Ethical and Aesthetical Dimensions
Edited By António Marques and João Sàágua
The essays presented here are the outcome of research carried out by members of IFILNOVA (Institute for Philosophy of New University of Lisbon) in 2016.
The IFILNOVA Permanent Seminar seeks to show how values are relevant to humans (both socially and individually). This seminar is the ‘place’ where different research will converge towards a unified viewpoint. This includes the discussion of the following questions: What is the philosophical contribution to current affairs and decisions that depend crucially on values? Can philosophy make a difference, namely by bringing practical reason to bear on these affairs and decision? And how to do it? Which are our scientific ‘allies’ in this enterprise; psychology, communication sciences, even sociology and history?
This volume shows the connection between practical rationality and values and covers the dimensions ethics, aesthetics and politics.
Political ethics as a functional requirement of democracy: sketching a theory of political values in democratic systems (Gabriele De Angelis)
Social theory abandoned the topic of political legitimacy long ago. Max Weber set forth the last truly influential theory that a few scholars still occasionally attempt to follow up on (Beetham 1991). Dominated by political moralism, political philosophy disregards the (thus far admittedly insufficient) contribution of the social sciences, and frames legitimacy in terms of adequacy to pre-political moral principles – an approach to which minority opinions only pose a minor challenge despite their at times noble source (Rorty 1991, Williams, 2005). And yet, a theory of legitimacy with both normative relevance and descriptive capacity is possible through an analysis of political ethics as a “functional requirement” of a political system. What follows is a sketch of such a theory that builds on Niklas Luhmann’s intuitions (2002, 2008).
1. Political theory between moralism and realism
In contemporary political theory, democratic legitimacy is most commonly conceptualised according to either one of two models: the “moralism” that characterizes the bulk of contemporary political liberalism, or realism. Moralism sees legitimacy as a fulfilment of pre-political ethical principles to which political institutions are supposed to conform. Such principles tell us what legitimate political institutions look like ← 175 | 176 → and, vice versa, real existent political institutions can be said to be legitimate if and only if they conform to such principles.1
Realism is more multifarious than moralism. Williams’ realism focuses on the Hobbesian task of securing “order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation” (2005: 3). The accomplishment of these tasks requires taking into account the historical circumstances in which order has to be established and qualified, and includes a number of variables of which moral principles are a component among others (2005: 77). Realism is, however, a less cogent theoretical attitude than moralism. A frequent line of thought reproduces the early modern distinction between ethics and politics as a distinction between ends and means.2 Another, also frequent, version of realism consists in a prudential assessment of the scope of ethical consensus in contemporary societies, and concludes that democratic politics can be justified as avoidance of uncontrolled political conflict, and as a space for peaceful controversy and the exercise of public reason, mediation and negotiation (Bellamy 2010; see also Galston 2010 and Philp 2010).
Both moralism and realism accept the distinction between descriptive and normative approaches to politics, and take up the classic, already Machiavellian, distinction between morals and politics as two different and autonomous systems of norms, the first belonging to the domain of philosophy as a “normative” discipline, the latter belonging to political science as a “descriptive” discipline of political behaviour and institutional systems. Similarly, Dahl distinguishes between theories that are “essentially ethical” in character and theories that attempt to give us a picture of the world “as it really is” (Dahl 1956: 1).
Theories that attempt to do the latter often construe legitimacy in terms of expressed consent: a power relationship is legitimate as long as “it can be justified in terms of [people’s] beliefs” (Beetham 1991: 11) independently of whether those beliefs are worth sharing from our point of view. The social scientist suspends his/her own judgement and attempts to look at power and legitimation from the point of view ← 176 | 177 → of the actors involved: legitimacy – as long as it is considered as a social fact – is considered to be relative to the beliefs and expressions of consent of the actors whose political behaviour the social scientist observes and interprets.
As methodologically correct as this is, such an objectifying attitude is somehow unsatisfactory when it is applied to our own political world, in which the reasons why we should or should not agree with political acts is often hotly debated, and factual but dubious consent is often opposed to deserved and qualified consent. Such a normative evaluation is usually counted to the domain of political philosophy, while social scientists content themselves with detecting the presence and the sources of factual consent independently of its moral quality. Such a sharp distinction is, however, not necessarily reasonable as it can indeed be shown that our political world is structured in such as way as to make certain moral assumptions both more frequent and more justified than others. While we participate in our political world, moral assumptions are at work that cast mora than a doubt on whether too strict a distinction between social facts and moral justifiability is actually viable.
