Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Gods And Monsters

The question of where the boundaries of states properly begin and end, of over whom they ought to have authority, is, a cursory glance at history will tell us, a vexed one. It strikes me it is unlikely there is any general principle by which such matters ought to be decided, given the disparate sets of moral considerations - those of legitimate expectation, of rights of self-government and to a minimal standard of living, for example - that bear on them, and still less likely that there is any such principle by which such matters can be decided. Further, there is a sense in which the question of the proper boundaries of a state are prior to questions of its internal organisation: most obviously temporally, in the sense that a democracy has to agree, in some minimal sense, on who the demos is before that body can rule.

These questions, though, are not totally divorced from one another. The same sorts of considerations bear on both of them, although not necessarily in the same way, and they clearly reflect back on each other. After all, finding that democracy requires some agreement about who constitutes the demos has considerably less bearing on whom to include in a state if you are, for whatever reason, not a partisan of democracy. Likewise, Rousseau, for example, thought that only non-commercial nations could remain free for any length of time, because trade, by undermining the robust, autarkic self-sufficiency of the citizens and creating inequality, would erode republican virtue and hence the foundations of the free state. Similarly, size or religious difference, by separating people, would prevent the sense of communal identity essential to that republican virtue from taking root.

Aristotle's claim that only Gods and monsters live outside the polis is relevant here. By letting us know who could survive outside the polis, it tells us something about both whom the polis was for, and, by inference, the kinds of goods it might be expected to provide them with. It is with this in mind that I want to probe a little more at the idea of international law. International law, like any kind of law, is a set of supposedly authoritative directives, and as such, is a political institution of sorts. I want to use this Aristotelian claim to think about whom this particular political institution is for, and what kinds of goods it might be expected to provide them with.

The first and most obvious thing to say is that what I've already said more or less commits me to the idea that the USA is, with the current distribution of global military power, in military matters, a God or a monster. As I said in the comments to the previous piece, "the point of being a hegemon is that you are in an elite of one". Aristotle's claim, I think I am right in saying, is perhaps best interpreted as something like a statement of identity, resting on some quasi-naturalistic teleology: we identify something as a (hu)man, and hence a possible citizen, because it cannot survive outside the polis, outside some form of regulation, because it needs those rules. Conversely then, an entity which doesn't need those rules, which can flourish or at least survive without them, like, in terms of its military capacity, I think the USA can, is not a possible citizen: it is not suitable for the goods of the polis.

The more interesting area is what that kind of view commits me to in terms of the other areas of international law, and particularly on issues like cosmopolitanism and global justice. Thomas Pogge, whose work I probably ought to know more about, has, as I understand it, been trying to adapt a Rawlsian view to these questions for some time. The idea, again as I understand it, is that, contra Rawls' own view in 'The Law of Peoples', the various ad hoc and more deliberate institutions of the global economic order constitute a basic structure of a sort - perhaps not the same kind of basic structure that the legal and social institutions of a state do, but a basic structure nonetheless. This matters because the existence of a basic structure is what calls for a theory of justice: because the set of institutions that make up a basic structure significantly determine individuals' life prospects, they are required to be just. Thus, in virtue of this structure, we have duties of justice to the citizens of other states, duties the shape of which is likely to be determined by the features of that structure.

In terms of the Aristotelian maxim, it looks like saying that, because citizens of other states are already in certain respects citizens of our polis - they live under rules which we have some hand in setting up, determining and administering, rules which make a substanial difference to their lives - we ought not to treat them as Gods and monsters. Of course, to fall into the category of God or monster is not to fall out of the scope of morality altogether: it is rather to invite a different style of moral assessment or action, one distinct from that called for by a set of shared institutions. As Bernard Williams puts it - you knew it'd come back to him, surely - whilst discussing slavery's, and particularly that of the Helots in Sparta, failure to be a political institution:

[t]here can be a pure case of internal warfare, of the kind involved in the case of the Helots... [and]... [w]hile there are no doubt reasons for stopping warfare, these are not the same reasons, or related to politics in the same way, as reasons given by a claim of authority.

The shared institutions of the global economic order, though, do involve a claim of authority: they do not rest on mere force, but some kind of quasi-consensual arrangement which is supposed to, in some way, justify them. As such, they are political, and thus require legitimation in the usual, political, sense.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Oxford Bloggers Meeting

As Milan points out, there will be another Oxford bloggers meeting, at the Bear on Wednesday.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

In The Interstices

BLDGBLOG has a two-part interview with Mike Davis here and here on slums, ranging from the inhabitants of Mumbai being eaten by leopards to the similarity between Black Hawk Down and first person shooters. Originally via William Gibson, who presumably picked up on the reference to his excellent novel, Virtual Light.

Kant At The Court Of King Arthur

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.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Cockup Over Conspiracy

It turns out that around 10% of those identified by Criminal Records Bureau as criminals when undergoing background checks before taking up jobs involving children or vulnerable adults weren't actually criminals. That's around 2,700 people who presumably didn't get jobs they were perfectly suitable for because the Home Office can't keep accurate records. Given the problem they're having with false positives, you have to wonder whether they are - for all their 'we are erring on the side of caution' shtick attempts to justify smearing people with the potential child molester brush - having a similar one with false negatives. And this is the lot we're supposed to trust to deal with, at great expense one might add, ID cards. All systems contain the potential for error, and some of that has to be lived with, because the costs of not doing so are so great: after all, there are other jobs, whereas abuse not only cannot be undone but is a rather more serious harm than short-term unemployment. But 10% strikes me as very high, incompetently so.

Update, 23/05/06: Jarndyce makes explicit the connection I was particularly interested in here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Keeping It Real

So far I've been quite critical of Bernard Williams in my rather more erratic than intended series of posts on his collection, In The Beginning Was The Deed. I have delineated his differences from post-Rawlsian liberal theory, and then attacked him for being excessively meta-theoretical and for failing to understand the moral limits of politics. This is, given that I began by claiming a particular interest in and affinity with Williams, perhaps slightly odd. Here, then, I will attempt to justify those claims of interest and affinity by defending one of Williams' critiques of post-Rawlsian liberal theory, if, initially, rather and perhaps typically digressively.

