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CHAPTER THREE: Ethics and Politics - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Ethics and Politics
like many other modern doctrines, liberalism cherishes the hope that one day politics will fade away, and the era of “power-mad politicians” (Lord Russell’s phrase) will come to an end. In Marxist doctrine, this belief is quite explicit: with the coming of communism, the State will wither away, and power over men will give way to power over things. The liberal view is much more oblique. Liberals are rather like ingenious accountants shuffling figures from one column to another. They have, over the years, transferred many issues from “politics” into a variety of other columns. They seek to find moral substitutes for war, to educate the ignorant and superstitious, to cure the criminal and delinquent, and to clarify the goals of mankind. Given a progress of this kind, democratic politics will turn (in the dream of Lenin) into a simple administrative matter to be handled by clerks: the people’s wishes will be ascertained and the people’s wishes will be executed.
This illusion arises from one of the more indestructible fantasies of mankind. Nor does it greatly matter whether present discontents are attributed to the presence of something—passion, or original sin—or to the absence of something—such as understanding, reason, or education. Scope always remains for a remedy. And with the arrival of the remedy, we shall find ourselves released not only from political conflict, but from moral conflict as well. And this is quite inevitable, for ethics and politics are inseparable.
The effect of modern liberal doctrine has been to hand over the facts of moral and political life into the maladroit hands of social and political scientists, and the results have been intellectually disastrous. For moral issues, shuffled into the logician’s column, turn into formalized imperatives; transferred by the device of generic man to the sociologist, they turn into culturally determined norms. As likely as not, the psychologist will regard them as neurotic symptoms. Politics similarly loses its autonomy, dissolved into a set of reactions to supposed external causes. The criterion of a “value-free science” is no doubt scientific in excluding propaganda from intellectual investigation. But it is merely superstitious when it turns “values”—in fact the subject matter of ethics and politics—into an intellectual red light district into which no thinker may stray, on pain of losing his respectability.
The commonest kind of moral evasion found in liberalism is some variation of utilitarianism. “It is no derogation from promise-keeping as a moral principle to say that the reasons for it are ones of social convenience . . . if we could never rely on people to keep their promises social life as we know it would be rendered impossible.”1 This is similar to the Hooker-Locke argument already quoted,2 and to Hume’s view that we obey the state “because society could not otherwise subsist.”3 And the most obvious point about it is that it has nothing at all to do with ethics. Social convenience and political advantage are social convenience and political advantage; no more. These are the statements of a political technology. In order to promote “convenience” and a “comfortable society,” certain modes of behavior must be established as duties. Assertions of this kind may be true or false, but they remain technological calculations. The fallacy involved is a simple and familiar one—that of undistributed middle. The argument is of this nature: promise-keeping is socially necessary. Promise-keeping is a moral principle. Therefore a moral principle is what is socially necessary.
It is not for example true that “We accept it as a duty to keep our word because we recognize the advantage for social relations of reliability and predictability.”4 If this is a psychological statement about our mental condition as we keep our promises, it is untrue. And if it is a moral statement describing why promise-keeping is moral behavior, then it is also false, though it is more difficult to demonstrate why this is so. One reason, of course, is that promise keeping (like any other generalized moral category) does not have a consistent moral significance. It depends upon a complex set of circumstances, and we can invent cases where the keeping of a promise may be a brutal act of revenge. But this is a detail. The point is, I think, that in all the conventional cases, a promise-keeper has a different character from a promise-breaker, and this character can only be adequately described if we consider it in moral terms. To establish this is enormously difficult, and the temptation is to retreat, as Moore did, into intuitionism (which is dogmatic) and to the assertion that good is indefinable.
The argument that “if we could never rely on people to keep their promises social life as we know it would be rendered impossible” runs into a dilemma. If everybody except me keeps their promises then social life is not threatened; and if promise-breaking is extensive, I will only suffer fruitlessly if I keep mine. Hobbes and Spinoza understood this situation more realistically, and they had little patience with rationalist appeals of this particular kind.5
This utilitarian treatment of moral principles obscures the fact that it is exactly the seeking of advantages which often leads people to break promises. Quite often, furthermore, people are perfectly right in their calculations, and they do reap an advantage from betraying a trust. Indeed, one way of describing the evil in cases of promise-breaking is in pointing to the fact that it arises from a prudent concern with advantages, whereas goodness results from moral or spiritual integrity. Promise-breaking is a refusal to accept the consequences of one’s past act; it indicates an incoherence in the character of the person who does it. The description of such acts as evil depends upon moral understanding, not upon any supposed social consequences.
What makes it difficult to give an account of moral experience is the intense practical interest we all have in the behavior of others. Even moral philosophers suffer from a deep anxiety about the possible consequences of the theories they suggest. “It is hardly necessary to add,” remarks Mr. Nowell-Smith, talking about that form of objectivism in ethics which attributes ethical disagreements to perversity and insincerity, “that this theory has had the most tragic consequences in international affairs.”6 This is a headlong jump from philosophy to action; on a par with the notion that Hegel must share the blame for Hitler. The difficulty with any principle of behavior, of course, is that there will always be circumstances in which it will have undesirable results; and we may perhaps conclude that one thing determining the content of such moral principles is the wish to generalize what the philosopher considers (independently) to be desirable.
It is further true that all the terms of moral discourse turn up very frequently in an imperative use: “Don’t be vain!” “Be honest with me!” “You ought to be loyal.” This is a common, perhaps even the most common, way in which they function. And for this reason, it is a perfectly legitimate concern to analyze the logic of imperatives, and to distinguish (as does Mr. Hare) neustics from phrastics.7 But to consider that moral philosophy is no more than preoccupations of this kind is false. It is an example of what we shall later discuss as meliorism. It derives from the view that the imperative element in ethics is the only part of it which cannot be reduced to facts and thus assimilated to other fields of enquiry. This view can itself become a crude form of reductionism: “When Plato asks ‘What is Justice?’, it is clear that he keeps his eye continually on the question ‘What ought we to do?’”8 But whatever biaxial distortions of vision philosophers may manage in compounding the two questions, the questions themselves are perfectly distinct, particularly, indeed, in Plato. When he asks “What is Justice?” he means exactly that, and the answer that he gives is in the indicative, not the imperative, mood.
We might perhaps begin by suggesting that there are two parallel kinds of moral philosophy distinguished by their vocabularies. One vocabulary is a functional one, indicating abstractly a direction of behavior: it includes such terms as ought, right, wrong, duty, obligation and end. There is another vocabulary which is descriptive and includes terms like vain, loyal, heroic, deceitful and honest. The functional set of terms is imperative; the latter, because it sometimes functions prescriptively, may also—though falsely—be thought of as essentially imperative, but as containing a psychological admixture. The result of this view of moral philosophy is, rather curiously, to establish a practice for which there can be no uniquely appropriate theory. Whatever looks like ethical theory must forthwith be handed over to the stewardship of another type of enquirer.
