Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Jonathan Leader Maynard and Alex Worsnip‘s “Is There a Distinctively Political Normativity?” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and is available through open access here. Alice Baderin has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
The last ten to fifteen years have seen a growing number of calls for a reorientation of political theory in a more ‘realist’ direction. Realist critics, many of them drawing on the writings of Raymond Geuss and Bernard Williams, have charged analytical political theory with fundamentally misunderstanding the relationship between political theory and real politics. Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s paper focuses on an important strand of this realist critique, which holds that political theorists inappropriately subject politics to moral standards, when political theory should in fact deal (at least in part) in a distinctively political form of normativity. The authors carefully reconstruct five main arguments for the existence of a ‘distinctive, non-moral form of political normativity’, and they convincingly argue that each is unsuccessful.
A major contribution of Leader-Maynard and Worsnip’s discussion is to place the realist claim about the distinctiveness of political normativity more firmly in the context of the wider contemporary literature on normativity. There is something of a tension in realism here: Whilst realists commonly emphasize the need for a sharper separation between political theory and ethics, many of their arguments implicate political theory more deeply in complex meta-ethical debates. Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s paper helps us to trace these connections when it comes to realist claims about political normativity. In so doing, they give us a better sense of what is at stake in claiming that a particular form of normativity is distinct.
I will start my comments by summarizing the key moves in their argument. Then I offer two critical thoughts. First, I suggest that the authors could do more to draw out the attraction of the broader realist view that political theory is autonomous from ethics – of which the claim that there is a distinctively political normativity is just one form. Second, I think there are also significant costs to the realist view that Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s account does not recognize. Thus I suggest that realism is at once more and less appealing than Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s discussion suggests.
Five arguments for a distinctively political normativity
Leader Maynard and Worsnip begin with some helpful clarificatory remarks about the framing of the debate between realists and moralists over the character of normativity in the political sphere. Here they rightly warn against a pyrrhic victory for either side. Labelling every kind of normativity as moral would not render moralism true in any interesting sense. On the other hand, they caution realists against a ‘content-based’ approach to distinguishing political and moral normativity. The realist position becomes trivial if we claim a different form of normativity any time we find differently salient principles or considerations in different domains.
The paper then reconstructs five potential routes to a distinctively political normativity.
- The illegitimacy of enforcing (some) moral claims
First the authors consider whether morality underdetermines the legitimacy of political action, given the impermissibility of enforcing some reasonable or true moral principles. Here they rightly conclude that we do not need to reach for the notion of a distinctively political normativity to explain why it is illegitimate to enforce some moral principles through politics. Rather, ‘[t]his is just a special case of the more general point that it can be true that actor A morally ought to do action X, while also being true that actor B morally ought not to force actor A to do action X. Since this possibility is evidently coherent, even reading both oughts as moral, there is no need to introduce a distinctive political ought to make sense of such a structure’.
- The need for politics to resolve disputes
The second argument addresses a key theme in realist thought, concerning the centrality of disagreement in politics and political theory. Specifically, if morality cannot resolve what to do when we face deep disagreement over moral questions in the political sphere, then perhaps we need distinctively political principles to guide us? Here the authors press two responses. First, the problem of disagreement threatens to recur for the realist, insofar as he also advances a normative agenda with his political principles. Second, if the claim is that we need thinner and potentially less controversial normative principles for political decision-making, this seems to put realism on roughly the same terrain as procedural moralism.
Here the authors point to a problematic equivocation in realist writings, between a de facto sense of resolve (to get actual agreement on the correctness of an answer) and a normative sense of resolve (to yield an answer as to which party to the disagreement is right). They emphasize that moralists are committed to the view that their moral principles resolve disagreement in the normative, not the de facto sense. The realist is on dangerous territory if he casts doubt on the coherence of the latter normative sense of resolution, given his commitment to a notion of genuine political normativity.
- A metanormative difference?
The third route the authors consider identifies realism with a form of constructivism about political normativity; a view on which ‘while normative political claims can be true or false, they cannot ever be true (or false) in a way that is entirely independent of our minds (including our attitudes, beliefs, endorsements and volitions) and actions’. There is a potential route to distinguishing political and moral normativity here, if only the former is understood in constructivist terms. However, the realist then faces the challenge of justifying a bifurcated view of the metanormative status of political and moral normativity. As the authors point out, debates about constructivism in ethics and political theory have run in parallel, and it remains unclear how and why the arguments for and against constructivism would resist the boundaries between moral and political thought.
- A normative difference?
Fourth, the authors consider whether the difference between political and moral normativity might lie at the level of substantive normative principles. Here they reiterate a point they make earlier against content-based ways of distinguishing different forms of normativity: that we cannot move directly from a difference in the content of principles that regulate political and non-political spheres, to a claim about different forms of normativity. They show that efforts to identify a more radical normative difference between political and non-political morality, for example Philp’s claim that the former is systematically more consequentialist, are undermotivated. Why, they ask, would our stance towards side constraints on consequentialist reasoning resist the boundaries between political and non-political spheres?
