Rationalism in politics and other essays

What, in contradistinction to a representation of classes, every rational person does wish to see exemplified in Parliament, is not the interests, but the peculiar position, and opportunities of knowledge, of all the classes whom the theory enumerates, and many more; not in order that partial interests may, but in order that they may not, be consulted. The first desideratum is, to place every member of the legislature under the most complete responsibility to the community at large, which the state of civilization of the community renders consistent with other necessary ends. The second is, to compose the legislature, in as large a proportion as possible, of persons so highly cultivated, intellectually and morally, as to be free from narrow or partial views, and from any peculiar bias. But as such persons are rarely to be found in sufficient numbers, it is doubtless desirable that the remainder of the body should be of as miscellaneous a composition as possible (consistently with accountability to the people), in order that the twist of one person may be neutralized by the contrary twist of another; and if the individuals must be biassed, the evil be at least avoided of having them all biassed one way. An indistinct perception of this truth, is what gives all its plausibility to the doctrine of class-representation. But the principle thus stated, needs no especial provision to be made for it in a scheme of representation. The diversity of local circumstances, and the varying spirit of local constituencies, provide for it sufficiently.

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Seen this way, we find a remarkable consistency in Weber’sthought. Weber’s main problematic turned on the question ofindividual autonomy and freedom in an increasingly rationalizedsociety. His dystopian and pessimistic assessment of rationalizationdrove him to search for solutions through politics and science, whichbroadly converge on a certain practice of the self. What hecalled the “person of vocation,” first outlined famouslyin The Protestant Ethic, provided a bedrock for his variousefforts to resuscitate a character who can willfully combineunflinching conviction and methodical rationality even in a societybesieged by bureaucratic petrification and value fragmentation. It isalso in this entrenched preoccupation with an ethical characterologyunder modern circumstances that we find the source of his enduringinfluences on twentieth-century political and social thought.

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Lewis was a man of Mill’s own age, equipped with similar precocious erudition, and of utilitarian sympathies. His book dealt with the relation of logic to politics, a topic in which Mill was then too deeply interested to treat casually. Two years later he confessed to Carlyle that his review was an outgrowth from his own mind and the truest he had ever written—that is, it was no mere product of an orthodox utilitarian schooling. He commended Lewis’s attempt to bring a lucid logic into the language of politics, since slovenly thinking and equivocal words were together the bane of political discussion. But he took strong exception to certain points, of which the most important concerned rights. Lewis, following his teacher John Austin, argued that all rights are creations of law and the will of the sovereign. To call anything a right which is not enforceable in the courts is an abuse of language. In contrast Mill emphasized the reality of moral rights. He contended that, in saying that no man has a moral right to think as he pleases, for he ought to inform himself and think justly, Dr. Johnson refers to a right Lewis evidently fails to comprehend. Yet for Mill a right in the Johnsonian sense is no abuse of terms; it is good logic and good English. Rights are the correlatives of obligations and duties, and moral as well as legal rights have a necessary and significant place in the contemporary state. It is a moral right of subjects to be well-governed and a moral duty of the sovereign to govern well. The focus of this criticism is the mischief inherent in unduly simplified and inflexible concepts. Mill reacts here against the rigidity of some utilitarian logicians. His further complaint concerned the apparent and unjustified contempt with which Lewis disposed of Locke and Rousseau for assuming an unhistorical and fictitious state of nature and a social contract. Mill believed that it was inconsequential whether anything like a state of nature existed. The real issue was the extent to which as an hypothesis it shed light on the fact of a morality outside the law to which men could appeal. To Mill as to Locke such morality was important. Independent states in relations with one another remained in a state of nature, without a common superior, but responsive to moral obligations and duties. However unskilfully formulated, the old theories of the social contract and the inalienable rights of man in Mill’s opinion had a rightful place in the evolution of political liberty and justice by indicating a pragmatic limit on the power of the sovereign. He concluded his review of Lewis’s book by emphasizing the necessity of recognizing, despite all the linguistic differences, the close relationship between ideas of different political thinkers, and also the possibility of combining them into a whole.

Rationalism in politics and other essays / Main Author: Oakeshott, Michael Joseph, 1901-
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If it is asserted that all persons ought to be equal in every description of right recognized by society, I answer, not until all are equal in worth as human beings. It is the fact, that one person is as good as another; and it is reversing all the rules of rational conduct, to attempt to raise a political fabric on a supposition which is at variance with fact Putting aside for the present the consideration of moral worth, . . . a person who cannot read, is not as good, for the purpose of human life, as one who can.

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It is necessary to observe that by Democracy M. de Tocqueville does not in general mean any particular form of government. He can conceive a Democracy under an absolute monarch. Nay, he entertains no small dread lest in some countries it should actually appear in that form. By Democracy, M. de Tocqueville understands equality of conditions; the absence of all aristocracy, whether constituted by political privileges, or by superiority in individual importance and social power. It is towards Democracy in this sense, towards equality between man and man, that he conceives society to be irresistibly tending. Democracy in the other, and more common sense, it may or may not be travelling. Equality of conditions tends naturally to produce a popular government, but not necessarily. Equality may be equal freedom, or equal servitude. America is the type of the first; France, he thinks, is in danger of falling into the second. The latter country is in the condition which, of all that civilized societies are liable to, he regards with the greatest alarm—a democratic state of society without democratic institutions. For, in democratic institutions, M. de Tocqueville sees not an aggravation, but a corrective, of the most serious evils incident to a democratic state of society. No one is more opposed than he is to that species of democratic radicalism, which would admit at once to the highest of political franchises, untaught masses who have not yet been experimentally proved fit even for the lowest. But the ever-increasing intervention of the people, and of all classes of the people, in their own affairs, he regards as a cardinal maxim in the modern art of government: and he believes that the nations of civilized Europe, though not all equally advanced, are all advancing, towards a condition in which there will be no distinctions of political rights, no great or very permanent distinctions of hereditary wealth; when, as there will remain no classes nor individuals capable of making head against the government, unless all are, and are fit to be, alike citizens, all will ere long be equally slaves.

APA Citation. Oakeshott, Michael Joseph. (1991) Rationalism in politics and other essays /Indianapolis : Liberty Fund, MLA Citation

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Yet despite his genuine zeal, Mill found the task of trying to achieve unity among the Radicals frustrating. They were splintered into stubborn factions, and no parliamentary leader with the requisite qualities emerged to unite them. They constituted a party of many lieutenants without a general. For a short interval Mill pinned his hopes on Lord Durham, who left the Whig ministry, undertook the Canadian mission, surrounded himself with Radical advisers like Charles Buller and Gibbon Wakefield, and produced a report that was a Radical rather than a Whig or Tory document. But Mill’s hopes and designs for Durham’s leadership or indeed for the future of the party were soon shattered by adverse events, including the serious illness and death of Durham and Mill’s own inability to sustain much longer the heavy financial and other burdens of the the organ for radical causes. By 1840 he had virtually ceased to be a leading counsellor to Radical politicians, although his interest in utilitarian reform continued unabated.