Making Sense of Political Values
1. From Freedom to Liberty
FL begins with Williams claiming that what puzzles and concerns us about ethical and political ideas ‘is the understanding of those ideas … as a value for us in our world’, and that we will not understand them unless ‘we understand what we want the value to do for us – what we, now, need it to be in shaping our own institutions and practices, in disagreeing with those who want to shape them differently, and in understanding and trying to co-exist with those who live under other institutions’ (IBWD, p. 75). Hence, our political values must help us to make sense of the political world we hope to change, and if they are to do so they must be sensitive to the forms that our world may take. As answers to this question must move beyond the domain of first-order moral argument, Williams holds that political philosophy must be impure in the sense that ‘materials from non- philosophical sources – an involvement with history or the social sciences, for instance – are likely to play a more than illustrative part in the argument’ (PHD, p. 155).
Williams holds that political values such as liberty and justice have a thin universal element as they relate to universal or widely shared human experiences. To wit, the core of liberty is primitivefreedom (IBWD, p. 79),the ‘simple idea of being unobstructed in doing what you want by some form of humanly imposed coercion’, while the core of justice lies ‘in such things as a loss that demands recompense, or a good that needs to be shared’ (MSH, p. 138). Yet at this skeletal or primitive level these values are highly indeterminate. More determinate conceptions ‘involve a complex historical deposit, and we will not understand them unless we grasp something of that deposit’, because both what liberty ‘has variously become, and what we now need it to be, must be a function of actual history’ (IBWD, pp. 75–6). For this reason Williams claims that political philosophers must not attempt to define but to construct a political conception of liberty from the non- political conception of freedom.
To a certain extent, primitive freedom points us in the direction of politics because when we are restricted from doing something by the intentional activities of others this ‘can give rise to a quite specific reaction, resentment; and if resentment is not to express itself in more conflict, non-cooperation, and dissolution of social relations, an authoritative determination is needed of whose activities should have priority’ (IBWD, p. 82).3 As we saw in Chapter Two, when such an authoritative source deploys coercion,
questions of its legitimacy arise. However, Williams claims that primitive freedom is not a political value but rather a proto-political concept, because ‘no one can intelligibly make a claim against others simply on the ground that the activities of others restrict primitive freedom, or that the extension of one’s primitive freedom requires action by them. At best this is the start of the quarrel, not a claim to its solution’ (IBWD, p. 83). If claims to a loss of liberty are to be taken seriously, Williams argues that they must be socially presentable. A claim is ‘(minimally) socially presentable, if it can be urged consistently with accepting a legitimate political order for the general regulation of the society’ (IBWD, p. 120).4 Complaining that your liberty has been restricted if you are outlawed from stealing
your neighbour’s property is not a socially presentable claim, but ‘an objection to the operations of Franco or James II was a socially presentable claim: one could, and most objectors did, accept that these rulers should be replaced by some other rulers, and more generally they accepted a state system’ (IBWD, p. 120). Social presentability does not ensure that we impartially agree that the activity complained about should desist, but it is a precondition of us deciding to take the complaint about a loss liberty seriously.
3 By beginning with resentment Williams founds his construction upon a set of experiences that we have as agents rather than (as with much contemporary political thought) various moral intuitions that are then rendered into a set of propositions and (hopefully) accommodated into a theory. This is at one with his overall approach, which purports to understand ethics, as far as it is possible, as a part of nature. See Chapter One passim and Chapter 3, Section 2 for more on this.
4 This rules out anarchist complaints. Williams insists that ‘the fact that a person is subject to the state is [not], in itself a limitation on his primitive freedom ... [because] the amount of freedom that a person would have without the state is entirely indeterminate or, at any rate, very small’: IBWD, p. 85.
