Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Evaluating Societies Morally?

2017 (39) Issue 2


There is hardly a greater distance between our everyday attitudes and scientific caution than in the case of evaluative statements concerning states and their representatives. Even though it is rare that whole cultures are called ‘evil’, judging state representatives in moral terms, often negatively, is wide-spread, and not only among the politically involved. In contrast, classical moral ‘theories’ and their advocates in the human sciences are reluctant to apply moral judgements to items ‘beyond’ the single individual person and her activities. According to them, morality only arises within the perspective of the individual agent, and to expand moral judgement beyond this frame is problematical, if at all possible. Whole societies are not agents—for an agent-bound moral conception they cannot be morally good or bad. Instead, it is normal practice to judge them according to their welfare level.

This, however, does not seem to be an exhaustive view. Morally acceptable conditions in life are an essential part of wellbeing, even if there is widespread uncertainty or pluralism concerning moral standards. Are the classical Western criteria ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ the decisive ones, manifested in diverse human rights? Or is it a more substantial set of principles of political and social justice, perhaps even to be applied globally? If a state of affairs of a certain moral quality can be achieved only by ‘moral hardships’, is this allowed or even desirable? Or, if a certain process, such as climate change, is judged by its outcome (say, a devastating outcome), can it be judged morally at all if the major causal chains are unintended (even if the actors are partly aware of them)? The weaker the link between individual agents and collective processes, the more difficult it seems to put these processes into moral perspective.

There is a host of current disputes among moral philosophers which may be subsumed under the problem of how to deal with an unavoidable, but also contested moral approach towards whole societies. These disputes include debates about historical guilt and responsibility, intergenerational justice, the responsibility of firms, bureaucracies or states, the ‘dirty hands’ of politicians, global justice, moral and cultural relativism. Under the predominance of philosophers, discussions about these topics often lack an informed view of the social and economic mechanisms underlying change processes, collective attitudes or ways of life. It would seem that moral standards cannot simply be projected from the level of individual agents onto the level of collective entities. If the focus on the individual agent is to be preserved within the complex mixture of empirical conditions and effects, then guidance by proper social theories is imperative. Interdisciplinary work necessary for such a project is at present only at the beginning.

Vittorio Hösle deals in his variant of such an analysis with the case of the Soviet Revolution of 1918. As he considers the inclusion of empirical social causes and consequences to be necessary for substantiating an ethical view, the larger part of his article sketches the unfolding of the historical events and their aftermath up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union 1991. In a narrower, ‘principled ethical’ perspective, he judges the revolution with respect to its social and economic consequences. The rise of productivity due to the revolution contrasts with the great amount of violence and repression, and is thus judged, on balance, negatively. In a wider view Hösle applies his neo-Hegelian ‘philosophy of history’. According to this approach, the Soviet revolution strayed from the freedom-bound telos so important within the intellectual tradition leading up to it, and did this on an enormous scale. For Hösle only the teleological frame of judgement seems methodologically adequate in face of collective historical events the size of revolutions.

It is exactly this which George Crowder casts some doubt on. In his ‘value-pluralist’ response to Hösle, Crowder orchestrates a dispute between Hösle’s treatment of the Soviets and Isaiah Berlin’s well-known liberal critique of socialism, both theoretically and historically. Whereas largely in agreement in their effective moral judgements on the Soviet system, their normative reasons are strongly conflicting. For philosophical and political reasons Berlin and Crowder see only value pluralism as being appropriate, whereas the teleological reading of history is unavoidably value-monist. For the pluralist liberal a teleological ‘philosophy of history’ is therefore misguided. Crowder joins Bernhard Williams in claiming that this view on pluralism makes universalist sense too, without determining a specific end of history.

The African philosopher Uchenna Okeja points to four current disputes about moral responsibility, in which the individualist reading of such responsibility would miss the moral complexities of the cases involved. These include the treatment of past injustices, the operations of multinational companies, the contributions to climate-change and global distributive justice. Without the help of a concept of collective responsibility such topics will be underrated ethically, or even become invisible. Drawing on Held and Pettit, Okeja makes some remarks on how to side-pass the classical objections to such a concept. Lastly, he discusses how self-responsibility for advancement follows as an obligation from the African communitarian conception of ‘Ubuntu’.

