Philosophy and Politics
by Alfred Jules Ayer
[ This lecture was the 16th Eleanor Rathbone Memorial Lecture, first published by Liverpool University Press in 1969. Transcribed by Sveinbjorn Thordarson. ]
Whenever I have occasion to study the work of contemporary French philosophers, like Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, I am struck by the very great difference which there is between their conception of the scope and purpose of philosophy and the conception which has come to prevail in England in the course of the last thirty years. In many ways, I think that the difference is to our advantage, but there is at least one important issue on which it well may not be. They are very much less inclined than we are to regard philosophy as a special subject, with its own problems, its own technical terms, its own standards of proof and no very obvious bearing upon anything else. It is true that in France the connection of philosophy with science is even more tenuous than it is with us. This is due to the Cartesian division of the French academic system: philosophy belongs to the Faculté des Lettres and therefore not to the Faculté des Sciences. But, partly in consequence of this, the French do connect their philosophy more closely with literature, and they also connect it more closely with politics. Sartre's demand that philosophers should be committed (engagés) does not mean only that they are expected to have views on political and social issues, but that they should give their views a philosophical backing. One of the main questions which I want to discuss is that of the ways in which this might be possible.
To say that contemporary English philosophers are not concerned with political and social issues would be unjust. Many of them hold strong views on these subjects: and some at least are ready to engage in political and social controversy. The difference is that they tend to look upon these activities as extra-curricular. What we conspicuously lack is any serious contribution, on the philosophical side, to political theory. Who has done anything in this way since John Stuart Mill? There have been T. H. Green with his lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, a respectable but hardly an inspiring work, and B. H. Bosanquet who defended a Hegelian theory of the state, and Bertrand Russell's Principles of Social Reconstruction, a brilliant attempt to domesticate a form of anarchism: but none of these books has had a lasting influence, and the most recent of them was written nearly fifty years ago. We have had very good historians of political ideas, but that is another matter.
This is not an entirely fair test, as I do not know that French philosophers either have made any very important contribution to political theory in recent times, but it is still broadly true that they are oriented towards politics in a way that ours are not. There are various reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is the difference in the strength and appeal of our respective Communist parties. Only a small minority of French philosophers are Marxists, but the others tend to find it necessary not only to take a view about Marxism, but also to show that they have a better line of goods to offer in the same market. The latest of Sartre's philosophical works is the seven hundred page Critique de la Raision Dialectique. In it he tries to show that most of current Marxist thinking is mistaken, but he also maintains that Marxism is the only serious philosophy for our time. Now Marxists subordinate philosophy to politics; they are inclined to judge philosophical theories by their tendency to promote political ends. The philosophers who have to compete with Marxism may not see any need to go so far as this, but they must be concerned with the political effects and implications of their views.
In this country, for better or worse, Marxism is not a serious competitor. There are very few Marxist intellectuals, let alone Marxist philosophers, and their case very largely goes by default. Few of us feel the need, like Sartre or Camus or Merleau-Ponty, to measure and justify the extent of our disaccord with Communism. There was, indeed, a period in the thirties when this was not so. A characteristic line in one of Day Lews's poems runs 'Why do we all, seeing a Communist, feel small?' Because, at that time, the Communists looked to be the only people who were prepared to dedicate their lives to doing something about the social consequences of hte depression, the rise of Hitler, the cause of Republican Spain. Bu the war and a greater knowledge of what was actually going on in Russia combined to blot the feeling out and there has not been a strong enough motive for reviving it since. Things have been different in France because of the different form of their class consciousness. With us, class divisions are mainly social; with them, political. To a much greater extent than ours, the French working class votes as a class, and by tradition it votes communist. The result is that French intellectuals have been faced with a dilemma from which we escape. To go along with the Communists is to condone a great deal with is repugnant to the liberal conscience; to oppose them is, in local terms, to ally oneself with the forces of reaction. The attempts which have been made to organize an effective left-wing movement without the Communists, have failed through lack of working class support. So the problem for these intellectuals, which has only been put in abeyance by the paternalism of de Gaulle, is that the social conscience which drives them into politics also prevents them from taking any political standpoint which would make their intervention effective.
Here, since the war at least, the issues have not seemed so sharp. It is, indeed, easy to overemphasize the extent to which the two main parties agree in their political policies. Since they are competing for the vote of the emergent class of technicians, who are thought to be equally hostile to socialism and to hereditary privilege, both parties have an interest in fostering this belief, but the interest of the Conservatives is the greater. If people can be persuaded that the difference between the two parties is the difference between men rather than between measures, they are likely to vote for those who can claim not only a longer tradition of social respectability but also a greater experience in government. But whatever we may think of the conclusion of this argument, its presupposition is unsound. No doubt the two parties are drawing together in their policies, partly because no responsible English government nowadays has very much freedom to manoeuvre, but, aparart from anything else, there is still a difference in emphasis that practically amounts to a difference in aim. It matters a great deal whether or not one is prepared to say 'the devil take the hindmost', even if there is a diminished number of the hindmost for him to take.
