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What is political theory? Meta-ethical issues

De Baripedia

We will conduct an introduction to the broad metaethical frameworks that are reflection on ethics, namely theories that overshadow our understanding of ethics. The idea is to begin to clarify gradually the path that will lead us towards a particular theory which will be the one of John Rawls. We are going to retrace a long discussion by discussing deontology, consequentialism and contractualism. These theories continue to generate great debate within the discipline. Despite the fact that these theories are historically situated, the fact remains that there is today a debate that continues to rethink the applicability of these theories to today's issues.

What principles and approaches can guide us in assessing the moral aspects inherent in institutions, social practices or political acts?

The deontologism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The deontological approach is rather at the level of Kant. The general idea is that the type of action we undertake, whether moral or not, must meet a number of criteria outside the action itself. The consequentialist approach, on the other hand, will determine the moral quality of the action according to the results it produces. The deontological approach is the opposite, namely that whatever the outcome of an action, what counts, in order to qualify it as moral, is compliance with a certain number of principles or moral duties. With Kant, we must treat people with respect regardless of what we gain or lose by treating them with respect, but we must treat them with respect for the simple reason that if we want to be moral, we can decide to be moral, we must have a moral justification that is external to the action itself.

These are the types of actions that are moral or immoral, not their particular consequences. It follows that we should follow our moral rules, regardless of the consequences. The question that arises is the question of the rules that are supposed to define these moral principles that will somehow give an intrinsically moral character or not to the acts we perform. A number of people have been educated with the idea that we should not kill because morally, we start from the idea that there is something morally wrong with this act, regardless of the type of consequences the action produces. For Kant, this is an example of moral action that we must guarantee even if the situation for us must be less good than if we had lied. There is something specific to the act as such that will determine whether it is moral or not. Some actions are immoral in nature, because they do not conform to the duty(s) that the action must fulfill while others are intrinsically good.

The morality of an action is determined by principles that are independent of the action itself; the principles of justice are deduced independently from a particular conception of the good. With the question of the principles of justice, namely what are the rules of social cooperation that we owe to ourselves in order to try to live in a world organized in an equitable way; for deontological approaches, it is imperative that these criteria of justice be deduced independently from the different conceptions of the good, namely the ethical conceptions that we give ourselves of our life. This conception of the good must not participate in a definition of justice, because if we trace back the conception of the righteous, namely the rules of cooperation, deducing it from a particular conception of the good, and if we start from the idea that the modern pluralistic system in which we are offers an incommensurable plurality of conceptions of the good, deducting justice from the good would imply forms of sectarianism that make it possible for the good to be perceived in a different light.

It is for this reason that, according to the Kantian deontologist approach, it is possible for people to have an obligation to respect the just. Respecting the righteous is not just a way of being polite or charitable, but a way of being moral. To be fair is to be moral, to be moral, there are things we cannot do even if perhaps doing it would increase our happiness or social gain. What is interesting is a lot of discussions in which we translate into a language of good or ethics. Justice implies, in this logic, a certain number of duties which confer rights on others. If we have a duty not to lie, it means that someone has the right not to lie to them. If someone has a duty to respect someone through behaviour, that person has the right to expect that he or she will be respected. Duty and law are in a symbiotic relationship, generally a duty will correspond to a right. While it is fair to believe that freedom of expression gives a fundamental right, it is logical that States should agree to respect this principle and ensure that people in their daily actions do so.

In the context of the deontological tradition, for Veca in Ethics and Policy published in 1999, "moral evaluation focuses on considerations relating to the rules and criteria or principles that govern how we treat one another and conduct ourselves" (Veca, p. 19), i.e. what is right. What follows is that the principles and the deontological approach, especially with the contemporary approach, is that the definition of these few basic principles which are justified as a duty that we owe to others to ensure that the collective life, of cooperation in which we are living, is as just as possible. Just as important, and this will be Rawls' great attempt, to ensure that the definition of the criteria of justice does not interfere in any way with our freedom to preserve our conception of the good. The idea inherent in this tradition is to say that agreeing on the righteous does not mean sacrificing good or our conceptions of good. Somewhere we should manage to preserve our freedom, to define ourselves in relation to a certain conception of the good while at the same time bringing forth criteria of the righteous that will preside over our way of interacting.

