Category Archives: Political Theory Research Group

Mihaela Mihai – The ‘Banal’ Resister’s Silence: Impurity, Complicity, Ambivalence

Copyright Benedikt Buechel

What is the dominant public image of the political hero and why should we challenge this public image? Mihaela Mihai’s paper “The ‘Banal’ Resister’s Silence: Impurity, Complicity, Ambivalence” addresses these questions. In several literatures including history, cultural studies, social psychology and literary studies a political hero is commonly characterized as a solitary figure who voluntarily decides, despite the personal risks involved, to devote his life to helping those in need (p. 4). But this characterization is far from reality. Heroes are not constantly in ‘hero mode’, they are as everyone else embedded in a web of social relations and predisposed by their position within society (p. 5; 8). Revealing their much more complex and ambivalent identity does, however, not serve the purpose of denying that there are political heroes nor of devaluing the work of the Gandhis, Kings, and Mandelas who are commonly remembered as such. Mihai instead wants to re-signify the political hero in the hope that this will not only increase solidarity but also encourage more people to join resistance movements (p. 3). To do so, she draws on Judith Butler’s ‘new bodily ontology’. One essential concept of this ontology is the relationality of bodies: Butler reminds us that what a body is and can do is not only intersubjectively constituted but also that there is no fully autonomous, self-sufficient body that does not depend on the assistance of others (p. 8f.). In the final part of the paper, Mihai engages with Herta Müller’s essays and auto-fiction, focusing on her remarks about complicit silence, to illustrate such an alternative ontology of the political hero. Mihai’s paper stimulated many ideas among the participants of the research group. Some were wondering if it was worth developing the thoughts into two separate papers: one on the re-signification of the political hero and another on a typology of complicit silence. Other participants were concerned on whether a re-signification of the political hero that moves away from the idealized public image might be counterproductive because it seems to quash inspiration.

By Benedikt Buechel

Kieran Oberman – Killing and Rescuing: The Case for Revising Necessity

PTRG: 16 May 2018


Killing is justifiable if it is necessary.  If killing is unnecessary, it is unjustifiable and therefore wrong.  Then, a question is: When is killing necessary or unnecessary?  Oberman addresses this question in relation to the act of other-defence: When is killing someone necessary or unnecessary to defend others against death?  Continue reading

Elizabeth Cripps – If having children is bad for the environment, what should parents do about it?

PTRG: 4 April 2018

Maternity Mark in Japan

Summary of the paper:

One’s decision to have children, or to become a parent, has negative environmental impact.  The birthing of children results in an increase in the global population, and ultimately in additional ecological burdens.  Admitting this, Liz asks: Do individuals, at least in the affluent class, have a moral duty to attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of having children/ becoming a parent?  Her answer is that they do.  But Liz also argues that this does not mean individuals have a duty to have no (biological) child or not to become a (biological) parent. Continue reading

Dr Clare Chambers – The Neutralist Dilemma

PTRG – 28th March 2018

This week the Political Theory Research Group welcomed Dr Clare Chambers of the University of Cambridge to discuss her paper, ‘Reasonable disagreement and the neutralist dilemma: Abortion and circumcision in Matthew Kramer’s Liberalism with Excellence.’

By tracing the logical implications of the liberal state’s commitment to neutrality, the paper subtly reveals the limits of the neutralist project in liberalism. Through the cases of abortion and circumcision, it shows that sometimes, the state cannot avoid violating its commitment to neutrality. It has to implement a policy with which a party would reasonably disagree on the basis that it violates freedom and equality. In the case of abortion, there is reasonable disagreement about whether the foetus is a person. If the state takes the position that the foetus is not a person, it should permit abortion because to do otherwise would be to deny the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who want to terminate their pregnancy. If the state takes the position that the foetus is a person, the state should prohibit abortion because allowing it would be murder, violating the freedom and equality of the foetus. But taking a position on whether the foetus is a person violates neutrality because it is a point about which people reasonably disagree due to the burdens of judgement.

