Saturday, August 30, 2003

Why it matters

In the context of discussing a PolSci paper on the Palestinian right of return, Eric Muller asks:

To ask whether Israel's negotiating positions do or do not conform with liberal theory is, I think, rather like asking whether bumblebees ought aerodynamically to be able to fly. It's an interesting thing to think about, but how does the inquiry really matter?

Ask Locke. Ask Mill. Ask Hamilton, Madison and the fathers of the American revolution. Ask Voltaire, Mazzini, Marx, Lenin, Ghandi or King. Ask everybody who has ever decided that things as they are suck, and that they need to change.

I can just imagine someone like Muller, back in the times before the French Revolution, saying "Well, it's very interesting that Voltaire is asking whether the King's actions are right or justifiable - but why does it matter?"

It matters because we can change. Whether a bumblebee can fly or not is a physical fact, something that can't change. But how we or our governments (or other people's governments, for that matter) behave is something we can change. And comparing actions to some set of (ideally) commonly-shared or universal principles is one way of pointing out both the need for change, and a preferred solution.

I have no illusions that the current Israeli government will directly change its behaviour due to an academic paper, but that is no reason to discount the process of political inquiry in general.