According to Veca, "the agreement on what we commit ourselves to retain as just creates an obligation for us, while excluding conceptions of the good that prove to be inconsistent or incompatible with the criteria or principles of justice". It is about the idea of reaching this agreement, which we believe is fundamental to preserve so that we can treat each other fairly. To achieve this, it is necessary to identify a number of principles that are considered more justified than others, namely a number of principles without which the question of justice is not possible. The righteous precedes the good. We must come to an agreement about the righteous, what are the basic principles that organize our social cooperation, so that then everyone has a fair chance of being able to live and pursue their conception of the good. The contemporary intuition behind this idea is that if the distribution, for example, of the fruits of cooperation is badly distributed or unfairly distributed, is inequitable, it is possible to imagine situations in which some sections of the population will find it easier to live in accordance with their conception of the good than others who will be marginalized, excluded because they will not have sufficient resources to be heard. Rawls's attempt is to think about the criteria of justice in order to maximize the chances of freedom. The idea is that we cannot be free to choose our conception of the good if we suffer an inequitable distribution of resources. There are therefore rights that emanate from these principles that must be established.

The question is whether all these rights are at the same level or whether there are rights that are more fundamental to justice than others. If we compare what is happening at the level of the political system, we see that in the constitutional and political translation of a number of fundamental principles, States have very different constitutions. There are different ways of transposing these rights, because presumably, at the political level, the determination of what is fundamental, what is imperative and what is not is not the same. For example, the right to vote does not have the same place in France and Switzerland. Both have the right to vote, but not both have the right to vote. There is a great deal of thought that remains open in order to try to understand the criteria for legitimizing these differences and for normativeists to try to lead to a normative evaluation of these systems.

One of the most classic origins of this ethical approach comes from Kant. Two declinations of the categorical imperative must be clarified.

For the first, it is the maxim: "Only act according to the maxim whereby you can want it to become a universal law at the same time". Kant's intuition was to say that we are capable of determining what a moral action is. We are capable, because we are autonomous and rational beings, of deciding whether the action we want to take is morally defensible or not. That is to say, from the moment when the action and the justification of the action we are about to take is virtually capable of being universalised, in the sense of imagining that it is declined in a way that everyone should be able to accept, then, at that moment, we have to deal with a moral a priori standard insofar as it would affect everyone. It is possible that in a discussion about not killing, there might be universal agreement on the idea of proscribing this action; that is to say, somewhere this action is immoral and that means that we have a duty not to kill because we have the right not to be killed.

Habermas proposes the deliberative idea as the strength of the best argument. We find with Kant, the idea that by the strength of the best argument, we are able to have a kind of universal consensus allowing somewhere the best because it is virtually acceptable to everyone.

The second declination is "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, both in yourself and in any other person, always at the same time as an end, and never simply as a means". Appears one of the strong ideas of the Kantian approach. We cannot use the other as a means. You can't use someone as a means of satisfying your pleasure. One cannot deny one's rights in order to make them something that denies one's basis of respect, because this is not universalisable and does not comply with the requirement to respect one's autonomy and inviolability due to one's co-humanity. This is not always obvious, because if we start from the idea that we are not always a people of angels, it is not always completely obvious to live up to this criterion. In accordance with Kant's philosophy, it is necessary to avoid that the autonomy of the other, that not treating the other as a means is essential to preserve his autonomy. This is an imperative maxim in the sense that it should apply to all forms of human relations that are morally good and otherwise just. When we talk about human rights or self-respect, although Kant is not only the only author to have this theme, we are dealing with a number of criteria that come from this tradition, which give us reason to think and justify why we owe respect to others whatever he has done. The difference between states that allow the death penalty or not is also reflected in these dilemmas. We still find today many of our moral intuitions, on which we base our indignation about things that happen in the world and which do not seem to us to be exactly equal to justice and morality.

The consequentialism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Opposed to the deontological position, there is the consequentialist position which says that it is not what the action contains as a value that counts, but the consequences it produces. For consequentialists, what attributes a moral character or not to an action is whether the consequences are good or bad. If we kill someone with the death penalty and as a state, we are implementing this policy, and we see that having this policy is a way to reduce crime, it is a way to be sufficiently dissuasive, so at this point in time one could imagine that the policy has good consequences: crime is decreasing. It's something radically different from the deontological approach that we can't sacrifice the criminal as a means of deterring him, we have to respect him in his integrity. For consequentialists, if successful action has good consequences, it is by virtue of the consequences it will produce that it must be evaluated and not necessarily according to the means by which these consequences are obtained.