One of the recurrent concerns of post-Rawlsian theory is to provide a precise and ideal theory of distributive justice, to find some way to be able to be sure about the exact moral status of not only any pattern of holdings and exchanges of physical objects, but of any of the instances which make up that pattern. This is partly a product of Rawls' own extensive discussion of his principle of distributive justice, that -

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:

a) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;

b) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society -

and has tended to naturally circle around various ideas Rawls brought up: that priority should be given to the least well-off; that departures from equality are justified where enforcing equality would make some or all less well-off; that talent, because arbitrarily distributed, is not a proper ground of desert. A variant of the last of these ideas, that anything which is arbitrarily distributed has a morally arbitrary distribution, has given rise to a school of thought about distributive justice called Luck Egalitarianism.

What unites Luck Egalitarians is the thought that outcomes which result from brute luck - genetic inheritances, what insurers call acts of God, and so on - should be equalised, whilst outcomes which result from option luck - deliberate gambles, such as an investment or the decision to go to take one job or another - should be left undisturbed. This looks very neat: there may be some arguing to be done about exactly what counts as brute luck and option luck at the margins, and to decide what sorts of things should be redistributed, but the core of the position seems unimpeachable, with a pleasingly robust and foundational character.

It invokes a clear and widely accepted moral principle, that if you choose to take a particular risk, then if it turns out badly no-one else has an obligation to assist, whereas genuine accidents create a duty of assistance. However, despite this clear and apparently eminently reasonable moral principle, Luck Egalitarianism has neither conquered the academy nor, internally, been able to produce some categorical and canonical statement of the dividing line between brute and option luck or of what should be the metric of justice, what sorts of things should be redistributed.

One particularly powerful critique of Luck Egalitarianism, first made by Elizabeth Anderson, is that it forgets that a choice amongst some set of options is not necessarily legitimating. It is now a philosophical commonplace that bare consent is not enough for a social contract theory, because if the alternative to consent is insufficiently attractive, the legitimating power of consent slips away, undermined by the lack of palatable options. Anderson's point is broadly the same: we can hardly hold people responsible for a particular choice, in the sense that any duty of care or assistance falls away, if the set of options they were choosing from lacks acceptable alternatives. Some suitably pithy remark about being offered a choice between your money and your life would, if I could think of one, be appropriate here.

This is not the only critique of Luck Egalitarianism offered by Anderson, by any stretch of the imagination. I think, though, that it is the central one. The point it makes is that Luck Egalitarianism expects a plausible thick-grained moral principle to be refined down into a precise, foundational and equally plausible fine-grained one. It has picked one moral claim from a universe of moral claims, and set it itself the task of refining, sharpening, it, hoping that by doing so, the now precise claim will be able provide, of itself, a perfect guide to moral conduct, admittedly within a particular sphere of moral conduct. Whatever moral work the idea of choice does, it cannot do all that work alone. Our moral lives are richer than that.

This connects with Anderson's other criticisms, which mostly relate to the moral attitudes that Luck Egalitarianism would express to those who would live under it. She claims, not bizarrely, for example, that by viewing their claims against others as following directly and solely from their misfortune, Luck Egalitarianism disenfranchises and patronises those to who it would distribute its largesse. Equally, she feels that Luck Egalitarianism, by accepting chosen and hence many market outcomes as just, institutionalises various unacceptable socially-constructed roles - most obviously those of women as carer - and thus gives up on the idea of moral progress. All of these critiques come back to that about the legitimating powers of choice: they are examples for it, showing that insufficient attention has been paid to the more general moral fabric.

This, though, is precisely Williams' point about contemporary, and perhaps modern, moral philosophy, that its systematising urge means that it ignores the richness of our moral lives. It is not an accident that one of the other two posthumous collections is called Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline. Geoffrey Hawthorn, in the introduction to In The Beginning..., quotes extensively from one of Williams' earlier works, Ethics And The Limits Of Philosophy:

Theory looks characteristically for considerations that are very general and have as little distinctive content as possible, because it is trying to systematize, and because it wants to present as many reasons as possible as applications of other reasons. But critical reflection should seek for as much shared understanding as it can find on any issue, and should use any ethical material that, in the context of the reflective discussion, makes some sense and commands some loyalty. Of course that will take things for granted, but as serious reflection it must know that it will do that. The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection; moreover (although the distinction between theory and practice encourages us to forget it), we have to live during it as well.

In the essay 'Modernity And The Substance Of Ethical Life', Williams expands this criticism, claiming that one force which may well have encouraged such trends, a force which must now undoubtedly be dealt with, accommodated in whatever ways are appropriate, is the heterogeneity of modern societies. It has done so by widening the constituency to which public justification needs to be addressed, a fact which must now be dealt with.

Public justification does not in itself inevitably imply the use of "thin" concepts; in a very homogeneous traditional society... public justification may deploy "thick" ethical concepts that figure equally in private practice. Modern societie, however, are characteristically more pluralistic... their conception of public legitimacy is one that encourages institutions to... adopt styles of justification that are more procedural, or appeal to notions of welfare or consensus that are less commital and less ethically distinctive than "thick" concepts.

Thus, while,

[w]e can hope to make sense of ethical thought in relation to the modern world only if we give up, along with other ambitions of ethical theory, the attempt to find one set of ideas that will represent the demands of ethics in all the spheres to which ethical experience applies

to do this, we need to both

aim to cherish as best we can a range of ethical concepts of the more substantive kind

and, at the same time,

recognize, possibly in virtue of some of these ideas themselves, such as certain conceptions of justice, the need that decisions taken by public bodies may have to be argued about and justified in more abstract, procedural terms, with a "thinner" ethical content.

Williams is not being a nostalgist here. His claim is not that things were better in some imagined past, but that ethical theory does not do justice to its subject matter here and now, that the ethics that professional philosophers discuss too often bears too little resemblance to its lived reality. That strikes me as correct, as the hopefully salutary example of Luck Egalitarianism I believe amply illustrates.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

To Dream The Impossible Dream

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

There might be an inevitability to it, and when it does in the end slip away, it always does because fingers too exhausted let it fall from their grasp, but f*ck me, there's a glory to desperately, bloody-mindedly clinging to it. Arsenal lost, but they can and should hold their heads high for the way they did.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Matter Of Life And Death

One of the recurrent complaints Bernard Williams has about most contemporary liberal political theory is, roughly, that it underestimates the extent to which some slightly modified version of Clausewitz's axiom that 'war is politics by other means' is not only true but constitutive of politics. For example, he says of political decisions that they do

not in [themselves] announce that the other party was morally wrong, or indeed wrong at all. What [they] immediately [announce] is that they have lost.

