What is Political Philosophy? Charles Larmore, Brown University

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Larmore/political philosophy

What is Political Philosophy?

Charles Larmore, Brown University
1. Two Rival Conceptions

The question in my title receives far less attention than it deserves. Often the domain of political philosophy is defined by a series of classic texts (running from Aristotle’s Politics, past Hobbes’ Leviathan, to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice) along with a conventional list of the problems to be addressed – the acceptable limits of state action, the basis of political obligation, the virtues of citizenship, and the nature of social justice. Precisely this last problem, however, shows why the question “What is political philosophy?” ought to have a greater urgency. For justice is a topic that also belongs to moral philosophy. How therefore are moral philosophy and political philosophy to be distinguished? Both have to do with the principles by which we should live together in society. How exactly do they differ? If justice – to invoke a traditional tag as indisputable as it is uninformative – means giving everyone his due (suum cuique), then what is it to fill in the import of this phrase as a moral philosopher and to do so instead from the standpoint of political philosophy?

These questions are not motivated by a general love of intellectual hygiene. I do not assume that all the different areas of philosophy need to be cleanly demarcated from one another, in order to avoid contamination by alien concerns and influences. In my view, disciplines arise in response to problems and the boundaries between them have whatever rationale they possess to the degree that different problems can be handled separately from one another. The difficulty lies in the problems themselves with which political philosophy typically deals, particularly when the idea of justice comes into play. Let us say, in again a rather vacuous phrase, that political philosophy consists in systematic reflection about the nature and purpose of political life. Nothing puzzling in that, it would seem. Yet political philosophers have tended to tackle this subject in two quite different ways, depending on how they position themselves with regard to the domain of morality.

The one approach understands moral philosophy to be the more general discipline, dealing as it does with the good and the right in all their manifold aspects, and not just in the realm of politics. Political philosophy forms part of this larger enterprise, focusing on the class of moral principles that have to do, not with our special relationships to others, but with the shape our social life should have as a whole. One of its primary themes is therefore justice, and justice regarded as a moral ideal, conceived in abstraction from the exigencies of practice. The aim is to specify the relations in which we ought ideally to stand to one another as members of society, possessed of the appropriate rights and responsibilities. Only once this basis is secured does political philosophy move on to take into account existing beliefs, motivations, and social conditions. For then the ideal must be adjusted to reality, particularly given the limitations, both empirical and moral, on what may be achieved through the coercive power of the law. None of this changes, however, the standpoint from which political philosophy begins and must judge these very concessions, namely the moral ideal of the good society.

The other approach sees political philosophy as an autonomous discipline, setting out not from the truths of morality, but instead from those basic features of the human condition that make up the reality of political life. People disagree and their disagreements extend from their material and status interests to their very ideas of the right and the good, so that society is possible only through the establishment of authoritative rules, binding on all and backed by the threat or use of force. These are the phenomena on which political philosophy must always keep its eye. Certainly it has a normative aim, seeking to lay out the fundamental principles by which society should be structured. But it carries out this project by asking in the first instance what principles ought to have the force of law. Though these principles may well coincide with part of morality, that is not in itself their justification. For political philosophy, their validity has to be judged by how well they handle the distinctive problems of political life, which are conflict, disagreement, power, and authority. On this view, the very heart of justice lies in determining what rules may be legitimately imposed on the members of society.

I mentioned at the outset what appears a rather empty definition of political philosophy: systematic reflection about the nature and purpose of political life. But perhaps this is not such a platitude after all. For the difference between the approaches just outlined seems to turn on which of the two terms receives the greater weight. Should political philosophy look first and foremost to the purposes that ideally political association ought to pursue? Or should it set out instead from the nature, that is, the reality, of political association, which is that interests conflict, people disagree, and without the institution of law and the exercise of state power no common existence is possible? Depending on the point of departure adopted, political philosophy becomes a very different sort of enterprise. Either it forms a branch of moral philosophy, working out what ideally the good society should be like, or it operates by principles of its own, propelled in no small part by the fact that moral ideals themselves prove politically divisive. The difference, I insist again, is not that the second approach is any less normative by virtue of taking as its starting point the permanent features of political life. For it understands these givens as constituting the problems to which political philosophy must work out the appropriate solution. However, the principles serving to determine that solution are essentially political in character, defining the legitimate use of power.

