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August 29, 2020

On Mercy

Louis Fletcher, a fellow of CRITIQUE, interviews Malcolm Bull on his recently published book, On Mercy (Princeton University Press, 2019).

LF: On Mercy is an original and incisive contribution to political theory, but you are perhaps best known as a distinguished historian of art. Would you be able to say something briefly about your turn to political theory over recent years, and where On Mercy fits into that trajectory, next to what you have written on Nietzsche, levelling, slack and other topics?

MB: On Mercy is perhaps less of a departure than it might appear. Its themes relate quite closely to certain strands in Nietzsche, in particular to his claim that the logical conclusion of the herd morality would be a society that does not punish and sides with those harm it. In Anti-Nietzsche (2011), I argue that such a society embodies a strategy, ‘reading like a loser’, that represents a more thoroughgoing nihilism than Nietzsche could accept. On Mercy is in many ways a continuation of that argument. It suggests that rather than being a reductio ad absurdum, siding with those who would harm you through acting mercifully is actually the basis for the temporary interludes of peace that occur in the struggle for power. The perspective here is that of Bernard Williams’s political realism, and as a result the terms in which the argument is made are very different. But rather as Anti-Nietzsche engaged with Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, and then with post-Heideggerians like Nancy, Vattimo, and Agamben, On Mercy’s (sometimes unacknowledged) interlocutors are Nietzsche-influenced Anglo-American philosophers like Rorty, Williams, and Geuss. I see it as a parallel project to the earlier one.

Another stimulus was, of course, the ongoing debate about global justice. I wrote something about Mathias Risse’s work which, in retrospect, made me realise that the Rawlsian framework does not work well at a global level let alone for future generations. Thinking about alternatives took me to Sen’s Idea of Justice which, without realising it, seems to be gently turning the whole argument about justice back in the direction of mercy. Nussbaum’s work also points in that direction, but neither of them can quite let go of Rawls.

LF: You write that ‘for almost two millennia in Europe, the idea that mercy might constitute a significant portion of what we are looking for from politics was taken for granted’. Why was mercy eclipsed by justice during the Enlightenment?

MB: That’s a complex historical question and I don’t attempt to answer it fully in the book. At one point I was planning to discuss it in rather more detail, but Tuckness and Parrish’s The Decline of Mercy in Public Life covers the ground quite well and I didn’t want to replicate what they had done. One way of interpreting the change is in terms of the wider shift from the passions to the interests that Albert Hirschman talks about in relation to the rise of capitalism. That certainly fits with Bernard Harcourt’s study of Beccaria in The Illusion of Free Markets, but there’s potential for a lot more work to be done on this question at the intersection of legal, economic, and intellectual history.

LF: Bernard Williams argues that a coercive power that terrorises its own people collapses into the problem to which politics is supposed to be the solution: war. You adopt this framework but make the case that it is not legitimacy which distinguishes politics from war, as Williams would have it, but mercy. Legitimacy is not necessary for politics because naked forms of domination like slavery have endured uncontested for centuries without any justification, and not sufficient for politics because civil wars have frequently erupted without any challenge to prevailing justifications of authority. Yet it is possible to read Williams as making a claim about the values immanent within politics itself, and not an explanatory claim that coercive systems endure when and for as long as they are legitimate. Why should the two coincide?

MB: There’s a distinction to be made between what Williams calls the ‘first political question’ which is whether or not the power of coercion has transcended the conditions of warfare, and subsequent political questions which depend on the way that first question has been answered. The ‘first political question’ is therefore not a question within politics, it is the one that determines whether we are talking about politics at all. According to Williams, it is answered by having ‘something to say’ and giving ‘reasons for stopping warfare’. But for a realist there is no way of telling if those reasons are good enough unless the warfare actually stops. And in practice, having ‘something to say’ just doesn’t seem to make much difference, certainly far less than the degree of cruelty with which the power of coercion is exercised. People can put up with domination for a while without in any sense conferring legitimacy on those who exercise power over them. And they are moved to rebel by egregious cruelty far more easily than by incoherent justification.

