Sorin Baiasu (BSc and BA – Bucharest, MA and PhD – Manchester) is Professor of Philosophy at Keele University, Director of the Keele-Oxford-St Andrews Kantian (KOSAK) Research Centre and Co-convenor of the Kantian Standing Group of the European Consortium for Political Research. He held visiting positions at the University of Sheffield, University of Vienna, University of Warwick and at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
Apart from research interests in the history of moral philosophy, particularly the Kantian tradition and existentialism, he works in metaethics, with a focus on issues of normativity, normative ethics, especially on the relation between ethical and political norms, and applied ethics. One of his ongoing projects is designed to retrieve a workable notion of desert as a criterion of distributive justice, in response to dominant egalitarian objections. Currently he is writing a monograph on this topic entitled A Responsibility-enhancing Desert-sensitive Theory of Justice.
Edward Kanterian: Sorin, you are a British philosopher born in Romania. How did you get from the most Eastern part of the continent to its most Western one?
Sorin Baiasu: Let me first thank you so much for the opportunity of this dialogue, to which I am very much looking forward! Concerning the question, I went to do a Masters – an MA(Econ) in Political Theory, as it was called – at the University of Manchester in 1996. I had a ‘Chevening’ studentship for this, funded by the Open Society Institute, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the University of Manchester. I was offered a place in the programme following an application, an interview and an IELTS English Language Test. I was with a group of colleagues from the Faculty of Philosophy, at the University of Bucharest, when one of our lecturers told us about the call for applications for this Masters programme. I had a desire to be able to write philosophy professionally in one of the world’s official international languages, so, when I heard about the opportunity of a studentship at Manchester, I decided to try and submit an application. Half way through my Masters, I applied for a doctoral studentship offered by the University of Manchester and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the UK. The application was successful and I started my PhD in the Department of Government at Manchester with a thesis on ‘Persons and Politics in Kant and Sartre’ (supervisors: Ursula Vogel – lead, and Hillel Steiner – second). The UK Political Studies Association awarded me the ‘Sir Ernest Barker’ Prize for the best dissertation in political theory in 2002, one year after I had completed my PhD and graduated. Shortly after submitting my thesis, I was offered a temporary part-time lectureship at Manchester for one semester, to teach Plato’s Republic, and I then applied for a one-year full-time lectureship at Manchester at the Centre for Philosophy. I was offered the first permanent full-time lectureship in 2007, after over one hundred and fifty applications submitted at various universities and about thirty interviews. Five of these applications were successful: apart from the one-year position mentioned above, an application for a ‘Simon’ Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Centre for Philosophy in Manchester (2002-5), an application for a two-year full-time lectureship in political theory in the Department of Government at Manchester (2005-7), a permanent lectureship in philosophy at Keele University and (roughly at the same time) a permanent lectureship in political theory at one of the Russell-group universities. I decided for Keele after negotiations. Once I accepted the offer from Keele, I remember I had mixed feelings having had to cancel a couple of additional interviews for very attractive positions, to which I had been invited in the meantime.
EK: Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual education and formation?
