Monism, Pluralism and Relativism
In this article I want to re-examine the issue of moral conflict and argue that certain explanations of this issue are particularly problematic in relation to the distinction between the concepts of the private, the public and the political, and that we should follow a different approach towards understanding the inner connection between moral conflict and politics. Therefore the first part of the argument, which has been most often associated with the work of thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin (2002), Steven Lukes (1991, 2008), John Kekes (1993, 2000) and Charles Larmore (1987, 1996, 2008), is that there is a phenomenon, or set of phenomena, that can be recognised as inescapable moral conflict. Based on the interpretation of this phenomenon, or how one makes sense of it, we can categorise philosophies, and thus political philosophies, as monistic, relativistic and pluralistic. More specifically, the position defended in this article is that moral pluralism, as a meta-ethical theory, is a better alternative than either moral monism or relativism. Then, in the second part of the argument I turn to the problem of the distinction between the private, the public and the political. This categorical tripartite scheme can be used to demonstrate how moral pluralism plays out in thought and practice, and the argument is that the three domains of activity are distinguished precisely because they require different, and sometimes incompatible and conflicting, moral orientations. Pluralist thinkers such as Thomas Nagel (1978, 1991), Stuart Hampshire (1978) and Michael Walzer (1973) have identified and demonstrated the moral difficulties and complexities of distinguishing between different spheres of human action but have not offered a clear and concise account of how the pluralistic approach can categorise and propose to solve these difficulties. The second part of the argument purports therefore to remedy this weakness of pluralistic theory.
Monistic philosophies are based upon the assumption that the source of morality is unitary and that, as a result, total moral coherence in our world is possible. In turn, they would reject in principle the possibility that a real, that is theoretically insoluble, moral dilemma or conflict can ever exist. Hence, this kind of philosophy tends to generate theories of private, public and political activity clear of moral ambiguities. Pluralistic philosophies, on the other hand, start from the assumption that both theory and experience teach us that there cannot be a unitary account of morality, and thus that coherent human activity in different realms of action is problematic and requires philosophical attention. Finally, philosophies of moral relativism are similar to pluralistic philosophies in that they accept the plural and thus problematic nature of morality, but they differ from them, to put it in a simplified manner, in that they advocate the futility of our attempts to theorise moral conflict successfully.
Monistic and pluralistic approaches to moral theory generate two different conceptions of moral, and thus political, agency. In the first monistic approach moral agency is conceived literally in terms of absolute consistency and continuity1 across different domains of activity either by following and applying moral rules (in the case, for example, of deontic or utilitarian rule-based theories) or by dictating that there is only one source of value or goodness (which nonetheless does not support a set of rules so as to maximise that value,2 for example act utilitarianism). In the second, pluralistic, approach, moral agency is identified less with the success of being consistent with the use of given moral guides and more with the ability to make appropriate judgments in different situations, wherein a variety of values interplay. My central claim is that the distinction between the concepts of the private, the public and the political, as distinct domains of activity with their own moral criteria and requirements, tends to lose its moral significance in the monistic approach. On the contrary, from a pluralistic perspective this categorisation is essential in managing our moral universe and understanding human conduct. In this sense, value pluralism is indeed a condition for the existence of meaningful politics (Lassman 2011: 14). In addition, the relativistic views of morality, although diametrically opposite to monism, derogate the importance of politics in a similar, absolutist manner. Thus, while rejecting moral relativism, I want to argue that the moral conflicts and dilemmas that agents confront (within any of the private, public or political domains of activity) are not mistakes to be corrected by an appropriate theory. Instead, they arise from the competing moral values to which these agents are subject.
Of course, the problem of moral conflict has been widely discussed in modern and contemporary philosophy. Hence, as a way of preempting potential doubts with regard to the simplified and schematic nature of the following cross-examination of monism, relativism and pluralism, it has to be made clear that this first part of the argument is functional to explaining both my understanding of, and location within, the pluralistic position rather than to developing a novel defence of it. The short overview of the three approaches to the problem of moral conflict is used as a way of setting up the second and critical part of the argument about the distinction between the private, the public and the political. It is also used as a way of clarifying how the pluralistic position will gain from an unambiguous distinction between the three domains of activity and establish its superiority over its rival meta-ethical approaches. Starting from these premises, therefore, a general introduction of the problem of moral conflict and its exegesis within different moral traditions is both required and justified.