2. Beyond the opposition between descriptive and normative theories
In the division of labour between descriptive and normative theories there seems to be no room left for the idea that ethical principles might be present in a different form than as simple “beliefs”: ideas rooted in the heads of citizens and political actors with no real relevance for what happens in the political domain. In particular, in current political science or political theory, the idea is no longer pursued that a conception of legitimacy is paramount to the comprehension of political systems, so that too strict a distinction between a normative and a descriptive approach is untenable from the point of view of an effective analysis of political institutions as they are in political reality. ← 177 | 178 → Political institutions rest in fact on normative, ethical assumptions without which political processes would cease to make sense both to actors and observers. In other words, ethical principles can be shown as being the “salt” of political institutions and practices. This is an intuition that was clearly present at the beginning of political sociology and political science (for instance in the works of Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt) (De Angelis 2009).
A political system rests on a language of legitimacy as a key component of public communication so that a semantics of political ethics is a functional requirement of any political system. In particular, a democratic political system is characterised by a definite set of identifiable semantical layers by means of which actors and observers distinguish and communicate about the legitimacy of political acts and decisions, with such a communication being part of the political process itself.
The analysis of legitimacy as a component of public political communication is descriptive in as much as it identifies a set of semantical references as a presupposition for the functioning and understanding of a democratic political system. As such, it resists the temptation to affirm what ought to be from the point of view of Reason or truth. However, the distinction between a descriptive and a normative approach becomes less and less useful once we acknowledge that the normative assumptions that are inherent to democratic political institutions and communication are what we as citizens of democratic countries act upon in our political behaviour. Such a set of assumptions lies at the core of our political judgement. Political institutions rest on an ethical basis that invites us to question political behaviour against the background of normative assumptions that are valid inasmuch as they are part of the institutions that frame our political behaviour. These kinds of normative assumptions represent therefore a “tacit” knowledge (Polanyi 1966) that makes our political behaviour meaningful and intelligible. In particular, the here suggested approach analyses political institutions as the embodiment of ethical assumptions in a dialectical relationship between procedures and semantics, the latter being “functional requirements” of the former. Specific institutional mechanisms become intelligible only in the light of specific ethical assumptions. Without the latter, the former cease to make sense to their actors. Moreover, formal procedures are often ← 178 | 179 → structured in such a way as to “make true” certain ethical assumptions, as will become clear in the case of political representation.
3. The “circle” of democratic power
Any political system is characterised by a set of rules that determine who is authorised to make collectively binding decisions and how, i.e. by means of which procedures (Bobbio 1995: 4). In a representative democracy, such determination takes the form of a chain of authorisations that starts with a more or less complex and mediated selection of decision-makers by means of which citizens choose “representatives” in a regularly repeated electoral process. The rules of the game are such that decision-makers are chosen between alternative proposals of competing political personnel and platforms. They aim to ensure “responsiveness” and “accountability”, and therefore result in the indirect control of citizens over decision-makers. This is the kernel of democratic “freedom”: citizens are not free because they make the rules themselves, they are free inasmuch as decision-makers are not free to make the rules arbitrarily (Sartori 1994: 172). Political freedoms and rights are such as to ensure the smooth reproduction of such a “circle of power”.
A political system thus results in the alternation of inputs and outputs. In a democratic political system, the input consists principally in an electoral result that works as an authorisation for a definite set of people to make collectively binding decisions. These decisions (and their impact on social life) are the output of the political system.
