on Bernard Williams’ BLD (second installment)

So far (from points [1]-[3]), it looks like BLD essentially involves the following things (content-wise): (i) the state offering or being in a good position to offer, to each under its power, a justification of its power and (ii) the justification or justifications being such that the interests of each person under the power of the state are adequately addressed (however we are to fill in ‘adequately’).

(4) BW (pp. 4-5):  BW considers the case of a coercive state regime in which some, but not all, of those under its power are “radically disadvantaged” (RD) in that they have more to reasonably have much more to fear than others with respect to “coercion, pain, torture, humiliation, suffering, death.”  Assuming that the RD are aware of their situation, the state is not in a position to offer them the right sort of justification of its power. Apparently, this is because the state has failed them in the primary task of politics (PT) and they know this.

This case is curious because the state here fails both its primary task and to meet BLD.  It would have been better to separate these two conditions. Perhaps BLD would be met, but the condition of solving PT would not, if the RD believed some fairy tale justifying their condition and the state were ready to recite this fairy tale upon arrangements being questioned or objected to?  We might also imagine PT being satisfied for this group, but their mistakenly believing that this is not so, in which case the PT but not the BLD necessary condition for legitimacy would be met.

The case is also curious because the comparative property of disadvantage, as far as I can tell, does no work.  What matters is that the state has failed PT with respect to RD — and that, because this is known by RD, the state also fails BLD.  This fits well with another curious element of the case or RD’s description of it, which is that moral considerations of unfairness in treatment and the like make no appearance.  It seems that, for BW, the sort of justification that would work to satisfy BLD need not have any such moral terms or reasons in it. In this, his justify-to condition (for legitimacy) is different from that of the Rawlsian political liberals.  On this point, the Rawlsian political liberals strike me as correct.

BLD is also different, at least so far, from the political liberal position on legitimacy in that the focus is on adequate address of private interests, not adequate address across epistemic and evaluative difference — especially difference in moral outlook — in the same society.  I think BW will address how differences in moral and other beliefs impact meeting the “justify to” or BLD condition — with respect to other societies and evaluating societies at great historical and evaluative and institutional distance — in his discussion of how relevant sorts of justifications need to “make sense” to those that they are addressed to.  But that is to come. This element makes no appearance in this case.

In sum, though the RD case raises some interesting issues that are worth thinking about, it does not say much additional that would help bring further into focus just what sort of justification is required for BLD.  Except perhaps that the ‘adequate’ of ‘adequate justification in terms of the agent’s interests’ need not to be filled in with any reasons of fairness (of impact of state coercion on private interests).

6 thoughts on “on Bernard Williams’ BLD (second installment)

  1. This case is curious because the state here fails both its primary task and to meet BLD. It would have been better to separate these two conditions. … We might also imagine PT being satisfied for this group, but their mistakenly believing that this is not so, in which case the PT but not the BLD necessary condition for legitimacy would be met.

    So clearly, this can happen: the state can produce security without everyone in the state’s jurisdiction acknowledging that the state is producing security. And it can do so fairly adequately without getting that recognition. But I’m not sure what Williams takes to follow from that, or what you do.

    Incidentally, to go back to something in the previous post, you say:

    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).

    I’m not just being pedantic in saying that it’s very misleading to call the “problem of providing basic security” a “Hobbesian” problem. (Not having read the Williams piece, I don’t know whether he calls it that or you do.) To call the problem “Hobbesian” seems to imply that it has a Hobbesian solution, but that fails to acknowledge that you can “solve” the problem of basic security by creating an entity that constitutes a security problem of its own. Hobbesians tend to see all security problems as arising from individuals in anarchy, and then infer that a super-duper autocratic state that solves that problem solves “the security problem.”

    But naive as Locke is supposed to be relative to Hobbes, he was obviously right to see that the state generates security problems of its own. It would make more sense to say that the “problem of providing basic security” is a Lockean rather than Hobbesian one: the problem of producing security without undermining it, or of defending rights without violating them.

    Either starting point, Hobbesian or Lockean, is going to be controversial. I don’t think you can really discuss the issues Williams wants to discuss while bracketing the difference between Hobbesian and Lockean ways of coming at things.

    Matt Zwolinski takes the reverse view in this paper, suggesting that the contrast between Hobbes and Locke is spurious or overstated, but I disagree with him:


    Hobbes thinks that every state of nature is a state of war; Locke denies that. At that level, their views really are mutually incompatible, wherever else they may agree or coincide.

