An allegorical tale as a sample question

Written by  //  August 17, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  Comments Off on An allegorical tale as a sample question

[I have recently started teaching a course on political obligation at the National Law School in Bangalore (July-September term). The central question asked in the course is whether a political authority constituted in a democratic manner has a stronger claim to obedience. Last Saturday (August 12, 2011) I discussed the following hypothetical in class to give the students some practice in answering issue-spotting essays. While such exercises are commonplace in courses involving the application of legal doctrines, I have had some doubts about including such an exercise in an introductory course on political theory. In any case, another hypothetical of this variety will be part of the mid-term examination scheduled for August 18, 2011. For now, I am posting the practice question here for comments and suggestions. I really couldn’t decide which category would be appropriate for posting this and have hence picked ‘Philosophy, Religion and Culture’ as a loose fit. The references to actual persons and places may be direct or indirect but are decidedly intentional.]

Sample Question – Issue-spotting essay

Assume that you are a resident of Flatterbhavi, i.e. a town wherein all adults participate in annual elections for constituting a Town Council. The Council is primarily responsible for maintaining civic facilities such as public transportation, street-lighting and night-shelters for the homeless as well as the provision of utilities such as electricity, water and sewage facilities for residents among other functions. The Council has also traditionally played a supervisory role in ensuring cleanliness in the streets and parks. The Council consists of members who are elected from the four main neighbourhoods in the town (i.e. Rawlsian Alley, Nozick Street, Raz Road and Simmons Circle) and there is a convention that the senior-most member (in terms of length of prior service on the Council) will also serve as the Mayor of the town. While the Council is primarily a representative body with rule-making functions, the Mayor is vested with executive powers so as to enforce these rules and act for the general welfare of the Town.

In 2011, Z. Sankata Vow is serving as the Mayor since he has previously served on the Council for six years and opted for re-election this year. As a member of the Town’s Council in the past, he has been instrumental in organising religious meetings in public places. He received accolades for designing a charitable program wherein homeless individuals who attended these religious meetings were given free food, clothes and books, over and above the access to night-shelters maintained by the Town Council. Z. Sankata Vow enjoys widespread support in his own neighbourhood (i.e. Rawlsian Alley) and even the residents of Raz Road and Simmons Circle have a favourable impression of him. However, the residents of Nozick Street have never really warmed up to him. As it turns out, most of the residents of Nozick Street are atheists and hence they detest the new Mayor’s enthusiasm for organising religious meetings in public places. Furthermore, they have objected to the charitable program by describing it as a colossal waste of public resources and a counterproductive measure that makes homeless persons dependent on the freebies handed out to them. So much so that Midhart Rowhan, a Council member from Nozick Street has repeatedly assured his constituents that he will try to persuade the Mayor to at least discontinue the religious meetings. However, he has made no promises with respect to the charitable program. Frustrated by the inability of Midhart Rowhan to exert any influence on the Mayor, some residents of Nozick Street begin a public campaign to criticise the charitable program, mainly through the local press and the distribution of leaflets.

Since this is his first term as Mayor, Z. Sankata Vow is keen on deepening his popularity among the residents of Flatterbhavi, possibly in the hope of getting re-elected next year. He decides to confront the public campaign mounted by the residents of Nozick Street by scaling up the charitable program and holding religious meetings more often than had been the practice in previous years. Eager to support their Mayor, the residents of Rawlsian Alley, Raz Road and Simmons Circle start attending these meetings in large numbers. The residents of Nozick Street are usually hesitant to attend the religious meetings but some of them decide to show up and raise slogans in protest. This disagreement plays out publicly for several months, thereby leading to the escalation of tensions.

Z. Sankata Vow realises that the scaling up of the charitable program has added to the financial burdens of the Town Council. Towards the end of 2011, he proposes to the Council that a new tax be levied in order to raise finances for the better upkeep of public streets and parks. As soon as the proposal is placed before the Council, Midhart Rowhan raises an objection by arguing that this is nothing but a disguised method for subsidizing the charitable program since the funds meant for the upkeep of streets and parks would most likely be diverted for the former purpose. Taking strong exception to these criticisms, the Mayor responds that if the Council is unwilling to endorse his proposal, he can use his executive powers to impose the new tax. The news of the proposed tax is met with disbelief by the residents of Nozick Street who not only decide to intensify their protests against the charitable program but also announce their intention to disrupt it.

How would you examine this scenario if you were in the following positions?

(A)   As a resident of Rawlsian Alley and a keen supporter of Z. Sankata Vow’s charitable program

(B)   As a resident of Raz Road, who appreciates the past efforts made by Z. Sankata Vow but does not want to see the disagreement over the charitable program escalate further

(C)   As a resident of Simmons Circle, who was initially skeptical of the charitable program but has come to support it with the passage of time, especially since the number of homeless people seen begging on the streets has drastically reduced

(D)   As a resident of Nozick Street who has actively participated in protests against the charitable program

(E)    As a homeless person who does not pay taxes but votes in the annual elections to the Council

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