Against this view, I am suggesting that there exists something which we may call the moral life, some kind of moral experience which is to some extent shared by all. This moral experience is certainly not identical with “being good.” It is something of which we are all only intermittently conscious, but it is not to be identified with conscious moral choices, since we often discover afterwards that some act which we did unreflectingly was far more ethically significant than those choices which kept us awake at nights. All manner of apparently casual acts are incidents of the moral life, at least on a par with those thorny questions, such as the nature of our obligation to return borrowed books, which have captured the attention of professional moralists. For most moralists are concerned either to discover or to analyze reasons why we ought to do the right thing; they are partly concerned with the practical—in fact the political—issue of how we ought to act. Whereas the moral significance of such situations is found in the discoveries we make about ourselves in the course of our deliberations, the kind of temptations we encounter, and the moral character which is implied by the act when it is done.
For this reason, a concern with the moral life in this sense is inescapably part of the materials of the novelist. As far as, for example, Flaubert is concerned, the choices made by his characters are of interest as evidence of the character they have, while for the moralist the interest lies not in the act itself and what the act reveals, but in the reasons which may be given for it. Flaubert is dealing with moral issues in Madame Bovary. He is, among other things, examining an intricate moral network of relations between his characters, as they act and develop, as they gain one kind of understanding and lose another. Yet this moral interest is certainly not an interest in guides to conduct or imperatives or prescriptions of any kind. Flaubert is not circuitously telling us that adultery is wrong and that we ought not to engage in it. He is not a moral propagandist.
A character in literature—and often in life—is conceived as vivid, concrete, and particular. It is partly understood as a disposition to make particular kinds of choices, and each choice made both contributes further evidence about the character and at the same time changes the character. But the regularities of character are no more than dispositions. People are not reliably predictable. Worms will turn and heroes quake. As moral characters, our own privileged introspections give us little more advantage in understanding ourselves than we have in understanding other people. For part of the drama of the moral life is that, while we struggle to understand, we also struggle to maintain our self-deceptions. There are many things which we are determined not to understand. Our knowledge is therefore incomplete and, in any case, the thing we are trying to understand is unstable and changing—
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
Perhaps the most spectacular exemplars of the conscious cultivation of the moral life were the Puritans—those relentless moral athletes minutely examining each performance with the stop-watch of dogma. They imported into everyday life a type of moral cultivation normally found only in monastic circumstances. Their entire religious organization was calculated to facilitate the spontaneous operations of conscience, and some of their more searing scorn was reserved for those whose moral life was either abandoned to others, or merely mechanical. For Milton it was not only Papists who thus disembarrassed themselves of conscience; he railed against many a Protestant as being too ready “to give over toiling, and to find himself out some factor, to whose care and credit he may commit the whole managing of his religious affairs.”9
Many attempts have been made to describe the general structure of moral experience, but all describe some varieties of moral life better than others. The cause of this lies partly in the practical concerns of the philosophers. Liberalism, for example, is antipathetic to the unreflective adherence to traditional moral rules, and has therefore attempted to rationalize these rules by constructing a generalized policy adapted to the character of natural man. In this policy, most of the conventional moral rules reappear as items of technical advice. This teleological view of the moral life appears only to affect the structure of morality; in fact, it also affects the content. For it turns moral agents into calculators of consequences, opening up possibilities of individual variation which cannot appear where morality is taken to be conformity to a code.
Alternatively moral experience may be explained in terms of law and will. There exist moral rules—duties, laws, obligations—which are independently valid. The moral problem faced by individuals is partly cognitive, mostly conative. The cognitive element comes first. It is to discover, in any particular situation, which of the rules or duties is appropriate. Once this is done, the only problem remaining is to will the act enjoined by the rule, the difficulty being that impulse, pleasure, or evil may all be pulling in some other direction. This description of the moral life gives us such notions as the “loosening of moral standards” and “the hard path of virtue.”
The teleological and the legislative views of moral experience are those most commonly found, both in philosophy and in ordinary life. But they are far from exhausting all possibilities. The moral life may be understood as the maintenance of an internal coherence or harmony; the good man, as his life proceeds, is one who maintains this harmony, the evil one being divided within himself. Goodness here is something which permits a constant understanding of one’s surroundings. The good man has no illusions because he lives in the present and his mind is unblinkered by emotions like avarice or ambition.10 This view is found in Plato’s doctrine about the goodness of the philosophical life, and appears in literature especially in criticism of conventional bourgeois ways of living. Related to it is the theological notion that goodness is a matter of imitating a divine model, of being Christlike in one’s behavior. And a similar view is to be found in such advice as: “You must do what you must do.” Any of these views are likely to turn up in any extended moral discussion, and either pure or in combination they may be put forward as explanations of the moral life.
The difficulty, of course, is that each account is certain to generate commands and imperatives.11 Each view can be used, like any other piece of knowledge, in the actual conduct of life. Further, the moral life is something which imperatively must be controlled, especially from a political point of view. It is spontaneous; it is unpredictable; and it can often be disruptive of social and political arrangements. In so far as people act rationally, they are calculable; one can appeal to their interests and their fears. But what is most characteristic of the moral life is that within it neither interests nor fears are decisive. It can produce martyrs, crusaders, heroes, megalomaniacs, and a variety of socially indigestible (though often in some terms valuable) phenomena.
In all the issues of moral experience, moral character is the crucial thing, for it is only character which determines the existence of a moral problem. There is no such thing as a moral problem (or any other kind of problem) outside the context of a human situation; and in talking of particular problems we always imply the kind of human being who could have that particular problem. There are some people in the world who are virtually immobilized because every decision they have to make turns into a moral problem; and there are also others, called psychopaths, for whom nothing at all presents a moral problem. Moral philosophers concern themselves with a vague concept of ordinary men, whose moral problems are assumed capable of some approximate standardization. But even ordinary people vary enormously; and what is at one stage of life no problem at all may become morally significant at a later date. Those who associate moral philosophy with the study of imperatives take no interest in such variations; for them, that is psychology. But psychologists are hardly equipped to give such intractable questions much attention, and the whole area goes by default12 because it happens to be included in no one’s disciplinary boundaries.
I take it, then, that moral experience is found everywhere in human behavior, and that it is not something which can be ignored without serious misunderstanding of social and political life. The term “duty” for example is one that turns up in ethics, politics, sociology, and law. But the way in which it must be understood depends upon variations both in the bearer of the duty and in the environing situation. To an eager young military volunteer, an account of his duties as a soldier has a purely descriptive force; it tells him what is involved in an activity for which he already has a great deal of enthusiasm. Should this enthusiasm wane with experience, then tasks like cleaning his rifle and polishing his buttons will become duties in a far more prescriptive sense; they become things which he has to do as a condition of being something else. Here the prescriptive element, as in many other cases, arises only with the coming of internal conflict, a conflict which may be induced by laziness, boredom, or perhaps some more philosophical criticism of military life. It also appears to be a common experience that duties begin as things which “ought” to be done, and end by becoming part of the structure of a person’s life, so that he feels lost without the doing of them. “Doing the right thing” is very frequently less the product of imperative rules, calculations of ends and means, or awareness of internal coherence, than a kind of itch; a person can get no peace of mind till it is done.