For consequentialists, the fundamental moral point of view is that of consequences and not at all of action. Action is just a means. It is possible to imagine that if we have a clear and correct idea that immigration impoverishes us, it is possible to imagine that the aim being to be rich, any action to preserve this wealth, will be morally acceptable regardless of the concrete actions that will have to be taken on potential migrants to avoid immigration.

The most obvious theory in terms of consequentialism is that which breaks most with deontological logic is utilitarianism theory. According to Bentham in Principles of Morality and Legislation published in 1789, "Nature has placed humanity under the empire of two masters, sorrow and pleasure. It is up to them alone to tell us what we must do and what we will do. On the one hand, the criterion of good and evil, on the other hand, the chain of effects and causes is attached to their throne. They govern us in all our actions, in all our words, in all our thoughts. ...] The principle of utility recognises this constraint and takes it as the basis of this system whose object is to construct the edifice of bliss by means of reason and law".

What is the key intuition behind utilitarian philosophy? There are many things we don't know, we don't know, if God exists, what nature is, what good or evil is, but at least we know that every individual has an ability to experience pleasure and not to endure pain. Behind the utilitarian logic that dates back to the Enlightenment, there is the idea of having a theory of moral evaluation that is as centered as possible on something we can know. Behind the utilitarian intuition, there is the idea of a very parsimonious and direct criterion in order to try to decide between actions. Intuitively, we have the idea that individual or state action that increases pleasure is better than action that increases suffering or pain. The idea of utilitarianists is to find a principle that makes sense of this intuition in the utility principle. The ultimate basis for determining whether one action is preferable to another is to say that the action that maximizes collective utility must be chosen or be more justified and good than the action that does not maximize collective utility. Somewhere, it is through the collective utility effects that it will give that we will judge the action. The effects that increase utility will be the morally significant effects that qualify the action it has allowed to produce as morally good. The latter must be adopted to the detriment of an action which would not be equal to the level of collective happiness in relation to the former. For Bentham, this would be the action that increases the collective pleasures that make people happier than if they were without the action wherever they would have been with another action.

There are two main assumptions of utilitarianism that are:

  • an ontological postulate - "The happiness of each man is his only real end": individuals are able to feel happiness, but more than that, the ultimate end of an individual is to live happiness.
  • a moral postulate - "The principle of greater happiness for the greatest number is the only universally desirable end": it is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people who will determine an ultimate end to be pursued that has a universal dimension. That is what will make you feel moral. The action is good if it results in a moral increase of happiness.

Thus, for Bentham's classic utilitarianism, an action is good if it results in an overall increase in happiness in the sense of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There is a sacrificial dimension inherent in utilitarianism, which is precisely that which is combated by deontological logic. According to deontological logic, we cannot sacrifice another humanity and that of others in the name of happiness. We must respect the other as an end and not as a means to one's own happiness.

When utilitarianism was introduced in the 18th century, this theory had a very strong revolutionary and radical dimension because it started from the idea that we were depositary of our ability to live in happiness and to want to avoid the sufferings that we were part of the metric of moral computation, that morality did not come from God and nature, but also from what, as Man, we could determine as a limit to what we could define as the limit of what we could do. There is still something very fascinating in this theory of equal consideration. If it is true that ontologically we are all capable of happiness and we all want to live in happiness, this means that in this calculation of collective utilitarian happiness there is a principle called equal consideration, each of us is considered in the same way. There would be no metaphysical or other reasons to say that some would be worth more than one. In utilitarian logic, there is something very interesting because it can be seen as a rational ethic with a fairly simple calculation. It is better to avoid suffering things that do harm, and it is better to give consent to things that do good. It is an ethic that wants to be rational with the idea of having an ultimate criterion of rational determination that makes it possible to decide between the action and the solution that is advocated or desirable. If we place it in the context of the time, in a class society, stratified and hierarchical, which has the merit of proposing a relatively radical criterion and which has the merit of being a criterion that is relatively simply operationalizable by public policies and legislation; this criterion is perhaps easier to be put into the world, made effective, we choose the option that increases happiness and reduces pain than to put in place legislation that is in conformity with the categorical requirements of Descartes.