Sorin Baiasu: My Mum was very passionate about literature, my Dad, about history, my brother, about music. They encouraged me to cultivate myself. My grandparents and us had great libraries at home, but it took me a while to discover an interest in literature. I remember the first book I really enjoyed was a collection of African Popular Fairytales. I first heard a bit more about philosophy in high-school, in Bucharest (1984-8). Communism was in full swing and I was extremely lucky to have two excellent lead class teachers at the time. First, between 1984 and 1986, our lead class teacher was a Romanian literature specialist, Elena Baltag, a poet, married with Cezar Baltag, also a poet and translator of Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas. She told us a bit about Kant, but I remember one of my best friends then (Tiberiu Rădulescu) was more impressed than I was. At the time, my plan was to study literature. We loved our teacher and we were extremely sad when she died after two years; the rumour was that it happened due to a diagnostics error. She was replaced by a Philosophy specialist, Mihaela Mirou – again, a teacher very loved by the class. I remember that instead of the lessons on Ceausescu’s Marxism, which we were supposed to have according to the curriculum, we would do proper philosophy and learn about different schools of metaphysics. I particularly remember the clear presentation she gave of subjective idealism, which seemed very attractive to me at the time. When I had to decide what to study further, I was torn between philosophy and literature, but my parents did not allow me to try either. Although I was initially furious, I have been grateful to them for this later, since studying philosophy or literature in 1988 would have been a significant waste of time with the curricula ‘infected’ by all sorts of modules meant to promote Ceausescu’s version of socialism and his interpretations of Marxism. I eventually prepared for entrance exams for the State Technical University of Bucharest, for a BSc in the Management of the Systems of Production, which I started in September 1988. Bachelor degrees at the time took at least five years to complete; there were no Masters programmes, so graduates could continue with a PhD straightaway, if a place was offered to them. I discovered that studying hard during the semesters allowed me virtually free vacations during which I could read. After about one year, before the summer of 1989, given my good grades, I was approached by two fellow students, who were members of the Communist Party, and asked whether I would like to become a member. It was something silly to do at the time and potentially dangerous, but I did not realise that and said that I was not prepared to join the Communist Party, since I was not really sure what Marxism was about and I would like to study it a bit more. After the 1989 Revolution, I prepared for the admission tests to the Faculty of Philosophy, the University of Bucharest, and started the course in 1992. I did finish also the BSc degree (and as Valedictorian), but never practiced it. I remember my final dissertation consisted of a computer software for the simulation of the heat dynamic in a weld pool. Studying Philosophy at that time was extremely exciting – many of the previous lecturers were replaced by young talented members of staff, including my former high-school teacher, Mihaela Miroiu (who was also the lecturer who gave us the news about the call for applications for the ‘Chevening’ programme – so I am very indebted to her for that too). We had some excellent lecturers enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their subjects, teaching us for five years a wealth of topics – for instance, ‘Plato’ and ‘History of Logic’ (Sorin Vieru), ‘Aristotle’ and ‘Ancient Greek’ (Stella Petecel), ‘Philosophy of Religion’ (Andrei Pleșu), ‘Heidegger’ (2-year module on Being and Time) (Gabriel Liiceanu), ‘Philosophical Logic’ (Adrian Miroiu), ‘Cognitive Sciences’ (Mihail-Radu Solcan), ‘Philosophy of Language’ and ‘Political Philosophy’ (Adrian Paul Iliescu). There were other courses I enjoyed taught by Ilie Pârvu, Mircea Dumitru, Gheorghe Vlăduțescu, Alexandru Surdu, Valentin Mureșan, among others, but I cannot list all of them here. I was not making any distinctions between analytic and continental philosophy, and was trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible. I was also not very critical about the modules I was going to – I tried to attend everything. In Manchester, I specialised through my Masters in Political Theory/Philosophy, but my PhD included a section on metaphysics (mainly personal identity) and one on meta/ethics (mainly normativity). I had some excellent lecturers during my Masters: apart from my supervisors, Ursula Vogel and Hillel Steiner, I was taught by Maurizio Passerin-D’Entrèves, Stephen De Wijze, Vittorio Buffachi, Katrin Flikschuh, Alistair Edwards, and Michael Evans, but I learned also from other members of staff, for instance, Geraint Perry, Harry Lesser, Thomas Uebel, Anthony Hatzimoysis and Helen Beebee. In terms of intellectual education and formation, a special role was played by my PhD lead supervisor, Ursula Vogel, and my second supervisor, Hillel Steiner. But I have been influenced and educated by other philosophers since, by reading their papers, hearing their conference presentations and discussing their work. I mention only a few of these: Adrian W. Moore, John Horton, Glen Newey, Markus Willaschek, Pauline Kleingeld, Mark Timmons or Susan Shell.
EK: A fascinating odyssey. Your Eastern European roots are quite untypical for British philosophers. How did you witness the 1989 Revolution, and what was your impression of the ‘transition period’ after that, from a political and social point of view?