What there is not, in spite of superficial appearances to the contrary, is any great difference in political theory. For a long time now, it seems to me, theoretical principles have played a very small part in English politics. There have been conflicts of interest, at different times setting country against town, landowners against manufacturers, protectionists against free-traders, employers against labout, Anglicans against Roman Catholics and Dissenters, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh against the English, even men against women, and of course always the rich against the poor, but in the main these battles have not been waged in ideological terms. There is often a coating of theory but the arguments in which it is deployed have been mostly ad hoc; they have not stemmed from different theoretical systems. Conservatives, on solemn occasions, will still appeal to Bruke, but Burke's is a second order theory; its moral is that one should not have any theory of the first order. 'Politics is the art of the possible; to find out what is possible you have to feel your way; if you tamper with ancient institutions, you will open the floodgates to a tide which you may not be able to control; no human institution is perfect, but if one has stood the test of time it is better to leave it alone; what is entrenched is likely for that very reason to be good.'
Conservatism of this sort has gone out of fashion since the war, athough it still has its advocates amon the holders of academic posts in political theory. It is no longer thought to be practical politics. But this is not to say that any new theory has replaced it. The Conservatives have after their fashion taken over the Welfare State; but only on their old principle of catching the Whigs bathing and running away with their clothes.
The Whigs did have a theory, not so much the old aristocratic Whigs, whose theory mainly consisted in the belief that they ought to be in power, but the business men who took over the Whig party in the nineteenth century. They transformed it into the Liberal party which itself died in giving birth to the modern Conservative and Labour parties, its right wing forming the Conservative party, which has in this century been a party dominated not by landowners but by merchants and manufacturers, and its left wing developing into the Labour party which, as we shall see in a moment, is not so much Socialist as Radical. This very fact that it is the common ancestor of the other two main parties, that we are all Liberals nowadays, makes it difficult for the Liberal party to revive. Like the persons eaten by cannibals, who troubled Aquinas when he thought about the Resurrection, they have a problem in recovering their self-identity.
The theory which the old Liberals had was the theory of Malthus. If it is a law of nature that population always rises to the limit of food supply, then clearly any schemes of social welfare are going to be a waste of time and money. For it follows that if you raise the general standard of living, people will breed that much more, the number of extra mouths to feed will again bring the bulk of the population down to the subsistence level, and you are back where you started. So, the argument went, since government interference with the iron laws of supply and demand can anyhow do no good, the Government had better keep out of it. The Liberal party in the nineteenth century was the party of reform, but not of social reform, or rather not of the economic reform on which social reform mainly depends. The reform for which it fought was the reform of political institutions, precisely with the object of giving the manufacturers more power and the laws of the market more free play; to do it justice, it also cared about legal reform; outside the sphere of economic interests, it attempted to do away with traditional anomalies and barbarities in the domain of the law. These Liberals were not bad men; believing that most people were necessarily made miserable by nature, they did what they could to ensure that they were not made still more miserable by man, at least if it were not for any rational purpose. Their Utilitarianism was quite genuine; they were not hypocritical though their views did coincide rather closely with their interests: it was just that, thanks to Malthus, they had convinced themselves that welfare legislation could not achieve its end. In this context it is worth remembering that the factory acts in the eighteen seventies, which put an end to the grosser evils of the system of child labour, were put through by Conservatives, like Lord Shaftesbury, against the opposition not only of the manufacturers, but also of many of the workers who did not see how they could manage without the wages which their small children earned. That the reform would eventually lead to a rise in their own wages was not clear to them.
Facts of this kind create an awkward problem for Utilitarians. The principle of utility is that we are to endeavour to give as many people as possible as much as possible of what they want; but at once the question arises whether this is to be what people say they want, or what they really want, that is, what we think they ought to want, or would want if they were enlightened. Most modern utilitarians are inclined to take the second view, but clearly it can lead to dangerous consequences, especially as with modern techniques of persuasion it is tempting to try to make people want what you desire them to want, whether in their interest or your own. Plebiscites in favour of dictators are not always faked; more often they do not have to be.
If one considers the world as a whole, it is not at all clear that Malthus's theory has been proved false: the pressure of world population upon world food supplies is going to be one of the most serious problems of the last quarter of this century. It can, however, be said that Malthus's theory has broken down in the more advanced countries of the West. The prosperity of the United States is the most convincing counter-example to it.
