Thucydides and Machiavelli

Machiavelli seems to allow for a far more robust conception of the relationship between morality and politics than does Thucydides, in the sense that moral standards are not viewed as language games to be used rhetorically or between equals, wildly inconsistently, or for reaffirming behavior based solely on self-interest.

The account of realism also portrayed by Thucydides takes no notice of any sort of economy of violence. Virtue is limited to judgments about individual character. Although it is difficult to tease out Thucydides’ views on the subject, he had considerable leeway in reconstructing the dialogues given, and so the effort is not entirely in vain. Thucydides’ account of realism lacks sophistication; the reasoning given by the Athenians and their allies (and enemies) appears to be not much more than sophism—at times justice/injustice are strongly appealed to, while at other times, they are ridiculed and cast aside whenever they come into conflict with the three motivations of war: fear, honor, and self-interest.

-Thucydides doesn’t endorse imperialism as much

-Views morality as a luxury for domestic affairs and individuals

-Shows more moral horror (Machiavelli is reluctant, but then relishes in his descriptions)

-Thucydides’ necessity is amoral, Machiavelli’s is moral (justification)

-Thucydides’ is descriptive realism; Machiavelli’s is both

-Necessity is more deterministic than Machiavelli’s – chance/fortuna take precedence

-Necessity is the savior of Machiavelli’ community—the opposite for Thucydides.

-Tries to depict the Peloponnesian war in as neutral a tone as possible, so it’s difficult at times to tease out his views on the relationship between morality and politics.

-He appears to absolve the aggression of the Spartans by reference to compulsion/necessity, since Athenian encroachments and expansion were calling for a response.

-His account shows conquest and submission as normal and frequent types of behavior

-Athens justifies its imperialism based on fear, honor, and self-interest, where fear is linked to self-preservation and functions as an overriding factor as to why justice is inapplicable.

-“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This supplements the fear elements, and its justification is rooted in human nature on self-interest and honor.

-Athens: The impulse of power to dominate is a universal necessity. It is like gravity, but only in the sense that it’s irresistible. Because it is a law of nature and hence out of the control of states, no state can be blamed for indulging in this impulse.

-Thucydides in no way endorses the imperialistic impulse the way that Machiavelli does.

-Thucydides calls the slaughter at mycalessus “barbaric”

-Moral horror does not exist in Machiavelli’s piece

-Machiavelli and Thucydides both hold that necessity overwhelms justice in the relations among states

-Virtue is aggressively destroyed by necessity, and there are consequences in following virtue where necessity is instead required.

-Interstate relations are anarchic—Diodotus warns that fortune makes men take unreasonable risks

-Disaster can strike anyone, whether they deserve it or not.

-War is about “a few personal interests…and there is no decent way to end it easily.”

-The history is portrayed as tragedy

-Highlights the long-term consequences of embracing unbridled necessity, namely that it turns around and destroys the state that originated it, since the order that existed (though founded on violence and injustice) was created by the moral life.

-Diodotus and Cleon: action with moral implications bandied about with the language of self-interest

-Necessity overrides justice, but ‘might does not make right’

-Held off on creating any normative narrative about the accounts which he described, which places him squarely in opposition to Machiavelli.

-In a sense, the inhuman cruelty of the Athenians would actually be condemned by Machiavelli as perhaps empire building at the sake of losing glory

-Athenians much more candid than Machiavelli would be.

-Even Diodotus doesn’t use the same moral language that Machiavelli does.

-Honor is redefined not as a state of grace, but rather the complete absence of any weakness.

-If might had literally made right in the normative sense, then there would have been no reason for Athenian regret and contemplation about their hasty decision, so the implicit view is that moral standards are largely irrelevant to politics, although sometimes morality slips through the cracks and exerts some influence. 

John Rawls and the Original Position

Rawls desperately wants the flexibility that comes with John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, but at the same time wants a moral philosophy that respects persons. Moreover, this philosophy must be neutral and devoid of controversial language, so he adopts part of Kant’s Categorical Imperative that is, treating persons as ends in themselves, rather than as means to some other end. His doctrine is artificial, however, since he views justice as political rather than metaphysical.

An injustice is tolerable to avoid greater injustice. He wants to further extend social contract theory in the tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant with his famous thought experiment. Antony Flew has criticized Rawls for his question-begging assumption that the resources that exist already exist as property of the collective, so essentially Rawls’ argument is circular, since it assumes what it sets out to prove.

