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Political theory is not a purely theoretical enterprise; it is intended to be
practical and action-guiding. To perform this role, the requirements of
political theory must be possible, and the standard of possibility it employs
must be appropriate to the political domain. Because human beings vary in their
capacity for morality and justice, a reasonably just society, as Rawls
understands it, must not be expected. Despite his concerns to the contrary, the
possibility of a just polity is not needed to ward off resignation and cynicism.
There is a principled path between a politics of complacency that thwarts
feasible progress and a politics of utopian aspiration that ends by inflicting
harm in the name of doing good.
Although I welcome the opportunity to discuss Alex Zakaras's fine essay, I fear that my response will disappoint him (and perhaps others as well). I find his arguments cogent and plausible, if not altogether persuasive, but many of them are directed against claims that I do not think I made. Two examples will suffice.
For much of his career, scholars – especially in America – did not know quite what to make of Michael Oakeshott. Was he a Burkean conservative? The last gasp of British Idealism? An aesthete with aristocratic sympathies? A quasi-libertarian admirer of Henry Simons? A Hobbesian authoritarian? Or even a hyper-individualist with anarchist leanings?
That so many diverging, or even conflicting, interpretations of Oakeshott exist is partly due to the fact that his own thought significantly evolved over time, if not in content, then at least in form. His early writings are indebted to the legacy of the language of Idealist philosophy; his post-war essays bear a visible mark of revulsion from the changes European society was undergoing in those years and thus take on a distinctively conservative flavour; and in the subsequent period individualistic, even libertarian motives gradually become more prominent.
Previous chapters in this book have focused on analysing those particular stages in Oakeshott's social and political thought. The purpose of this chapter is, however, to examine what can be said about Oakeshott's political theory in general and to make a number of suggestions regarding the degree of satisfactoriness and relevance of its arguments to today's world.
When the definitive history of political theory in the twentieth century is written, Isaiah Berlin will take his place as one of the most distinguished representatives of the liberal tradition. In "Two Concepts of Liberty", he distinguished between negative and positive liberty, noncoercion and self-mastery, identifying the former with liberalism and the latter with political doctrines that evolved in antiliberal directions. Berlin's determination to understand cultures and their characteristic thinkers on their own terms has given rise to the suspicion that he was a relativist. He distinguished between pluralism, which he espoused, and relativism, which he repudiated. Similarly, although liberty and decency require an economic minimum, they do not dictate socialism or even social democracy. Turning from method to substance, Berlin's clarification of the differing dimensions of liberty and their practical consequences has often been criticized but never dismissed.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the ways in which a broadly pluralist outlook can help illuminate long-standing issues of constitutional theory and practice. I begin by adopting a common-sense understanding of pluralism as the diversity of observed practices within a general category–in this case, constitutions (Section II). In the light of this understanding, many assumptions that Americans and others often make about constitutional essentials turn out to be valid locally rather than generically. I turn then to pluralism in a more technical and philosophical sense – specifically, the account of value pluralism adumbrated by Isaiah Berlin and developed by his followers. After offering a rough and ready account of this version of pluralism (Section III), I bring it to bear on a range of constitutional issues (Section IV). In doing so, I distinguish between, on the one hand, areas of variation among constitutions and, on the other, some basic truths about political life that define core constitutional functions. I conclude (Section V) with some brief reflections on the normative thrust of pluralist constitutionalism–in particular, its presumption in favor of the maximum accommodation of individual and group differences consistent with the maintenance of constitutional unity and civic order.
It is easy for scholars working within particular national traditions to assume that the features of their own constitutions are definitive of constitutionalism as such. A brief glance across time and space suffices to dispel such parochial illusions.