In my view, the local failure of Malthus's theory was one of the main factors in generating the outlook of the Labour party. It has made it possible for the party to be reformist rather than revolutionary and so in a large measure to dispense with any theory of its own. The radical sentiments by which the organized labour movement has always been characterized are based less on political than on moral and religious principles, the most important of them being a principle of egalitarianism, 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?' which goes far back in English history without, however, finding any very practical expression until quite recent times. What has been lacking for the most part is any very clear idea of the way in which these principles were to be satisfied. In the main the Labour movement has been content to fight for relatively short-term objectives, improving the conditions of employment of specific categories of workers, winning certain legal rights for the Trade Unions, carrying through schemes of social welfare, increasing the general opportunities for education. I am not at all saying that it was wrong to proceed in this piecemeal way. On the contrary, a systematic attempt to refashion the whole structure of society might well have achieved much less.
These campaigns have indeed been fought under the standard of Socialism, but the Socialism has consisted in a set of maxims taken over from Marx and cut loose from the main body of the Marxist system. 'Nationalization of the mans of production, distribution and exchange.' Admittedly this was not just a battle cry. The manifest moral and social evils of the industrialism of the nineteenth century, extending indeed oer most of the first half of the twentieth, were ascribable to capitalism: therefore, something quite different from capitalism, the very opposite of capitalism was needed, if social justice and the general happiness were to be achieved. not private but public ownership, production not for profit but for use. But this principle remained at a very high level of generality. Public ownership can mean many different things, and the way one effects the transition from private toe public ownership makes a difference too; whether and to what extent one compensates the previous owners, whether or not one leaves the old managers in charge. It is a matter for debate whether the type of nationalization on which the Labour party embarked after the war was best stuied to the industries concerned. It may also be questioned whether either the enthusiasm or the odium which is attached to the idea of antionalization derives from a dispassionate examination of the way in which has been found to work. I shall not attempt to answer these questions here. The only point that I now wish to to make is that is only for a minority of its advocates that nationalization has been a political end in itself. By the majority it has been seen as a means to the achievement of greater prosperity and greater economic and therefore social equality: if these ends can be attained more easily by other means, well and good. There would be no sacrifice of principle, because the operative principles have been moral principles, and these would not be sacrificed. No doubt harsh things have been said about private property, but the English Labour party has never gone so far as to maintain that all forms of private ownership are wrong in themselves. It has never taken Proudhon's position that property is thef -- a contradictory statement as it stands since theft is an offence against property, but one sees what is meant. If you merely hold that certain forms of private ownership are not conducive to the general good, you need not be ashamed to change your mind if experience shows you to have been in some degree mistaken. You can call this yielding to expediency, but if expediency means a willingness to be flexible in the choice of means, it is a standard feature of English politics. Again I am far from saying that this is a defect.
The result of this prevalent empiricism -- and here I am using the word 'empiricism' not in the philosophical but in the political sense, in which an empirical is contrasted with a theoretical approach -- is that political science is reduced to a combination of econommics and psephology. Can we and how can we afford to pursue various schemes of social betterment? Why do people vote as they do? How can they be induced to vote otherwise? About the social needs there is little open dispute, 'To raise the general standard of lviing. To give more protection to the old and sick.' No one is prepared to say that these things are not desirable if they are feasible. The moral difference arises only when it comes to deciding what constitutes their being feasible. Perhaps the Conservative acceptance of the idea of the welfare state is not entirely whole hearted, but the hostility which may be felt for it finds little open expression. It is concealed rather in the laudation of individual enterprise, which again may mean many different things, ranging upwards from the attitude of 'Damn you, Jack, I'm all right.' And this is as far as one can seriously go. 'Odi profanum vulgus et arceo' is no longer an avowable position.
Conversely, in some quarters of the left, there is a display of much dislike for the affluent society, which is itself a proof of affluence, since only a fairly affluent society can afford to worry about the encroachment of meterial upon spiritual values. On this point I sympathize with Brecht: 'Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.' We hear a good deal also about alienation, another Marxist concept which has been detached from its base, but little about the way in which it is to be overcome. How good it would be if we were all animated by a spirit of co-operation and everyone enjoyed his work. Again a social idea, which has yet to be given a political content. Socially, we are nearly all of us meliorists. Politically, we are inclined to be not exactly sceptical, but distrustful of the grand solutions. As so often, Dr. Johnson, admittingly a high Tory, speaks for the deflationary element in English commonsense. Boswell: So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement. Johnson: Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.
I am of course exaggerating a little, but broadly speaking I think I am right in saying that our political life draws very little inspiration from political philosophy. Nevertheless the subject exists. Lectures are given on it, theses written, exminations taken. What does it consist in?
