- In Search of Universal Political Principles:Avoiding Some of Modernity's Pitfalls and Discovering the Importance of Liberal Political Order
Although it is necessary for the truth of a cognition that the cognition answer to the thing known, still it is not necessary that the mode of the thing known be the same as the mode of its cognition.—Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, II, 75
The only safe way to apply Kant's test of universalizability is to envisage the act in its whole concrete particularity.—Sir David Ross, Kant's Ethical Theory
In our recent work, Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics, 1 we discovered, while arguing for the moral necessity of a political/legal order whose fundamental structural principles are individual negative rights, that there is much confusion about the role of universality in ethics and political philosophy. Moreover, we discovered that the role of universality varied greatly depending, not only on how one conceived the nature of what is good and obligatory, but also on how one conceived deeper issues in philosophy. We were thus drawn to questions about the nature of ethics, and the difference between practical and epistemic universals.
As a result, when asked to consider what might be the basis for universal ethical and political principles, we find ourselves asking, first, what it is that makes universality so important, and what its proper place is in ethical and political philosophy. It is our contention that the search for universal political principles needs to be put in its proper context if there is to be any chance of finding such principles, and this requires first rediscovering some of the insights inspired by the Aristotelian tradition regarding knowledge in general and ethical knowledge in particular. We need to free ourselves from the following four interrelated epistemological and meta-ethical constraints of Modernity: (1) that, in order for ethical claims to qualify as knowledge, they must have the same form as those of theoretical science; (2) that universality is necessary for objectivity; (3) that universality is a substitute for objectivity; and (4) that the ethical is essentially legislative. This essay builds on the defense of a classical liberal political order we set forth in Norms of Liberty, focusing here on the groundwork that we consider critical to the advancement of universal claims in politics and ethics.
Ethical Knowledge Distinguished from Theoretical Knowledge
Liberation from the four constraints depends upon a proper understanding of the nature of ethical knowledge. Theoretical (or speculative) knowledge is concerned with that which does not change or what is the same from instance to instance—with the necessary and universal. Ethical knowledge, on the other hand, is practical in nature, its object being to guide an individual's conduct. Because circumstances vary and individuals are unique, principles within the realm of ethics issue in what is contingent and particular. Ethical propositions cannot be invariably replicated across diverse individuals. While universal applicability may be a mark of success within the realm of theoretical knowledge, it is a mark of misunderstanding in ethics, failing to properly consider the variant circumstances and individuality of persons.
As we explain in detail elsewhere, 2 the basic "generic" goods (such as knowledge, friendship, health, and pleasure) and basic "generic" virtues (such as temperance, integrity, and justice) that constitute human flourishing do not have form and reality until individualized in light of the circumstances, talents, endowments, interests, beliefs, and histories that descriptively characterize the individual—what we call a person's nexus. Such individualization is an exercise of the virtue of practical wisdom, and this virtue only manifests itself at the time of action and never apart from the agency of the individual. 3 Moreover, human flourishing requires that there be different concrete forms of flourishing. There can be no such thing as an abstract understanding of the human good unless there are first many concrete forms of it.
This does not mean, however, that individuals do not still have reasons for seeking, and the capability of attaining, [End Page 79] knowledge of ethical universals. One discovers in what one's good consists in a particular...