Wishful Thinking

In document Realism and liberalism in the political thought of Bernard Williams (Page 107-113)

Realism, Moralism and Contemporary Political Theory

2. Wishful Thinking

When expanding on his claim that in Political Liberalism Rawls articulates a ‘moral’ as opposed to an appropriately political theory, Williams points to Rawls’s insistence that liberalism is not a mere modus vivendi but a principled solution sustained ‘by the moral psychology of citizens living within an overlapping consensus’. Williams objects to this because the basis of Rawlsian co-existence, ‘and the qualities elicited by those conditions, include the highest moral powers’ (IBWD, p. 2, n.2) which he takes to confirm that Rawls’s later work still ‘implies a contrast between principle and interest, or morality and prudence, which signifies the continuation of a (Kantian) morality as the framework of the system’ (IBWD, p. 2). However, the suggestion that a political theory should be abandoned because it pursues a moral consensus is rather blunt; for this criticism to be persuasive we must have reason to believe that the imagined consensus is excessively unrealistic in some respect. In this section I question if political ethicists are susceptible to this line of complaint by assessing the role that various psychological claims play in Rawls’s later work in light of Williams’s account of the dangers of wishful thinking.

An account of moral psychology plays a central role in Rawls’s attempt to show how ‘it is possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines’.19 Rawls holds that we can assume that ‘human beings must have a moral

nature, not of course a perfect such nature, yet one that can understand, act on, and be sufficiently moved by a reasonable political conception of right and justice to support a

society guided by its ideals and principles’.20 In The Law of Peoples he states that because

‘the limits of the possible are not given by the actual … we have to rely on conjecture and speculation, arguing as best we can that the social world we envision is feasible and might actually exist’.21 He claims that some idealisation is necessary if we are to retain faith in

the possibility of progressive political change,22 but that it is not problematic provided it is

‘realistically utopian’ where this means that, following Rousseau, we take men as they are

and laws as they might be. When we do this we can extend ‘what are ordinarily thought of

as the limits of practical political possibility’. By satisfying this requirement Rawls holds that we can conclude that ‘the nature of the social world allows reasonably just constitutional democracies’.23 When Rawls claims that an overlapping consensus ‘affirmed

on moral grounds’24 is possible, his reasoning is thus self-consciously conjectural, which is

one of the reasons why he emphasises the role that a kind of Kantian faith plays in this account.25

For our purposes the important underlying claim endorsed by Rawls is that his political theory is sufficiently realistic as his conception of democratic citizenship is not ruled out by our understanding of history and psychology. On what grounds can realists like Williams object to this kind of argument? Rawls’s claim that citizens have a moral nature that can be sufficiently moved by considerations of justice so as to make compliance with his favoured institutional set-up viable, ensures that his theory is marked with optimism from the outset. However, unless realists want to insist that we must

20 Ibid., p. lx.

21 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 12.

22 Rawls argues that the lack of such faith has worrying political effects; he invokes the decline of the Weimar Republic and the horrors that resulted as an example of this. Political Liberalism,p. lx.

23 Rawls, The Law of Peoples,p. 6. To this extent, we can hold with Leif Wenar that ‘Rawls saw his life’s work as imagining a moral order realistic enough to redeem a credence in man’s moral nature’: ‘John Rawls’, in David Estlund, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 394.

24 Rawls, Political Liberalism,p. 147. 25 Ibid., p. 171.

pessimistically presume that people are never moved by moral considerations, which is implausible, the very existence of such optimism cannot (by itself) persuasively ground a realist rejection of Rawls’s moral psychology; rather, we must be given reason to think that such optimism is misplaced.

One important divergence between the two approaches springs from Williams’s alignment of his political realism with Weber’s ethic of responsibility. The ethic of responsibility necessitates a certain attitude towards the world, in particular the recognition that features of it are beyond one’s control. Weber insists that we must reckon with ‘average human failings’ because we have ‘absolutely no right to assume humankind’s goodness and perfection’.26 These claims are mirrored in Williams’s

Nietzschean belief in the need for a ‘sense for the facts’.27 His work is peppered with

warnings about theories that eschew non-idealised starting points and refuse to recognise that the world can frustrate the pursuit of our ends. One consequence of adopting Weber’s ethic is the commitment to being more conscious about the ways in which reality must impinge on the pursuit and articulation of our convictions. Williams discusses this most fully in Truth and Truthfulness when he examines the phenomenon of wishful thinking. An important step in his account is the distinction of desires, wishes and beliefs. Desire is ‘a state of an agent, the content of which he can regard at various stages of deliberations being potentially satisfied by the actions that will flow from the deliberation’, whereas a wish ‘will have content that cannot be satisfied in that context’. Problems arise, however, because what we think is practically possible is partly a function of our desires, which ensures that wishful thinking is a perennial threat to responsible deliberation (TT, p. 196). This makes distinguishing between beliefs and wishes an achievement that requires the

26 Max Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in David Owen and Tracy Strong, eds. The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis, IN, Hackett, 2004), p. 84.

virtue of Accuracy (one of Williams’s virtues of truthfulness) because our beliefs are ‘answerable to an order of things that lies beyond our own determination’ (TT, p. 125).