SB: I was in Bucharest at the time of the 1989 Revolution. I remember walking back home through the city centre a few days after the first signs of the Revolution had started to become visible in Timișoara. It was very close to Christmas and I was returning with a good friend (Doru Ambăruș) from an annual visit we used to pay to an excellent mathematics teacher, Mihai Șerbănescu, who had given us private tuitions a few years before. We were in the city centre, very close to the University, just about to go to the tube station, when we saw about twenty persons on the ground, holding tight to each other, shouting slogans, such as ‘We want freedom!’, and surrounded by masses of police forces and security. I was not sure who those persons were, but I remember I was very impressed by their courage and amazed that they had not already been arrested and taken to the dreaded dungeons of the ‘Securitate’. I thought my friend was also extremely courageous, since he suggested that we join the protesters. However, the whole situation seemed to me completely hopeless – the asymmetry of forces between the police and protesters was huge. On reflection, I realise it was a good illustration of the idea of the sublime with the immense imbalance of (physical) force between protesters and the police, compensated only the immense moral strength needed by the protesters to carry on. In the tube we had another surprise: two stations from the University, we had to change the line and we saw hundreds of people entering the tube returning from the last and failed mass rally organised by Ceaușescu. The next day the city was in turmoil with a lot of shootings and various ad-hoc misguided attempts by members of the public to identify who was a ‘terrorist’ and who was not. My brother and I went to the university to ‘defend’ it against ‘terrorists’, and I remember the atmosphere of generalised confusion, but also elation at the prospect of freedom and a civilised life. To provide a sense of the level of confusion, I mention one incident. It was very early morning on the 24th of December and most of the students were very tired or even asleep. Periodically, students with military training were rotating as guards outside the building and on its rooftop. At one point, there were no volunteers for this task and those organising the shifts insisted that students from among those who had not been on post as guards up to that point take a rifle and go. Displaying extraordinary courage, my brother, although without military service (and I suspect more as a way of protecting me) volunteered together with a friend (Dan Marinescu) and they were posted outside, flanked on the left by a narrow wall, which was regularly hit by stray bullets. Bullets were flying in fact everywhere and I was extremely worried for him and his friend, but I was completely horrified when one of the guards started to shoot from the rooftop towards the front of the building. It turned out there was a stray soldier hiding behind a bush in front of the building – luckily, everybody, including the soldier, escaped unharmed, but it was unclear why he was hiding and what he was doing away from his regiment. The transition after the Revolution was similarly confusing and elating; many people were trying frantically to make up for the ‘lost’ time during the communist dictatorship. Ever since, many have been trying to take advantage of new liberties, new opportunities and the lack of settled political institutions, and unfortunately this encouraged also a lot of corruption.
EK: In those early years after the Revolution, many hitherto shunned writers and thinkers from the interwar period were republished in Romania, for example Eliade, Cioran, Blaga and Noica. Were you exposed to their works or to that of other Romanian philosophers? Would you say they have left a mark on your thinking?
SB: During the last years of communism in Romania, there was a move towards nationalistic propaganda and some philosophers were published, although they were not doing Marxist-Leninist philosophy; instead they were perceived as advocating a specifically Romanian way of thinking, particularly under the influence of Heidegger. There were for instance some essays, such as ‘The Romanian sentiment of being’ (‘Sentimentul românesc al ființei’), which were regarded (wrongly I think) as contributing to that propanganda. Some of Blaga’s work had been published before, I think in the ‘60s, when in Romania communism went through a more liberal phase, and I had found a few books by him in my parents’ library. I had several books of literature by Eliade in my grandfather’s (on the maternal side) library. These were bought by him before the Second World War. He had also met Noica on one occasion or two, when he was studying Law in Bucharest, and one of his friends happened to be Noica’s cousin. Although I had no books by Noica from him, there were a few books of philosophy. I remember in particular a book by Tudor Vianu, on the philosophy of culture. My grandfather told me he had attended and enjoyed his lectures. I admired Eliade’s will power, productivity, encyclopaedic ambitions, and his achievements in the philosophy of religion. I was also fascinated by the Păltiniș Diaries (a book authored by one of Noica’s students, Gabriel Liiceanu), which had first been published in 1983. This was a book about the meetings of Noica with a few disciples at the Păltiniș resort, to discuss and study philosophy – they were all knowleadgeable of Ancient Greek and German, were reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Heidegger in the original, had access to some important commentaries, and made a plausible claim to being able to contribute to the most recent and relevant philosophical debates in the area. You can imagine my enthusiasm when I started studying philosophy in Bucharest and had as lecturers several of Noica’s former students – in addition to Gabriel Liiceanu, there were also Sorin Vieru, Andrei Pleșu and Vasile Dem. Zamfirescu. I admired Eliade, Cioran, Noica and Blaga for their capacity to transcend the boundaries of the culture from which they had started and to make contributions of universal relevance to philosophy and, more generally, the humanities.
