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New Politics and Philosophy Podcast: The Badlands

September 22, 2018

This is a guest post by Toby Napoletano, a philosophy PhD who is working on a politics and philosophy podcast that is the subject of this post.




I’ve taught quite a few introductory ethics courses to undergraduates over the past five years or so. During that time, I’ve had the good fortune of having lots of really good, thoughtful students who were fairly politically engaged—enough to at least be aware of some of the major moral and political issues that dominate political discussion.

But I’ve noticed a bit of a trend with these students that I think should be worrying to those who identify themselves as being broadly on the political left. Namely, for lots of the students who identify themselves as being generally “liberal”, the most salient political commentators for them tend to be quasi-intellectual right-wing libertarian types like Ben Shapiro. While they might disagree with him, they respect him as someone who uses “facts” and “logic”—i.e. who at least gives the appearance of trying to reason with them.

I don’t think this is an accident. What is distinctive about libertarians—even those like Ben Shapiro—is that they keep their deep philosophical commitments right out in the open, and they don’t hesitate to appeal to them. Why are minimum wage laws unjustified, according to the libertarian? Well, at bottom, because doing so would prevent people from entering into certain voluntary economic agreements with each other—i.e. ones where labor is exchanged for less than minimum wage. Such laws would infringe on the liberty of individuals to enter into those agreements, and government, as a rule, cannot do this. Government is meant to protect this sort of liberty, in addition to individuals’ basic rights to property and physical security.

There are plenty of ways to resist this argument, but doing so requires engaging with the underlying philosophical commitments. For instance, under what conditions is labor exchanged for a wage voluntarily in the relevant sense? Is it voluntary in the sense that counts if the alternatives are to work for a pittance or to starve, or to forego medical treatment, etc.? And further, what’s special about rights to physical security, property, and freedom of contract? Might there be other basic rights which governments have obligations to protect like a right to subsistence or essential medical care?

But my thoughtful students (and presumably plenty of thoughtful non-students) don’t see anybody on the left raising these questions or engaging with the issues on this level. Consequently, they don’t have good answers to the deeper philosophical challenges that might be raised against leftist positions, and some of them will conclude that there just aren’t good underlying justifications for those positions and abandon them altogether.

Consider the case of economic inequality. For folks on the left, the bulk of the conversation has been spent on the statistics illustrating the state of inequality in the U.S. And this is for good reason—the numbers are staggering. They then conclude that there is something basically immoral and unjust about this inequality. But then the response from those who are less concerned with inequality is just that the great inequalities in wealth and income simply reflect differences in merit, and so they do not reflect any basic injustice. The progressive left, they charge, is obsessed with the idea of everyone being economically equal. What justice requires (as they often put it) is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity, citing the ideals espoused in the American Dream.




Interesting—an argument invoking the ideas of merit, opportunity, and justice. Of course, it happens to be a strawman—I don’t know of anyone who could charitably be interpreted as advocating for a completely equal distribution of wealth. Nevertheless, the argument suggests that we need to go a bit deeper, and wrestle with potentially difficult, philosophical questions. For instance: What’s the relation between opportunity and justice? What is the relation between economic inequality and opportunity? What is merit and how does it relate to economic outcome? Would meritocracy even be a good thing?

One of the reasons progressives care so much about economic inequality is that they agree that justice requires some semblance of equality of opportunity, but recognize the myriad ways in which extreme economic inequality undermines equal access to opportunity—both economic and educational. These disparities in access to opportunity then further entrench the economic inequalities (and expose the idea that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is merit-based as being clearly false).

Putting the issue of opportunity aside, there is a basic human rights issue that the extreme inequality in the U.S. makes pressing. Namely, it’s not just that there are large gaps between the rich and poor, but that the poor are actually deeply impoverished, struggling and often unable to lead a decent life. The presence of extraordinary wealth amid this deprivation suggests a failure to protect basic rights, and a failure which could be easily prevented. Even if those who end up poor, by and large, did have the same opportunities as the wealthy (which they clearly do not), it still wouldn’t follow that the situation is a justifiable one.

Arguments like these are the kind that need to be made and understood with some clarity if one is going to be justified in believing that economic inequality (to take just one example)  is, in fact, a serious problem. These arguments are what fill in the gap between the statistics demonstrating the inequality and the moral conclusion that the inequality is unjust.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that there is real value to engaging with the philosophical dimensions of political issues. Not only is such engagement necessary to really understand some of the underlying disagreements, but there is strategic value to doing so as well. Commentators on the left do themselves and their positions a disservice by not engaging with the issues at greater depth, because there are plenty of good arguments in favor of those positions.

The aim of The Badlands Politics and Philosophy Podcast is to try to help fill this gap. On the podcast, a group of fellow philosophers (Michael Hughes, Hanna Gunn, Jared Henderson) and myself explore the philosophical dimensions of contemporary political issues. Along the way, we give a philosophical sketch and defense of a broadly “progressive” political outlook. If nothing else, we hope to help raise the standard of political discourse in some small way.

The podcast is aimed at a general audience and so isn’t meant to require any specialization in philosophy to enjoy. Early topics include money in politics, economic inequality and the myth of the American Dream, inequality of opportunity, the idea of American meritocracy, and issues concerning political discourse and political coverage in the media. In the near future, we plan to do episodes on the meaning of “capitalism”, the relationship between Milton Friedman and progressivism, the ethical implications of AI, the ethics of immigration, and lots more.

New episodes are released every Friday, and written pieces are posted regularly on BadlandsPhilosophy.com.

We are on Twitter at @TheBadlandsPod.



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 3, 2018 at 9:52 am

    ‘I don’t know of anyone who could charitably be interpreted as advocating for a completely equal distribution of wealth.’ I was surprised to read this. I know several people who have communistic ideas, including myself. I am sure they are pretty widespread. So ‘anyone’ must mean ‘anyone legitimate’ according to some notion of intellectual legitimacy? This filter should be made explicit.


    • Toby
      October 7, 2018 at 10:02 pm

      Sorry for the unclarity Anarcissie. I didn’t mean to be implicitly assuming a notion of which positions are legitimate. Rather, I mean to be limiting the claim to those positions which have enough of a public platform in American political discourse such that the right wing pundits feel inclined to address them. For better or worse, a stronger egalitarian position doesn’t get much play right now (for what it’s worth, I don’t feel very confident one way or another about that kind of position). Thank you for the comment!


  1. September 22, 2018 at 2:50 pm
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