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Colin Bird

on 21 January 2015

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PLPT 1010
Spring 2015

Colin Bird, Politics
Director, PPL Program

Teaching Assistants:
Harrison Frye
Jincai (Francis) Ying
Ross Mittiga
Colin Kielty

Our approach will be thematic not historical/textual. We'll focus on 3 sets of questions:

How should economic resources be distributed in a just, fair and equal society?

Is democracy a good way of making political decisions and if so, how is democratic decisionmaking best organized?

Should we think of our political responsibilities as essentially local, tied to our membership in national communities, or as global, implying political duties to people living in other countries?

In each case, we will look at several authors who defend sharply different answers to these questions.

But the goal is to focus on the adequacy their arguments.
Course Aims:

To make you a more sophisticated, more critical, analyst of political arguments

To mess with your head a bit, to try to jolt you out of complacent assumptions about politics

To make your writing clearer, more precise, more cogent and more persuasive

The course will have succeeded if:
You emerge better able to recognize political bullshit and less likely to propagate more of it.

Don’t get hung up on the word ‘THEORY’. A problematic word.

Not clear what it means, as it is used in many different ways (‘music theory’, ‘chess theory’ etc.)

An intimidating word, suggesting something abstruse, difficult, cerebral, esoteric. Here it means little more than ‘thought’, ‘reflection’, ‘ideas’.

Tends to carry the misleading implication of being opposed to ‘practice’.

the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. ... I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval ... the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

John Maynard Keynes
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès

1748 -1836

Author of 'What is the Third Estate?' written at the outbreak of the French Revolution.

‘Theories are the practice of centuries; all their practices are the theory of the passing moment’.

Political action/practice is basically inconceivable, unintelligible without the beliefs, ideas, concepts that inspire it. This is so for at least two reasons:

The Variability of Political Practices

Aristotle’s dictum that we are ‘Rational Animals’ and at the same time and connectedly ‘Political Animals’

Together, these create a standing demand for justification in politics. Why do we keep doing things this way rather than that way?

Not really possible to be an agent without at least tacitly endorsing certain political beliefs, ideas, assumptions.
Course Materials: available at the bookstore and UVACollab

Attendance and Participation: please do both, regularly and vigorously

Please no laptops, phones or other electronic devices in lecture.

Three written assignments: two papers (roughly 30% of your grade each) and a final exam (roughly 40% of your grade). (NO MIDTERM)

Late work policy: Requests for extensions on the papers must be made, in writing to Mr. Bird, at least one week prior to the due date. Otherwise, late work will be penalized at a rate of third of a grade per 24 hours. Penalties may be waived in emergency circumstances.

Loss of data is NOT an emergency: it is your responsibility to back up your work

Grade review policy: TA first, then Mr Bird

Don’t risk expulsion by cheating and plagiarizing!
What is Political Theory?

The effort to reflect critically about the nature of political association and about how best to organize public institutions.

This question, of course, quickly fragments into many sub-questions, e.g.:

Who should rule (the few, the many, the expert?)? Does private property liberate or oppress people? Where do states get their authority from? When may citizens resist their government? (When) Is war OK? Is a welfare state justified?
Inquiry in Political Theory:

Is philosophical and conceptual; big concepts like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘oppression’, ‘equality’ quickly come up

Is evaluative, politically engaged and often prescriptive, seeking to recommend and criticize as much as merely describe and explain.

Political theory is simply the effort to use argument, analysis and reflection to provide adequate answers to questions about the values and ideas that guide political practice.
Political practice/political action are inherently structured by 'theory', in the sense they presuppose certain reasons for action; those reasons, moreover, are attached to various concepts, beliefs, ideals and values (freedom, justice, the 'common good', the 'pursuit of happiness', 'legitimate authority' etc.)

Note an important complication:

To say that our actions in social and political life presuppose reasons, beliefs, ideals, etc. is not to say that those reasons, beliefs etc. are always CONSCIOUSLY a part of what we do.

Much political action is habitual, routine, unreflective. But even so, we can ask questions about it, and thereby make it an object of conscious reflection.

The value of political practices is a function of their tendency to maximize overall welfare and minimize suffering.

John Stuart Mill, 1806-73
Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832
Full transcript