Moral Conflict and Monism
Lukes (see Lukes 1991: 5–7) argues that there are various (overlapping) forms of conflict: firstly, and this is the form to which moral philosophers have paid most attention, there is the conflict between different obligations or duties and the actions these duties require in particular situations. Secondly, there are the conflicts between purposes, ends, goals or more generally, values; these are the conflicts which determine the incoherence of our action or policies. Thirdly, there are the conflicts between more holistic and all-encompassing moral codes or, as Rawls puts it, between ‘conceptions of the good’; this sort of conflict becomes particularly prominent within the study of multiculturalism and is a basic argument of cultural relativists. Finally, there are the conflicts between different kinds of moral claim, the major example of which is the conflict between consequentialism and deontology.
This last form of conflict is the most interesting and of particular importance regarding the distinction between the private, the public and the political, because within each domain of activity agents face different moral claims. ‘Consequentialism requires that the agent maximize the overall good (on some interpretation of that good)’ whereas deontology ‘proposes a set of (sometimes absolute) side-constraints on action done to others’ (Lukes 1991: 7). Both utilitarians (the dominant form of consequentialism in modern moral philosophy) and Kantians (the dominant expression of deontology in modern moral philosophy) claim that the conflict between the two different moral claims (utility and moral right) is only apparent and not real. This is because both moral traditions generally aimed at demystifying and resolving systematically the problem of moral conflicts or dilemmas. Thus modern ethics is dominated by a normative decision-procedure, which aims at moral perfectionism, based either on deontic theories (codifiability) or utilitarianism (advantage) (Hursthouse 2001: 7).3 Their argument is not to be taken lightly; this problem is the quintessence of modern philosophy. As Michael Walzer argues, the question relates not only to the coherence and harmony of the moral universe but also to the relative ease or difficulty – or impossibility – of living a moral life. ‘It is not, therefore, merely a philosopher’s question. If such dilemma can arise, whether frequently or very rarely, any of us might one day face it’ (Walzer 1973: 161).
The Kantian rejection of moral conflicts appears to be problematic because it appears to be implausible in light of certain cases. The rule of absolute truthfulness in politics regardless of consequences is one such case. The idea that moral rules are absolute, allowing no exceptions ‘no matter what’ (Rachels 2003: 126) cannot but oversimplify the differences between political and public moral reasoning and more ordinary or private moral concerns. The implication of the monistic Kantian logic is the merging of different domains of activity under a singular and overriding set of moral principles. This moral homogenisation of different domains of activity becomes difficult to explain and justify when deontic theories must face the problem of moral arbitrariness. On what epistemological basis can one assign moral priority to some ‘ground of obligation’ over another? How do deontologists justify the rejection of moral conflicts? How does one decide, for example, that lying to someone is ‘less wrongful’ than torturing someone in order to achieve some valuable political ends?
Utilitarian theories are more interesting than Kantian theories in this particular respect, because utilitarianism claims to have the only solution against moral arbitrariness (Mill 1987: 54). Because of this powerful claim against moral arbitrariness, utilitarianism (as a form of the wider concept of consequentialism) has been considered as the only viable unitary solution against moral fragmentation. However, if in ordinary life morality is characterised by an inevitable conflict of partial principles of conduct, and not a harmony of purposes, then the question is whether it is reasonable to impose moral unity by allowing only one overriding principle of conduct (Hampshire 1978: 42). For this is what classical utilitarianism attempted to do: to suggest that utility is the moral principle that comes to fill in the gaps of a moral system that has not devised resolutions in cases of moral conflicts. Mill argues that ‘If utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible’ (Mill 1987: 55).
Utility, therefore, appears to be an overarching or primary principle according to which all moral conflicts can be perfectly resolved. The implication of this is that activity in all domains of human life is constituted upon maximising some sort of utility. However, the most consistent criticism against this moral approach has pointed out that it is virtually impossible to define and defend utility as a homogeneous value to which all morally relevant considerations may be reduced. If one accepted this, one would end up with an implausible reductionism (for example, there are actions which, despite their obvious political usefulness, are avoided exactly because not all things are measured according to their utility). If one, on the other hand, accepted the heterogeneity of utility, one would forego its purported advantage in resolving conflicts (Gowans 1987: 8). In other words, either the primacy of the utility principle should make utilitarianism a monistic, and ultimately, a reductionist theory, or the utility principle will be one more moral rule, among others.