So how can we responsibly claim that our liberty has been restricted? Williams does not think that utopian discourses about liberty are analytically or definitionally incoherent but holds that they are ‘at best obliquely related to arguments about liberty we find in our world’ because ‘the comparisons they invite with the actual, do not do much for the more specific construction of liberty as a value for us’ (IBWD, p. 90). If our complaints about liberty are to be worth taking seriously we must consider what someone ‘now and around here’ could reasonably resent as a loss of liberty. When we do this:
the question of the form of society that is possible for us becomes relevant. From this perspective, a practice is not a limitation of liberty if it is necessary for there to be any state at all. But it is also not a loss of liberty if it is necessary for the functioning of society as we can reasonably imagine it working and still being ‘our’ society. Thus, while some force and threats of force, and some institutional structures which impose disadvantage on people will count as limiting people’s liberty, being prevented from getting what I want through economic competition will not, except in exceptional cases. That is because competition is central to modern, commercial society’s functioning. 5
For this reason we should accept that ‘modernity is a basic category of social and hence political understanding, and so a politically useful construction of liberty for us should take the most general conditions of modernity as given’ (IBWD, p. 90).6 Of course, there is
much room to argue about the conditions of modernity and the forms that modern society can intelligibly take, but Williams is adamant that socially presentable constructions of liberty must be curtailed by such historical considerations. Therefore, even though one can ‘semantically, conceptually, [and] indeed psychologically’ complain of a cost in liberty if one is obstructed from doing what one wants by any form of human coercion, it does not always follow that this is ‘useful, helpful, [and] to be taken seriously as a contribution
5 Williams, ‘A Mistrustful Animal’, pp. 199–200.
6 He thus endorses the spirit of Constant’s distinction between the liberty of the ancients and moderns which he interprets as such: ‘whatever the merits for an ancient republic of a concept of liberty linked to republican virtue, they were essentially limited to the conditions of the ancient republic, and only disaster could follow, as indeed it had followed in France, from trying to apply such an ideal to modern commercial society’: IBWD, p. 90.
to political debate’; many claims ‘that fly in the face of modernity do not even cross the threshold of offering a serious political consideration’ (IBWD, p. 92).
This is taken to show that there is ‘no conflict between the historical diagnosis, on the one hand, and the political argument, on the other; indeed the argument gets its materials from the historical interpretation’ (MSH, p. 138). Williams claims that this thought can be expressed in terms of realism because ‘a form of liberty that could not be offered by the state is an entirely unrealistic basis of objection, and the limitation to the conditions of modernity implies a further step towards a realistic political position or claim’ (IBWD, p. 92). It follows that there are two distinct questions that ought not be conflated: ‘whether it is true that someone has sustained a cost in liberty and whether it is sensible, useful, reasonable, or sane to complain about it’.
To rather schematically sum up the point, just as Williams writes that LEG + Modernity = Liberalism, we might say that Primitive Freedom + Modernity = Liberty. That Williams insists on our understanding these points as part of attending to ‘real history’ shows the elasticity of what he counts as a historical consideration. The key idea is that because political values have to shape our institutions and practices they must pay attention to what the world we inhabit has become and how we can reasonably think it might become (this is what I mean by the ‘realism constraint’). This links up with his conception of legitimacy in the sense that when we come to judge the legitimation story offered by the state, as citizens or political theorists, the political values we employ, and the normative judgements that we make about what makes sense,should be sensitive to the sorts of claims about the nature of modernity that he outlines. The basic thought, then, is that we cannot clarify the nature of various political values in any meaningful manner before we consider the historical and practical question of what their elaboration requires
‘now and around here’. Thus the realism constraint functions in a prescriptive way as an arbiter of responsible political argument.
If this view of realist construction is to convince those political philosophers who are, generally speaking, unmoved by invocations of the importance of attending to ‘real history’ in the way Williams favours, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. First, we need to ask what Williams’s belief in the importance of ‘social presentability’ tells us about his underlying understanding of the role of political theory/philosophy, and if his view is defensible. Second, this realist conception of the role of political theory must admit the possibility of a critique of our current social situation if it is to avoid falling prey to the dangers of conservatism. However, before we turn to these issues it is worth discussing Williams’s view of social and historical interpretation, because it might be thought that his insistence that we ought to take the conditions of modernity as a given leads him into the bind of either (a) endorsing the disreputable positivist idea that various facts about modernity can be uncovered without our values or commitments determining our selection and characterisation of them, or (b) granting that because any act of interpretation is inevitably value-laden we cannot offer the kind of realist interpretation he seeks.