The opposition between these two approaches is not unfamiliar. Sometimes philosophers feel moved to endorse what is effectively the one line and to decry the other. But their professions of faith are seldom accompanied by much argumentation or by any attempt to analyze the supposed errors in the contrary view. Two recent exceptions are G.A. Cohen and Bernard Williams, advocates of rival sides of the issue, who expounded their positions at some length (though without, unfortunately, ever mentioning the other). “We do not learn what justice fundamentally is,” Cohen declares, “by focusing on what it is permissible to coerce…. Justice is justice, whether or not it is possible to achieve it.”1 For Williams, by contrast, “political philosophy is not just applied moral philosophy, which is what in our culture it is often taken to be…. Political philosophy must use distinctively political concepts, such as power, and its normative relative, legitimation.”2 How should political philosophy approach the notion of social justice: following Cohen as a moral ideal that is independent of questions about legitimate coercion, or following Williams as a political ideal that is inseparable from such questions?

I shall examine in some detail the views of these philosophers as I go on to pursue the question before us. But one fact I want to underscore already is that for both Cohen and Williams, as for many others, the choice between the two conceptions appears stark and inescapable. Political philosophy, they presume, cannot avoid deciding in the end which of the opposing paths it will follow. This is a mistake. The contending standpoints I have been sketching – “moralism” and “realism”, as Williams termed them to his own advantage – are not the only options. Both of them contain an important element of truth, but both are also unsatisfactory, and to remedy their failings political philosophy needs to move beyond this habitual opposition. Its subject must indeed be the characteristic problems of political life, including the prevalence of moral disagreement. Yet it cannot determine how these problems are to be addressed except by reference to moral principles understood as having an antecedent validity, since serving to determine how the authoritative rules of society are to be established. Political philosophy must be a more complex enterprise than either of the customary positions assumes, if it is to combine these two dimensions.

2. Philosophy and History

Before going on to develop this conception, I must pause to say something about the nature of philosophy in general. It is a topic I broach with mixed feelings. Though undoubtedly important, it lends itself all too easily to the pursuit of ulterior ends. Typically, a definition of philosophy comes to little more than an expression of specific preoccupations and commitments, themselves quite questionable on philosophical grounds, but disguised as an impartial demarcation between what is “really” philosophy and what is not. Think of the idea that the object of philosophy is the conditions of possibility for experience, or the idea that it consists in conceptual analysis. I am myself, to be sure, engaged in explaining how one ought really to do political philosophy. But my intention is not to suggest that the positions I oppose fail to qualify as “philosophical”; the claim is instead that they fail to get it right about the “political”. Still, understanding aright the general goal and method of philosophical reflection helps to explain the particular view of political philosophy I adopt. It is probably not possible to talk about the nature of philosophy without saying in the end something philosophically controversial. I shall begin at least on neutral ground.

Philosophy, I believe, following Wilfrid Sellars, is the effort “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”.3 Philosophy aims at comprehensiveness of vision, at making sense of the connections between the way the world is and our various dealings with it, including the very project of rendering these interconnections intelligible. Its ambition, we might say, is to be maximally reflective: philosophy differs from the other kinds of human inquiry in that it seeks to uncover and evaluate the background assumptions on which they implicitly rely. Even when it concentrates on some specific area, as in the philosophy of art or indeed in political philosophy, the concern is with the very makeup of this domain, its fundamental features and the human purposes it engages.

This definition is, of course, extremely general. It tells us little about the direction in which such reflection should go, and different philosophers will proceed differently, in accord with their particular views and interests. However, I want to mention one way the practice of philosophy takes on concrete form that philosophers themselves are prone to overlook, in a kind of endemic self-misconception – though here I am obviously turning toward the philosophically controversial.

In endeavoring to make sense of how things hang together, either overall or in a particular area, reflection has to find some footing. It needs to draw upon existing knowledge and past experience, if it is to have any grasp of the problems it must handle and the avenues it should pursue. The same thing holds when the philosopher turns to challenge some widespread assumption, arguing that it is actually unfounded or less fruitful than commonly presumed. The resources for criticism have to come from what can count as settled in the matter under review. Philosophy is therefore always situated, shaped by its historical context, even as it aspires to make sense of some subject in as comprehensive, as all-encompassing, a way as possible.