Monism has always been attractive precisely because it promises possible and unproblematic moral judgments, in a ‘scientific’ manner. The core of the pluralistic argument, however, is that monism promises a morally coherent evaluating system, which can only apply to a morally coherent world; but the reality is that our world is not coherent: hence monism is an impossibility (Stocker 1990: 34). For pluralistic theories, moral judgment cannot be understood simply as the outcome of a coherent calculative decision. If we recognise that the legitimate grounds of decision are plural (and this is the claim of the second part of my argument), then it lies with the agent to make the best possible decision, knowing that the moral conflict is what it is (Nagel 1987: 182), that is real and inescapable. In other words, it is the very essence of being a moral agent that one must necessarily make a decision which may be morally both right and wrong and, in particular, both right (within one domain of activity) and wrong (within another).
Moral Conflict and Relativism
The rejection of moral monism often entails approaches which establish themselves on the other extreme of the moral scale. Whether moral relativism as a philosophical approach is viable and what its political implications are, are questions that are only touched upon and cannot be fully examined in this article. With regard to moral relativism, however, it is important to try to answer this basic perennial question: ‘If value is incurably relative, how can we make meaningful moral and political judgments in the first place?’ In fact, the question can go even further and ask: ‘If we know that value is terminally relative, what is the point of even thinking about resolving moral conflicts?’
Therefore, precisely because there is no unique and objective system of values we face intractable conflicts of values. In short, on the question of whether we possess morality beyond our social context, the relativist’s answer would be strongly negative.
what values people accept depends on the context in which they were born, on their genetic inheritance and subsequent experiences, on the political, cultural, economic, and religious influences on them; in short, what they value depends on their subjective attitudes and not on objective features (Kekes 1993: 132).4
The problem for pluralists is to answer how we can reconcile a conception of objective reasons in resolving moral conflicts with historicity, or, in other words, how ‘can we guide ourselves by the timeless reasons that principles embody if our reason itself is a creature of time?’ (Larmore 2008: 11). From a pluralistic perspective there is something right and something wrong in the relativist’s conception of morality. What is right, Kekes argues, is the criticism of monism or absolutism. What is wrong is the supposition that if absolutism were abandoned, then the philosophical problems that concern us would disappear. Beginning from what is right, the relativistic solution to the philosophical problem of conflicting values seems to be (against monism but in line with pluralism) a stance of acceptance; that is, we should accept that moral conflict is ‘natural’. So, the relativist and the pluralist generally agree upon the conflicting nature of morality. However, for a pluralist, acknowledging that there is a variety of modes of moral reflection, which is irreducible, does not entail, as a relativist would argue, that there is no philosophical problem of moral conflict in the first place. According to the relativist’s reasoning, the disruptions of everyday life, which derive from the conflict between different modes of reflection, do not constitute a philosophical problem precisely because they can be resolved by following basic human nature and given conventions as guides (Kekes 2000: 58). Thus, where relativism goes wrong is the belief that philosophical reflection has nothing to add to the fact that there are, and there will always be, conflicting sets of values relative to their context.
This is where the fundamental difference between pluralism and relativism lies. For, according to pluralistic reasoning, the guides of everyday life, that is customs, conventions and so on, are sometimes useless. As moral agents we realise that we must go beyond conventions and reflect on the significance of some problems exactly because conventions cannot help us overcome the problems as we understand them. These problems are real, that is they truly disrupt our everyday lives and thus they cannot be ignored. And these problems become questions that need answers within the specific mode of reflection and about it. It seems, then, that the trouble with relativism lies in an unsuccessful attempt to deny that there is a debate on the philosophical implications of the plurality of morality. The relativistic move is not a move within the debate, it is a move to close the debate altogether. However, this is not helpful when struggling with moral issues at hand, because the problem is the issue itself, not a philosophical theory about the nature of the issue (according to which there is no issue) (Blackburn 2009: 110–11).
Pluralism: The Private, the Public and the Political
My argument so far has been that pluralism provides a better account of the phenomenon of moral conflict in comparison to monism and relativism. Its superiority over the other two meta-ethical approaches is founded on two main points as discussed so far: first, it recognises moral conflict as a real and inescapable phenomenon; and, second, it strongly argues that moral conflict, despite its inescapable nature, should still be theorised for the better understanding and organisation of human activity. This second point is where the next more critical part of the argument begins. Based on the truth of moral pluralism, I categorise human activity into three different domains (the private, the public and the political) and clarify the distinction, interrelation and potential tension between them with regard to their respective constitutive ethical claims. I then conclude by emphasising the moral peculiarity and importance of the political within this pluralistic tripartite model.
