As a graduate student, Richard W. Miller, Philosophy, became deeply interested in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his dissertation, he grappled with Wittgenstein’s attempts to dissolve the question, “Does anything exist except my own experience?” It was the early 1970s, however. The Vietnam War was growing bloodier by the day, and while he wrote about solipsism and language, Miller also protested. Soon, his activism began to more directly steer his intellectual path.
“The anti-war movement was what made me interested in political philosophy,” Miller says. “What to think about the nature of political power in the United States became very practically important.”
While writing in a number of areas over the years—from epistemology to aesthetics to philosophy of science—Miller has grown increasingly focused on political philosophy and the nature of social and political justice, internationally and within borders. “My central hope for my work,” he says, “is that it will help people make the right political choices and discuss their political differences in morally insightful ways.”
One motivation for this increased focus on political philosophy was the strengthening of ties to an intellectual community: “Those people or voices who are constantly in your mind, who are trying to convince or challenge you,” Miller explains. John Rawls, the late political philosopher and a teacher of Miller’s at Harvard University, is among those voices.
Rawls’ ideas are now challenging and informing Miller in his search for a new moral foundation for social democracy. “By social democracy I mean something ordinary,” Miller says. “I just mean diverse, extensive programs of government help, going well beyond relief of dire poverty, such as those that liberals support in the U.S., programs with such goals as improving education and ensuring health care, giving people access to culture and leisure, and improving their capacity to take a second or third chance as they try to find the job that realizes who they are. That requires taxing some people in order to help others.”
Rawls proposed that the main moral basis for this kind of political program was fairness. “It’s a very popular idea, not just among philosophers,” Miller says. “I’ve come to think it’s not right.”
Miller argues that instead of fairness, social democrats should ask their fellow citizens to adopt a perspective of impartial political concern. “Concern for someone is concern to promote her wellbeing, and wellbeing has important aspects that aren’t just matters of passive consumption—attainment, self-realization, and self-development, realizing your temperament and talent through activity that gives point and value to your choices,” he explains.
By emphasizing the independent importance of active self-advancement, Miller thinks that this deeper understanding of wellbeing captures a grain of truth in conservatives' criticisms of so-called government hand-outs, while letting income transfers play an important role—for example, in helping people to help themselves.
“But do people have a duty to base their political choices on impartial concern? That’s another good challenge posed by people on the right,” Miller says. “I think the best answer is based on a general principle of concern. Roughly, one should be disposed to help others to an extent that doesn’t worsen one’s own life or violate one’s other responsibilities.”
Miller is developing his foundation of social democracy in a book-in-progress, titled, “The Ethics of Social Democracy.” He notes that the principle of concern extends across borders. It creates a political duty of people in relatively rich countries to help those in dire need abroad.
“Part of respecting others—in a political society, in a marriage, or among friends—is showing equal appreciation of everyone’s desire to live by directives that she supports.”
“I know it can sound sectarian for a philosopher to be working out the ethical foundations of a particular political movement,” Miller says. “But the goal of my arguments is a set of moral principles that everyone should support. These do not by themselves force people to be social democrats. Empirical beliefs about what political movement or set of policies actually implements impartial political concern are essential. There is plenty of room for debate, here. There are plausible reasons to suppose that some version of social democracy would win. But my goal as political philosopher is to describe the right moral terms for principled political argument.”
Another one of the voices in Miller’s head is nineteenth-century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. While Mill argued that everyone, including women, should have a vote and be politically engaged, he thought that some poeple who are especially knowledgeable, such as business owners and professors, should have more votes than others. In his view, equality of political influence had no independent value. In the United States and Europe, recent discussions about the dangers of populism might make Mill’s view seem appealing. Miller says what’s needed instead is not a rejection of populism but a deeper understanding of democratic values.
“One theme of my current writing is really two cheers for populism,” he says. “The other way of thinking, where inequality of political influence does not matter as such, shows a lack of respect for one’s fellow citizens. Part of respecting others—in a political society, in a marriage, or among friends—is showing equal appreciation of everyone’s desire to live by directives that she supports.”
The way you show this appreciation in political life, Miller continues, is by supporting measures that reduce inequality of political influence. Disallowing large campaign contributions is one example, but Miller says there are bigger problems in terms of influential political access for people who are not well-off. “When we talk about equality of political influence, we mean something such as each perspective has influence in proportion to its numbers. If you look at Congress today, you have maybe four percent who spent a significant part of their work life in working-class jobs. Moving towards equality of influence is going to require changes in education and personal resources that increase the opportunities of people with working-class backgrounds to influence politics, as politicians, advocates, or experts.”
Miller takes mutually respectful relations to be a package deal in which people give equal importance to everyone’s desire for self-direction and also take seriously one another’s complaints as a source of reasons to change the common course. He thinks that the American political process in 2016 was distorted by the absence of such listening by political elites, not by excessive influence of ordinary citizens.
“There are people displaced by globalization and other economic processes who have legitimate economic anxieties,” Miller says. “I think Democrats should have done much more to address Donald Trump’s claims that he would help, which were vigorous and articulate although based on false premises. That kind of conversation sustains a democracy and promotes a political way of life that deserves to be nurtured.”
Miller draws the analogy between an ideal political discussion in the United States and a group of people doing well in sharing a house or a couple in a good marriage. “It’s not a contest but real sharing,” he says.
Cornell, an Enriching Community
While the ethic of sharing and listening may often be elusive in politics, Miller does see it on Cornell’s campus. “Faculty and staff here get to know each other better and with more mutual regard than at a lot of other places,” he says. “Some of it is geography. Most of us live in or close to Ithaca. Many of us can walk or bike to work, and we typically share the same public schools. I don’t want to exaggerate. We’re all very busy, but there is a certain sense of ordinary community at Cornell that’s mutually enriching.”
As director of the Cornell Program on Ethics and Public Life, Miller plays a role in building this community, bringing people of various disciplines together. Eminent visitors for program series with themes of vital general interest are key starting points, along with public lectures and workshops. Miller also notes the role of informal conversation among people brought together by their interest in a visitor’s work.
“For example, dinners with visitors involve intense conversation and the sharing of common concerns,” he says. “These conversations can give me confidence that what I do as a philosopher is well-connected with social science. I can get a sense of what’s on the minds of political scientists, economists, sociologists, historians—how my work might contribute to their concerns and the many ways that they can help me.”