Realism, Moralism and Contemporary Political Theory
1. Realism and Contemporary Normative Political Theory
In the previous chapter we saw that Williams holds that political moralists pay insufficient attention to the centrality of answering the first question in realistic and practicable terms, and typically also forget the historically conditioned nature of judgements about what makes sense. Williams’s political realism is described as a central influence on the current burgeoning realist countermovement in political theory, which makes a number of wide- ranging claims about the deficiencies of contemporary normative political theory. In this chapter I query the suggestion that contemporary normative political philosophers conventionally apply an antecedent morality to politics in the way Williams claims the ‘enactment’ and ‘structural’ models do, by distinguishing between two strands of contemporary normative political theory.
Some influential contemporary political philosophers do favour something akin to the approach Williams sketches as they proceed by outlining a set of moral principles independent of any reference to the circumstances of politics, which they then apply to the political realm. Dan McDermott characterises the underlying view of political philosophy at work in these accounts when he writes that political philosophy traffics ‘in “oughts” – moral oughts. The discipline is thus a branch, or subset, of moral philosophy … [as] political philosophers try to figure out the implications of morality [for political practice] … a particular instance of the more general problem with which moral
philosophers are concerned’.2 Following Raymond Geuss we can refer to these thinkers as
‘ethics-first’ theorists because they hold that ‘one can complete the work of ethics first, attaining an ideal theory of how we should act, and then in a second step, one can apply that ideal theory to the action of political agents’.3 Ethics-first theorists often hold that any
set of factual or empirical characteristics taken to be constitutive of the political only pertain to political philosophy as feasibility constraints and, as such, do not impinge on the truth conditions of normative claims. This view is prominent in the work of philosophers like G.A. Cohen, Robert Nozick and Adam Swift, and makes most sense of Williams’s characterisation of political moralism as a form of applied moral philosophy.4
However there is another prominent strand of contemporary political philosophy – which I refer to as political ethics – which objects to the ethics-first approach on methodological grounds. Andrea Sangiovanni has perhaps given the most illuminating description of this approach which he refers to as the ‘practice-dependent’ view. According to Sangiovanni, ‘practice-independent’ theorists hold that the moral principles that ought to regulate politics are ‘justified by appealing solely to moral values or to facts about human beings as such. No reference is made to existing institutions or practices, and the content, scope and justification of such principles in no way depend on the underlying structure or functioning of such practices and institutions’.5 In contrast, ‘practice-
dependent’ theorists endorse a more hermeneutic approach, which holds that ‘the content, scope, and justification of a conception of justice depends on the structure and
2 Daniel McDermott, ‘Analytical Political Philosophy’, in David Leopold and Marc Stears, eds. Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 12.
3 Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics, p. 8. Although I borrow this phrase from Geuss, my use of it is different, as on my reading fewer contemporary political philosophers endorse this approach than he implies. 4 See, G.A. Cohen, ‘Facts and Principles’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 31, no. 3 (2003), pp. 211–45; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford, Blackwell, 1974); Adam Swift, ‘The Value of Philosophy in Nonideal Circumstances’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 34, no. 3 (2008), pp. 363–87.
5 Andrea Sangiovanni, ‘Justice and the Priority of Politics to Morality’, Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 16, no. 2 (2008), pp. 139–40.
form of the practices that the conception is intended to govern’.6 Rather than aiming for ‘a
conception of right in general’ that is then applied to politics, the practice-dependent theorist ‘begins from social and political institutions as they are here and now’ because they recognise that ‘the elaboration of a conception of justice is … both a philosophical task and a historical and political one’.7 Sangiovanni insists that they accordingly respect
the priority of politics to morality by recognising the importance of solving the first political question, but he holds that political philosophy can retain a normative edge by focusing on the reasons persons might have for endorsing an institutional structure.8 To
this end, he insists that once the first political question has been solved ‘attention can shift to other concerns; indeed, we might say that the structure for solving the first political question is not an end in itself, but a means for making other concerns eligible to political and social choice’.9
This account is influenced by, and is to some extent an explication of, Rawls’s later work which is self-consciously premised on the idea that there is a significant difference between moral and political philosophy.10 Rather than adopting an ethics-first approach,
Rawls begins with reference to an allegedly shared fund of basic ideas and principles taken to be implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society; these are taken as ‘provisional fixed points’11 and then ‘worked up into a conception of political justice’.12 As
Burton Dreben notes, this approach begins in mediis rebus and contemplates if and how a set of values implicit in the practices of constitutional democracies can be explained,
6 Ibid., p. 138. 7 Ibid., p. 157. 8 Ibid., p. 147. 9 Ibid., p. 157.
10 John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 14. 11 John Rawls, Political Liberalism, paperback edn(New York, Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 8. 12 Rawls, Justice as Fairness,p. 5.