This essay explores the ways in which a broadly pluralist outlook can help illuminate longstanding issues of constitutional theory and practice. It begins with a common-sense understanding of pluralism as the diversity of observed practices within a general category (section 2). It turns out that many assumptions Americans and others often make about constitutional essentials are valid only locally but not generically. The essay then turns to pluralism in a more technical and philosophical sense—specifically, the account of value pluralism adumbrated by Isaiah Berlin and developed by his followers. Section 3 sketches this version of pluralism, and section 4 brings it to bear on a range of familiar constitutional issues. In the process, a distinction emerges between, on the one hand, areas of variation among constitutions and, on the other, some general truths about political life that define core constitutional functions. The essay concludes (section 5) with some brief reflections on the normative thrust of pluralist constitutional theory—in particular, a presumption in favor of the maximum accommodation of individual and group differences consistent with the maintenance of constitutional unity and civic order.
This multi-authored book explores the ways that many influential ethical traditions - secular and religious, Western and non-Western - wrestle with the moral dimensions of poverty and the needs of the poor. These traditions include Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, among the religious perspectives; classical liberalism, feminism, liberal-egalitarianism, and Marxism, among the secular; and natural law, which might be claimed by both. The basic questions addressed by each of these traditions are linked to several overarching themes: what poverty is, the particular vulnerabilities of high-risk groups, responsibility for the occurrence of poverty, preferred remedies, how responsibility for its alleviation is distributed, and priorities in the delivery of assistance. This volume features an introduction to the types, scope, and causes of poverty in the modern world and concludes with Michael Walzer's broadly conceived commentary, which provides a direct comparison of the presented views and makes suggestions for further study and policy.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book which prompts us to wonder whether we are compelled to choose between secular and religious approaches to poverty. The book addresses questions about poverty and the poor within specific ethical traditions articulating ethical or normative theories rather than empirical claims. It provides readers with the opportunity to make comparisons between and among several secular and religious traditions, as well as to make comparisons within what are never truly homogeneous and unchanging systems of ethical thought, texts, and behavior. Addressing poverty across, not just within, national boundaries requires a better understanding of the variegated intellectual and religious traditions that have shaped our global civilization. In a modest and tentative way, the book helps to build that understanding and, in so doing, contributes to the alleviation of deprivation and want, wherever it may exist.
The topic of Leo Strauss's understanding of democracy and the American regime is fraught with controversy. Strauss's many detractors claim that he was hostile to democracy, and Strauss's students disagree about the implications of his views for the United States. It may help orient the reader if at the outset I state the view for which I shall argue - namely, that in this matter there are compelling reasons to take Strauss at his word. “Wisdom,” he declared, “requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution, and even to the cause of constitutionalism.” The word “even” may appear curious but is easily explained: constitutionalism is a modern version of the rule of law, an approach to governance that, as Strauss often emphasized, leans inherently against arbitrary power, regardless of the specific content of a legal code. At any rate, there can be no doubt that Strauss regarded the U.S. Constitution as decent and as orienting the United States to the rule of law, so far as any polity can maintain that commitment. It is easy to believe that Strauss endorsed modern liberal democracy on essentially negative grounds, as a bulwark against tyrannies of the left and right. This is part of the story, but only part: he also favored it on positive grounds, as a decent form of government that embodied certain partial but nonetheless real goods and virtues. My thesis is exposed to an obvious objection: everybody knows that Strauss sought to restore classical political philosophy as arguably the best account of politics, and classical political philosophy certainly did not endorse democracy as the best form, or even the best achievable form, of political order.
While Isaiah Berlin considered himself principally as a political theorist in the liberal tradition, his was an unorthodox liberalism in both method and substance, rooted in the confluence of three traditions—British, Russian, and Jewish. Unlike many liberals, he wrestled with the tension between universalism and particularism, and also between individualism and communalities. He rejected all monistic approaches to morality (including liberal monism) but repudiated as well the moral relativism of much modern thought, espousing instead value pluralism. While we cannot arrive at a universally valid conception of the summum bonum, we can specify the summun malum—the great evils of the human condition. Berlin saw political theory as a branch of moral philosophy but drew political morality from political life rather than imposing it on politics. The range of goods and principles that human beings rightly prize cannot be combined into harmonious wholes in either our individual or collective existence. Some goods exclude others, and we must choose among them.