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In Defence of the Priority of Morality in Politics

Political Theory
Realism
Ethics
Normative Theory
Political Ideology
Zsolt Kapelner
Central European University
Zsolt Kapelner
Central European University

Abstract

Realism in political philosophy is often associated with the view that political normativity is separate and autonomous from morality; what is right for political actors qua political actors to do is independent from – although sometimes may overlap with – what it is morally right for them to do. This view is sometimes interpreted, particularly by critics of realism, as the claim that there are sui-generis non-moral political normative requirements. However, few realists would endorse this characterisation of their view. On a more charitable reading, realists derive the autonomy of political normativity from scepticism about the priority of morality as a source of practical reasons. From Susan Wolf’s critique of moral saints to Bernard Williams’s account of morality as a peculiar institution many have argued that any view of morality that construes moral principles as having supreme authority over people’s practical conduct is defective. Political realism may be understood – as, for example, Edward Hall and Matt Sleat argue – as an application of this view to the case of politics. Politics does not mysteriously generate its own normativity, rather, autonomous political normativity exists to the extent that in politics, as in most other areas of life, morality does not have the final word on what is to be done. Political normativity is simply the set of practical reasons that apply within the practices of politics, among which moral reasons may be present, but have no priority. I argue that this understanding of political normativity, while more appealing and more charitable than the sui generis reading, is ultimately implausible. The core argument of Wolf and Williams is that the priority of morality would exclude the permissibility of the pursuit of certain goals and projects, e.g., beauty, love, pleasure, and happiness, that make human life worthwhile. Analogously, realists would have to argue that if morality had priority in politics, worthwhile pursuits, e.g., order, stability, political prudence, would be precluded. However, in both cases it is hard to see why the pursuit of said goals would be precluded by the priority of morality. Realists often invoke the rigidity of systematic moral theory that allegedly makes it resistant to accommodating said goals and pursuits. But there are plenty of examples in contemporary moral theory that refute this charge. Realists also often point at the precarity of moral epistemology, e.g., the problem of the historic embeddedness and ideological contamination of moral thought. However, inferring the structure of practical reasons only from epistemic considerations would be fallacious reasoning. Here the realist must rely on additional premises which need further substantiation. Realists may try to shift the burden of proof, arguing that the priority of morality needs further support, not its negation. However, this claim is more plausible in the personal than in the political case. Perhaps in our personal life it is important to pursue non-morally worthwhile goals, but politics, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, is the site of interaction among strangers who must live together. This is a paradigmatic context of high moral salience.