Why bother about politics?
- Political Obligation in its Historical Context by John Dunn
Cambridge, 355 pp, £14.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22890 5
How did the notion arise that political obligation is something more than the unconditional duty of subjects to obey their ruler? And what, in a given situation, are the historically-shaped constraints that set limits to the rational political duty of citizens? Or, in other terms, what are the arguments – historical and contemporary – for seeing political obligation as going beyond blind obedience and yet falling short of the ideal moral imperatives? These are the questions which occupy John Dunn in the essays that make up this book and which give it a coherence greater than that usually achieved in such collections. They range from reflections on and exercises in the history of ideas, through detailed case-studies of African and Asian political systems, to philosophical inquiries into the nature of political theory and political practice.
John Dunn’s style is unmistakable; being a foreigner to the British tradition, I would not know if it is unmistakably his own or unmistakably that of a certain academic environment. It has wit, which is sometimes spoiled by self-consciousness; it is convoluted, sometimes to the point of collapsing under the weight of its own ornaments – on nearly every page there are both brilliant throw-away insights and needlessly elaborated trivialities. The arguments are indirect and mostly inconclusive, proceeding by elimination and circumscription rather than by the more direct method of stating a thesis and arguing for it. The immediate impact of all this on the reader is one of mixed pleasure and exasperation. It is not a book that will make him exclaim: Yes, here is the solution to my problem. But it has the more subterranean virtue of disturbing him, of setting up the nagging thought that things, after all, might turn out to be less simple than he had assumed. Its short-term effect may be rather slight, in the sense that little will be set in motion by reading it, but the long-term effect may well be to alter, subtly but permanently, one’s vision of social theory and its object.
As admirably brought out by the long concluding essay, the book (or most of it) turns on the relation between three conceptual poles: rationality, political possibility and political obligation. Political duty must fit in, somehow, both with individual rationality and with the given political context. Duty must make sense to the agent, in terms of his beliefs and desires; also it must not require that the agent try to bring about a state that is politically impossible. I believe that this is indeed the best way of stating the problem of political obligation, and to have seen this is no small achievement. Dunn is very much aware of the complexities and paradoxes involved in the resolution of the problem: as suggested, oversimplification is not one of his vices. In particular, he is very good in his analysis of the idea of political possibility. The relation between political obligation and political possibility is more complex than suggested by the slogan ‘Ought implies can,’ for the possibilities in question do not have the status of something objectively given that constrains our actions from outside. Rather, what is possible to some extent – the difficult question is, to what extent? – depends on what the political agents believe and argue to be possible. And their reasons for arguing strongly that it is possible must also include a belief that they have an obligation to do so, which means that ‘Can implies ought’ as well.
Dunn is less good on rationality. On this topic, his views seem to rest in part on a misunderstanding, in part on wishful thinking. (I am not saying that this is all there is to his theory of rationality.) The relation between rationality and political obligation comes out in the so-called ‘paradox of voting’ (or rather, in one of the two phenomena commonly and confusingly referred to by that term, the other being the Condorcet paradox of circular majorities). Why, the argument goes, should one bother to vote when one knows for sure that one’s vote will have virtually no impact on the outcome? Chapter Six of Dunn’s book is an attempt to throw some light on this question as it arose in the setting of a Ghanaian election in 1969. Here he first argues that the rationale for voting must be either ‘symbolic’ or ‘egoistically rational’, but then goes on to define rationality so broadly as to include what most writers would call non-egoistic rationality. (He adopts a more sensible position in the next chapter.) Also, when discussing the relation between virtue and self-interest, he advances as a possible thesis that ‘the point of being virtuous (in the sense of the sufficient motive) was the prospect of its resulting in concrete gains.’ This, to me, is incoherent. The prospect of gains might be a sufficient motive for someone setting out to become virtuous (though it might also prove an obstacle to that goal), but it cannot be a motive for being virtuous (though it can, of course, be a motive for appearing to be so). I also discern an element of wishful thinking in his assertion that ‘in political theory it cannot be a valid result that what is collectively suicidal is individually rational.’ This, I think, is solving substantive problems by redefining the terms. A better approach, in my view, is the following. What is individually rational can be collectively suicidal, but need not be. Whether it is, depends on what kinds of preference the rational individuals have acquired (or, at the limit, chosen). There is a political obligation for those who have other-regarding preferences to change society so as to create the conditions for others to have them as well. If they are sufficiently numerous, they may create a snowball effect which may prevent the collective suicide; if not, not.
Generally speaking, I found the two case-studies a bit disappointing. The first (on Ghana) is marred by writing that manages at times to be both cute and opaque. The second (a comparative analysis of Ghana and Sri Lanka) is better in this respect, but thin on causal analysis. I was more impressed by the essay on ‘The Success and Failure of Modern Revolutions’, which can be seen as a theoretical distillation of the author’s well-known book on modern revolutions. He makes a useful distinction between success in the sense of taking power and success in the sense of creating the kind of society for the sake of which one wanted to take power, and he has much of interest to say on the conditions for success in either sense. It is surprising, perhaps, that he does not mention the best-known case in which success in the first sense proved incompatible with success in the second, the Russian Revolution. It turned out that the backwardness which was required for success in the first sense would not, as the Mensheviks rightly predicted, permit the flowering of the productive forces that was the rationale for the revolution. (The Mensheviks, however, were totally wrong in thinking that this could be a reason for postponing the revolution.)
Of the three more theoretical pieces in the book, I found the review essay on C.B. Macpherson distinctly disappointing. It is the kind of condescending overkill which, however justified, reflects badly on its author. The essay on ‘Practising History and Social Science on “Realist” Assumptions’ is ambitious, interesting, but finally too inconclusive. It hovers uncertainly between philosophical analysis proper and reflection on the methodology of the social sciences, and, as a result, fails to make a substantive contribution to either. Much more effective is the final essay on ‘Political Obligations and Political Possibility’, which contains a very instructive analysis of the ethics of belief in political contexts. There is perhaps (e.g. on page 275) a slight confusion between the epistemic and the ethical grounds on which a belief may be normatively criticised. When we criticise the slave-holders’ belief that slaves were naturally inferior, it is not only because this belief was not epistemically justified: it is also because it was so closely linked to their interest. Nor am I certain that there is a valid distinction to be made between the slave-holders’ shared (and objectionable) belief and that of some particularly cruel slave-holder. Is it so much better to participate in collective self-deception than to invent your own? At least for American slave-holders, the arguments against slavery were there to be studied; the case, no doubt, is different for ancient slave-holders, to whom the arguments against slavery were not, as Dunn phrases it, ‘cognitively accessible’. I am not sure how these problems are best to be resolved, but Dunn has certainly done us all a service in setting up a framework for their discussion.
I must end by noting and praising the strong streak of common sense – analytical and political – that runs through all the essays in the book. I found it striking that an author possessing this rarest of gifts should choose to convey it in a language normally reserved for those writers who are most devoid of it, the precious and the hermetical. The paradox would be of no import were it not for the fact that the style may turn away from the book many readers, within a wide range of disciplines, who could certainly profit from it. Turning the tables on John Dunn, one might ask whether, given the importance of the problems to which he addresses himself and his extensive qualifications for discussing them, he does not have an obligation – a political obligation, in fact – to make himself more accessible to his public.