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Sir Stuart Hampshire

Sir Stuart Hampshire has a new theory of justice based on the inevitability of conflict and on the importance of hearing the other side. Paul Sheehy asked him about his struggles with justice.

In his long career as an academic philosopher in Oxford, Princeton and London, Stuart Hampshire has had a major impact on moral philosophy and philosophy of mind. In his latest book, Justice is Conflict (Duckworth 1999), he turns again to political philosophy and develops the themes of his 1997 Tanner Lectures. Arguing that conflict is an inevitable and perennial feature of both our inner and social lives, he eschews the search for principles to regulate the political domain, principles which all reasonable and rational persons ought to endorse. He thinks it unlikely that any consensus on such principles can be found, given that the most profound conflicts include those about our conceptions of the Good and of how to settle questions of substantive value. Justice, says Hampshire, does not follow from the application of principles to establish harmony within the state, or to calibrate the fair distribution of goods, or from powers to impose order. Instead he argues that justice is inherent in the procedural capacity of all sides to be heard within the institutions of the state, institutions governed by respect for locally-established and familiar procedures.

At the heart of Hampshire’s book is an emphasis on the need to ‘hear the other side’. Fairness arises in a political system when all sides are able to put their case, to press their particular needs and wants, through procedures open to all. Importantly this fair procedure is grounded in the experience, common to each of us, of practical and prudential deliberation about our own goals, needs and values. A universal form of rationality is embedded in our inner lives. Moreover, the forms of inner and of public reasoning acquire a similar shape, mirroring each other. We deploy the vocabulary of public adversarial reasoning to describe our own inner conflicts, and we have a feeling for justice in public affairs because each of us is normally in dispute with himself. Through socialisation, initially within the family and then through our engagement with others in the institutions of a society, we first develop the basic processes of questioning, doubting, disputing and criticising, and then encounter them in the forms of institutional procedures. A life proceeds through the inner dialogues each person has with herself and the negotiations she has with other people, both kinds of exchange typically resulting in compromise as a way forward.

In a succinct and elegant monograph, Hampshire marks out a distinctive position in modern liberal thought, which he discussed when Paul Sheehy met him recently.

Professor Hampshire, in 1983 you wrote a book called Morality and Conflict. Now you identify justice with conflict, which might surprise those who tend to think of justice as overcoming or resolving conflict.

The identification comes entirely from Heraclitus. Justice arises out of the fact of conflict. One might say that it is a fact first of the inner life, and of the social life second, although here a lot of explanation is needed for what the first and the second mean. If one wishes, one can restate matters by regarding justice as a response to conflict, and leave out the identification, without falsifying what I’ve said. I really want to show the correspondence between rationality as a solution we all apply in our own lives when we have conflicts of desires and interests – and such conflicts are quite unavoidable – and as a solution to conflicts in any society. Again, it is quite inevitable that any society will have conflicts. People are always ambivalent, they find themselves choosing between irreconcilable projects, which flow from their desires and interests. There is a reflection of this inner process in the social domain, and the inner life derives its vocabulary from transactions in the social life. The order of learning is first family and then social transactions, which are a settling of disputes. These are transferred to the psychological processes, which precede a difficult decision where we have some kind of problem or dilemma.

If conflict is an irreducible feature of our lives together, should we see its basis in human nature?

Yes, but we can’t leave it there. We’re in a kind of situation familiar from David Hume’s work. Something is the case, and it’s better that it’s the case. We are always and ought to be in conflict. The development of our lives, of forms of civilisation, depend upon this experimental settlement, compromising, and negotiating of contrary impulses and interests. Therefore, it’s not just the case of someone following the natural order of things, but the course that allows for originality, imagination, the things we need in human life in general. Someone once said that there is a view of politics as a case of ‘holding up one’s finger and assessing the direction of the cosmic wind’. This is exactly what Hegel took politics to be. It’s not a failure that there is conflict. On the contrary, if we consider our inner lives, the settlement of competing policies as reasonably as possible, which means as fairly as possible, is the everyday business of practical reasoning.

You emphasise ‘hearing the other side’ as providing a kind of procedure from within conflict for the regulation of political society. Does this mark a distinct position in contemporary liberalism?