Mainly, it seems to me, in trying to answer a single question: one that would be likely to occur only to the members of a certain type of society; an individualistic society like that of Ancient Athens or seventeenth century England. The question is: What is the ground of political obligation: Or, in more simple terms -- Why should I do what the Government tells me to? This was the question which Plato raised in the Republic and from Hobbes through Locke and Rousseau to Bosanquet and T. H. Green it preoccupied the classical exponents of political theory. When I was an undergraduate the political theorists who did not much concern themselves with this question -- Machiavelli, Marx, Lenin, Plekhanov, Pareto, Sorel -- were comparatively neglected. Their work did not form part of the curriculum. I believe that this is still very largely true except that more official attention is now paid to Marx. And while Marx and his followers do not put the question in the foreground, they can also be represented as having their special way of answering it. Their answer is only one of many. I distinguish thirteen, with brief attributions. The fact that four of these different answers were given by Hobbes, three by Rousseau and two by Locke does not necessarily entail that these writers were not thinking clearly. We cannot say a priori that there may not be several good reasons for political obedience.
The answers run as follows:
- You ought to obey because you are forced to. Hobbes.
- You ought to obey because you have promised to. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other believers in the Social Contract.
- You ought to obey because it is in your interest. Plato, Hobbes, Bentham.
- You ought to obey because it is in the general interest. Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Green.
- You ought to obey because it is you who are giving the orders. Hobbes, Rousseau, Bosanquet and other believers in the General Will.
- You ought to obey because God wants you to. Mediaeval writers.
- You ought to obey because the Sovereign is God's anointed. Absolute Monarchists.
- You ought to obey because the Sovereign is descended from someone who had the right to be obeyed. Legitimists.
- You ought to obey because your government exemplifies the highest point yet reached in the spiritual development of man. Hegel. This can hardly be true of all governments.
- You ought to obey because your government has history on its side. Marx. Again, this may not be true of all governments.
- You ought to obey because you ought to obey. Some English moralists.
- You have no obligation to obey. Anarchists.
This is not, to my mind, a very impressive list of answers, though there are one or two that deserve to be seriously considered. To begin with, we can eliminate all those in which the ground for obedience is placed in authority, whether the authority be human or divine. Even if there were a God the fact that he wanted something to be done, and that you knew that he wanted it, would not in itself supply logical ground for doing it. It could supply a motive for doing it, a prudential motive in the sense that you might believe that he would reward you if you did or make things very unpleasant for you if you did not, but then we move on to another plane. Your reason becomes one of self-interest. It is not a justification because it can never be a justification for doing anything that somebody commands you to do it. There has to be the further premiuss that you are obliged to do what he commands, and in this particular instance why should you be obliged? If your answer is that the authority is all-powerful, then it follows that he has the power to compel you to obey him. So either he exercises it or he does not. If he does, cadit quaestio. You need not bother to find reasons for doing what you cannot help doing anyway. If he does not, then the fact that he could compel you if he wished is nothing to the purpose. You still have to decide. If you decide on prudential grounds, then, as I have said, you are adopting a different principle and one that is also open to question. If you decide to obey on the ground that God is entitled to your obedience, you are evading the issue: the question why he is entitled remains unanswered. The only remaining possibility is that you decide to obey because you think that what he ordains is right. This is a perfectly respectable reason, but it has to be made good independently. The proposition that what God wills is good, or right, must be a synthetic proposition; it cannot simply be a way of saying that he wills what he wills. When believers say that God is good and praise and love him for this reason, they are not merely expressing the tautology that he is what he is, for this would be equally true of the devil. Admittedly, when a diabolist or a Manichean decides to espouse the cause of the devil, the chance are that he is doing what Socrates wrongly thought to be impossible: pursuing an end which he believes to be evil and not one which he blieves to be good: but the logical point remains that if he did believe that what the devil rathar than what God commanded was right, he might be merely perverse but he would not be guilty of self-contradiction. The upshot of this is that any reliance on authority involves an independent moral judgement, the judgement that what your authority enjoins is right, and therefore an independent standard of values. So we can leave God out of the argument. Even if he were known to exist he could not supply a ground for any form of human action: it would be a logical fallacy to try to found either morals or politics upon his supposed desires. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Voltaire's dictum that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him, for Voltaire was thinking of the deity only as sanction, as supplying a prudential motive for making people do what they ought. But while this position is logically tenable, it represents a low and perhaps rather superficial view of the springs of human morality.
What hold for God holds a fortiori for his anointed. The answer to the claim of a divine right for kings is that even if there were any reason to believe that they were divinely appointed, it would prove nothing to the purpose. Of course, if one pledges one's allegience to a certain form of government, if one decides that only the descendants of a certain family -- the direct descendants or the descendants in the male line -- have a right to command one's loyalty and obedience, questions of legitimacy become important. Given the appropriate assumptions, they can become questions of fact. The Jacobite who maintains that some Bavarian Count is the rightful king of England may well, on his own presuppositions, be saying what is true. But clearly this is not a fundamental ground of political obedience. For no answer is given to the question why anyone should obey the members of the privileged family in the first place. The mere practice of obedience, however long continued, does not constitute a justification.