The utilitarian theory has a theory of injustice, namely that our cooperation is unfair if the decisions we make waste our happiness, if we choose by our mode of cooperation to defend principles, laws, public decisions or norms of common life that instead of maximizing diminish happiness, it means that we are wasting. This is immoral because "moral" means increasing happiness, not wasting it. There is a fundamental premise that is very problematic. The premise is that utility can be calculated (1) and compared (2). On the one hand, since everyone is to be counted in the definition of collective happiness, this utility must already be calculable and comparable. We have all been confronted with a situation where the acceptance of certain A was not as intense as that of certain B. It is possible to imagine that this utility is expressed by forms of intensity. To say that every individual is capable of feeling pleasure and sorrow cannot say that in our body and in our heads we feel pleasure in the same way. We must not forget that behind the majority logic that organises our entire political system, there is a utilitarian idea that the will of the majority is preferable to the will of the minority. There is something in the majority logic reasoning with a utilitarian idea that makes the happiness of 50.1% should be recognized by law more than the misfortune of 49.9. Is it a simple calculation or is there something that says that the majority is basically a way to account for collective utility? Under a majority rule, you compare votes, but you don't really know what's behind those votes. Utilitarianism is very intuitive and informs about many non-practices.

Thus, according to Veca, "institutions and policies are just if, and only to the extent that they maximize a certain social magnitude interpreted in a variable way as the overall utility, the average utility or the expected average utility according to the various developments and refinements of utilitarianism".

There are also different ways of doing utilitarianism. The logic that we have presented is a logic that is somehow direct; before carrying out each action, we must decide whether or not the action that we are going to undertake will increase collective happiness, if not, a priori, we must not do so. We must try to calculate whether or not the action we undertake increases collective happiness. The utilitarianism of the act aims somewhere to determine with a whole calculation that individuals are led to make if the action undertaken makes sense or not in relation to an increase in the collective utility.

Another type of utilitarianism, which is a kind of indirect utilitarianism, aims to say that somewhere, what is important, when one decides to do something, is not only the direct effect of increasing the collective utility produced by this phenomenon, but one would also have to calculate in an average or longer time the effects that something would have on questioning certain rules. The utilitarianism of the act relates to the consideration of the consequences of the individual's particular act. Individuals apply the principle of maximizing utility to each particular action. In other words, the act of maximizing happiness is judged act after act, but we can also imagine cases where even if it would be good to violate a rule for direct utilitarian reasons, it might be wrong to do so on a somewhat distant horizon.

The utilitarianism of the rule considers the consequences resulting from the adoption of an action rule, the maximization criterion should apply to the rules, so the actions allowed are those that obey the best possible rules. One of the plausible implications is that while it may be appropriate to violate a rule in a particular case, it should not be violated, as this may reduce the overall utility in the future. The dilemma of Oslon's collective action with the idea of the freerider recounts the idea that the person who wants to benefit from the public good in the short term because he finds it useful to free-rider risks at the same time questioning the very possibility of preserving this public good. Somewhere, at the level of the utilitarianism of the rule, one complicates the calculation by inserting a "time and society" dimension which is not necessarily understood when one speaks of the utilitarianism of the act.

John Stuart Mill was the son of John Mill, who was a friend of Jeremy Bentham and who tried to reconcile his father's utilitarian dimension with the liberalist dimension of the nineteenth-century issue of freedom. John Stuart Mill introduces interesting elements that go beyond Bentham's basic vision. First of all, the notion of freedom for Mill means that we are more than mere calculators of pleasure and sorrow; there are things to which we give meaning, it is part of our pleasure and sorrow; it is our conception of happiness by admitting our freedom that will make our difference. It is for this reason that for Mill and contrary to examples which would testify to the sacrifice of freedom for some to increase the freedom of others, for Mill, freedom remains a fundamental principle. With the idea of democracy and development, we start from the idea that through freedom, through participation, the individual was able to educate himself, to raise himself, this freedom allowed individuals to ultimately determine their preferences and their conception of happiness. Without introducing freedom into the painting as Bentham did, we missed something. For him, if we were in a society where collective utility, i. e. collective preferences, go in the direction of defending an inferior conception of music or literature, and this would call into question the canons of literature, even from a utilitarian point of view, we must be able to distinguish between zero and too low preferences that degrade the freedom of the individual, his autonomy and his conception of the good, and make it possible for him to make a distinction between zero and too low preferences that would degrade the freedom of the individual, his autonomy and his conception of the good. This position had the merit of decompartmentalizing the idea of comparability between preferences and individual conceptions of utility that were completely standardized by others. For him, it is an aberration, there may be good reason to believe that some things are better than others. From the moment when people are free, we can develop morally through their participation, people will be able to distinguish effectively what the state will have to do or what others will have to do with them.