A point I wish to make more distinctly is that in morality, as far as one can isolate it, in the evaluation of performance and motivation, it is always the negative that counts. People deceive themselves and go down the wrong track if they ask themselves what the great goods are, and then draw up a list. If we ask what evils all men suffer from, then we do get a fairly determinate answer. It’s evident that starvation, imprisonment, torture and all forms of physical pain are evil, and that men wish to be protected against them by social institutions and in other ways. Therefore it is quite natural to approach morality by asking what great evil an institution protects one from. It is not as if we need moral instruction to tell us which goods to pursue, but we do need moral guidance to assess the balance between, for example, the horrors of war and those of subjugation. That’s the kind of concrete deliberation we face all the time, but which we face from, so to speak, the negative side. The hymns to liberty which liberals are apt to sing are all very well, but we should see freedom as the negation of slavery. We should not torture ourselves, as even the best thinkers such as Amaryta Sen tend to do, by trying to arrive at a better definition of the positive good that is taken to be freedom.

A liberal like John Rawls is likely to agree that there are evils to be avoided but to hold that a political society governed in accordance with his principles of justice is more likely to achieve this. Furthermore, his principles offer a clear yardstick to determine justice, unlike the procedural mechanism of hearing both sides.

Rawls took the important step of saying he is talking about political freedom and goals. They are deduced from principles, which – and this he doesn’t say – are either vacuous or very divisive. To parody his position one could say that the further he gets from Harvard Yard the more people he’ll find for whom liberty is not a primary good. Historic religions are not accidents one can shuffle off, as if part of the childhood of humanity we have now outgrown. Their appeal is precisely that there is a defined instruction that has supernatural warrant as to what the Good is. If its neglect or rejection casts one out and distances one from the Good, then liberty becomes secondary. This is not a position that admits compromise, because it is the opposition of those who know and those who think it is wrong to pretend that we have a certain kind of knowledge. This is not a trivial matter, but across the globe is likely to lead to real physical conflict. The question is how to deal with it. Do we do so by declaring principles to which everyone ought to subscribe? Or, do we turn from outcomes to processes, without expecting the processes to yield as their outcome something so rationally compelling that no-one can repudiate it?

Just as Rawls faces problems in articulating what is reasonable, do you face a difficulty in elucidating what it is to hear the other side sufficiently or well enough?

A lot more needs to be said on that. I think, though, that what looks like a transcendental deduction is legitimate here. If the weighing of pro’s and con’s is an unavoidable procedure, regardless of culture or context, then even in matters of prudence and survival one must engage in a process of going through the balance of good and bad on two sides as it bears on a particular problem – not necessarily a moral problem. This is how policies are formed. One can deduce a rationality that is morally neutral; that is, it’s not a rational choice of ends, but a rational choice of process. This is a value that everyone recognises, even if they are ‘fanatics’, for they must also, perhaps especially, weigh policies. There remains the problem of the fact that for some groups certain matters are just not open to discussion. Here we may think of certain branches of Christianity and the question of abortion. It’s not sufficient to say that if we have a rational process all must accede to it. The institutions must also have developed as part of that culture, have been set up with apparently irreconcilable positions in mind. A procedure must be negotiated and developed that provides a way in which things are settled within a particular culture, a procedure in which one may sometimes win and sometimes lose.

But still there will remain those who refuse to engage with those institutions, who refuse to accept the recognised legal process. There are those who regard the use of force as a legitimate means of securing their moral vision, and the Good consisting of a world ordered in accordance with that vision.

One can define justice in a way that recognises it is not the first of the virtues. Being on the right side takes precedence over justice in some groups. If, like me, you are a moral pluralist, then you have to acknowledge that people are prepared to move towards force and domination. Justice is opposed to settling conflicts by domination. If faced with a group who say “either you accept this or we shall kill you, or you must kill us,” then there is no argumentative aspect of justice to which we can appeal. There is no argumentative answer. This answer is Hobbes’. If groups take this approach we end up with violence, and this is what justice is supposed to avoid.

To grossly caricature your view of justice, one might say it’s Hobbes without the violence.

Fundamentally Hobbes is right. If one has the view that human beings invent institutions to protect themselves from disasters like war, one conceives of institutions from the negative end. But if you say you are a tough guy, unafraid of anything and confident that you will come out on top in the war of all against all, these institutions will seem only to serve the weaker. You won’t need them. However, whilst one cannot produce an argument against the strong man, it is not the case that one can extrapolate his point of view for the whole of humanity. People want to be protected against war, disease and other evils.