Moral knowledge is sometimes a thing we seek; more often it is something we have forced upon us. A Nazi bureaucrat receiving orders to arrest and execute a Jewish friend, has, in the classic textbook sense, a moral problem. Does he obey the State, to which he owes allegiance? Does he resign? Does he help his friend to get out of the country to safety? He may formulate his question as: what ought I to do? He may rank the various appropriate rules (help friends, obey the law, keep promises, etc.). He may calculate the utils of pain involved for everybody concerned. He may ask what Christ or Luther would have done. He is in fact unlikely to do any of these things with much resolution. It is far more likely that a set of incidents—watching his children, the remark of a superior, or an obsessive memory—will give him some vision of things in which his decision will emerge. But whatever he does, his choice will be evidence about his character. It may indicate weakness or strength, vanity, self-sacrifice, honesty or self-deception. The conflict may be seen in quite other terms than “what ought he to do?” as, for example, whether he is a loyal friend or an obedient supporter of the régime. If our Nazi functionary were singlemindedly dedicated to the régime, he would not be aware of a moral dilemma at all. He would simply do his “duty.” And if, later, after executing his Jewish friend, he began to suffer remorse, he would be criticizing not only his act or choice; he would be implicitly criticizing the narrowly obedient way of life which, unchosen, had led up to the decision.
This, then, is a brief sketch of what I take to be moral experience, a field of human concerns which liberalism, for reasons we shall indicate, has ignored. It may be that some stubborn meliorist will insist that what I have been describing is a matter of fact, and therefore belongs in the intellectual province called psychology rather than to that called ethics. I have no wish to quarrel over labels; someone who starts from the premise that ethics is concerned with imperatives and obligations will no doubt be led to the conclusion that what I have taken to be moral facts must be facts of a different kind. But if we must regard the empirical study of moral experience as part of psychology, then I can only observe that it is psychology of a highly peculiar kind. It has no relation at all to those textbooks called Psychology which have chapter headings like “Drives,” “Memory,” “Learning,” “Maturation,” etc. and which report in statistical detail the behavior of mice and control groups of all kinds. Nor is it to be identified with psychoanalysis, though indeed part of the greater subtlety which we may find in Freud, and some of those who have constructed similar kinds of depth-analysis, results from the fact that some psychoanalytic concepts are close to moral ones. One might, for example, give a tolerable account of vanity in terms of narcissism. There are further analogues of the moral struggle in the conflict between the analyst and the subtle evasions of the subject. But while psychoanalysis can tell us much about moral experience, there can be no comprehensive theory of ethics which does not arise from ethics itself.
THE ILLUSION OF ULTIMATE AGREEMENT
We may either attend to those forms of moral life like loyalty, treachery, avarice, cruelty, saintliness, etc., which have long been observed and, in a haphazard way, documented; or concern ourselves with the intellectual justifications and exhortations which in one way or another emerge out of them. There is no form of moral life which is incapable of some sort of justification, but each justification necessarily distorts what it tries to justify. For justification is a support-gathering device, which assimilates all moral acts as closely as possible to contemporary moral beliefs. The situation is analogous to those political situations in which political parties are driven towards the “center” where the mass of public support lies. But what is in politics a “center” is in ethics a kind of logical elevation; it lies upwards, in the clouds of generality, at whose top are to be found those ultimate values which concern philosophers, or the most basic rules of any system of natural law. Here we all conspire in a meaningless agreement upon what are incorrectly thought to be fundamentals. Here also are to be found the generalized justifications (“Anyone would have done it,” “I mean well,” etc.) which turn up in ordinary life, slowly changing with each generation. And also residing here is the fantasy of an omnipotent and merciful judge, who will understand that only the good in people is real, and the bad merely the result of things they couldn’t help.
Now while it is clear that between Protestant and Catholic, Arab and Jew, Monarchist and Republican, there is at certain times nothing but unyielding and irreducible hostility, it is also clear that if we look not at their behavior but at their justifications, we begin to move upwards towards this moral center. And we begin to participate in a philosopher’s dream; the dream that the dispute is really over intellectual questions, and that, as in deductive argument, or in the formulation of policies, once the major questions have been agreed, the minor questions are matters of detail which will yield to technical skill and goodwill.
We may perhaps illustrate some of the issues arising here by considering the workings of a typical moral criterion. “In times such as this,” remarked Richard Nixon recently, “I say it is wrong and dangerous for any American to keep silent about our future if he is not satisfied with what is being done to preserve that future. . . . The test in each instance is whether criticism is going to help or hurt America. We certainly do not help America by running her down in the eyes of the world.” The patriotic policy, which Nixon advocates, supplies the criterion of “helping or hurting America.” The journalistic policy finds its most extreme formulation in the slogan “publish and be damned.” Some compromise is possible between the two policies: politicians admit a qualified right of press freedom, whilst journalists allow a qualified right to States of withholding strategic information. Somewhere on the borderlines, these formulae break down. Is scathing criticism of the blunders of politicians within the area of press freedom or State security? Assuming that a journalist accepts both policies (the patriotic and the journalistic), then the question of whether he ought or ought not to publish critical material depends on the factual question of how that material is related to agreed definitions of the rights of each institution.
Assuming that the government insists that the journalist’s material endangers the State, but that he goes ahead and publishes, how does he defend his act?
“I agree,” he may choose to say, “that the test is whether we help or hurt America. But America can only be helped by free and open criticism, which will prevent the multiplication of political blunders. The government’s disapproval is misdirected; if it understood its own policy (or best interests) properly, then it would have no objection to my criticism.” This places the act within the policy from which the attack derives, but reinterprets the criterion. If successful, it cuts the ground away from under the feet of the attacker. In any actual controversy, of course, the debate is endless, and expires from exhaustion rather than illumination. In historical discussion, subsequent fashions often give a tendentious answer to the question. Did the Dreyfusards weaken or strengthen “France”? Later liberal opinion, if forced to pronounce on the question as formulated in this way, would probably answer that they strengthened France. The opposite conclusion could also be argued. Both arguments would take the form of selecting later events and attributing them to the Dreyfus scandal.
In this kind of justification, our journalist refuses to enter into a “conflict of values.” He insists on placing his act within the same “value-system” as that of his opponents. But alternatively, he might choose to take a more aggressive line.
“My allegiance,” he might say, “is to Truth, not to the details of national conflicts. Because I am a journalist, I have a duty to speak out as my allegiance to truth directs. If I accept political direction as to what I say, then I am betraying myself.” Here the policy of journalistic freedom has been converted into an impregnable metaphysic. Our journalist, in this mood, has become what is popularly known as an idealist. He will still be beating out his copy as the last trumpet sounds. If he attacks an unsympathetic government, he will either be shot or exiled. His political opponents can only, in fact, use the same tactic we have already observed. They can start by agreeing that Truth is indeed an ultimate value, and then argue that the maintenance of democratic government is a necessary condition of the continuance of devotion to truth. Small compromises must be made for the main object. This kind of argument, in the twentieth century, has a sophistical ring; but there is no other.