Inasmuch as it is bound up with a mechanism of authorisation – and therefore with a set of expectations and decisions that are supposed to satisfy these expectations (“responsiveness”) – the relation of inputs and outputs already is an ethical relation in which a legitimising input represents a “request” that is to be interpreted and responded to through the output. The correctness of such an “interpretation” is tested by the periodical reiteration of the process of authorisation. ← 179 | 180 →
4. Input and output legitimacy, and sovereignty
In modern times, the “circle of power” depicted above is explained with the people’s “sovereignty”. The specific procedures that give to the political system its input-output structure tell us how such sovereignty is exercised and exactly what it consists of: it generally consists of the capacity to periodically (and more or less directly) determine who is authorized to make collectively binding decisions, while the legally valid procedures determine the specific articulation of such a general ethical relationship. Procedures are thus intelligible as embodiments of more specific ethical principles (such as the exact entitlements to the exercise of sovereignty, the interpretation that is given to political equality, the constitution of social, geographical and cultural subgroups as political constituencies, etc.). On the other hand, ethical principles only become effective by means of procedures. Ethical principles make procedures “meaningful” inasmuch as they are the reason why certain procedures are in place: for instance, for the sake of popular sovereignty, collective self-determination, freedom, etc. On the other hand, procedures tell us what kind of a difference ethical principles make in the practice. Generally, “popular sovereignty” makes the world different inasmuch as voters contribute to the periodical selection of decision-makers. More specifically, the exact entitlements will determine who is exactly part of “the people”, what “popular” therefore means, which specific cultural or geographic interpretation is given of the set of actors who share this entitlement.
However, the liaison between procedures and principles will also show the limits of the latter: in contemporary democracies, sovereignty can only be exercised indirectly by means of a relation of political representation, and is filtered by a complex set of institutional, communicative and organisational infrastructures. Moreover, procedures are independent of the ethical principles that they are supposed to embody inasmuch as time can change some of the sociological assumptions that are part of those principles, while the procedures continue to take place unperturbed. For instance, the feelings of the actors that compose a constituency may change throughout time as regards the reasons for ← 180 | 181 → their coexistence: separatisms may arise just like separations may lose their reason to be. Conversely, procedures can also become obsolete as they may be perceived as more or less satisfactory embodiments of a changing concept of sovereignty, representation, etc. Although institutional procedures are intelligible as embodiments of ethical principles, this does not mean that they are also their truthful implementation, nor does it mean that such an implementation would not be possible otherwise.
Far from being an endpoint, the double relationship between procedures and ethical principles is the starting point of political communication, for both the exact “embodiment” or realisation of ethical principles by means of institutional procedures and the reasonableness of ethical principles in the light of what we can actually achieve procedurally are open for discussion. Thus, the reform of an electoral system will likely be motivated through reference to a “better” representation of “the people”, the reform of an institutional system might prompt discussions about the exercise of sovereignty in a complex and multifarious constituency (as has been the case in Italy when elements of a federal system were introduced in 2001).
Despite historical mutations of procedures and semantical nuances, the interpretation of the electoral mechanism as an authorisation and of its reiteration as a form of accountability is a common feature of contemporary democracies. They make sure that decision-makers are not self-referential, but – on the contrary – interrogate themselves as to the “requests” that come to them from “outside” the political system.
What ought to be, however, the result of such an interrogation? Again, the history of political semantics provides us with “representation” (of the people’s interests, needs, etc.) as an apt normative reference.
5. “Representation” as an ethical relationship
What ought to be represented, and how, is subject to interpretation, but the semantical reference to representation is a starting point for political communication: something is expected to be represented and somebody ← 181 | 182 → is expected to represent something and somebody else. What, how and by which means will be a further object of political communication and, ultimately, a matter of choice, preference and evaluation by means of the electoral process. Notwithstanding its openness, a relation of representation fulfils the goal of entitling the represented people with the legitimate expectation to be the addressees and the arbiters of decisions and decision-makers. Thus, a formal procedure makes an ethical assumption true inasmuch as it prompts political actors to enact corresponding patterns of behaviour: as a political representative I will have an interest in being accountable to my constituency and will be motivated to interpret my role as a role of representation with a strong ethical character. And, vice versa, as a citizen and a voter I will also be induced to look at political representatives as more or less satisfactory interpreters of my political preferences, for it is the very structure of the political process that motivates me to do so.
Thus, representation calls for responsiveness and accountability. It requires that decision-makers address citizens as the ultimate sovereigns. “Representation” is one of the core assumptions of democratic politics in that it structures political communication around the need to interpret the citizens’ “will”, “needs”, “demands” and so on, and address them adequately. “Representation” shows how the relationship between formal procedures and ethical principles is structured in such a way as to make sure that not anything goes, but is also “loose” enough to open up a space for controversies, alternatives and civilized struggles.
