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The Logic Of Legitimacy: Ethics In Political Realism

The article examines the recent debate on a genuinely realist perspective in political philosophy and argues that the core idea of realism is a certain type of ethical theory. In spite of the notorious polemic against “moralism” in politics that is




  The Logic of Legitimacy: Ethics in PoliticalRealism  Hans-Jörg Sigwart  Abstract:  The article examines the recent debate on a genuinely realist perspective inpolitical philosophy and argues that the core idea of realism is a certain type of ethicaltheory. In spite of the notorious polemic against  “ moralism ”  in politics that ischaracteristic of realist thinkers since Machiavelli, political realism as put forth inthe current debate is not to be understood as a strictly fact-oriented perspective onpolitics, but rather as a perspective that itself is founded on a theory of politicalethics. This peculiarly realist theory of political ethics can be characterized by itsfocus on the theoretical importance of political application problems, by a genuinepriority principle underlying its understanding of political ethics, by its distinctiveunderstanding of the concept of legitimacy and,  󿬁 nally, by its claim that any form of ethics, as far as it is concerned with political questions, is necessarily ambivalent incharacter. The term  “ realism ”  has a broad variety of meanings, ranging from its every-day use as denoting an unsentimental down-to-earth perspective on practicalmatterstoitsmeaningasageneralphilosophicalconcept,denotingacomplexepistemological position regarding the relation between human conscious-ness and the phenomenal world. In political science the term  “ realism ”  isusually understood as a label for a certain pragmatic and self-interestedtype of political agenda or, alternatively, for a speci 󿬁 c tradition of IR theory,deriving from a particular and in a certain sense  “ antiliberal ” “ twentiethcentury response to a particular set of events: the world wars, the rise of tota-litarianism, the advent of systematic and bureaucratized mass murder andthe threat of nuclear annihilation. ” 1 But what does the term  “ realism ”  meanif taken as a  terminus technicus  , as it were,of   political philosophy ? This question,after having been rather absent from the mainstream debates within politicaltheory during the past decades, has recently regained considerable signi 󿬁 -cance. In the past years, a number of political theorists and philosophers Hans-Jörg Sigwart is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science,University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Kochstrasse 4, 91054 Erlangen, Germany (hans- [email protected]). 1 Ian Hall,  “ The Triumph of Anti-liberalism? Reconciling Radicalism to Realism inInternational Relations Theory, ”  Political Studies Review  9, no. 1 (2011): 49.The Review of Politics 75 (2013), 407 – 432.© University of Notre Damedoi:10.1017/S0034670513000338 407  have emphatically argued for the need to rediscover the  “ forgotten tradition ” of political realism. These contributions have attracted considerable attentionwithin the international political theory discourse, and they have succeededin reintroducing the term  “ realism ”  into the current theoretical debate as aterm that indeed represents a distinct political philosophy, one that especiallyoffers an alternative to the presumably dominant model of liberal politicaltheorizing as it is associated most prominently with the work of John Rawls. 2 In the following I will examine these recent contributions to the realist tra-dition and discuss the question of the conceptual characteristics of politicalrealism as a distinct and genuine perspective in political philosophy. Aboveall, I want to suggest that the core idea of realism as it is partly explicitly,partly only implicitly put forth in these recent contributions is a certaintype of ethical theory. Owing to their explicit critical orientation againstthe presumably  “ moralistic ” “ ideal theory ”  of philosophical liberalism, therecent attempts to reformulate fundamental realist ideas are directly con-fronted with the fundamental question of the general relation between poli-tics and morality or ethics. Yet while the realist critique of   “ ideal theory ” approaches is often misunderstood as an argument for a plain ethical relati-vism which, by focusing on the realities of powerpolitics, tends to undermineany form of normative and critical theoretical re 󿬂 ection, it turns out on closerinspection that the relation between politics and ethics is far more complexand ambiguous from the realists ’  perspective than their obvious critique of moralism may indicate at  󿬁 rst sight. In spite of the notorious polemicagainst  “ idealism ”  and  “ moralism ”  in politics that is characteristic of realistthinkers since Machiavelli, and in spite of the fact that realists consequentlystress the emancipation of politics from any form of abstract and absolutemorality or ethics, political realism itself nonetheless is not to be understoodas an amoral, a strictly fact-oriented, a  “ value-free, ”  or evena