PSR INTERVIEWS #13: Normativity in Realist Legitimacy – Ben Cross

Ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere” – says Ben Cross in this interview. You can learn more about normativity, moralism and realism in his PSR article, Normativity in Realist Legitimacy.

PSR: What are the key distinctions between moralist and realist views on normativity and legitimacy that you identify?

I think the fundamental difference stems from views about the epistemic merits of morality. 

Realists seem to be committed to the view that:

  1. some or all of what is usually called ‘morality’ – call it “S-morality” – rests on epistemically dubious assumptions. 
  2. at a minimum, S-morality includes what Bernard Williams calls “the morality system” (which is especially concerned with the notion of moral obligation and the assignment of responsibility and blame), as well as most of the moral principles that moralist theories of legitimacy typically appeal to. 

Moralists will at least reject ii), and possibly also i). 

In light of i) and ii), realists take themselves to have reason to ensure that their normative claims – including their normative claims about legitimacy – do not appeal to S-morality. 

How do realists set their standards of politics, while not appealing to a “morality that is prior to politics”?

Realists typically make one of two non-mutually exclusive moves here.  First, they claim that politics is conceptually distinct from certain other kinds of human interaction such as war or terror.  Second, they claim that the practice of political institutions seems somewhat teleologically geared towards certain purposes, notably providing stability and facilitating collective decision-making. 

Each of these two moves can be used to identify standards of “good politics”.  For example, if politics is teleologically geared towards providing stability, then it might be claimed that one important standard for assessing the goodness of political order is its stability. 

Neither of these two moves appeals to any kind of morality.  But note also that, by themselves, they are not obviously normative at all.  They might help us identify what counts as “good politics”, but they don’t clearly explain why we have a reason to pursue “good politics”. 


What are the pillars of a moralist critique of a realist critique of the morality system? Is there any universal model of morality that it refers to?

Perhaps the most common moralist objection to realism is that the various theories of “good politics” that realists propose can only have normative force if they appeal to morality.  By itself, this objection does not fault realists for failing to embrace any particular universal model of morality.  Rather, it faults them for being inconsistent.  If the objection is correct, realists can make normative judgments or avoid appealing to morality, but they can’t do both. 

I think realists can respond to this objection in one of two ways.  First, they can argue that there are certain forms of morality that are not S-morality, and hold that the normative force of their ideas of “good politics” can be explained in terms of these forms of morality.  Second, they can argue that their normative force can be explained without reference to any kind of morality at all.  For example, perhaps “good politics” is instrumentally valuable: it helps us get what we want. 

Williams-premise holds that there is a conceptual distinction between politics and war, and that this conceptual distinction can only be maintained if we suppose that politics takes the form of legitimate politics.  It thus identifies “good politics” with political legitimacy

What’s the idea behind of a so-called “Williams-premise”?

What I call the Williams-premise emphasises the first of the two moves I referred to in my answer to the second question.  It holds that there is a conceptual distinction between politics and war and that this conceptual distinction can only be maintained if we suppose that politics takes the form of legitimate politics.  It thus identifies “good politics” with political legitimacy. 

A challenge for realists who accept the Williams-premise is to then explain why political legitimacy is something that is desirable.  Without such an explanation, it is unclear that these realists can articulate a theory of legitimacy that is normative

You mention ‘concessive realism’ as well as ‘naturalist realism’ – would you elaborate on the differences between these two approaches?

Concessive realism responds to the above challenge by narrowing its aims.  It holds that realism only aims to establish the truth of the Williams-premise without appealing to morality.  It is content to delegate the task of explaining the desirability of political legitimacy to morality. 

Naturalist realism, unlike concessive realism, seeks to show that political legitimacy is desirable without thereby appealing to S-morality.  It tries to do this by asserting what I call the “naturalist premise”: avoiding politics is not a real option for human being because politics is necessary to secure certain basic goods that we all desire for ourselves. 

Ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

How would you define the realist approaches to legitimacy with, for instance, the current situation in Afghanistan? How would it differ from a moralist approach?

Here is a crude but potentially helpful way of illustrating things. 

I think moralists, most of whom are liberals, would likely view the recently collapsed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as legitimate because it embodied certain important liberal democratic moral norms (albeit imperfectly).  For example, it had a broadly liberal constitution, and it gave citizens the right to vote.  Realists, however, would likely be more inclined to regard it as suffering from a severe legitimation deficit, simply because it never fully succeeded in creating stable political order or obtaining sufficient support from its citizens. 

By contrast, I expect most moralists would regard the recently re-established Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (i.e. the Taliban government) as necessarily illegitimate because it does not, by and large, embody liberal moral values.  Realists, however, would hold that it could conceivably become legitimate, even though it rejects liberal moral values if it were to implement stable political order and provide citizens with a justification for its power that generally makes sense to them.  Admittedly, this “if” appears likely to be counterfactual. 

Are there any other practical examples that would help us to understand a major difference between the two approaches?

The above example may create the impression that realists are more pessimistic than moralists about what is politically possible and are thus willing to settle for less ambitious political goods.  There is a sense in which this might be true.  Stable political order is a necessary condition for people to have access to basic goods, services and protections.  Its existence is clearly very important to citizens’ interests.  Risking political stability in order to pursue liberal reforms may endanger these interests. 

However, there are at least two points to bear in mind which may complicate this impression.  First, stable political order is often a very demanding goal.  Marxists, for example, may claim that capitalism is inherently unstable and that the only route to lasting political stability goes through proletarian revolution.  Second, ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

My article has more mundane and modest goals than my answer to the previous question would suggest.  It takes a step towards showing how realist theories of legitimacy can be internally consistent – that is, they can be normative without relying on S-morality.  It may also help us better understand what the underlying motivating concern of realist theories of legitimacy is.  Why should we care about political legitimacy?  What needs, interests, or desires are served by having political institutions that are legitimate, rather than illegitimate?  Answers to these questions may further enable us to see what place the concept of political legitimacy might have in political philosophy and the extent to which it is a concept worthy of continuing analysis and application. 

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Article: Cross, Ben (2020), Normativity in Realist Legitimacy, Political Studies Review.

ABOUT

Ben Cross is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University. His research interests include political realism, legitimacy, and critical theory.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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