In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argumentby Bernard Williams
Bernard Williams is remembered as one of the most brilliant and original philosophers of the past fifty years. Widely respected as a moral philosopher, Williams began to write about politics in a sustained way in the early 1980s. There followed a stream of articles, lectures, and other major contributions to issues of public concernall complemented by his
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Bernard Williams is remembered as one of the most brilliant and original philosophers of the past fifty years. Widely respected as a moral philosopher, Williams began to write about politics in a sustained way in the early 1980s. There followed a stream of articles, lectures, and other major contributions to issues of public concernall complemented by his many works on ethics, which have important implications for political theory.
This new collection of essays, most of them previously unpublished, addresses many of the core subjects of political philosophy: justice, liberty, and equality; the nature and meaning of liberalism; toleration; power and the fear of power; democracy; and the nature of political philosophy itself. A central theme throughout is that political philosophers need to engage more directly with the realities of political life, not simply with the theories of other philosophers. Williams makes this argument in part through a searching examination of where political thinking should originate, to whom it might be addressed, and what it should deliver.
Williams had intended to weave these essays into a connected narrative on political philosophy with reflections on his own experience of postwar politics. Sadly he did not live to complete it, but this book brings together many of its components. Geoffrey Hawthorn has arranged the material to resemble as closely as possible Williams's original design and vision. He has provided both an introduction to Williams's political philosophy and a bibliography of his formal and informal writings on politics.
Those who know the work of Bernard Williams will find here the familiar hallmarks of his writingoriginality, clarity, erudition, and wit. Those who are unfamiliar with, or unconvinced by, a philosophical approach to politics, will find this an engaging introduction. Both will encounter a thoroughly original voice in modern political theory and a searching approach to the shape and direction of liberal political thought in the past thirty-five years.
"In this collection, as in all of his other works, Bernard Williams shows how much more interesting our philosophic reflections on the problems of human life can be when they begin with life's most mundane and unavoidable experiences."Bernard Yack, Ethics
"Characteristically, all of the essays are closely argued, elegantly written, and strongly engaging. The book is a welcome addition to the literatures on the many issues it addresses."Richard E. Flathman, Perspectives on Politics
"This collection of essays is well-written, challenging and highly enjoyable. It has the searching, inquisitive and witty style typical of its author, with scores of ideas and insights briefly alluded to without further development, making for engaging reading."Chris Nathan, Oxonian Review
Richard E. Flathman
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Read an ExcerptIn the Beginning Was the Deed Realism and Moralism in Political Argument
By Bernard Williams Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One REALISM AND MORALISM IN POLITICAL THEORY
TWO MODELS OF POLITICAL THEORY
I start with two rough models of political theory (or philosophy: the distinction is not important here) with respect to the relation of morality to political practice. One is an enactment model. The model is that political theory formulates principles, concepts, ideals, and values; and politics (so far as it does what the theory wants) seeks to express these in political action, through persuasion, the use of power, and so forth. This is not necessarily (although it is usually) a distinction between persons. Moreover, there is an intermediate activity which can be shared by both parties: this shapes particular conceptions of the principles and values in the light of the circumstances, and devises programmes that might express those conceptions.
The paradigm of a theory that implies the enactment model is Utilitarianism. Unless it takes its discredited Invisible Hand form (under which there is nothing for politics to do except to get out of the way and get other people out of the way), this also presents a very clear version of something always implicit in the enactment model, the panoptical view: the theory's perspective on society is that of surveying it to see how itmay be made better.
Contrast this with a structural model. Here theory lays down moral conditions of co-existence under power, conditions in which power can be justly exercised. The paradigm of such a theory is Rawls's. In A Theory of Justice (TJ) itself, the theory also implied a certain amount about the ends of political action, because of implications of applying the Difference Principle: though, interestingly, even there it was presented less in terms of a programme, and more in terms of a required structure. In Political Liberalism (PL) and the writings that led up to it, this aspect is less prominent. This is because Rawls wants to make a bigger gap than TJ allowed between two different conceptions: that of a society in which power is rightfully exercised (a well-ordered society), and that of a society that meets liberals' aspirations to social justice. (This distinction may imply various others: human/political/economic rights etc.)
Differences between these two models are of course important. But my concern here is with what they have in common, that they both represent the priority of the moral over the political. Under the enactment model, politics is (very roughly) the instrument of the moral; under the structural model, morality offers constraints (in TJ, very severe constraints) on what politics can rightfully do. In both cases, political theory is something like applied morality.
This is still true in Rawls's more recent work. He indeed says that "in TJ a moral doctrine of justice, general in scope, is not distinguished from a strictly political theory of justice" (PL, xv), and he sets out to articulate a political conception. But he also says, revealingly, "such a conception is, of course, a moral conception" (PL, 11); it is one that is worked out for a special subject, the basic structure of society. Its further marks are that it is independent of a comprehensive doctrine, and that it marshals ideas implicit in the public culture of a democratic society. The supposedly political conception, then, is still a moral conception, one that is applied to a certain subject matter under certain constraints of content.