Now this “conflict of values”—National Security versus Truth—must not be seen as a matter of irreducible personal preferences. Those who do see it in this way proceed to conclude that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “facts and values.” In that case, our journalist is commonly supposed to be making up his mind “what he ought to do,” “what is the right thing to do,” “where his duty lies,” “what values he adheres to.” These formulations pose the question for generic man, a neutral calculator outside a social context. If, however, we see his choice in the context of possible policies to be followed, then it is clear that the question is not: “What ought I to do?” nor even “what policy ought I to follow?” but simply: “What am I?” Our journalist is in fact deciding on the question of whether he is more a “patriotic American” or a “fearless journalist.”
The actual situation is clearly far more complicated than that—and not merely because I have used crude stereotypes to identify adherence to these two policies. The journalist’s act in publishing his critical copy is the result of a whole range of policies arising out of his past, his social and personal relations, his intellectual background, and his physical composition. The events which happen from moment to moment ceaselessly strengthen some policies and weaken or submerge others. There is no explicable “he” who rationally takes a decision on this question; that “he” is simply a mysterious substance, the phantom of individualism. As far as he can be studied, he is constituted by these policies, and they “choose” him just as much as he chooses them.
“Conflict of values” is not a matter of conflict between the preferences of individuals; it is a matter of conflict between irreducibly different things which exist, as a matter of fact, in the world. Nor can social conflict be explained away as a matter of ignorance and confusion about which means lead to which ends. It is a fact of life, resulting from the existence of a social thing like a journalist (or some kind of truth seeker) and another kind of social thing (in our example, a patriotic politician); and the conflict between them is not a conflict of “opinions” or “beliefs” but one between different characters, complicated by the fact that this conflict goes on within individuals, as well as between them. Social characters in this sense are no doubt highly unstable, just as States are often unstable. Nonetheless, advocacy, persuasion, propaganda, are political activities concerned to change not merely people’s opinions, but people.
Changing people and dominating their behavior does not depend upon prescribing courses of action to them. It often depends only in purveying information, true or false. The man who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater has no need to add any prescription. The audience is way ahead of him. On such occasions, they know exactly how to “maximize their goal values.”
The effects on behavior of social and political doctrines—that politics is an outcome of pressures, that capitalists live off surplus value, that a person’s character is formed by childhood experiences—are less dramatic but equally clear. Each proposition is like a stone dropped into a pool; it sends ripples across the moral face of the community. The values do not have to be supplied, the prescriptions spelled out; they are built into the character of those who acquire the information.
Intellectually, we seem to have the alternative of either concentrating upon the policies, aims, justifications, exhortations and prescriptions—the legal tender of moral characteristics—or upon those characteristics as they appear in people, complexes of thought and feeling by which people react upon each other. If we choose the former possibility, we will create something like modern moral philosophy, formalistic and concerned with logic and language. Working in this isolated field, we shall signalize the separation by distinguishing values from facts. Thus Professor Popper: “Perhaps the simplest and most important point about ethics is purely logical. I mean the impossibility to derive non-tautological ethical rules . . . from statements of facts.” And having separated the two spheres, we are immediately faced by the difficulties of reuniting them. Professor Popper continues: “As one of the most central problems of the theory of ethics, I consider the following: If ethical rules (aims, principles of policy, etc.) cannot be derived from facts—then how can we explain that we can learn about these matters from experience?”13
We can explain the matter simply enough if we refuse to make the separation in the first place, and recognize that moral knowledge is knowledge of facts; not of aims, ends, policies or values, but of what in social and political situations sustains them: ambition, enthusiasm, ignorance, avarice, loyalty, and so on. It is, of course, true that no statement of non-moral facts can generate a decision; the decision depends on us. In particular, it depends upon what we are, what moral constitution we have at the time. And if there is conflict within us, the problem which we have to work out in making the decision is exactly the problem of what we are. Nor is any particular decision final; we go on changing, and may begin to regret the choice we made from the very moment we made it. All of these are features of moral experience, and they may be studied politically, socially, psychologically, morally, logically, or indeed linguistically. The intellectual difficulty is that each way of studying human behavior tends to expand in an attempt to explain everything in its own terms.
Moral discussion (like, indeed, any other kind of discussion) has to begin with agreement somewhere. Now since I have argued that moral disagreement is conflict between different social characters, there can in fact be no significant change of values which is not also a change of character. Those people whose dominating concern is to search for what unites rather than divides us nonetheless search for some kind of agreement. Their quest is as relentless as that of the alchemist, and it is for moral principles which are so devastatingly obvious that no individual can rationally reject them. Nor, indeed, do they search in vain. They have produced a string of abstractions and tautologies upon which most men will agree. Happiness, satisfaction, truth, beauty and goodness—these things are generally agreed to be “intrinsic goods.”
The real strength of the illusion of ultimate agreement, the emotion which reconstitutes it intact after every critical onslaught, is to be found in its more down-to-earth formulations. Assuming that people are “basically” rational, can they not be taught that violence and selfishness are self-defeating? Happiness, which we all by definition seek, is not to be found in injuring and destroying the happiness of others. Is not the cause of racialism and fascism to be found in fear and neurosis, which can be cured by education, understanding and therapy? Are not the other evils of the world caused by poverty and illness, which modern technology is in the process of conquering? Have we not here the prescription for a better world on which we can all agree?
We met this program before when we considered the ethic of rationality. And the simple answer to its feasibility would be to say that men are not rational; or, more exactly, that they are only intermittently rational. A rational world is only possible assuming flexibility in most people most of the time. In economic terms, the demand for everything must be elastic. If one cannot have what one wants, one must be prepared to accept substitutes. Now this kind of flexibility does not depend upon intellectual agreement; it depends on social character. And given that all societies result from the interlocking of varied ways of life, it is strictly impossible that everyone can be consistently flexible. To put the matter another way, men are prolific generators of absolute principles. Manifest Destiny, Algérie Française, There is no God but God, Britons never will be slaves, Nemo me impune lacessit, Publish and be damned, A woman’s place is in the home—principles of this sort, in all fields, constitute rocks upon which the rational ship will be constantly bruising its side. And the difficulty does not reside in the principles; intellectually speaking, argument might in some cases lead to their being qualified. It resides in the ways of life, the social characters, which generate the principles, and which are not amenable to argument. And these ways of life result from different environments, from religions, from languages and the obscure dreams which constantly flicker about the lives of men and which are occasionally capable of seizing direction of whole societies. Liberalism itself partly floats along on a dream of warmth and harmony of this very kind.
In any case, the things which are most valued in any society are not the result of rational flexibility. They result from the quite irrational attachment of men to the ways of life in which they are involved. What could be more irrational than Socrates preferring death to silence? Science, philosophy, art, capitalism, nations—all have been built up by men passionately and inflexibly attached to what they were doing. So indeed has liberalism itself, proud, like any movement, to lay claim to its martyrs. Compromise, flexibility, rationality in this sense, are important political virtues. They are indispensable to the maintenance of some peace and security. But it would hardly be a high civilization which would result from their unquestioned dominance. And it would certainly be an authoritarian one.
Nonetheless, liberalism pursues a political policy of chipping away at all pretexts for conflict. For, if conflict disappears, then so does the main business of politics. In the past, men have fought ferociously over religious creeds. The liberal responds to this by preaching the virtue of toleration and asserting the privacy of self-regarding actions. Intellectually, the liberal response is an attempt to deny the importance of differences. All the creeds, it has been argued, contain a common core of reverence, worship and sociability: that is what is most important in religion. The rest is merely local variation. Why come to blows about transubstantiation or the immaculate conception? Doctrines of the Trinity are matters for theologians, not for ordinary men. In the seventeenth century, Spinoza argued that the essence of religion was in good works and good behavior. Teaching a man religion was thus teaching him good behavior: in other words, no more than a way of manipulating him.
Men have fought over issues of honor. That too is irrational—dangerous to the welfare and happiness of the people who get involved. Men have fought in social riots because they were hungry, or feared to be hungry. This political problem can be solved by feeding them. Races have fought each other. The liberal teaches that racialism is evil, that all races are equal and should be free and respected; beliefs about the inferiority of some races can be shown to conflict with scientific investigations. Scientific findings are real; they indicate that “potentially” all races are “fundamentally” (i.e. in the respects which interest liberals) the same.14
Men have fought each other in nations. Liberals look to international organizations and, more distantly, forwards to the prospect of world government, a super-society in which their ideals will find fulfillment free from any earthy threat. There has been economic competition between workers and between firms. The economy must become more co-operative. If economic failure cannot be rendered impossible, then its consequences must be circumscribed by welfare services. Men have envied each other wealth and the advantages of birth; these must also be eliminated, by progressive taxation and a uniform system of school education. Private schools, in Britain public schools, are a threat to this program, and therefore ought to be abolished. And, of course, men have simply disliked each other and fallen out. The original liberal ethic therefore made social accommodation one of its major virtues. More modern doctrine scientifically sees friction between individuals as the result of neurosis, aggression, and frustration. In the form of adjustment, it has found a cure for those, too.
The politics of modern liberalism is thus centered on the attempt at a permanent removal of all pretexts for conflict. It seeks agreement not merely by argument, but (quite sensibly) by undermining the economic circumstances and ways of life which sustain disagreement. The end result is a utopia, an association of individuals living according to the same principles and in the same manner. The only test of discrimination is the test of ability.
It might be objected that this is a caricature of liberalism, which has of all doctrines been far the most hospitable to variety and eccentricity. And this objection is perfectly correct. Liberalism has, in particular, never ceased to maintain a distinction between the private and the public spheres, a distinction which is the doctrinal ground of any kind of individuality. The distinction is formulated both in natural rights theories, and in John Stuart Mill’s often derided distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. Liberals have also attacked the notion of adjustment. They have worried about the dull uniformity and the limited range of obsessions found in what they themselves call mass culture. They have never ceased to attack authoritarian attempts to impose uniformity in the name of pure doctrine or the national interest.
All this is true, but it states only a part of the liberal position. For, as we have already argued, liberalism is like all ideologies in that it attempts to hold together in one single viewpoint elements which are hostile to each other. The hatred of suffering and the love of freedom are equally characteristic of liberalism, and each is indispensable to it. If we seek, rather pointlessly, for some essential liberal position, then we might find it in the belief that happiness and individual freedom are always in harmony. Just as liberals believe that the good of the people may always be identified with what the people want, so they also believe that we can have variety without suffering. There is little historical evidence to support this view, and much to contradict it. Harmony obviously does not exist. It may, however, be imagined in some future; and the test by which we shall know when that future is nearly upon us is a world-wide moral agreement upon fundamentals.
It is also a clear mark of ideological thinking that certain things are viewed in a fixed policy context. This device is sometimes called functionalism; it attributes an essential role or function to things. (In more expansive versions of the doctrine, everything has a single function.) This doctrine yields us such propositions as that sex is essentially for procreation, full employment is a means not an end, books are for reading, and so on. This device is the basis of what we shall later discuss as scientific moralism. It is relevant here because it also implies that an ideal is essentially an ideal, and this happens to be false. To put it another way, the same program may fit into a number of policies, and an act which is a means in one policy is an end in another. Social harmony, for example, features in liberalism as an ideal; it is desirable for its own sake. But for the people who exercise authority over the great corporations of the modern world, social harmony is also a means. Such people are often fascinated by the possibilities of social manipulation turned up by liberal social scientists. Like liberals, they dislike wasteful and threatening social phenomena like strikes, crime, delinquency, and irresponsibility. They are kindly people who only want everyone to be happy—but on their own terms. They constitute a rally of conservative forces, entrenched in powerful and rich institutions, who are ever ready to promote the cry: “Our society is now perfect and just; only the second task, the rationalizing of the individual, remains to us.” These people have no powerful attachment to such things as rigid patriarchal sexual codes, already a casualty of liberalism. Nor do they have any love for such institutions as inheritance by birth. Quite the contrary, for the independently wealthy and the aristocratically privileged are far more difficult to break into the corporation system than eager young men with nothing to sell but their “ability,” and no standards with which to criticize except those they have picked up in the course of vocational training.
The notion that ideals and values are essentially ideals and values is so prevalent a version of functionalism that we might call it the idealists’ trap. It is often found in propaganda, but it may also arise in intellectually respectable fields like social and political philosophy. Thus the notion that political philosophy is concerned with the study of political ideals is an instance of the idealists’ trap, for it isolates ideals in the fantasy world of the desirable. One cannot effectively study liberalism, for example, by concerning oneself only with its ideals—liberty, equality, democracy, social justice, harmony, peace, rights and so on—for this would be to treat these things as essentially ends. It has the effect of turning political analysis into the higher justification.
To guard against the idealists’ trap, we would be well advised to establish as a guiding principle the view that everything in social and political life is both a means and an end, depending upon the policy context in which it appears. Indeed the policy characterization of social events is an important clue to the policy which is at work. We must remember that ideals need not be loved because they are ideals. If we wish to study a political movement, we must observe the social changes which it promotes, not those ideals to which it purports to be dedicated. The most naïve and dangerous individual in politics is the idealist who imagines that he is using others and moving towards his ideals and values. The first step to political wisdom is to realize that one is not only using others, but being used by them, and to try to understand how one is being used, and by what.
POLLITICS AND TECHNIQUE
Politics obviously arises when there is conflict, and often seems to cause or at least to heighten conflict. The ambition of those who seek harmony thus involves the elimination of political activity. But just as the solution of ultimate agreement is an illusion, so the attempt to eliminate politics from human affairs can only result in disguising it.