The space for controversies that opens up in the interplay of ethical principles and institutional procedures allows for – roughly – two levels of communication: the first concerns the “content” of inputs and outputs, the second concerns the adequacy of the principles and procedures themselves. This is the point at which the “dialectical” relationship between procedures and semantics sets in: ethical principles become real only through their embodiment in procedures, while procedures are meaningful only against the background of some ethical principle. Political equality is a case in point. ← 182 | 183 →
6. Systemic approach vs. moralism: the case of political equality
In a representative democracy, political equality is realised by means of an institutional procedure that endows citizens with an equal voting right. Again, there might be exceptions, but they have to be justified against the background of such a general assumption of equality.
Indeed, as long as political equality is upheld as a principle and “equal voting right” is its key embodiment, exemptions will have to be publicly justified. This is the main consequence of having a principle and a corresponding procedure as normative paradigms: both work as a criterion in political communication in relation to which discussions are conducted, normative expectations structured, and justifications asked.
The ethical relationship between principle and procedure outlined here is different from what political moralism usually understands as a moral foundation of politics. Thus, political equality can surely be understood as the embodiment of a moral principle that a priori (i.e. from a non- or pre-political standpoint) determines what is politically legitimate. This is the case whenever we understand political equality as the embodiment of the equal moral standing or dignity of human beings, their mutual recognition, respect, etc. However, the relationship between ethical principles and formal procedures that is being pointed out here is different from the assumptions of political moralism inasmuch as the selfsame relationship is open to a plurality of moral interpretations, theories and scholarly attitudes. Enlightened self-interest or considerations of opportunity may also be sufficient to accept democratic rules as expressions of a necessary modus vivendi (Horton 2010: 440).
Thus, political equality and its embodiment through equal voting rights and weight can as well be justified prudentially inasmuch as I accept that the equal representation of all (alongside the constitutionally entrenched fundamental rights) is a guarantee against oppression that is simply necessary in a complex society in which several conceptions of the good and innumerable individual life plans coexist and compete with each other. In other words, I may accept political equality as a guarantee that the law will be obeyed although anyone would be inclined to exempt him/herself from obedience, as is the case in the Kantian “people of devils”: ← 183 | 184 →
The problem of the formation of the state, hard as it may sound, is not insoluble, even for a race of devils, granted that they have intelligence. It may be put thus: Given a multitude of rational beings who, in a body, require general laws for their own preservation, but each of whom, as an individual, is secretly inclined to exempt himself from this restraint: how are we to order their affairs and how establish for them a constitution such that, although their private dispositions may be really antagonistic, they may yet so act as a check upon one another, that, in their public relations, the effect is the same as if they had no such evil sentiments (Kant 1795/1903: 153–4).
Goodin also construes the principle “one person, one vote” not only as the enactment of a moral principle of fairness and reciprocity, but also as a safeguard against extreme decisions: since majorities are likely to shift throughout time, I may consider taking on a prudential attitude for fear that those that I put to a burdensome disadvantage when finding myself in the majority will pay me back in the same coin once I find myself in the minority (Goodin 1992: 85). Publicity, accountability and discursive defensibility are further examples of rules whose acceptability may rest on both prudence and morality.
While moralism takes steps from pre-political moral principles, the systemic approach shows that political procedures and principles of public political ethics are compatible with different moral beliefs. Such a pluralist understanding of morals in politics acknowledges that moral principles rarely are the ratio essendi or the historical origin of the political procedures that shape our political systems. A closer look at the moral debates that shaped the historical origin of our political institutions would show that moral reasons surely played a role, but it would also show that political institutions are not in place because a given moral principle has been universally acknowledged and applied at a certain given time. The historical origin of political institutions is far more complex than this, and results from a complex interplay of moral attitudes and circumstances as well as material, class and sectoral interests.
