Must Politics Be War? in 500 words

My recent book, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society, argues that liberal democratic order has the unique capacity to avoid a war-like politics. Here’s a summary of the problem and my solution.

The problem of political war: low social and political trust leads to a war-like politics. But high trust is generally infeasible in societies with diverse perspectives on moral matters.

Why? People disagree about what is of value and what morality requires, so it is hard for them to appear trustworthy to one another. What one person counts as trustworthy behavior, another may count as untrustworthy. And when people have deep evaluative disagreements, we tend to see rejection of our views as evidence of an intellectual and/or moral vice on the part of those who disagree.

How do we overcome distrust? By motivating socially trustworthy behavior, behavior that multiple perspectives can see as evidence that one another are trustworthy. Distrust is overcome, then, by observing, or being able to observe, social trustworthiness.

To get social trustworthiness, we need people to comply with social norms that all can see themselves and others are having reason of their own to endorse and internalize as their own. In this way, we need compliance with social norms that diverse perspectives can converge upon. A public justification requirement thus naturally arises from a concern to sustain trust among diverse perspectives. If we want trust in a diverse society, we need to ensure that the social norms to which we are all subject can be justified to each (somewhat idealized) members of the public.

The public justification requirement also applies to legal and constitutional norms. If we organize our legal and constitutional norms according to which norms are justified for each person, we can drive socially trustworthy behavior, which in turn can sustain trusting attitudes even in the face of deep evaluative disagreements.

However, in a diverse society, it is hard to publicly justify non-neutral laws and policies, since people who reject the laws and policies as violent impositions of alien values will have defeater reasons for those laws and policies. This means that the unjustifiably coerced will see no reason to be trustworthy with respect to those laws and policies, and so will disobey when they can get away with it.

Once we throw out all the non-neutral laws and policies, we will be left with a system of rights (civil, economic, and political) that protect a large measure of liberty for each individual or group to live their own lives in their own way. We will end up with an open society. For this reason, an open society has the unique capacity to sustain trust between diverse perspectives, rendering high levels of trust feasible even under diverse conditions, solving the problem of political war.

PPE as the Study of Social Orders

As many readers know, PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) is an increasingly popular academic program in universities and colleges across the country. These are typically degree programs for undergraduates, where students can major and/or minor in PPE. (I direct such a program at BGSU). But there is also a field of study we might call PPE research, and while we are doing more of it than ever before, especially at the PPE Society meeting, and PPE Society panels at the meetings of the APA and APSA, it is hard to characterize precisely what PPE research is.

Here I want to take a stab at that problem by trying to describe what I take to be core PPE research. In doing so, I’ll invariably exclude some topics that people think of as PPE research, since self-conscious research in the area is fairly new and practitioners don’t quite agree about the core topics.

In my view, PPE research uses multiple disciplinary methods to study human cooperation and conflict, understood maximally broadly. More briefly, PPE research is the comprehensive study of social order and disorder.

I. Core PPE Research Topics

Core PPE research includes research in formal reasoning, such as utility theory, the theory of exchange, game theory, social choice theory, and public choice theory, all of which are concerned with individual rational choice, or rational choice between persons. The theory of exchange covers positive-sum games, game theory covers strategic interaction and conflict, and social choice theory covers collective choice. All these fields provide us with models for understanding social interaction. PPE research also includes the study of norms and conventions, both of which are patterns of behavior central to social order.

I count some branches of moral psychology as PPE research, such as the study of sympathy, guilt, shame, blame, and punishment, and trust, all attitudes instrumental in forming social order, as well as cognitive science, in order to understand how humans actually make decisions.

PPE research includes the study of the history of institutions, with an eye to how different groups have maintained or failed to maintain social cooperation, as well as the evolution of cooperation, morality, and large-scale cooperation and conflict.

PPE research involves philosophical analysis in order to resolve certain difficulties that arise in formal reasoning, the theory of human behavior, to delineate the boundaries of certain concepts, and to formulate methodological principles for how to understand human cooperation, its causes and consequences. Moral philosophy also helps with the study of social morality, that is, the study of moral orders that invoke moral concepts, rules, and attitudes.

On top of this, we can include philosophical topics in social philosophy, such as the study of race and gender, and other features of personal identity and psychology and moral concern that figure into understanding social orders, such as how to understand patterns of oppression.

One could also add the study of the law, in particular how legal systems evolve and develop, and how they are reformed.

II. How PPE Research Interacts with Normative Theorizing

In my view, PPE research is not centrally about identifying true moral principles or principles of justice. That’s political philosophy, which is continuous with PPE, but distinct from it. Some modes of theorizing about justice will seem central to PPE, but that’s because some theories of justice understand justice as derived from our ability to solve coordination problems, like contractarianism. Contractarian theories of justice, for that reason, seem closer to PPE research than, say, perfectionist theories of justice. Normative ethics is not PPE research either. The contest between virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism isn’t core PPE research.

Accordingly, I don’t see theories of distributive justice as core PPE research. Rawls-Nozick, again, is political philosophy.

That said, I do think PPE research includes how to apply theories of justice and normative ethical theories to reform norms and institutions. PPE research might include, for instance, how to organize an economy to maximize utility, or how to structure a constitution such that it protects certain rights. So PPE research can cover the application or institutionalization of certain moral or political principles.

III. PPE Methods

Finally, a central element of core PPE research is the appeal to multiple methods of problem-solving. In particular, PPE research typically appeals to two fundamental methods of reasoning: philosophical reasoning (rational argument and conceptual analysis) and economic reasoning (choice under scarcity). Not all PPE research appeals to both methods, but core PPE research topics often employ both.

And of course, we can’t leave out the much more eclectic method of political science, which in some ways makes political science closer to PPE by way of method than philosophy or economics by themselves.

I wish I had more insight into the methods of political science other than that they’re diverse. So here’s an attempt to characterize what makes political science unique.

From my vantage point, political scientists are far more comfortable outlining the role ideas play in explaining how institutions function. Philosophers like to think they’re drawing philosophical ideas from conceptual space rather than history and institutional practice, and economists don’t like to explain events in terms of ideas at all. For example, philosophers and economists only periodically talk about ideology as an explanatory category, but political scientists are much more inclined to do so.

Political scientists also have more to say about how institutions shape ideas, such as how historical conditions give rise to ideology.

So perhaps political science has its particular pulse on the idea-institution explanatory nexus.

In conclusion, I grant that one can imagine lots of stuff that counts as PPE that doesn’t fit my description, but I think this stuff is closer to the periphery. The heart of PPE research is the study of social order and disorder.

Eric Schliesser has offered a related but importantly distinct account of PPE research.

Trust Papers #2 – Annette Baier – Trust and Anti-Trust

Annette Baier’s 1986 article, “Trust and Anti-Trust” (no abstract!) is probably the seminal article on trust in contemporary philosophical ethics. It outlines some key features of trust, especially the idea that trust is distinct from mere reliance, and that trust is unique in that it can be betrayed, whereas reliance can merely be disappointed (235). One reason this insight matters is that it shows that our practices of trust and trustworthiness are usually tied to moral behavior. We trust people to following certain kinds of moral norms and rules, such that we feel resentment and indignation and pain when that trust is violated, over and above the cost we pay when the trustee do not help us reach a goal or satisfy a desire. For Baier, the relationship between trust and morality runs even deeper, since she argues (in a later piece referenced here) that trust “is the very basis of morality.” In my own work on trust, the association between trust and moral norms is essential for figuring out how trust is maintained.