EK: This brings us to an important topic, the state and status of the humanities in today’s world. There are many who claim that the humanities are under threat, with history, literature and even philosophy departments closing down, including in the country we both work, the UK. Some even speak about a ‘war against the humanities’. What do you view as the main challenges to the humanities in the 21st century? And what are the reasons behind this development?
SB: I have struggled with this question and it took me quite some time to figure out what I think about this (and, of course, I am not yet completely sure); but while taking a walk with my daughter, I had an idea, which I think was helpful for me. We were walking on a relatively narrow pavement in the neighbourhood; it was not very busy and at one point we saw another person walking in the opposite direction. Quite soon he was close to us and although we tried to go as much as possible on the side of the pavement, he did not seem concerned to alter his trajectory even a bit. He continued to walk in the middle, so we were forced to go on the lawned area to put some distance between ourselves, in accordance with the currently pandemic-preventing regulations. The man did not seem evil – just oblivious to how his actions can make others feel and affect them. Of course, whether he was in this way or not is pure speculation – he might have been numbed by pain or very absent-minded by some worries or unwell, or perhaps indeed evil and hiding his satisfaction. Yet, I realised that, one important process which enables us to sympathise with the others and realise how our actions might affect them is imagining. Those with imagination can connect more easily with others and can be more easily considerate, respectful and helpful; they can take others appropriately into account and learn from them. Those without imagination will be bound to overlook others in some form – they will not genuinely see or hear them, but will assume everybody else is a copy of themselves. Now I think the development of imagination is precisely the task of the humanities. Drawing a general distinction between natural sciences and humanities, and, correspondingly, between explanation and understanding, as dominant methodologies in the two domains, it becomes clear that, unlike natural sciences (concerned with providing an account of how the world is and beings in the world behave), the humanities are the disciplines interested in an account of how the world might be, might have been or ought to be. Some form of ‘productive’ imagination for the latter is clearly essential, so we can expect that this ability will be enabled and developed more by the disciplines of the humanities. Precisely because of this difference, any attempt to compare the humanities with the natural sciences, especially concerning their usefulness, is to a large extent an inadequate enterprise. As a result, I am a bit sceptical about (although at the same time sympathetic towards) recent attempts to talk about the impact humanities have in the world, since the standard of comparison or the model of impact used is often that of natural sciences. Disciplines within the humanities do not have the same aims as those in the natural sciences, although there will be overlaps. Perceiving the impact of the humanities is not more difficult than noticing that of the natural sciences, as we could see in the example I mentioned above. Yet, it requires a different type of attention and investigation. The ‘war against the humanities’, I think, is motivated at least in part by an inadequate comparison between natural and social sciences. Surprisingly, however, in many cases even a comparison according to the same standards between the humanities and natural sciences can show that disciplines in the humanities are more profitable than natural sciences. For instances, in universities, running a philosophy or history programme is going to be much cheaper than a biology or physics one. I have heard of cases, however, where programmes in the humanities, although profitable, are ignored and led to disappear. The senior management would not invest in them, but would use any profit to support, as it were chremato-phagic, inefficient STEM programmes; they would not advertise humanities subjects properly, would not replace staff retiring or leaving, and then they would be surprised and worried when such programmes in the humanities would no longer recruit. Having a look at how universities which plan to close humanities departments down have used funding is often an eye-opening exercise; in some cases, such an exercise has simply saved high-quality teaching programmes.