What is interesting about utilitarianism is its strength and weakness. Usefulness of what?

  • pleasure - useful as hedonism: the justice of the peace who should make it possible to decide what is good deed is the action that should maximize pleasure. Not all experiences are hedonistic, not all are experience, but all show a feeling of something that is positive for the individual.
  • of an appreciable mental state - useful as a non-hedonistic mental state: the type of characteristics emerging from the senses is broadened to other mental experiences that are positive for the individual but not strictly hedonistic. There's something other than the sensation that's playing. There's something more.
  • Preferences: Kymlicka criticizes this point by wondering how the experiences we are aiming for now will maximize our happiness tomorrow.
  • Informed preferences: you need to know what the current preference is and have all the relevant information to be sure that it is the right preference and that satisfying it will make you feel better afterwards. For Kymlicka, this metric becomes so complicated that in the end it is impossible to have a real utilitarian calculation.
  • Illegitimate preferences: if there are no external moral criteria, then it is possible to ask how to criticize this difference.

How to compare utilities? Calculations of illegitimate preferences may call into question not only the possibility of moral action, but somehow pervert the comparison of utility calculation, namely that utility calculation will no longer make sense because what we are comparing will no longer make sense.

These two great traditions are generally mobilized when discussing existing situations. The problem is that we cannot have both at the same time, which confronts us with moral dilemmas. For us, the question is how to try to decide, to propose arguments that would make it possible to defend certain positions rather than others.

The contractualism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

One of the parades that was proposed in order to avoid a number of pitfalls faced by utilitarianism while also avoiding an abstract character of the Kantian position was that of contractualism. It is the idea that what will make it possible to found and legitimize institutions and a kind of social contract that will allow a fictitious community to move from a state of nature that is characterized differently according to the authors. At Locke, individuals in the natural state are relatively kind and benevolent, whereas at Hobbes, man is a wolf to man. Depending on the theorization, the mechanism of the contract may change, but in any case, the idea is that institutions are the product and are based on a justification that is given by a social contract that will delegate to the sovereign, whoever he is, in general a monarch, the possibility of being able to exercise a political power that is supposed to be legitimate because it can be the object of everyone's consent somewhere. This consent is exemplified by the idea of a contract to which all concerned would adhere. It is on this fiction that we construct political models that are supposed to be superior in terms of moral and ethical validity to others. Thus, for Spitz in Contractualism and Anticontractualism in Contemporary Philosophy: the stakes of a debate published in 2006, contractualism is based on the postulate that "public authority should submit its actions to principles chosen by rational partners in a situation of perfect symmetry".

The basis of contractualism is somehow voluntary agreement. To say "voluntary agreement" means a lot of things that of course can become complicated. A "voluntary actor" implies a freedom to express one's own will and implies choosing an argument that we wish to propose. Behind the term "will" there is a whole complexity, but the idea is relatively clear. What cannot be justified to others, and therefore what cannot be the subject of a contract between the different persons participating in the contract, means that it is illegitimate. In other words, if the contract is not allowed, there is someone who does not agree to support it by giving their willingness to be able to support it, it means that this contract presupposes something that will be considered unacceptable and illegitimate in the eyes of that party. So, this contract is not theoretically possible; at that time, it is possible to say that we are not in the presence of something that may be morally legitimate and therefore liable to create an obligation for individuals in support of this institution.

One of the elements of this contract is that if with Kant there is a transcendent conception of morality, and if for utilitarianists what is morally good is basically the maximization of collective utility, as Audard points out in the book What is liberalism, there is an opportunity to think of norms that arise from the exercise of reason, of a reason that can be situated in particular social contexts. Somewhere, we are dealing with an attempt within the spirit of the Enlightenment with the idea that individuals are able to determine themselves, it is necessary to find human modalities to define the rules that govern our interaction or that justify political systems. There is no contractual option, there are several such as Habermas or Rawls. From these few notions, there is a wide range of application possibilities.

If we look at integration policies in France, for example, one of the themes that is often mentioned is the need for everyone to participate in the social contract; the social contract that makes it possible to support and legitimize the Republic. No one knows what the social contract is any more, but the evocative symbolic power of the social contract is reasoning with a certain way of thinking the French republican model, which is reasoning with Rousseau in particular.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]