Everyone seems agreed that politics is an activity of some kind. But it is an activity whose characteristics are extraordinarily hard to pin down. For while there are many general descriptions of politics, most of them have an unconvincing flavor of prescription about them. When we define activities, we normally assume that they are rational: that is to say, we assign to them a general end, and perhaps make one or two remarks about the kinds of means appropriate to that end. This is what Locke does, for example, when he suggests that the end of the State is the protection of the natural rights of individuals, and that a certain organization of the executive and legislature is most appropriate to that end. The difficulty here is obvious: Locke is not, as he purports to be doing, describing politics, but making demands upon it. The end he suggests (it is, for Locke, one among a number of ends) is an external criterion intended to guide our approval or disapproval of any particular political act. Many such ends have been suggested: that politics should maintain peace, maximize happiness, enforce virtue, hinder the hindrances to self-realization, purify the race or unite the nation. Now some of these formulae have attained a considerable currency, and some of them have been accepted by politicians themselves. All of them imply an intellectual system in terms of which political decisions might be worked out. But all of them suffer from the crucial difficulty of describing one brand of politics far better than other kinds of which we have some knowledge. Clement Attlee and Gladstone may perhaps have had some interest in maximizing happiness (assuming that such a phrase means anything) but Genghis Khan and Bismarck are more difficult to fit within this formula.
Descriptions of politics in terms of the ends it must serve have long been current in political thinking. Such descriptions are ideological. Each formula supplies us with a general criterion by which we may estimate political policies. But the only possible criterion by which we may judge a policy is simply another, more general, policy.15
One sophisticated avenue out of this impasse is worthy of attention. It arises from distinguishing politics from government or administration. The description “politics” is denied to unconstitutional States and to revolutionary situations, each of which indicates that political skill has lapsed in favor of some cruder governing devices. This view of politics derives from Aristotle and has a more or less continuous history up to the present day. “Politics, then, can be simply defined as the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community.”16 Politics thus entails considerable skill of a special kind, a readiness to negotiate rather than impose a rule by force, an acceptance of the diversity and plurality of things within the State, and in more conservative formulations, a suspicion of far-reaching political plans of change.
I take it that the point of this selective meaning of “politics” is to distinguish the manner in which free States such as Athens, Great Britain in modern times, and the American Commonwealth have been governed from such régimes as Imperial Rome, Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany. Certainly most examples of “politics” are taken from these free States, and it never seems to make much of an appearance elsewhere. Now we need not doubt that what is isolated by this tradition of political thinking is both real and important; it is clearly possible to mark off a tyranny from a polity. But the distinction itself is always on the verge of being sustained by a preference, always struggling free from the notion of politics-as-a-good-thing. We may reject it on the ground that the facts it refers to are not political, but moral and social. For there are some interests which cannot be conciliated by giving them a share of power, some social incoherences which cannot be negotiated without force; and in these cases it is in the moral character of the interests rather than the absence of political skill, that the explanation is usually to be found. In spite of its sophistication, this view also treats politics as an activity having a certain general end—that of conciliating interests and adjusting conflict—and it fails in the same way that any teleological account of politics must fail.
We may escape from these difficulties by simply refusing to attribute any end at all to politics. For politics is a mode of behavior common to many kinds of social entities, and the ends which are found in politics are supplied by the social entity on whose behalf the politics is conducted. We never in fact encounter “pure politics”—and for this reason, any theory which takes power as the central conception of politics has merely entered a world of realistic-sounding fantasy. All that we ever do encounter is the politics of something. How we describe the various “somethings” which generate politics has always caused intellectual difficulties, but in ordinary discussion we normally find some way of expressing it. We talk of British politics, the politics of the Labor Party, of Arab nationalism, of the Presbyterian Church, or of capitalist societies. In highly general terms, we may say that politics is a mode of acting found in certain self-conscious complexes of thought and feeling which we may call movements; and the result of the emergence of politics is the creation and maintenance of institutions.
A politician may thus be regarded as a man who conducts the political business of some institution. But any actual politician is a complex human being with responsibilities17 to a number of institutions, some of them traditional and highly articulated, others mere shadows of possibility or nostalgia. The leader of a constitutional opposition, for example, is a politician of his country; simultaneously, he is responsible to his party, and in a vaguer way to a vision of what his country ought to be, the details of which are partly stated by the ideological beliefs to which he gives adherence. His political relationship to these various institutions may be seen in terms of interests and demands made upon him; and quite obviously they are likely to conflict. He may find forced upon him a choice between country or party, or between office or integrity.
This situation is further complicated by the fact that in political life we cannot always know the character of the acts (what the politics is of) before they have happened. Further, the politician himself does not always know; whatever policy he adopts will, in combination with events, go on revealing to him new facts about the social entity on whose behalf he acts. He may fall in or out of love with his party or his country; he may strive to change his followers at the risk of his office. All political acts have a moral character; and many may be seen as hypotheses which events may confirm or falsify. The act of a Brutus in assassinating Caesar only makes sense upon the hypothesis that the decline of the Republic could be averted by the removal of the bewitching presence of Caesar. The consequences—and probably only the consequences—revealed the presence of moral changes in the character of the Roman ruling classes such that, given those people at that time, a republic was unworkable. But it is only unworkable because of resulting decisions on the part of a great number of different people, who could not themselves have predicted with much certainty how they would behave in the event. Convinced believers can wobble, and those who doubt themselves have often found an unsuspected element of resolution.
On the view I am taking, then, politics is inextricably bound up with moral and social entities, and the content and issues which arise in politics cannot be explained without reference to them. In a quite empirical way, ethics and politics cannot be separated without distortion; though this certainly does not mean that there is any set of prescriptions which is uniquely appropriate to political activity. Indeed, the whole apparatus of prescription, justification and exhortation, whilst deriving its plausibility from its reference to moral characteristics, is properly one of the devices of politics, in so far as it is concerned with persuading people to act in required ways.
On this view, then, the vocabulary of politics will not include the traditional concepts of political philosophy—equality, rights, freedom, justice, nature, law, etc., for all of these notions are explicable only in terms of the social entities which generated special kinds of political activity. Politics can only be characterized in a highly general and abstract way, for it is a highly general and abstract field.
The most important political distinction is between what is external and what is internal. Each ruler is a Janus-like figure, facing both inwards to his subjects and outwards to other sovereign States. To his subjects, he is a protector; in his external relations he is a defender of his people and therefore a potential enemy. This is a point which was made most elaborately by Hobbes, and it is recognized in the liberal yearning for an institution—world government—which has nothing external to it. For this would seem to solve the problem of enmity; the world ruler would be an enemy to none. The difficulty of this dream is that what is physically internal to the institution may yet be politically external. Thus criminals, by definition, are people for whom the ruler is an enemy; and if, as in revolutions, the State is politically conceived in terms of allegiance to a set of ideas, entire classes of people may be externalized—Jews, Bantu, Kulaks, Aristocrats, oppositionists, to take only the most conspicuous examples.
In an admittedly whimsical sense, then, we may say that the distinction between internal and external may become a matter of life and death. How the distinction is actually conceived depends upon what the ruler is in fact responsible to. Stalin, for example, in becoming responsible to Communist Russia necessarily externalized huge classes of people—both nationalities and social groupings. The responsibility of politicians is in constant flux; they may become responsible to something very different from the institution they actually rule—as did James II in attempting to make England Catholic and absolutist; they may become responsible to something larger, as in the various national unifications which have occurred in the last two centuries. Institutions like the Holy Roman Empire may languish and decline as politicians withdraw their interest and allegiance, or they may develop and grow in the manner of the European Common Market. But the course of political activity keeps on redefining what is taken to be internal and external.
