Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Harvard Justice: John Rawls & What is a Fair Start?

The first statement of the two principles reads as follows:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

John Rawls Theory of Justice (1971)

Today we’ll be looking at John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and reflecting upon how this theory informs discussions we’ve been having thus far in the unit, as well as how it adds to (or undercuts) previous theories of justice and morality put forth by John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

A few questions to spark our thinking:

  • First of all, what are your impressions of Rawls’ theory next to concepts of Utilitarianism and/or notions of the Categorical Imperative?
  • Second, do you agree that everyone should have the same basic liberties, whether they are a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, part of the minority or part of the majority? And if you do, what basic liberties should everyone have?
  • And third, how do you see Rawls’ theory applying to the discussions we have had around systemic oppression in the last week or so? What insights might the theory offer for those looking to combat a misogynistic or racially discriminating culture? Are there other groups or conditions to which Rawls’ insights may oppose?

Those of you who are currently (or have in the past) studied economics may have unique insights into how Rawls’ theory works (or doesn’t) within our modern capitalist economies. What do the prevailing theories of modern economics make of a system guided by Rawls’ principles? Are these systems of thought congruent?

 

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Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement

Image from the First Peoples Guide for Newcomers, published by the City of Vancouver (2014)

In 2014, the City Council of Vancouver voted unanimously to recognize that the city was built – and exists – on unceded aboriginal territory. The statement from the city reads in part:

“Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender.”

Earlier this month, HG Hamilton wondered in the Mainlander what may lay beyond this formal acknowledgement, especially given councillor Andrea Reimer’s admission that the acknowledgement wouldn’t effect the legal practices of the city, “because Vancouver is not involved in treaty negotiations and has no such authority over land.”

Hamilton notes that:

Vancouver City Council and other political parties are praised for their formal acknowledgement of the city’s occupation of unceded territory, even if it does little to change the everyday conditions of Indigenous peoples (poverty, dispossession, criminality, premature death). This gesture is what Tuck and Yang would define as a “settler move to innocence,” a strategy or positioning that attempts to relieve feelings of guilt or responsibility of a settler without the settler giving up land, power, privilege or changing much at all.[4] Gestures of remorse or acknowledgement may endow the settler with “professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware.” For example, David Schaepe, director and senior archaeologist of the Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre and technical advisor for the Sto:lo Xwexwilmexw Treaty Association, has congratulated city council on its formal recognition and called it a “very positive development.” Despite the fact that the formal acknowledgment has been received positively in the media, Tuck and Yang warn that settler moves to innocence are hollow and only serve the interests of settlers. Such actions lend false legitimacy to settler governments, allow the ongoing work of dispossession, displacement, and settlement.

In addition to connecting to our visit this coming Friday with UBC professor Dr. Mark Aquash, the case provides a local look at our ongoing discussion of systemic oppression.

Hamilton continues:

“You’re never going to gain the full recognition of your freedom from your oppressor,” argues Glen Coulthard, member of the Dene Nation and author of Red Skin, White Masks, in an interview. “They will only recognize you to the extent that it serves their own interests. The effect that that recognition being given to you has on the dominated or the colonized is that they come to see that gift of recognition as a form of justice or decolonization itself. You think recognition is actually freedom and decolonization, but it’s really colonization in a new form.” The recognition that Vancouver city council has offered to Indigenous peoples only extends to the acknowledgement that Vancouver occupies unceded territory. This primarily benefits Vancouver city council and other political parties because it creates a semblance of sensitivity and self-awareness. The formal acknowledgement falls short because it only acknowledges one aspect of settler colonialism rather than the multitude of ongoing violence and traumas. It does not recognize the historical or ongoing role of Vancouver city council in settler colonization through practices such as policing and community dispersal of the Downtown Eastside community, where economically marginalized Indigenous peoples are over-represented.[4] Nor does it begin to engage in the difficult work of moving beyond metaphors and gestures and towards changing the material conditions underlying the daily warfare of colonization.

Hamilton’s piece includes a great many references to scholarship and historical research into the British Columbian and North American history of colonialism, and poses difficult questions for those of us who have been contemplating the moral reasoning of John Stewart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

Continuing with the theme of our ethical studies, it is likely best to begin from a place of discussion. And as a means of approaching this local issue, about which many of us likely hold some opinion – however informed or unformed we feel our own views to be – in a critical fashion, let us begin by looking at the lenses of moral philosophy we have been working with this week:

  • How might each of these three moral philosophers approach these recent events?
  • Are there ways in which they might agree?
  • Where do you see their thoughts on indigenous land claims diverging?
 

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Contemporary Moral Problems Discussion 11.25.13

The beginning of our learning about Ethics with discussion of John Stewart Mill‘s UtilitarianismKant‘s Categorical Imperativeand points in between. It is the first of two discussions on readings which also includes John Rawls‘ Theory of Justice

 
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