Talk: “E Pluribus Plurum, or, How to Fail to Get to Utopia In Spite of Really Trying”, by Chandran Kukathas (24 August 2010)

Philosophy Seminar Series: 24 August 2010, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Chandran Kukathas (Chair in Political Theory,  Department of Politics, London School of Economics); Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

Abstract: ‘The framework for utopia,’ Robert Nozick tells us at the beginning of the final section of Part III of Anarchy, State and Utopia, ‘is equivalent to the minimal state.’  The rich and complex body of argumentation of Parts I and II had produced the conclusion that the minimal, and no more than a minimal, state was legitimate or morally justified. What Part III reveals is that the minimal state ‘is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries.'(333) Though this happy convergence is surely no accident, neither, Nozick insists, is it contrived, for it is the conclusion reached by two independent lines of argument. If there is a framework for utopia-or, as I shall from now simply say, utopia-it is the minimal state.

The obvious question to ask, then, is whether Nozick is right that the minimal state gives us utopia-understanding utopia in the way that he would have us do. The thesis of this paper is that Nozick does not succeed. What Part III offers is neither a plausible account of a utopian community nor the inspiring conception of a state that Nozick promises. The root of the problem lies in Nozick’s initial rejection of anarchy, for the idea of utopia he wants to defend is one that is achievable outside the state but not within it. What he tries to do in Part III is to put back into his political philosophy that which was taken away in Part I, when the legitimacy of the minimal state’s incorporation of ultra-minimal states was settled. It is within the framework of the minimal state ‘that one’s nonimperialistic vision of the good society is to be propounded and realized.’ (332) Indeed Nozick tells us that ‘Allowing us to do that is what the framework is for.'(332) The aim of this paper is to show that the framework can do no such thing. In the end, the purpose of the state is to limit rather than enable people’s pursuit of diverse ends. It is a way of making the many live as one. To the extent that those who do not wish to conform are compelled to do so, the state suppresses rather than enables the pursuit of diverse ideals. Of course, it may be that this is as much as is feasible in human society. But it may be too much to call this utopia.

ChandranAbout the Speaker: Chandran Kukathas completed his BA in History and Political Science at the Australian National University and his MA in Politics at the University of New South Wales before going on to a DPhil in Politics at Oxford University. He has taught at the Royal Military College, Canberra; Oxford; the Australian National University; the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy; and the University of Utah, where he held the Neal Maxwell Chair in Political Theory in the Department of Political Science. His research interests include contemporary liberal political thought, multiculturalism, nationalism, and the politics of diversity, Libertarianism and political thinkers such as Bayle, Hume, Rawls, Hayek and Oakeshott.

More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

E Pluribus Plurum, or How to Fail to Get to Utopia In Spite of Really Trying