The distinction between the private, the public and the political has been a central theme for contestation in modern times and there has been a variety of approaches which attempt to draw clear distinctions between the three concepts within different historical periods (see, for example, O’Sullivan 2010: 3 and Heller5 1991: 330–1). In addition, the question of the proper relation between what is public and what is political, with reference to the issue of privacy, is also one of the great debates of political thinking (see for example Arendt 1998; and Frazer 2010: 84). My purpose, here, is neither to engage in a historical debate about the origins of those concepts nor to explicate their distinction based on how the human condition in general has changed over time (as, for example, Arendt does in her famous work). Instead, I aim to redraw the categorisation and re-explain the relation of the three concepts as distinct domains of activity specifically based on a model of moral pluralism, which is a modern approach to moral theory. More particularly, I wish to argue that the distinction, but also interrelation, between the concepts of the private, the public and the political are determined by a fluctuating interplay and tension of a specific set of irreducible moral claims and criteria. The concept of the political is going to be established as the catalytic and most complex element in this categorisation and, eventually, the element that helps us to differentiate the approaches of monism, relativism and pluralism, and establish the favourable position of the latter.
In order to specify how the concepts of the private, the public and the political can initially be linked to and then explained on the basis of the pluralistic position we need to determine two things: first, that there are various conditions that are conducive to moral plurality; and second, that although these conditions are interrelated they are not all equally relevant to the distinction between the private, the public and the political. Understanding these two points is essential as a basis for reconstructing the tripartite categorisation and therefore offering a stronger pluralistic theory. Regarding the first point, the conditions of moral plurality can be generally classified in this manner: they derive firstly from our interaction with other people (where intersubjectivity requires the recognition of both partial or personal and impartial or impersonal claims); secondly from different domains of activity (domains which are structured and organised upon conflicting moral claims and criteria); and thirdly from different historical and local settings (where the diversity of standards of conduct poses seemingly insoluble moral problems).
The conditions of plurality are of course overlapping, to some extent. For example, Lukes argues that personal or partial claims and demands can be grounded in contextual concepts that ‘express our commitments to particular relationships, or communities, or activities’ (Lukes 1991: 47). However, and this brings us to the second point and one of the main hypotheses of this article, the tripartite distinction between the private, the public and the political must be made, primarily, on the basis of different moral claims in different domains of activity; that is, this distinction is mainly concerned with the second condition of plurality. It is not concerned directly with the plurality of personal moral commitments to particular relationships with other people, or with moral concerns which are historically and locally determined. It is true that within different historical and local settings the interplay between moral claims will be different and that the way in which we constitute personal moral relationships with others is an important factor in drawing the boundaries of different domains of activity. But this does not change the core of the issue at hand, namely, moral criteria, and consequently moral judgments, need some differentiation when we examine activity in different domains.
The domains of the private, the public and the political will pose different moral requirements and therefore may exact inconsistent moral behaviour from the agents involved in the respective activities. A pluralistic theory should not attempt to resolve this inconsistency. This is what makes it more viable than, and different from, a monistic theory. But a pluralistic theory should still systematically explain the conflicting claims that cause this inconsistency and also persuade that the nature of those conflicting claims deserves theorising. This is what makes it more useful than, and different from, a relativistic theory. Spelling out the tripartite categorisation is therefore essential in order to make the pluralistic approach to politics and ethics more powerful. It allows us the possibility of explicating various moral antinomies of human activity without finding recourse to either a monistic narrative or a relativistic approach. It allows us to consider and understand moral conflict as a phenomenon that makes sense and as a problem which requires neither setting up a system of all-encompassing and overriding moral principles nor abandoning our efforts to resolve it.
Therefore, for the reconstruction of the tripartite distinction we need to expose the inner logic of human activity in the respective domains, with regard to moral claims. This needs to be done contrary to the sceptical conclusion of the relativist, that there is no privileged vantage point from which we can authoritatively draw moral distinctions/relations between the three domains. There are specific moral claims that can be used to delineate the private domain; there are moral claims unique to the public domain; and finally, and perhaps more importantly, there is the endogenous ethic of the political, which differs both from the private and the public because it is the domain where human activity, in general, is collectively organised. It becomes exceedingly necessary, therefore, not only to be able to separate ‘private matters’ from ‘public concerns’ but also ‘political’ from ‘non-political contestations’. We must be able to make the basic distinction between moral acts that are essentially private, acts essentially public and acts essentially political.6 We must be able to make these distinctions because the logical outcome of both the monistic and relativistic proposals is a despotic rather than a plural and tolerant politics.
