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Morality in Politics

The Moral Foundations of Politics by Ian Shapiro; Aakar Books, 2004;
VIDHU VERMA This book is an essay in political philosophy which addresses conceptual issues in the politics of western societies with their wide variety of complex and highly articulated structures. It examines some major traditions in political philosophy in order to address the role of morality inpolitics. The book

Morality in Politics

The Moral Foundations of Politics

by Ian Shapiro; Aakar Books, 2004; pp xii+ 289, Rs 550.


his book is an essay in political philosophy which addresses conceptual issues in the politics of western societies with their wide variety of complex and highly articulated structures. It examines some major traditions in political philosophy in order to address the role of morality inpolitics. The book’s eight chapters address two broad themes that characterise Ian Shapiro’s research interests which grew out of his lectures on ‘The Moral Foundation of Politics’ at Yale University. The first is a distinction between governments that merit our allegiance and those that do not. The second is a distinction between ideas decisively shaped by the Enlightenment and those still valid ideas which he calls “mature” enlightenment values. These distinctions have been very important in expanding our understanding of the moral imperative of citizens to adhere to legal institutions and to judge whether laws and actions of states can claim allegiance.

The author’s main research questions are: What makes government legitimate? Who is to judge and by what criteria, whether the laws and actions of states that claim our allegiance measure up? When do governments merit our allegiance and when should they be denied?

In order to answer these questions Shapiro is both thematic and chronological. He tries to critically analyse how the classical utilitarian tradition associated with the views of Jeremy Bentham, sees legitimacy of government as tied to its willingness and capacity to maximise happiness of its citizens. The Marxist tradition takes the idea of exploitation as the benchmark for judging political legitimacy. Institutions underwrite exploitation and they gain it

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

to the degree that they promote its antithesis – human freedom. In the social contract tradition the state’s legitimacy is rooted in the idea of an agreement between citizens. A turning point came with the publication of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and a broad acceptance of a politically directed bureaucratically managed economic growth agenda within which popular welfare was posited. More significant is that in Rawls’ writings an ineradicable pluralism and moral arbitrariness of differences among people gets linked to concerns of distributive justice.

Each of these traditions presents a different cluster of beliefs but they overlap a good deal more than is often realised. Shapiro explains that this is mainly because they have been decisively shaped by the ideas of the enlightenment. He defines it as a “philosophical movement aimed at rationalising social life by basing it on scientific principles and in which there is a powerful normative impetus to take seriously the ideal of human freedom as expressed in a political doctrine of individual rights” (p 3).

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Armed with this definition, he examines these traditions by locating them in the larger debate between science and the commitment to individual rights that are basic to the political consciousness of the Enlightenment. According to Shapiro the view that “science is a deterministic enterprise concerned with discovering the laws that govern the universe” (p 15) is in perpetual conflict with an ethic that emphasises individual freedom. Human actions as law governed rule out freedom of action that gives individual rights its moral force. He claims that this tension is present in utilitarian, Marxist and social contract traditions without ever being fully resolved. In the democratic tradition these twin impulses are managed through procedural devices but are never entirely sorted out.

The remaining chapters focus on the arguments presented by the critics of the Enlightenment that range from traditionalists like Edmund Burke, to various postmodern and communitarian theorists. A core issue in these debates, according to Shapiro, is that despite differences they share considerable scepticism towards the goal of rationalising politics along scientific lines as well as to the idea that the freedoms embodied in individual rights are the most important political value. Instead most of these critics are inclined to attach normative weight to communal attachments, linking the legitimacy of political institutions to how well they embody inherited values that shape and give meaning to the lives of individuals.

Despite serious difficulties with the utilitarian, Marxist and social contract tradition Shapiro resists from a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment project. What political theory best embodies “mature” enlightenment values? An alternative approach sustainable for contemporary politics is the modern formulations of the democratic tradition that spring from or react against Rousseau’s discussion of the general “well” in the Social Contract. Democrats hold that governments are legitimate when those who are affected by decisions play an appropriate role in making them. Moreover they share a common commitment to democratic procedures as the most viable source of political legitimacy. Thus a commitment to democracy is a necessary component of political legitimacy.

This is a rich and rewarding book weaving familiar themes in the literature on political philosophy. By reading some works in the canon of political philosophy it tries to clarify our understanding of some critical debates. Shapiro convincingly shows that political philosophy emerging from the Enlightenment has possibilities for emancipation although most of the intellectual traditions associated with it focus too narrowly on particular understandings of Enlightenment values and they do not sufficiently attend to how science and freedom can be related. However, while this book clarifies some conceptual issues it fails to connect them to our understanding of real and contemporary political problems. Shapiro gives a broad justification for the rights discourse for positive governmental intervention and for politics of redistribution. On the philosophical plane I do not find his justifications compatible with the arguments about the democratic project. The trouble in Shapiro’s account is that he fails to see that democratic relations are still relations of power. Representative institutions do not promote a wide sense of inclusion in decision-making structures. To think about democracy principally in this way may be to force it into an impoverished theoretical framework. He also does not pay enough attention to the possibility that the state could be coercively authoritarian despite maintaining procedures of democracy. It would be useful if Shapiro had viewed the changes in the past two decades as beyond traditional political philosophy literature with its narrow focus on the political, or elections and voting and party systems. Traditional political philosophy has to be placed within the wider developments – in social, economic as well as cultural aspects – that remained outside its scope. The reader would also benefit from the inner logic behind the apparently ad hoc collections of political views that he clubbed together as part of the Enlightenment project. Instead of weaving together the major traditions of western political philosophy it would be useful to highlight strains between liberal political thought with its concerns for plural and independent sources of power in the state, and democratic political thought with its perennial quest for integrating people into structures of power.

More than such theoretical questions it is practical political dilemmas that remain posed by Shapiro’s analysis. Perhaps his approach to the hard questions of moral legitimacy of governments would have been helped by greater reliance on the empirical social science research that has recently taken up the moral and rights questions from a sociological perspective. The dramatic collapse of the USSR and its allied states, the disillusioning consequences of US foreign policy and the economic misery and insecurity of millions of people all over the world due to processes triggered by globalisation are hardly addressed by this kind of political philosophy.

Despite these drawbacks the literature in political philosophy has grown so vast and diverse that this kind of an attempt is very useful not only for students but also for instructors considering similar themes. While the publisher has been a little slack for omitting several pages (pp 145-65) it should not detract from the main substance in the book. Shapiro’s considerable contribution lies in grappling with the intractable dilemmas of political philosophy in its many guises. This book is recommended reading for scholars interested in current issues of political philosophy. rnr


Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

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