Ruck in the Carpet

Glen Newey

  • Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
    Princeton, 116 pp, £11.95, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13788 9

A lot of modern political philosophy – at least in the English-speaking world, and in its dominant version, liberalism – sets about applying morality to politics. In what future writers may come to think of as the palmy days of political moralism, theorists have tried to imagine what politics would be like if it were redesigned according to a moral prospectus. It is not usually thought that actually existing politics shadows moral norms very closely; but, the political moralist maintains, surely it ought to?

Philosophers’ high moralism has put considerable distance between their activities and those of historians of political thought. While philosophers purvey big theory, historians, dominated (in the UK at least) by the Cambridge School, gingerly unswaddle texts from their incunabula, reading them as the by-blow of local conditions. Forums like the annual Oxford Political Thought Conference have become a dialogue of the deaf. Both approaches help to embed the idea that, whereas morals are for ever, politics is just one damn thing after another. Eternity is a long time in politics. Unlike most historians, philosophers see the contrast as working to the disadvantage of politics. The idea seems to be that morality is grander than politics, because it is more amenable to reason, for example, or has a longer use-by date; so the thing to do is to put politics on a firm moral footing.

Consequently, political moralists pay little attention to the conditions in which philosophical texts emerge. This is in some ways surprising. For one thing, philosophy aims to be reflective. Failing to take heed of the conditions that give rise to it – not just philosophy in general, but its particular form in a particular time and place – is one form of unreflectiveness, which Hegelians, Marxists and feminists have avoided more successfully than have modern liberals. Without reflectiveness, philosophers risk purveying not eternal verities, but ideology.

Philosophy and Real Politics continues a critique of political philosophy which Raymond Geuss has been developing for several years, notably in his History and Illusion in Politics and Outside Ethics. Geuss is a Cambridge philosopher with extensive interests in the history of political thought: it might be imagined that he would straddle the divide between analytical philosophers and historians. He edits with Quentin Skinner the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. The blue-jacketed volumes present historical texts as dispatches from the front line, be it Quattrocento Florence or post-Jacobite Edinburgh. As these examples suggest, the exegetical approach doesn’t much favour projecting a universal moral from texts across the centuries, and neither does Geuss. Even as an analytical philosopher, however, he is not the full shilling, as he takes critical theory seriously – just about acceptable for a Germanophone philosopher – but, heretically, doesn’t much rate Kant. All this makes him a bit of an intellectual freebooter. It also gives him more distance, though in a way that doesn’t lend much enchantment, on the tribal norms of PoliPhil.

Geuss isolates three kinds of question that are distinctive of thinking about politics. Lenin’s celebrated query – kto kovo?, or ‘Who whom?’ – is, in Geuss’s view, the primordial political question. Second, ‘What is the thing to do here and now?’, which is very different from asking what it would be best to do from an imaginary eternal or universal standpoint. Third, there is a question about legitimacy, derived from Max Weber, but which has also bulked large in Skinner’s analyses of historical texts. What forms of legitimation are available to political actors? Because such actors have to address themselves, on the whole, to the beliefs current among other actors, these forms will be localised rather than abstract. Geuss thinks that political philosophers can do a fair amount in answer to these questions, as long as they treat a lot of social life as given, and resist the temptations of grandiose theory.

The new book’s jacket image, a striking black and white photo by John Sadovy, shows a young man almost literally biting the dust. Only after turning the book over to look at the back does one notice his presumed killer, reloading his rifle. This example already poses questions beyond the ken of liberal orthodoxy. The dead man, a member of the AVH, the Hungarian secret police, was among those put to death by anti-Soviet partisans in the 1956 uprising. As such, the picture provides a graphic, if ironic, illustration of Lenin’s ‘who whom?’ The answer requires an irreducibly historical narrative: the partisans were taking reprisals against the AVH, who had killed unarmed demonstrators a few days earlier. The uprising was in support of liberal principles: what then is the appropriate moral rate of exchange when performing atrocities to promote those principles? Would any killing be justifiable to end what liberals see as gross injustice?

If liberal moralism ignores such questions, it will lack credibility as a practical doctrine. Geuss devotes the second part of the book to such failures of realism in moralists’ writings about rights, equality, justice and so on. Some might immediately object that he has missed the point of morality. Whereas descriptive talk aims to make our words fit the world, as the late Elizabeth Anscombe put it, evaluative talk such as morality aims to make the world fit our words. That the world may not, straight off, fit our moral words is part of what it is for the words to be moral rather than descriptive. The nature of the moral ought is that it doesn’t, on the whole, blandly rubber-stamp the world as it is, but directs agents towards how it will be if they do the right thing.

