On experimental philosophy and national liberalism

An interview with David Leslie Miller

I sat down with Professor David Miller in his office at Nuffield College, Oxford. A palpably erudite philosopher, and the very model of politeness; he agreed to discuss a variety of questions relating to his work in politics and political philosophy.

I wanted first to touch upon your methodology. I notice you make use of empirical data from research in the social sciences to inform and reinforce your philosophical viewpoints. Do you feel that political philosophy has much to gain from this sort of empirical research?

David Miller: You’re very right to say that that is something I am strongly committed to. I’m of the view that there are two broad applications for empirical research in philosophy. The first is the use of relevant data to inform the development of a philosophical view, by strengthening the evidence for any broad empirical claims made. This is more valuable to us than the mere reliance on ‘hunches’ in support of a philosophical viewpoint.

The second case applies more specifically, to situations where the theory being developed tracks pre-theoretical intuitions that people have, such as the reliance on ‘considered judgements’ in the work of Rawls. One of the tests of Rawls’ theory is that it should conform to such judgements through a process of reflective equilibrium. However, I have the rather distinctive view that for a reflective equilibrium to be genuine, it cannot simply rely on the intuitions of any one philosopher, as erudite as they may be. In light of this, I think such pre-theoretical intuitions should take account of the beliefs and judgements of people in general, which will involve empirical research in the social sciences.

This results in my strong advocacy for experimental philosophy, where responses by regular people to philosophical issues or dilemmas are used to inform philosophical literature pertaining to those issues or dilemmas. Of course, this is just one input, and I am not suggesting that this will definitively solve some long-standing philosophical conundrums. However, in political philosophy, where we seek theories which resonate with and reflect the views that ordinary people hold about normative questions, such experimental philosophy can be invaluable.

Do you think there are potential weaknesses to this method? Could methodological flaws in any experimental research used in philosophical work severely damage any arguments made on the basis of that research?

Well, I think it would be a mistake to rely on any one method to the detriment of others. In my own work on justice questions, some of the evidence is large-scale, survey-type evidence involving asking and recording the views of vast numbers of people. In contrast, other parts of the evidence are very small, experimental studies involving observing how people interact in specific situations. These are vastly different methodologies, with the later tracking fairness judgements through how people distribute resources in micro-situations. Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses. One could point to the superficiality of questioning in large scale studies or doubt how accurately decision-making in micro-situations or games reflects actual attitudes towards distributive justice.

For example, when thinking about the issue of income inequalities, philosophers often want to distinguish whether income inequalities as seen as just deserts for hard work, or whether they are seen as incentives for income-seeking activity. This is a matter of some importance, as philosophers like Rawls reject ideas of desert when talking of income inequality, while allowing for use of income inequality as an incentive for productivity. However, when asking ordinary people questions such as ‘they you think it is fair that some people earn more than others?’, it is very hard to determine if the responses are tracking desert judgements, or judgements on incentives. In fact, it is often the case that respondents do not have this desert/incentive distinction in mind, and actually flit between the two in their response.

In overall answer to the question, there are of course limitations to each specific methodology. In my view, this illustrates the need to incorporate evidence from a range of approaches, in the hope that they will collectively cancel out the weaknesses of one another.

I want to move to your work on market socialism, which I’ve seen cited in support of proposing market socialism as an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus. In light of the recent backlash against globalism, do you think the time is right for market socialism to gain a foothold as an economic ideology?

Well, admittedly, my work on market socialism was mainly published in the 1970s and 1980s. I think at the time, there really was a lively political debate around the issue, reflecting the rise of neoliberal and libertarian thought, in addition to a concern about the failure of the post-WWII model of the welfare state. People were very seriously looking for a viable solution to these two emerging issues. To a certain extent, those debates have abated nowadays, but there has been a revival of interest into questions how just how intrinsic inequality generation is to capitalism, triggered perhaps by increasing evidence of such inequalities on a global scale. Hence, there still remains an active search for an economic system which preserves the positives of a market society, while distributing wealth more equally than laissez-faire capitalism.

I think the primary issues that remain with market socialism is that such an economy still requires an enabling state, for somewhat technical reasons. In particular, an entirely privatised capital market is unviable within a market socialist economy. This becomes a problem because of the extent to which globalisation reduces the ability of a nation state to control its capital markets and economic policy. Another issue that arises is the viability of a worker-owned model of businesses, which is key to a market socialist model. While organising a firm such as a law practise along these lines is ideal, the international nature of modern corporations is not well-suited to the worker-owned model.

I think, from your work, there is a clear sense of dissatisfaction with the inequalities generated by modern economic systems. How important is this commitment to social justice to your conception of liberal nationalism?

