Interpreting Political Responsibility

Interpreting Political Responsibility: Essays 1981-1989

John Dunn
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    Interpreting Political Responsibility
    Book Description:

    In this volume one of the leading political theorists of our time addresses what he believes is the major task of political theory: showing human beings how they have good reason to act in the historical situation in which they find themselves. Dunn argues that humans today depend more abjectly and extensively than ever before on the capacity of some of our number for skillful political action. There are many reasons for this dependence: closely linked nuclear-threat and financial systems, massive trade flows that sustain or imperil the well-being of all modern populations, and the awesome scale of the unintended ecological effects of human production. Why has modern political theory failed to relate these factors systematically to one another and to provide people with adequate reasons for action? To answer this twin query, Dunn brilliantly deploys the resources of the historical development of Western political thinking, in counterpoint with some of the main lessons of international political economy.

    The concluding essay reasserts that the classical virtue of prudence has a central place in contemporary politics. The conditions of modern politics, it maintains, require the exercise of prudence not merely by political, military, and economic leaders, but also by the populace at large. Overall, this selection of Dunn's most influential work of the past decade reflects his remarkable range of interestsincluding Locke's ideological importance, the nature of trust in politics, rights, liberty, responsibility at a national level, postcolonial African politics, and political community. The book will be required reading for students from a variety of disciplines.

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6145-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Whatever else it may be, every modern state, at every point in its history, is both a strenuous ideological fiction and an eminently practical reality. Whatever else may be true about them, the vast majority of the human inhabitants of the modern world are each a subject of a particular modern state. (Woe to those who are not.) All modern states link rulers and ruled in a relation of assumed intimacy and massive social distance, the assumed intimacy for the most part representing the ideological fiction and the massive social distance the practical reality. But most modern states also describe...

  5. 2 What is Living and What is Dead in the Political Theory of John Locke?
    (pp. 9-25)

    I would like to begin by making clear that my argument as a whole is in effect a repudiation of a single (and peculiarly ill-considered) sentence in the preface to the book about Locke which I published twenty-one years ago.¹ I begin in this way because what led me to make this all too exposing avowal in the first place was a misunderstanding which has some more general importance.

    The offending sentence itself is dismayingly unequivocal. It reads blankly ‘I simply cannot conceive of constructing an analysis of any issue in contemporary political theory around the affirmation or negation of...

  6. 3 Trust and Political Agency
    (pp. 26-44)

    Trust is both a human passion and a modality of human action – a more or less consciously chosen policy for handling the freedom of other human agents or agencies. As a passion, a sentiment, it can be evanescent or durable. But as a modality of action it is essentially concerned with coping with uncertainty over time.¹ A human passion, let us agree with David Hume, is an original existence.² Human beings can certainly affect their own feelings through time, by more or less ingenious strategic dispositions.³ But they cannot at a particular time simply choose these feelings. In contrast – and...

  7. 4 Rights and Political Conflict
    (pp. 45-60)

    In the course of the last three decades the concept of rights has come to play an increasingly prominent role in Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy. Over much the same period of time it has also come to play an increasingly prominent role in the domestic political conflicts of the United States of America and in the litany of (all too well-founded) political complaint at the governmental practices of communist states and of military and civil dictatorships throughout the world. There are clearly numerous connections between these three trajectories of discourse and understanding. In the case of some of the major recent...

  8. 5 Liberty as a Substantive Political Value
    (pp. 61-84)

    There is at least one major chasm in the historical understanding of liberty as a substantive political value: a distinction drawn in the famous terms of Benjamin Constant between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns, between rights of public agency and rights of private enjoyment. Somewhat elusively related to this chasm, there is also a second distinction, urged most notably by Isaiah Berlin,² between negative liberties of non-interference and positive liberties for the development of some set of powers or potentialities held to be of overriding value for a particular agent, or perhaps for all human...

  9. 6 Revolution
    (pp. 85-99)

    The imaginative setting of the concept of revolution was initially provided by the development of theoretical astronomy. But its modern political force has come principally from the massive historical impact of two great political convulsions, the French revolution of 1789–94 and the second Russian revolution of 1917, the October revolution, which founded the modern Soviet state.

    The tension between the distanced and plainly suprahuman necessitarian frame of its initial meaning and the vividly agonistic political turmoil of its most important modern instances has left the modern conception of revolution in a sorry state. Partly its present analytical debility has...

  10. 7 Country Risk: Social and Cultural Aspects
    (pp. 100-122)

    Among the components of what bankers and corporate investors now analyze as ‘country risk’, the categories of political and social or cultural risk are of special interest for any social or political theorist. Country risk in the first instance may be seen simply as a type of risk faced by an international capital investment, loan, or export sale, not because of the properties of the factor markets concerned or the capacity to pay or repay of the foreign borrower or buyer, but because of the character of social and political relations in the country in question and because of the...

  11. 8 Responsibility without Power: States and the Incoherence of the Modern Conception of the Political Good
    (pp. 123-141)

    Whatever else they may be thought to constitute, and whatever causal role they should be judged to play in the shaping of modern human existence, states today are certainly entities in an endlessly reiterated system of international legal relations. Much of what happens in the world today plainly does not conform to the explicit requirements of this system (consider the vicissitudes of the hapless inhabitants of Afghanistan, El Salvador or Nicaragua). Most of what happens in the world cannot be economically and deftly understood as a direct causal product of explicit features of this system: the deliberate permissions, voluntary acts...

  12. 9 The Politics of Representation and Good Government in Post-colonial Africa
    (pp. 142-160)

    There are at least two perspectives in which it is both natural and appropriate to consider the political character of African states. The first is the retrospective perspective of causal explanation. The second is the partially retrospective, but always also at least partly forward-looking, perspective of political appraisal. The former is firmly a perspective of theoretical reason; the latter, equally firmly, a perspective of practical reason.¹ Much of the history of western philosophy has been devoted to the more or less forlorn effort to establish quite how in the last instance the two relate to one another.² Unsurprisingly, understanding of...

  13. 10 Unger’s Politics and the Appraisal of Political Possibility
    (pp. 161-178)

    What really is politically possible? How different, over any given period of time, could our collective social and political life be caused to become? Just how is it epistemically appropriate and humanly decent to conceive political possibility?

    There are few, if any, questions about the meaning of human existence in which the link between personal temperament and cognitive style are as direct and intimate as they are in the case of our conceptions of what really is politically and socially possible. To equate our more edifying desires with the possible consequences of our political actions is merely an agreeable exercise...

  14. 11 Elusive Community: The Political Theory of Charles Taylor
    (pp. 179-192)

    In the introduction to the two volumes of his collectedPhilosophical PapersCharles Taylor describes himself, rather engagingly, as a monomaniac.¹ Only someone with a range of interests and of knowledge as broad as his own would be likely to sense a need to insist on their underlying unity in contrast with their ‘appearance of variety’.² Both emphases, however, certainly have their force. To say, as he does, that the set of papers collected addresses a rather tightly related agenda³ is to say a good deal more than simply that they all reflect the preoccupations of a single energetically self-interpreting...

  15. 12 Reconceiving the Content and Character of Modern Political Community
    (pp. 193-215)

    The purpose of political theory is to diagnose practical predicaments and to show us how best to confront them.¹ To do this it needs to train us in three relatively distinct skills: firstly in ascertaining how the social, political and economic setting of our lives now is and in understanding why it is as it is; secondly in working through for ourselves how we could coherently and justifiably wish that world to be or become; and thirdly in judging how far, and through what actions, and at what risk, we can realistically hope to move this world as it now...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 216-263)
  17. Index
    (pp. 264-274)