Can Political Philosophy be Greater Than the Sum of its Ethical Agents?

“It is quite likely that, if we knew more about animal bodies, we could deduce all their movements from the laws of chemistry and physics. It is already fairly easy to see how chemistry reduces to physics, i.e. how the differences between different chemical elements can be accounted for by differences of physical structure…. We only know in part how to reduce physiology to chemistry, but we know enough to make it likely that the reduction is possible.”

Thusly Bertrand Russell summarized scientific reductionist thinking about the natural world. With some caveats, it is a ruling scientific worldview, or at least it seems so to a fellow like me who feels just smart enough to pick up a Scientific American in the waiting room and not get too confused.

There are nested levels of abstraction in talking about the physical world — not independent and rival explanations, but each level dependent on and building on the level below. In principle, everything you’re trying to investigate at the level you’re looking at (say, the liver), should be describable in terms of elements of the level below, as far down as you want to go (say, physics).

The terms we use at the higher levels are shorthand descriptions of complex varieties or categories of arrangements at the next level down, and everything we describe at the higher layers can — in principle — be described without any loss of information solely in terms of elements of the layers beneath. (The reverse, though, is not true: two biologically indistinguishable enzymes may be subtly different chemically; two chemically indistinguishable molecules may be subtly different physically, and so forth.)

Each higher level of explanation and abstraction provides a new categorization and labeling scheme for the behavior of aggregates of elements of the level below it — but it does not properly add any new elements that are in principle irreducible (if such an element is not in fact reducible, reducing it becomes a priority, and the scientists aren’t happy until they’ve come up with something — so sure are they that something will indeed turn up).

It occurred to me at some point that those political theorists whose points of view I most respect take the same approach to political philosophy: The question of what political arrangements are appropriate in a society of individuals will in all cases — in principle anyway — be reducible to a question of the appropriate ethical actions of those individuals.

Political philosophy is still important and distinct from ethical philosophy for the same reason that biologists and chemists don’t just resign their posts and become physicists — it’s impractical to work on big-stuff problems with small-stuff abstractions. You need some shorthand. And certain patterns and regularities are only visible at a larger scale and among the larger abstractions themselves.

But on the other hand, you need to respect the nature of what you’re doing and the nested structure of the layers you’re working with. One way to test your theories at one level is to see if they result in any contradictions at a lower level. If your theories in chemistry require some electrons to be positively charged, you either screwed up somewhere or you need to develop a variety of physics in which positively-charged electrons aren’t absurd. (By contrast, if new developments in physics require higher layers to accommodate, say, the weirdness of relativity and quantum mechanics, accommodate them they must! It is them, and not physics, that must give way.)

Similarly, if your political theories require some individuals to behave unethically, you need to go back to the drawing board. Liberal political theorists (not in the liberal/conservative editorial page sense, but the old-school political philosophy sense) seem to evaluate political systems at the level of political or societal organization only (is there representation? is there the rule of law? are decisions made democratically?) while libertarian/anarchist political theorists are much more likely to train their microscopes on the realm of personal ethics (e.g. does any element of this political theory require anyone to violate the non-aggression principle?)

Liberal political theorists will attempt to patch over the parts of their theories that require individuals to behave in ways that may seem unethical by saying that in such-and-such a case the otherwise unethical behavior is ethical. But the criteria that make those cases “such-and-such” are often found to be political-level criteria, not ethical-level criteria — either new political-level descriptions that are irreducible to ethical-level descriptions, or ones that if they are reduced to ethical-level descriptions no longer seem to justify the “such-and-suchness.”

In physical reductionism, the relationship between the levels has a direction. By this I mean, for instance, that we might say that some element of fluid dynamics describes the behavior of a large set of molecules in some circumstance. Or we might say that in some circumstance, these molecules will behave in a manner described by fluid dynamics. But we wouldn’t say that fluid dynamics causes molecules to behave in a certain way, or that they behave in that way in order to comply with the rules of fluid dynamics. The causation is all in the other direction. Fluid dynamics says what it says as a result of attempting to describe the behavior of the underlying physical system.

Which is what makes the liberal political theories and their justifications difficult for me to swallow. They seem to have this backwards. According to them, some behavior at the ethical level switches from unethical to ethical based on the description it is given at the political level, rather than its description at the political level being based on an analysis of it at the ethical level. Whereas it seems to me that whether a particular action is ethical or not should not depend on what political system you’re operating under or what role the people involved play in that system; rather, whether the system is reasonable and coherent should depend on whether the individuals enacting their roles in that system behave ethically in so doing.

If a theory told you that water freezes below 32° except on Tuesdays when it freezes below 40°, you’d be right to be skeptical. If your experiments showed that ice was just as liquid at 40° on Tuesdays as any other day, you wouldn’t be likely to accept as an explanation that, according to the accepted theory, on Tuesdays liquid water that is colder than 40° is considered to be frozen regardless of its actual behavior. You’d consider this a flaw in the theory, not a flaw in the water.

This, anyway, is how my thoughts have wandered along this path. I think there must be a clearer way of explaining it than this. It seems really simple to me until I try to articulate it, and then it starts to fray.

For instance, what about these assertions:

  • it’s unethical to confine someone against their will, but it’s okay if you’re a prison guard and they’re your prisoner
  • it’s unethical to strike someone against their will, but it’s okay if you’re a boxer and they’re your opponent

Are these really from two distinct classes of assertion? Do they really belong on different levels? The second one seems to me to be close to a straightforward ethical assertion, but the first one seems to me to be one of those problematic political assertions that doesn’t disassemble properly. Each one requires a scaffolding of assumptions about how people play roles in socially-defined settings.

Of course, you can see that there’s a variety of mutual consent in the second example and not in the first (a boxer doesn’t consent to be struck, exactly — he avoids it strenuously — but he certainly consents to risk being unsuccessful in avoiding it). But how hard would it be for a liberal political theorist to come up with some similar-sounding quasi-ethical explanation for the first (the prisoner doesn’t consent to be confined, but he consented to living in a community where such confinement is the price one pays for certain behavior). And then how can I qualitatively distinguish the two explanations?

Also, just how good is my analogy between physical reductionism and ethical reductionism? In reality, we didn’t start with physics and build chemistry on top of it, but something much more like the reverse: people observed chemical behavior, found regularities in it, designed theories, and then the physicists tried to model the underlying behavior that might produce these regularities and satisfy these theories. Nowadays the theoretical model is, I think, much as I described it, but its origin is more complicated and this has consequences for my analogy. Why shouldn’t we start with a political theory that satisfies us and then create an ethics that models it? Why must we start with a foundation before we know what kind of building we’re constructing?

And worse, my version of the “ethical level” here is exclusively deontological, is it not? Someone who makes teleological ethical evaluations might very well conclude that people operating at the “ethical level” ought to evaluate what they do at a higher level of abstraction if the ends to be striven for are themselves defined at a higher level (and why shouldn’t they be?). Some people even give the State itself moral standing, and assert that we have at least as much of a duty to contribute to its health or to refrain from harming it as we do with each other. “One ought to obey the powers that be,” can be an elemental ethical assertion, or something close to it.

I guess what I’m getting at is: Needs work. I can’t but guess that some better thinker than I has been over this same ground before and has thought it through and written it all down, but so far I haven’t been able to find it. Any pointers?