cynical perspec-tive on politics, but rather as a perspective that itself is ultimately founded ona philosophical conception of political ethics, if a quite peculiar one.I want to argue that this foundation in a speci 󿬁 c conception of ethics — apolitical ethics of responsibility, as Max Weber famously termed it 3 — iscrucial not only for a proper understanding of the realists ’  critical argumentsagainst the supposedly mistaken  “ moralism ”  or  “ humanism ”  or  “ ethics- 󿬁 rst ” approaches in current mainstream political theory or philosophy, but also fora proper understanding of their theoretical perspective in general and its 2 For an overview of this current debate on  “ political realism ”  and of the realist cri-tique of Rawls ’ s political philosophy see the summaries in William Galston,  “ Realismin Political Theory, ”  European Journal of Political Theory  9, no. 4 (2010): 385 – 411; WilliamGalston,  “ Realism and Moralism in Political Theory: The Legacy of John Rawls, ”  in Re  󿬂 ections on Rawls: An Assessment of His Legacy  , ed. Shaun P. Young (Farnham:Ashgate, 2009), 111 – 30. 3 MaxWeber, “ PolitikalsBeruf, ” in Gesammelte politische Schriften  ,2nded.(Tübingen:Mohr, 1958), 536 – 48. 408  THE REVIEW OF POLITICS  normativeimplications.Inordertobringoutthegeneraltraitsofsucharealistform of political ethics I will  󿬁 rst give an overview of the debate under con-sideration and sketch the various attempts at historical and theoretical self-contextualization of current realist thinkers. Against this background I will,in the second section, more closely examine the realists ’  critique of liberalism.IwillarguethatthiscritiquehasthreemajorpositiveimplicationswhichIwilldiscuss more closely in the third section. It implies  󿬁 rst an emphasis on thetheoretical importance of political application problems, second a speci 󿬁 callyrealistic variant of an ethical priority principle, and third a strong focus onand a peculiar understanding of the concept of   “ legitimacy. ”  These threemajor aspects form the basis of the realist understanding of political ethicsas it is implied in and can be elaborated from the current realist debate.Finally, in the fourth section I will outline some distinctly ambivalent conse-quences of this understanding of political ethics. While these consequencesare only alluded to in the current debate, they are most clearly articulatedin the texts of Hannah Arendt and Michael Walzer. Referring to their respect-ive re 󿬂 ections, I will close by suggesting a speci 󿬁 cally heroic nature of ethicalrealism which derives from the realist conviction that the relation betweenethics and politics is fundamentally ambiguous in character. I What can be said about  “ realism ”  as a concept of everyday language holdstrue also with regard to its recent use as a label for a new (or, better, arenewed) trend within political theory: it comprises a rather complex andmanifold, and partly even contradictory, variety of arguments, concepts,texts, and authors. What nonetheless renders this label plausible, however,is,  󿬁 rst of all, the fact that it is used as a common self-description by therespective authors themselves — a self-description that is underscored by fre-quent pertinent references to notoriously  “ realistic ”  classical authors such asThucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Regarding their self-perception, theauthors at hand (among them Raymond Geuss, John Gray, BernardWilliams, Mark Philp, Richard Lebow, Glen Newey, and others 4 ) have to beunderstood as promoting a common, genuinely realist philosophical perspec-tive that can be clearly located within the context of a distinct and, as one of theirinterpreters notes,avery “ powerful … traditionofre 󿬂 ectingonthechar-acter and conditions of political activity ”— a tradition that encompasses  “ theapproaches of thinkers as diverse as Machiavelli and Nietzsche, Michael 4 Galston also lists Stuart Hampshire, John Dunn, Richard Bellamy, GeoffreyHawthorne, William Connolly, Bonnie Honig, Chantal Mouffe, Judith Shklar, Jeremy Waldron, and Stephen Elkin as current realist thinkers ( “ Realism in PoliticalTheory, ”  386). THE LOGIC OF LEGITIMACY  409  Oakeshott and Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron and John Dunn, and BernardWilliams and James Tully, to mention but a few. ” 5 There are indeed a number of pertinent aspects of realism that can be gath-ered from the current debate. William Galston, in his essay  “ Realism inPolitical Theory, ”  in which he reviews the neorealist philosophies we are con-cerned with here, suggests the following as typical realist assumptions. ForGalston, political realism is above all characterized by its awareness of  “ deep disagreement ”  as the most fundamental condition of politics and, con-sequently, by its focus on the most basic conditions of social coordination andon political stability. 