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Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Gifford Lectures)
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Basic Books, 2008
352 pp., 35.00
Interview by Agnieszka Tennant
University of Chicago political philosopher and maternal feminist Jean Bethke Elshtain has devoted her academic career to pointing out inextricable ties between politics and ethics. Among her many books are Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought; Who Are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities; and Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. In 2005–2006, she delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, following in the footsteps of William James and Hannah Arendt. In them, she considered the topic of what would become Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, published by Basic Books in 2008. Agnieszka Tennant spoke with Elshtain—her former academic advisor in the master's degree program in international relations at the University of Chicago—about questions prompted by the book. This interview is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
In Sovereignty, you observe the following irony: "In our own liberal society at the moment, and in most of the Western democracies in general, we are pursuing a paradoxical project: We are most aware of those with physical and mental disabilities; we want to provide them access. Yet at the same time, our most enthused-about and ideologically fraught projects aim at creating a world with no such persons in it." How did we arrive at the point of convergence of such opposites?
These kinds of opposites have been embedded in the great Western project from the beginning. If you put a premium on certain kinds of developed capacities—let's say, those who can enact projects of freedom, who have achieved a certain level that we recognize as definitively human—and tethered to that you have philosophies that measure us by our capacity to engage in rational operations, then those who can never maximize their capacity and who lack certain capabilities are going to be a huge problem. You can see that in the social contract literature. John Locke doesn't ...