To speak of this agreement as something for which the arguments are powerful and that should be widely accepted – one that is not affected by Hilary’s later broader arguments for pragmatism or by whether it is also part of a realist conception – I also call it a limited moral objectivity (about certain fundamental questions of life and well-being). Hilary has gone on to write brilliantly on the entanglement of fact and convention/theory and value in economics – and how true economic judgments about development are often also true moral judgements – with Vivian Walsh, Amartya Sen, and Martha Nussbaum.
To spell out an important continuity between this work in economics and some things I argue in democratic/social theory, Democratic Individuality proposes a broadly similar kind of thinking about justice in war and conflicts in social theory over the explanation of democracy and status, whether great powers represent the interests of their citizens or these citizens have common interests, across national borders, from below, and the relationship of state policies to a common good as opposed to a supposedly value-free legitimacy. Like Sen, Nussbaum, Putnam and Walsh, it advances an Aristotelian or eudaemonist conception of human capacities (the name democratic individuality means to capture what Sen calls the capability to participate in a democracy). To follow Hilary’s later title, the book also seeks to break down the misguided distinctions between ethics and political science/social science across the board, or to spell out the moral significance of glaring issues distorted or ignored in today’s empiricist jargon. That the prevailing arguments are not good is clear; that there are tremendous stakes, particularly for policy advisors and the powerful, in maintaining these errors is, unfortunately, also clear.
For given the immense suffering of war, all the killing particularly of innocents and children, Hilary points out that there must be a bright line, adopted because of or forced on leaders by their people, between war and peace. The decision to go to war ought to have a firewall before it. Now Hilary was under no illusions about how difficult this is; he celebrated, for example, the diverse mass movement from below that stopped Obama’s intervention in Syria. And if we look back at recent American history, many otherwise mainly honorable people if more deeply bewildered by power than others have become war criminals because there is no such firebreak (McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and of course. the names are easy to recite today, including my onetime student Condi Rice).
Also, he affirmed Heidegger’s judgment of Plato, against Putnam and Gilbert, while ignoring Heidegger’s Nazism. To say that this appeal to Oxonian authority, flamboyant demonstration of moral and philosophical ignorance, and lordly decree against a whole type of interpretation, one that Socrates spells out, for careful readers in Phaedrus(lines 275d-277a) , has no substance is, I am afraid, obvious. The exchange – Hilary called it “fascinating” – included many comments, and, in response, I wrote “Plato and the Consensus-police” here.