Philosophy for a Messy World

Justice is Conflict, like all important works of political theory, was inspired by disappointment. Its author, for many decades a leading moral philosopher, admits this forthrightly in the opening sentences of the preface:

At least since 1970 I had been convinced that it was a mistake to look for a moral theory, or a set of propositions, that could serve as a justification, or foundation, of my political loyalties and opinions, which were, and which remain, the opinions of a democratic socialist. For me, as for many others, the political events of half a century had undermined belief in any discernible direction of historical change, or any known path of human improvement….

The postwar world has indeed been unkind to those who once believed that class struggle, rational planning, peasant revolutions, economic growth, the welfare state, decolonization, or even democratization would provide ultimate solutions to the age-old problems of politics. And Stuart Hampshire is right to see that these experiences have in our time bred skepticism about the very possibility of rational philosophical reflection about political life. Yet, as this elegant small volume sets out to show, such skepticism must and can be overcome.

The first order of business is to get straight what political philosophy cannot do. According to Hampshire, one thing it cannot do is provide universally valid principles for building a just society. Like his late friend Isaiah Berlin, he believes in the necessity of political action to achieve concrete goals in particular circumstances but is suspicious of those who wrap their positions in a tissue of principles claiming universal validity. Berlin was often accused of inconsistency on this score, on the one hand promoting a sober and restrained conception of “negative liberty”—the presumption against interference by government—and on the other celebrating the Romantic imagination that fed yearnings for a more fulfilling “positive liberty”; now defending the protection of basic human rights in every society, later sympathizing with those who defend their cultural particularities and traditions. Berlin, who named his doctrine “pluralism,” never succeeded in giving a completely persuasive argument for it. That task has now fallen to Stuart Hampshire, who offers a novel account of how to reason about the universal and particular in politics by examining the tensions between them in the workings of the human mind.

The notion that the basic structures of political life have psychological roots in the individual has been with us since Plato’s Republic, which records a long conversation about the nature of justice in both the “soul” and the “city.” Hampshire begins with this dialogue and with Socrates’ argument that neither the soul nor the city can be perfectly healthy until they are both brought under the rule of reason, which correctly orders the functioning of our faculties and our interactions in society. And the highest development of reason is philosophy.

Unless the philosophers rule as kings, or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize,” Socrates tells one young interlocutor, “there will be …

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