Interview by Richard Marshall.
'In recent years, political philosophers have become increasingly dissatisfied with political philosophy’s obsession with justice. In my view, there is a great many values in politics, justice being but one among them. I do not know if there is a prime value in politics, but the most plausible candidate would be peace, not justice.'
'The goal is to find principles that specify how politicians (and others) ought to act when being in the business of making compromises. We thus have to find answers to questions like the following: Under what circumstances are we permitted to drive a hard bargain in compromises, under what circumstances are we even morally required to drive a hard bargain? How can we specify the moral limits of permissible compromises?'
'Margalit compares rotten compromises with a soup with a cockroach in it. I like to see rotten compromises as compromises that are morally very bad. This does not mean that one might not have to make rotten compromises under certain circumstances. Politicians sometimes have to eat disgusting soups…'
Fabian Wendtworks mainly in political philosophy and has written on compromises, peace and modus vivendi, public justification, libertarianism, private property, political authority and legitimacy, and republican vs. negative conceptions of freedom. Here he discusses his approach to compromise, why he thinks we should think about other values rather than get fixated on justice when thinking about politics, why he thinks peace is at least as important as justice, morality and compromise, why he's not a realist or pragmatist, the uses of feasibility, normatively and compromise, public justifiability and justice, different kinds of moral compromise, modus vivendi and peace, stability, respect and community, and winning the Sanders Prize.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher, and in particular a philosopher of politics?
Fabian Wendt:My interest in philosophy started with regular visits to the public library after my graduation from high school in Munich. I remember the first philosophy books I read at the library: One was a book on Karl Jaspers’ existentialism, the other was on Karl Popper and philosophy of science. Pretty different, but I loved them both. In addition, I had a friend who had already started studying philosophy and told me mind-blowing things about a priori knowledge and possible worlds. It was that time when I decided to study philosophy. The focus on political philosophy came later. In my first undergraduate years, I mainly read classics from Plato to Descartes and Kant and studied epistemology as much as ethics and philosophy of religion. I think it was a political science seminar on totalitarianism that got me interested in the idea of freedom and made me delve deeper into contemporary political philosophy.
3:AM:One of the big ideas you’ve looked at is political compromise. You begin by pointing out that often justice is seen as the central feature of what good politics should aim for, but you find that too limiting and think that as well as justice peace and public justification are equally important. Can you explain why you think justice isn’t enough?
FW:Justice is a highly important value, but political philosophy has arguably suffered from “justicitis”, as Chandran Kukathas put it in a talk a couple of years ago. Following John Rawls, political philosophers have tended to regard justice as the “first virtue” of social institutions and thus put most of their efforts into developing and discussing theories of justice. But “let justice be done though the heavens fall” is not a very plausible principle. In recent years, political philosophers have become increasingly dissatisfied with political philosophy’s obsession with justice. In my view, there is a great many values in politics, justice being but one among them. I do not know if there is a prime value in politics, but the most plausible candidate would be peace, not justice. On this point, Thomas Hobbes seems simply right to me. Without peace, other values – including justice – cannot be realized, wealth and prosperity cannot be achieved, and most personal projects cannot be accomplished. In any case, I think political philosophy should explore political morality beyond justice, and political compromises are one important topic in that context.
3:AM:Do you think then that politicians have to compromise because of these three competing evaluations, and does this mean that a good political decision, made by someone who has sound reasons on justice, may be unjust but still morally good?
FW:My point is not so much that politicians have to make compromises because there is a plurality of values. Making trade-offs between values can certainly be described as making compromises, but it is something even Robinson Crusoe has to do. It is quite different from making compromises with other people. We have to make compromises with others because people have different interests and different moral views. Cooperation with others is necessary and beneficial, but it does not come without sacrifice. It is no surprise, then, that compromises are pervasive in both politics and private life, but it is surprising how little philosophers have thought about them so far (there are exceptions, of course). On the second question: Indeed, when making compromises with others, politicians can be morally justified in establishing unjust laws because these laws are the all things considered best laws, or at least among the all things considered acceptable laws. How good a law is, all things considered, and whether it is a morally acceptable law, depends on its justice, but on many other considerations as well.
3:AM:Can you give an example of where a politician makes a compromise for moral reasons that leads to a justice deficit?
FW:It is probably impossible to find an example in which every reader agrees what justice would require. That being said, I think good examples are cases where crimes and human rights violations go unpunished for the sake of peace, like under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa. To achieve peace is certainly a moral goal, and it can become a moral reason to agree to a compromise that leads to a justice deficit.
3:AM:Why call this decision a compromise if it’s thought to be the best decision possible in the circumstances where a plurality of values have to be balanced with each other?
FW:That’s a good question. Some people indeed think that there is something confused about the notion of compromise, at least if compromises are understood as agreements on a second-best. We always have to deal with circumstances that do not allow us to get everything we might dream of, but given these circumstances we can simply pick the first-best solution available. I think one can make good sense of compromises as agreements on second-best solutions, though. What we have to understand is relative to what standard the compromise arrangement is supposed to be a second-best. I think we should distinguish two levels in the evaluation of laws (or whatever is at stake). On the first level, the parties think about what the best laws would be, on the second level, they consider what laws are acceptable under circumstances of disagreement about what the best laws would be. Due to second-level moral reasons, a party may come to agree to a second-best relative to what she regards as best on the first level. But the party may not change her mind about what the best law would be (on the first level). In that sense, she is making a compromise and agrees to a second-best solution.
