Archive for the ‘Burke’ Category

Michigan Smoking Ban

On the first of May, after years of lobbying by anti-smoking crusaders, most public workplaces in Michigan will be smoke-free.  A majority of Michigan legislators thought that now is the perfect time for the bill, passed 24-13 in the Senate and 75-30 in the House, because all more important matters of the state are settled, education is fantastic, the roads are in excellent condition, Michigan’s economy is on the up and, by golly, small businesses—bars and restaurants—are booming!

Most irritatingly, the bill exempts the gaming floors of Detroit’s three casinos.  Advocates of the ban view the exemption as a compromise without which the bill would not have passed.  This admission is true, but it seriously undermines the premise of the bill: combating the dangers that secondhand smoke poses to Michigan workers.  Granholm and legislators care about workers’ health, just not workers whose employers rake in lots of money for the state.

I take issue with the bill itself for multiple reasons, and I think Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill would too.  Burke would not appreciate such a heavy-handed government approach to protecting people’s lungs.  And with his affection for nice and traditional things, he seems like a man who would enjoy a cigar and a glass of bourbon (my shallow political theory at its finest).  There are plenty of smoke-free bars to which more health-conscious patrons may flock.

And there’s something to be said for this tradition of smoking in bars: we’ve been doing it for centuries.  Would Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca be the same shady, wonderful venue without a cigarette dangling from Humphrey Bogart’s mouth?

Mill has a more compelling philosophical argument.  We could think that his utilitarianism would compel John Stuart Mill to support the impending smoking ban in Michigan bars and restaurants.  But we would be wrong.

It’s hard for me to reconcile Mill’s utilitarianism with his liberalism, but I think Mill’s idea of utilitarianism is more individual.  What can I, as an individual, do for the greater good?  Mill might advocate people to individually not smoke indoors to protect bartenders and waiters/waitresses.  He would probably not support a bill that impedes on so many people’s rights to, you know, destroy their own lungs, to lower health risks for others.

“The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” says Mill in On Liberty.  That’s my stand on victimless crimes.

A final argument against the ban concerns the money bars and restaurants will lose—and the jobs they may have to cut because of this.  Inhaling smoke all day for a paycheck sucks, but a paycheck might be better than no paycheck.  However, this style of thinking is similar to the argument against raising the minimum wage: jobs might be cut to compensate, and a low-paying job is better than no job.  And I hate that argument.  But perhaps a reader can rationalize it for me.

Sources: Mill, On Liberty, and  http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2009/12/granholm_gets_smoking_ban_will.html

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Burke + Weems = BFF

Burke once said that the Queen of England should not be thought of “merely as a woman.”[1] He was implying that the leaders of nations should be considered to be more than just humans.  They should be revered and glamorized.  People should want to follow these leaders and devote themselves to their country.  This is especially prevalent in developing countries, who are young and in need of leadership.  One of the ways to ensure a stable society is to create myths about their country.  In order to get a young country to respect and follow their leader and develop some kind of nationalism was to create traditions and myths about their country.  Once people had something to rally behind, either their country or their leader, they would be more likely to follow rule and defend their country.  The people need a transcendent figure who they can look up to.  Burke believes that myths help maintain a society and are of vast importance.  A developing country needs to have nationalist aura around itself so the people can know what they are fighting for, Burke would have loved the myths associated with a young blossoming country that was slowly coming into its own.  It was starting to rally behind a leader, a man that would one day become the most well known man in his country.  Helping to rally the troops was a biographer, Parson Weems, who liked to stretch the truth in his biographies.  The country was the revolutionary United States of America and the leader was its first hero—George Washington.

Sorry to disappoint, but our first president told lies (possibly thousands) and (sadly) that famous cherry tree probably never existed.   Parson Weems was the first man to use the cherry tree myth[2].  He was a biographer who made most American icons larger than life by creating myths in their “factual” biographies.  A painting of Weems tells all.  The classic painting of Parson Weems shows Weems pulling a curtain back and looking straight at the viewer of the painting (to view this painting click the footnote here[3]). What’s behind the curtain? It is the scene in which George is telling his father that he did not cut down that famous cherry tree.  George is not a child—rather, he has the head of his adult self. Parson is in front of the scene, and is pointing at George and looking at the viewer with a sarcastic glare.  His expression reveals that the scene behind him is completely fabricated.  The symbolism of him pulling back a curtain also proves that this was in fact a myth.  It is as real as any play would be.  George’s old head reveals that nothing like this occurred during his childhood.

A myth like this is important and Burke would agree with Weems’ propensity to tell tall tales.  After winning the Revolutionary War, The United States was not so united.  It was a young country not used to governing itself completely.  So what did Weems do?  He created the myth of Washington to create America’s first icon.  People would respect him, look up to him and want to act like he acted, much like Burke thought the English people should think of their queen.  It made good sense for Weems to use the “never lied” myth as many people looked up to the first president as a role model.  They would copy his actions, and therefore, hopefully, would never lie.  America needed something or somebody to rally around and myths like this allowed them to do so.