extended, and made internally consistent13 - which, as Rawls says, ensures that justice as
fairness ‘starts from within a certain political tradition’.14
Williams nonetheless counts Rawls’s later work as a form of political moralism because he holds that it is still ‘a moral conception, one that is applied to a certain subject matter under certain conditions of constraint’ (IBWD, p. 2).15 He defends this
interpretation by citing a passage from Political Liberalism where Rawls writes that the political conception ‘is of course, a moral conception’.16 But in the note accompanying
this remark Rawls explains that ‘in saying that a conception is moral I mean, among other things, that its content is given by certain ideals, principles and standards; and that these norms articulate certain values, in this case political values’.17 This makes Williams’s
reading of Rawls’s later work look rather hasty. Indeed, if we read Rawls’s work in light of Sangiovanni’s practice-dependence thesis, Williams’s suggestion that it is merely a reworked version of the structural model in which morality, understood as a practice that is prior and external to politics and offers constraints on what politics can do, is unpersuasive. This characterisation misses the subtleties of the hermeneutic exercise in which Rawls is engaged, an exercise which does not involve constructing a moral theory without any reference to the ‘circumstances of politics’ and then applying it, in the way that ethics-first theorists do.
13 Burton Dreben, ‘On Rawls and Political Liberalism’, in Samuel Freeman, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 332–3.
14 Rawls, Political Liberalism,p. 14. See James Gledhill, ‘Rawls and Realism’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 38, no. 1 (2012), pp. 55–82, for a defence of Rawls from the realist critique of political moralism. However, Gledhill does not focus on the aspects of Williams’s thought that I examine here which explain his antipathy toward Rawls’s later work; thus, he misconstrues the nature of Williams’s antagonism toward this kind of political philosophy.
15 This despite the fact that in his review of Political Liberalism Williams notes that Rawls ‘no longer offers a universal theory of justice’ and instead ‘offers a solution to … a distinctively modern political problem’. Williams remarks that this ‘movement from a near-universal moral theory of social and economic justice to a political theory of the modern liberal state, with its pluralism and its toleration, is a remarkable, impressive and compelling transformation’: ‘A Fair State’, London Review of Books,vol. 15, no. 9 (13 May 1993), pp. 7–8.
16 Rawls, Political Liberalism,p. 11. 17 Ibid., p. 11, n. 11.
In light of Sangiovanni’s distinction between practice-dependent and practice- independent approaches, we can view the work of political ethicists as concerned with helping us to consider which institutional principles are justified in terms that, are (broadly speaking) compatible with the idea of making sense that Williams endorses even if they do not explicitly note the priority of the first question in the way Williams conceives of it. Once we see the work of political ethicists in these terms, Williams’s insistence that we ought to view Rawls’s later work as a species of political moralism is problematized: Rawls need not be read as denying the importance of solving the first political question in a way that respects the historical situation in which the demand for legitimation arises or as applying an external moral theory to the political in the way the enactment and structural models do.
This has repercussions for Williams’s critique of contemporary political theory because it helps us to see that he falsely views contemporary normative political theorists as employing a monolithic kind of political moralism.18 In the remainder of this chapter I
examine three facets of Williams’s work that might explain his hostility toward the work of contemporary political ethicists like Rawls: his aversion to moralistic understandings of moral psychology, his reminders about the platitudes of politics, and his remarks about the relationship between moral theory and political practice. I argue that although Williams articulates some important correctives which political ethicists should heed many of these can be incorporated without leading to categorical changes in the way they theorise about politics – with one exception being the commitment to very strict interpretations of the liberal principle of legitimacy (although even in this case the situation is far more complex than realists typically acknowledge). This ensures that there are greater similarities
between Williams’s realism and a certain kind of political ethics than realists have hitherto noted.