I’ll be making a series of posts on Bernard Williams’ essay “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory.” (David R. and Derek B. and I have read and discussed this recently.) My purpose is pretty narrow: to get some idea of the content (and normative status) of what BW calls the basic legitimation demand (BLD). According to BW, when a state, in addition to adequately solving the “Hobbesian” problem of providing basic security (“the first political question”), meets BLD, it is legitimate (it comes to be permitted to make and enforce laws within some range of possible laws).
Of note, in contrast to Rawls’ liberal principle of legitimacy, BLD is supposed to apply generally – not just to liberal states or to states in conditions that are ripe for liberal constitutional democracy. According to BW, at least in principle and in some historical contexts, non-liberal states can be legitimate and BLD is meant to explain how this could be (or is or was) so. I don’t think Rawls denies this, but neither does he formulate or justify a general principle for state legitimacy. I’m interested in BW’s attempt at doing so. I have some thoughts.
(1) BW (p. 4): “Meeting BLD can be equated with there being an “acceptable” solution to the first political question.”
By ‘acceptable’ I think BW means to convey several things. First, acceptability is an agent-centered element, not an agent-neutral element or a moral element. So an acceptable solution is acceptable to each relevant agent (for BW, each agent under the power of the state). And being acceptable to an agent is akin to her (reasonable enough, not obviously inappropriate) interests not being frustrated too much. However, this characterization, with its “objective” reading of acceptability, is inadequate.
(2) BW (p. 4): “…BLD implies a sense in which the state has to offer a justification of its power to each subject.”
We might, then, interpret BLD as saying this, in part: if a state is to be legitimate, its regime of coercion has to, while solving the basic security problem, be both (a) objectively acceptable to each under its power and (b) adequately justified as acceptable, by the state, to each under its power.
For plausibility, I would tweak the second “justify to” condition to allow the work to be done by the state simply standing ready to justify its regime of coercion to each if skeptical questions arise, people resist or protest, etc. Perhaps once such skeptical questions are asked or protests made actual address and justification might then be required for legitimacy. I think BW would welcome this clarification/addition. (And I think he accepts or would accept condition [a] as well, but I’m not 100% sure.)
(3) It is clear that BLD is normative or action-guiding for the state in some way (not merely a course of action such that, if the state does it, relevant permission to coerce is generated). It seems that, on BW’s view, states have strong reason to meet BLD and at least usually have more reason to meet BLD than not to. (BW at least flirts with denying that BLD is a moral principle, but my focus here is on the content of BLD – and in particular the content of the “justify to” condition – not on the nature or particular flavor of its normative status.)
Here is what, I think, we can say about the “justify to” condition: the justification has to adequately address the agent-centered concerns or reasons (at least the valid ones, the objective ones, the ones that are “reasonable enough”) of each person under the power of the state. Roughly, the state needs to at least be able and ready to make a good enough case to each person under its power that its coercive regime is not too deleterious to their interests. (BW might deny that the state has a moral duty to do this and, despite the name of the BLD, that those under the power of the state might issue valid moral demands that it meet BLD.)
Since, regardless of the details in formulating BLD, what will suffice for adequate justification will differ quite a bit in different historical and institutional circumstances, there is no very specific general formula for how states satisfy BLD. Or so, I think, BW would say.
However, we should want at least some more details about what the features of the adequate justification here are. What reasons/features can it not have, what reasons/features must it have? Are there any objective conditions that rule out the state giving adequate justification of its power to a person under its power? How, if at all, do moral considerations (e.g., considerations of fairness or justice) figure into this justification? Williams goes on to speak to some of these questions a bit, but I’ll leave it here for now.
Given the difficulty of BW’s writing, I’ve used some of my own words and taken some interpretive liberties. I’m curious if they seem right as interpretations or at least make good sense as charitable amendments to the core view. Brief, to-the-point thoughts?