‘Legitimacy’ is a key concept for normative evaluations of states with emphasis on the legal order. Walter Pfannkuche sketches six ways of understanding the legitimacy of a legal order. The cause of the conceptual complexity is the heterogeneity both of motivations and moral beliefs, but also the diverse expectations towards a system of law. Similar to Crowder, Pfannkuche reckons with moral pluralism and offers moral compromise and dynamic strategic negotiation as the major forces to achieve a consent on a legal order. Different to Crowder, though, he seems not to be too optimistic regarding the classical liberal hope that the development of strong autonomy can overcome the conflicts of pluralism.

Amanda Greene concentrates on the wider concept of political legitimacy, using Max Weber’s analysis of the essential components of a political community: territory, state monopoly on the use force, and a common value system. Contrary to the typical contractualist approach, Weber focuses on the legitimization of force and the acceptance of political rule. His account of legitimacy pesupposes the existence of common values and motivational forces beyond self-interest, although much weaker than those which the contractualist tradition takes for granted as common morality. By ignoring the usual liberal values such as freedom, equality and justice, Greene adopts Weber’s minimalism as a sufficient moral basis for political stability, non-alienation and then civic alignment of citizens. In this respect, she departs from all morally based models, whether they be liberal or social, minimal or maximal, Hobbesian or Kantian. In sharp contrast to the moralists’ hope, deeply unjust policies could then be perfectly legitimate.

The Editors

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Table of Contents

Title: How Should One Evaluate the Soviet Revolution?
Author: Vittorio Hösle
Page: 199-221

The essay begins by discussing different ways of evaluating and making sense of the Soviet Revolution from Crane Brinton to Hannah Arendt. In a second part, it analyses the social, political and intellectual background of tsarist Russia that made the revolution possible. After a survey of the main changes that occurred in the Soviet Union, it appraises its ends, the means used for achieving them, and the unintended side-effects. The Marxist philosophy of history is interpreted as an ideological tool of modernization attractive to societies to which the liberal form of modernization was precluded.

Title: The Philosophy of History: A Value-pluralist Response
Author: George Crowder
Page: 223-239

Abstract: Vittorio Hösle’s evaluation of the Soviet Revolution on the ground of the philosophy of history can be usefully examined from the value-pluralist perspective of Isaiah Berlin. Although Berlin would agree with most of Hösle’s judgements on the Revolution, he would do so for very different reasons. Most importantly, Berlin would not accept the teleology that lies at the heart of the philosophy of history. For Berlin, the notion of a human telos to be realized at the end of history is a species of moral monism, and so falsified, indeed rendered incoherent, by the deeply pluralist reality of human values. However, Berlin’s pluralism also seems to present a problem for the justification of liberalism, and I consider a range of responses to this difficulty.

Title: Evaluating Societies Morally: The Case of Development and ‘Developing’ Societies
Author: Uchenna Okeja
Page: 241-263

Can a society, as a collective, be evaluated morally? In this paper, I attempt to answer this question against the background of the discourse on development. Specifically, I undertake three explorations. I begin with 1) discussion of the ways we attribute responsibility to collectives in relation to some problems associated with globalisation. This is followed by 2) consideration of some of the debates in philosophy regarding the nature and possibility of collective responsibility. Lastly, I examine 3) an attractive but underexplored possibility in the growing literature on Ubuntu. On the basis of Ubuntu moral insights, I will attempt to defend the thesis that the collective responsibility of developing societies in relation development is grounded by the imperative to care about the humanity of other people.

Title: Strategies for the Justification of Law
Author: Walter Pfannkuche
Page: 265-293

We need to acknowledge that the members of most modern societes adhere to different and partially contradictory moral convictions which to overcome we yet don’t have the intellectual means. Since such convictions typically include opions about which moral rules should be established as laws there will be disagreement about the correct rules of law as well. The article investigates the possibilities to find a system of laws that all can accept on the basis of such moral pluralism. It develops six steps and models for the required justification. As the final step has the form of a strategic negotiation the concluding section explores which forms of representation and which deviations from unanimity are acceptable within this procedural model of justification.

Title: Legitimacy without Liberalism: A Defense of Max Weber’s Standard of Political Legitimacy
Author: Amanda R. Greene
Page: 295-323

In this paper I defend Max Weber\\\'s concept of political legitimacy as a standard for the moral evaluation of states. On this view, a state is legitimate when its subjects regard it as having a valid claim to exercise power and authority. Weber’s analysis of legitimacy is often assumed to be merely descriptive, but I argue that Weberian legitimacy has moral significance because it indicates that political stability has been secured on the basis of civic alignment. Stability on this basis enables all the goods of peaceful cooperation with minimal state violence and intimidation, thereby guarding against alienation and tyranny. Furthermore, I argue, since Weberian legitimacy is empirically measurable in terms that avoid controversial value judgments, its adoption would bridge a longstanding divide between philosophers and social scientists.