The upshot of this is that he is unwilling to attempt to place any serious limits on the legitimacy of political disagreements as such. Because politics is about conflict over the distribution of the various benefits of social cooperation, as long as such conflict continues to present itself as an argument about the distribution of the various benefits of social cooperation, rather than a naked grab for power on the part of some group or other and hence no longer about social cooperation, that fact of conflict is regulative: placing limits on conflict would be an attempt to prevent the relevant groups from disagreeing about what they can disagree about, and thus an attempt to breach politics' regulative ideal.

Tom Nagel, in his 'Equality and Partiality', has a slightly different argument to the same conclusion. He sees, correctly in my view, the problem of political legitimacy as the problem of

[w]hat, if anything, can we all agree that we should do, given that our motives are not merely impersonal?

However, in his schema, this personal perspective is to be opposed to the impersonal perspective, which is the sole source of value. For Nagel, then, phrasing the problem of political legitimacy in this way means that definitionally non-evaluative considerations have weight in any discourse of political legitimacy. As long as I can be resolutely and stubbornly selfish for long enough, I do not have to adduce any reasons which any one else would regard as conclusive or even weighty in favour of that selfishness: the fact that, so far as anyone can tell, whatever I gain from being selfish really matters to me is enough to show that it ought to be given weight of some sort in designing a set of rules to distribute the benefits of social cooperation.

Clearly, Nagel's problems really begin with his sharp distincton between the impersonal and personal perspectives: the entirely accurate description of holding out for something which can have no reasons given in favour of it as selfish shows, fairly conclusively I would have thought, that evaluative language is ineliminable from a personal perspective, whatever that might be anyway. Given that, it is very odd to think that simply being sufficiently stubborn serves to legitimate any demand that someone could make: the question of that demand's evaluation is already an open one, and so why we should abstain from making judgements on it is fair from clear.

Williams seems to have exactly the same problem. Indeed, given his deep commitment to the idea that thick evaluative concepts are an intrinsic and unavoidable part of normal discourse, an idea he thinks the importance of is insufficiently appreciated by most contemporary philosophy, it is a much more serious problem for him. Nagel, however oddly, can at least consistently maintain that selfishness is appropriate and legitimating when considering the structure of various political institutions, but Williams has the difficulty that to describe, if accurate, something as selfish is not only a critique, but a critique that he must regard as reasonable. He cannot in good conscience hold to some version of Nagel's distinction because of his position on the necessarily evaluative nature of normal discourse, yet, in denying that there are proper limits to political disputes, he seems to be saying that a particular evaluative category, that of the unreasonable, is, at least with respect to politics, inadmissible.

This is odd, because Williams recognises precisely this problem in the communitarian critique of post-Rawlsian liberal thought. Such a critique, as he does, urges attention to a particular community's linguistic and conceptual resources, claiming that in the absence of proper attention to them, a process of alienation occurs: a fully ethical life becomes impossible, as the evaluative categories necessary to sustain become attenuated and disappear. MacIntyre's infamous piece of absolutely hyperbolic rhetoric comparing the disappearance of various ethical traditions to an imagined destruction of the capacity to understand modern chemistry is perhaps the best example of this.

The problem Williams finds with such a critique is that it, in a way, denies the possibility of its own existence. For such a critique, he says in 'Pluralism, Community and Left Wittgensteinianism',

[t]he redirection of an ethical term, or more generally, the radical departure from an ethical practice, looks as though it will be merely arbitrary unless it can carry... a substantive body of agreement with it; indeed, some critics of the picture might say that even this is a kindly understatement, and that the consequence of the picture is that no change in practice comprehensibly occur unless it has already occurred - that is to say, it cannot occur at all except by magic.

The critique reifies practice to such an extent that it denies the obvious fact of ethical change, and because of that, if it is to position itself as critique of ethical change, the existence of what it purports to criticise. To put it another way, such a critique, because of the attention it demands for whatever ethical practices there are, can hardly critique exisiting ethical practices as deviant: they are precisely the ethical practices it ought to be demanding attention for. As Williams puts it:

[T]he Wittgensteinian is himself criticizing something, if only the practices of ethical theorists... part of our ethical practice consists precisely in this, that people have found in it resources with which to criticize their society. Practice is not just the practice of practice, but also the practice of criticism.

This, however, works against him too. Indisputably, people have coherently spoken of proper limits to political disagreement, primarily by attempting to articulate limits on the morally acceptable exercise of power. The area of legitimate dispute is not infinite, even within the bounds of the claim to authority rather than simple power, an area I fear Williams would find difficult to demark anyway for reasons essentially similar to those which cause him to struggle with the claim that no disagreement is necessarily illegitimate. For all that politics is about winning and losing, there are means to and forms of victory we rule out of court. Clausewitz's axiom cannot be, in its normal sense, regulative.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Good Day

From the general to the particular, today:

the weather has been gorgeous;

England are absolutely hammering Sri Lanka in the first Test match of the summer;

the weblog went through 10,000 visits;

I got a job!

All is, at least for the time being, well with the world.

The Worm Ouroboros

I ended my post about Bernard Williams yesterday with the observation that the political theory that follows from Williams' interpretation of the Hobbesian first question operates at level above that of simple normative theorising: it has a perhaps excessive awareness of its own particularity and contingency, that it is a response to a specific situation with appropriately specific concerns. Because of this status, Williams' criticisms of other theorists can seem slightly to miss the mark: he is attempting to engage with them on territory that is, in a way, out of their proper scope.

Tom Nagel, in his LRB piece on Williams, draws attention, for example, to Williams' claim that contemporary liberalism's lack of a theory of error, some kind of explanation of how it is that our predecessors failed to be liberals, is a serious, even fatal, lack, given its self-understanding as an improvement on what had come before it. In 'Realism and Moralism in Political Theory', Williams makes this connection explicit, saying that to say that some things which made sense to our predecessors does not make sense "to us because we take it to be false, in the sense that represents a cognitive advance... carries its own responsibilities, in the form of a theory of error, something which [contemporary liberal political theory] has spectacularly tended to lack".