This social contract experiment is not a literal one. He wants to establish the actions of free and equal persons and what they would do under particular circumstances. Parties are rational and mutually disinterested, but not egoists.

Why he would want to ascribe a morally charged word like ‘fair’ to this thought experiment is puzzling. I suppose if I wanted to avoid being on the lower rung of society from a purely rational perspective, then there’s a chance I would suggest Rawls’ solution. However, just because it is rational for me to choose X over Y and just because that obtains for everyone else too does not necessarily make it ‘fair’. In fact, Nozick could readily agree to the rationality behind it, but still call the distribution of wealth unfair, since it violates his own theory of justice.

John Finnis on natural law

Finnis thinks that valuing certain ends or objectives is inevitable, since otherwise it would be impossible to identify descriptive features of the thing in question, so his argument is that reference to goals/normativity is necessary to even understand descriptive phenomena.

Natural law principles have no history—they are ahistorical in the sense that the origins/political consequences are completely irrelevant to his inquiry. He does not set out to provide an account about natural law theory, but rather intends to demonstrate the existence and content of natural law.

The seven basic values identified by Finnis are: life (and health), knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability, practical reasonableness, and religion.

Is there a possible feminist critique of Finnis’ approach? The only way to claim that these goods are male-centered is really to say that had Finnis been a woman (per impossible), then he would have chosen different goods, and so what he includes reflects a male-centered perspective. The criticism of elitism, however, is more substantive for the reason of economics—those in the lower range of society hardly have a chance to pursue the basic goods in the same way as economic elites would. The goods are geared towards someone with time, autonomy, and resources.

Practical reasonableness structures our pursuit of goods, ensures a coherent plan of life, ensures no arbitrary preferences among values, ensures no arbitrary preferences among persons, watches detachment and commitment, efficiency within reason, respect for every basic value in every act, requirements of the common good, following one’s conscience, morality, etc.

Hobbes on Escaping the State of Nature

Hobbes advocates for nothing less than the complete cession of all rights and privileges by everyone to the sovereign for him to do with what he wishes, provided he maintains order, peace, and security. Those are the only terms of the contract by which the people may escape the sovereign’s rule, namely when the sovereign is impotent and utterly incapable of protecting those over whom he rules. A potential scenario would be in the event of foreign invasion. At that moment when the sovereign’s reign is at a near end, the people can defect and can either replace him with someone else of their own choosing, or they may opt to place themselves under the rule of the invader.

But Hobbes intends for this method of recourse to be incredibly rare, since it is far better to suffer minor injustices perpetrated by the sovereign, rather than to suffer the constant war of all against all, which renders life in general—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In the state of nature, Hobbes holds to a peculiar notion of equality, namely that all men are virtually equivalent in mental and physical faculties, such that each man may kill any other man. No one is safe, not even groups that manage to exist for a short while. They will inevitably disintegrate when the interests of its members fail to converge. Hobbes thinks that men are unsatisfied without glory, honor, and pride, and so this will result in continual war, not necessarily always with physical combat, but this state will prevent flourishing absolutely.

Here he disagrees strongly with Locke, who held that although it was advantageous to leave the state of nature and create a social contract, the state of nature was still nevertheless livable, that is, it allowed for a certain amount of life, liberty, and property. But since the enforcement of justice would always be fraught with partiality and other problems, a civil society with public justice would solve most of these inconveniences. Not so for Hobbes. He spends a good majority of his writing based on the psychological motivations for action, using the hypothetical man as the basis for determining what life would be like in the state of nature—populated with these egoistical men. And Hobbes certainly borrowed freely from the events which went on around him. His earlier work, Behemoth, was a history of the English civil war, and there considerable clash between the divine right of kings and the supremacy of Parliament. Add to this Puritan suspicion of state authority and hierarchical Catholicism, and you have a society so filled with divergent interests that it is bound to war—perhaps endless war. Hobbes’ pessimism stems from his distrust of religion and the Greeks. He took his philosophy from Thucydides and the Sophists, rather than from Plato and Aristotle, and he especially had unkind words for the Scholastics.

For Hobbes, there existed no such thing as a natural order of law. The natural rights he speaks about as belong to agents in the state of nature have no moral content, whatsoever. Moreover, the nineteen theorems he offers, in order to present a systematic and scientific account of politics are merely meant as rational principles, which lead to the establishment of the Leviathan, the create described in the Book of Job in the Bible as King of the Children of Pride. While Hobbes disdained Christianity as it existed in his lifetime, this didn’t prevent him from appealing to the religious sentiments of his readers, in order to persuade them.

