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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 no rest from ills for the city, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind.” Hampshire accepts the parallel between soul and city, and Socrates’ equation of justice with happiness. But he rejects what he takes to be the Platonic conception of happiness as a stable, pacific, and rational ordering of elements to be established first in the mind, then applied to society. (Whether this actually is Plato’s position is a matter we must address.) Hampshire suggests that we reverse course, first examining how justice and happiness are achieved in society and then considering whether those procedures have parallels in the functioning of the mind.

To do this, he writes, we must put off reflection on what a best, or ideal, society might be, and instead consider what all societies actually share. In Hampshire’s view, one essential feature of societies, no matter how they are governed, is that they must distinguish between two things: groups of people who make competing moral claims, and procedures for adjudicating those claims. He asserts that this division exists not only in liberal, democratic states but even in authoritarian ones: absolute monarchs establish ministerial councils, popes rely on ecclesiastical courts, dictators must listen to generals and admirals. If they are to achieve their own ends they all need at least some fair adversarial procedures in which different sides can be heard, however variously this principle may be interpreted in different times and places. Audi alteram partem —the legal principle that exhorts, “hear the other side”—is, Hampshire suggests, a universal feature of political life, and a good one. It permits those who must make decisions to hear a diversity of conflicting views, compare them, and then deliberate about the best course based on this experience, rather than relying on principles derived a priori. Political deliberation (universally) requires a kind of managed (pluralistic) conflict.

And so does the mind. Hampshire next asks us to imagine that our psychological faculties are divided just the way societies are: on the one hand we have a faculty of imagination that contrives stories, composes national anthems, and creates images of perfection—perfect love, the perfect society—that feed our desires; on the other we have as part of our makeup a faculty of “adversary reasoning” that establishes rules and procedures for adjudicating among our imaginings when they conflict. (He credits this image to both Giambattista Vico and Immanuel Kant.) The imaginative faculty lies at the root of culture, and therefore of human diversity; reasoning, by contrast, compares and weighs, and therefore is a universal faculty, in the sense that all men must deliberate, even if they arrive at different conclusions. Hampshire is skeptical of making too much of this parallel and has no intention of refuting Socrates’ image with his own. But he does want to warn us against the danger he sees in Socrates’ conception of mind, which can lead us to think of reason as an authoritarian ruler of the psyche, barking orders at our emotions rather than listening to them soberly and giving them their due. Justice in the soul and the city cannot require the imposition of rational martial law; justice necessarily depends on conflict, fairly conducted under rational rules of engagement.

For a disappointed democratic socialist with deep respect for liberal norms, this conception of political justice as fair “rules of the game” presents many advantages. It addresses a problem which recent liberal thinkers, beginning with John Rawls, have had trouble dealing with. That problem is how to extend the principles of justice derived in a society that shares a general conception of the good, or agrees on how different conceptions are to be treated, to those societies and parts of the world that are irreconcilably—sometimes violently—divided over these questions. Hampshire rightly states that the “confinement of reasonably acceptable principles of justice to liberal and democratic societies bypasses the outstanding political problem of our time, which is the relation between two kinds of society.” By avoiding this problem, liberal political theory has fed the impression that unless Western democratic norms are accepted in a particular part of the world, nothing can be said regarding justice there. Hampshire rejects this view on the grounds that we can always judge whether minimally fair procedures of disputation exist somewhere, even if the matters in dispute are alien or repugnant to us.

Had Stuart Hampshire stopped there his position might be understood as a reformulation and refinement of basic liberal notions of politics: the plurality of interests and ends, the requirement that they be represented, the concept of an impartial judge or set of procedures regulating the clash among them—all these are elements of the liberal outlook we have inherited from the Enlightenment. But the more one advances in his argument about conflict the more one wonders how persuasive is his conception of what liberalism requires, not at the level of principles but at the more fundamental level of human psychology.

Take, for example, his title. The phrase “justice is conflict” comes from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose thought has come down to us from antiquity in scattered and highly suggestive fragments. A large number of these fragments portray human life, and indeed the entire universe, as a battleground where cosmic forces meet. The entirety of the fragment Hampshire uses runs: “One must realize that war is common and conflict is justice and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict.” This fragment is closely related to another, and better known, one on the cosmological fecundity of war: “War is the father of all and king of all; some he has shown as gods, others men; some he has made slaves, others free.” It is more than a little puzzling that a self-described social democrat with liberal leanings should have felt obliged to appeal to Heraclitus to illustrate his more modest claim thatargument and deliberation require a rule-bound confrontation of views. It is even more puzzling that he does not address the larger claims made for conflict in these fragments, and can write confidently about his discovery of “Heraclitean truths” that can work “a kind of moral conversion” on us and open “a new way of looking atall the virtues, including the virtue ofjustice.”

But as he surely knows, these “Heraclitean truths” are not so innocent, or at least do not have an innocent history. In this century Heraclitus’ fragments have been used to adorn hard, belligerent doctrines that romanticized armed conflict as an original and productive force in human life, a stream of thought that included thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.* Having chosen a title from this source, one would have thought it wise to take up all the dark questions these fragments evoke, especially in a book of political psychology. But the passion for war and bloodshed—indeed, the problem of the passions in general—never makes an appearance in these pages.

The reason is that in Hampshire’s dualistic image of the mind all ourattributes that do not fall under the faculty of adversary reasoning are grouped under that of the imagination (or, as he sometimes calls it, emotion). No attempt is made to distinguish those features of imagination that might be ennobling or simply express taste from those that are intrinsically demeaning or even bestial. For a work that promises realism about matters of political psychology, there is an exasperating gentility that circumscribes its treatment of our deepest, and most troubling, drives.

