|Joseph Severn Posthumous Portrait of Shelley
Writing Prometheus Unbound 1845
In "A Defense of Poetry" Shelley famously concludes, " Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World." An apt observation, and students can argue this all over the place in interesting and useful ways, but at one point in that discussion someone must ask, "But aren't laws written by elected legislatures?"
Elizabeth Anscombe on Kant comes to mind. Here is a passage from her paper on Modern Moral Philosophy:
Kant introduces the idea of “legislating for oneself,” which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0. The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator.Kant believes that his principles of universalizability and the categorical imperative produce rules that are better than laws written by legislatures. In one reading of Shelley's conclusion, it would seem that Shelley similarly believes that poets could write better laws than legislatures. Yes, this is being somewhat unfair to Shelley, but the idea that individuals, scientists, technocrats, "inspired" people, and so on, can write better laws than elected representatives enjoys great popularity these days. Compare John Rawls, whose "original position", "veil of ignorance" and the test (like Kant's categorical imperative) of "social justice" can provide a methodological apparatus for replacing legislatures with experts.