Slouching Toward Realpolitik: Public Reason as Political Morality


            This paper develops an account of public reason driven by refined concepts of power.  Two grand accounts of power and morality are found in Machiavelli’s Prince and Hobbes’s Leviathan.  Machiavelli suggests that the exercise of political power can legitimately invert moral rules and principles, an experience that occasionally produces a political morality discontinuous with conventional morality.  The other account is based on an argument developed by Hobbes in the Leviathan that supreme power is the only effective guarantee of security and security is the great enabling good that makes it rational to be moral.  Then there is the reality that some political terms contain moral components, indicating a moral naturalism as a source of political values.  Finally, when the landscape has been cleared of external values, a part of the logic of public reason is crafted by indigenous laws of large numbers that complement the thin moral naturalism in politics.


Moral Inflections: Freestanding Political Languages


            The core proposal in this paper is that there is a freestanding or detached political language in the practice of politics, one shaped by power and numerical magnitudes, and presenting indigenous political moralities.  Among the prominent goods and conditions defining political morality in this language are enabling goods like security and stability, primary goods like life, more explicitly moral terms like equity, prudential goods like property, honor, special forms of efficiency – a set of generalizable conditions that, when embedded, realized, in political arrangements, express the fusion of morality and power found in viable political systems.  One implication of the thin moral naturalism outlined here is that it diminishes the need for external moralities like just war doctrines, natural laws, universal ethics, perhaps human rights – terms that are widely regarded as assets for political communities, representing the products of the long historical missions to resolve political disputes and address moral deficits by invoking distinguished external and even transcendent ideals.  A freestanding political language, by contrast, identifies moralities within the defining logic of politics itself.

Pathways to Eden

The second research program I am currently reviving is drawn from my love affair with fiction. For the record, my first published work (except for high school journalism) was a short story I wrote in the summer after graduating from high school.  Currently I am preoccupied with the powers of fiction not just as an instrument (in the traditional sense) to intensify experience but as a legitimate framework to elaborate and also interpret history.  (Can the transition of Italy to a modern state be fully appreciated without reading Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard?)   Some examples from my own work:  My first of three books with the University of Chicago Press was a 5-month ethnographic study of decision making in an intensive care neonatal nursery.   This book, Special Care, is in the form of a daily narrative.  Another book with Chicago, Healing Powers, a study of alternative medicine and spiritual healing, and the legal issues occasioned by such practices, contains robust material -- theory, case studies, interviews, broad histories of healing practices -- all organized with the instrument of a disembodied healing voice.  In my last book, Beyond: On Life After Death, I employ alternate fictional chapters depicting a dinner party in which the guests relate their experiences with the supernatural.  The book itself is a critical inspection of the evidence for life after death (especially the near-death experience and the various claims and theories of reincarnation).  In fact I regard this book as primarily a study in scope and logic, an examination of research methods (yes, rules of evidence, inference, and argument) as they are assigned to what can be called metaphysical items and issues.  The fictional dinner party scenes are devices to expand on the themes of the documentary chapters by using fiction as a different venue.  I have been greatly encouraged by the fact that top editors at elite university presses – Chicago and Kansas -- never blinked at my uses of fictional techniques in nonfiction books. Now I am relying more directly on fiction to present and explore reproductive cloning, political movements, and human relationships in general.


            Pathways to Eden is a 3-narrative novel arranged in the venerable traditions of ensemble works --- books, for example, by Dos Passos (U.S.A.), Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), DeLillo (Libra), Doctorow (Ragtime – and so much else), Didion (Play it as it Lays, The Year of Magical Thinking), Stoppard, (Arcadia – aplay), Byatt, Possession, and films that include “Paths of Glory,”  “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Conversation,”  “21 Grams,” “Babel,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Grand Canyon,” “Third Person” – in general, books and films that negotiate experience with a set of distinct frameworks that on occasion explore actual events and present real-world characters.

            The first narrative here, in my novel, is the story of a biochemist who, grieving for a sister killed in an auto accident, joins a radical but generously funded and technically competent research team engaged in reproductive cloning of a religious messiah using DNA taken from the Shroud of Turin.  Her private goal is to clone her dead sister.  The second narrative is the story of a university professor who loses his 13-year-old daughter early one evening around Leicester Square in London.  When he finds her later in the evening after a frantic search of venues in the city, he slowly comes to believe over the next several weeks that it is not his daughter he has found but someone or something else.  The third narrative is what Pauline Kael used to call a “kiss, kiss, bang, bang” story, this one of a group of Cuban-American assassins in Miami and the Law Professor who tries to stop them.  If we surgically remove and shape the themes organizing each story, they are (in order) spiritualism and reincarnation via biotechnology, the supernatural in the form of (possibly) alien possession, and the political extended to revolutionary violence.

            Two of the stories converge as the novel progresses.  The literary style supplies movement, Michael Mann on speed in some sections of the text, but also employs stasis at other points to slow the action in the guise of rest stops in the story lines.  I have written a book that moves along consistently at a brisk pace so that, even when the reader is catching her breath at what she thinks is a respite, events are progressing nicely.  The ending of the novel (like a typical Ibsen play) indicates moral hazards and robust dividends permutated differently over futures for each of the two surviving couples.

            The novel has 41 chapters and currently consists of roughly 134,000 words.  The author regards the book as the first in a series of novels that focus on the supernatural, with special concerns for the standing of the human individual in a future populated in part by reproduced clones and aliens from alternative realities.

            Finally, yes, the first few sentences in chapter eleven --- that open Part Two of the novel -- pay homage to Joan Didion’s novel, Play it as it Lays.  That I used Prospero instead of Iago as a figure to frame a scene or two can be explained in two ways: timing and need.  I chose second (by almost 50 years), at which time Ms. Didion had long ago summoned Iago for literary duties.  But, of more importance, I did not need a depiction of quiet and inexplicable rage, possibly even revenge, but rather the rendition of a supernatural event.  Prospero of course serves this purpose.  Even so those sentences represent my great affection and admiration for Joan Didion’s novel.