Obviously, my main claim is that having a suitable national identity is a necessary precondition to having policies of redistributive social justice. Of course, I do not think that leads to the conclusion that any state with a cohesive national identity will naturally institute policies of social justice. The US is a clear example of a state with a strong sense of national identity, and a resistance to redistribution. This is an interesting phenomenon and reflects the idea that when asked; Americans tend to support policies which help their fellow US citizens, but also accompany this commitment with a deep scepticism about the role of the state. This is demonstrated by the American inclination towards charitable redistribution. So, in the US, a distrust of the government leads to a conception of social justice which would seem alien to most Europeans. However, anyone who visits the US can clearly observe the solidarity-inducing features of US civic culture.

One of the features of American national identity that strikes me as odd is the fact that although the US was founded on principles of diversity and inclusivity, its current political zeitgeist displays a reluctance towards accepting an influx of Latin American immigrants, which some have identified as a slide towards ethnonationalism. In contrast, the historically homogenous Scandinavian countries have proved much more amenable towards accepting non-European immigrants into their national conceptions. How important do you think the foundational principles of a nation are in deciding whether that nation has a broadly ethnic or civic self-conception?

The general trajectory for liberal societies has been a shift away from an ethnic nationalism, towards a more civic conception. Again, the US provides an interesting case, and has displayed a back-and-forth movement between these conceptions. At certain points in US history, there has been a genuine support of the idea that anyone can become an American, though conformity to American political values such as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. But of course, there is a prominent history of discrimination in the US, from cultural discrimination against Catholics to racial discrimination towards non-Europeans. Of course, the current reality in the US indicates a backwards lurch towards ethnonationalism. An interesting question is whether white Americans are justified in believing that the demographic changes in the US will lead to a degradation of American civic unity. As far as Northern Europe goes, I shall use Sweden as an example, as I have spent time there recently. You are correct in pointing out that there has been a massive shift in understanding ‘Swedishness’ as an inherent characteristic linked to ethnicity, to a civic conception of what it means to be a Swede. However, we can compare this to Denmark, where Danes retain a much more traditional view of what defines ‘Danishness’. There is also some evidence of a backlash in Sweden, with the rise of the nativist Sweden Democrats.

A traditional argument against government expansionism is the idea that one widened, the frontiers of a state are difficult to roll back. Do you think a similar argument could be applied to international institutions, where once a nation cedes some elements of control to them, it is almost impossible to recover?

It’s true of governments in general that once an institution or structure is created, it has a self-preserving momentum, which we could refer to as institutional inertia. I see no reason why this would not be true of an international organisation such as the EU, which has itself showed a great reluctance to relinquish any powers or aspects of sovereignty that its member states have ceded to it. Another way of putting it is that the EU relies on the idea that there is a continual process moving towards greater European integration, which is naturally not amicable to reversals. A demonstration of this is the motivation behind Brexit, as the EU should have been more flexible with its relationship with Britain as it became clear that there were strong anti-EU sentiments in the British political scene.

Do you think the rise of leftist identarianism over the past few years works to contradict or to strengthen your view that there is a relationship between social justice and strong shared national identity? While they have no strong inclinations towards national identity, they favour non-national identities such as race as the basis for a strong form of redistribution.

There is obviously a trend in modern left-wing thought to prioritise intrinsic characteristics such as race and gender over national identity in determining the proper recipients of redistribution. The problem here is if one accepts that redistributive policies of all kinds must be democratically supported, I can’t see how a policy redistribution to non-general identities may be justified. If identity politics takes the form of one-sided appeal to particular identities, I see this as a problem. If politics becomes increasingly focussed on a narrow kind of identity politics, the left faces the issue of whether their policies can garner genuine democratic support.

In your book Strangers in Our Midst, you highlight the effects that immigration has on British political culture. What changes do you think should be made to current immigration policy, in light of your research?

In one respect, I am defending the status quo of having a policy of controlled immigration, primarily for reasons of preserving the sort of social cohesiveness that is required for a strong national identity. However, I am of the view that there can be positive changes in the way that Britain deals with immigration. The first point is that when compared to other European nations, Britain has been extremely reluctant to take in refugees, preferring to select economic migrants rather than those with genuine humanitarian need. I think that this is a shame, and that Britain should be placing a greater emphasis on taking in refugees compared to skilled economic migrants. Furthermore, I think we need to take a more active role in encouraging the proper integration of immigrants into British civil society, in order to resist this tendency for immigrants to coalesce into deprived, culturally isolated communities.



Dr. David Miller FB is professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, and fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. If you would like to read more about his views on national liberalism, I would recommend ‘Citizenship and National Identity’. His views on immigration and immigration policy are outlined in his work ‘Strangers in out Midst’.


Interview: Atyab Rashid. The picture above is taken from the cover of Miller’s book On Nationality, depicting a French postcard of the Alsace in 1918 (Jean Loup Charmet, Paris).

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