Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other.--David Hume.*
Unlike Hume (and like Schattschneider (recall)--a name I never encountered in professional philosophy, although he is significant in the history of political science--), I think political parties are important to the proper functioning of liberal democracy. They do so because they can help cultivate political talent and organize the energies, aspirations, and interest of many in the services of -- to echo and adapt Burke (recall) -- minimal national unity and some fundamental values or ideology. That is, and again, Burke noticed this first, it seems, in the long arc since the 18th century, political parties have been a means, in part, to make philosophy worldly. On the Burkean view politicians are, in a non-trivial sense, applied philosophers or figureheads for (more hidden) applied philosophers.
As a non-trivial aside, of course, political parties can be mere vehicles for the pursuit of power and lack interest in minimal national unity and be ideology-free. That's compatible with them offering the public entertainment. Arguably, we have been turning that ever-present, ugly corner (recall my post on Justin Smith.)
Yet, while I recognize the way in which party politics and politicians can be philosophical, last week, I wrote that I happen to think (but have never argued) that attachment to party and candidate corrupts philosophers in pretty much the way Hume feared (fiercest animosities etc.). In context I offered some examples of such corruption (that is, it raises the probability of selective treatment of evidence, logical fallacies, inhumane conduct, etc.). Such corruption is nearly impossible to avoid because of the existence of partisanship (people like their side to win), rapid echo-chambers, group polarization, and self-deception. In particular, in politics, the pursuit of truth and humanity will inevitably be made instrumental to, and be sacrificed to, other ends. Politics is (as Plato, Madison, and Arendt emphasized) the realm of opinion, not truth--in part, because the mechanisms of discovery and truth-saying are lacking (recall here, and here). (That's not an encouragement to lie.) In fact, (adhering to one's principles with) strict consistency -- a non-trivial commitment of most philosophers --is not just often a hindrance in politics, but (as one may say in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin) can easily lead to the worst tyrannies.
The whole previous paragraph is written with great deal of respect for and recognition of the importance of politics, even the very flawed politics of our times--I am all for participation in it. But my view is that philosophers should stay clear of adhering to parties (and think tanks allied strictly to them) and politicians because it is (nearly) impossible to maintain one's philosophical integrity. Recall, philosophical integrity is the way(s) in which one's professional arguments, professional credit, and public utterances and comportment cohere (recall, and here). Obviously, if one rejects such integrity, one also rejects my position.
Now it does not follow that I thereby embrace for myself or others (i) a Weberian neutrality model as the only legitimate one for philosophers.** I think such neutrality is legitimate, although, in practice, it tends to be rather awkward and it incorporates (often tacitly) considerable status quo bias. It does so because it tends to be quiet about ends, which it, in principle, leaves for others, and the means it becomes expert on and is willing to offer informed views about to others are nearly always given means. [Of course, this stance is not inevitably status quo biased.] Often such neutrality is a mere disguise for (non transparently) assumed values or values that, surprisingly enough, advance the interests of the expert all too well. (Much of my scholarship explores the complications in the vicinity.)
Yet, despite the previous paragraph, I do not (ii) endorse quietism; quietism can slide a bit too easily into complicity in the moral horrors of our age. Even so I can respect it in more principled others, especially when it is accompanied by a kind of do-no-harm principle. Moreover, I can't simply reject it because one of the great purposes of politics is to make the life of philosophy, the arts, and all the other joyful activities that ennoble our existence possible.
So, that leaves room for (iii) philosophical service on behalf of a cause or a group. The term (service) is indebted to Dotson (recall). The service ideal can encourage philosophical integrity. For example,*** if one's philosophy shows that the death penalty is immoral or the basic income moral, one can dedicate one's political life to advocating such a principle and make one's all things considered views and one's public utterances cohere. Of course, such coherence may well result in a certain, intolerant fierceness. It's all too familiar that ine may become quite zealous in one's advocacy.
That's okay, for the advocate of a principle or cause -- unlike the politician -- need not (in the intellectual and professional division of labor) balance and navigate competing priorities and interests, including national union or survival. That is the philosophical advocate is, if she is self-aware (know thyself and all that), cognizant of her limitations. For, such a unity worth having is constituted by and a product of the art of leadership that promotes practices, narratives, and public understandings that facilitate some dispositions conducive to minimal, political union. For too long humane political theorists and philosophers have neglected the significance of such political leadership--and ceded talk of leadership to (conservative) lovers of authority (or worse, neo-fascists) and to business consultants. It is an open question if an engaged philosophy can be practiced that promotes such an art and what form it would take.
*I thank Joshua Miler for prompting today's post.
**When I teach, I often disguise my own views for pedagogical ends. But I think the university would be impoverished if too many of my colleagues did that.
***Today, I skip examples that involve adherence to a particular group or identity.