Donald Trump and John Rawls


“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.”
                             Withnail and I

Informed of a rival’s demise, the scheming, turn-of-the-19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand could be heard muttering, “I wonder what he meant by that?” So goes “the great game of politics,” in which even death is perceived as but another move. Of course, real politics is no game; still, there’s a long tradition of confusing the two. It’s the same with war, which is why Clausewitz once felt it necessary to declare that “war is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end.”

To treat something serious as if it were a game is to aestheticize it − to take it out of the domain that we might call “the practical” and put it in “the aesthetic.” The practical is where we strive to fulfil our values or interests; to do things, that is, for our sakes. By contrast, in the aesthetic we take on a disinterested attitude and so do things for “their own sakes,” as the saying goes. This can be a lot of fun, and fun is the ultimate goal, but we can only reach it indirectly, which is why, to repeat the point, a game’s rules are respected for their own sakes rather than for some practical end. Why should I kick the ball in that goal or shoot the puck in this net? Because that’s how the game is played, nothing more. And why can’t I pick up the ball with my hands or kick the puck in with my skate? Because these things would violate the rules − rules, again, which exist simply because we couldn’t play without them. Of course it’s possible to play a game seriously, which is what professional athletes do, for example. But their salaries or glory are things that exist outside of the game, in the practical rather than in the aesthetic, since one can always play for free or without a care for the recognition of others.

There are three other modes of the aesthetic, and these exist alongside playing for fun and often overlap with it. They are disinterested appreciating, as when you savour something or enjoy its beauty, whether it be an artwork, a fine wine, or a person; disinterested imagining, when you fantasize by using your imagination in ways unrestricted by fact, letting it “run free”; and disinterested presenting, when you put on an entertaining show, a spectacle. … Continue reading

The Liberal-Communitarian Debate

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So shone in sunlight the fine pointed spear
That the republican poised in his right hand
With deadly aim at brilliant Dworkin
At his skin where most it lay exposed.
For nearly all was covered
By the bronze gear Dworkin had taken
From slain Sandel.
It showed only the bare throat
Where the collarbones divided neck and shoulders,
Where the death of the soul is quickest.
So here was where, as the liberal charged,
The republican drove his point home.
The end came quick, and death closed upon the lawyer,
Spirit from his body fluttered to undergloom,
Bewailing fate that made him leave his youth
And neutrality behind. And as the man died
The republican spoke. He said:

“Die, make an end.
You who has made a world
Where there is nothing worth dying for
And nothing good on TV.”


(Oxford 1992. With apologies to Fitzgerald and Lattimore’s Homers.)