance, and judging them by reason.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 6.3)
     A reaction: There is no correct answer here, because I am capable of Kantian distancing, and also capable of submersing myself in the social constructions around me. If society fosters rebellion (1810s, 1960s) then we become more Kantian.
6.4.c p.228 Communitarians say we should pay more attention to our history
     Full Idea: Communitarians like to say that political theory should pay more attention to the history of each culture.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 6.4.c)
     A reaction: I like this. Kylicka says communitarians tend not to do this, partly because history might reveal an unpleasant basis for present society (such as English country house life benefiting from slavery). The ignorance of history among politicians appals me.
7.2.a p.250 Ancient freedom was free participation in politics, not private independence of life
     Full Idea: The liberty of the ancients was their active participation in the exercise of political power, not the peaceful enjoyment of personal independence.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 7.2.a)
     A reaction: Interesting. It takes a feat of imagination to grasp a world where the desire for freedom to sit at home and compile a database of philosophical ideas never even crossed anyone's mind.
7.2.b p.258 Modern liberalism has added personal privacy to our personal social lives
     Full Idea: Modern liberalism is concerned not only to protect the private sphere of social life, but also to carve out a realm within the private sphere where individuals can have privacy.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 7.2.b)
     A reaction: Interestingly, he associates this development with the romantic movement, which designated social interaction as public and political, creating a need for true privacy. Privacy is the blessing and blight of the modern world.
7.3 p.263 Maybe the particularist moral thought of women is better than the impartial public thinking of men
     Full Idea: There is a significant strand of contemporary feminism which argues that we should take seriously women's different morality. ...The particularistic thought women employ is a better morality than the impartial thought men employ in the public sphere.
     From: Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy: Intro [1990], 7.3)
     A reaction: I had taken Particularism to be an offshoot of virtue theory, as promulgated by Jonathan Dancy. Evidently the influence of feminism is strong. Personally I think the world would be a better place if it was run by women.