Now this inherent historicity of their enterprise is something that philosophers have a hard time acknowledging, despite its being what one should expect, given that reflection, however broad its scope, needs somewhere to stand if it is to see anything at all. The resistance stems from an easy misunderstanding of the philosophical ambition to see things whole. Here is how it arises. First one observes that human inquiry, in the problems it tackles and the solutions it devises, always bears the mark of its time and place. The modern natural sciences are no exception. Though they develop through the testing of hypotheses against evidence, hypotheses and evidence alike reflect the theories of the day, the experimental procedures available, the course of previous inquiry, and sometimes the influence of wider social forces. The sciences, however, give little heed to their historical context; their attention is directed toward the problems to be solved. Philosophy is different. It does not aim merely at solving problems. Devoted as it is to being maximally reflective, philosophy asks why certain problems have come to constitute problems at all. And thus it sets about tracking the ways that history shapes the thought and action characteristic of whatever domain it is endeavoring to understand. Nothing wrong in that, to be sure. But the temptation is to imagine that turning the weight of history into an object of reflection must mean aspiring to escape its sway. In yielding to that notion, philosophy presents itself as the effort to discover what Reason itself, addressing us simply as rational beings independent of historical context, requires us to think and do.

I need not detail the different forms this aspiration has taken over the centuries. It is a common refrain in philosophy and yet, for all that, an illusion. There can be no transcendence of history, however comprehensively we reflect. Still, the appropriate response to this fact is not to conclude that philosophical reflection must surrender its goal of understanding how everything hangs together. That reaction is equally flawed, since it perpetuates the underlying mistake. The mistake is the supposition that to the extent that our beliefs are historically conditioned, in philosophy or in any systematic inquiry for that matter, they fail to be reliably geared to the world as it really is. The contingencies of history are not necessarily obstacles. They are the very route by which finite beings like us gain a systematic access to truth, and that means to timeless truth, for there is no other kind. One all too easily, but wrongly, assumes that only if we make our thinking itself timeless can it mirror faithfully the timelessness of truth. Standing back from history, if we could manage to do it, would simply leave us nowhere to stand. In reality, a sense of our historical situation, freed from the supposed antithesis between history and truth, gives philosophical reflection a clearer hold on the actual resources at its disposal.

I shall not go any further here in defending these views.4 They will guide me, however, in the arguments that follow. The reason for this detour has been to explain why I shall not hesitate to suppose that what we have learned through history about the nature and purposes of political life may prove importantly relevant to determining how political philosophy itself should proceed.

3. Two Pictures of Political Society

There have been, I observed, two competing conceptions of political philosophy. The one sees it as that part of moral philosophy whose aim is to lay out the principles of the ideal society, while the other regards it as centered on those enduring features of the political realm – conflict and the need for authority – that stem not solely from divergent interests, but also from the right and the good being themselves a constant object of disagreement. I also suggested that fueling this dispute have been opposing ideas about whether the purpose or instead the nature of political life should provide the point of departure for philosophical reflection.

That was, however, a rather superficial remark, at best a first approximation to what is really at stake. For one thing, the nature of any human association, its typical activities and relationships, involves the way it actually pursues some set of purposes. But in addition, we cannot determine the purposes it ought to pursue except by relying on some such notion of its nature. I am not alluding to the sort of consideration that often goes under the name of “ought implies can”, a principle that (in some of its many meanings) I in fact reject: are not the basic demands of morality binding on all even if people may at the time lack the motivational capacity to comply, and does there not figure among these demands some that no one can fully satisfy, but only honor more or less well?5 However, my concern here is that without an idea of the aims and practices some association embodies, we would not know the kind of association it is and would thus be in no position to pronounce on the purposes it ought to have. Unless you know what normally goes on in banks, you cannot say what a bank, as opposed to a supermarket, ought to do. Even when we are imagining an association that does not yet exist but would, we believe, serve to realize some desired end, we lean on assumptions about how it would function in practice. Otherwise, we would have no basis for thinking that it would be such as to achieve the goal in question.

All this goes to show that the idea of political philosophy as devoting itself to the moral ideal must still presuppose some picture of what political life is like, though it is bound to be very different from the one assumed by the rival conception. These two underlying pictures offer, in fact, a useful basis for tackling the theoretical debate that I have sketched. They serve to orient the different conceptions of political philosophy, and where they prove defective, doubts must arise about those conceptions themselves. Moreover, they make up in their own right another well-known opposition. Often they are identified simply by the names of the thinkers who have provided their canonical formulation. On the one hand there is the Aristotelian view of politics, and on the other the Hobbesian or Weberian view. The divergent associations such phrases evoke show how familiar this dispute too has become, and thus I can rehearse the main features of these two views of political association by reference to the figures I have just mentioned. As we proceed, however, shortcomings will emerge in both models, and they will indicate why neither of the rival conceptions of political philosophy is ultimately satisfactory.