Title: The Secularization Theory—Not Disconfirmed, Yet Rarely Tested
Author: Heiner Meulemann
Page: 325-355

Tendencies of secularization—religiosity decreases in Western societies since 1950—have been found abundantly in comparative survey research. They are taken as starting point to examine what the theory of secularization predicts and which predictions have been confirmed. It is shown that the three canonical theories of the change of religiosity—secularization, individualization, and market theory—are identical in their structure und can be integrated as the secularization theory. The secularization theory has been tested in cross-sectional and longitudinal designs, and by macro and multi-level analyses—that is, cross-classfied in four forms. Neglecting cross-sectional macro analyses, there are only 11 publications within the three remaining forms. They confirm a negative effect of social differentiation throughout und a negative effect of cultural pluralization often. Yet they often fail to control for important micro impacts upon religiosity, such as denomination or parenthood. In sum, they show that the secularization theory is by no means disconfirmed, yet rarely tested.

Title: Paths to Modernity and the Secularization Issue
Author: Thomas Schwinn
Page: 357-372

In the lively debate of the last two decades about the validity of the ‘secularization thesis’, the comparison between Europe and the USA plays a central role. The high level of religiosity beyond the Atlantic has put under pressure the assumption of the loss of importance of religion in modernity, which had been prevalent for a long time. In this debate, the connection between the differentiation theory and sociology of religion, which has already been discussed by the classics of the discipline, has attracted too little attention. This article takes up this desideratum and proposes, following Max Weber, a theory of differentiation which is able to cover the variety of religious processes. This proposed analysis will be made concrete with reference to the different paths to modernity of Europe and the USA and the related importance of religion.

Title: What Can we Learn from ‘Postmodern’ Critiques of Education for Autonomy?
Author: Julian Culp
Page: 373-392

Lyotard defines being postmodern as an ‘incredulity toward meta narratives’. Such incredulity includes, in particular, skepticism vis-à-vis Enlightenment ideals like autonomy. Motivated by such skepticism, several educational scholars put into question education for autonomy as it is practiced in the formal settings of national school systems. More specifically, they criticize that practices of autonomy education can have certain normalizing and ideological effects that undermine the aim of creating autonomous subjects. This article examines these critiques of education for autonomy and argues that they are best understood as calls for reforming educational practices, and not as outright rejections of education for autonomy. Thus, since the allegedly ‘postmodern’ critiques of autonomy education cannot be plausibly understood as radical ruptures with Enlightenment ideals, the article concludes that these critiques represent (merely) constructive self-critical reflections on what Habermas dubbed the ‘unfinished project of modernity’.

Title: ‘Property-Owning Democracy’? ‘Liberal Socialism’? Or Just Plain Capitalism?
Author: Jan Narveson
Page: 393-405

Justin Holt argues that the Rawlsian requirements for justice are, con trary to Rawls’ own pronouncements, better met by socialism than ‘property owning democracy’, both of them preferring both to just plain capitalism, even with a welfare state tacked on. I suggest that Rawls’s ‘requirements’ are far less clear than most think, and that the only clarified version prefers the capitalist welfare state.

Title: Democratic Rights and the Choice of Economic Systems
Author: Jeppe von Platz
Page: 405-412

Holt argues that Rawls’s first principle of justice requires democratic control of the economy and that property owning democracy fails to satisfy this requirement; only liberal socialism is fully democratic. However, the notion of
democratic control is ambiguous, and Holt has to choose between the weaker notion of democratic control that Rawls is committed to and the stronger notion that property owning democracy fails to satisfy. It may be that there is a tension be-
tween capitalism and democracy, so that only liberal socialism can be fully democratic, but if so, we should reject, rather than argue from, the theory of democracy we find in justice as fairness.

Title: The Demands of Democratic Ownership
Author: Alan Thomas
Page: 413-416

This paper considers an argument that justice as fairness requires liberal socialism as opposed to a property-owning democracy. It analyses the arguments for departing from Rawls’s principled agnosticism over the choice between liberal market socialism and property owning democracy. It questions the extension of Rawls’s fair value guarantee for the political liberties to all liberty and suggests an alternative interpretation of the kind of predistributive egalitarianism represented by a property-owning democracy.