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Philosophy and politics in the Western tradition

Published onJan 31, 2022
Philosophy and politics in the Western tradition

It is commonly supposed that the Western tradition of political philosophy is sharply differentiated from the Chinese tradition by two salient distinguishing marks — the tendency of the Western tradition towards abstract, universal analysis rather than concrete, contextually specific recommendation, and its concern with the rights and liberties of the individual rather than with the health of society as a whole.

This common characterisation of Western political philosophy has some foundation in fact.

Abstract analysis has indeed been a fundamental feature of much Western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. Within what one might be tempted to call ‘fundamental philosophy’ — epistemology, the theory of language, philosophical logic, metaphysics, ontology, the philosophy of mind — most of what has been written within the (hugely various) Western tradition is highly abstract, and highly analytical rather than normative. Plato’s ontology (or, while we are at it, Aristotle’s ontology) is as severely analytical in its approach, and as devoid of normative intent, as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

The same can be said about some of Western moral and political philosophy. Kant’s identification of a moral recommendation as a categorical (as opposed to an assertoric or hypothetical) imperative, or Hare’s identification of a moral recommendation as an expression of a value judgement rather than the representation of a moral fact are examples of abstract analysis, with no obvious or immediate normative consequences, and with no ostensible contextual limitations. They tell us (or at any rate, purport to tell us) something important and universal about what moral recommendations are; but they don’t tell us anything about how to behave morally in a particular place or at a particular time. Likewise, although attempts have certainly been made to contextualise Locke’s theory of the relations between the state of nature and the social contract, or Hobbes’s very different theorisation of the same relationship, and to identify covert ideological purposes within them, each at least purports to have unearthed a series of universal facts about the purpose (and conceptual underpinnings) of the state, which are of immense interest as pieces of theoretical analysis, but which have no immediate normative political consequences. They do not in themselves — at least prima facie —dictate any particular line of political action.

Likewise, when we turn from questions of form to questions of substance, we find some evidence in support of the common supposition that Western political philosophy, when it does take a normative turn, concerns itself with the rights and liberties of the individual. Mill’s On Liberty is perhaps the locus classicus, with its famous argument that the liberty of one individual should be constrained only to the point minimally necessary for the preservation of equivalent liberty on the part of all other individuals. But Mill represents a tradition that derives more or less directly from Locke, stretches back to the Greeks (as in Plato’s Laws, albeit emphatically not his Republic), and extends forward to the libertarians and rights theorists of our own day, such as Nozick and Dworkin. Indeed, not only in what is strictly regarded as political philosophy or the theory of law but also more widely in modern Western moral philosophy, we find numerous assertions of the significance of individual rights — as, for example, in repudiations of utilitarian or other consequentialist ethical theories, where the repudiation frequently takes the form of drawing attention to the impermissibility of taking an action that seeks to promote general welfare at the expense of the rights of an innocent person. And this emphasis on individual moral rights in modern Western moral philosophy is, of course, one of the foundations for modern Western legal and political theorising about the conceptual basis of constitutional structures such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which are designed to protect individual political rights.

For all of these reasons, the common suppositions about moral and political philosophy in the Western tradition are unsurprising and, to an extent, justified. Much such philosophy does take the form of abstract analysis rather than normative recommendation, and much of that part of it which is normative does attend more to the rights and liberties of the individual than to the health of society. To this extent, there is a clear differentiation between moral or political philosophy in the Western traditions and what is commonly supposed in the West about Chinese Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism and Taoism.

But this is not the whole truth about moral and political philosophy in the Western tradition. In fact, it is so far from being the whole truth as to present a grossly distorted picture of the tradition as a whole.

In the first place, Western moral and political philosophy actually has a strong and persistent tradition of making normative recommendations rather than restricting itself solely to abstract analysis. The classic of the genre is Bentham. His utilitarian attack on Aristotelian virtue-ethics and Kantian deontic ethics is very far from being a mere analytical reflection. On the contrary, it is specifically intended as a normative intervention, with the purpose of persuading the Victorian British Empire to formulate policies promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number, rather than focussing on the exhibition of certain supposed virtues or the fulfilment of certain supposed duties. But Bentham is by no means alone in this. Plato, both in his Republic and in his Laws, is making an argument (albeit, in the two cases, two different arguments) about the true path for constitutions to follow; likewise, Aristotle in his Politics. When we enter late Western antiquity, we find Augustine’s powerful normative thesis in his City of God — to be followed in the high medieval period by Aquinas in his Summa, and then of course by Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, Mill, Burke, Paine and Oakeshott in the English tradition, by Montesquieu and others in the French enlightenment, and perhaps most notably by Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche in Germany. One has only to run through this list, or any other like it, to see at once the absurdity of the claim that Western moral and political philosophy has eschewed normative recommendations.