That claim is not, as far as it goes, wrong. But a lot more work is needed to make it politically serviceable. Political life is thick with evaluative talk, but such talk – about, say, the public interest, or how practical considerations such as cost bear on a given political decision – casts its net much wider than morality. It is a political question how far non-moral evaluations should bow to moral ones. The Kantian view, that morality trumps other kinds of reason for action, is far from self-evident: it doesn’t follow from the idea that morality applies ‘categorically’ – in other words, that morality isn’t dependent on anything else. As Philippa Foot pointed out a long time ago, morality is no different in this respect from categorical rules like those of etiquette, which nobody, now at least, thinks of as trumping everything else. Kantians claim that morality is inescapable for rational beings, but Kant was not very successful in showing why this might be so. One problem is to explain how, if morality is rationally inescapable, immoral action is even intelligible. Another is that the claim’s plausibility grows only by getting ever vaguer about morality’s content. The success of the enterprise ends with what Hegel called ‘an impotent ought’.

Morality does not arrive in a form that is useable straight out of the box. As practised by John Rawls and his followers, philosophy tries to construct political arrangements on the basis of theorists’ moral thoughts about justice, rights, equality and the rest. But hearkening to one’s inner ayatollah has its hazards. For one thing, I might get it wrong. But even if not, one might still ask why my moral thoughts should enjoy special authority, compared with anyone else’s. Beyond this, even given a set of self-evident moral norms on which all people – or, to use the house style, ‘all reasonable people’ – agree, actually achieving them raises still more moral questions. What moral norms, for example, apply to the process of achieving moral norms? Principles of justice have to be put into effect politically, and that means morality has to strike deals not just with pragmatism, but also with itself.

To be fit for the purpose of structuring politics, even locally, moral thoughts need to be bland enough to avoid confutation but specific enough to be usable. Geuss cites in this connection the principle of equality. What should that mean? That everyone ought to get the same? Always? If not, then when, and when not; how, if at all, is equality then respected? It isn’t clear that there is any compelling stopping-off point before we arrive at formal equality, which means, basically, that equivalent inputs should attract equivalent outputs. Maybe this is, at least, vague enough to be self-evident. Of course, it remains entirely open in what practical respects, if any, the equivalence applies. Compare the ‘self-evident’ truth that ‘all men are created equal,’ written into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. He and his co-signatories managed, notoriously, to square this truth with slave-ownership. The self-evidence born of vagueness tends to dissolve when the pitting of interests demands political resolution. Jefferson seems to have agonised, up to a point, about owning slaves, but he could discern no credible political route to emancipation either as a revolutionary patriot, or later as president.

As the title Philosophy and Real Politics suggests, Geuss’s alternative to political moralism is a form of realpolitik. The part of politics to which realpolitik attends is its use of power. That part of politics certainly exists, and should be taken notice of, not merely dismissed, in a memorably bizarre phrase that Rawls used repeatedly, as being ‘political in the wrong way’. By this he meant that politics should be cleaned up so that its decisions aren’t sullied by power-play. In a deft paradiastolic flip, Rawls then dubbed his own theory ‘political’ liberalism. Politics, is of course, political in the wrong way virtually all the time. The reader innocent of recent American philosophical liberalism might wonder what was supposed to remain of politics once power has been struck out. The short answer is: ‘judges’. There is a slightly longer answer, which I will come to presently.

The short answer is disastrously wrong. It’s like squashing a ruck in the carpet: power simply shifts elsewhere. Whether or not judges enjoy a bigger share of practical wisdom than the next person, kicking political decisions upstairs from the bear pit to the bench will not somehow make them not political – that is, it will not save the verdicts from being political ‘in the wrong way’. The illusion here lies in thinking that because morality is built into it, law is cleaner than politics. Much talk about rights, for instance, relies on the notion that rights are legal claims with a moral basis. Legal rights may be inescapable for us. But, as Geuss argues, this is far from saying that there is some abstract standard, or moral right, which legal entitlements must embody.

In fact, the law cannot be relied on to safeguard even bread-and-butter democratic principles, such as political equality as embodied in the franchise. The 2000 US presidential election result was decided by judges. When the Florida recount was referred up to the US Supreme Court the justices voted along party lines, thus yielding a 5-4 verdict for Bush. The verdict purported to rest on a justification beyond the bare fact that the weight of voting favoured Bush: the court held that the recount ordered on 8 December by the Florida Supreme Court should be stalled (and the election thus in effect handed to Bush), because it violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The court’s reasoning was that Florida’s test for counting a given vote as valid – that the ballot paper show a ‘clear intention’ to vote – was an abstract one, which had been interpreted differently by the different Florida counties where recounts had been held.

