Realism, Moralism and Contemporary Political Theory

3. Disagreement

In his essay ‘The Liberalism of Fear’ Williams writes that his work largely consisted of reminding ‘moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers’ (IBWD, p. 52). In his political thought, too, Williams complained that political philosophy ‘should shape its account of itself more realistically to what is platitudinously politics’ (IBWD, p. 13). Centrally, Williams insists that ‘political difference is the essence of politics’ (IBWD, p. 78) and complains that certain strands of liberal theory have failed to incorporate this fact. For this reason, his realism has been invoked in support of the claim that disagreement is an ‘essential, underlying characteristic of the activity of politics itself’.35 In this spirit many

realists hold that postulating consensus or full compliance is a philosophical mistake

35 Marc Stears, ‘Liberalism and the Politics of Compulsion’, p. 545. For the invocation see Sleat, ‘Liberal Realism’, p. 472.

because, as Glen Newey puts it, politics is ‘characterised by endemic disagreement over issues which are by common consent a matter of public concern’.36 They therefore reject

the liberal principle of legitimacy which holds that ‘a social and political order is illegitimate unless it is rooted in the consent of all those who have to live under it; the consent or agreement of these people is a condition of its being morally permissible to enforce that order against them’.37 The idea is that if we accept that political difference is

the essence of politics, and that disagreement extends to matters of basic justice just as it does to conceptions of the good, it is implausible to think that any such justification can succeed.38 Realists consequently emphasise the inevitably of a modus vivendi rather than a

moralised consensus on principles of legitimacy.

As we have seen, the argument Williams articulates in ‘Realism and Moralism in Political Theory’ is an important example of this position, as he denies that a principled moral consensus is the only solution to the problem of legitimacy. Similarly, in an interview given to the (now defunct) journal Cogito, Williams objects to Rawls’s Political

Liberalism on precisely these grounds when he insists that ‘we can combine more various

views of the good [than Rawls can] if we do regard the rules of the right as a mere modus

vivendi’, as this ‘gives people a more vivid sense of what’s at stake. They know that they

are not going to get the best order, which is homogeneity in beliefs about the good; [but] they know that the costs of constant strife will be hideous’. Williams claims that this ‘gives them a vivid sense of why they have to stay together and make a few shared notions of the

36 Newey, After Politics, p. 7.

37 Jeremy Waldron, ‘The Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism’, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 147 (1987), p. 140.

38 For defences of these claims see Freyenhagen, ‘Taking Reasonable Pluralism Seriously’; Galston, ‘Realism in Political Theory’; Sleat, ‘Bernard Williams and the Possibility of a Realist Political Theory’; and Stears, ‘Liberalism and the Politics of Compulsion’.

right work’, hence a modus vivendi conception ‘gives a stronger account of the matter than Rawls’ more idealized version of it’.39

This opens up some distance between Williamsian realism and the Rawlsian iteration of political ethics, as the kind of agreement Williams envisages is not the kind of moralised consensus Rawls pursues – in fact, it might only be the kind and degree of agreement required for citizens to accept, or acquiesce with, a set of constitutional or conventional rules that entail the avoidance of the problems of widespread social disorder. Yet as Williams acknowledges, for citizens to reflectively endorse this kind of modus vivendi

they must not only accept that the costs of constant strife will be ‘hideous’ but also that the only response is to make some shared notions of the right work. Something of a puzzle arises here because even if we grant that Rawls offers a rather misconceived answer insofar as he idealistically hopes for the wrong kind of agreement, on a Williamsian account there is substantial normative work to be in done in explicating what the more minimal shared notions of the right are that can ground this kind of a modus vivendi. As I have noted, Williams not only accepts that in modernity the state ‘has to offer a justification of its power to each subject’ (IBWD, p. 4), but also acknowledges that this answer must be considered acceptable by at least ‘a substantial number of the people’ even though not everyone ‘will necessarily accept’ it (IBWD, pp. 135–6). As Freyenhagen notes, he thus ‘admits that … in the modern world the questions of legitimacy and justification need to be answered in a way which addresses each citizen’s reason and judgment, something which Williams admits cannot be achieved by appeal to traditional authority’.40 Therefore, even

if we adopt a Williamsian conception of legitimacy, when we ask what makes sense to us, we must delineate some subset of shared reasons that a sufficient number of citizens of

39 Bernard Williams, interview in Cogito, reprinted as ‘Bernard Williams’ in Andrew Pyle, ed. Key Philosophers in Conversation: The Cogito Interviews (London, Routledge, 1999), p. 158.

modern pluralist liberal states might collectively endorse. Once this is accepted we should recognise, as Williams himself did in a seminar in the late 1990s (transcribed in Ethical Perspectives), that there is ‘more room for certain kinds of systematic theory nearer to ethical theory with regard to political and social practices than in regard to personal ethics. That's because of the nature of our state, that is, that it's a discursive state. I mean, that's what a liberal state is. It has to explain things to itself in general terms. That's actually quite a good idea, certainly the only game in town which is tolerable’.41

If so, even though the existence of ‘deep disagreement’ has important implications for how we should think about legitimacy in the abstract (in the sense that it rules out the idea that universal consensus is an apt standard of legitimacy), it does not follow that we can avoid thinking, as the liberal political ethicist typically does, in hypothetical terms about which more minimal shared notions of the right might make sense ‘now and around here’. In consequence, even if we drop the universal consensus aspiration, it is very hard to conceive of which kinds of institutions can be legitimated in modernity, or to put it another way, which shared notions of the right can ground a reflectively acceptable modus vivendi, without thinking hypothetically about what people with plural interests might accept. Therefore, if we endorse the aspiration that modern liberal states must offer a justification of power to each subject, there is a sense in which thinking in the sorts of ways encouraged by political ethicists may be inevitable. For one thing, the impermissibility of basing our institutions on various ‘comprehensive’ conceptions of the good (if not the whole public reason approach) is very likely to persist in a positive Williamsian account of legitimation because it is highly unlikely that justifications that invoke various comprehensive claims are going to makesense in the appropriate way. There is no inconsistency in thinking that hypothetical consent views are useful modelling

devices for considering how widely a legitimation story might be accepted while simultaneously acknowledging that there will always be some citizens who will fervently disagree with any such story.

Realists who criticise hypothetical consent views therefore need to provide an argument that goes beyond pointing out that disagreement is pervasive, and to actually prove that such models are incapable of helping us think about acceptability, for their complaints to hit the mark. This argument is lacking in Williams’s work (although given its incomplete nature this is to be expected) but it is also lacking in the wider realist literature. Therefore, even though Williams is correct to remind us that real-world political prescription cannot simply be collapsed into a form of applied morality, this does not invalidate the hypothetical search for agreement because it may be an indispensable tool when thinking about what might make sense in modernity. To this end, there is little reason to think that contemporary political ethicists make a category error when they think in terms of hypothetical agreement. Accordingly, it appears that Williams’s reminders about the fact of political disagreement may not have the drastic implications for how we should theorise the conditions of legitimacy ‘now and around here’ that realists often suggest.

In document Realism and liberalism in the political thought of Bernard Williams (Page 113-117)