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Duncan Bell – Ethics and World Politics

Chapter 1 Ethics and analytical political philosophy

Introduction: Many today would say that the modes of political thought currently dominant in the
English-speaking world exemplify ‘analytic political philosophy’. This label is problematic. The very
notion that there is a distinctively ‘analytic’ approach to political philosophy is a myth. This is not to
deny the existence of ‘analytical philosophy’ itself.

Twentieth century analytic philosophy: What is the nature of analytic philosophy itself? Analytic
philosophers have typically construed the basic philosophical task as the rather modest one of
conceptual clarification. It emerged as a reaction to what the early pioneers in the analytical
movement using idealism. Idealism was a philosophical paradigm that is committed to the
metaphysical thesis that reality is ultimately constituted by certain ideas, not physical matters, and
hence that the truth about the world can be disclosed only by philosophical contemplation, rather
than through a scientific investigation of observable phenomena. The break with idealism was a
matter of style. Analytic philosophers often complain about the self-indulgent mystification they
perceive in some continental European philosophical traditions. It also reflected a substantive view
about the proper scope and limits of philosophical inquiry. Linguistic analysis should replace
metaphysical speculation as the central vehicle for philosophical inquiry. The analytic philosophical
tradition is closely associated with the effort to vindicate the credentials of modern science as a
privileged mode of inquiry. They have a special interest in the question of epistemology (what counts
as knowledge) and in the structure and operation of the formal systems. Analytic philosophers
thought of themselves as clearing the way for scientific inquiry to proceed with (as it were) a clear
philosophical conscience. The analytic philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly looked to
precise articulations of ordinary language use to provide the conceptual clarifications they sought.
Since the 1960s, Anglophone philosophers have felt increasingly confined by the narrowly linguistic
focus of mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy.

The ‘death of political philosophy: Political philosophy engages prescriptive and evaluative
questions. All traditional philosophers at least tacitly accept the idea that it is possible and desirable
to evaluate, criticize, and recommend alternative political arrangements from some putatively
rational standpoint. Viewed through the lens of classical analytic philosophy, however, this idea of
rational political criticism came to seem problematic. Analytical philosophers in the mid-twentieth
century followed Hume’s lead in sharply distinguishing the logical status of propositions purporting
to describe the world empirically, and utterances that express value judgements of various sorts. Not
only did analytic philosophers maintain that factual and evaluative claims are formally distinct, they
also often held, more controversially, that they are logically insulated from each other. For example,
value judgements about nuclear weapons (that their use is morally permissible or impermissible)
stand apart from empirically verifiable propositions about their properties, operation, or deployment
under particular political circumstances.

The ‘logical positivist’ thesis implies that any field of study that involves neither the logical analysis of
concepts (analytic philosophy) nor empirically informed investigations of factual questions (the
sciences) must fall outside the scope of rational inquiry. This implies that political philosophy must be
a pseudo-discipline. Those who took this view did not think that the evaluation of political
institutions should cease or that it is somehow pointless. Nor did analytic philosophers of the period
deny that value-judgement can be the object of philosophical inquiry when approached in the right
way. This idea that ethical judgement is fundamentally a matter of emotive expression rather than
rational judgement was cold comfort to anyone inclined to take the idea of reasoned evaluation of
political institutions seriously. Fortunately, by the 1950s, analytic philosophers had moved away from
strict ‘logical positivism’ and were taking the ordinary use of natural language increasingly seriously.
They prepared the ground for a revival of political philosophy. Hard and fast distinctions between
facts and values cannot be sustained in the face of our everyday practices of mutual criticism, of
reason-giving and justification. By the 1950s, there was a general recognition that the reasons we
have for criticizing or recommending political institutions are themselves objects of philosophical
interest in their own right. Political philosophy just had to wait for a seminal contribution from a
highly original thinker to show a way forward.

Rawls and the great revival: This breakthrough came in 1971, with the publication of John Rawls’s A
theory of justice. His reflections about social justice originated in part in reflection about the status of
normative rules in public life. Rawls tackled an extremely ambitious question: what would an ideally
just political society look like? All citizens should enjoy, as a matter of right, certain carefully defined
basic political liberties and economic distribution should be configured so that those in the least
advantaged social positions can expect to fare as well as possible, regardless of how well others do
(different principle). Rawls saw this as an exercise in ‘ideal theory’, in that his argument made the
simplifying assumption that agents will comply willingly with principles of justice as a matter of
course. While this assumption of ‘perfect compliance’ conflicts with political reality as we know it,
Rawls believed that we should resolve disagreements about this ideal case first, before thinking
about how we might move toward that ideal from our present, far from ideal, circumstances. He
comes with the conjectural initial situation of the ‘original position’. His most important innovation
was the idea that the individuals in the original position deliberate behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. It
guarantees a desirable sort of impartiality. More often than not, those who today target analytical
political philosophy have Rawls and his followers in their cross-hairs. Rawls’s book was as much a
break with prior analytic philosophy as a continuation of it.

Foundationalism: Rawls started from the assumption that human agents possess what he called a
‘sense of justice’, a set of moral dispositions that include a desire to act rightly, to co-operate on
reasonable terms with others, and to resent conduct that offends their understandings of how
important social goods, responsibilities, and entitlements should be allocated. However, he took little
interest in the question of the basis of this ‘sense of justice’, whether as an empirical question or as a
philosophical question. Critics argue that Rawls’s theory, and therefore the (supposedly) ‘analytic’
political philosophy it inspired, displays a problematically ‘foundationalist’ orientation.
Foundationalism refers to the effort to supply a rational basis for the traditional ethical expectations.
It seeks to establish that everyone has reasons to recognize the authority of familiar ethical duties
and expectations, even when compliance runs counter to one’s interests. There is little reason to
think that it applies to either the analytic political philosophy or Rawls’s theory. It is true that classical
analytic philosophy was often foundationalist about scientific knowledge in that it continued the
modern enlightenment project of providing a warrant for the epistemic claims of science. However,
trying to ground science is one thing and trying to rationally ground ethics is another.
Does Rawls’s theory seek an external foundation for the activity of upholding and enforcing publicly
recognized rules of justice? Those who depict Rawls’s theory as foundationalist see his argument as
attempting to derive the value of justice itself from considerations of rational self-interest. Care is
needed. It is true that self-interest plays a crucial role in Rawls’s original position. But their
preferences over alternative principles depend on their appreciation of the way that different
principles, once enacted, would distribute a set of basic goods in which they all take a rational
interest; the social primary goods. They will instead opt for principles that provide maximum
protection to those most vulnerable. That principle provides everyone with a reasonable assurance
of a life free of indignity and exploitation. Do arguments along these lines indulge ‘foundationalism’
about ethics? Do they purport to identify a non-moral reason to take justice seriously? There have
been philosophers in recent years who have mobilized contractualist ideas to attempt to ground
ethics and justice, but Rawls was not one of them. He did not set out to address someone who lacks
it for who questions whether it is worth having.

Rawls provided a framework through which we can think through our institutions about justice in a
systematic way and (he hoped) eventually construct a detailed account that meshes with our settled
intuitions about justice as far as possible. It provides fine-grained recommendations about what just
societies must do. Is self-interest involved in the original position argument? He believed it
effectively modelled a key component of our basic sense of justice. How far should self-interested
complaints be recognized and upheld in a just society? Rawls thought that they should be recognized
insofar as they reflect citizens’ interest in the social primary goods an no further. He is trying to limit
on self-interest claims. It is not unjust for the least advantaged groups to demand (say) that society
provides them with as large a share of income and wealth as it can afford, even though that demand
is self-interested. Conversely, it establishes that economically privileged individuals who resist any
redistribution of their income required by the difference principle unjustly put their own interests
ahead of the requirements of justice. This sort of self-interest Rawls’s theory marks as unjust.

Political philosophy after Rawls: There are basically three rough categories of Anglophone political
philosophy that developed after Rawls.

A first group of theorists accepts that Rawls was asking the right sort of questions, but argues over
whether his conclusions about justice, and his distinctive way of defending them, are satisfactory.
There are six general criticisms:

 Rawls underestimates liberty: For Nozick, liberty is meaningful only if it includes the right to
engage in gainful economic and a right to keep the profits one reaps from it. Coerced
redistribution of earned income in the form of taxation is fundamentally unjust.
 Rawls and equality: under Rawls’s proposal, members of the least advantaged group receive
the same whether they are lazy or industrious. Rawls’s index of social primary goods ignores
natural differences in needs. Others claim that what matters is sufficiency.
 Rawls underestimates community: Rawls’s theory has acquired a reputation as
problematically individualistic. The question is whether thinking about social justice in this
individualist and a-contextual fashion is desirable.
 Rawls botches gender: should the organization of the family fall within the remit of a theory
of justice?
 Anti-perfectionism: Rawls’s contractualism requires that principles of justice be acceptable to
every reasonable person subjected to them. However, he also thought that reasonable
people inevitably differ in their conceptions of a good life. The framework of public
institutions must avoid taking a stance on any particular conception of the good life. Rawls
abandoned an old tradition of perfectionist political thought, which holds that claims about
the just or good society must ultimately rest on some true conception of human flourishing
or the good life.
 Rawls narrowly nationalist: Rawls restricted the application of his theory to a political
community like a modern nation state, and thus denied that his principles should be applied
to assess justice at a global, international, level.

Non-ideal casuistry: A second group is agnostic about the value of Rawls’s quest to specify an ideally
just society, but sees the success of his work as an opportunity to pursue parallel questions about
political ethics with the same sort of clarity that his writings exemplified. They have a wide range of
questions without sharing a single theoretical paradigm. The only thing that unites them at all is a
disinterest in Rawls’s commitment to ‘ideal’ theory.

Criticism: A third group rejects Rawls’s starting point outright, and disparages the quest for an ideal
account of social justice as fundamentally misconceived. They are most likely to complain about
‘analytic political philosophy’. They tend to agree that the genres of political philosophy we have
surveyed to this point problematically displace politics by fixating on ethics and morality. This
objection rests on the accurate observation that philosophers in the first two groups particularly
emphasize ethical and moral categories in their arguments. This moralization of politics is deeply
problematic. It prevents these writers from reckoning honestly with the real circumstances of
political interaction. It is strengthened by the failure of philosophers in the first two groups to
actually achieve a reasoned consensus about the implications of justice, or about any of the other
topics they have addressed. Theorizing about such moral concepts as justice is rarely a suitable basis
for serious social criticism.

Assessment: It is one thing to deny that the field of ‘our’ normative intuitions is in principle coherent
and seamless, but another to claim that distinctively ethical or moral claims can never motivate
serious social and political criticism. Critics in the third group sometimes caricature their
interlocutors’ commitment to ethical consensus in politics. They assume that the task of political
theory is to resolve institutional questions.

Conclusion: When commentators today speak of ‘analytical political philosophy’ they mainly have in
mind the first two genres reviewed here. Those who use the term in a pejorative way in order to
lodge some sort of criticism, usually intend the sort of reproaches made by philosophers in the third
category. The ‘analytic’ label does not helpfully specify either the categories or the reproaches.

Chapter 4 Ethics and politics

Introduction: What role does ethics play in politics and what role should it play? The dominant
tradition in Western political theory (first set out by Plato), makes the claim that reflecting on the
principles and ethical ideals that should guide political action is the most important task of the
political philosopher. Kant provided the most influential modern expression of this standpoint in
thinking about ethics in terms of first principles and this has recently been revived by John Rawls.
The main rival to this way of thinking within liberalism has been the consequentialist ethics
associated with utilitarianism, arguing that it is outcomes that should be used to judge whether an
action is right or not, rather than conformity to first principles. Various critiques that propose some
kind of contextualist ethics offer alternatives to both deontological (Kant and Rawls) and
consequentialist positions. These argue that political philosophers should concentrate on
understanding how politics works and how the world is actually ordered, rather than speculate about
ideal orders or use abstract concepts of the public good to judge politics. This contrast has been
expressed by the distinction between idealism and materialism/realisme. Within the idealist tradition
there is also a more recent contrast in contemporary liberal political theory between ideal and non-
ideal theory.

Ideal and non-ideal theory: Ethics denotes moral systems or rules of conduct. It is inseparable from
how we understand human activity, and from politics. The debate about the relationship between
ethics and politics is about what kind of ethics should apply. Ethics is embedded in practices. It is the
reflection on those practices that allows ethics to be codified, and once codified, ethics then takes on
a life of its own. The debate is about whether the various ethical codes that are available to us has
any relationship to how people in politics actually behave.

Many of the most powerful ethical codes had their origins in religion. Philosophers have always been
interested in these codes and many have set out their own accounts of first principles, like John
Rawls. He defended the ideal theory and the purpose of this theory was to develop a political
conception of justice that relied on ideals to specify a reasonable and just society, and was therefore
in the strict sense utopian. Rawls maintained that a realistic utopia did not mean a compromise
between power and political right and justice, but should set limits to the reasonable exercise of
power. He contrasted this idea of ideal theory with non-ideal theory, which explicitly introduced
conditions that were not the best possible. Critics of Rawls wanted to develop non-ideal theory while
rejecting ideal theory. For them, realistic utopia is a mirage that is more of a hindrance than a help in
developing an effective non-ideal theory. The starting point has to be the non-ideal conditions of the
real world.

Ideal theory remains potent. Why place restrictions on what we can hope for, just because we
cannot immediately see our way to achieving it? There have been many forms of ideal theory, which
differ amongst themselves, but the common thread is the belief that principles for a just or a free or
an equal social order can be identified through rational reflection. Kantian and deontological
approaches assert that there are principles of conduct, which all individuals at some level
acknowledge as valid, and which in some accounts reflect fundamental features of human beings.
Robert Nozicks work (Anarchy, State and Utopia) argues: individuals have rights and there are things
no person or group may do to them without violating their rights. Any political arrangement which
can be shown to violate individuals’ rights stands condemned. A minimal state can be justified, but
very little beyond it, since from his ethical standpoint all forms of government taxation that
redistribute income and wealth and provide services must violate individual rights. The state has to
be completely dismantled if the individual is to be free. All existing state services must either be
provided by voluntary exchange or not at all.

Rawls’s influential attempt to restate a theory of justice by rethinking the idea of the social contract
was different from Nozick, but what they had in common was the belief that the way to proceed was
to develop an ideal theory – idealizing the conditions in which the theory would be applied, and
abstracting from history and from actual politics in order to set out their favoured principle of justice
in the sharpest and most consistent manner.

The reaction against these kind of theories are being made more strongly. Critics argue that Rawls’s
veil of ignorance transports us to a realm which is outside human experience. Does it then have
anything much to tell us about real politics? However, if his conception was so far removed from any
political experience as to make it unintelligible to us, it would not be interesting. He was trying to
make the existing arrangements of American society intelligible to its citizens, bringing out the logic
of the existing principles of justice that underlay the pattern of inequalities and the pattern of
distribution, and showing how their character could be better understood. He did not seek to claim
universality for his theory. He restricted his attention to the US society in the 2nd half of the 20th
century. In his writings on international affairs, Rawls carefully distinguishes between liberal and non-
liberal peoples. In the Law of the Peoples he develops Kant’s ideas of the conditions for a liberal
peace. The principles of social justice that emerge from the ideal conditions arrived at under the veil
of ignorance for a national society can become principles of international justice, through a second
contract made between the representatives of justly constituted societies: League of liberal peoples.
It includes the principles as equal rights, self-determination, the right of self-defence and non-
intervention. States achieve social justice within their own jurisdictions and this provides the basis for
it to be generalized. This approach is similar to that of Kant who accepted the division of the world
into separate national jurisdictions, but still maintained that there was an appropriate set of rules for
each level of the global order. Achieving a legal constitutional order at the national level was the
passport to membership of the legal constitutional order at the next level.

Rawls saw strict practical limits to the universalizing of the principles of justice, but argued that,
nevertheless, they were advancing in the contemporary world as more peoples became liberal
peoples. The European Union is a good example. The threshold for EU membership is much higher
than that for the membership of the UN. It makes the EU a Kantian league in a way that the UN is

The creation of abstract standards, either in political theory is intended to raise the bar for what is
possible politically. There has been made some substantial progress: more states can be considered
as a democracy and democracies do not fight one another is a solid theory. But huge equalities still
exist throughout the global economy and there is the difficulty of reconciling them with principles of
justice. There is a lack of meaningful international forums where these issues can be addressed
substantively, rather than rhetorically. It is this disjunction between a world of ideal theory and ideal
distributions and the reality of world politics that makes many questions the value of much
contemporary normative theory.

Utilitarianism: Treating politics as applied ethics is not anything particularly new. Apart from the
deontological liberalism of Kant and his followers, the other main strand has been the
consequentialism of Bentham and the utilitarians. It shares with Kant that politics should be applied
ethics, but they disagree on what the content of the ethics should be. Utilitarianism puts the
emphasis always on consequences, not on first principles. Bentham uses the ‘Greatest happiness of
the greatest number’ criterion for judging public policy. As an ethical principle it has proved to be
extremely powerful. It is concerned with substantive outcomes, rather than procedural principles.
Utilitarianism derives its account of the good from a highly abstract account of human nature, which
isolates the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the main drivers of human behaviour
and forms the basis for the utilitarian account of self-interest. It leads to a focus on that aspect of
human behaviour which is rational in so far as it is concerned to maximize utility. Techniques like
cost-benefit analysis and game theory are contemporary manifestations of utilitarianism.

Friedrich Hayek combines Kantian and utilitarian arguments to advocate the kind of society based on
free market principles that Hayek favours. He also treats politics as applied ethics. He first establishes
the principles and procedures of a liberal order: the Great Society as an abstract ideal order. The
shape of this order and its requirements can, however, be grasped by the human mind, which allows
political action to prevent others from destabilizing it or interfering with its spontaneous
mechanisms. Although the general cast of his thought was Kantian he was increasingly drawn to
utilitarianism to provide ethical justification for the kind of social and economic arrangements that
he favoured. Capitalism was the most ethical economic system because only capitalism could feed
the world’s population. Spreading capitalist institutions to all part of the world was therefore not
unethical, but the most ethical policy that could be pursued.

Real politics: The main alternative to understanding politics as applied ethics has been various kinds
of realist and contextualist understandings of politics. Some argue that politics has its own ethics,
and that invoking external ethical criteria or the taking of abstract moral positions has no relevance
to real politics. Realist traditions come from Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville and Marx. The realm of
politics and political action is seen as separate from moral discourse. The moral rules that govern
private life do not apply, or should be set aside if political action is to be effective and achieve its
goals. The point is not that the political realm is a world without morals and rules of conduct, but
that it is significantly different from other realms, because the rules that emerge and are upheld
depend on the distribution of power and the way in which power is exercised. A similar distinction is
drawn from this tradition between the domestic and the international. States are often bound by
different rules in their internal dealings with their citizens than they are in their dealings with one
another in the international state system or with the citizens of other states. Guantanamo Bay is an
example of this.

Cosmopolitans wish to deny that distinction and close the gap. States and foreign nationals should be
subject to the same ethical principles as private citizens, both internally and externally. These ethical
principles should be enshrined in international law and obeyed by all governments.

The contextualist position is advanced by Raymond Geuss. Politics is about action and the context of
action, rather than about unanchored beliefs and propositions. It is necessary to think about politics
historically. Gaining a fuller understanding of the circumstances and characteristics of a location is a
minimal precondition for having sensible human desires and projects. This makes politics a craft, and
not something to which you can apply a theory, ethical or otherwise. Oakeshott argues that politics
had to be understood as an activity and not as something that could be distilled into a set of maxims
and principles. His argument derives from Edmund Burke and he is very hostile to any change
determined on abstract rational principles. Rawls believed that the pressing problems of a particular
society could only be fully understood and engaged with by first imagining what a perfectly just
society would be like. Oakeshott’s objection to this way of proceeding is not to theory as such, but to
theory divorced from its practical context where it alone can make sense. He does not belief in
universal ethical principles. All forms of practical activity, including politics, involve a special
relationship between theory and practice, and it is not one in which theory is superior to practice,
rather it is embedded in that practice and helps to constitute it. Contextualist accounts of politics
lead to very particular views of the nature of politics and political action. Geuss starts from the
position that while human interaction and co-operation are both essential to politics as an activity,
neither can be taken for granted. There is always huge potential in human affairs for conflict,
instability and disruption. There are no universal ethical principles that can be applied, only a
changing set of meanings. Guess sharpens this analysis further by arguing that there are three basic
questions to be asked about politics. The answers to these questions supply the key to understanding
politics. There are ethical issues involved, but they are integral to the focus on power, on interests
and on agency. Much ideal theory seems uninterested in power.