This, however, strikes me, as it does Nagel, as a slightly odd thing to demand of an ethical theory. No one would call into question the validity of contemporary scientific theory's claim to be an improvement on older scientific theories by pointing out that it lacks a theory which explains how it is that earlier practitioners fell into error. Obviously, the analogy is not perfect: ethical and moral theories lack a perfect replacement for the labratory which provides a controlled testing ground for scientific theories, and so might be thought to have a less obvious claim to superiority, a point Williams would no doubt be quick to pick up on. However, it does not seem to be clearly part of the remit of a theory merely because it claims to be an advance on previous attempts to understand the same subject matter to have an explanation of how those previous attempts went wrong. The subject of ethical theory is ethics, not the sociology of knowledge.

This criticism could be put another way. Williams expects all ethical theories to be, like his, second-order, to be explanatory as well as evaluative, and to adopt the same concerns he does about the links between those two realms. For example, Williams seeks to explain the concept of the political he is working with in contrast to that of the 'political moralists' he criticizes as insufficiently attentive to the details of the various social practices which structure the political.

[Political Moralism] naturally construes political thought in society in terms of rival elaborations of a moral text... [however]... we would be merely niave if we took our convictions, and those of our opponents, as simply autonomous products of moral reason rather than as another product of historical conditions... [Remembering this], we should not think that what we have to do is simply argue with those who disagree: treating them as opponents can, oddly enough, show more respect for them as political actors than treating them simply as arguers - whether as arguers who are simply mistaken, or as fellow seekers after truth.

The argument here seems to run something like this:

political moralism understands politics as being the progressive search for some underlying moral truth;

political convictions are the product of 'historical conditions';

those who have such convictions ought to be treated more as opponents to be defeated than discussants to be converted;

an opponent to be defeated is not a fellow participant in a progressive search for some underlying moral truth;

therefore, political moralism misunderstands politics;

a theory which misunderstands its subject matter is not a good theory;

politics is the subject of political moralism;

therefore, political moralism is not a good theory.

I am quite skeptical about the third premise of this argument, since the contingency or otherwise of a set of convictions does not seem to me to have any clear bearing on how, if one disagrees with these convictions, one ought to attempt, if at all, to remove them. Significantly more argument seems required. The obvious problem though, is in the first premise: political moralism's understanding of politics is normative, meant to guide behaviour, rather than purely descriptive. The premise should read "political moralism understands politics as properly being the progressive search for some underlying moral truth", which would make it clear that the difference between facts and norms is to be expected. Political moralism may not be a good theory of politics as it exists, but it is a perfectly good theory of politics as we should aspire to make it.

This same problem seems to appear in Williams' treatment of Habermas, whom he regards as something of a fellow political realist. Williams quotes Habermas as saying

it must be reasonable to expect [participants in the political process] to drop the role of the private subject... The combination [of facticity and validity] requires a process of law-making in which the participatory citizens are not allowed to take part simply in the role of actors oriented to success.

Williams finds this bizarre:

what is this "are not allowed to"? It cannot be blankly normative. Suppose, one is bound to say, that they do? It may be replied: it will defeat the point. But what if it does? And how can we be sure, in light of this possibility, what the point really is?

Williams seems to have forgotten that there is a gap between facts and values at all: the fact, and it is undoubtedly a fact, that people do not always instantiate values perfectly in their lives does not remove the fact that there are such things as values which they might be expected to instantiate, at least reasonably well, in their lives. He then goes onto say, which I find particularly revealing, that

[n]o transcendental or partly transcendental argument - one might say, more generally, theoretical argument - could serve to resolve these conflicts [between various values].

The point of Habermas' argument is not to resolve conflicts between various values, but to establish that one putative value is actually a value, something for which, given the gap between facts and values, an argument which transcends mundane empirical verities is surely required. Williams has been too taken in by the idea of the importance of particularity and contingency, the inescapability of context. Nagel quotes Williams as criticising Rorty for being excessively pleased with his discovery of various failures of universalism:

[t]hat does not mean, as Richard Rorty likes to suggest, that we must slide into a position of irony, holding to liberalism as practical liberals, but backing away from it as reflective critics. That posture is itself still under the shadow of universalism: it suggests that you cannot really believe in liberalism unless you hold it true in a sense which means that it applies to everyone.

Williams seems to have done the same: the worm has not only swallowed its own tail, but forgotten that there is a difference between doing that and being a continuous whole.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The First Question

Longer term readers may remember that last summer I completed an MPhil in Political Theory here in Oxford. One of the requirements of doing so was the production of a thesis of up to thirty thousand words. Although this was not the topic the title indicated - 'Grounding Neutrality: The Normative Foundations of State Neutrality' - the central concern of the thesis was really the conditions of political legitimacy: what does it take for us to say that the exercise of state power over some group of people is justified or legitimate? Let us begin with a little thought experiment.

Imagine a case where I attempt to justify to some group my demand that they become my slaves. This is a political arrangement... since it involves the imposition of some set of coercive institutions on some group.

Now, intuitively, we feel that slavery is unjustifiable, utterly beyond the pale, so it would count heavily against any ethical or political theory that it did not rule out, absolutely, slavery.

Obviously, however, there is a vanishingly small chance of me being able to justify to those I would enslave their enslavement. The first explanation for this might be that no-one could have any real reason to want to be enslaved.

After all, one of the reasons slavery is beyond the pale is that it is usually fairly remorselessly awful. Everyone knows that, and so they will, all other things being equal, avoid becoming someone else's slave. What if all other things aren't equal though?

However, there are cases in which it could be advantageous to become a slave. If someone would die otherwise, we might well think that they would however unwillingly accept their enslavement as the least bad of a set of horrendous options.

A simple consent theory, then, runs into a problem.

Yet it cannot be the case that simply because all the alternatives for them involved dying in the immediate future, my enslavement of some group is justified. If that were the case, my threat to murder someone unless they became my slave would justify them becoming my slave.

An explanation is required though.

The coercion involved in [this case], the control over the sets of options involved, makes justification impossible: it is only because I am able to manipulate the situation so that slavery becomes attractive that anyone would agree to become a slave.