Externally, the politician seeks to maintain the security of the institution over which he presides. Internally, he generally seeks order and coherence. Politicians who accept the traditional constitution of the institution they govern are usually to be found working out kinds of accommodation between conflicting parts of the institution; between warring religious groups, struggling commercial interests, racial or linguistic elements or just people who do not like each other. This kind of activity is commonly found in European politics, and gives rise to the view of politics which we considered earlier, as the maintenance of order by adjustment of interests. Certainly this kind of activity requires considerable skill; for often there is only a limited range of formulae which will settle a dispute. Political antagonists are prone to falsify their demands, and mislead others about the nature and extent of support and opposition. The skilled politician facing a problem of this sort must discover the truth of the matter; but for much of the time he must use a kind of intuition, for the facts upon which he must base his solution will not exist until the solution has actually been attempted. Should he conciliate—and provoke a stiffening of demands? Should he use force—and provoke only desperation and disorder? He has to judge, and only his experience and understanding can help him.
But politics cannot be defined as the activity of adjusting interests. For we shall often find politicians seeking for various reasons to provoke disorder and to intensify differences. Instead of seeking to promote coherence and maintain order and security, they do just the opposite. To deny such people the description of politicians is to beg the intellectual question. We must attempt to explain their behavior; and it can, I would suggest, only be explained in terms of a shift in their political responsibilities. They have become politicians of something different, and in many cases, the best available definition of that something different is an idea. Thus communist politicians in Britain who often seek to intensify differences must be seen as politicians not of Britain, but of either the ideology of Communism, or of a shadowy institution called Communist Britain.
The distinction often made between practical politicians and ideological ones cannot be seriously sustained; but it does have the virtue of pointing to actual differences between say a Robespierre and a Talleyrand, a Charles II and a James II. It refers to variations in political behavior between an idealist at one end of the scale, and an opportunist at the other. We also find that opposition groups are prone to formulate political issues in ideological terms; that is, they tend to moralize these issues and present them as matters of right and of justice. Politicians in office, whilst prepared to meet moral argument with moral argument, will often reply with variations on the idea of political necessity. But the difference between politics and ideology is not one between “ideas” or the absence of ideas. A Lenin leading a proscribed political party, for example, is no doubt very much an ideologist in his relation to Russia; but in relation to his own followers, he is necessarily a politician.
We may next observe that politics is an area of force and coercion; it is rife with sanctions of various kinds. The reason for this is not that politicians are naturally disposed to force, but that human beings are complicated and often inconsistent. No institution is ever held together simply by force; there is always some element of consent, a preference for an existing situation over the costs of changing it. But equally no institution ever embodies a comprehensive common good. Britain at bay in 1940 was pretty nearly as cohesive as any such large and plural society ever has been; but even then, we find phenomena like defeatism, profiteering, grumbling, distrust of the competence of the leadership, not to mention such irrational but sometimes decisive factors as laziness or boredom. What social harmony exists is partly spontaneous; but in States it is never sufficiently so. The harmony—the common good or the national interest—must constantly be created by politicians. And where it cannot be created, it must be forced. If soldiers will not volunteer in sufficient numbers, they must be conscripted. If people will not pay their taxes, governments will force them to. And those acts which are permanently necessary to the maintenance of the institution will be described as duties.
Where a spontaneous common good exists, political activity is hardly necessary. And there are situations where we can perhaps discern what may accurately be called a common good. We find it at moments in sporting teams, or in any army with a high morale, or in a city under siege and united in a cause. But there are two major difficulties in basing a theory of politics on a common good. One is that it is virtually never exactly identical with the institution; most of the State may be united in a cause, but there are always some who are left out, or who are at least lukewarm. Or, alternatively, the common good may spill across institutions and threaten them, as often happened during the wars of religion. The second difficulty is the inconsistency of people. They may at one point be united; but it takes little—as Rousseau regretfully observed—to make them begin thinking of their own advantage, the good of their families, their comparative status, or the good of some other cause they support.
It is because anything genuinely recognizable as the common good so seldom occurs in political activity that politicians have to be calculators. They must quantify things which are qualitatively different, and terms like “better,” “worse,” and “on balance” turn up extensively in their discourse. They must give money to national sport and to national art; and as far as sport itself is concerned, the money given to art is lost and wasted; and vice versa. Appeals to the common good in competitive situations of this kind are appeals to the plurality of interest found in people. A sportsman may have no interest in art; but one may be able to appeal to his national feeling, his generosity, or his interest in social co-operation. In politics, nearly everything is done by some people for the wrong reasons.
Politics is an activity without values of its own, and things which are widely valued in various cultures—things like truth, or human life—are politically valued only for their usefulness, which is often unstable. Truth, for example, has its uses; no one can retreat too far into a fantasy world without becoming ineffective; but equally it is often highly inconvenient. The facts can alienate much needed support. When they don’t, when indeed they promote a following, then the truth may emerge. It would be reckless to attribute Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin to a concern for the accuracy of Russian historical ideas. The differences between régimes in the amount of lying, deceit, fraud and illusion must be attributed not to political variations, but to the moral character of the régime.18 Certain ways of life—notably those of Western Europe—are capable of generating institutions (such as the press, an opposition, free universities) which lessen the advantages of deceit. Politicians qua politicians are interested not in Truth, Beauty, Sanctity or human life, but in advantages, and there is nothing in the world which is consistently advantageous.
A good deal of deceit is essential to the proper working of any kind of institution. Antipathies must be suppressed so that antagonists may work together for various purposes; the extent of support for or opposition to some measure must be falsified, for this knowledge itself will change the situation; and very frequently a politician must disguise his intentions until the time is ripe for revealing them. For timing is often essential to the success or failure of a political move. For these reasons, politicians have elaborated the usages of a mellifluous and soggy form of discourse, justly famed for its vagueness and ambiguity. The use of this discourse, and the understanding of it, require enormous skill. Thus in diplomatic communications between powers, the wording of a phrase or the omission of a claim is all that may indicate a major shift in policy. By such devices, political discussion between leaders can go on with the minimum interruption from popular clamor. Political communications must say different things to different people, and preferably can be abandoned and denied if they should cause embarrassment.
This oblique and tortuous character of politics often provokes nothing more than exasperation from the common man; and that very exasperation will launch us into the illusion of ultimate agreement.19 We all want peace, don’t we? The diplomatic brouhaha can only seem like the possibly dangerous indulgence of politicians, playing for their own purposes a game that may do for us all. The liberal program which seeks to drown politics in the liberated goodwill of ordinary men has a compelling attraction. But on the argument we have presented, politics cannot be isolated in this way. For the content of political calculations is not itself political; it is moral and social. It is, in fact, the passions and desires of ordinary men—especially the things they are prepared to fight for. And men, at various times and places, have been prepared to fight for a bizarre collection of objectives; in many cases, they have been prepared to fight just for the sake of fighting.
