Political Responsibility

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Paul Ricoeur, the late French Philosopher, would have been fascinated by the twistings and turnings of current events in two of the bastions of political liberalism: the UK and the USA. His ethically based political theory reaches back to the Greeks and Aristotle, the Enlightenment and Kant, and engages with contemporary theories of Justice as manifested by the debates between Rawls and Nozick, Habermas and Gadamer. Ricoeur’s  primary claim is that Politics is vitally important to the well being of us all, yet it is simultaneously surprisingly fragile. Both of these factors, he argues entails that we owe it to politics to act and vote responsibly. In particular we owe a complex allegiance to our body politic which involves both respecting the status quo which has given us so much, and respecting those that criticize the status quo for its inadequacies to deliver the flourishing lives we all hope for.  Ricoeur analyses political discourse and finds a number of dialectical processes operating. Among them is that between  the utopia we hope for and the values of the ideological factors that constitute the status quo which historically has provided us with so much stability and prosperity. We need to maintain a delicate balance between these two factors in our political acts and political talk. Politics, he argues, is a unique arena which requires the mastery of a unique set of capacities amongst which good judgment and sound reasoning are paramount. Ricoeur refers to a number of  other paradoxes which constitute the fragility of political life including the problem of transference, i.e. the problem of people from other arenas of life bringing the capacities that they use in those arenas, into politics. Two  arenas which immediately spring to mind in relation to this point are the arenas of business with its practices of wheeling and dealing and contractual “interpretations” and the arenas of science with its theoretically oriented practices, manipulation of  variables and experimental reductionism and verification. To appreciate the differences for example between the business world and the political world it suffices to compare the stability and longevity of the institutions of  business (a company or a bank) with the longevity and stability of political institutions like the legislative system or the educational system.Running a country is nothing like running a chain of hotels. Ricoeur’s criticisms of populism would point to the role of facts in the sound reasoning process. Without facts which by definition are true beliefs, reasoning cannot proceed to sound conclusions. Subjecting facts to an “interpretative process” might enable voters to vote for popular people with what they perceive to be unique interpretative and rhetorical abilities but time is going to reveal the consequences of such voting for the political system. Some commentators are arguing that we can forget about the dialectic between  a better more hopeful future and the present status quo. What is at stake is a dismantling of the political status quo in favor of an economic roller coaster ride ending at an unknown destination.

Such is the fragility of the political process and the nature of our responsibility toward it.