Rawls holds that the stability of a democratic pluralistic society is, or should be, sustained by the moral psychology of citizens living within an overlapping consensus (PL, 141). There must be a question whether this is an appropriate or plausible answer: it is a matter of history, or political sociology, or some other empirical inquiry. But in any case, Rawls is not merely giving an answer to the question of stability in terms of citizens' morality; he is giving a moral answer. This comes out in his repeated claim (for example, PL, 147) that the conditions of pluralism under which liberalism is possible do not represent "a mere modus vivendi." Rather, the basis of co-existence, and the qualities elicited by these conditions, include the highest moral powers, above all a sense of fairness. Rawls contrasts "a mere modus vivendi" with the principled basis of his own pluralism, and he takes it to cover, not only a Hobbesian standoff of equal fear, but also equilibria based on perceptions of mutual advantage. That these options are grouped together 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. I shall call views that make the moral prior to the political, versions of "political moralism" (PM). PM does not immediately imply much about the style in which political actors should think, but in fact it does tend to have the consequence that they should think, not only in moral terms, but in the moral terms that belong to the political theory itself. It will be familiar how, in various ways, PM can seek to ground liberalism. I shall try to contrast with PM an approach which gives a greater autonomy to distinctively political thought. This can be called, in relation to a certain tradition, "political realism." Associated with this will be a quite different approach to liberalism. (This is related to what the late Judith Shklar called "the liberalism of fear," but I do not develop that aspect of it here.)
THE FIRST POLITICAL QUESTION
I identify the "first" political question in Hobbesian terms as the securing of order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation. It is "first" because solving it is the condition of solving, indeed posing, any others. It is not (unhappily) first in the sense that once solved, it never has to be solved again. This is particularly important because, a solution to the first question being required all the time, it is affected by historical circumstances; it is not a matter of arriving at a solution to the first question at the level of state-of-nature theory and then going on to the rest of the agenda. This is related to what might count as a "foundation" of liberalism.
It is a necessary condition of legitimacy (LEG) that the state solve the first question, but it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition. There are two different sorts of consideration here. Hobbes did, very roughly, think that the conditions for solving the first problem, at least in given historical circumstances, were so demanding that they were sufficient to determine the rest of the political arrangements. In this sense, he did think that the necessary condition of LEG was also the sufficient condition of it; someone who disagrees with this may merely be disagreeing with Hobbes on this point.
If one disagrees with Hobbes, and thinks that more than one set of political arrangements, even in given historical circumstances, may solve the first question, it does not strictly follow that the matter of which arrangements are selected makes a further contribution to the question of LEG, but it is entirely reasonable to think that this can make a contribution, and that some, but only some, of such arrangements are such that the state will be LEG.
Even Hobbes, of course, did not think that a LEG state could be identical with a reign of terror; the whole point was to save people from terror. It was essential to his construction, that is to say, that the state-the solution-should not become part of the problem. (Many, including Locke, have thought that Hobbes's own solution does not pass this test.) This is an important idea: it is part of what is involved in a state's meeting what I shall call the Basic Legitimation Demand (BLD).
THE BASIC LEGITIMATION DEMAND
Meeting the BLD is what distinguishes a LEG from an ILLEG state. (I am not concerned with cases in which the society is so disordered that it is not clear whether there is a state.) Meeting the BLD can be equated with there being an "acceptable" solution to the first political question. I shall say some more about what counts as "acceptable." It is important, first, to distinguish between the idea of a state's meeting the BLD, and its having further political virtues (e.g., its being a liberal state). I mean that these are two different ideas, and in fact I think there manifestly have been, and perhaps are, LEG non-liberal states. However, this does not exclude the possibility that there might be circumstances in which the only way to be LEG involved being liberal. This relates to the question of extra conditions on LEG, and, as I said, I shall come back to this.
I shall claim first that merely the idea of meeting the BLD implies a sense in which the state has to offer a justification of its power to each subject.
First, one or two definitions:
(a)\ For these purposes, the subject of a state is anyone who is in its power, whom by its own lights it can rightfully coerce under its laws and institutions. Of course this is not satisfactory for all purposes, since a state can claim too many people, but I shall not try to pursue this question. I doubt that there is any very general answer of principle to the question of what are the proper boundaries of a state. (b) "What someone can fear" means what someone would reasonably be afraid of if it were likely to happen to him/her in the basic Hobbesian terms of coercion, pain, torture, humiliation, suffering, death. (The fear need not necessarily be of the operations of the state.) (c) Call being disadvantaged with regard to what one can fear, being "radically disadvantaged."
Suppose a group of subjects of the state-within its borders, required to obey its officials, and so forth-who are radically disadvantaged relative to others. At the limit, they have virtually no protection at all, from the operations of either officials or other subjects. They are no better off than enemies of the state. There may be something that counts as a local legitimation of this. But is it LEG? Is the BLD satisfied?
