Thursday, January 4, 2018

Luis Villoro's Power and Value: Fundamentals of a Political Ethic

In El poder y el valor: Fundamentos de una ética política (1997, not yet published in English), Luis Villoro is concerned with the relation between political power and moral values. He explores the question of whether there is any necessary opposition between the will to power and the realization of the good. He also explores the question of how political power may be combined with moral values in order to promote the interests of the whole of society.
      The first part of the book outlines a general theory of value. The three following parts describe three different ways of defining the relation between political power and moral values. The first way is to delineate the characteristics of political action, in which the relation between power and value converges with two distinct forms of rationality: instrumental and evaluative. The second way is to describe political change from the standpoint of the relation between social morality and the ethical proposals of politics. The third way is to describe the aims of the two previous approaches, namely, to describe the particular values and kinds of political association they aim to realize.1
      Villoro says that, as a first approximation, we may understand “value” as the characteristics of an object or situation that cause us to have a favorable attitude toward it.2 A favorable attitude toward an object may have a reverse aspect: a perception that the object is lacking something valuable.3 "Value" is then whatever alleviates a deprivation, placates the tension of desire, fulfills a longing, or returns plenitude to a lacking world. The realization of value in a particular good suspends (at least partially and temporarily) the perception that it may also be lacking something valuable.
      Value may be intrinsic or extrinsic, but some objects may be both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable, i.e. they may be both valuable in themselves and valuable insofar as they enable us to obtain other objects, states, etc. that are valuable.
      Villoro explains that there are at least four kinds of valid reasons to doubt the reality of an experience of value: (1) sufficient reasons to believe that it has been produced by a distortion or disruption of reliable faculties of perception, (2) sufficient reasons to believe that it has been produced by subjective alterations of actual reality, (3) sufficient reasons to believe that it is motivated by beliefs that are insufficiently justified, and (4) prior beliefs that are objectively justified and that contradict it.
      The boundary between reasonable belief and knowledge cannot be precisely determined, says Villoro. Objective knowledge may be no more than the limit to which beliefs based on more or less sufficient reasons extend.4 Thus, beliefs about value, even when based on sufficient reasons, may not provide us with complete certainty.
      To depart from the first approximation to the meaning of value (“value” as a term for a positive attitude toward something), we need to distinguish between those judgments that declare that an object is considered to be valuable by a particular subject and those that assert that the object is valuable independently of the attitude of a particular subject. A particular subject may affirm without contradicting herself that “I know x is valuable, but I don’t feel any esteem or admiration for it,” or “I should admire or appreciate x, but it’s too bad that I’m incapable of doing so!”5 We must therefore distinguish between subjective and objective value.
      If an object’s value is purely instrumental, then its desirability is conditioned by the choice of the end that it serves. Thus, if x leads to y, and S desires y, then S should choose x (if the word “should” is taken to have a purely instrumental meaning). But if this instrumental rule is valid for every subject under determinate conditions, then every subject becomes a member of a collectivity for whom x is now an objective value, and the instrumental rule is converted into an unconditional norm, insofar as it provides a universal guide for action. The conjunction of such norms constitutes an ethic. Ethical norms may therefore be seen as precepts for the realization of objective values.6
      The term “value” may thus be used in at least two senses. As a first approximation, we may say that a value is the intentional object of a positive attitude, i.e. that which is desired or admired by a particular subject. As a second approximation, we may say that it is that which is desirable or admirable for any subject under determinate conditions. The attribution of subjective value to an object indicates that the object is desired or admired by a particular subject, while the attribution of objective value to it indicates that it is desirable or admirable independently of being seen as such by any particular subject.7
      Values may sometimes conflict with, or be opposed to, one another. The realization of one value may sometimes come at the cost of the realization of other values. A hierarchy of values may therefore have to be established in order for us to determine those that are most important for us to realize.8
      A political ethic deals most importantly with values that satisfy the general interest of society as a whole by encouraging social cooperation and promoting the common good. The major tasks of a political ethic are therefore (1) to determine the common values that are worthy of being esteemed by any individual, (2) to show that those values have been chosen for objective reasons, and (3) to indicate the regulative principles of political action so that those principles may be realized.9
      According to Villoro, there is in fact an implicit ethic in any political discourse. In any political text (speech, document, proclamation, manifesto, or party program), we may encounter two types of language, which may often be intermingled and confused with each other. The first is justificatory, the second explicative. Justificatory discourse engages practical reason, and it may be expressed in an ethics of political action. Explicative discourse puts into effect both theoretical reasoning about facts and instrumental reasoning about the relation between means and ends.10