Similarly, Williams warns against the moralisation of psychology because he claims that it enables philosophers to smuggle a set of normative commitments into their arguments. This idea, implicit in his work on internal reasons, is fully expressed in Shame and Necessity when he criticises Plato because it is ‘only in the light of ethical considerations, and certain ethically significant distinctions of character and motive, that Plato’s schema [the tripartite division of the soul] is intelligible’ (SN, p. 43). To counter this Williams endorses a Nietzschean minimalist moral psychology, which he classes as a commitment to the idea that our understanding of ‘our moral capacities should be consistent with, even perhaps in the spirit of, our understanding of human beings as part of nature’ (SP, p. 301). The Nietzschean view proceeds by identifying ‘an excess of moral content in psychology by appealing first to what an experienced, honest, subtle and unoptimistic interpreter might make of human behaviour elsewhere’. Williams writes that ‘such an interpreter might be said to be – using an unashamedly evaluative expression – realistic’. This is not ‘a plea for a value-free psychology but a commitment to what Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion’, an approach which does not attempt to ‘compel demonstratively … [but] invites one into a perspective, and to some extent a tradition (one marked by figures such as Thucydides …), in which what seems to demand more material makes sense in terms of what demands less’ (SP, p. 302).28 Accordingly,

Williams does not renounce the attempt to offer an account of moral agency, but insists that there must be some evidence to vindicate the psychological assumptions employed by philosophers if their arguments are to move beyond the realm of self-validating circularity.

28 This suspicious approach is motivated by the sense that ‘sophisticated and reflective observers have always had good reason to think that stories human beings tell themselves about the ethical tend to be optimistic, self-serving, superstitious, vengeful or otherwise not what they seem to be’: Williams, ‘Replies’, p. 204.

His fellow twentieth-century British political realist John Dunn expresses how such ideas relate to political philosophy when he writes that political philosophers must ‘locate the levels of moral ambition which they espouse within their best causal understanding of the human world as this is’, as this prevents them ‘from subordinating their understanding of how it really is to the importunities of their own projective desires’.29

To this end, the fact that Rawls’s view is conjectural might be taken to invite the suspicion that his projective desires have influenced his calculation of the ‘realistic’ component of his utopianism. Although it is beyond the remit of this thesis to offer a lengthy critique of Rawls’s work in this regard, certain claims that he makes appear vulnerable to this kind of sceptical unmasking. For one thing, when he attempts to vindicate his faith in the possibility of political liberalism because ‘the history of religion and philosophy shows that there are many reasonable ways in which the wider realm of values can be understood so as to be either congruent with, or supportive of, or else not in conflict with, the values appropriate to the special domain of the political as specified by a political conception of justice’,30 his reading of history is clearly extremely selective; it is

inconceivable that any historian of religion who felt moved to draw honest conclusions about the possibility of an overlapping consensus on the basis of post-Reformation events could seriously report the conclusion as Rawls does.31 In addition, as Freyenhagen has

argued, Rawls’s justification strategy either presumes that citizens will agree that his political values are ‘very great values and hence not easily overridden’,32 which stacks the

cards in his favour, or suggests that all citizens recognise the importance of avoiding ‘the

29 John Dunn, ‘Reconceiving the Content and Character of Modern Political Community’, in Interpreting Political Responsibility (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 196.

30 Rawls, Justice as Fairness,p. 190.

31 Indeed, in the United States today religious belief has become more comprehensive, less reasonable and far more politically significant than Rawls supposed: Klosko claims that between 60 and 100 million American citizens hold religious views that Rawls would consider unreasonable. See George Klosko, ‘Rawls’s Public Reason and American Society’, in Shaun Young, ed. Reflections on Rawls: An Assessment of his Legacy (Farnham, Ashgate, 2009), pp. 23–44.

fact of oppression’,33 which looks very much like a substantive moral claim.34 Hence, there

seems to be a danger that by employing various idealisations and conjectures about how we might allegedly behave if our moral powers were given room to develop, Rawls fails to provide a good enough reason to think that his well-ordered society is realistically possible. For realists like Williams this kind of idealistic reflection on the requirements of democratic citizenship is not weighty enough to lead us to disregard various historical lessons that we have learned about how human beings are likely to act in various institutional settings. This line of complaint need not reject the truism that the possible is not given by the actual, but, rather than making some conception of Kantian faith central, would stress that our beliefs about achievability should be grounded in a resolutely historical and sociological understanding, and not in the pious hope that men may change for the better if only the right institutional transformations take place.

This is one area in which the realist critique of political ethics has great potential: political ethicists should be embarrassed about a lack of realism in their psychological assumptions. However, it is not clear that a commitment to a realistic psychology opens up as much of a space between a Williams-realism and a pseudo-Rawlsian political ethics as the distinction between political realism and political moralism implies: even if a political ethicist succumbs to the temptations of wishful thinking at certain points, it is not clear that they thereby commit some kind of category error. Rather, this shows us a way in which their theory is defective by being excessively unrealistic. Therefore, rather than drawing a sharp, categorical line between ‘realism’ (good) and ‘moralism’ (bad), we should see various political ethicists as located too far towards the idealistic end of the realistic/idealistic spectrum. While it is important to recognise this propensity, if realism is to avoid a kind of dejected cynicism and despair about the world (and the people within

33 Ibid., p. 37.

it) it must grant that some hope about how people might act in better ways is appropriate, at least some of the time. To this end, even if we have reason to believe that a set of assumptions employed by political ethicists is excessively idealistic, we should be wary about hoping for too little. After all, Williams notes that his idea of making sense has a ‘progressive possibility’ (IBWD, p. 15), but this claim can only be made good if we do not assume that we will never collectively act better than we currently do. Realists need to say more about how we might think in these terms without falling prey to the dangers of wishful thinking. Therefore, although a wishful thinking-based critique of Rawls’s later work can help us to remember that political ethicists should take seriously the need to construct descriptively adequate political theories, this reminder does not have the wide- ranging implications that a distinction between realism and moralism seems to promise.

In document Realism and liberalism in the political thought of Bernard Williams (Page 107-113)