In being protected in a certain way, in having the procedures and forums in which to argue for and press one’s needs and wants, should we see justice as more than a mere modus vivendi and as valuable in itself?

Yes. The liberal ideal is this deliberative process of argument, which has its somewhat grotesque forms, particularly in the law. Justice may not be seen to be served if we consider the particular case. It only seems to be served if we take the history of the whole institution, and then we see it has been a better alternative than the free-for-all. But in many individual cases both parties may feel they would do better in a free-forall. It should be stressed that the notion of a fair process is tied to that of an institution. Let’s consider duelling. If it is an institution and its host of quirky features are designed for the sake of fairness, then it is paradigmatically fair. All of the things that participants fussed over, such as the number of paces contestants must stand apart, the things that make us smile today, made for its fairness.

Fairness is embedded in a network of practices and rules, which develops through time within a society. We are in a stream of practice.

Yes, certainly in the case of games, which play a larger role in our lives than most academics acknowledge. The notion of a procedure being structured as a contest is a deep-rooted and longstanding one. Lawyers, for example, view the legal process as a contest; once they are immersed in the process they can’t help it. During my time in the Foreign Office at the end of the war I was amazed at the Russians’ attention to procedure and securing their goals within the context of the rules. Stalin’s basic attitude was “do whatever suits us best,” but once they got into discussions they couldn’t resist the game, and that’s the natural word that comes to mind. They would try to win every procedural battle with a lot of argument. One might wonder why they would do this since when matters came to a showdown they didn’t give a damn about the United Nations and so on, but that would reveal a total misunderstanding of human nature.

If we approach matters always from the negative side and see fairness as arising from contest and the tendency of people to play games, then we see fairness in a different way from those who try to deduce fairness from something people are pursuing in a positive manner. The standard philosophical psychology of the empiricists, like Mill and Russell, naïvely sees desires as shafts of light that motivate you. The notion of a motive is far more complex. People do not have clear desires, they do not know what they want. They are all the time thinking what they want, and that thinking is the balancing of one thing against another. So, we should not start from a simple picture of desires, and then of reason telling you how to get what you want. We ought to start from the actual fact of conflict: the basic situation is not that you have clear desire for this, and therefore do that. This is just not how people think of themselves.

The moral picture you draw is a pluralist one of diverse conceptions of the Good and one in which different groups determine for themselves the form of fair procedures. This seems similar to the view of the natural world endorsed by Nancy Cartwright as a patchwork of laws, and one wonders if your pluralism might turn out to be a form of relativism?

No, I don’t believe my position is a relativist one. I have been influenced particularly by the big gaps in the thinking of Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin, who appear to adopt a kind of pluralist view without giving any non- Nietzschean grounds for it. If grounds are to be given for it, then they should be offered in the spirit of Machiavelli, recognising the diverse and sometimes irreconcilable conceptions of the Good entangled and competing within a society. Someone who has a great vision of political achievement or greatness is expressing something very different from one with an ideal of a private life of discarding convention, or a life spent in pursuit of artistic achievement, subordinating everything to the pursuit of that goal. These are all completely different. We don’t have to accept cultural relativism, or think like Herder, in order to be struck by the variety of projects and goals of one’s own friends or people we know. It would be absurd to tell them that there is some way in which to reconcile these different goals and visions. This is not, though, a question of cultural relativism, which has no great appeal to me. It seems fairly obvious that one can think oneself into a different culture – like Kim Philby’s father who just became an Arab. The walls between cultures are not unscalable, but people just don’t want to scale them: one has a vision of some kind of work or life one wants to lead.

We should add that the discussion of relativism only arises at a certain level of economic and social security. There are horrors which we all recognise whatever our own visions of the good, unless we are completely insensitive. One cannot be a relativist about the human evils of starvation and the rest of a familiar grim list. Such basic evils afflict about two thirds of humanity. At a certain level of discussion about cultural relativism one can’t help thinking it abandons the basic idea of humanity as existing in bodies; that we have certain basic needs. In this light some of the disputes about relativism fail to appear serious.

On that note I would like to thank you.

Paul Sheehy is completing a PhD in philosophy at King’s College London

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