I take it, then, that what we all recognize as politics is simply a manner of human behavior which has its own peculiar characteristics, but which can never be isolated from moral and social circumstances. Politics is always parasitic upon ends and purposes which exist independently.
Further, both in our account and also in common usage, we find politics everywhere in human affairs. We may talk not only of national politics, but of church or trade-union politics, or the politics of any institutions. The institutions which exist politically at any given time depend upon circumstances. “Italy” (having been, in Metternich’s phrase, “a geographical expression”) had very little in the way of politics until the end of the eighteenth century. The proletariat was not a political institution until Marx tried to make it so.
Perhaps the most interesting example of this point is to be found in the liberal invention of the individual. For liberalism has, since at least the seventeenth century, conceived of the individual as an autonomous political institution. It began by regarding him as complete in himself; fully formed without the intervention of social influences. It proceeded to work out the ways in which he might secure his external security—namely by entering into a social contract. It explored the consequences of this contract for the internal governance of his desires. It created a politics of the individual, and called it ethics—for many of its prudential principles happened to be identical with long-held ethical precepts. As the social contract theory declined, utilitarianism took up the task, associated in many cases with a terminology of rights, which is a common indication that new political structures are emerging. Whether the individual is at any time a self-contained autonomous institution, and whether he ought ever to act as if this were so, is one of the main issues dividing idealists and utilitarians.
Finally, we may make a few remarks upon the competing conception of politics which is found in liberalism—and which, like many things found in liberalism, is also the unreflective view of the common man. This view begins with a rational evaluation of our political situation. The rational evaluation seeks to clarify our objectives; to work out exactly what it is we want. We all want peace, happiness, security, freedom, and so on. Given agreement on these ends, only the technical problem remains of finding the means to them. For this reason we may call this competing view of politics a technical one.
We have already stated one objection to this view, namely that the ultimate agreement does not exist. It is a fake. The large words on which it is based are empty receptacles of meaning which will, in discussion, accommodate any desires or aspirations we may choose to put in them. A consistent pursuit of this line necessarily involves us in the implication that all human conflict has been the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding; if only the Carthaginians and the Romans had got together and talked things over in an atmosphere of goodwill and negotiation, those Punic wars would have been unnecessary. And this is absurd. Admittedly generic men have no fundamental conflicts to worry them, but this is only because generic men have been constructed out of what stands above the fights of ordinary men.
Secondly, technical politics inevitably makes a great play with terms like problem and solution; for this is the language of technique. In the propagandist uses of the doctrine, problems exist in a vacuum: they are simply problems, with nothing attached to them. Here we may repeat the point we made in discussing moral experience: Any given situation only presents a problem to people of a certain character. One man’s problem is another man’s solution, and many social problems only arise because in some way they are solutions. The problem of slavery, for example, was the solution to problems arising in a way of life notably different from ours. For liberals, apartheid is a problem; for the Afrikaner, it is a solution, and it would only cease to be so either under highly unlikely circumstances (such as the consistent docility of the Bantu) or if the Afrikaners ceased to be what they are.
The position is even more complicated than this, for it is perfectly possible to find situations which constitute both a problem and a solution to the same person at the same time. Hypochondria is one example of this, so are cases of masochism where the masochist both likes and fears the threatened pain. People do not have a single core of selfhood which steers them on a consistent course.
The question: What is it exactly that we want? is, in the circumstances of the present time, the only unassailable generator of evaluative responses. And its difficulty is that, strictly speaking, it is a question which we are not fully competent to answer for ourselves, much less for other people. This point can be exaggerated, providing only a camouflage for timidity. In actual life, we do plan years ahead, and make our dispositions with a fair confidence of success. But in a liberal atmosphere the point is far more likely to be forgotten. And it can be forgotten or ignored if we imagine that our failures are solely the result of carelessness and incompetence in the initial planning. This may be so; though even these failures are not casual; they too have a more complicated explanation than simple ignorance or incompetence. And politicians who also must plan and predict—quite unavoidably—are in an even more difficult situation, for they must be attempting to predict the responses of great numbers of people. For what in ordinary social life are slips of the tongue, casual revelations, or currents of sympathy, antipathy, fascination or impatience may become, on the grander political stage, portentous movements capable of crushing whatever gets in their path.
Technical politics, then, would only be possible on the assumption that all individuals were fixed, their characters fully known, and their society frozen in a single mould. Such characters would be incapable of development or change. If we are uncertain and afraid, security and stability have great charm. In this century, liberals have mostly been afraid, and for this reason, the salvationist current has been running more strongly than the libertarian. But quite apart from what we want, technical politics is an illusion—though it has been a very influential one.
[1. ]H. R. G. Greaves, The Foundations of Political Theory, London, 1958, p. 120.
[2. ]See above, p. 24.
[3. ]Hume, Of the Original Contract.
[4. ]Greaves, op. cit., p. 120 (my italics).
[5. ]Cf. Hume’s classic argument on this point in the Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Sec. II.
[6. ]P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics, London, 1954, p. 23.
[7. ]R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, 1952, p. 1.
[8. ]Nowell-Smith, op. cit.
[10. ]A popular version of this view of moral experience, one which has had great currency, is the character of Larry in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge.
[11. ]We should note, however, that on some ethical views (in Plato, for example) goodness cannot be an object of striving. Commands and imperatives would therefore be an illicit use of moral knowledge.
[12. ]Not entirely. Part of the attraction of Existentialism is that it does at least recognize this field, and the issues are also discussed in novels and literary criticism.
[13. ]K. R. Popper, What Can Logic Do for Philosophy? Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume XXII, 1948, p. 154.
[14. ]This view is nicer than the opposing view that some races are “fundamentally” superior to others. Intellectually speaking, both views are meaningless. But both have a political point.
[15. ]The fact that politicians are at all times and in all places to be found betraying any given policy suggested to them must make us suspicious of this whole mode of thinking. It is puerile to explain such betrayals in terms of the peculiar wickedness of politicians. Such explanations can only be the sour fruit of disappointment and disillusion. It seems more likely that political thinkers have brought unrealistic expectations to their study of politics, and then saved their expectations by distorting their account of the world.
[16. ]B. R. Crick, In Defence of Politics, London, 1962, p. 16.
[17. ]The term “responsibility” in this section is used in a purely descriptive sense to indicate a relationship of involvement between a person’s acts and an institution. The term has strong prescriptive overtones, and is crucial in moral and political arguments where allegiance is at stake. In moral discussions, people are said to be “irresponsible” or “forgetting their responsibilities.” But these uses suppress (sometimes because it is obvious from the context) what the responsibility is to. If we refuse to look at the matter from a restricted point of view, people are never irresponsible; they simply cease to be responsible to some things, and become responsible to others.
[18. ]For a fascinating comment on this point see “That’s No Lie, Comrade” by Ronald Hingley, Problems of Communism, Vol. XI No. 2, March–April 1962. The strains of truth often come out in the conduct of American foreign policy, as exemplified in the U.2 incident and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
[19. ]It may also launch us into Fascism, as happened in the thirties when there was widespread impatience with parliaments as ineffiectual “talking shops.”