In this process of clearing up and establishing the differentiation between the private, the public and the political, let us consider, first, the problem of the public/private distinction. The concepts of the private and the public are used very frequently in everyday conversation but their meaning remains somewhat elusive. This is because as we move from one historical period to another, the concepts of the private and the public are gradually transformed and acquire new meanings. There are many different ways to define the private and the public depending on which criteria one uses in order to do so. In what follows, the criterion I use is very specific, namely that of moral claims.
In the private domain the claim of the ‘personal’ or ‘partial’ entails the autonomy of one’s self and the liberty subjectively to pursue one’s own cherished ‘ethical commitments’ (Hampshire 1978: 47–8) and establish ethical relations or non-relations with other individuals. The public domain, instead, has a built-in ‘ethic of intersubjectivity’ which is often associated with, and expressed in, institutional circumstances. Institutions in the modern age are the moral constructs of our common world; devices through which we step out of our moral selves and strive for moral objectivity in relation to others. Thus, in moral terms, in the private domain the aim is the moral ‘progression’ of ourselves as individuals, whereas in the public domain we are preoccupied with the ethical achievements of individuals only in their institutional roles (Thompson 2005: 227–8). The conflicting nature of private and public moral claims can therefore be explained on the basis that in the public realm our subjectivity and partiality, in terms of personal moral considerations, is compromised. The public domain is a space where personal ethical considerations and relations may not be relevant. The inner logic of the public domain is defined by the criterion of impartiality and impersonality, which in turn requires a step from subjective to intersubjective considerations and an understanding that the commitments of the self are not all-overriding. The possibility of realising the moral aspirations of the self through the performance of public roles is, of course, still existing (and in some social contexts it may be considered essential). But the identification of the moral self with satisfying a public role remains, in final analysis, a choice of the reflective self, not an absolute intersubjective rule (as, for example, the case of Socrates in ancient Athens shows).
It is at this point that the relativist’s objection is usually raised. The relativist would argue that one’s personal ethical commitments are determined by one’s context; that is, whether and to what degree private moral considerations can be distinct from public moral considerations – that the performance of the public role requires – depends on historical and local settings. But this is only relevant if we accept the argument that one has no ability (or that it is simply pointless) to reflect on one’s moral self and public function. This would mean that issues of moral integrity in public conduct are not really philosophical problems but only practical difficulties to be overcome contingently. However, as mentioned above, such an approach, according to which there is no problem, is not useful and may have absolutist political implications. If all moral claims are ultimately relative and derive from contextual and subjective preferences, moral evaluation becomes a pointless endeavour, that is we ought to treat moral anxieties, dilemmas and uncertainty as merely superficial, not truly disrupting. In addition, it is not clear in the relativist approach how public values can be formed, informed and reformed in the first place, if one rejects the ability of the self to engage in contestation and debate with the public (again, Socrates’s example is revealing here).
At the same time, the monistic objection would be that some moral claims are overriding, either these of the private domain or those of the public. Thus, if we were to extend the moral criteria of the private domain to the public or, similarly, the moral criteria of the public domain to all private matters, moral inconsistency would be resolved. If one set of moral claims is overriding, then there is no reason to make categorisations between different moral claims in different domains of activity. The philosophical problem, however, still remains and soon becomes a political one. What happens, for example, within a context where ‘private matters’ are under the total scrutiny of the public? Or when the private and the partial are effaced in the name of the good or justice contextually defined (Mahajan 2010: 23)? When such serious questions are discarded as morally unproblematic, politically despotic attitudes prevail easily.
There is a long tradition of political realists, ranging from Thucydides to Machiavelli and Weber, the main argument of whom is based upon the consequentialist notion that in political life actions are not just of significance for the agent who performs them (Johnson 1988: 6). This powerful argument entails, first, that politics has to be separated from other personal moral considerations and, second, that politics must take priority over them. Thus, activity in the private domain often acquires the meaning of the morally ‘ordinary’ against the ‘extraordinary’ in the political domain.
This transition, from the ‘ordinary’ moral claims of the private domain to the ‘extraordinary’ requirements of the political, has been one of the major contested issues in political philosophy. This has been mainly due to the dominance of traditional monistic theories which presuppose a conception of morality as a comprehensive guide with intrinsic, universal and absolute value. From this standpoint moral criteria cannot be different in distinct domains of activity. In this sense nothing can override ‘ordinary’ moral principles because there can be no distinction between morally ‘ordinary’ and morally ‘extraordinary’ political acts. Morality is something with inherent value which does not change according to where activity takes place. In that respect, special moral considerations about the large-scale consequences of political acts are denied in principle, and we have a full extension of private moral criteria to the domain of politics.