The same type of objection is fatal to some of the other theories. There is an affinity here between Hobbes and Marx. Both held that you ought to do what, if they were right, you could not help doing. For Hobbes, the sovereign is defined partly by his power. It is wrong to rebel against the sovereign only so long as you rebel unsuccessfully. If you rebel successfully then by the mere fact that your rebellion is successful, he ceases to be sovereign. 'Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper none dare call it treason.' The absolute authority of the sovereign is sustained by its being made logically impossible that it should be violated.
Let me remark in passing that there is a great deal more than this to Hobbes' system. His picture of the state of nature and his idea that 'Covenants, without the sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all' have been much derided, and no doubt he does underrate the extent to which man is a political animal, but if one transfers his set-up to the international level, it works very well. In Hobbes' view, the main object of any form of political association was to obtain security, and it is very plausible to suggest that we are not going to obtain international security unless nations can be induced to relinquish their sovereignty to a supra-national authority. Of course this is not automatically going to bring about the millenium. A world government could also be oppressive and all the more oppressive because it would have so much power. Locke's gibe against Hobbes's theory of sovereignty that 'it is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischief may be done to them by polecats and foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions' still has its point. A lot would depend upon the way the world government was formed and how it was perpetuated. Nevertheless, I think it is the best solution though not one that any of us is likely to see realized.
A counterpart of Hobbes's doctrine of sovereignty is to be found in Hegel's 'the real is the ration', the theory being that the justification of government is simply that it exists. Since you accompany the march of the Absolute Idea and cannot march faster than it does -- though it would seem that you can march more slowly, in which case you might have an obligation to catch up -- it is your duty to accept the institutions in which the Absolute Idea exemplifies itself at the time at which you happen to be living. But the trouble here again is that it is made logicallyimpossible to go against the Absolute Idea, since if you do not accept current instituions and succeed in transforming them, this will still be the work of the Absolute Idea operating through you. It is amusing to note, however, that on this point also some of Hegel's followers attempted to turn him upside down. Instead of arguing, as he did, that because the Prussian state was real it was ration, they argued that since it was manifestly irrational it could not be real. Bismarck knew better.
In this matter Marx just follows Hegel, with the substitution of History for the Absolute Idea. We ought to take the side of the working class in the class struggle because history has decreed it to be the winning side. This does not quite come down to syaing that you have an obligation to bring about what is bound to happen anyway, because the theory is not one of complete historical determinism. The victory of the working class is inevitable, but how it comes about and how soon it comes about depend upon the decisions that different people take. But once it is allowed that one is not naturally bound to work for Communism, in which case any question of moral obligation would be otiose, once it is allowed that one has a choice, then it is not clear why one should be morally bound to support the winning side. To take Mr. Pickwick's advice and shout with the loudest may be prudent but it is not self-evidently a duty. The only argument for it is that it is silly to oppose when opposition is known to be fuitle; but the concession, the break in historical determinism, which makes it possible to be in opposition at all, also ensures that the opposition need not be fuitle. If one thinks that the triumph of the working class would be a bad thing (I am not saying I myself think it would be but only considering the case of one who does), then something would seem to be gained if one were able to delay it; by fighting against it one might hope to mitigate some of its worse features. Besides, even if opposition were futile and recognized to be so, this is not a conclusive reason for chaning sides; some would say not a reason at all. There is such a thing as heroic resistance. 'Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni.' An absurd attitude, if you like, but not ignoble.
Perhaps the most subtle but also the most deceptive of our answers is that you are bound to obey the government because you are then obeying yourself. It finds its strongest expression in Rousseau's saying that the criminal who is taken off to prison is being forced to be free. The assumption behind this saying is that freedom consists in obeying a lwa which you impose on yourself, a Puritan doctrine which became one of the cornerstones of Kantian morality, and one which I see no good reason to accept. If there is any ground for supposing that our actions are determined it applies as much to actions which are done from a sense of duty as to any others. But let that pass. The important point, in the present context, is that the criminal is held to be responsible for his own punishment because ,even though he may strongly disapprove of the law which he has broken, or indeed of all such laws, still as a member of the community he has his share in the general will which the law exemplifies. The general will is one's own real will, writ large. Rousseau did not go quite so far as the English Hegelians, like Bradley and Bosanquet, who thought that the state was a more real version of ourselves, a version of ourselves because we are constituents of it and more real because it is larger and therefore a stage nearer the Absolute which alone was really real, but the fallacy is much the same.