Take, for example, the way in which Hampshire consistently describes conflicts, following current academic convention, as disputes over “conceptions of the good,” as if the parties (or psychological faculties) were driven by some well-considered end or future state of affairs. Some conflicts can be described this way; most cannot. I can have a passionate discussion with my bar mates whose “conceptions of the good” are hostile to my own and make a pleasant evening of it. But when someone enters a bar itching for a fight I know to finish my drink and pay up—not because our “conceptions” are irreconcilable but because he is no longer in his right mind. He has been seized by a passion, the passion for blood.

In the Republic Socrates takes a different, and to my mind more realistic, approach to the emotions by distinguishing between two general kinds. Some, like the desires for food, sex, or leisure, are essentially one-dimensional and are not comparative: they seek one thing single-mindedly up to a point of satiety. Other emotions, like the urges for honor and victory, feelings of pride and attachment, are not really appetites but neither can they be considered purely rational. It is hard to know what kind of appetite is satisfied when the home team wins, or what kind of rational case can be built for preferring, say, the New Jersey Nets to the New York Knicks. Yet if the Nets, through some act of God, manage to capture the NBA title, you can be sure that New Jerseyans will be elated and that home game attendance will rise. What is it about us New Jerseyans, or any of us for that matter, that gives rise to this emotion? Why do we feel passionate about things that satisfy neither our appetites nor our reason?

This is the major subtheme of the Republic, where the “spirited” faculty of the soul, as Socrates calls it, is discovered to be the decisive one in determining whether justice can actually be attained in the soul and the city. It is their “spiritedness” that controls whether men are law-abiding or not, whether they are courageous or cowardly in battle, whether they are cruel or kind, whether they are inclined to listen to reason or plug their ears to its call.

Near the end of the dialogue Socrates presents an extraordinary image of the soul that is meant to capture the relation among our psychological faculties and explain why their correct ordering is necessary for justice and happiness. Imagine, he says, a man who is forced to live with a lion and a hydra inside himself. Both are good for the man to have but together they present a problem: the hydra is by nature acquisitive and domineering, and cannot be trained; the lion is stronger and potentially more dangerous but he is trainable. If the man wants to be happy, Socrates argues, he must train the lion to obey his orders and help him keep the hydra in check; if the lion is lazy or, worse, joins forces with the hydra, the man will be overwhelmed by them and become their slave. Translation: The spirited passions are good, indeed they are essential to political and psychological health, but only if they are trained to listen to reason and to control our appetites.

One need not be a Platonist to be concerned about the passions in politics; one can also be a modern liberal. Indeed, to judge by the classic works of liberal political theory—those of Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, the Federalist writers, to name just a few—liberalism begins in reflection about the nature of the passions and how they can be kept under control in the political world. Such thinkers shared the hope of the French Encyclopedists that progress in the sciences would, if made public, loosen the hold of religion on the mind, making people less prone to superstition and fanaticism, if not necessarily more rational.

But they also shared the conviction that the development of a commercial bourgeois society would soften the passions and distract ambition away from politics so that it would become a less conflict-ridden place. Bourgeois liberals would perhaps have lower aspirations than aristocrats who once dreamed of conquest and passionately defended their honor, but they would also be less belligerent, more amenable to compromise and reflection. Hampshire may be right to maintain that “a duel fought to resolve a quarrel can be fair, in virtue of its procedures,” yet he seems not to have considered why so many Enlightenment liberals fought for so long to abolish dueling under any circumstances. Their reasoning was that inflated conceptions of honor, over which most duels were fought, excited all the wrong sorts of passions, which in the long run rendered citizens less capable of deliberation.

Hampshire’s position may be that he is not that sort of liberal, that he would prefer a messier world in which human beings were allowed their passions and where—he would hope—we would all learn to tolerate, and even contribute to, well-regulated political conflict. That could be a defensible position, but to be psychologically plausible it would have to reckon with the real danger that people accustomed to conflict would grow to resent the constraints imposed on them by the rules of the game and would cast them off at the first opportunity. To claim that “even the fanatic who is sure that he knows best in discriminating justice from injustice also knows that he must prepare himself with arguments to meet disagreement” is to assume that the fanatic has clearheaded views about both the end he seeks (justice) and the means necessary to achieve it (argument). But is that a reasonable assumption? Does it at all help us to understand the motivations behind, say, the butcheries in Rwanda or in Algeria today? Or do we need a richer political psychology, one that would recognize the central role of the passions in human activity and the moral necessity of keeping them in check?

Stuart Hampshire begins his stimulating book on a note of disappointment and ends it on one of resignation:

If either the rational requirement or the respect for custom breaks down and ceases to operate, we should expect catastrophe. Conflicts will then no longer be resolved within the political domain but will be resolved by violence or the threat of violence, and life will become nasty, brutish, and short.

The last refrain comes, of course, from the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, who described the “state of war” in just this way. But for Hobbes, and for the more liberal thinkers who followed after him, the state of war is the condition with which political philosophy must begin, not end. It was in contemplating the psychological conditions making such a state possible that Hobbes developed a theory of the passions and devised a system of government to control them. We may reject that theory today and recoil before Hobbes’s absolutist solution, yet we cannot sidestep his problem, which is at once psychological and political. It teaches us that the first question of political philosophy, “What is justice?,” implies a second, and much knottier, one: What are we to do with men and women for whom fairness has lost its loveliness?

  1. *

    See, for example, Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 61-63, and Carl Schmitt, Ex Captivate Salus (Köln: Greuen, 1950), p. 26.

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