Thursday, 22 April 2010

Two Comments From Michael Walzer

In a recent interview there are a couple of comments made by Michael Walzer that bear some response. The first concerns a question that suggests Kantian ethics is better for personal situations whereas utilitarian ethics is preferable for a public environment. Before mentioning and responding to Professor Walzer's answer it is worth pointing out that the question implies a number of things difficult to accept, not least when being put to a political philosopher. Firstly, Kantian "ethics" is not the best rubric for discussion of politics it is true. But that is because Kant has a developed theory of politics, including international politics, through his investigation of right. If we contrast this with utilitarian accounts then it should be with similarly developed utilitarian notions of right and justice. Similarly, in more recent philosophy, it was the ambition of Rawls' Theory of Justice to set out a view that was as comprehensive as that of utilitarians, something that is not maintained in some respects in his late work but which is part of his intermediate notion of Kantian constructivism. Just as with Kant himself so with such a later "Kantian" as Rawls we find a view that is every bit as comprehensive as that of any utilitarian. 

Walzer's answer to this question, by contrast, refers to none of these points falling back instead on a basic contrast between "theory" and "real life", one that is hardly useful in the analysis of a political theorist. In the realm of "real life", whatever that may be, it is apparently a combination of approaches that is needed. As part of the rationale for holding this view Walzer refers to Kant's account of lying, neglecting, as is usual, to note that Kant's discussion of this is part of his account of "right" and has to be evaluated in that context and not presented in an absurdly absolutist one.

If this part of the interview with Walzer is deeply disappointing, the next comment on which I wish to focus is fascinating in the perspective it raises. On being asked whether the 20th century was "the best century" for philosophy Walzer robustly denies this pointing to the examples of Sartre and Heidegger in his support. The "century of Sartre and Heidegger" is equated with "a century of wilful obscurity and political idiocy". In making this remark Walzer conjoins two comments that are distinguishable. The notion that there is "wilful obscurity" in the work of either Sartre or Heidegger belongs to the old canard of a simple assumption of what clarity in philosophy means that I have objected to in a few previous postings. Why, amongst other things, pluck these two names from the century? Why not refer instead to "Frege and Russell", the former a racist and the latter someone whose later political attitudes, well summarized in the second volume of Ray Monk's excellent biography involved consistent support for totalitarian politics of the far left. Perhaps because the assumption that the latter two are somehow "clearer" than the former two is made so that the disastrous politics of the latter two are not thought so important. It could be said in riposte that neither Frege or Russell wrote philosophical works that were primarily political but in fact Russell, for one, traded heavily on his philosophical standing in the political stances he made and, furthermore, the philosophical works of Heidegger and Sartre are not primarily political either. This is not to defend the political positions of either Heidegger or Sartre, just to suggest that Walzer has, in this comment, made the usual move of attacking European thinkers for being, in some unclarified sense, characterized as "obscure" with this alleged obscurity connected in some sense to undesirable politics.

Walzer contrasts John Rawls with the figures he attacks hailing Rawls as a towering exception. This contrast is peculiar in the sense that Rawls was consistently engaged in political philosophy unlike the thinkers Walzer castigates. The suggestion that 20th century philosophy should be uniquely characterized in terms of disastrous political positions taken by philosophers is, in any event, hard to argue since there is a long tradition of philosophers adopting many political positions, including Aristotle's defence of slavery and Plato's apologia for tyrants. The quality of political philosophy is Walzer's specific concern in which case there is a good case for saying that those who gave political philosophy specific attention did include some who were of the first rank. Finally, when Walzer refers to previous centuries mentioning the era of Hume and Kant, amongst others, it is worth pointing out that even in such eras there were many poor philosophers and many capable of defending lots of things that are hardly defensible.

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