6 Given the basic fact of con 󿬂 ict and disagreement as thenatural conditions of the social life of human beings whose actions are predo-minantly driven by self-interest and irrational passions, 7 the  “ core challengeto politics ”  from a realist point of view is to establish and maintain order insociety. Since this most fundamental task of political action to a certaindegree always  “ require(s) coercion or the threat of coercion, ” 8 the art of poli-tics can be summarized as the constant attempt  “ to overcome anarchywithout embracing tyranny. ” 9 As a consequence, furthermore, realism paysparticular attention to the crucial role of institutions, their various politicalfunctions within society, their complex inherent cultural logic, theirdynamic development over time, and, above all, their comprehensive inte-gration into the speci 󿬁 cally modern institutional patterns of sovereignstates. 10 In sum, according to Galston, these various realist assumptions about thenature and conditions of political action coincide in the fundamental realistclaimofthe “ autonomyofpolitics. ” Politicsor “ thepolitical ” constitutesadis-tinct social sphere with its own peculiar logic of action and judgment. Andthis, most importantly, implies a particular understanding of the signi 󿬁 canceof morality or ethics within this distinct social sphere of politics. The distinctlogic of politics that derives from the necessary conditions of collective politi-cal action  “ often require(s) leaders to employ means that would be forbiddenin other contexts, ”  wherefore  “ political morality is not the same as individualmorality and may often contradict it. ” 11 5 David Owen,  “ Die verlorene und die wiedergefundene Wirklichkeit: Ethik, Politikund Imagination bei Raymond Geuss, ”  Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie  58, no. 3(2010): 432. An English version of this article is available at (quotation on pp. 3 – 4). 6 Galston,  “ Realism in political theory, ”  396 – 98. 7 Ibid., 398. 8 Ibid., 390. 9 Ibid., 391. 10 Ibid., 393 – 94. 11 Ibid., 392. 410  THE REVIEW OF POLITICS  Consequently, realism asserts that there is a speci 󿬁 cally  political  morality, orthat  “ normativity, ”  as far as political theory is concerned, rests on a distinctform of ethics that applies only to those moral questions which arise withinthe sphere of  politics and its speci 󿬁 c rationale of collective action or  “ corpor-ateagency. ” 12 Withthis question Galstontouches uponthemostfundamentalaspect of the current neorealist philosophical argument, yet without discuss-ing its implications in detail. In order to further clarify these implications, it ishelpful  󿬁 rst to consider the wider theoretical context of the current realistdiscourse as seen by the authors themselves. Indeed, with regard to thephilosophical self-perception of realism, explicit attempts at theoretical self-contextualization play a crucial role. Some of the references are easy to com-prehend, others are rather surprising. Among others the philosophical con-textualism and the understanding of historical hermeneutics as articulated by the  “ Cambridge School ”  play an important role for most authors, 13 andso does Michael Oakeshott ’ s political theory. In terms of crucial topics, thedebate not only involves political as well as epistemological, and even onto-logical, questions. It also seems to bear some quite exceptional religious (par-ticularly somewhat neopagan) undertones as well as some sort of a revived  󿬁 n-de-siècle  ambience. 14 Quite frequent are references to the German philoso-phical discourse of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. RaymondGeuss, for instance, besides his references to classically realist thinkers suchas Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Max Weber, emphasizesthe crucial in 󿬂 uence on his realist perspective of the  “ nineteenth- andtwentieth-century German practical philosophy, ” 15 particularly of the criticaltheory of the early Frankfurt School. 16 He also praisingly refers to a rathervague tradition  “ of radical practical thinking that descend[s] from Paul and 12 On the traits and the speci 󿬁 c logic of   “ corporate agency ”  described from a realistperspective see Glen Newey,  “ Two Dogmas of Liberalism, ”  European Journal of PoliticalTheory  9, no. 4 (2010): 449 – 65. 13 For a critical discussion of the historical contextualism as inspired by theCambridge School see Paul Kelly,  “ Rescuing Political Theory from the Tyranny of History, ”  in  Political Philosophy versus History? Contextualism and Real Politics inContemporary Political Thought  , ed. Jonathan Floyd and Marc Stears (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2011), 13 – 37. 14 In both respects the most exemplary author is John Gray: see, for instance, hisreference to ancient animism in John Gray,  Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans andOther Animals  (London: Granta Books, 2002), 17 and 33; see also John Gray,  Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions  (London: Granta Books, 2004), 100 – 108, whereGray links his somewhat  󿬁 n-de-siècle  perspective with the one assumed in the workof Joseph Conrad. 15 Raymond Geuss,  Outside Ethics  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 65. 16 See also Raymond Geuss,  The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the FrankfurtSchool  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 107n49. THE LOGIC OF LEGITIMACY  411