Thus the first and foundational principle of political legitimacy is derived: that might is not right, that to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice.

Notice that presupposes a particular kind of what the problem of political legitimacy is, though. Here, the worry is about unconstrained violence, about conflict and the fear of conflict destroying the possibility of a tolerably ordered social life. Violence needs to be controlled and placed in the service of some kind of moral framework which lifts or at least amielorates the costs which it, unrestrained, imposes on people. The first question of politics, for this kind of view, is Hobbes': as Bernard Williams puts it in his 'Realism and Moralism in Political Theory', how to secure "order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation", a question which recurs, "can never be presumed to be gone for good".

This, I suppose, is the root of a number of significant differences in political outlook between me and someone like Phil Edwards. For me, the first question is Hobbes', whereas for Phil, I think it is precisely the reverse. Rather than worrying about the violence unleashed in the absence of rules, Phil seems to worry about the violence unleashed in the name of maintaining a set of rules. There is of course, for those of us who depart company from Hobbes in disagreeing with the claim that the "conditions for solving the first problem... [are] so demanding that they [are] sufficient to determine the rest of the political arrangements", a sense in which Phil's first question is the one immediately begged by ours, which turns naturally to the importance of the idea "that the state - the solution - should not become part of the problem". That doesn't get quite to the root of it though: there is a deeper disagreement, related I think to beliefs about where and for what reason resistance to moral progress exists, one I don't intend to do more than draw attention to.

Williams takes Hobbes' question to be fundamental, but in a much more minimal way than most contemporary political theorists do. Although Williams draws out of Hobbes' question something he calls the Basic Legitimation Demand, the requirements of this demand are much less onerous than those of, for example, Rawls. Rather than a single or even fairly limited set of political arrangements satisfying it, any state or similar body which can give an explanation for its existence to its subjects which, hermeneutically, makes sense, which justifies its exercise of power to them at that time, passes it. About the only political arrangement which Williams thinks will always fail this test is the case I used as foundational, as a starting point for cashing out the conditions of legitmacy, that of open slavery.

Further, Williams contrasts the Basic Legitimation Demand with what he calls 'political moralism', an example of which is 'the structural model' which seeks to lay "down the moral conditions of existence under power", the archetype of which is Rawls. This appears, initially, odd. Williams' first question would seem to be the same as that of the structural model, and the only case he absolutely rules out satisfying his condition of legitimacy is one fairly plausible foundational unacceptable case for the structural model, so one would think that his model, whatever it is, would fall fairly close to the structural one. He seeks to quite sharply contrast his view with all forms of political moralism though, calling himself a political realist.

This is because Williams understands the reasons, although not necessarily the conditions, for asking the first question quite differently. Williams disagrees with the second step of the argument I quoted above. For him, slavery is not a political arrangement.

The situation of one lot of people terrorizing another lot of people is not per se a political situation: it is, rather, the situation which the existence of the political is supposed to alleviate (replace).

Because the first political question is Hobbes', for a given arrangement to qualify as political, it must seek somehow to answer that question, and slavery, where, as another's property, there are no limits on what they may permissibly do with you, is no kind of answer to that question: it is a restatement of the problem. Thus, as a distinctively political question the Basic Legitimation Demand arises only in a situation where it is claimed that Hobbes' question is, in some way, being answered:

[i]f the power of one lot of people over another is to represent a solution to the first political question, and not itself be part of the problem, something has to be said to explain (to the less empowered, to concerned bystanders, to children being educated in this structure, etc.) what the difference is between the solution and the problem, and that cannot simply be an account of successful domination.

This is not the same as the Rawlsian concern with "the moral conditions of coexistence under power", because those moral conditions, whatever they may be, exist before some solution or other to the Hobbesian question is claimed. They are not, in Williams' sense, particularly political: they do not respond to any solution to this problem, and the question of its legitimacy, but rather to the bare fact of power, both inside and outside of attempts to solve Hobbes' question. Neither, in Williams' sense, are they really responding to the same question, for in his view Hobbes' question is not about the bare fact of power, but a loosely defined subset of the consequences of the bare fact of power: how to secure "order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation".

That is not quite the same as the structural model's position. Coercion qua coercion is worrying and hence requires legitimation for the Rawlsian, whereas it is rather that coercion claims to be to some worthy end - in particular, the securing of "order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation" - that raises the question of its political legitimation for Williams. In the absence of that claim to be a relief from some burden, and thus in some way justified by that relief, Williams claims the question of coercion's legitimation does not arise, at least as a political concern - which is of course not to say that it does not raise other, equally pressing but nevertheless distinct, moral issues:

[a] condition of there being a genuine demand for justification is this: A coerces B and claims that B would be wrong to fight back: resents it, forbids it, rallies others to oppose it as wrong, and so on. By doing this, A claims that his actions transcend the conditions of warfare, and this gives rise to a demand for justification of what A does. When A is the state, these claims constitute its claim of authority over B.

Thus, for Williams, it is the act of claiming legitimacy that creates the problem of legitimation. Warfare, whatever moral limits it may have, is not the same as, and so does not raise the same questions as, the claim to authoritative rule. This makes the focus of the Basic Legitimation Demand much tighter than that of a Rawlsian account of political legitimacy, because it is only when authority comes in to question that it needs to have an answer. Regimes which rested or rest on myths are therefore legitimate as long as those myths are acceptable, because the demand for legitimacy arises in a specific place at a specific time, and thus requires answers which are appropriate to the particularities of that place and time.

Of course, Williams' position does occupy something of a meta-level: its denial of universalism is distinctly across time, rather than, for us at least, space, as 'here and right now', some form of liberalism is common currency. Neither is it a form of Rorty-esque ironism: the failure of universalism is not reductionist, but rather a somewhat humbling admission of limits, of imperfection. Still, there is something disturbing, disquieting about it: a historicism I am not entirely happy with, a hermeneutical impulse that seems far too concerned with gleefully swallowing its own tail.

A Secret Understanding

I have just discovered that John Band is back. Shot By Both Sides was very good. I therefore recommend Banditry.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Quaint Local Obsession

Bernard Williams, writing in a time and place outside of, yet surprisingly close to, our present discontents:

It is simply a fact that many European liberals... find it a quaint local obsession of Americans that they insist on defending on principle the right to offer any form of odious racist insult or provocation so long as by some argument it can be represented as a form of speech. I should have thought that these were matters of political judgement, above all in telling the difference between the point at which the enemies of liberalism have been given only enough rope to hang themselves, and the point at which they have enough rope to hang someone else.