From a pluralistic perspective moral claims in the political domain cannot be identical to those in the private domain. There is a reason why traditional political realists have been often associated with molar pluralism or, at least, have been seen as its precursors (Machiavelli and Weber are the major examples here). The moral nature of the political is indeed different, but not only because it is heavily guided by the claim of consequentialism. The reasons for the distinct moral nature of the political are more complex and will be analysed in more detail in the following section. Still, a sound pluralistic theory should make clear that calculating large-scale consequences is a claim of special value within the political, in the same way the claim of moral impartiality is of special value within the public. In that sense, it is true that private moral considerations are more acutely threatened by the ‘extraordinary’ moral requirements of the political. They now have to face not only the impersonal moral nature of activity in the political (which is similar in that respect to activity in the public) but also, more importantly, its consenquentialist emphasis. However, according to the pluralistic logic this kind of political consequentialism must be restrained and it cannot itself become overriding outside the political. Some political acts are not conceived of as morally permissible, even if they can be justified on the grounds of their consequences.
Hence, moral claims in the private domain are an important formative element of the morality that determines the domains of the public and the political because our private ethical commitments (our moral integrity) constitute the necessary moral basis for the critique and operation of both public roles and political roles. But the moral claims of the private are still different in nature from, and in a permanent tension with, the moral claims of both the public and the political.
The distinction between the private and the public/political domains is relatively straightforward to grasp and exhibit, in terms of differentiating moral requirements, partly because it concerns the tension between the self and the collectivity, that is a philosophical problem which has been exhaustively debated since ancient times. The distinction – and relation – between the public and the political, however, is more intricate and difficult to clear up. The difficulty is to be expected since both the public and the political refer to activities and standards of conduct that are related to the organisation and performance of the collectivity, not the individual.
In fact, the concepts are often confused and as a result the moral grounds that can help us differentiate between public and political activity are obscured. For example, while analysing the distinction between the private and the public, Thomas Nagel, a strong proponent of moral pluralism, also speaks of the insoluble conflict between the personal and impersonal moral standpoints. He speaks of the ‘agent-centred’ vs. the ‘outcome-centred’ values and conflates the latter with rules of impartiality. He concludes that both the public and the political are determined by those ‘outcome-centred’ and ‘impartial’ values (Nagel 1987: 179–80; 1978: 87–9). If this were true, it would presuppose that the public domain could be assumed to incorporate the political. Hence, very often, we see that in the pluralistic tradition the categorisation is limited to the private vs. public distinction, without ever explicitly mentioning the political as a morally distinct domain of activity.
This traditional conception is not unusual, but it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it is problematic because ‘outcome-centred’ values are not necessarily compatible with values of ‘impartiality’. Treating claims of impartiality and claims of consequentialism similarly and without qualification is misguiding. What an outcome means for one person may mean something different for another. There is no single value upon which we can impartially evaluate outcomes. That is why, at least in the pluralistic logic, utility cannot be an overriding moral rule. But the cause of this misconception is easy to identify. It lies in the rise of economic science in modernity and its effects on social life in general. Having been accustomed towards evaluating the outcomes of political activity on the grounds of ‘objective’ (i.e. impartial) economic rules, we have lost sight of the moral significance and peculiarity of the political and its distinction from the public. We wrongly conceive of the political as merely a subpart of the institutionalised, scientific and impartially constituted domain of the public. Thus, nowadays, in a continually diminishing political attitude, the public sphere of conduct is conceived to incorporate a range of important connections with notions of social, communal and international policies, whereas politics is the vocation of the technocrats who merely execute these policies. The moral claims of objectivity and impartiality become therefore definitive in this process of homogenising the two domains – domains where pure administration takes place.
The second, related, reason why treating the public and the political as undistinguished domains of activity is problematic is that, by doing so, we demote the political to something that it is not; that is, morally insignificant. The political is the domain where we collectively organise and prioritise our moral universe. The political, therefore, is defined by the claim that it can arbitrarily and constantly reshape and reform the interplay of the criteria that make the distinction between the private, the public and itself possible. These are the same criteria that generate (or attempt to eliminate) moral conflicts. The degree to which, in a political society, the moral claims of one domain of activity are allowed to encroach upon the other domains depends on our activity within the political. It is within the political that the boundaries between the different domains of activity and the interplay between their different moral claims are shaped and structured. The nature of this shaping process depends on what kind of political activity takes place. For example, whether the exercise of political power is based on collective deliberation and persuasion or on force and violent control depends heavily on the moral outlook of the political enterprise within a particular political society. The argument of the pluralist should be that the moral outlooks of the monist and the relativist are much more likely to lead to a political enterprise of an intolerant type.
