The last time I managed to stir myself into fulfilling my promise to write about Bernard Williams, almost a week ago, I expressed sympathy with Williams' criticism of the foundationalist and universalist character and the consequent minimalism or thinness of much of contemporary Anglo-American political theory. Here, I want to draw a number of threads of that criticism back together, as it were, to attempt to demonstrate, in a broader sense than I tried to do with the perhaps rather narrow case of Luck Egalitarianism, its relevance to contemporary political concerns.
The place to start this endeavour is with Williams' somewhat complex relationship with moral relativism. Williams had a view he referred to as the relativism of distance, which aimed to pick out the conditions in which something like relativism was an appropriate stance to adopt. That 'something like' is important: Williams held that 'standard relativism' - "the position that if party A favours Y and party B favours Z, Y is right for A and Z is right for B" - was obviously seriously confused. It is
always either too early or too late. We are too early if there is no exchange between the two parties, too late if there is.
The depth of the commitment to the 'here and right now' is clear in this view. Relativism is facile because it attempts to dissolve conflicts by pretending they aren't there, by pretending that once the question has become a serious and immediate concern, it can be simply wished away. This makes sense neither in the absence nor in the presence of conflict: it addresses itself to a question quite different from the one that actually matters, which is what to do about whatever disagreement happens to be going on.
It is in fact remarkably similar to the crude libertarian view which simply asks to be left alone and inveighs against positive rights, forgetting that any right which is enforced is, by virtue of requiring action by others in the course of that enforcement, a positive right. The problem in both cases is that the point of politics is that someone thinks they are not being left alone, that the fact the A wants to do Y and B wants to do Z has created some problem or other, some dispute, and that problem requires a solution, which, even if it simply allows people to get on with whatever they are doing, still stands as a solution, does not try to define the problem out of existence.
Williams' anti-utopian attention to the relevant details of the situation is, so far as I can see, consistent: it motivates his thinking about the difference between his Basic Legitimation Demand, and consideration of the moral conditions of co-existence under power just as it motivates this pleasingly simple take-down of relativism. The obverse of it, of course, is that whilst hand-waving in the face of the fact of disagreement may be too late, supposedly serious concern about conflicts which, temporally or spatially, cannot exist is for Williams ridiculously early. Thus the title of this post:
Political moralism, particularly in its Kantian forms, has a universalistic tendency which encourages it to inform past societies about their failings. It is not that these judgments are, exactly, meaningless - one can imagine oneself Kant at the court of King Arthur if one wants to - but they are useless and do not help one to understand anything.
The idea of playing Kant at the court of King Arthur is of no little contemporary weight. Jarndyce has, at The Sharpener, objected to the Euston Manifesto's duty of humanitarian intervention - laid out in article 10 - on the grounds that it gets things
precisely and totally the wrong way round. First we should seek to put in place a legitimate system of international law. We could start with insisting that the hegemon agree to bind itself and its citizens under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. No action ought ever to be encouraged that breaches this general case, barring exceptional circumstances. The duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue, if it is to be valid, ought to be embedded in and conditional upon that. Egg first, then chicken. To seek to grant that permission in advance, to hand out carte blanche for unilateral political violence without any knowledge of the hypotheticals or counterfactuals, is the real lunacy of the Euston Manifesters. Not so much neo-conservative, as utterly passive to hegemonic aggression.
This strikes me as exactly the kind of thing that Williams was talking about, which is not quite to say that I disagree with it. Let me explain. The thought that I suspect that Williams would have is that the hegemonic status, an overwhelming superiority of military force, rules out the possibility, at least in relation to the direct use of that force, of binding regulation. Once the dogs of war are about to be unleashed, the point of anyone other than their handler, because the handler alone controls them, calling for them to be hauled back on their choke-chain rather disappears.
This isn't to endorse the Realist critique of international law, because the point isn't to claim that states will always act in their self-interest in the absence of some kind of Hobbesian sovereign. It is better thought of as the claim that this is the kind of situation in which a Hobbesian sovereign has no role. A Hobbesian sovereign, after all, is there to answer the first question of politics, how are we to secure "order, protection, trust and the conditions of cooperation". It is a question which is to be asked collectively, and leads naturally to the idea that whatever is done to secure those things should not be worse than the alternative it is supposed to replace.
A hegemon though, does not ask those questions. It, at least militarily, has no need of 'order, protection, trust and the conditions of cooperation', because by force, the threat of force and outright bribery, it can, to the degree that it is a true hegemon, gain what it wants without them. A Hobbesian sovereign, for a hegemon, would be a very dangerous thing. The situation is thus, in this sense, non-political: the hegemon is no kind of answer to any question at all, but just is. International law, then, or at least international law governing military action, is, with the world as it is, as anachronistic as imagining oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur: it is seeking to apply a particular mode of politics to a world constructed in a manner wholly inappropriate for it.
This is not to say that I would not prefer that the world were more amenable to the kinds of solutions to conflict that Kant envisaged than the more direct methods favoured both by global military hegemons and dark ages myths. Living under the rule of law is to my mind an undoubted benefit, one I only wish were spread wider. Wishing does not make it so though, and that is the point here: we do not get to pick the world in which we live, but live in it we must.