I say 'fallacy' for various reasons. In the first place, even if the criminal did make the law, if he actually voted for it, or even proposed it, it does not follow that he has to recognize it as binding on him. I am willing to concede that he is not morally entitled to make an exception in his own favour, though even this will not follow merely from the fact that he helped to make the law. But why should he not have changed his mind about the merits of the law? Might he not have come to think that the law was so bad in itself or passed by such improper means that he ought not now to obey it? Indeed, on the view which we are ocnsidering, it would seem that he would in these circumstances no longer be free to obey it: for if you are free only when you are imposing a law upon yourself, it follows that you cannot freely do what you believe to be wrong: a consequence quite alient to the spirit of Kantian morality and one which its exponents therefore tend to overlook. On the other hand, this discussion has no point unless it be assumed that one has a choice whether or not to abide by the law: and if one does have the choice, then the question at issue is whether one should always continue one's allegience to a law which one has imposed upon oneself in the past: and then all sorts of considerations may intervene. No doubt one ought, other things being equal, to respect the law as such, but apart from the fact that other things may not be equal, this is a different argument. What is now in question is whether the fact that one has participated in the making of the law necessarily entail that one is bound in all circumstance to respect it; and I am suggesting that it does not.
But further it is just not true of the most of us who do not hold political office that in any literal sense we do make the laws by which our society is regulated. We assent to them no doubt, or to some of them: if we are law-abiding people, we shall honour even those that we strongly disapprove of, but it is absurd to say that we are responsible for them. Rousseau said that the English were free only at election times: but what is it that they are then free to do? To declare their preference for one or other of a set of personswhom they have most probably had no voice in selecting and for one or another set of policies which they have most probably had no hand in framing. Note that I am not decrying our form of democracy or even saying that it does not deserve the name. There are all sorts of ways other than by merely voting in which people can bring pressure on the government; for example, by writing to the newspapers, marching in processions, making public speeches, badgering their representatives, militating in political parties. All that I am saying is that this does not amount in any literal sense to our enacting the laws by which we are governed. Even in the case of legislation by plebiscite, which was taken by Rousseau as his model, it is not true that those who are outvoted are the authors of the laws which are passed. They have had the opportunity to make their view prevail but the fact is that it has not prevailed. And even if it had prevailed, it might have been a view which they were tricked or bullied into holding. Recourse to plebiscites became a favourite device of fascist governments, just because it was found that on certain issues the mass of the population was very easily swayed. I do not infer from this that these people did not genuinely identify themselves with their government and its cause, but only that their succumbing to this propaganda, however whole-heartedly, did not commit them to putting their wills indefinitely and unconditionally into the government's keeping.
Of course there is something in the notion of the general will. There are groups of men who have a common purpose and an accredited machinery for carrying it out in which they participate in different ways. These conditions are satisified by football teams, debating societies, governing bodies of colleges, borough councils and so forth. Whether they are satisified by the groups which constitute modern nation-states, except perhaps in time of war, is rather doubtful. The point is of interest but it is not meterial to the argument. The fact that you belong to a group, which has in this sense a general will, and that you participate in the making of its decisions, may be a good reason for your abiding by the decisions, weven when you think them wrong or personally dislike their consequences. But this is still not to say that the general will is your will. You can choose to subordinate your will to it, but it is a choice and one that you may find reason to go back on.
A more obviously fictitious idea is that of the social contract. There are indeed cases in which a social contract is known to have been made, not indeed in primitive times when men were emerging from the state of nature, but in communities which were artificially set up, mainly in the nineteenth century. One of the best known examples is the Oneida Community in the United States. But if my grandfather chose to join such a community, why should that bind me? Even if I myself had freely joined it, why should that bind me if I do not like what is going on? Because I promised that I would stay? But though it is true in general that promises should be kept there may be circumstances in which to break a promise is the lesser evil. And in any case if we are going to found political obligation upon moral principles, it would be better to do so directly, rather than appeal to a social contract which only a handful of people in very exception circumstances ever in fact subscribe to.
It may be objected that this literal interpretation of the theory of the social contract fails to do it justice. No one who still defends the theory regards the making of the contract as a historical event. The argument is rather that by remaining a member of a society, by taking advantage of the proection which it affords you and of the social amenities which it provides, you tacitly undertake to fulfil the demands which it makes upon you. As Hume pointed out long ago, this argument presupposes that you have a genuine alternative; otherwise, as he said, it is like telling a man who complains about the conditions aboard a ship on to which he was shanghaied in the first place that he is free to jump into the sea. But even when this condition is satisfied, the argument has very little weight. It is a good debating point for the chairman of a conscientous objectors' tribunal to say to an objector: 'Your country has done a good deal for you of which you have not hesitated to take advantage. Don't you think that you ought to respond to its present need, to do your bit along with all or nearly all the rest? It may make the man feel uncomfortable: but not so uncomfortable as to override a genuine scuple of conscience. If he thinks it absolutely wrong to take human life in any circumstances, he will not be moved. And if he is told that he has tacitcly promised to do even this, his answer can only be that this is just not so. A revolutionary in active rebellion against a government which he thinks tyrannical is not going to be deterred from his activity by the argument that though the police may have tortured him for his political opinions, they have at least directed the traffic for him and protected his property from burglars, and that so long as he has paid the bills his supplies of gas and electricity and running water have not been cut off. Does anyone seriously think that these considerations should deter him?