EK: You are a leading expert on Kant’s political and legal philosophy. What do you take to be his most important ideas for mankind in general, for Europe, and for our homeland, Romania?
SB: As you know, Kant began to write in a more sustained way on politico-juridical topics in his late philosophy. The book in which he develops most systematically his legal and political philosophy is the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), particularly the part entitled the ‘Doctrine of Right’, published just seven years before Kant’s death. Given this is a text Kant published when he was 73, some have not taken it seriously (ageism has been and is at work everywhere in different forms). The value of this text (considered by some commentators as representing Kant’s fourth Critique, after the Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason and of Judgement), as well as of other politico-legal texts written by Kant during those late years, is being discovered now in the English-speaking literature with every new text, which is devoted to this part of Kant’s system. To be sure, serious scholarly work on this text was done before (for instance, Howard Williams published his Kant’s Political Philosophy in 1983), but for some time scholars thought that what was of value for political and legal philosophy in Kant’s work was to be derived from Kant’s ethics, in particular, the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason. This, for instance, can be seen in the approach adopted by Rawls in his immensely influential A Theory of Justice (1971; 1999), which was supposed to provide a Kantian alternative to the classical utilitarian and intuitionist conceptions of justice, but which seems mostly influenced by Kant’s ethical writings. (Not surprisingly, very recently, it is this approach which led to the debate in political theory and philosophy on ideal versus non-ideal theory). Yet, Kant’s legal-political philosophy represents a substantial body of work which introduces extremely important ideas on its own.
I find it difficult to select ideas particularly relevant for Europe and for our country of origin, Romania. Concerning the latter, I hesitate, since I do not want to be perceived as one of those expats who is now feeling entitled to lecture; concerning the former, I do not think I have a grasp of what Europe is, perhaps because of the significant differences between the countries that belong there (although I am a very strong defender of the idea of Europe). If I will find, however, a theme which is of relevance globally, then I think this will also apply to Europe and Romania, and would avoid the risks mentioned above. One of my favourite Kantian themes of global relevance is the relationship between ethics and politics. There is in Kant both a clear connection between the two, so that political norms can be evaluated morally and adjusted when they are found lacking, and a significant difference, which ensures that what the state can enforce is only behaviour, not mentality. The similarity between ethical and political norms is particularly useful to invoke when laws in a state are seen as legitimate just in virtue of being ratified through whatever political process happens to be in place. The idea that political norms just need to ensure a modus vivendi misses the normative aspect of politics and usually leads to unfair treatment of the worst-off groups. The difference between ethical and political norms is especially useful in authoritarian states which demand from citizens, as it were, not only their behaviour, but also their souls. The expectation from citizens to commit to a political regime beyond the level of allegiance manifested by the observance of law tends sooner or later to stifle critical comments and erode whatever legitimacy that regime had. Combined with Kant’s view that there are three types of political norms – statal, international and cosmopolitan – this conception of the relation between ethics and political norms seems to me to be one of the most relevant in Kant’s thought and with a myriad of implications, for instance, for issues of distributive fairness and social justice, international law, environment, migration, equal rights, pandemic, outer space and many others.
EK: I suppose that under ‘many others’ we could add the problem of climate change. Some people, or maybe increasingly more and more people, have come to believe that this is the defining problem of this century. Do you think that in tackling this problem Kant might help us, for example with his idea of cosmopolitan law, which goes beyond international law and requires the treatment of humans as humans, not as citizens of particular states? Might this aspect of Kant’s idea of cosmopolitanism become increasingly relevant? Or is his thought in this area too determined by concerns of his age, as opposed to our age? After all, we now live in a time in which the human control over nature, propelled by advances in science and technology hardly anybody in Kant’s time was able to anticipate, has reached such gigantic dimensions that many think we should refer to the current (new) age as the Anthropocene rather than the Holocene.
