Political Realism and Non-Ideal Theory

Seminar I. Realism and Legitimacy

1. Lecture schedule

I. Realism and Legitimacy (Williams)
II. The liberalism of fear (Shklar, Williams)
III. Politics and conflict (Mouffe, Schmitt)
IV. Ideals in politics (Cohen et al)

2. The first political question: justice or legitimacy?

Rawls: ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.’

Williams: ‘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. … a solution to the first question being required all the time, it is affected by historical circumstances …’

3. Moralism vs realism: crude formulations

Moralism: Political philosophy is (a branch of) applied moral philosophy.

Realism: Politics is an autonomous domain; political philosophy is (at least partly) about distinctively (irreducibly?) political considerations.

4. The Basic Legitimation Demand

– The Hobbesian question can be answered in many ways, often (but not necessarily) by states, some but not all of which will be legitimate. What are the conditions of the legitimacy of a (coercive) political order?

Williams’s test: A political order, i.e. a system of exercising coercive power, is legitimate to the extent that (1) it offers some reason, beyond an assertion of brute force, to those it claims authority over, and (2) this reason is accepted by the population over which it exercises coercive power.

– Attempts at legitimation (even unsuccessful terms) are attempts at politics, or at establishing the foundations of politics as opposed to unmediated domination or war. (NB. Williams is stipulating a certain conception of politics here.)

5. Observations about the BLD

– Legitimacy is scalar, and (in appropriate contexts) can be relativised to particular sections of a community.

– Legitimacy is a normative (but not moral) term. For a political order to be legitimate is for people to have reason to obey it (etc), but this reason doesn’t have to be a moral reason. (More below.)

– Williams later adds some caveats to his notion of ‘accepting’ a reason, but on the whole, he means what he says: legitimacy is a matter of what’s actually accepted, not of what ought to be accepted. That’s the simplest and most basic sense in which it’s realistic, rather than moralistic: it takes people (more or less) as they are.

– Legitimacy is historically variable, a matter of what ‘makes sense’ at the time the legitimation is offered. There are no timelessly legitimate political orders.

– Moral notions can be part of the legitimation, e.g. divine right, prudence, racial superiority…, but these are internal to the attempt to satisfy the BLD and ultimately answerable to the actual people to which they’re addressed. There is no general pre-political morality that constrains what counts as an acceptable legitimation story.

– An unjust state could, on this conception, be legitimate. It all depends on what makes sense ‘now and around here’: standards could be lower and higher depending of the constituency of legitimation.

6. False consciousness?

Objection: This conception of legitimacy is too permissive; if the people in question are sufficiently confused, ignorant, manipulated, oppressed, etc, they may end up accepting legitimations that are fundamentally opposed to their interests. So: (1) They may think they have reason to accept those legitimations – as a majority of the German citizens of the Third Reich supposedly did – but in fact they don’t. (2) They only think they have reason to accept those legitimations because of the power that is seeking legitimation has made them think that.

Reply to 2: Agreed: the BLD needs a further caveat, namely the Critical Theory Test: legitimations only count if they are (in some sense) independent of the power seeking legitimation. In his words:

Suppose that of two parties in the society, one is advantaged over the other, in particular with respect to power; and suppose that there is a story which is taken to legitimate this distribution, a story which is at least professed by the advantaged party and is generally accepted by the disadvantaged; and suppose the basic cause of the fact that the disadvantaged accept the story, and hence the system, is the power of the advantaged party: then the fact that they accept the system does not actually legitimate it, and pro tanto the distribution is unjust. (Truth and Truthfulness, p. 221)

– E.g. many justifications of patriarchy and slavery. CTT helps distinguish genuine from merely ideological legitimation.

– Once the CTT is applied, fewer regimes will turn out to be legitimate than we previously supposed.

Reply to 1:

– Step 1: Are people really endorsing the regime as a result of a full understanding of the relevant (empirical) facts about it? If not, it’s not really ­that regime that’s being legitimated, just some falsely idealised version thereof.

– Step 2: Are we sure the legitimation passed the CTT?

– Step 3: Maybe (if steps 1 and 2 are – ex hypothesi – satisfied), we should admit that (on this view) the Third Reich was legitimate to its citizens. (Is this a reductio of this style of realism?)

– Step 4: Accepting (3) doesn’t commit anyone else to accepting its legitimacy: the fact that it’s legitimate for them doesn’t mean it must be legitimate for us.

– There could well be good, legitimacy-based, grounds for objecting to, resisting, opposing Nazis, because it fails the BLD under our conditions of legitimation.

7. Moralism by the back door?

Objection: Williams claims to be ridding politics of morality, but the BLD is, either, itself a moral principle, or implied by a more basic moral principle. It doesn’t show that there’s a ‘distinctively political normativity’.

Reply: No, or only trivially. The point about the BLD is that its normativity comes with minimal baggage. It presupposes only two things. (1) That there are such things as reasons (but that they must be relativised to the psychological profile of the agent, or, in Williams’s idiolect, be ‘internal’). (2) That there are conceptual constraints that come out of the concept of the political: they’re constitutive, and as such, not more basic. (But why have that concept of the political? Good question!)

Reading for next week: * Judith Shklar, ‘The Liberalism of Fear,’ in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L Rosenblum (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 21–38 [PDF]; Bernard Williams, ‘The Liberalism of Fear’, in In the Beginning Was the Deed, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 52–61. [PDF]