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Professor discusses political communities

| Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Political philosophy is in the bricks of Notre Dame, according to David Campbell, political science department chair, who opened the inaugural series of the Niemeyer Lectures in Political Philosophy on Tuesday. According to a University press release, the Niemeyer Lectures are presented by the political theory program to “honor the contributions and memory of the late Gerhart Niemeyer, professor of political philosophy at [Notre Dame] from 1955 to 1997.”

Jeremy Waldron, professor of law at New York University, is the first speaker in the Niemeyer Lecture series. According to a University press release, Waldron will give four lectures over a period of two weeks titled “The Principle of Proximity.”

His first lecture, “Two Models of Political Community,” tackled the topic of political association and the division of distinct political communities. Waldron said people should form political communities with those who are close to them in physical space, particularly those with whom they are most likely to fight.

“We should divide ourselves into communities — of whatever size — that bring us to terms with people in our vicinity, whoever they are,” he said. “We need to come to terms with those people we are side-by-side with.”

According to Waldron, typical political philosophy divides societies by ethnic groups or nationalist tendencies. Waldron first said the “affinity” models of political communities are inherently incorrect. He said those who submit to these theories enter a political community with others they are similar to and believe that the basis of a political community should be people with a shared sense of sympathy, friendship and cooperation — though that does not always have to be the case.

“I wish to cast doubt on the principle that political communities should function as ethnical or national homelands,” Waldron said. “We should dispel the theories that the ethnic national model is the only one in town. You have a responsibility to join in a political community with those who you are most likely to fight. These people need to come to terms with each other, otherwise they will fight. They need to set up political and legal structures to create peace.”

He said “conflict models” of political communities, popularized by Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant, explicitly remove the idea of “choice” from the formation of political community. Kantian theory notes that those “quarreling” with one another have a moral obligation to enter into a political community with each other, and Waldron said he supports this theory.

However, Waldron said he is not encouraging the dissolution of nationality or the eradication of culture. According to Waldron, culture should not dictate the foundation of a political community.

“Instead of viewing [culture and national spirt] as a prerequisite for political community, instead of viewing it as the building block for a political community, we might see it instead as a very helpful artifact,” Waldron said.

He said his theory does not require a state to enter a constant period of conflict, but he does believe that the state is born out of compromise, which stems from conflict.

“Mine is not a theory of state minimalism, it is not a theory of the night watchman state, I am not saying that settling and reentering conflict is the sole function of political community and the sole task for the state, but it is necessary and indispensable,” he said.

Waldron said the conflict model accounts for fighting between people, unlike the affinity model, which deals with fighting by simply separating people.

“At least the conflict-based model, the Kantian model, the Hobbesian model, acknowledges up front that we have to come to terms with conflict over resources, rather than trying to wish that away with the formation of the state,” he said. “So I think [this model] is a safer bet for our modern, mixed up world.”

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