His nineteen theorems are meant to function as geometric axioms. Men in the state of nature will eventually realize that peace is the most rational move to make, and so will follow these principles as guides to establish a common power—the sovereign. This sovereign ensures order and stability and is endowed with a monopoly on coercion. If everyone submits, the division of labor will once again be possible, and as a result, human flourishing can continue unimpeded. Pride as the cause of war will be crushed, and the sovereign will ensure that defection in contracts is not an option. Self-interested action, when operating within a strict framework of property rights, will lead to beneficial outcomes for all. Absent a sovereign, the non-zero sum game transitions to a zero-sum game. 

Kant vs. Hume on Morality

Kant imagines that all those participating in and adhering to his system of morality all belong to a union known as the Kingdom of Ends, in which all rational beings are united under common laws, that is, the Categorical Imperative, as well as any other laws that pass the CI’s filtering system. These laws have universal validity and can be applied to any rational beings. This is a cosmopolitan type of morality. He writes that we must abstract away any personal differences that arise between rational beings, as these difference, e.g., gender, race, religion, culture, or language, have no impact on morality, whatsoever.

This position is meant to directly repudiate Hume’s emotivism and cultural subjectivism. While Hume thinks that inclinations and hence morals differ from culture to culture according to what is acceptable behavior, Kant roots his morality in an objective standard—a standard as objective as mathematics. That standard is dignity, which is based on rational autonomy. Here, Kant introduces the ought/can distinction in differentiating between subject and object. In order to have a duty to do something, one must be able to do it in the first place. I cannot, for instance, have an absolute duty to cure wold hunger and poverty, since it is utterly impossible for me to achieve this. I cannot therefore be faulted when I do not complete this duty, since I was, and am completely unable, to do it. But I am able to fulfill some duties—most dues, in fact, even though I am not perfect. Take the duty ‘Do unto others as you have them do unto you’. I have a duty to fulfill this principle because I am perfectly capable of carrying it out.

A rock, on the other hand, is in principle not capable of carrying out any duties at all, since it has no will, is not autonomous, and has no rationality. This is why dignity cannot belong to the rock (the object), but can belong to me (the subject). Of course, in having this dignity, I have to take great care in avoiding external influence and circumstances from having an impact on my actions. I must be internally free to will this way or that, and this freedom needs to be cultivated, as it certainly is not easy to ignore circumstances or external reasons for acting in a certain way that takes away from duty. In fact, Kant prides himself on his ability to completely ignore external circumstances, so that he can be free to rationally follow his moral duties, with no mind to distractions that attempt to dissuade. 

Regarding external factors, Kant vehemently disagrees with Aristotle. External goods, for instance, are far too contingent and arbitrary to be considered as part of the moral equation. Since duty is involved and duty requires ought/can, it must be the case that everyone is able to achieve conformity to the moral laws. Once we understand Kant’s insistence on duty, we realize that his rejection of external goods is not for trifling reasons or aesthetic considerations. In order for duty to be absolute, it must be achievable by all rational beings. We cannot exclude women or slaves from the equation simply because they cannot achieve Aristotle’s eudemonia. Yet, there are a few points of agreement between the two. Kant thinks that nature is teleological, that it is purposive. He echoes the claim that ‘nature does nothing in vain’, although of course he cannot include flourishing in his account of morality, since it’s based on arbitrary external factors. Anyone must be able to enter the Kingdom of Ends, the place where everybody treats each other as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to some other end.

This Kingdom, Kant acknowledges, is just an ideal. He knows that such a union will never exist, because the requirements of morality are too strict and difficult to achieve. Being part of the universal Kingdom of Ends, each rational member is a legislator. By reason alone, he can create new duties, provided they pass the test of the Categorical Imperative. The CI is a five-part test, with each part essentially saying the same things, albeit in slightly different ways. If the action in question passes the test, then it becomes a moral duty not just for this one rational being, but for all, regardless of their wealth, status, lineage, physical appearance, or geographical location.

This abstract reasoning is essential to Kant’s take on morality. He arrives on the scene with the goal of answering Hume’s skeptical conclusions, which ‘woke him from his dogmatic slumber’. Hume, as radical empiricist, divided knowledge into two categories: relations of ideas and the facts of experience. Relations of ideas are merely tautological concepts. The second term in the statement can be deduced from the first, and so nothing profound is being said. The statement is necessarily true, but trivially so. The facts of experience are uncertain and contingent apprehensions of the world through sense experience. There is no room here for the absolute, especially when inductive reasoning is being used.