Gourmands of irony can enjoy the response to these events in the New York Review of Books by Ronald Dworkin, high priest of liberal moralism and exponent of the view that politics should be circumscribed by judicial ‘principle’ as interpreted by judges. Dworkin declares that the Supreme Court justices made a pig’s ear of it, because although readings of voting intention by different county scrutineers might indeed favour some local electors over others, ‘the equal protection clause forbids voting procedures or arrangements that put particular people or groups at an electoral disadvantage.’ In Dworkin’s hands, the clause, and the underlying notion of equality, proves to be remarkably plastic: he argues that, since no specific persons were disadvantaged by it, the voting intention test didn’t run foul of Equal Protection.

One is hard put to find any warrant at all for this claim in the text of the 14th Amendment, which states simply that no state may ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws’, regardless of whether the individual is antecedently specified. The Amendment does deny one group – felons – equal protection, but beyond this it has nothing to say about the specificity of the persons or groups it protects. The upshot of Dworkin’s view seems to be that a system which denied the franchise to persons on a random basis – say by binning every tenth ballot paper before starting the count – wouldn’t violate equal protection. The practical nullity of formal equality could hardly be plainer. Lofty principle becomes the plaything of factional interest. A system that replaces politicians with judges ends up, predictably, with judges acting like politicians.

The slightly longer answer given nowadays by political moralists to the question ‘What remains of politics once it is shorn of power?’ is ‘public reason’. Usually an undergirding moral story tells us why norms of public reason should reign in place of power. Rawls and other moralists note that in modern societies people have different views on religion, morality etc – what a less innocent age used to label ‘ideologies’, but Rawls calls ‘comprehensive doctrines’ – and none of these is demonstrably more reasonable than all the rest. It would negate the moral equality of persons, as holders of their comprehensive doctrines, if power were used to bulldoze through one such doctrine at the expense of the others. Hence political argument should be couched in terms – public reasons – which nobody can reasonably reject, a conclusion Rawls endorses, along with other writers like Brian Barry, T.M. Scanlon and Thomas Nagel.

Geuss does not say much about this idea, beyond noting that those, like Habermas, who assimilate politics to a seminar discussion miss the urgency of political decision-making. Getting a decision often matters more than how it is reached, which is one reason discursive practice in politics makes Habermas’s theoretical norms look anaemic. But the idea of public reason faces problems even in the abstract. There are questions about how to treat people who unreasonably disagree, or who fail to do what they agree is reasonable. What, moreover, if people disagree about whether their disagreements are reasonable? The heroic course is to insist that, in such disagreements, one side must be reasonable and the other not. But what if we disagree about that?

Behind moralists’ agonising over public reason lies squeamishness about power in political life. Power is to the texts of moralism what sex was to Victorian fiction: no doubt everyone would sleep more easily if the brutish deed could be consigned to oblivion. But it is fanciful to think that reason could bring power under its sway. Even Plato, that political arch-moralist, knew that getting rid of power was a non-starter. He thought that the rulers would have to entrench their rule, of which they were the main beneficiaries, by manipulation. As he notes in the Republic, his philosopher-rulers will ‘need a lot of drugs’ to safeguard the reign of logos. The main drug Plato has in mind is lies.

Moralism’s best shot here would be to point out that politics is not, simply, war. Power is an ineliminable part of political life, but not all power is exercised through brute force. As it has become fashionable to note, ‘soft’ power – persuasion, as in the force of the stronger argument – can be exercised by getting people to recognise that power is being used well rather than badly. Geuss rightly notes that such recognition can provide a basis for political legitimacy. He is unimpressed by moralists’ talk of ‘political obligation’, whose futility he lethally exposed in three bravura pages of his History and Illusion in Politics. The passage from might to right is ever a tortuous one. But political legitimacy in one country cannot operate at any very great distance from what people, then and there, are willing to put up with. A variety of beliefs make people come to terms with the state. One is that it will be worse for them if they don’t. Hobbes’s view, that you legitimate a regime by making sure that people choose the possibility of death in submitting to it over the certain death of resisting it, is certainly too strong. As Hobbes’s critics saw at the time, any account of legitimacy that gets us beyond war has to say why the state is a good idea, without putting all its weight on the effectiveness of the state as a poser of threats. Geuss makes clear that the thing to be legitimated, the state, can’t be disentangled from the thoughts which people – such as those on the receiving end of its power – have about it. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out long ago, this dims the prospects for a would-be science of comparative politics. It equally dims the outlook for a general theory of political legitimacy.

It might be thought that moralism was a disorder of left-liberals. But it ranges across the political spectrum, from anarchism – a form of anti-state moralism – to utopian socialism, along the way taking in the blither forms of libertarianism such as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, on which Geuss does a useful hatchet-job. The much quoted opening sentence of Nozick’s book reads: ‘Individuals have rights and there are things no one can do to them (without violating those rights).’ Even Nozick’s critics have generally let him help himself to this whopper of a claim, confining themselves to dissecting the use he makes of it. To be sure, the sentence can be read, and presumably Nozick meant it to be read, as the premise of all that follows, and it’s in the nature of premises to be unfounded. But it’s hard, to say the least, to imagine similar indulgence being granted to a book that kicked off by declaring, for instance, that ‘collectives have rights, and there are things no individual can do to them (without violating those rights).’ Nozick ends up with a society a bit like that of the Old West, but with more gay people. As Geuss implies, if Nozick’s conclusions really have been validly reached, that casts doubt on whether the premises used to get there really are self-evident.

Outside the common room, too, moralism thrives. Moral outrage is big box office, for example, in the UK press. Politics itself ingests and regurgitates the language of moralism, which is rhetorically well suited to the histrionic style. Take, for instance, Mark Antony, the patrician with the gift of the gab who sells the plebs down the river in Julius Caesar; similarly, the role of ‘Tony Blair’, played by the actor of the same name. Writing in Die Zeit (14 June 2007), Geuss cited Blair’s catch-all answer to intelligence and military advisers who knew far more about the situation on the ground in Iraq than he did: ‘But Saddam is evil, isn’t he?’ The only fit response to ‘evil’ is to launch a ‘moral crusade’, the nobility of whose purpose makes it self-vindicating, even though – or precisely because – it means killing large numbers of people. But that’s OK, because it’s for charity. The decision is taken, and morality is mobilised to ‘justify’ it, as the ‘right thing to do’.

As the Iraq invasion suggests, moralism often becomes decisionism writ large. Given Geuss’s Anglo-German bilingualism and deep engagement with modern German political culture, it’s a bit surprising to find that Carl Schmitt is not mentioned here. His credentials as an Aunt Sally for moralists are not only that he promulgated ‘dangerous’ ideas like judicial decisionism, the friend/foe distinction and the ‘state of exception’, but also that he served as a court jurist to the Nazis. Schmitt’s Techtelmechtel with the Hitler regime was over by about 1936, but the insinuation is that his political and legal thought is irredeemably tainted. The link is considered to be more than a purely incidental bit of biography – unlike, say, Marx’s adultery or Althusser’s uxoricide. By contrast, Nazism forms the very woof and warp of Schmitt’s thought; ergo, the taint passes to those who think Schmitt had some useful things to say about politics, power and the limits of reason. Not really. Decisionism is ineliminable from political life, since in liberal democracies as elsewhere, reason regularly and predictably underdetermines political decisions. Power cannot be desiccated to the point where no risk remains of its arbitrary use. Nor is the line between loyal opposition and enemy – witness the recent arrest of the UK shadow immigration minister – very stable.

Moralists’ ambitions have splurged in the nearly forty years since Rawls transformed political philosophy in A Theory of Justice. Since then, the frontiers of righteousness have grown, to take in duties to those living in the remote future, to animals living now, to animals living in the remote future, to the inanimate world, to works of art. The latest fad is global justice, whereby those in Western lands take it upon themselves to lay down the rules for the other 6.7 billion people on the planet. This is, bluntly, the will to power. The operative ressentiment – that is, the megalomania of the downtrodden, voiced through a moralised rhetoric of domination – is all the stronger for being felt on behalf of others, latter-day denizens of Borrioboola-Gha.

Geuss has written a discipline-altering book. The jacket boasts some under-microwaved encomia from theorists more sympathetic to moralism. But Geuss is not quite alone, contrary to the impression given by this slim volume, which is light in general on references to recent work in the field. In international theory, as distinct from political philosophy, realism has been on the scene since Hans Morgenthau – or, for that matter, Hobbes or Thucydides. Among poli-philes, the realist case has been put recently by such notables as Stuart Hampshire, Bonnie Honig, Bernard Williams, John Gray and Liz Frazer.

There are no moral skyhooks from which politics can be hung. It is quite hard to understand, except perhaps as a relic of state-of-nature theory, why anyone should think that morality is given, while politics remains to be constructed. One could just as well argue the opposite. Or that politics is much the same raree-show of cruelty, boredom, hope, obliquity and stupidity as any situation where human beings act together. None of this means that the evaluative perspective should be trashed, as if it could be. But the world runs on at adventures, more or less heedless of the dictates of justice, and politics offers, at best, a very maladapted instrument to steer it. In the old days theologians had the task of explaining how God could permit evil to happen, to which the least bad answer was that He had to lump it, as the price of human freedom. No human agency, including the state, can do a remotely plausible impersonation of the Almighty. By keeping that in mind, we might even come to see politics, and its forlorn theodicy, not with despair, but muted celebration.