Purging the bad, leaving the politics

Impartiality in Context
October 2, 1998

Life is bad. That is the reason why we have politics. By trying to deal with the bad, politics does itself no favours, as life is apt to give politics a bad name. In modern democracies, politics itself is in denial about this, its apparent aim now being (as used to be said of Roy Jenkins) to take the politics out of politics. So democratic politicians, keen to sell the bad as good, take refuge in platitude, cultured violence, kiss-and-tell. Those, the masks of the bad, are of course merely other ways of being bad.

Symptom and cause are confounded in much current political philosophy, where the hope often seems to be that we might purge the badness of life by purging life of politics. Shane O'Neill's theoretical aim in this book aim is to reassert Jurgen Habermas's version of neutrality against other liberal and communitarian accounts of justice. Conventional battlelines pit liberal universalism against the glutinously "thick" local ethical norms of woaded hairies championed by communitarians such as Michael Walzer. O'Neill aims to stake out a middle ground between them. Walzer's "hermeneutic" reliance on shared understandings is held liable to violate impartiality. O'Neill quite rightly points out, however, that he is committed to the universalistic ideals of democracy and equality: even for Walzer, glories of the human zoo such as suttee and cannibalism just aren't cricket. O'Neill also persuasively criticises John Rawls for "isolating" the political from other ethical concerns. But it is optimistic to think that criticising Rawls from this direction will leave Habermas unscathed. If politics dooms Rawls's attempt to defuse political conflicts philosophically, it also dooms Habermas's hope that philosophy can set the terms of political engagement, when the terms themselves are a prime political issue.

In his more recent work Habermas has sought to show the "priority" of "communicative" action (whose aim is to reach consensus through understanding) over "strategic" action (the purely means-end calculation that Habermas sees as reigning in the market). This project has met with little success. O'Neill settles on the "Wittgensteinian" view that the priority is due to language learning. The thought is that linguistic rules require explicit agreement, so that the "strategic" use of language (eg to issue commands) must assume prior "communicative" agreement on the rules themselves. This is exegetically dubious: although in the Investigations Wittgenstein maintains that it is impossible to obey a linguistic rule "privately", it hardly follows that he thought that language consists of public rules. The point is rather that it is futile to think of linguistic competence as the grasping of rules at all, and the private language discussion is a reductio of such a view. Anyway, this fails to establish Habermas's priority claim: the content of a rule is as much in need of explanation as the language use it purportedly underwrites, and there is no obvious reason why a rule's content could not be disclosed via strategic rather than communicative action.

Recent liberalism, particularly in its neutralist form, largely fails to address the vagaries of political practice. Its attempt to redress this fault is the book's main coup. Indeed, O'Neill heroically sets about not merely to redress it, but to do so with one of its least propitious case-studies, that of Northern Ireland, where as the old joke goes, even the dog votes twice.

But little light is shed by Habermas's crucially vague formulation, which demands of apolitical solution that "all affected can freely accept the consequences ... that the general observance of a controversial norm can be expected to have for the satisfaction of the interest of each individual". Everything depends on whether those affected "can" freely accept a discursive norm. "Can" does not mean "will", so presumably amounts to "could". Without a fattened-up account of the conditionals underlying that, the likelihood is that "could" will become "should", the prescription being generated by speaker's whim. Without it, there's no reason to think that any specific political proposal will satisfy the Habermasian demand O'Neill thinks that this condition will require that "no citizen should suffer systematic political and social disadvantage because of a difference in national identity", which in his view "could be acceptable to all". The issue cannot be resolved by plebiscite, since the whole problem is where to draw the political boundaries on which enfranchisement for such a plebiscite depends. No political philosopher currently active has any good solution to this problem. And it is unsurprising that O'Neill's proposals go little further than fortune-cookie nostrums.

Glen Newey is lecturer in philosophy, University of Sussex.

Impartiality in Context

Author - Shane O'Neill
ISBN - 0 77914 3387 0 and 3388 9
Publisher - SUNY Press
Price - £44.55 and £14.75
Pages - 288

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