The tragic, but also heroic, nature of politics and its agents, that has been so magnificently asserted since the beginnings of dramatic literature and political philosophy, is due to this peculiar role of the political in constantly reshaping our moral universe. In this respect, then, it makes sense to speak of the political as a domain of activity with its own ‘endogenous ethic’;7 with its own moral requirements and distinctions in relation to the private and the public. This ‘endogenous ethic’ of the political is fundamentally determined by the moral quality we assign to the human capacity collectively to contest, enforce, persuade, compromise, calculate and reconcile.
Conclusion: The Moral Peculiarity of the Political
The categorisation of moral claims, within the three different domains of activity, and the ensuing inevitable tension can schematically take the following form. The distinction between the partial moral claims of the private and the impartial moral claims of the public arises because the former demands that we act on our own cherished commitments (what dominantly constitutes our personal moral integrity), while the latter properly constrains our actions in the world based on an ethic of intersubjectivity and impartiality. So, there is always the potential for personal moral integrity (based on the moral rules that permeate the private domain) and impartial morality (based on the requirements of the public roles institutionally set) to conflict.8
The meaning of impartiality in the public domain – although this is a domain of activity ultimately concerned with social consequences – is that of an objective administrative realisation of the political, morally formative, decisions. Impartiality in the public domain is necessary, both in order to cultivate a sense of respect and tolerance for conflicting sets of values (thus supplementing politics in their quest for social integration) and to grow a culture of scientific (economic) efficiency when managing the affairs of the state.
Activity in the political domain reorganises and reinvents values and dictates their implementation. From a pluralistic perspective these processes are arbitrary, in the sense that there are no comprehensive and overriding moral guides upon which they can be permanently justified. Therefore, the political can be threatening both to the self (personal ethical commitments) and to the public (impersonal, interpersonal and institutional ethical commitments). And the extent to which the political is in conflict with either the private or the public depends on the extent to which it dictates that some claims are more important than others. Still, the political draws its momentary legitimacy both from the value we assign to our private ethical concerns and from the value we assign to impartial morality. It is this reciprocal, but always tense, tripartite relation that makes the political such an important element within the pluralistic narrative.
Inevitably, monistic moral theories will raise the following question. If there are no comprehensive and overriding moral guides outside the political, how can the political claim to take the position of value arbitrator? Why should we assign politics with the unforgiving task of constantly resetting the boundaries between different moral claims in different domains of activity? In this pluralistic argument that I propose, and as opposed to monism and relativism, what makes the political ethically peculiar is not simply its consequentialist emphasis (and at the same time its dependence on impartial and partial principles). It is predominantly the idea that people have found a distinct way of tackling the moral inconsistencies of their lives and the existential problems that these inconsistencies cause. We invented a mode of activity, partly autonomous from and partly determined by other moral considerations, where debate, contest and sometimes even violent fighting takes place, before we are ready to reorientate our moral existence, ends and purposes.
But the very existence of such a distinct mode of activity as the political depends on a specific philosophical outlook that relates our moral existence to the plural conditions within which we live. We can assign this moral uniqueness and importance to politics, only if we first accept moral conflict as a true fact that needs to be addressed both in theory and in our daily activity. In this sense, the political is the catalyst in this three-dimensional categorisation I have developed in this essay. It is indeed ‘extraordinary’ in some respects in comparison to the private and the public; but not in all respects, which is the crucial qualification that the pluralist will always have to emphasise, because whatever the moral criterion that the political uses as its guiding principle, it cannot be absolute and all-overriding.
The upshot of the above arguments is that judgment must be situated. We make different judgments in different domains of activity because these domains are defined by different moral claims. Judgment, however, like action must be restrained and based on good reasons. This is one of the main points that separates the pluralistic from the relativistic approach. Given the strong inner connection between the different domains of activity, situated judgment within one domain does not entail disregarding the moral rules and requirements of the others. Philosophical reflection about the moral significance of our activity in one domain or another is far from meaningless, because it has important political ramifications.