3:AM:Does your approach mean that you’re a realist or pragmatist – that really there’s no point in theorising justice as Rawls did, and that theorising justice isn’t about politics? Isn’t the danger of giving up an ethics first view you’re throwing out normative or evaluative political thinking?
FW:No, I do not regard myself as a realist or a pragmatist. I am not against theorizing justice at all. In fact I have been complicit in the endeavor of theorizing justice; I am somewhat sympathetic to what I call “moderate libertarianism” (a more or less Lockean libertarianism with a sufficientarian proviso). But no matter what your favorite theory of justice is, you should acknowledge that there are good reasons to make compromises with people who have different views on justice, and it is these reasons to compromise that interest me in the book and elsewhere. Thinking about the morality of compromising is important from the perspective of egalitarianism, libertarianism, liberal perfectionism, etc. It is nothing particularly “realist”. I think realism has been an important critical movement that has contributed to clearing the way for new topics and developments in political philosophy, and I have been influenced a good deal by political theorists like John Gray and John Horton. But I am skeptical that there is a viable realist alternative to an “ethics first view” in political philosophy, and in that sense I guess I am what some realists would call a “moralist”.
3:AM:Is yours an ideal or non-ideal theory, and how important are feasibility constraints in your approach?
FW:If the best possible world still contains moral disagreement, then the morality of making compromises has a place in ideal theory as well as in non-ideal theory. Feasibility constraints are important to compromising, of course, because one should only establish a compromise on arrangements that are feasible. What is trickier to answer is whether feasibility constraints should also affect first level moral thinking of politicians and political philosophers. My view is that this depends on the context. It makes sense to think about what the best tax laws (for example) would be under given historical circumstances, taking rather narrow feasibility constraints into account, but it might also make sense to think about what the best tax laws would be under more idealized circumstances with better people, a wealthier society, and a more efficient bureaucracy, thereby loosening feasibility constraints.
3:AM:Why aren’t you concerned with normative principles and stick (mainly) to moral values?
FW:In my book Compromise, Peace and Public, I mainly deal with peace and public justifiability as values that provide moral reasons to make compromises. I discuss why they are valuable, I try to show that they are second-level values, etc. But there is also a chapter in which I try to articulate and defend some normative principles in the morality of compromising. The goal is to find principles that specify how politicians (and others) ought to act when being in the business of making compromises. We thus have to find answers to questions like the following: Under what circumstances are we permitted to drive a hard bargain in compromises, under what circumstances are we even morally required to drive a hard bargain? How can we specify the moral limits of permissible compromises? I think this is a fascinating area in moral and political philosophy and I certainly plan to continue exploring it. There is still so much work to be done… A very recent paper of mine also deals with normative principles in the morality of compromising. I argue that we are never morally required to establish fair compromises, at least if fair compromises are understood as compromises in which the parties make an equal amount of concessions relative to what they can gain and lose. If you disagree with a friend about where to go on vacation, then you should certainly try to accommodate your friend’s interests, but this does not mean that you should be concerned with how much both of you can gain and lose from the interaction (and hence with the power relations between you two). Fair compromises might sometimes serve a pragmatic function as “focal points”, but there is nothing moral about them.
3:AM:Some might say that your value of public justifiability is not really separate from considerations of justice. How would you push back against that charge?
FW:Sure, many public reason liberals think that there is a close connection between justice and public justifiability. Public reason liberalism has evolved in the Eighties and Nineties with John Rawls, Charles Larmore and Jerry Gausas three of its main proponents. Rawls thinks that a proper conception of justice has to be a “political” conception that does not involve any disputed ethical or religious issues and thus is publicly justifiable. (Public justifiability can be thought of as “multi-perspectival acceptability”, to use Andrew Lister’s terms). But, on the other hand, Rawls does not want to commit to skepticism about “true morality”, and so I think he should accept the possibility that a comprehensive conception of justice could turn out to be true, no matter if it is publicly justifiable or not. Moreover, one can well argue that a political conception of justice like Rawls’s conception of “justice as fairness” is not publicly justifiable if the relevant public is not unduly idealized.
In Gaus’s model of public justification, all “members of the public” are allowed to adhere to different theories of justice, and so it seems plausible to infer that one of the members might actually be right about justice, no matter if his or her theory of justice is publicly justifiable or not. But of course my case for the separateness of justice and public justifiability is much easier if you are not a public reason liberal, but a comprehensive liberal. Comprehensive liberals like Joseph Razinsist that we may rely on the “full light of reason and truth” when thinking about justice and about politics in general, and hence they do not accept the restrictions put forward by public reason liberals. If you are prepared to think that a comprehensive liberal like Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Robert Nozick or Joseph Raz could possibly be right about justice, then it seems quite clear that justice might not be publicly justifiable, at least if we do not restrict membership in the relevant public to those who already subscribe to that theory of justice or something relatively close to it. As a side-note: There is no need to follow Rawls in thinking that a conception of justice is the kind of thing that should be publicly justifiable. Laws should be publicly justifiable. But laws should of course also be just, and in my view there is no entailment relation between their justness and their public justifiability.
