Friday, February 14, 2014

There is no political morality

This might seem a strange title for a blogpost written by a political philosopher, especially one that tends to harp on about the importance of human rights. Am I trying to put myself out of business? What on earth could I mean?

What I'm suggesting is that the only real, binding principles (rules, virtues etc) we possess are moral ones, governing how each person should treat each other. I’m suggesting we should resist believing that independent, new moral principles emerge once we start thinking about the domain of political authority and political community. Of course, I agree lots of political principles remain immensely important—the separation of powers, the rule of law, democracy, rights and so on. I doubt, though, that any of these principles enjoy their own independent moral validity. Rather, I think these principles draw their justification from pre-existing moral principles—the same moral principles governing how you and I should treat each other in general, including if we met on a desert island. We wind up with the rule of law, rights, checks and balances, and all the rest because these principles reflect our ordinary moral duties and entitlements writ larger, and shaped out of the capacities and the threats of these political institutions.

What's the big deal?
‘So what?’ you ask. I think denying political morality matters because so many people throughout history believe in it. They hold that political morality exists as an independent entity. It is autonomous. By ‘autonomous’ I mean political morality inhabits a normative realm unto itself. It cannot be derived from ordinary personal morality. Funnily enough, people who believe this still tend to agree about all the ordinary, interpersonal moral principles. They agree we should not lie or cheat, harm or kill; we should not seize more than a fair share of things we have not created; we should help others in need. And so on. But once we come together as a political community, now, they think, entirely new ways of governing our lives should rule! Now we can rethink everything! Now we are empowered to come together as distinct parts of a single organic unit, a magnificent polis or grand nation-state! Or we must all now start following and drawing our law from exactly the same religion or from some community-constructed ‘form of life’! Or (a present fashion) now we can start living by entirely new and deeper principles of equality, seeing every material difference between us as crying out for justification! Or (another present fashion) at last we can cast off our chains and start upholding stringent notions of absolute human freedom!

Practically no-one would advance these principles as ordinary rules of basic morality—as all of them effectively amount to using violence against people who are for the most part minding their own business and may well be upstanding and hardworking members of their local community. No-one would imagine that Alf should convert his neighbour Betty at the point of a sword, or force her to conform to some way of life he and his friends think constitutes objective happiness, or cut her down to his level when she prospers. But once we come together in a state, all this changes, and all these things are now possible: we effortlessly and unthinkingly adopt new political principles justifying all this and more.

So this is what I am arguing against: any autonomous political morality that puts forward new principles of justice that we would not propose as part of ordinary interpersonal morality.

John Locke’s ‘State of Nature’
I think this rejection of independent political morality helps us understand the views of the seventeenth century liberal philosopher John Locke and the way he uses the ‘State of Nature’. Effectively, Locke’s state of nature amounts to nothing more than ordinary people governed by ordinary morality. We all respect each other’s rights; we tolerate their religious practices; we make sure we don’t take up so much of the local resources that others don’t have their own resources to work on; we acknowledge that needy people in tough situations need help; and so on. And we never use violence—unless someone has breached one of these rules against us, in which case we may strike back and defend our rights. Sometimes theorists speak as if Locke’s state of nature must be anti-social, pre-social or pre-institutional. I suspect this view arises not so much from a misreading of Locke as from a failure to read him at all. To the contrary, in Locke’s state of nature we all live in communities, we travel, we trade, we build families and churches. We’re not perfect, of course. But almost all of us share a solid understanding of what the right thing to do is, and more often than not we do it.

Locke’s state of nature differs dramatically from that of his fellow seventeenth century political theorist, Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’ state of nature, no-one accepts any moral rules. Trapped in Hobbes’ brutal state of nature, fearful for my own security and unbound by laws, Hobbes recommends I strike at my neighbours before they can strike at me, and his state of nature collapses into the war of all against all. And this collapse renders the life of man, in words that echoed down through the centuries, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

In comparison, Locke’s state of nature sounds pretty idyllic, right? 


In technical philosophical terms, Locke’s state of nature sucks. Why? Because its members acknowledge no settled and known law, they lack an agreed person to adjudicate when violations to the law occur, and they possess no accepted authorities to exact punishment or ensure compensation for wrongs done. Even if most of a community’s members really try to do the right thing most of the time, conflicts routinely erupt and foment further conflicts in turn. Each of us has the power to be judges in our own cases, exacting punishment as we see fit, with predictable enough results. Each person sees themselves as performing just retribution and compensation. Everyone else sees them hell-bent on revenge and theft. We didn’t start where Hobbes thought we did—but, on Locke’s telling, we sure do finish there.