LF: For Shklar and Williams the aim of politics is to meet a threshold. In Shklar’s case that threshold was set by a negative standard of freedom, for Williams it was set by legitimacy. This is a vision of politics as a kind of solid plateau, a level which can be determinately reached, that can remain stable for long periods of time, and that does not contain any principle of movement. Mercy seems to give us a different view of politics. Rule by the powerful always invites resistance, and can only be sustained if the level of harm inflicted on the weak is constantly reduced. In this sense, politics is nothing other than a cascading process of levelling. What are the implications of seeing politics as a process of this kind, and does this process lead beyond mercy itself, to a negative community where all power imbalances are melted away?

MB: That’s certainly the implication of the argument, and it isn’t a very reassuring one for politics as political theorists normally think of it. But it takes seriously the radical contingency of the world, which we can ignore only by narrowing our perspective to tiny populations and slices of history. Shklar and Williams both write very eloquently about this, but they then revert to ideas about justice and legitimacy that have little purchase in the world they describe. On Mercy does not take for granted that politics is about human beings, let alone secure, autonomous, rational human beings acting together simultaneously. Like a premodern political theology, it tries to address an ontologically plural world across time, in which vast discrepancies in power might easily lead to the annihilation of entire populations. In this context, war not politics is the norm, and politics describes only those passages where the weak are able to improve their lot at the expense of the powerful without total opposition. Politics thus becomes a trajectory rather than a state. The advantage of this account, unlike ones that rely on justice or legitimacy, is that it is potentially applicable to any power relationship whatsoever, equally adapted to our potential relationships with superintelligent robots as to other species of animal.

 The question of whether this account of politics has an implied outcome is an interesting one which I haven’t really thought much about. It is a non-ideal theory designed to be applicable to a world ruled by chance and exogenous shocks in which outcomes are unpredictable, but if it were to run as an artificial simulation with no external interference it would presumably lead to an egalitarian equilibrium.

LF: One of the most thought-provoking theses of On Mercy is that humans are waging an unrelenting war against other species. If animals cannot fight back, however, do we have a specifically political rationale to stem the bloodshed?

MB: The one thing a specifically political theory more or less has to assume is that politics is not war (i.e. it is not a relationship mediated through power and violence alone), and that politics is preferable to war. Unless you build in other assumptions, there is no reason not to take that preference as the default position wherever there is potential for harm of the kind that war might do. The potential exists whenever some have power over others. When the powerful do less harm than they might, or normally do, then that’s mercy – a step away from war and towards politics. However, the result will not be something other than war unless the weak stop fighting too. But this assumes that the weak actually have the potential to fight back. If they do not, then the outcome is war tempered by mercy, rather than politics per se. In such cases, the weak require virtual representatives who can act in their interests and, if necessary, fight for them in order to stand in a specifically political relationship to those who have power over them. On this basis, animals, future generations etc. all require virtual representatives who act in their interests for politics to be possible.

LF: You see mercy as an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal virtue. While the powerful are obliged to reduce the harm they inflict on the weak, the weak have no corresponding obligation. In your view they may do more harm than they might when it is in their interests – presumably to disassemble the power they exist at the mercy of – but they cannot establish new forms of ‘power over’ their rulers without threatening war. What range of actions exist in the space between these two standards, and is this an argument for non-violent resistance?

MB: It depends on the circumstances. A longstanding criticism of mercy is that it reduces its recipients from citizens to subjects and deprives them of their rights, and it’s not unfounded. But the flipside of this is that no one has any sort of rights over you either, they only have power and you are free to resist that power because it is just power and in no sense legitimate. It might be exercised sufficiently mercifully for you to tolerate it without much resistance, but being subject to someone else’s power, while to some degree unavoidable is also undesirable, and in the end everyone who is subject to power offers resistance of some sort. By definition, a politics founded in mercy requires whoever has power over to be merciful, but whoever is subject to power can offer any form of resistance that falls short of war (otherwise we are talking about war not politics). Other things being equal, the conjunction of the two will eventually result in overpowering, in which case the roles are reversed. So, establishing new forms of power over is possible without war. How much resistance is required to effect that change depends on the power differential and the extent of the mercy shown by the powerful.