3:AM:What different kinds of moral compromiseare important for politics?
FW:There has been some debate about whether there are only pragmatic compromises in politics, or whether there are also principled compromises in politics. In an influential article, Simon May argued that there are only pragmatic reasons to compromise in politics, but others – myself included – disagree. I regard public justifiability as a value that gives politicians principled moral reasons to compromise. Another important moral category is that of a “rotten compromise”, made prominent in Avishai Margalit’s book. Margalit compares rotten compromises with a soup with a cockroach in it. I like to see rotten compromises as compromises that are morally very bad. This does not mean that one might not have to make rotten compromises under certain circumstances. Politicians sometimes have to eat disgusting soups…
3:AM:You point out that ‘peace’ has been neglected as a moral value in discussions of political value. Why is this – is it because of its link with modus vivendi arrangements?
FW:The notion of “modus vivendi” still has a rather bad press in political philosophy, and this might partly explain the relative neglect of peace in political philosophy. The notion of modus vivendi has been introduced most prominently by John Rawls. To Rawls, it serves as a negative contrast to what he regards as the goal in politics, namely to achieve an overlapping consensus among reasonable citizens. Rawls thus usually speaks of a “mere” modus vivendi. John Gray and John Horton later took up the notion of modus vivendi and gave it a much more positive twist, suggesting that a modus vivendi is the only available and legitimate goal in politics. In their hands, the idea of a modus vivendi became closely associated with realism. I prefer to simply conceive modus vivendi arrangements as the institutional tools for peace, without any implicit commitment to realism. As institutional tools for peace, modus vivendi arrangements are a good thing, but we should recognize that some are better than others. A nuanced view of the moral standing of modus vivendi arrangements seems appropriate... But the neglect of peace probably also has to do with the Rawlsian dictum that justice is the “first virtue” of social institutions, and with the thought that peace and justice are closely related. Sometimes it is claimed that peace is a mere precondition for justice, not a value of its own, and sometimes it is even claimed that true peace and justice are the same thing. I think these claims are false. Peace is not a mere means for achieving justice, but a value of its own. Peace is a great achievement, even if justice is not realized.
3:AM:What role do stability, respect and community play in the idea of public justification that you are using?
FW:They are all foundational to the value of public justification. If we ask why we should care about the public justifiability of laws, the answer is, I think, that we should care because the public justifiability of laws contributes to stability, expresses respect for persons, and constitutes a community of mutual moral accountability. Public reason liberals have usually also involved one (or more) of these ideas to argue for their position. What distinguishes me from public reason liberals, though, is that I do not take public justifiability as a necessary condition for the legitimacy of laws (or whatever is supposed to be publicly justifiable). I take public justifiability to be one value among others, a value that sometimes comes into conflict with other values including justice. In that sense I am in the camp of “comprehensive liberals”.
3:AM:You've recently won the Sanders Prize. Fantastic. Congratulations.So what's your Sanders prize paper about?
FW:The paper argues that we can “rescue” the idea of public justification from public reason liberalism: All that is worthwhile and attractive about public justification can be had if we simply incorporate a principle of public justification into a comprehensive liberalism, not making it a necessary condition for the legitimacy of laws and not excluding any moral considerations from the proper assessment of the legitimacy of laws. In a way, the paper thus is a critique of public reason liberalism, but one that tries to save the truth in public reason liberalism: Public justification matters, but it is not all that matters. I was very happy about the Sanders prize, of course, and I am very much looking forward to presenting the paper at the Oxford Studies conference in Tucson in October. I like Tucson a lot (the Mexican food, the Saguaros, the desert sky…); I lived there for a year when I was a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona a couple of years ago.
3:AM:And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
FW:That’s a hard task; here are six, if that’s ok (all related to the topics discussed in the interview):
1. Richard Bellamy: Liberalism and Pluralism: Towards a Politics of Compromise.Routledge 1999.
Alongside Martin Benjamin’s “Splitting the Difference” this was one of the first philosophical monographs on compromise.
2. John Gray: Two Faces of Liberalism. Polity Press 2000.
Advocating modus vivendi politics, influential for the emergence of realism in political theory.
3. William Galston: Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice.Cambridge UP 2002
A short but nice book on value pluralism and liberalism.
4. Avishai Margalit: On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. Princeton UP 2010.
A recent monograph on compromises, rich in historical illustrations.
5. Gerald Gaus: The Order of Public Reason. Cambridge UP 2011.
A great articulation of (a specific kind of) public reason liberalism.
6. Steven Wall: Liberalism, Perfectionism and Restraint. Cambridge UP 1998.
Wall’s emphasis on the primacy of the first-person standpoint and his intriguing criticisms of public reason liberalism have influenced me a lot.
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Richard Marshallis still biding his time.