Nevertheless, the specific result of such an interplay of social forces is that political equality is a normative and institutional assumption lying at the basis of our political systems. It belongs to its semantics, i.e. to the fundamental assumptions of the political communication that takes place in it, and is solidly anchored in its political practice. “Equality” consists of an equal chance to determine who will be a decision-maker and (indirectly) what his/her agenda will be. For such a ← 184 | 185 → chance to be effectively used, further “functional assumptions” must be in place: equal access to information, and therefore freedom to produce information, freedom of speech, freedom to form political organisations, etc. (Dahl 1989: Ch. 8; 2006).
7. General vs. self-serving interest
Representation as an ethical relationship is undetermined enough to make room for different interpretations of what is to be represented and how. It is a choice of the representative to focus on concepts such as “interests”, “needs”, “demands”, or on actors such as “citizens”, “groups”, “classes”, etc. However, the history of modern political semantics provides us with a dominant dichotomy: the one between “self-serving” and “general” interest. Although it is difficult enough to define the concept of general interest (the indeterminacy of Rousseau’s concept of a “general will”, as opposed to a “will of all”, is indicative enough of such a difficulty), it is far less problematic to detect a self-serving interest. A particular interest as the interest of a few is usually what is not to be represented, unless it also serves a general interest or the interest of all (Shapiro 2003: 200) (as for instance in the justification of “trickle-down” economics). Exceptions are indeed possible, but must be motivated (as is for instance the case of “positive discrimination”) against a normative expectation that takes for granted that a general, not a self-serving, interest is what ought to be promoted.
What exactly is a correct interpretation of a general interest, or the interest of all, and what is just a self-serving interest is again open for discussion. (for instance, is trickle-down economics really in the interest of all, or is it just neoliberal hocus-pocus?). The conceptual opposition between the two kinds of interest does nevertheless shape citizens’ expectations as to the legitimacy of collectively binding decisions – a legitimacy that will be verified again in the course of the electoral process once decision-makers put their behaviour to the test of the ballots. Between one electoral process and the next, the concepts provide participants in political communication – be these opposition parties, protesters, ← 185 | 186 → civil society organisations, etc. – with a normative reference that they can use to shift public opinion in their own favour. In democratic politics – and as far as the citizenry is concerned (constitutional courts’ rulings are a somehow different matter) – it is ultimately the electoral process, i.e. a numeric result, that decides upon the quality (including the moral quality) of decisions and decision-makers. The interplay between normative criteria of political judgement (here: “semantics”) and formal procedure is such that no telos leads necessarily towards the discovery of the “real” general interest or political “truth”. The political process is not necessarily a cognitive process. The criteria in question are “empty” inasmuch as their content is necessarily controversial: citizens do not need to agree on what a general will is in order to successfully interact in political communication. It is enough that they share sufficient semantical reference points in order to be able to communicate and understand each other despite their disagreement. The simple fact that a general interest (or the interest of all) is what is, in principle, to be achieved in politics, while a particular will is usually what is to be avoided or subjected to specific justification, is enough to make sure that decision-makers will aim to depict their political choices as legitimate representations of the former, while the opposition will aim to make them out as expressions of a self-serving (or a failed expression of a general) interest.