SB: I think you are certainly right: it might be an anachronism to raise the question of climate change in relation to Kant’s thought. But I think the issue of anachronism is not an all-or-nothing matter: there may be aspects of the question Kant would not have been able to fathom, but there are also perfectly relevant issues which he was able to address and which make his philosophy a good – and at the moment insufficiently tapped – resource for philosophers of the environment. I would like to focus on one specific issue only and this is the issue of motivation. This is not immediately an issue for philosophers of the environment, but a topic more central for the philosophy of action and metaethics. Through its implications, however, the question of motivation becomes very significant for environmental philosophy too, and particularly for climate change. Thus, one of the questions some environmental theorists raise is the question of motivation – why do we keep damaging the environment, despite the fact that we are aware of the difficult situation in which we are? Why do many of us fail to act on what we know would be not very costly measures to protect the environment, from recycling and reusing, to actively seeking to reduce our Carbon footprint? Very recently, the World Meteorological Organisation announced that the global average temperature in 2020 was about 1.2 degrees Celsius (and about the same in 2021) above pre-industrial level. Scientists warn that global warming would need to stay below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial level, if we are to avoid the worst impact of climate change. But what does it take to motivate us to act? Kant has a distinction between intention and motivation. He takes an action’s motivation to be the person’s ultimate ground for the performance of that action. If I sign a cheque, for instance, my intention might well be to enable a payment to charity, but the actual ground of my action might be an inclination to be generous, the thought that it is right to help others in need, the desire to impress those who become aware of my gesture, or simply the expectation that I will have a good feeling of contentment after that. This ground is the motivation of my action. Kant thinks there are two main categories of motivation: ethical and non-ethical. My motivation is ethical when the ground of my action is given by the realisation that this is the right action and performing it is the right thing to do. All other motivations are non-ethical, and I mentioned some of them above – inclinations, desires, certain incentives. There is a huge advantage of action prompted by ethical motivation: it is supposed to be less vulnerable to contingent factors – for instance, if I am signing the cheque to impress a particular person who is aware of my gesture, but then I lose interest in that person, I will lose also interest in helping those in need. Yet, helping those in need seems to be good independently of whether or not I will impress anybody. One way to interpret this aspect of Kant’s philosophy is to read him as recommending that we always act as duty requires, come what may. Along these lines, the Nazi military who carried out atrocities with the excuse that they followed orders were seen as following a Kantian morality.
EK: But is this not quite a caricature of Kant’s ethics?
SB: It surely is. And such a poor interpretation! To begin with, for Kant, not everything is ethically relevant. Those who believe that everything is ethically relevant are considered by Kant subject to an „ethical enthusiasm”, which is pernicious. Secondly, Kant is quite clear that there is no obligation and, hence, no duty to act in accordance with a law or command which goes against the moral law. Thirdly, Kant is very much a realist in his ethical theory – not in the metaethical sense of believing that there is a realm of moral standards independently from our minds, but in the sense of being aware of how vulnerable and weak we, human beings, are. He considers it very difficult (although he strongly defends the view that it is possible) to act from ethical incentives and takes it to be a necessary condition for politico-juridical laws, which regulate our society, that they be enforceable. He does claim that politico-juridical laws can be observed out of duty, but he does not make this a requirement. What is required is that they be observed and a good legislator makes sure that there is the appropriate non-ethical incentive (through potential punishment) for the observance of these laws. The implication for climate change is, I think, striking – the big issue for environmental studies should not be so much why we do not do what we take to be the right thing to do with regard to the environment, but why the state and international organisations do not do more to legislate and provide incentives in these areas.
