Friday, November 25, 2016

Defending the Technocrats

Today I read this rather interesting post relating Berlin's critique of analytic philosophy, especially its then-inattention to political matters. While we do pay more attention to politics now, part of Berlin's critique still holds some water. This because he worries about `technocratic' modes of political thought where it is presumed there is agreement about the goals or ends of social life, and what remains is to work out how we reach or advance those goals. Such a presumption is dangerous, per Berlin, because it leads us to just ignore some of the hardest political problems we are faced with -- as Schliesser puts it, `it takes as settled what ought to be an achievement'. So while we have returned to political philosophy as a valued area of philosophy in analytic thought, it must be admitted that this kind of technocratic work still occurs. Indeed, as Schliesser notes in the linked post, this seems to be a part of Rawls' project, which is especially significant given the influence this latter has had on the development of political thought among analytic philosophers.

This was a particularly nice expression and accompanying exposition of the concern. But in fact I hear this kind of concern expressed a lot, in various guises, in some of the non-analytic circles I run in: analytic political philosophy is shallow, because it more or less involves working out the details of an agreed upon liberal framework. But political struggle and political thought ought properly concern itself with exactly whether or not that liberal framework should be adopted! It's a fair critique; to the extent that we really do limit ourselves to such matters, we're cutting ourselves off from an incredibly important realm of political activity. What is more, I share Berlin's concerns about philosophers fulfilling the role of Weberian functionaries. I like Weberian functionaries, I have more time for them than most. But it is, I think, very rare that this is the best use of a philosopher's skill set -- I think we frequently do more benefit to society by challenging such things and offering critique and alternatives. Or, at least, some of us should, and probably more of us than currently do. So I have a lot of sympathy for this critique.

However, I very find that people who put forward this critique or something like it just don't address the argument from the other side. When I read people from the early 20th century, and this also comes across in Soames' history of analytic philosophy, discussing their reluctance to issue normative pronouncements I frequently get something like the following impression. (Note that unfortunately I don't now have my books with me so I cannot give specific quotations or references, but I will express from memory what I take the counter-point to be.) Our forbearers were very keen to avoid any suggestion that others should defer to their pronouncements on moral matters, they really did not think they should be deferred to as if they were some kind of intelligentsia secular-priesthood. They wanted to avoid it being possible to illegitimately translate the epistemic authority and bully-pulpit one gains as a professor into an ability to command or sway others with especial authority, since they thought that we have not earned that or for other reasons should not be granted it. Of course one gets involved in moral and political life as a private citizen; but one does so there as an equal, one voice among many. Where one is in some sense speaking or acting with professional authority one must avoid treating one's lectern as a bully pulpit, since one has no right to that bully pulpit.

Standing behind this (though rarely worked out in satisfactory detail) is some kind of egalitarian ideal of non-imposition, and a vision of the proper role of intellectuals in public life. I find that people launching the Berlin-esque critique frequently just brush this aside, and treat these people like they are shallow technocrats with no interest in public life. (I don't know Berlin's work well enough to know if he personally does address this somewhere. His value pluralism does seem to provide a kind of alternate approach to avoiding the worry.) But it seems to me that it's at least plausible that the early analytics were on to something important here, that is worthy of serious reflection in metaphilosophy, and it wasn't just a refusal to engage but a bit of principled egalitarian politics that guided their decisions. As it stands I don't think this non-imposition ideal is quite viable in our present social circumstances --  this because I think that if we none of us say explicitly say ``I think you should adopt these ends'' but it just so happens that all of the professoriate only treat certain goals as worth taking seriously, we have collectively violated the spirit of this egalitarian ideal of non-imposition, even if no-one of us did individually. But those social circumstances are potentially subject to change, and in any case perhaps the ideal could be refined to account for that.

Plenty of my colleagues in philosophy are responding to recent events by saying that we should, as a profession, be more involved in public life. I quite agree, and as noted I think Berlin was on to something in his critique of the more limited or technocratic mode of political engagement. But I also do sometimes get the impression that some (as noted, probably not Berlin personally) of those who launch critiques of technocratic political philosophy really do have designs on operating as a kind secular-priesthood, and have authoritarian ideas of how `layfolk' should relate to the moral-expert professoriate. The early analytic reluctance, when under the guise of a moral professor, to issue normative pronouncements about the proper ends of social life can start to seem very sympathetic to me when I am struck by this. So I hope that not only do we start to engage more with the world of practical affairs, but that as we do so we are self-conscious and reflective about the way in which we relate to our fellow citizens.

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