Both the formal procedures of democratic regimes and the semantical opposition between general and self-serving interest serve the goal of stimulating the generalisation of particular, individual or sectoral interests, as political actors strive for the formation of an electoral majority. Whatever kind of interest an actor represents, he/she will hardly be able to reach a political majority if what he/she represents cannot be shown to match some kind of “general” or collective interest. In order to achieve such a majority, political actors must rely on public communication and its categories of political judgement. The restrictions to which particular or self-serving interests are subject in public communication favour the framing of interests in terms of more general, encompassing, overarching or collective interests. Insofar as democratic procedures include public discussion and justification, the generalisation of interests is part of results in a sort of Kantian “public use of Reason”. ← 186 | 187 →
8. “Individualism” as a functional requirement of democracy
Besides lying at the core of an ethical relationship between representatives and constituency, political equality and its institutional embodiments produce a further ethical consequence: the imputation of political choices to individuals. Citizens bear responsibility for their electoral choice inasmuch as they are the starting point of the electoral procedure. Therefore, a political system based on citizens’ choice – exercised through the casting of a vote – institutes individual responsibility for the consequences of the votes cast – and therefore individual autonomy of judgement – as two fundamental moral assumptions. Participation, abstention, knowledge, ignorance, degree of information, etc. will all be ascribed to the individual as a citizen of a democratic society. I will be the author of my behaviour and the sole person responsible even if I choose not to know and not to participate. The individualisation of the procedure paves the way for a series of imputations and claims: the claim to receive sufficient access to relevant information, to be put in the condition to best exercise my political autonomy, etc. Thus, a democratic political system also institutes an ideal of the democratic citizen, who is supposed to get access to information, to debate, to develop cognitively consistent attitudes and make his/her choice accordingly. It is well known how much political reality differs from such an ideal of the democratic citizen (Zolo 1992: 111–20). Nevertheless, the primary effect of such a mechanism of imputation of rational or reasonable choice is to open up a space for controversies about access to and quality of information, freedom of the press, manipulation, rationality, etc. It is the normative background against which citizens of a democratic society conduct their debates about the quality and openness of public communication, and the degree to which it is conducive to the kind of responsible and autonomous choice that the institutional context presupposes. Again, such a normative background is purely political inasmuch as it is independent of whatever “natural” or pre-political moral assumptions I may want to make with regard to human beings. It is a consequence of the political institutions we live in. Nor are these normative assumptions undermined by scepticism towards political elites: ← 187 | 188 → the disenchanted citizen that blames the untrustworthiness of representatives actually acts upon the same assumption, and is just shifting responsibility to the person or organised group that obtained his/her consent under false pretences.
9. Political ethics in the social sciences
Although “counterfactual”, the link between ethical principles and formal procedures bears important consequences for political life in that it determines the grid of cognitive criteria through which we look at and communicate about democratic politics. Such a link binds political actors to give allegiance (or at least pay lip service) to given ethical standards. On similar grounds Skinner argues against the idea that political actors’ profession of belief in political ethics is at best an ex-post rationalisation: although the acknowledgement of such principles can be merely ideological or straightforwardly manipulatory, it does nevertheless make a difference inasmuch as it subjects political behaviour to collectively valid standards of ethical judgement (Skinner 2002: 145).
The ethical meaning of legal procedures belongs, in sum, to the “functional requirements” of politics. It structures public communication around a definite set of normative expectations, offers criteria for assessing individual behaviours on the basis of ascribed responsibilities, determines political roles and traces the boundaries of political entities (such as “the people”). In complex societies, such a liaison between ethical principles and formal procedures includes a “reduction of complexity” inasmuch as innumerable individual wills, preferences and interests are summed up in the (ideally) dual relationship of political minorities and majorities. Citizens are as well encouraged to link up to other people’s different wills, interests and preferences, as their own claims have having to pass the test of generalisability while striving for political majorities. This results in a further ethical relationship that involves the members of a constituency: political behaviour and decision-making will tend to be structured in such a way as to satisfy the need to respond to a collective “will” or interest. ← 188 | 189 →
The intimate connection between ethical principles and formal procedures provides citizens with a set of cognitive criteria for political judgement by means of which they can communicate and understand each other in public communication. Nevertheless neither the ethical principles nor the formal procedures are fully determined by each other: there are several interpretations of popular sovereignty as there is more than one procedure to enact it. Democracies are also dynamic political systems inasmuch as the relationship between ethics and procedures shifts throughout time, propelled by the struggle for new political majorities, political opportunities and semantical innovations. The “ambiguities” of the ethical principles, their openness for ever further interpretation and reconsideration as well as the questionability of formal procedures (how apt are they to embody the ethical principles on which they rest? what are their unintended consequences?) are all dynamic elements in the evolution of political systems.
The study of “embedded” political ethics opens a new perspective on legitimacy. It shows that the interplay of ethical semantics and formal procedures represents a key element of everyday normative assumptions in political communication and behaviour. Political ethics emerges as an ingredient of formal procedures beyond both the straightforward distinction between normative and descriptive approaches and the opposition between moralism and realism in political theory. It may represent a new paradigm for the study of political ethics from the point of view of the social sciences, while having a positive impact on political theory inasmuch as it casts light on the normative assumptions that are a functional part of everyday political life.
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1 On moralism, see Williams (2005).
2 A contemporary version of such a theory is presented by Bobbio (1984) and Coady (1991).