Washington was America’s man, someone who had been born and spent his entire life in America.  People could honestly have an American hero for the first time.  This was something to fight for, something that helped build American nationalism.  While nationalism is a very dangerous concept it is of vital importance for a young nation.  It needs to prove to the world that it is a tightly knit unit that no one can bully.  Nationalist values help spread the notion that the newly formed nation is something worth doing anything for.  Myths help to add to nationalist views.   Burke loved tradition more than anything.  He was a devoted to religion—a fundamentally traditional institution.   He believed anything that could be spread on from generation to generation should have been.  Nationalism feeds off of traditions that people can take a part of, such as nationalist parades and holidays(i.e. Presidents Day, a celebration of the GW’s birthday).  It all adds into the point of being part of something larger than oneself and sharing that connection with millions of people.

Burke may not have been American, but he would have respected Parson Weems’ attempt to try to hold America together.

[1] Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France” in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, 2nd Ed., edited by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2008),

[2] http://samantha.carrotware.com/default.aspx?tag=cherrytree

[3] http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/cp/vol-06/no-04/images/weems-home.jpg

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Now that the semester is coming to a close students are stressing out about what grades they are going to receive and many have started making excuses for why they did not get the grade they were aiming for. A majority of these excuses revolve around the professor; for example, “he/she grades too hard,” or, “it is impossible to get an A in his/her class.” If students are complaining about the professors they have now, imagine the amount of complaints there would be if some of the philosophers we have studied in this class were professors and they ran their classroom like they thought that political systems should be run—that would give students something to complain about; especially if Hobbes, Burke, or Rousseau were their professors.

If Hobbes was a professor, students would legitimately never know what grade to expect. His political theory was that of an absolute sovereignty where whatever the sovereign does is justified because “every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth” (Hobbes 190). By enrolling into his class students would be entering into a social contract with him, thereby establishing him as their sovereign. He could grade however he wanted because his sovereignty would be absolute. If he wanted to fail the brightest student and give an A to the student who failed every assignment, there would be nothing anybody could do about it. The only time the students could resist his authority is if he put them in a situation where their life was in danger.

If Burke was a professor, his class would be extremely difficult. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” he makes clear his belief that only “distinguished magistrates” and exemplary people should be ambitious because ambition is plausible only for them (Burke 507). He thinks that ambition shouldn’t be exercised by the “swinish multitude” because the “swinish multitude” can only ever be “swinish multitude”—nothing more, but possibly less (Burke 517). If the “swinish multitude” tries to be ambitious the only result is disappointment, or a fiasco like the French Revolution. Applying this idea to his classroom, only the few students that come from distinguished families or perform exceptionally well would pass his class. He would fail all the rest of the students to save them from the disappointment that would result from their own ambition.

Rousseau’s class would also be very difficult to excel in because in order to do well, one would have to be concerned solely for the proficiency of the class as a whole rather than concerned about being one of the best students in the class. In his treatise, “On the Social Contract,” he supported the idea that civil society can exist peacefully only when “each of us places his person and his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau 432). Rousseau says that the “general will” is not the wants of each individual but rather the common good of society as a whole; what is good for one person is not necessarily beneficial for society as a whole (Rousseau 437). Political systems become corrupt when people develop vanity and egocentrism. Therefore, to get an A in Rousseau’s class, students would have to be concerned more for the knowledge of the class as a whole rather than their own specific grade. If students care only about their grade and being better than all the other students, Rousseau would fail them because those actions are vain and egocentric and do not benefit the classroom as a whole. I think it would be hard to be in a class like this because it is difficult to put others before ones own self, especially when it comes to competing for grades.

Having Hobbes, Burke, or Rousseau as a professor would be a one of a kind experience that would (for once) justify excuses for a disappointing grade.


Burke, Edmund. “Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 502-21. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.”Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 116-277. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 427-87. Print.

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Burke on Traditionalism

With the holiday season upon us, many are looking forward to heading home to spend time with their families.  Whether it is lighting another candle on the menorah or decorating the Christmas tree, we all follow many traditions in this holiday season, some that we may not even realize.  Similarly, there are many other traditions we follow in our day-to-day lives.  Recently, while watching the news, it came to my attention that the city of Houston, Texas, just elected an openly gay mayor, Annise Parker.  Although this is not the first openly gay mayor elected in the country, it is by far the largest community to elect a homosexual into office.  Taking tradition into consideration, Edmund Burke would have a huge issue with the election of Ms. Parker.