      Ethical movements in the field of politics have always wanted to limit the power of the state, says Villoro. Because of the inevitably corrupting nature of power, imposed power may always exceed the end that justifies it. But the attempt to end oppression may also require power. How then can the circle of power and domination be broken?
       “Counterpower” (contrapoder) may be an effective means of halting the excesses and abuses of power, says Villoro. Counterpower replaces intolerance with tolerance, conflict with cooperation, and confrontation with negotiation and dialogue. Its ultimate goal is the abolition of imposed power. While this goal may never be fully achieved, counterpower may still effectively restrain and control political power.11 It is not an imposition of power, nor is it a will to power. It is rather a resistance to imposed power, and to the will to power.
      According to the function they serve, political ideologies may be divided into those that reinforce an existing system of power and those that subvert or disrupt it. The first may be described as reiterative, the second as subversive or disruptive. What makes an ideology reiterative or disruptive may depend on the function it performs in a particular society, rather than on the particular content of its doctrines. For example, a nationalist ideology may be reiterative of a totalitarian system of power, but subversive of a colonialist system of power. A socialist ideology may be reiterative of a socialist system of power, but subversive of a capitalist system of power.12
      Some ideologies may be more pragmatic than theoretical, while others may be more theoretical than pragmatic. Between those that are predominantly theoretical and those that are predominantly pragmatic, there may be intermediate cases.
      According to the function they perform, “pragmatic” ideologies may be reiterative or disruptive of a system of domination. The same may be said of “theoretical” or “doctrinal” ideologies.13
      Villoro distinguishes between ideology and ethics by saying that ideologies present as objective those values that respond to the needs of a particular group, while ethics presents as objective those values that may be considered valid for any individual or group. Ideologies may be motivated by the striving for power, while ethics may be motivated by the striving for value.14 Nevertheless, the distinction between ideology and ethics may not always be clear. There may be ideologies that contain moral doctrines, and there may be systems of power that attempt to legitimize themselves by means of a discourse that contains moral principles.15
      Ideologies may therefore attempt to reconcile two discourses: ethical discourse and discourse aimed at the achievement of political power. But ethical discourse may be shown to be in contradiction to the pursuit of power that the ideologue attempts to justify. The ideologue has to reinterpret the two discourses in a manner that conceals their contradiction. The maintenance of power may be based on this act of deception.16
      Villoro also distinguishes between an association (asociacíon) and a community (comunidad). In an association, the more we try to detach ourselves from our own interests, the more we are faced with the conflict between those interests and the interests of other subjects in the association. In a community, on the other hand, such conflict is eliminated, because the interests of every subject include the interests of the whole community.
      According to Villoro, utopianism may express both an attitude of departure from the real world and an affirmation of an ideal world. The opposition between the projected ideal world and the actual world corresponds to the distinction between ideal values and actual facts that are deprived of value.17 Utopianism proposes an imaginary or ideal reality where an objective order is fulfilled, valid for every community, and at its limit, valid for every individual.
      Utopianism may therefore be characterized as a kind of disruptive mode of thought that establishes a maximal tension between a projected ideal world and the actual world, between ultimate and proximate ends, between what ought to be and what is.18
      Villoro says that the most common criticism of utopianism is that it lacks efficacy. It desires an ideal end without putting into practice the means to realize that end.19 The ideal society has a normative character; it directs political action, but is never fully realized.
      He also explains that moral action in politics presupposes two kinds of knowledge: (1) knowledge of both the values that constitute the common good and the political means necessary for the realization of those values (this kind of knowledge corresponds to principles of rationality of means and ends) and (2) knowledge of the actual facts that will lead to the realization of those values in society (this kind of knowledge corresponds to both theoretical rationality concerning existing social forces and instrumental rationality concerning the effective means of achieving desired ends).20
      A political ethic, according to Villoro, cannot be limited to promulgating general norms or establishing abstract principles; it must be a concrete ethic, subject to three kinds of rationality: (1) valuative rationality concerning the ends and values that fulfill the general interest, (2) theoretical and instrumental rationality concerning the actual circumstances and consequences of actions, and (3) rationality of judgment that weighs, in every case, the relations between the given data and the two previous kinds of rationality.21


1Luis Villoro, El poder y el valor: Fundamentos de una ética política (Ciudad de México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997), p. 8.
2Ibid., p. 13.
3Ibid., p. 15.
4Ibid., p. 27.
5Ibid., p. 41.
6Ibid., p. 45.
7Ibid., p. 45.
8Ibid., pp. 46-47.
9Ibid., p. 74.
10Ibid., pp. 74-75.
11Ibid., p. 88.
12Ibid., p. 188.
13Ibid., p. 191.
14Ibid., p. 192.
15Ibid., pp. 192-193.
16Ibid., pp. 193-194.
17Ibid., p. 210.
18Ibid., p. 211.
19Ibid., p. 213.
20Ibid., p. 123.
21Ibid., pp. 124-125.

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