Overview Notes for January 20

Main points

We talked about Jared Diamond’s article as an example of a political philosophy. Specifically, I said that Diamond’s article included a number of points that a political philosophy does. It has a description of what the state does that other forms of social organization do not. It explains why people who didn’t have a state would want one. That explains why the state is valuable. It gives an account of human nature to support its claims about the nature and value of the state. And it is honest about the costs that the state imposes.

We talked about the difference between the state and social rules. The latter can clearly exist without the former: we have rules of dating and the clans Diamond describes have very detailed rules of warfare. What the state adds is a central concentration of force (Michael) and authority over the members of society (Thomas).

I ended by noting that Diamond criticizes philosophers for their false accounts of the origins of the state. We will see several versions of social contract theory that all describe a group of people deciding to move from anarchy to a political society. Diamond claimed it never works like that: states are formed only through external pressure or when one group dominates the others (p. 8).

The philosophers think of themselves as doing something different than Diamond was doing. Diamond was looking for a historical explanation of the origins of the state. The philosophers are looking an explanation of the value of the state. They assume that if they can say why people who lacked a state would create one or want to create one, that would answer their question. We will have to ask whether that is really so.

The controversy over Diamond’s article

I mentioned the lawsuit over Diamond’s article. Roughly, a journalism watchdog group and some people in Papua New Guinea maintain that Diamond got a lot of details wrong. Diamond and the New Yorker say the opposite.

If significant parts of the article are shown to be false, I will stop using it. Nonetheless, the basic generalizations about the society seem to be correct. Some of the most central criticisms allege that the cause of the war was different or that a consequence of the New Yorker’s losing the lawsuit would be that the waring clans would be able to buy heavy weapons.

Here are two decent reviews of the controversy:

  1. Columbia Journalism Review
  2. Science
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted January 21, 2010.
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