The answer to the suggestion that I ought to obey the government because it is in my interest to do so is that it frequently may not be. One has only to think of successful tax dodgers. Moreover, the fact that something is in one's interest, or that one believes it to be so, is not necessarily a sufficient reason for doing it. Those who have put this theory forward have usually done so because they believed, mistakenly, that it was psychologically impossible to act otherwise that with a view to one's own interest. Had they been right, there would be no problem beyond that of convincing people that obedience to the government really was in their own interest. Here again, there would be no sense in telling them that they ought to do what they were determined to do anyway.
Apart from the anarchist answer, about which I shall say something later on, we are now left with only two of our original list; the suggestion that you ought to obey the government because you ought, and the usggestion that you ought to obey the government because it is in the general interest that you should. If the first of these means that you ought to obey the government unconditionally, all I can say is that I just do not believe it: if it means that you ought to obey the government when you ought, it is true but not very enlightening. The only merit of this type of answer is that it draws attention to the fact that in the cases where it really matters the decision whether to vouchsafe or withhold obedience is a moral decision.
The Utilitarian position is the one to which I feel most sympathetic, with one or two reservations. If we are ealuating political institutions and political measures, then I do think that what should be primarily considered is their probable effect upon the happiness of those concerned. Admittedly, the concept of happiness is vague and the process of balancing the satisfaction of one set of persons against the dissatisfcation of another is very rough and ready: but while it is absurd to look for anything like mathematical precision, I do not agree with the view that the utilitarian calculus is totally inapplicable. On the contrary, I think that politicians very frequently apply it, with a fair measure of success. Where its application is dubious is in the case of the individual. If I ask myself what would be the right action for me to perform in some particular situation, the task of working out the felicific sum with respect to each of the possible alternatives might well defeat me. It is only if I go by rule, as indeed I normally should, that I can apply utilitarian considerations not to the particular actions which are open to me but to the rules under which they severally fall, and even so I shall have difficulty in deciding on utilitarian grounds between the competing rules as they operate in these particular circumstances. It must, however, be remembered that Bentham never intended that principle of utility should apply to individual actions. He was not concerned with the morality of individuals since he thought that they were in any case bound to do what they believed to be in their own interest. The position that he took up was that of a legislator who was benevolent in the sense that he happened to find his greatest self-satisfaction in promoting the welfare of others, and he then raised the question: What laws should such a legislator devise for the community over which he is in charge? The answer that he should devise such laws and institutions as will ensure as many people as possible getting as much as possible of what they want seems to me in a large measure acceptable: I am sure that it is the best single answer at this level of generality. One serious objection to it is that it does not sufficiently allow for the extent to which people are irrational: there is the difficulty, which we noticed earlier on, that people often think they want things which they would not want if they were more clear-sighted and, what is more vexatious, that they can be induced by propaganda to want things which we believe that they should not be allowed to have. I am not now thinking of the duty of imposing cultural programmers on people who would prefer to look at 'Double Your Money': one can hardly avoid the attempt to proselytize, but it need not go further than that. I am thinking of the much more serious case in which the majority of people in a given society are induced to approve of a regime which indulges in persecution and war. It is just possible, however, that if one puts into the balance the intense sufferings of oppressed minorities in societies of this type, these can be excluded on utilitarian grounds.
A second, more radical objection to a thoroughgoing utilitarianism is that there are certain things like justice and freedom to which one might want to attach a value independently of the value of happiness. I do not agree with Pope's: 'For forms of government let fools contest; whate'er is but administered is best'. I think it might be reasonable to prefer a rather less well-run society, in which the average individual had a larger say in the management of its affairs, to a better-run society in which he had less, even though it could be shown that people on the whole were more contented in the second. I should, however, have to mititgate this by adding that the disparity in happiness between the two must not be very great.
But while I support utilitarianism in this qualified way, I doubt if it furnishes the answer to the question: Why ought I obey the government? I have very often thought that the government was not acting in the general interest but never felt that this justified me in evading currency restrictions or fiddling my income tax returns or disregarding the policeman on point duty. Of course a utilitarian might reply that the evils of civil disobedience are normally greater in utilitarian terms than the evils ensuing from the government's policy; so that unless the government does something very bad, something that one thinks will have a disastrous effect on the happiness of the society, one will not be justified in refusing to obey it. There is, howeer, something rather artificial about the idea of our severally measuring our obligation as citizens in terms of a utilitarian calculus. The calculus applies to the choice of policies within the framework of a certain form of society, but only in exceptional cases to maintenance of the framework itself.