This account clearly does not leave much room for morality, since Hume was eager to cast anything to the fire that did not fit in either of these categories as sophistry and illusion. As it was clear to Hume that any objective morality had no place, it must be emotive in nature, with no real duties to be spoken of.

Kant responds to this by creating a similar division, which he calls analytic and synthetic, both relating almost exactly to relations of ideas and the facts of experience. Working based on a mechanistic view of nature as provided by Newton, Kant recognized that mathematics—while conceived entirely by rationality—nevertheless held necessarily true in the empirical world. The same was the case for morality. He called this category: synthetic a priori, since ideas conceived purely in the mind actually held true (necessarily so) in the world of appearances. That is, no one would even begin to look for a counterexample to the Pythagorean theorem, even though it is purely abstract. This is also true about morality. It is something conceived of in the mind, yet it speaks to concrete actions. This is how Kant made room for the existence of morality that applied to all rational beings at all times.  

Hobbes and the Communitarians

The contrast between individualism and communitarianism is highly metaphysical, but also is a matter of historical timeline. From Ancient Greece right up to the time of the Middle Ages, the metaphysical systems of Plato and Aristotle dominated the philosophical scene, and since both of them wrote political treatises, their influence was felt in that area, as well.

Of course, looking back you see the atomism of Democritus, the radical materialist/nominalist Sophists like Gorgias and Protagoras, the nominalism of Ockham, the deviation of Duns Scotus, among many other thinkers who pulled away from the traditional metaphysics of the time. But suffice it to say, the universalism of abstract objects was a central postulate in communitarian systems. For a variety of different reasons, the community was seen as the ontological ultimate, a natural institution as real as any other organism, capable of giving moral commands which bind individuals, whether or not those commands are based on fairness or fact. For Socrates, it was social contract theory. For Plato, the state mirrored that of the form of the state, and the tripartite division of the soul, with reason signifying the rule of the state and its status above all others. For Aristotle, the whole is greater than the parts, either individually, or in sum, since the whole exists logically prior to any of its individual members. Near all of these systems—especially Aristotle’s and Plato’s—depend on universals.

One can easily see the problems that would emerge from a denial of their metaphysics. And this denial can be felt in every area of philosophy, since each of Aristotle’s and Plato’s positions were deductions from metaphysical postulates.

Thus, when someone like Hobbes comes about, he eschews the idea of the soul as a myth left over from the fanciful Greeks. Despite the Leviathan being a work of political philosophy, a sizable portion is dedicated to writings on the church and on psychology. The more famous portions quoted endlessly in anthologies are actually relatively small. Since Hobbes is an ardent materialist, he has no time for the world of forms, the souls, talk about ‘wholes’ existing apart from parts, etc. For Hobbes, it’s clear; only individuals and physical things exist. The state cannot be natural or an organism, since nature is utterly devoid of purpose. Thus, any organization that exists is merely convention, the result of contractual arrangements between individuals, which again are conceived of as atoms.

Now, clearly Hobbes does not want to commit himself to a historically extravagant hypothesis. He really has no way of discerning whether this was the case for all existing states, so he confines his theories to a moral and rational justification of the state. He allows for many different varieties of state-origin theories.

Looking back at the trend started by Hobbes, MacIntyre points out the underlying metaphysical battle going on through Hobbes and the Enlightenment. Hobbes had an intense dislike for Aristotle and the Scholastics, and so was happy to discard their systems, but this has led to the modern malaise, the breaking down of a conception of community that has a higher goal in mind than the selfish, individual conceptions of the good, which last about as long as the length of a television show. Walzer and Sandel join MacIntyre in this, although it’s MacIntyre (as well as Taylor) who place extra emphasis on metaphysics.

For them, theories of human nature are important, as well as is talk about rights and obligations; they would emphasize the notion of positive freedom over negative freedom—the liberty of the ancients over the liberty of the moderns. Thus, obligations are not something you just decide to take on through an exercise of autonomous will. That makes little sense to the communitarian who holds that obligations exist as a part of one’s identity, and it is not possible to accept them, since they just exist as brutal facts, so that acceptance would just be redundant.

In more recent times, the most obvious example would be the criticism of Rawls’ veil of ignorance. According to Sandel and others, the idea that we can shed our religion, culture, gender, race, etc., is to shed us of what makes us—us—at all. When analyzing the actions of actors, one cannot create an artificial entity in an artificial thought experiment to illustrate justice. This makes little to no sense at all.