Well, there is nothing to be said to this group to explain why they shouldn't revolt. We are supposing that they are not seen as a group of alien people captured within the boundaries of the state. (The citizens of ancient Sparta regarded the Helots openly as enemies, and in at least one period, the Spartan officials, on taking office, renewed a declaration of war against them. The frequent Helot "revolts" were thus simply attempts to fight back.) We suppose, contrary to this, that there is an attempt to incorporate the radically disadvantaged group as subjects. I propose that in these circumstances the BLD, to this extent, has not been met.
So we have:
(a) Mere incompetence to protect a radically disadvantaged group is an objection to the state. (b) The mere circumstance of some subjects' being de facto in the power of others is no legitimation of their being radically disadvantaged. This implies that slavery is imperfectly legitimated relative to a claim of authority over the slaves: it is a form of internalized warfare, as in the case of the Helots.
It may be asked whether the BLD is itself a moral principle. If it is, it does not represent a morality which is prior to politics. It is a claim that is inherent in there being such a thing as politics: in particular, because it is inherent in there being first a political question. The situation of one lot of people terrorizing another lot of people is not per se a political situation: it is, rather, the situation which the existence of the political is in the first place supposed to alleviate (replace). If the power of one lot of people over another is to represent a solution to the first political question, and not itself be part of the problem, something has to be said to explain (to the less empowered, to concerned bystanders, to children being educated in this structure, etc.) what the difference is between the solution and the problem, and that cannot simply be an account of successful domination. It has to be something in the mode of justifying explanation or legitimation: hence the BLD.
The answer is all right as far as it goes, but more needs to be said about how a demand for justification arises, and how it may be met. One thing can be taken as an axiom, that might does not imply right, that power itself does not justify. That is to say, the power of coercion offered simply as the power of coercion cannot justify its own use. (Of course, the power to justify may itself be a power, but it is not merely that power.) This principle does not itself determine when there is a need for justification (for instance, it does not imply that a Hobbesian state of nature violates rights). It does do something to determine, when there is a demand for justification, what will count as one. We cannot say that it is either a necessary or a sufficient condition of there being a (genuine) demand for justification, that someone demands one. It is not sufficient, because anyone who feels he has a grievance can raise a demand, and there is always some place for grievance. It is also not a necessary condition, because people can be drilled by coercive power itself into accepting its exercise. This, in itself, is an obvious truth, and it can be extended to the critique of less blatant cases. What may be called the critical theory principle, that the acceptance of a justification does not count if the acceptance itself is produced by the coercive power which is supposedly being justified, is a sound principle: the difficulty with it, of making good on claims of false consciousness and the like, lies in deciding what counts as having been "produced by" coercive power in the relevant sense.
However, one sufficient condition of there being a (genuine) demand for justification is this: A coerces B and claims that B would be wrong to fight back: resents it, forbids it, rallies others to oppose it as wrong, and so on. By doing this, A claims that his actions transcend the conditions of warfare, and this gives rise to a demand for justification of what A does. When A is the state, these claims constitute its claim of authority over B. So we have a sense in which the BLD itself requires a legitimation to be given to every subject.
There can be a pure case of internal warfare, of the kind invoked in the case of the Helots. There is no general answer to what are the boundaries of the state, and I suppose that there can in principle be a spongiform state. While there are no doubt reasons for stopping warfare, these are not the same reasons, or related to politics in the same way, as reasons given by a claim for authority. In terms of rights, the situation is this: first, anyone over whom the state claims authority has a right to treatment justified by the claim of LEG; second, there is no right to be a member of a state, if one is not a member-or, at any rate, no such right that follows from just this account; third, there is no claim of authority over enemies, including those in the situation of the Helots. In virtue of this last point, such people do not have a right of the kind mentioned in the first point. However, crimes against stateless persons are surely crimes, and Helot-like slavery surely violates rights, and this will require a more extended account in terms of the desirable extent of living under law (and hence of the political). However, the significant cases for the present problems are those in which the radically disadvantaged are said to be subjects and the state claims authority over them.
However, this will not exclude many legitimations which will not be satisfactory from a liberal point of view. How do we get to liberalism?
Liberals will, first, raise the standards of what counts as being disadvantaged. This is because they raise their expectations of what a state can do; moreover they adopt, perhaps because they are in a position to adopt, more demanding standards of what counts as a threat to people's vital interests, a threat in terms of the first problem itself; they take more sophisticated steps to stop the solution becoming part of the problem. They recognize, for instance, rights of free speech; in the first instance, because it is important that citizens and others should know whether the BLD is being met.
Excerpted from In the Beginning Was the Deed by Bernard Williams
Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bernard Williams's books include "Truth and Truthfulness" (Princeton); "Making Sense of Humanity"; "Morality"; and "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy". At the time of his death in 2003, he was Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford. Geoffrey Hawthorn is Professor of International Politics at the University of Cambridge.
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