Williams then goes on to attribute this obsession to "a culturally injected overdose of the First Amendment". I suppose approval of this might count as mindless anti-Americanism. Yet there are at least two serious points in the quote, that there might be something odd about the idea that there is some desperately important principle at stake when defending the freedom to utter the verbal equivalent of a sharp blow to the kidneys, and that to see politics as anything other than conflictual, and hence about winning, if winning under some set of rules, could be equally strange.

I linked last Friday to Tom Nagel's LRB review of the three recently published posthumous collections of Williams' essays, articles and lectures. I did so because Williams is perhaps the most significant of my quaint local obsessions: in my view probably the most distinguished British philosopher of his generation, a prose stylist of no little merit, and always careful to ensure that, even if difficult, he was never esoteric or obscurantist, always stressing the importance of 'here and right now', a location whose population included more than just academic philosophers. Further, I have finally got round to starting to read one of those three collections, In The Beginning Was The Deed. I therefore have a proposal, one that will hopefully be reacted to with more vigour than my last one, to offer, over the next week or so, some critical thoughts on Williams' historical and pragmatic political liberalism, hopefully on a daily basis. Watch this space.


The First Question

The Worm Ouroboros

A Matter Of Life And Death

Keeping It Real

Kant At The Court Of King Arthur

Friday, May 05, 2006

Further Lazy Friday Afternoon Stuff

In an attempt - it's always only going to be an attempt, I suspect -to distance myself from a morbid obsession with the LRB's personal ads, Anglo-American academic philosophy, and the fate of the Labour Party, I offer Jim Bliss' music quiz thingy, even though I'm personally absolutely awful at this kind of thing.

1. "I saw you standing in the corner, on the edge of a burning light" - In The Cold, Cold Night, The White Stripes

2. "Stuffed to the eyeballs with God knows what" - Down A Different River, Super Furry Animals, Phil

3. "Tiptoe down to the holy places" - Loomer, My Bloody Valentine

4. "Hey, get up brothers, don't sit there with your head hanging down" - Dap Walk, Ernie and the Top Notes, New Orleans Funk, El

5. "I believe all that I read now" - Motorcade, Magazine, Rochenko

6. "It starts at the top, now it's spiralling down" - Total Trash, Sonic Youth, El

7. "I'm looking for an interuption, do you believe?" - I Don't Sleep, I Dream, REM

8. "Dig if you will the picture" - When Doves Cry, Prince, Jim

9. "Something inside the cards I know is right" - I Could Die For You, Red Hot Chili Peppers

10. "What is that sound? Where is it coming from?" - She's Got A New Spell, Billy Bragg

11. "America, your head's too big" - America Is Not The World, Morrissey, Jim

12. "Never wanted to love you but that's ok" - I See You, You See Me, The Magic Numbers

13. "Nothing that you say will release you" - As Heaven Is Wide, Garbage

14. "See a man's face, but you don't see his heart" - Exchange, Massive Attack, El

15. "Rows of houses, all bearing down on me" - Street Spirit, Radiohead, El

16. "Just what it is that you want to do?" - Loaded, Primal Scream, as indeed eny fule kno Phil

17. "The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries" - I Want You, Bob Dylan, Alex

18. "Through endless Asia, through the fields of Cathay" - The Power, Suede

19. "Why should I hate you? After all it's been so long" - Empty Baseball Park, Whiskeytown

20. "I've searched the holy books, tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ the Saviour" - Nobody's Baby Now, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Jim

I skipped several tracks because they were instrumentals, and about the same number because they either gave the title away in the first line or were by an artist who had already appeared. I also, imposing my own rules, skipped a couple of tracks in foreign languages. Other than that, and no-longer-secretly ignoring The Dandy Warhols and something off the Trojan Dub Box Set out of simple caprice, it's fairly representative. Some of them are ridiculously obvious, but a couple might just prove to be nigh-on impossible.

Update, 16/05/06: Right, unless there are any more successful guesses by midnight tomorrow - which is of course in practice sometime on Thursday - I'm going to name the remainder of the tracks.

Update, 20/05/06: OK, so actually sometime on Thursday turned out to be in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday. The My Bloody Valentine song was perhaps a bit cruel, and the Whiskeytown may be a bit obscure, but I thought all the others were reasonably gettable - despite the fact that I am, personally, crap at this sort of thing.

Lazy Friday Afternoon Stuff

In contrast to this morning, spent attempting, admittedly in my own rambling, disgressive way, to kickstart a conspiracy amongst Labour Party members to get rid of Blair, thus far this afternoon I have been sitting in my back garden reading the LRB and sunning myself. Ah, the idyll of unemployment. Anyway, two things which amused me during this sojourn in the late spring sunshine.

First, Tom Nagel has an appreciation of the late Bernard Williams, which is entirely deserved, if slightly out-of-keeping with the epistemological views Nagel expressed in this book, as I detailed here.

Second, The Greatest LRB Personal ever!

I spent an entire day in the British Library sourcing obscure reference material to cite in this ad, then I lost it all when I stopped off at Burger King on the way home. Man, 34.


PR And Collective Action Problems

One of the traditional objections to proportional representation electoral systems is that you don't know what you are getting when you vote, and so the sense in which the people rule is seriously attenuated. They do not and cannot control the compromises which the parties they vote for will inevitably make if they participate in the equally inevitable coalition government, the horsetrading and logrolling that are the price of enacting even a part of a party's programme under a proportional system.

Since these compromises are a significant, perhaps the most significant, factor in determining the eventual government's programme, their existence increases the distance between a party's ostensible programme at an election, with which voters engage, and its actual practice. The possibility of accountability, of a vote being connected to a particular political programme or even attitude, disappears in the fog of the smoky backrooms where the division of the spoils is conducted.

This situation is contrasted with the lack of such dubious and disenfranchising practices in a first-past-the-post system, where, because one party typically holds a majority in the legislature, there is no need for these mendacious bargains between various reluctant allies. A party receives a mandate from the voters, and then enacts it, without deviation, without dissembling, without deceit. Hardly. Contingencies arise. Priorities change. Events intrude. As a result, what is promised is rarely totally delivered.