Dr Chambers’ paper provoked vigorous debate for the duration of the session. The choice of cases lent themselves to extensive discussion, as did the setup of the neutralist dilemma itself. Participants were particularly keen to explore the ramifications of state neutrality for parenting. Questions arose regarding parental intervention and the range of possible future lives that parents inevitably prevent their children from living, and the extent to which parents should be allowed to (irreversibly) modify the bodies of their children for cultural, or even cosmetic, reasons. In addition to this, the function of state neutrality and its capacity to bolster or diffuse racist or otherwise prejudicial attitudes was considered. There were also lively exchanges regarding the questions of adults’ regret for their parents’ actions, the value of bodily integrity, and the importance of one’s sense of cultural belonging, both as a child and adult.

Elinor Mason – The Silencing of Sexual Refusal

Content note: academic discussion of consent, rape, and sexual harassment


PTRG 25/10/17

This week we welcomed Dr Elinor Mason from the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy. Elinor presented her paper entitled ‘Rape, Harassment, and the Silencing of Sexual Refusal’, which takes as its point of departure a well-known debate in the philosophy of language regarding the effect that mainstream pornography has on women’s rejections of sexual advances: this is the idea that pornography, along with other cultural representations of women’s sexuality, somehow renders the refusing ‘no’ ineffective, either by distorting its meaning or the credibility of the refuser. Continue reading

Louis Fletcher – From Civilization to Globalism: The Spatial Imaginary of Arnold Toynbee and Quincy Wright

PTRG 18/10/2017

Edinburgh doctoral candidate Louis Fletcher presented his paper on civilization and globalism at this week’s PTRG. A work in intellectual history, Louis’ paper charts the decline of civilization as an organizing concept in global political thought, and the birth of globalism in the interwar years in Europe. Drawing on the work of two liberal internationalists who wrote extensively on civilization and the emergent global order following the First World War, Louis explores how these thinkers, Arnold Toynbee and Quincy Wright, eschewed ‘civilization’ as a temporal achievement eventually reached by all cultures, embracing instead a cyclical understanding of the fortunes of history’s many civilizations. The twilight of the European empires and the catastrophe of war heralded a new era for Toynbee and Wright, as institutions such as the League of Nations and seismic shifts in the balances of power across Europe, the Americas, Russia, India and the Antipodean colonies transformed the global political order in this exceptional period. Continue reading

Mihaela Mihai – Complicity, Hope and the Imagination

Source: Hartwig HKD on Flickr

For this week’s seminar, Mihaela Mihai presented a paper on complicity, hope, and imagination in the context of systemic political repression. Part of her greyzone project researching the potential of art to illustrate the contribution bystanders, collaborators, and beneficiaries make to political violence and widespread injustice, this paper explores the complex temporal dimension to navigating the social world. Its effects on how hope, resistance, and solidarity are perceived and structured. To achieve this goal, Mihaela initially puts forward a critical review of existing complicity literature, in its dominant moral and legal framework insufficiently attentive to humans’ positionality, e.g. how action is part of enduring social processes. This raises serious doubts about its ability to capture the relationship between complicit and resistant action in the messy context of the greyzone as further clarified using the example of Vichy France. In moving beyond the paradigm, her paper offers an analysis of agency and subjectification that helps broaden our understanding of the context of complicity without denying its connection to questions of blame and responsibility. Continue reading

Prof Henry Shue – Climate Mitigation and Subsistence Protection

PTRG 13 Oct 2017

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Professor Henry Shue from Oxford University as the presenter for PTRG yesterday.  In the presented paper, Professor Shue critically reflects upon his earlier argument: that it is important to make a distinction between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’, and that this distinction should be incorporated into climate policy intended to achieve mitigation.  ‘Subsistence emissions’ are emissions necessary for securing the basic right to subsistence, whereas ‘luxury emissions’ are those that exceed a minimally adequate level of emission.  According to Professor Shue, it is morally unacceptable to ask the poor to sacrifice subsistence emissions so that the affluent can maintain their luxury emissions.  Continue reading