The fact is that there is something wrong with the form of our question. Men do not choose to live in society, they are born into a society and into one of a particular structure. In rare instances they are in a position to exchange one form of society for another, and in very rare instances they may choose to opt out of society altogether by living as hermits, though this is not easy to accomplish; for one thing it is increasingly difficult to find anywhere to go. Now if there is to be a society, there must be some form of social organization: some set of institutions, some recognized machinery for taking decisions which will count as the decisions of the group as a whole. The machinery need not be democratic but it must exist. This is a logical necessity; not that there shall be socieities, but that if there is a society, there must be some form of social organization. The only question which arises is what form of social organization to have. The anarchist who answers the question: Why ought I to obey the Government? by saying that you have no obligation to, is in fact advocating a form of organization in which all decisions are arrived at as the result of a discussion in which everyone has the right to participate and are freely adhered to without the imposition of any sanctions. This works, more or less, in families and clubs and perhaps even in some progressive schools, but unfortunately seems not to be a feasible way of conducting the affairs of a nation-state.
This gives us the clue to what political philosophers are really doing. The text books were in error when they represented them as dealing with a single moral question to which there can be a valid answer independently of the historical context in which the question is posed. The grounds which they offer for political obligation are persuasive in Professor Stevenson's sense. They amount to the advocacy of a certain form of political organization. Thus, Hobbes is saying that all that really matters is that the government shall be strong: Locke is arguing in favour of the protection of private property, the seperation of powers and the accountability of the executive: Rousseau is arguing in favour of city states with town meetings and plebiscites: the theocrats are in favour of theocracy, the diving right of king's men in favour of absolute monarchy: Bentham and Mill maintain that political institutions, together with the whole legal system, should be assessed only in terms of their utility: Marx was in favour of a classless society made possible by increased production: Lenin thought that the first step towards attaining this end was to have a dictatorship of a small body of intellectuals acting in the name of the proletariat. But by the time that we get to Marx and Lenin, we are at a more realistic level than that of any presumed universal ground for political obligation.
Someone may protest that this advocacy of different forms of organization does not exhaust political philosophy. There is the history of the subject to studied; there is the task of analysing political concepts. What exactly do we mean by 'sovereignty', 'democracy', 'political liberties', 'national self-determination', 'civil rights' and so forth. True: there are these questions. No doubt a careful investigation of the ways in which these terms have been understood at different periods and in different societies would yield some interesting results. But their interest would mainly consist in the fact that these different usages reflected different recommendations with resepect to organization or policy. It is not, for example, a point of merely linguistic import that the Russians use the word which we translate by our word 'democracy' in a rather different sense from ours. If that were all there were to it our misunderstandings could be removed by finding a more accurate translation. It is that their usage reflects a different set of values, a different idea of what is important for a society, or at any rate for their society, a different structural model. These disagreements are not verbal and they are not to be resolved by any form of linguistic analysis, though an intelligent analysis may help to make clear what they are. The fact is, however, that we know pretty well what they are; what we do not know is what to do about them.
One reason why political philosophy is hardly a live subject in this country, so that more than most others it has the air of living on its past, is that our society is -- if I may be forgiven the barbarous phrase--ideologically homogeneous. There are disputes about policies but not about the framework in which they are to be carried out. Even widespread nationalization in the form in which it is a political issue would not invite a radical transformation of our political or social structure. But the most important reason is that on fundamental questions of organization nobody has any new ideas. Only the fascists of the twentieth century have transformed people's political outlooks in the way that the utilitarians and the Marxists transformed them in the nineteenth; and mercifully not here. So far as political theory goes our twentieth century is only a prolongation of the nineteenth.
In this matter I am like the rest; I have nothing new to offer. Only the old familiar liberal principles; old, but not so firmly established that we can afford to take them for granted. Representative government, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of collective bargaining, equality before the law, and all that goes with the so-called welfare state. It is not a heady brew. Such principles nowadays are a ground for excitement, a source of enthusiasm, only when they appear to be violated. For most of us participation in politics takes the form of protest; protest against the retention of the atom bomb, against the war in Vietnam, against some example of witch-hunting, against censorship, against capital or corporal punishment, against the persecution of homosexuals, against racial discrimination; there is still quite a lot to be against. It would be more romantic to be marching forward shoulder to shoulder under some bright new banner towards a brave new world. But I don't know: perhaps it is the effect of age. I do not really feel the need for anything to replace this mainly utilitarian, mainly tolerant, undramatic type of radicalism. For me the problem is not to devise a new set of political principles but rather to find a more effective means of putting into operation the principles that most of us already profess to have.