- The relative “priority” of politics and morality
Finally, the authors turn to Bernard Williams’ famous claim about the priority of politics over morality. Here the paper is retreading some familiar ground in the discussion of Williams’ Basic Legitimation Demand: the requirement that some justification of the exercise of political power be offered to each subject. The offering of such a justification is, for Williams, part of what it means for a situation to be one of politics, rather than domination or brute force. Leader Maynard and Worsnip reiterate the objection that Williams’ conceptual move cannot give realists what they want, in terms of a distinctively political source of normativity. Instead Williams pushes the normative question back one step. Rather than asking why we should engage in one rather than another form of politics, we must now ask why we should engage in politics at all.
Two broader themes
By carefully distinguishing a number of different routes to the idea of a distinctively political normativity, Leader Maynard and Worsnip ensure that the realist position does not gain force by remaining vague. I find their analyses of each potential pathway individually persuasive. There are also two important broader themes that emerge from their discussion. First, they show that there are several realist messages that moralists can happily accept, without endorsing the more controversial claim about the existence of a distinctive category of political normativity. For example, moralists can affirm a sense in which there are political virtues – skills that make someone an instrumentally effective political actor – that are not moral virtues. At the same time, the moralist can maintain that ‘the enjoinment to employ those non-moral skills is still a moral one, derivative of the moral demand to achieve the end’.
A second broader message we should take away from the paper is that, in the effort to carve out a non-moral form of political normativity, realism risks unhelpfully flattening out or restricting the terrain of moral philosophy. In other words, there is a danger of relying on a caricature of morality in order to drive a wedge between moral and political normativity. For example, we should not buy the contrast at the cost of restricting the domain of morality to questions about how we ought to treat family and friends; or by treating morality as ‘conceptually tied up with a rather narrow range of extreme inflexible deontological prohibitions’.
The appeal of discontinuity realism
The claim of a distinctively political normativity is just one route by which realists have tried to move towards a more political form of political theory, distinct from applied ethics or moral theory. I think it is the promise of greater disciplinary autonomy that has underpinned much of the appeal of the realist current in contemporary political theory. As I understand it, the core realist argument is something like this: In order to do normative political theory, we need to theorize about politics; politics is distinct from other domains of life, including the spheres to which ethical thought applies; thus normative theorizing about politics cannot be, or look like, ethical theory.
I agree with Leader Maynard and Worsnip that the discontinuity picture starts to break down, once we seek to specify more precisely where the divide between ethics and political theory is located. However, given the significant appeal of the realist project within contemporary political theory, it is helpful first to understand its central attraction. The pull of realism lies in the thought that by treating political theory as akin to ethics, moralist political theory assumes away the very problem or subject matter of politics that it claims to address. In this form, realism purports to express a plausible principle for any adequate theory: In order to be a theory of, and for, a particular phenomenon, a theory must be consistent with the constitutive features of that phenomenon (Sleat 2016, p. 259).
The costs of discontinuity realism
Leader Maynard and Worsnip welcome the broader methodological turn in political theory as a ‘step forward’ for the discipline. I have more mixed feelings about the increasing focus on methodological issues. In particular, I think there is a risk that concern with problems about how to do political theory takes us further away, not closer, to any meaningful engagement with real world political problems. The methodological turn can also lead to an unproductive kind of disciplinary boundary patrolling: Where we try to determine which kinds of questions and projects have a legitimate role to play in the discipline, and which do not.
Here I want briefly to highlight two potential costs of the methodological turn in its realist form.
First, I want to call attention to a silence within realism, concerning how its demand to address politics from within relates to the feminist insight that politics is deeply intertwined with our personal choices and interpersonal relationships. I worry that the realist drive to identify and shore up the boundaries between political theory and ethics is in tension with some core feminist messages. More generally, discontinuity realism seems to close down productive space for tracing morally salient features of our relationships across political and non-political spheres.
Second, I think that the emphasis on the distinctiveness of politics leads realists to seek to settle, in theoretical terms, some questions that are more productively seen as subject to on-going empirical debate. For example, realism implicates complex empirical issues about the relationship between moral and political disagreement. Given the realist call for sensitivity to context and empirical detail, I think there are reasons internal to realism to worry about broad claims about the distinctive character of politics. A better way forward for the realist project would be to take up the demand for more empirically engaged and contextually sensitive forms of political theory, whilst setting aside the second order claims about the distinctiveness of moral and political thought.
Sleat, Matt (2016) ‘What is a political value? Political philosophy and fidelity to reality’, Social Philosophy & Policy 33: 252-272.