EK: Very interesting analysis. Well, at least we now have the “Fit for 55” agenda in the EU, probably the most ambitious political attempt to make our societies and economies more sustainable. And Joe Biden has, unlike Trump, made the climate a major concern of his administration. But such policies are also likely to trigger dissent and resentment, especially from populists on the right, don’t you think? I am quite worried about the discourse on the climate in Romania, for example. If indeed there is such a discourse. Action against climate change is often perceived as crypto-communist or ‘eco-fascist’, not as a measure for saving the foundations of life on our planet, which ought to be a cosmopolitan and apolitical concern. And there is the problem of corruption. Romania has the largest primeval forests in Europe, but as you know, they are being destroyed illegally by timber companies of Austrian and Romanian provenience, e.g. state-owned Romsilva, and the authorities choose to look the other way, for obvious reasons. The ‘timber mafia’ has even killed forest rangers trying to act against this environmental destruction. What, in your view, should be the appropriate non-ethical incentive here, from a Kantian perspective? And who or what ought to issue it?
SB: I agree that, in pluralist democratic societies, there is an increased realisation that action to address climate change and other environmental problems cannot simply be regarded as an issue for individuals to take on, after they realise its significance compared to the pursuit of various personal interests. These problems should be a concern for political (and not only) authorities. In other societies, including those, like Romania, whose democratic traditions were interrupted by decades of communism, there is an added complication sometimes: provincialism. To be sure, to some extent or other, we encounter provincialism everywhere. This turns a global problem, as the current pandemic or climate change are, into a local problem, for instance, the conflict between ‘true believers’, on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘fake believers’ and ‘atheists’, or that between crypto-communists and true ‘democrats’. When these local problems, including those combined with corruption, intervene, the solution seems to be obvious for authorities – they need to disentangle the issues, address the issue of corruption head-on, clarify what is at stake and what the best courses of action are to address problems in a timely manner. To be sure, what seems simple will in fact be met with various challenges. For instance, global problems can also be placed in false or speculative contexts, such as, conspiracy theories about the ‘real intentions’ of those who offer solutions – a pandemic would, in these lights, be variously regarded as an attempt by multinational agencies to change the social order, the project of some evil agent to implant microchips or another attempt by atheists to make genuine believers to put more trust in science than in God. There are, unfortunately, no simple answers to these problems. Some aspects of such conspiracy-driven claims should not be dismissed without some further consideration, but even the reasoned answers that can be provided will have an effect depending on the educational background of those to which they are addressed, as well as other related factors. We need the appropriate social, political, economic and cultural context in order for the message to even be understood, let alone accepted. This is particularly important from the perspective of a crucial idea that can be found in Kant’s political philosophy, concerning the nature of law. As Kant notes, although law is perhaps the most effective means we have to introduce change in a society, it is powerless, if it not combined with compliance. In some cases, obstacles are not simply ideological, social or cultural, but also economic. Closing down a mining company may have beneficial long-term consequences for the environment, but may also have short-term devastating consequences in the respective region, including unemployment and the issues associated with poverty. What is needed, therefore, is a balanced approach. Importantly, however, ‘balanced’ should not mean ‘timid’; especially for the issue of climate change, action is needed urgently, and public authorities should mobilise all available means, by consultation with the main players in society (executives of major companies, various representatives and public figures), to produce change. This already assumes that the issue of compliance needs to be taken very seriously and addressed.
EK: Another important concern for Kant was political freedom, including freedom of speech. As we know, he was himself subject to censorship by the authorities in Berlin and had to refrain from publishing his views on religion for a while. Freedom of speech is today very much a hotly debated topic, between parties that at times seem to hold irreconcilable positions. On the one hand, there are those who aim to regulate public discourse through ‘de-colonisation’ etc., through boycotts of those whose views they find morally reprehensible, etc. On the other hand, there are those who opt for an uncompromising defence of freedom of opinion and speech. Of course, this is a debate in the free world, not in China or North Korea… In my experience, it is very difficult to find a balanced view in this conflict. Freedom of speech ought to have no restrictions. But some speech is genuinely violent, and, as we have seen during this terrible pandemic, even detrimental to the social good (I have anti-vaxxers in mind here).