According to the one view, then, political life is the highest, most comprehensive form of human association since its principal aim is to promote the ultimate end of all our endeavors, the human good itself. Such is the position we encounter in the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics.6 None of us, he remarks, can live well by living alone, for we have not the self-sufficiency of gods. Only in society are we able to obtain and make use of the means indispensable to a flourishing existence (eudaimonia) – the material resources needed to sustain our different activities, the education that steers us in the right direction, and the public space in which to deliberate together about how best to organize and pursue this collective enterprise. The various areas of social life, such as the family or the economy, are oriented toward attaining different parts of the human good. Political life is not simply one more kind of association alongside the rest, devoted to yet another particular goal. It encompasses all the others (pasas periechousa tas allas) as the most authoritative (kuriotate) kind of association since its task is to ensure, through the just distribution of the necessary resources and opportunities, that our lives flourish as a whole. This supremacy of political association comes to expression in the fact that the rules of justice it establishes (as opposed to those that may obtain within more limited social groups, such as the family) take the form of laws, coercively binding on all. However, the nature of justice, precisely because it is an ingredient of the human good, represents a prior standard to which law, so far as possible, aims to give institutional shape. This, it should be clear, is the picture of political society presupposed by all those, from Aristotle on, who have held that political philosophy needs to house itself within the larger enterprise of moral philosophy.

Very different is the view of political society we find in the writings of Hobbes and Weber. I begin with Weber since his account provides the starkest contrast, rejecting all reference to ends and defining the political in terms of means alone. A group, he begins by observing in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, may determine its membership either through voluntary agreement or by imposition, that is, by stipulating which individuals are subject to its rules independently of any consent on their part. Imposition (Oktroyierung) need not be by way of coercion. Some religious organizations (the Catholic Church, for instance) assert authority over their flock from the very moment of birth even though, at least in the present day, their authority is solely spiritual and lacks the means of enforcement. But when, Weber adds, the group does impose its rules on individuals by the use or threat of force, it becomes a political association, and if it successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory, it acquires the particular form of a state.7 There are different ways that states have sought to legitimate the power they exercise, including the appeal to ideals of the human good that they may purport to be advancing. But what makes them political in character and distinguishes them from other groups pursuing such ideals is the possession of the coercive means to implement whatever goals they happen to adopt.

Now though this view of the nature of political society is quite familiar, Weber’s focus on means to the exclusion of ends overdraws the difference with the Aristotelian view. In reality, if only implicitly, Weber is attributing to the state a particular end in portraying it as an association that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The fundamental business of politics, he is assuming, lies in the establishment of order, securing through the rule of law the conditions for civil peace and social cooperation. Nonetheless, this emendation scarcely narrows the gulf that separates the Weberian picture from the idea of political association as aiming essentially at justice and the human good. To the extent that such ends become the object of state action, the form they take, according to this picture, is determined by the primary political goal of creating and maintaining social order, through coercion if necessary. Justice as such cannot be the state’s concern. It has to be justice insofar as it can be part of an authoritative set of rules that will be binding on all. If this view of political society regards the establishment of order as the paramount end, the reason is not hard to divine. It sees the potential for conflict everywhere in social life: in the clash of interests, to be sure, but also in people’s differing notions of the right and the good.

Such is, of course, the idea of the political that animates the second conception of political philosophy. It should also be plain how widespread this idea is, and who its premier theorist has been. That is Hobbes, for whom the business of the state is, as he said, the “safety of the people”, guaranteed by a “common power to keep them all in awe”.8 Hobbes’ writings are unsurpassed, moreover, in the clarity with which they identify where these two pictures of political society differ. The ultimate point of contention, he explained, is the kind of norms that are most important in shaping its activities and institutions. The one view looks to ethics, the other to law. “It is characteristic of man,” according to Aristotle, “that he alone, among living beings, has a grasp of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and association based on these things makes a family and a state”. To which Hobbes rejoined, “Where there is no common power, there is no law; where there is no law, no injustice”.9 For people, he insisted, tend naturally to disagree about what is good and evil – “many men, many different rules for virtue and vice” (quot homines tot virtutis et vitii diversae regulae) – so that law alone can provide a “common standard” (communis mensura).10 These, I believe, are the different perceptions of its subject matter that steer political philosophy in the opposing directions we have distinguished: toward the pursuit of moral first principles or toward the need for order and authority.

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