It is equally absurd to portray the whole of the Western moral and political philosophy as a conversation about individual rights rather than the welfare of society. Aristotle, writing roughly contemporaneously with the great Ancient Chinese moral and political thinkers, was quite clear about the subordination of individual welfare to social welfare. Here he is, in the opening sections of the Nicomachean Ethics, stating wholly unapologetically that “even if the end [ie welfare] is the same for a single man and for a state….it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation”. And Aristotle was not alone in this. Quite apart from his contemporaries and his medieval successors, we find in Hobbes, Bentham, Hegel and Marx — all towering figures of post-medieval Western political philosophy — a vast concern with social welfare, and not a trace of rights-theory. Inspecting these propositions, any dispassionate observer will be forced to the conclusion that, in place of the naïve characterisation of Western political thought as thought about individual rights, we need to acknowledge instead the presence of a persistent tension in the evolving Western discourse. Whilst there are many different strands of conversation going on in the history of Western political thought, one persistent strand has been the debate (sometimes explicit, often implicit) between those thinkers whose primary emphasis is on the rights of the individual over against the state, and those whose primary emphasis is instead on the achievement of social welfare through the medium of the state.

We can, in short, definitively conclude that whatever (if anything) mainly differentiates Western moral and political philosophising from its Chinese counterpart, that differentiator is neither an unremitting Western penchant for abstract analysis in place of normative recommendation, nor an unremitting Western attention to individual rights in place of social welfare.

This leads us to the interesting question: is there, in fact, anything distinctively and pervasively ‘Western’ about the long tradition of Western moral and political theorising?

Various candidates for the role of prime differentiator can quickly be discarded from our short-list. Religion, for example, clearly won’t do — because, even if we widen the supposed religious unifier to include the whole of the Judaea-Christian family of religions (ignoring, for a moment, the many internal divisions between Judaism and Christianity, and between the many subsets of Christianity itself) we find that the history refuses to conform. The Ancient Greeks knew not of Jewish or Christian theology; and the more recent Western conversation in moral and political philosophy has been carried on principally either by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Marx, who explicitly reject the Judaeo-Christian theologies, or by thinkers such as Hobbes, Bentham, Mill and most of the moderns, whose work does not reflect any kind of religious formation. Similarly short shrift can be accorded to various other superficially plausible candidates such as adherence to liberal or competitive democracy (opposed by Plato and Aristotle, disregarded by Augustine and Aquinas, excoriated by Hobbes and Hegel, conceptually undermined by Marx), or a supposed tendency of the Western tradition to be more universal in its recommendations (which conveniently ignores the lack of any geographical or cultural limitations to the prescriptions of Mohism or Legalism in the Chinese tradition), or preoccupation with the rule of law (which, quite apart from ignoring the theocratic, anarchic and dictatorial elements in the Western tradition, is vitiated as a differentiator by the fact that, to the extent it is present persistently in the Western tradition, it is equally prevalent in Chinese schools of moral and political theory).

It is, of course, notoriously difficult to prove a negative. There may be someone, somewhere, clever and knowledgeable enough to identify a common thread or a family of resemblances that both holds together the vast array of Western moral and political theory, and at the same time clearly distinguishes it from its Chinese counterparts. But, in the absence of such inspiration, it seems reasonable to speculate that we may be looking for a unifier and differentiator that does not, in point of fact, exist. In the context of that hypothesis, it seems reasonable to speculate, further, that Western moral and political philosophy is in fact a ‘messy’, multi-dimensional conversation — a conversation with many interesting and important themes, but with no one overriding theme, and hence with no one underlying or overarching divide from the Chinese tradition.

But there is one reason to resist this temptation — namely, an asymmetry in the nature of the Chinese and the Western conversations.

Within the Western conversation, both the voices of those moral and political theorists concerned with the welfare of the community and the voices of those concerned with individual rights have been heard — at least since the seventeenth century CE. It is, by contrast, at least open to doubt whether — even in this early modern and modern period — such a conversation between those concerned with individual rights and those concerned with community welfare has featured significantly in Chinese political philosophy.

It is, perhaps, in this differentiation between the character of the early modern and modern conversations on either side of the world, rather than in any universal feature on the Western side, that the difficulty of the cultural dialogue is located. To those schooled in the recent Western tradition, both questions about individual rights (what might be called liberal questions) and questions about community welfare (what might be called associationist questions) seem natural; whereas, to those schooled in the Chinese tradition, only the associationist questions seem natural.

This is not, of course, to suggest that the liberal strand of early modern and modern Western moral and political theory is incomprehensible to thinkers whose formation is within the Chinese tradition. Nor is it to suggest that the difference in the foundational, philosophical culture is so clearly divisive, so ancient and so deep as to render meaningful dialogue almost impossible. On the contrary, the messiness of the conversation within the Western tradition (if it is indeed as messy as I here speculate) strongly suggests that it should be possible to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue within which Western thinkers recognise Chinese thinkers as counterparts of a particular group of voices that were dominant in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century CE, and which have continued to be active in a Western conversation that has been, and continues to be, as divergent as it is convergent. But the existence of the asymmetry in the character of the two conversations will nevertheless inevitably create a layer of cultural difficulty that needs to be penetrated if there is to be a productive cross-cultural discussion.


Sir Oliver Letwin is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London and Founder and Chair of the Project for Peaceful Competition.

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