SB: Yes, this is certainly a very topical issue, which needs serious consideration, especially in light of recent events (such as the ‘#Me Too’ movement), which have led to the so-called ‘cancel culture’. The structure seems to be the following: specific parts of a person’s communication (can be tweets, emails, Facebook posts, sentences in a book or interview, as well as gestures or parts of an outfit) are called out as wrong (abusive, racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, etc.); the author of these items of communication has then his or her communication platform withdrawn – they might be fired or disinvited from some public event or other, or more generally ostracised. I have in mind two examples, which illustrate nicely the complexities of the issues involved and their relevance for freedom of speech. One is the example of a colleague from a university abroad, with whom I often had research collaborations; if I remember correctly, he designed a module on freedom of speech for his students and, as part of the activities related to the module, he invited for a series of talks some politically controversial figures, associated with right-wing extremism – some with weaker links than others. They were invited to talk about free speech, and students were expected to attend. Some of his colleagues and some representatives of the university’s senior management, however, reacted with surprise and, sometimes, vigorous disagreement. By contrast, he could not see anything problematic with his plan and invites. Members of his university felt that he was offering a platform for views which undermine free speech; he thought that those invited expressed views which were worth discussing and considering, rather than being simply rejected without consideration.
A second instance is well-known in the UK academic life – the issue of a colleague (not from Keele, my university) who opposed transgender self-identification, this being part of the proposed reforms to the 2004 UK Gender Recognition Act. Her position has been identified by transgender activists as transphobic and some students at her university called for her to resign (which she eventually did a couple of months ago). In part, the accusation was that her position on the reforms and her status in the university create an unsafe space for students who may be transgender; in reply, she mentioned that she also felt unsafe, following the campaign led by some students who argued that she should be fired, but also following death threats.
Further examples can be easily found, but the point you have just expressed (namely, that it is very difficult to find a balanced view in these situation) is certainly something I very much agree with. There are some aspects which are very much outside the control of even the most well-intentioned ‘cancelled’ or potentially ‘cancelled’ agent and of even the most well-intentioned agent who attempts to ‘cancel’ somebody else. Once a person is called out on account of some wrong or putatively wrong item of communication, the issue is in the eyes of the public and various factors can affect how seriously this will be taken and what the social pressure on the called-out person will be. It is also difficult to control how specific members of the public will react – some may issue anonymous death threats, some may threaten specific individuals or call for a person to be fired or ostracised. A further dialogue in this context becomes very difficult. For some situations, it is impossible to control how one’s claims are interpreted and what effect they might have on the others.
I would need to do more research to say anything more specific on the two cases mentioned above and also more time and space to develop some useful answers, but I would like to mention a couple of philosophical points, which I think are important in a discussion of such issues. First, I think we would do well to start with a lot of faith in ethics, normative theory more generally and, even more generally, philosophy. It may seem that some issues are intractable or some questions cannot be solved, that it is difficult to adjudicate in complicated cases, such as those mentioned above. But I think a significant number of problems can be addressed by focused attention to the details of the cases discussed. In some cases, disagreements are simply the result of the use with different senses of the same terms, or they rely on some contradictory claims which are factual and can be easily reconciled, or are due to errors in reasoning, which can be demonstrably addressed. In some cases, to be sure, a correct adjudication may rely on aspects which cannot be ascertained. To take an imaginary case, say members of two religious congregations claim that a particular building is theirs, since theirs is the true religion (say, the two religious groups used to be one and split over doctrinal disagreements). In such cases, I agree that it is impossible to adjudicate fairly by determining which party is right; yet, it is not impossible to adjudicate fairly, once it is acknowledged that determining which party is right is impossible. For the fair solution, in that case, is to consider both parties as having equally strong moral claims to that building and to divide fairly its use. Such a fair division might turn out to become a complicated task too, but there is at least in principle an avenue for a solution. We can see once again the huge relevance and significance of humanistic disciplines, philosophy included; I am a huge fan of the message of Prince’s ‘Baltimore’ – ‘if there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace’; humanities help us not only to bring about justice, but also to understand and appreciate it.