Still, humans often rise to the level of creative, problem-solving creatures. Can’t they fix things? Hobbes and Locke both thought they could. However, because Hobbes thought humans were so selfish and bereft of human virtue, he thought they needed a radical solution to the state of nature. They needed to hand over almost all their rights to a supreme political sovereign, who would wield enough absolute power to keep them all in check. So far as any morality enters into Hobbes’ scheme, it enters here. The violence of the state of nature horrifies the people so much that they create morality to defend against it. So Hobbes’ position turns out to be the exact opposite of Locke’s. For Hobbes, people possess no ordinary everyday morality, only political morality.

Locke’s people in the state of nature suffer the same threat of violence, but here’s the good news: they have more to work with than Hobbes’s warmongers. They don’t need to invent morality—they already possess it. And while things would be improved if there were settled and reliable punishments for doing the wrong thing, they don’t need fear of punishment to do all the work in driving their moral action. They already possess the capacity for virtue and decency. Their problems are alarming, yes, but rather specific for all that. They just need to get together, in a good faith and an amicable way, and work out ways of setting down stable laws, coming up with independent judges to adjudicate on them, and on a police force and army that will execute them. I mean execute the laws, that is. The people must remain vigilant not to make a police and army that executes them, the people. That would just swap the problem of local internecine violence for the problem of systematic slaughter and oppression. That problem may not have worried Hobbes (seriously, what was he thinking?), but it worried Locke; and rightly so.

So what’s the result? The citizens come together and create institutions to fix their problems. They create democracy, the rule of law, rights and the separation of powers. They don’t do this because they came to any profound moral realizations about new ethical principles that must suddenly apply because they have joined together into one political community. To the contrary, they craft these new political principles because given empirical descriptive facts about humans, power and institutions, practices like democracy and the rule of law prove necessary to realise the original moral principles they all held in the state of nature.
So that’s what I mean when I say there exists no political morality independent of ordinary morality. We derive all of our political principles from our pre-existing moral ones. I don’t pretend this will prove an easy or straightforward process. In fact it poses a raft of challenges. Instead of invoking some abstract political theory—some exciting new contract theory from an original position, for example—we have to slowly learn, through trial-and-error as much as theory, about how institutions and practices both protect and threaten the common-sense rights we held in the state of nature.

Why believe it?
But why believe this idea about the non-reality of political morality? Here are four quick reasons. One, we find much less disagreement about what ordinary common-sense morality requires, as compared with political principles. Lots of moral theorists suggest that there are striking similarities across cultures regarding proper treatment of one’s fellows. Now maybe you think this is taking it a bit far, but no-one would even pretend to make the same claim about political morality. For when it comes to what a political regime should do, theories and practices clash violently. If we can get by without provoking all these disagreements by relying on an area of moral thinking where we find more substantial agreement, then that seems a welcome result.

Second, if we want peace and prosperity to reign, then people need to comply with and support the laws and institutions governing them. If the community-members recognize that the coercive institutions governing them ensure that they perform duties they readily acknowledge as morally required, then their own moral emotions, habits-of-life and ways of thinking bulwark those institutions. For example, they contribute to institutions to help the needy because they can all imagine small-scale situations (children drowning in ponds, for example) where they would be duty-bound to help nearby people in desperate need. While people can agree to exacting political principles in the abstract, in my experience this is never accompanied by a revolution in their moral psychology and habits of life. Divesting ourselves of autonomous political morality helps forge a match between our moral emotions and what the institutions around us are trying to do.

Three, this theory accords with many intuitions I think we might share regarding political institutions and their legitimacy. If trying to create ordinary morality on a political scale led to lots of crazy results, then that would be a reason to doubt what I am saying. But instead we can move—as Locke himself described—from the dictates of ordinary morality to show how their institutional implementation gives rise to many of our most prized political institutions and principles, including democracy, rule of law, separation of church and state, toleration, separation of powers and so on. In other words, from a concern with ordinary morality we arrive at a decent picture of political morality, upholding many of the most important institutions of western democracies, and sitting neither to the extreme left or right of the political spectrum.

Four: Ockham’s razor. If we can derive a decent theory of political morality from ordinary morality, then why complicate matters by appealing to something altogether new? The simplest solution appeals to as few elements as possible, using one set of (moral) principles to explain a different set of (political) principles.


Of course, I can’t pretend to have said everything that needs to be said to vindicate my position, or even to fully explain how it works in practice. But I hope I have done enough to open your eyes to the possibility of a distinct way of thinking about political morality—namely, that it doesn’t exist in its own right! If I am correct—and if thinkers like Locke were correct—then we build political morality from the scaffold of ordinary interpersonal morality.