The role of events in politics is not decisive here though, for a reasonable reply, one which reduces but retains the contrast, is that even in the absence of a programme, a particular ideology can be expected to guide the decisions of a government under a first-past-the-post system in a way that, because of the dispersal of power, it cannot in a proportional one. At least we might expect to predict fairly accurately how a single party would react to a particular event, whereas with a coalition, the possibilities multiply endlessly.

That points us directly towards the real weakness in the argument for first-past-the-post though. Under first-past-the-post, parties are coalitions, simply formed before, rather than after, the election. The risk of letting full-blown ideological opponents in by insisting on sharp distinction between you and your fellow-travellers is too great to make it worth standing up for specific, rather than relatively general, policy programmes. Think of the spectrum of opinion across all three of the main parties in Britain: it is hardly as many of those who voted for them, were they to form a government, would have their views perfectly represented, even allowing for the effects of events, over the course of that government.

Worse than that, the coalitions under first-past-the-post are even less accountable than those under a more proportional system. If voters disapprove of the way a particular group within a coalition has behaved, under a proportional system they can punish it directly at the polls the next time an election comes around, either by defecting to some existing group or by creating their own. In doing so, they do not run much risk of splitting the vote and thus letting in the devil's own, whoever that, for them, may be. Not so in a first-past-the-post system. Voters can only really punish the coalition as a whole. Either you vote for the person standing in your constituency, or not, and if you do, then it is counted as a vote for the coalition, and if not, as a vote against. Voters are left with the nuclear option. Some are willing to take it; I'm not, yet.

In the absence of a properly representative electoral system, what is needed is a way of effecting the distribution of power within the various coalitions. That is, after all, where the real power lies, with those who pick policies, who pick leaders. Unfortunately, the coalition with which I am particularly concerned has rather reduced its mechanisms of internal democracy under its current leader, making it somewhat difficult to remove him by conventional means. However, it has one rather obvious vulnerability which I propose to attempt to exploit.

The Labour Party is currently short of money. Indeed, this shortage of funds has been rather newsworthy recently. Of course, were it not haemorrhaging members who, through their dues and activism, reduce reliance on external sources of funding, one has to suspect this would not have happened on such a grand scale, which of course one would expect the party's heirarchy to be aware of. This link between the shortage of members and of money is the current leadership's vulnerability. Those on the left who wish to get rid of Blair need to exploit it.

This is what I propose doing. If a large enough group of people, in return for the removal of Blair, promised to either leave or join the Labour Party, that would presumably weigh heavily, if not with Blair and his coterie, other members of the parliamentary party who already see him as something of a liability. The problem with the party's declining membership thus far has been that it lacks focus and can be attributed to a variety of causes. If it is publicly and explicitly linked to one single demand, rather than a disparate, unarticulated set of dissatisfactions, then it carries a much greater weight. Collective action problems have given the party's leadership the threat advantage; it needs to be returned to its members.

Pledgebank and a coordinated letterwriting campaign to MPs seem the obvious tools. I'm prepared to work to coordinate it if I think enough people are interested. Either say so here, or email me at robjubbATgmailDOTcom.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Spectrums, Triads And Matrixes

Although since the post-Rawlsian boom in discussion of the concept of justice the focus, at least in the academic literature, has shifted slightly, I think it's probably still true that if there was one concept that had to be picked to define the sphere of the political, it would be freedom. There are undoubtedly good reasons for this: the powers of governments, of those who set the rules by which the distribution of the goods of social cooperation are distributed, not only constitute the greatest threat to, but also potentially a significant guarantee of, freedom, however it is defined. Rousseau's unfairly maligned claim that people needed to be 'forced to be free' is, after all, just a re-working of the Hobbesian observation that in the absence of generally enforced rules, some of the most important goods of human life, including freedom, are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to secure.

The typical starting point, at least for undergraduates, of any discussion and analysis of the concept of freedom is often Isaiah Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty'. It offers a much criticised but still influential and widely disseminated distinction between negative and positive liberty as the key to understanding any particular understanding of the concept of freedom, and so, presumably, politics more generally. It goes further than that, of course, arguing not only for the distinction as decisive, but also that positive theories of freedom are fundamentally wrong-headed, depending on worryingly thick accounts of human nature to sustain them. As a neutral typology of ideas of freedom then, it suffers, since it seeks to rule out some such ideas as not being about freedom at all.

A better way of categorising concepts of freedom would not have or at least seek to reduce this evaluative character. It would attempt to discover whether there were any similarities, beyond the claim that they were about freedom, between claims about freedom made by Mill and Marx, or Hayek and Hegel. It would seek to find whether there was anything that was required of a statement about freedom which did not rule out claims about freedom associated with particular kinds of politics: whether there was some kind of logical core of statements about freedom, a kind of form they had to take which transcended disagreements about their content.

Indeed, one of the better-known critiques of Berlin offers exactly this kind of typology. Gerald MacCallum claimed that all comprehensible claims about freedom could be understood as a triadic relation between freedom, a constraint and an end, regardless of whether in Berlin's typology they fell into the positive or negative camp. For example, an archetypally negative account of freedom like Hobbes', which claims that unfreedom consists in being physically restrained, as by being chained up, would be understood in MacCallum's terms as pointing to physical restraint and physical restraint only as a constraint, and free movement within one's physical powers as an end. Likewise, an archetypally positive account of freedom like Hegel's would, in this case, be cashed out by seeing various unsatisfactory social relations as constraints and the arrival of synthesis in human life as an end.

Given the connection between politics and freedom, MacCallum's avowedly non-evaluative account seems to offer not only a way of breaking down and understanding concepts of freedom, but also politics more generally. After all, if politics is both the first hope of and the eternal threat to freedom, the idea of using a typology of freedom to understand the spectrum of political ideologies would seem to have promise. Rather than talking in over-used, confused and heavily contested terms like left and right, or individualist and collectivist, political attitudes could be categorised in terms of what was seen as a threat or barrier to freedom, and the ends towards which freedom was directed. Inspired by and taking some of my leads from this excellent post of Phil's, that is what I am now going to attempt to do.