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  2. Thanks. I did, partly for this sorts of reasons, hesitate in using ‘Hobbesian’. Probably would have been better to just call it the basic security problem (BW speaks of the “first question” of politics, but that is a rather non-descriptive description so I wanted to use a different, more descriptive tag). BW does see the state as needing not to become the very sort of primary security problem that it is trying to solve (and, unlike Hobbes, thinks that it doing so is as a real danger). This is part of what is happening in the RD scenario. So in this sense his set-up is Lockean. However, I think BW does take a legitimate state to be an alternative, and probably the only alternative, to war (or conflict and potential war) – and for people, to the extent and in the respects that legitimacy is lacking, being in a state of war (or conflict and potential war) with each other. For example, he thinks Sparta had it right (and perhaps were being more honest than other societies that had slaves) in regarding the Helots as enemies, not citizens in any sense. So maybe BW is more of a Hobbesian in this respect. This fits with the following speculation: that moral reasons are missing from the sort of justification that is required for BLD because moral reasons, or at least the important and strong ones of what we owe and what is owed (obligation), are a function of a stable moral order and you only get that, realistically, by having a stable, legitimate state. I’m not sure that BW is this sort of moral constructivist, but he might be.

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    • Thanks. I fixed a garbled phrase in my comment. Translated into intelligible English, what I meant to be asking in the first part was what followed on Williams’s view (or yours) from the fact that a state could in fact solve the security problem without its being acknowledged that it had.

      I take it that Williams regards such a state as “legitimate.” (Right?) But I don’t quite see what the RD issue has to do with that. The ambiguity (to my mind) is whether the “radically disadvantaged” issue arises within a state that has ex hypothesi solved the security problem, or one that hasn’t. In other words, is the problem that: you could have a state that “solved” the security problem (in some minimal, sort of equivocal sense of “solved”), but was then left with the remaining problem that, given that solution, some groups might still be radically disadvantaged? Or is the problem that the RD issue arises in quasi-states that haven’t solved the security problem at all? (The latter seems to be a trivial truth rather than an interesting problem.)

      If the first of those questions states the problem, however, I’m inclined to regard that formulation of the problem as misconceived. A situation in which there are groups that are radically disadvantaged with respect to security is precisely a situation in which the primary security problem has not be solved, except on an objectionably Hobbesian conception of the problem and its solution.

      I know this is my favorite go-to example, but if Israel annexed the West Bank, but refused to grant equal rights to the Palestinians there, and then increased its military presence there so as to “solve the security problem,” this would not accurately be described as a case of “solving the security problem, but being left with an RD problem.” It would be a case of not having solved the problem in the first place. The supposed “solution” in the case of “annexation plus increased military presence” is just an illusion–a very seductive illusion, but an illusion just the same. If you introduce a military occupation to solve a “security problem,” what you get is a certain degree of “security” that arises through terror-based deterrence: people are too afraid to act, a fortiori too afraid to create a “security problem.” But that’s a security problem of its own. You’ve just exchanged one problem for a different one, privileged one solution, and declared the problem “solved.”

      Controversial as it sounds to analytic ears, I don’t think you can properly conceive of “security problems” while bracketing rights. With a conception of rights in hand, you can ask what strikes me as the right question leading to the right solution: how do we solve the problem of respecting/defending everyone’s rights without violating them? But if you abstract from a conception of rights, it becomes unclear what problem you’re solving, and what counts as a solution. The default then becomes: how do you create a state of affairs in which there are no discernible signs of violence–setting aside the violence, whether discernible or not, needed to create the state of affairs itself? That doesn’t strike me as legitimate question, but it often seems implicit in philosophical discussions of this topic, particularly “tough minded” Hobbesian ones, where the “tough mindedness” supposedly consists in conceiving of the problem by bracketing “controversial” normative assumptions like “rights.” The result is just a version of the problem that makes controversial presuppositions about security.

      The same outlook is also implicit in the way people will evaluate particular cases. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered people who shrug their shoulders at Israeli military incursions into Palestinian towns (that’s “solving the security problem”), then get deeply bent out of shape when they see Palestinian kids throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers (that’s “the security problem in need of solution”). To refuse to conceptualize such encounters in terms of rights is like inferring causality from a correlation without caring about which variable is dependent and which is independent. “Does sunshine cause shadows, or do shadows cause sunshine? Aw, what difference does it make?”

      I have no idea whether I’m really dealing with anything central to the Williams piece. I guess I could read the damn thing and find out, but this method is easier.

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      • For Williams, solving the basic security problem is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the legitimacy of a state. And, though he does not bring up such cases, I’m pretty sure he would say that meeting BLD without solving the basic security problem is also necessary but insufficient (he seems to regard meeting BLD as a way of solving the basic security problem, but I don’t see why this would have to be so). I did interpret the RD scenario as one in which the basic security problem has not been solved for that portion of the people under the power of the state. I don’t know what he says or would say of a situation in which the basic security problem is solved but one group is at a significant disadvantage (as similar to being RD as possible without the basic security problem not being solved with respect to the RD folks). BW may disagree, but I’m in at least partial agreement with you: some moral obligations to each other (including obligations to respect rights) are prior to politics and the basic security problem is, in part, a problem of adequately protecting rights (even if it is not as simple as “the purpose of government is to protect rights that exist prior to government”).


    • By the way, it might be clarifying to read Williams’s critique of Nozick in this book. I don’t remember the exact title of the paper (don’t have the book here), but if I remember correctly, it discusses Nozick’s defense of the minimal state from a Lockean State of Nature, which at least touches on some of the issues you’re discussing in your posts.

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