While reading Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Burke makes it clear that he believes tradition is important, especially in terms of our government.  Burke says, “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.”  He then continues, “The science of government being therefore so practical in itself and intended for such practical purposes – a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life…it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society” (Burke, p. 514).

What we get from the previous quote from Burke is rather quite simple.  Essentially, Burke is saying that we should not wander from the beaten path.  The path that has gotten us to where we currently are has gradually evolved and been proven to be successful.  Thus, it makes no sense to deviate from this tradition.  From this, one could theoretically propose that Burke would say that Houston voters should not have voted Annise, an openly gay being, into office.  This theory clearly would create controversy in today’s society, and Burke would be equally confused.  To Burke, actions occurred because that is how they were done in the past.  However, Burke still was posed with one dilemma that he could never put a straight answer to; how to preserve individual rights without creating prejudice in the meantime.

With this in mind, I started thinking about the larger issue at hand, gay rights (primarily marriage).  This topic now becomes trickier.  To this, I would argue that, Burke, being a conservative traditionalist, would be drastically against gay rights.  The bible says that gay marriage should not be allowed, and I would have to say that Burke would agree.

On the other hand, however, I argue that Burke, if here in the present day, he would no longer be opposed to the right of gay marriage.  While talking about following tradition, he makes one subtle acknowledgement.  He acknowledges that we should accept tradition because it hasn’t failed us in the past, but he also says that tradition has evolved.  This key word “evolution” leaves a glimmer of hope in today’s society for the eventual acceptance of gay marriage.

This issue clearly pinpoints the dilemma that Burke faced when thinking about personal rights.  Although, he would traditionally disagree, Burke would find acceptance in this issue if it is agreed on by the majority of the people in the sovereign.  Burke understands that tradition has been forged by small trials and errors, and thus would understand that if this is what people want, then it is just another adjustment to what we will begin to call tradition.  Houston voters, electing Annise Parker into office, may be another step toward this traditional evolution.

Burke, Edmund.  “Reflections on the Revolution in France”.  Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, Second Edition. Edited by David Wooton. Hackett Publishing, Inc. 2008

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Discourse on Russian Revolution

Edmund Burke did in fact support the American Revolution while he condemned the French Revolution, but what would his opinion be regarding the removal of Czar Nicholas II of Russia?  Would Burke have supported the removal of the Czar in 1917 that led to the establishing of the Soviet Union?  I believe Burke would have supported his removal due to the fact that it actually strengthened Russia’s national identity.

Why is a national identity so important?   According to Burke, a national identity is the most important aspect of any nation.  Burke states, “There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-informed mind would, be disposed to relish.  To make us love our country, our country must be lovely”  (Burke 517).  Burke believes traditions within a nation create a national identity.  A national identity acts as a unifying force.  It acts as an agent of pride.  This pride is what makes a country “lovely” according to Burke.  It is what distinguishes one nation from another.

Of course, most are of the opposite opinion of my own.  They believe that Burke would not have supported the removal of the Nicholas II.  They recall Burke’s comments regarding successful revolutions, “Because among their massacres they had not slain the mind in their country.”  “They aimed at the rule, not the destruction of their country” (510).   “You had all these advantages in your ancient states, but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society and had everything to begin anew.  You begin ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you”  (504).  They believe that Nicholas II’s removal did “slay the mind” of Russia.  To “slay the mind” is the complete denial of the monarchial and capitalist past of Russia in favor of a new, socialist future.  But, did the Russian Revolution truly “slay the mind” of Russia and “begin Russia anew?”

According to those leading the socialist movement no.  They were actually attempting to strengthen the national identity of Russia.  Lenin states, “Sometimes, history needs a push.”  In fact, Lenin and the socialist movement believed themselves to be continuing the prideful history of Russia.  They were merely pushing it in a new direction.  Marx, whose theories were essential to the socialist movement, states, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  Although Marx and the socialist movement aren’t pleased that traditions “weigh” on the present, they agree with Burke that traditions can’t be changed or avoided.  They can only be honored and better utilized to serve the populace.  And the Russian Revolution did better utilize Russian traditions.  It established a stronger, more “lovely” socialist government that created a national identity far greater than that under Nicholas II.  Those who survived both the 1918 Civil War and Stalin’s 5 Year Plan retained a nationalism that outweighed past monarchial nationalism.  This was evident in Russia’s successful completion of World War II by defeating Germany which they were unable to accomplish under the Czar in World War I.

So, “Were all these dreadful things necessary?  Were they the inevitable results of the desperate struggle of determined patriots, compelled to wade through blood and tumult to the quiet shore of a tranquil and prosperous liberty?”  (506).  According to Burke, yes.  The Russian Revolution established a stronger Russian identity which, according to Burke, makes Russia “lovely.”

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Recently in one of my classes, we read an article about vocational education written by Mike Rose, a professor in the School of Education at UCLA, entitled “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Through many first hand experiences, Rose explains how vocational education institutions do not encourage their students to be ambitious. When reading this article, I thought of Burke and how he would love the standards vocational education schools hold for their students because he also did not encourage ambition.

The main point of Rose’s article is that people can only float to, and not surpass, the mark that is set for them and that vocational education systems set the bar very low. Rose tells the story about how he tested into the vocational track of high school where he was not encouraged to succeed. In this poor learning environment, he “did what he had to do to get by, and did it with half a mind” (Rose 177). The article is composed of many anecdotes about the poor learning environment in a vocational education school. For example, one day in class the teacher asked one of the students their opinion about working hard and doing the best that one can do to achieve great things; the boy answered, “I just wanna be average” (Rose 178). The students in this education system were being taught to be content with mediocrity and to not even try to become something they might have once dreamed of being.

Burke would highly support an education system like the one Rose attended. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Burke expresses his belief that ambition is impractical; some people are naturally born unequal to others and unless they are an exceptional person (like himself and Rose) then they can’t change. According to Burke, ambition only applies to people like “distinguished magistrates,” and there are a limited amount of those exemplary people (Burke 507). Burke says that people need to be “taught to seek and recognize the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind” (Burke 504). In this statement he basically says that people need to be satisfied with what they are given and if they aren’t then they should be taught to be. He also says that “inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it can never remove” (Burke 505). Burke implies that regardless of ambition most people are destined to fail in their endeavors.

The education system that Mike Rose was enrolled in put into action what Burke believed. Burke thinks that ambition doesn’t apply to the average person so it shouldn’t be encouraged, and the students in the system that Rose attended were not encouraged. The system had very low expectations for its students, so the students could only rise to a certain mark and (with the exception of Rose) no further. Even if they wanted to surpass the low standard, they were at a loss of where to start. The students eventually took on the mindset that being average is fine. Burke would admire people like the boy who said “I just wanna be average,” and would encourage more people to think like that. He would give two thumbs up, three if he could, to vocational education standards.

When reading this article, I was not only struck by the similarities between vocational education standards and Burke’s ideas, but I also realized how I disagree with both of them. People can aspire to be anything that they set their mind to and they should not be discouraged in their efforts. Like Mill, I believe that autonomy should be encouraged. Although Mill believes, like Burke, that some people are smarter than others, he also believes that people learn something from the experience of failing.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. “Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett publishing Company Inc., 2008. 502-21. Print.

Rose, Mike. “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. By Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. 7th ed. Bedford Books, 2007. 174-85. Print.

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Burke, Mill, and Tradition

            While Burke strongly advocates sticking with tradition and with what has worked for previous generations, Mill adopts a different approach.  In Mill’s opinion, a tradition is only legitimate if other ways of living have proved inferior.  Mill gives more trust to the ability of man to successfully reason, whereas Burke sees human innovation as disastrous.  Burke’s commitment to tradition limits the equality and autonomy of men, while Mill’s more discriminating view of tradition puts more trust into the hands of men to make changes.  Burke uses the idea of “tradition” and “nature” interchangeably, but Mill cautions us to challenge whether these are actually synonymous. 

             Through his critique of tradition, Mill calls for an end to the subjection of women and says that the system of male dominance “rests upon theory only; for there never has been trial made of any other” (654).  Mill makes the distinction between a proven institution and one based solely on theory.  He asserts that a tradition just based on theory and custom, and when there seems to be no proven basis for its application, is not worthy up being upheld.  However, regardless of the foundation of a certain tradition, Burke advocates that it is better off left alone than altered.

             In addition, Mill uses his distinction between “unnatural” and the “uncustomary” to challenge the subjection of women: it may have been against tradition for women to be treated as equals, but not necessarily against nature.  However, Burke claims that we are “working after the pattern of nature” when we are following a tradition.  He says that “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society” (514).  Burke describes custom as nature, but Mill argues that not all traditions are rooted in what is natural. 

               As Burke sees it, “a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views” (503).  According to Burke, innovation proves disastrous because we are limited by the “fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason” (503).  For this reason, Burke opposes innovation of any kind. Burke warns against making any change, arguing that the lifetime of one man is not long enough to discern the effects of a specific societal alteration.  On the other hand, Mill not only rejects Burke’s idea of accepting all traditions, but also supports incurring changes.  He not only opposes the subjection of women but goes as far as to suggest a solution: the legal equality of men and women in a relationship of marriage. 

            Burke and Mill’s differences in view of how stringently we should adhere to tradition creates a disparity in their ideas of freedom and government.  Resting in his commitment to tradition, Burke thinks that government is not created for the purpose of ensuring individual rights and that “a perfect democracy is, therefore, the most shameless thing in the world” (519).  In contrast, Mill is a strong supporter of equality and rights.

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