On May 15th, 2015, a score of intrepid political theorists, law students, and political philosophers braved traffic along Highway One and arrived at a beachfront villa just outside Watonsville to begin the 6th Annual Dirty Leviathan Retreat. The Dirty Leviathan is a group sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Society that is designed to support interdisciplinary and applied work in ethics and political philosophy. Friday evening was spent debating the rise of ISIS, the history of the Assassins, and the appropriate interpretation of the Spike Jonze movie Her. After Chinese food, we all had cake that was decorated with a classic early depiction of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, commemorating the long-term success of the Dirty Leviathan in bringing people together to discuss applied normative issues.
The core of the retreat is the papers presented all day Saturday and Sunday morning. The presenter spends a few minutes explaining his or her paper, and the bulk of the session is then spent in conversation.
Lisa Herzog (Postdoc, Center for Ethics) kicked things off with a presentation entitled “How Organizations Matter,” in which she argued that too little attention has been paid to the variety of ways that our membership in organizations—a university, a corporation—burdens, enables, and shapes our agency and structures our ability to follow moral principles. Lily Lamboy (Graduate student, Political Science) directed our critical gaze towards a little talked about issue: the question of justice in access to higher education. She showed that higher education should not be treated as a luxury but rather as an essential element in our economic and political lives. John Young (Graduate student, Political Science) then presented an argument that liberal theories of justice ought to more carefully attend to results in psychology about the limits of our rational agency. In particular, he argued that our attention and self-control should be treated as finite resources that ought to be protected by public policy in our increasingly stressed and distracted social worlds.
After lunch, we continued with two presentations by combined PhD/JD students. Christopher Lewis (Graduate student, Philosophy and Law) discussed the proposition that the U.S. Census should treat Hispanic/Latino as a distinct race and not as a subset of the white population in order to gain a more accurate picture of the racial makeup of the United States. Artemis Seaford (Graduate student, Political Science and Law) discussed some of the legal issues and limitations around sexual consent. Her goal was to deploy a more sophisticated understanding of sexual consent in order to help resolve some of the thornier issues in sexual ethics.
The latter part of Saturday evening turned towards the theoretical. Joseph Lacey, a visitor from European University Institute in Florence, presented a paper in which he described a novel account democratic politics. He then used this account to justify the inclusion of institutions of direct democracy in the administration of the European Union. After dinner, Nathan Hauthaler (Graduate student, Philosophy) argued against the possibility of private reason. That is, he showed that our reasons for action must, in principle, be the kind of reasons that are accessible and comprehensible to others. My talk, the final one, was on Sunday morning. In my paper, I argued that the world state should be considered much more seriously - especially as a solution to international domination - than it currently is. In fact, I showed that most arguments against the world state are surprisingly weak.
Quite by accident, the talks ended up being unified by two common threads. First, many of the talks focused on the lived experiences of marginalized or oppressed groups while being informed by and engaged with developments in the social sciences. Second, there was a shared focus on finding views, experiences, or issues that are under-theorized or unfairly ignored in political theory. That is, there was a commitment to doing genuinely new work rather than working out the implications of well-established views. This made the retreat intellectually exciting.
Beyond the intellectual work, we also met to discuss the future of the Dirty Leviathan. We concluded that the state of the Dirty Leviathan is strong and continues to offer a unique opportunity to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars. We look forward to scheduling an introductory social event in the fall of 2015 in order to raise awareness of the Dirty Leviathan amongst incoming grad students, postdocs, and professors.
At the end of my presentation and subsequent discussion, we cleaned up our home for two days, took one long, longing, forlorn look at the beach and left to look at sea otters per Dirty Leviathan tradition.
Patrick Taylor Smith is a postdoc at the Center for Ethics in Society.