A Minimalist Aristotle?
by Stuart Hampshire
Harvard University Press, 195 pages, $20
Stuart Hampshire begins his new book by pointing out that “there are a thousand or more themes that might be pursued under the heading of moral and political philosophy.” In Innocence and Experience, Hampshire treats at least several dozen major issues in moral philosophy under the twin themes of morality as prohibition and limit, and morality as aspiration and ideal. The latter theme expresses our concern for human perfection. Although substantive conceptions of the human good are diverse, and often in conflict, they would nonetheless seem to he an inescapable facet of morality. The former theme expresses our concern for justice—particularly justice as rules of arbitration, which is to say justice as procedural fairness. Hampshire argues that the only mode of morality that unites all humanity is the legal rather than the perfectionist model.
In arguing for a “thin notion of minimum procedural justice,” Hampshire is not offering anything especially original. The priority of the legal and procedural model of practical reason is, after all, the standard modern position uniting, if not all humanity, then at least theorists as diverse as Rawls and Hobbes, and arguably Kant as well. What makes Hampshire's defense of this position interesting is that he develops it in a way that is remarkably free of certain epistemological biases which visually attend the so-called “thin notion” of justice.
Hampshire presents himself as a kind of Aristotelian. “Philosophical time and ingenuity have been wasted,” he says, by philosophers who have tried to improve upon Aristotle. It was Aristotle's genius, he contends, to have understood that theoretical and practical reason each have their distinctive standards of correctness. Indeed, Aristotle understood that there is not one standard of rationality—it is unreasonable to hold one standard of reason. Furthermore, it was Aristotle's signal achievement (against Plato) to see that the “good” is analogical, and hence susceptible to manifold ways of predication and applicable to diverse ways of life.
Hampshire suggests that Aristotle is a more reliable guide on practical reason than post-Newtonian philosophers. Modern philosophers, in his view, tend to be reductionists who demand that moral propositions measure up to the standards of the natural sciences; if they fail to do so, they cannot be taken seriously. Moral discourse, therefore, avoids all of the untidy elements of experience which do not fit the interest of “some prevailing epistemology.” So far, so good.
Hampshire's Aristotelianism, however, is pressed into the service of modern notions of procedural justice. We find here an Aristotelianism that has set aside Aristotle's teleological perfectionism. Hampshire jettisons Aristotle's conception of a determinate telos for human life, as well as the Platonic residue of the hierarchical soul. There is very little discussion of the great Aristotelian themes of virtue and friendship, with or without the attendant metaphysical hierarchies. In short, Hampshire gives us an Aristotelianism of minimum common needs, or what he calls the conditions of “mere decency.” If one were to imagine the “state of nature” postulated by modern political theorists as populated by Hampshirean Aristotelians rather than by modern epistemologists, then one would have the sense of the themes of Innocence and Experience.
The legal mode of practical reason highlights an experience that is pervasive in both the private and public spheres of practical rationality. According to Hampshire, when we deliberate about actions, policies, and possibilities, it is essential to adopt an adversarial mode of discourse. That is to say, when we deliberate, either privately or in common, we recognize the necessity of allowing the pros and cons, the ayes and the nays, to have their say. In a court of law, for example, it is a canon of fairness that the contending pictures and accounts of action come before the judge. This procedure weeds out bias and insures a certain measure of impartiality. Hampshire is careful to note that the adjudicatory process does not function in the absence of substantive content. Practical reason in both its individual and public settings always draws upon notions of the good filtered through precedents and guided by analogies. We do not invent procedures and then go in search of content. Rather, the procedural notion of justice can be said to be “prior” in the sense that it insures that discourse and deliberation are fair.
Tyranny, Hampshire argues, puts no check upon the natural drive to domination among practical reasoners. It deploys argument in order to stop or negate argument. Having as its goal consensus, which is nothing less than a practical life or system free of conflict, the tyrannical regime conceives of moral deliberation as issuing in victory—a win-and-take-no-prisoners conception. Hampshire contends that philosophers aid and abet this scheme, for they not only hanker for consensus, but in overestimating the good of consensus, they greatly underestimate the evils that need to be mitigated if we are to have minimal “decency.”
Refreshingly, Hampshire gives us no list of basic goods, in the fashion of a John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin; he makes no effort to deduce by one or another transcendental logic the “great goods” which any ordo juris must protect and maintain. If anything, Hampshire is more interested in what could be called “basic bads,” which any effective order of justice must bring under control. He concedes that our various conceptions of the goods cannot be bleached of their controversial and conflicting content. Indeed, he insists that if conceptions of the good are to have any specific content, we must assume that there will always he conflict.
On this score, Hampshire is critical of Rawls, who, he says, uncritically smuggles in a conception of the good dominant in liberal society. Rawls is not, Hampshire suggests, procedural enough. In order to reach the good of consensus, Rawls has to rely upon the shared intuitions of liberals. The method merely gives universal shape and scope to the. goods one already has in mind.
Although Hampshire raises the interesting question of how to avoid smuggling in the view of the good dominant in liberal society, he does not give us any answers. Indeed, it is a weakness of this book that he does not really struggle with the issue. The priority of morality as procedural justice, for which Hampshire gives some very good arguments, will be held in suspension until the proponent can convince us (or at least those of us who do not avow a liberal view of the good) that this amounts to something more than an in-house set of arrangements for those who are at odds with traditional conceptions of the good. While Hampshire emphasizes a procedural and adversarial model of practical discourse, and makes some sharp and cogent contrasts between it and tyranny, one might ask whether the concrete legal cultures which have embodied his procedural vision do not, in reality, have the goal of foreclosing public debate about substantive moral and religious issues.
The book is structured around a contrast between innocence and experience. One will come away from this book disappointed if he or she approaches it in search of a properly detailed and sympathetic account of what the author includes under the rubric of “innocence.” Under this theme Hampshire considers various species of epistemological reductionism, metaphysical excess, and religious fanaticism. It is one thing to give sober assessments of pluralism and conflict in the moral life, but are we to believe that innocents only have teeth for biting? One could read this book and have no regret in bidding good riddance to those who subordinate procedural justice to the good. One would scarcely believe that the very adversarial institutions of procedural justice were developed in precisely those legal and moral cultures that are consigned in Hampshire's account to the status of innocents. There is much to recommend in Hampshire's work—its clarity, its even-handedness with regard to contending moral epistemologies, its way of sustaining the theme of “experience” through any number of important issues in moral philosophy—but the book finally lacks the tension its title promisingly suggests.
Russell Hittinger is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and author of A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory.