People v. State

fairly undermining public confidence in the administration of justice


January 22, 2011 By: John Kindley Category: David Gross, Leo Tolstoy

David Gross at The Picket Line:

As I mentioned yesterday, a while back I tried to flesh out a variety of political philosophy that I whimsically dubbed “topianism.”

I meant the name to highlight the distinction between it and utopian political philosophies (meaning, most all of the rest of them, including the mainstream ones that pass for conventional wisdom) — that is to say that it’s not aiming
at organizing society in some ideal way, but in understanding and navigating society as it is in the here-and-now (not in the outopos where it will never be, or the eutopos where we might ideally project it to be, but in this topos right here where we’re standing). I’m not crazy about the name “topianism,” but I need some sort of tag to attach to the idea while I look for a better one.

Topianism is almost more of an ethical code than a political philosophy, except that it has a component with profound political consequences: its claim that there is no second standard (or set of standards) by which to judge acts in the political sphere — instead, a single standard applies to everyone. . . .

Topianism bears a lot of resemblance to existentialism because of its emphasis on personal responsibility and on avoiding the temptation to deflect or deny this responsibility.

When you talk about responsibility, you sometimes end up getting into the tangle over free will. . . .

Be all that as it may, most of us feel that we inhabit a world in which we choose some actions and some things just happen to us and in which there is a big difference between the two. This is crucial to our sense of being living
participants in existence and not just spectators along for the ride.

The existentialist tradition did a lot of work identifying some of the ways we conveniently pretend to be spectators instead of participants from time to time in order to try to cheat our way out of confronting our need to decide
and our responsibility for the results of our decisionmaking.

Topianism emphasizes how this works (or rather doesn’t work) in the political sphere. It insists that you cannot displace an individual human decision onto an institution, a hierarchical order, a rule, or anything of the sort. In other words, you cannot say “I did it because it was the law,” or “I did it because it was my job,” or “I did it because it was an order,” or “I did it because it got more votes than the alternative” as a way of trying to mean “the choice I made to do it wasn’t really my choice.”

In its most uncompromising form, topianism won’t even let you foist your decisions off on rules of thumb, ethical principles, or topianism itself. You can refer to such things in the course of explaining your decisionmaking, but you can’t try to make such things bear any of the weight of your actual decisionmaking or shoulder any of the responsibility for your actions.

It is an anarchist philosophy, but not because it preaches that The State should be abolished, but because it asserts that The State, as an independent moral agent capable of making decisions and shouldering responsibility, does not exist. The attitude of a topian to The State is not like the attitude of an assassin to the Emperor but like the attitude of an athiest to God.

Read the whole thing. See also this letter by Leo Tolstoy, reproduced by David Gross, expressing a similar understanding.

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