For three reasons, the location of the dividing lines in this typology will be different from that in Phil's. Half of Phil's typology is based on attitudes towards political and social change, whereas this one, for better or worse, will cover attitudes towards history only implicitly. This is because, firstly, I have a background in quite a different tradition of thinking about the political to Phil's: to put it crudely, and to imply as little as possible about either, philosophical in the analytical sense, rather than in the social theoretic one. Consequently, I am ahistorical. Such is life.

It also flows, to some extent, though from taking claims about freedom as definitional, because when we make a claim about a person being free, we make a claim about a state they are in, not a process they are undergoing. Although states may be parts of processes, we don't tend to talk about them as such, and so discussing political attitudes in terms of understandings of freedom will tend to leave out processes and so history and change. It is also a conscious decision on my part to make this a compliment, rather than an alternative, to Phil's typology. I hope, although it may not turn out to be the case, that they are cross-cutting, mutually informative, partly because apart from missing out something Phil includes, they include something roughly similar to something Phil apparently regrets not being able to include.

To begin then. I could have used a different structure from Phil, but I'm lazy and it is a very good structure, so I've just stolen, or better, borrowed, it. A four-by-four matrix, with two sets of oppositions each for constraints and ends. First the constraints. Careful experimentation, such as can be conducted by a man in his bedroom over the course of a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, has determined that there are two fundamental divisions over what counts as a constraint when talking about political freedom, those related to economics and those related the existence of society.

The economics:

Either, roughly, you believe that the set of property rights associated with laissez-faire capitalism are a gross impediment to freedom, in which case you are broadly in agreement with a doubtless simplistic interpretation of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's claim that 'all property is theft', or you believe that any departure from that set of property rights is a gross impediment to freedom, in which case you are broadly in agreement with Robert Nozick's claim that 'income tax is slavery'. This, I think, is broadly equivalent to Phil's absent rich-poor distinction.

The existence of society:

Either, roughly, you believe that in the absence of people living in relatively large, settled groups, with their various instruments of control, including but not limited to the law, social disapprobation, and the shaping of personality, people would be much freer, in which case you have much sympathy for Jean-Jacques Rousseau's valorisation of the noble savage, or you believe that in the absence of effective mechanisms of social control, the lives of men would be 'nasty, brutish and short', and agree with Thomas Hobbes that government of some form is essential.

This isn't entirely satisfactory, because it has nothing to say about who rules, which Phil's Digger/Jacobin distinction deals with, rather than what they do it for. It also seems to contradict what I said about these two members of the canon in the first paragraph of this piece, but it only seems to, and even if it did, I assure you that's much less important than you might think. However, it does get to how rules generally matter in terms of freedom, and that's what I wanted to capture. It's supposed to be complimentary to Phil's piece, after all, so the absence of a 'who rules' question should be expected.

This gives four combinations:

Nozick and Hobbes: this makes you a Thatcherite. You, like the Iron Lady, believe in what the classical liberals called a nightwatchman state, and with good reason: it's there to protect people's property against robbers, and there are plenty of them about.

Nozick and Rousseau: this makes you a Millian. You, like John Stuart in 'On Liberty', aren't really that bothered about poverty, as long as neither the state nor society at large prevent you from exercising your right to be as eccentric as you like.

Proudhon and Hobbes: this makes you a Lockean. You, like the apologist for the Glorious Revolution, worry that in the absence of enforcement, people's rights to enough property to be fruitful and multiply will be compromised by a variety of collective action problems and just plain evil.

Proudhon and Rousseau: this makes you, for want of a better term, a Communist. You, like Marx and his mates, think that not only are actually existing property relations deeply unjust but that society, with its rules, perhaps those that sustain the regimes of property rights, perhaps some others, perhaps both, is also a location of profound unfreedom, and needs to be got rid of.

Similarly careful experimentation has determined that, with regard to ends, there are likewise two fundamental divisions, over the role of groups in ethical ends, and that of truth. Groups first.

Either, roughly, you believe that strongly identifying with a traditional, solidaristic and ethically homogeneous community is best for people, in which case you are a Tory, or you believe that variety is the spice of life, that not being able to do something different from your parents is a serious loss, in which case you are a Pluralist.


Either, roughly, you believe that there is no real question of right or wrong beyond what someone feels like, in which case you are a Libertine, or you believe that we mean something substanially more than 'yah boo sucks to murder' when we say murder is wrong, in which case you are a Moralist.

Neither of these are perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Charles Taylor, the Canadian political theorist - as opposed to the mass-murdering ex-President of Liberia - would certainly have something to say about the Tory/Pluralist distinction, as a pluralist who emphasises the role of groups and their ethical traditions in providing large option sets. I think I would want someone like him to class themselves a Pluralist, though, if that's any help. Equally, Libertines may well feel that some minimal set of moral standards - preventing the violation of a core of rights, for example, which could obviously be cashed out in a variety of ways - are mandated: think of them as those who understand Mill's harm principle in its usual, restrictive sense.

Anyway, that gives another four combinations:

A Tory Libertine is a Cultural Relativist. They believe people should live in the traditional, ethically homogeneous community they grew up, because that's what they know. Forced marriage ago-go.

A Tory Moralist is a Nationalist. They believe people should live in one particular traditional, ethically homogeneous community, the one they imagine their homeland was about fifty years ago, before all the foreigners arrived, and women were allowed to go into bars by themselves.

A Pluralist Libertine is, for want of a better term again, a Hippie. They believe you should really do want you want, as long as it involves taking liberally from half-arsed interpretations of exotic Oriental cultures and bringing shame upon your parents.

A Pluralist Moralist is a Perfectionist. They believe that, whilst there may well be more than one path to ethical truth, the road is definitely crooked and beset on all sides with false idols. Just because you don't have to live like everyone else, it doesn't mean you can get away with anything. They've got their eye on you.

I come out as PHPM or a Lockean Perfectionist. This is actually less different than one might think from a typical Blairite, who I'd argue is probably either a NHPL or a NHCL, a Thatcherite Hippie or Cultural Relativist. One of the reasons for this is that because of the way the typology collapses the powers of the state into those of society, my disagreements with the present government about civil liberties disappear. Phil's gets it perfectly though, and they are meant to be complimentary.