The aim of this article was to analyse the distinction and relation between the private, the public and the political with respect to the different moral claims that one can recognise within each of those domains. From a pluralistic approach such an analysis is a precondition of understanding the antinomies and contradictions of human activity, but also a precondition of demonstrating the distinct place of the political in shaping our moral universe. In this respect, Bernard Williams is right to argue that politics, when conducted wisely, is a solution to the moral problem and not the cause of it (Williams 2008: 72–3).
I hope to have clarified, at least to some degree, some perennially perplexing issues, all connected to each other in some way or another. The first, the standard position of moral pluralism, is that in order to be able even to begin pondering about issues of morality and human agency we need first to accept that not all moral problems can be permanently resolved or contingently overlooked. The second is that given the inescapable conflicting nature of morality it is useful to try to explain the causes of problems such as ‘moral dilemmas’, ‘dirty hands’, and so on, by categorising human activity into three distinct but interrelated domains. Understanding why and how moral conflict happens, within and between the different domains, renders this distinction necessary, at least for the moral agents who reflect on and are aware of their moral predicament. The third is that we treat moral conflict differently in each domain because our moral agency within each domain is based on different criteria. But this analytical claim has some further important repercussions. A plural politics should not assume the responsibility of homogenising moral conduct across different domains of activity. This last point must be the key element in relation to politics that any good pluralistic theory should begin from. Moral arbitrariness characterises political activity because within the political we decide what is value and what is of value. This arbitrariness, however, should entail neither a permission to establish absolute codes of value nor an ‘anything goes’ approach. Instead, it should instigate a politics which is morally measured, restrained and based on good reasons.
In the monistic approach ‘consistency and continuity’ is what constitutes ‘moral integrity’.
Though I will not examine this position here, it is worth mentioning as it is sometimes taken in itself to entail pluralism. This seems to me to be wrong because one can be certain about which is the ultimate value but uncertain about what this value means in particular situations.
The revival of ‘virtue ethics’ in the second half of the twentieth century was a reaction to the dominance of theories which explain morality as an encompassing set of rules or laws for human action. ‘Virtue ethics’ has been widely considered as a viable alternative to the two major modern moral traditions, especially in relation to accommodating values in different domains of activity and including a conception of the significance of the ‘moral character’ (see Rachels 2003: 172). The scope and size of this article, however, does not allow for a full analysis of ‘virtue ethics’ in connection to these issues. It is worth noting, nonetheless, that ‘virtue ethics’ faces similar difficulties with the other traditional moral theories when it comes to explicating moral conflict.
Lukes and Kekes’ arguments at this point expose what in relativist theory is known as descriptive or cultural relativism, which usually leads the proponent of such a view towards normative relativism, that is not simply towards recognising the diversity and incompatibility of moral values but, based on this diversity and incompatibility, towards prescribing that different moral requirements apply to different moral agents, or groups of agents (for the different but interrelated versions of moral relativism, see Moser and Carson (2001: 1–2) and Wong (1993: 442–3).
Heller’s argument, unconvincing in my view, is that the domain of politics as a concept is a late, modern addition to this categorisation: ‘The “concept of the political” as a philosophical device was unknown in pre-modern thought. Even cultures with the strongest political awareness, for example the Greek and the Roman, shared the quasi-naturalistic and therefore unproblematic view that only acts which have been decided upon and performed by the members of the political class(es), can be termed political […] Modernity changes all this, slowly in the beginning, later with an ever-increasing speed […] and the birth of modern mass democracy finally rendered obsolete the equation of political class with political action. It is at this historical juncture that the question concerning the character of “the political” appeared on the agenda; for a criterion for determining which actions, phenomena and institutions are of political provenance and which are not, had to be found’.
To use Arendt’s famous phrase.
See Lynn McFall’s example on the tension between the moral criteria of the private and those of the public domain of activity: ‘Suppose, in my role as ship captain, that I am charged to take the safety of everyone equally into account. This would be true for anyone in my position, so the principle, ‘Guard the safety of all passengers equally’ is both universal and impartial. Now suppose I see that my husband and two other passengers are drowning. My husband weighs what the two others weigh put together. He is drowning on starboard, they are drowning at port. If I save my husband, the two will drown, and vice versa. As a wife I should save my husband; as ship captain I should save the two strangers. The demands of personal morality conflict with those of social morality. What does moral integrity require?’ (McFall 1987: 17–18).
HampshireS. 1978. ‘Public and Private Morality’ in S. Hampshire (ed.) Public and Private Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press23–54.
MoserP. K. and T. L. Carson. 2001. ‘Introduction’ in P. K. Moser and T. L. Carson (eds) Moral Relativism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1-21.