 Lenin: Who Whom  who does what to whom for whose benefit? Guess seeks to
understand different forms of power. This means that we should focus on empirical
examination of the different forms that power can take: coercive, persuasive, charismatic
and strategic powers among them. We cannot begin to understand how politics works unless
we understand different forms of power and how they are utilized in different contexts.
 For Nietzsche the most striking feature of human existence is its finitude, so the question
that must always be asked about politics is what do individuals value and what, in
consequence, are the choices that they make in their everyday lives? Politics appears to be a
constant process of evaluating and choosing between alternatives. There has always to be an
act of will to choose on value over another. For Nietzsche and Foucault, an agent could well
choose the ethical principles of ideal theory but these would not have any greater intrinsic
authority than any other set of values, Their authority would rest on their practical efficacy,
not on their theoretical coherence.
 Max Weber: what gives legitimacy to politics and makes order and obedience possible? One
of the most important functions of politics as an activity is to provide legitimacy. Weber’s
particular definition is controversial, because it is an empirical one, rather than a normative
account. Legitimacy can, therefore, be conferred as easily on a dictatorship as on a
democracy. Politics as applied ethics has no meaning in this world.

The main objection to making these three questions the heart of our understanding of politics is that
it elevates context above principles, and downplays the importance of values and ethical

Globalization and the global community: What are the implications of these different approaches to
actual political problems? A relevant example is the writing on globalization, global community and
global civil society. One of the characteristics of normative theorizing about politics has been that it
takes the whole world and the entire human species as the object of enquiry. This is the subject of
many of the chapters in this book. Is the world a community? Most do not think that the world is yet
a single political community, but they do argue that it can be considered a single moral community.
The recent interests in globalization has made it seem that there might be reconciliation between
normative theorizing and empirical studies of world politics; namely the possibility of a genuine
international community observing universal norms and standards.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, the belief in progress collapsed. The foundations of the liberal
economic order collapsed and the international class solidarity perished in 1914. Yet the dream of
international co-operation and of transcending competitive nationalism in an international
community remained strong. The League of Nations and the principles of national self-determination
were essential parts of this vision. However, it never achieved the authority or the capacity required
to institute an international rule of law. The inability of the League of Nations to prevent WWII
seemed to mark the nadir of liberal fortunes and the hopes for a universal community. After the War
the US moved to establish a new liberal word order, a large part of the world did not participate and
a cold war developed. In the last quarter of the 20th century, normative liberal theory experienced a
remarkable revival. What does seem to be true is that progress towards the creation of a liberal
world order and the evident economic progress of Western liberal societies reawakened liberal
hopes about the possibility of advancing once again towards a universal community. This era of
liberal peace has been interrupted by new wars, new security threats and financial collapse, but it
has allowed the discourse of rights and justice to flourish as the dominant way of thinking about
global political issues. There have been a growing number of international agencies, many instances
of pooled or shared sovereignty, the establishment of new policy regimes encouraging collaborative
arrangements, new social movements etc. There are more states classified as democracies and there
is a greater degree of acceptance of certain universal concepts such as human rights.

From within liberalism this position is strongly critized by Hayek and many neo-liberals. They accept
the global liberal economic order, but argue that a global liberal political order is unachievable, and
that by trying to achieve social justice by applying ethical principles would have catastrophic
consequences. It is in the discussion of such contemporary questions of international politics as
whether intervention in the affairs of other states can be justified, that some of the most complex
problems of the relationship of ethics and politics are raised.