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Isaiah Berlin on Political Judgement

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Technocracies love complexity, especially technical complexity. If you can't hurl regressions at a problem, well, that is not interesting. Yet at the heart of effective development specific contexts is an art. That art is political judgement, not partisan politics but sound judgement when it is the domestic political process that determines whether or not you succeed. 

The trouble is this: saying something is an art gets many technocrats nervous. Technocrats love numbers. But as reflective practitioners of the so-called social sciences have often pointed out, the reason you cannot claim that these are sciences is that the subjects being studied think. Human beings are not numbers; they are full of surprises. Which is why when it comes to how to achieve your objectives in Gugu Republic, you being the head of a development initiative being implemented in Gugu Republic, you will not be successful unless you can display sound political judgement. 

Part of the problem is that some technocrats can't see when their roles change. If you are a transport engineer, or a procurement specialist contributing ideas to a major development initiative, you have a right to see your role as purely technical. But if you are the manager responsible for the success of the initiative - and you have to make it work in the real-life context of Gugu Republic - then you have to accept that you no longer function in a technical capacity. You have to be effective in a stubbornly political context. You cannot afford to be politically naive. To be successful you will have to exercise sound political judgement. 

Unfortunately, political judgement is not taught in school. You can't earn a PhD in political judgement. Nevertheless, it is the outstanding capacity of all those who are able to get things done in real political contexts, every one of which is fiendishly complicated.

In one of Sir Isaiah Berlin's collections of essays, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, he has an essay titled 'Political Judgement'  that is worth reading. According to Berlin, political judgement is the outstanding capacity of successful statesmen, and he defines it as a special understanding of public life. it is not about immutable laws; it is about skill, sagacity.  Here is a quote from page 47:

"What are we to call this kind of capacity? Practical wisdom, practical reason, perhaps a sense of what will 'work', and what will not. It is a capacity, in the  first place, for synthesis rather than analysis, for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals, or parents their children, or conductors their  orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes, or mathematicians know the rules that their symbols obey."

Political judgement, in other words, is an art, not a science. It is about moves actuated by wisdom; it requires synthesis, reflection, and a focus on practical outcomes. All this is why successful initiative-managers in international development come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds but if you study their actual practice you will find that they have one thing in common; and that thing is sound political judgement.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Dennis Collette...!!!


Submitted by Anonymous on
It is fashionable these days to promote practical knowledge - phronesis - as the answer or counter to the long-despised cold 'technocrats' or privileges of now-doubtable expertise (esp in social sciences). But whatever the failings of traditional disciplinary professional judgement, it would be equally naive to embrace 'poiltical judgement' outlined here as some benign skill or 'wisdom' of the politically gifted. For a start this sort of 'judgement' has long been associated with all those silly 'leadership' courses where practical and political judgement is billed as the special skill of people higher up in hierarchies with discretionary power. And they tend to promulgate essential status-quo serving conservative 'judgements' - meeting immediate situational needs and constraints and/or self-serving interests. I don't trust this type of wisdom. Just because you take away rules or expertise-like regulation of judgement doesn't mean you're going to get better or less 'stuckism' in thinking. And withdrawing this into some exalted capacity of special individuals looks like a backwards step to me. It took centuries to tame the discretionary judgment (also known as 'wisdom) assumed by kings and bishops - i think there is a problem with reinserting this fundamentally untransparent individual 'judgement' and assuming it can uncontroversially serve collective interests.

Ultimately, you cannot avoid the central role of political judgement in the running of the affairs of any political community. Technical tools and outputs have a place as inputs into policy/decision-making, but the role of political judgement is fundamental. That is what Supreme/Constitutional Courts do, that is what presidents and legislative bodies - especially upper chambers -- do, and so on. That is also what the boards of major corporations also have to exercise...sound political judgement or things go awry.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Of course political judgement exists in our culture in the forms that you describe. But recognising this doesn't mean accepting that it is some ahistorical and uncontestable practice in any of these domains - as though what counts as good or acceptable political judgement is part of some universal or cosmological reason. Examine any one of these domains and you will find that what counts as good political judgement is not only specific to that area but has been contested. This is not just because there is often a gap between what is professed and what is actually done (plenty of 'awry' judgements in the recent history of company boards and US Supreme Courts) but because there is often no consensus on what constitutes 'good' or acceptable judgement. Moreover, what is the dominant mode of acceptable 'judgement' in any of those domains and how it is practiced and by whom has changed over time. What i'm pointing out is that the actual conduct of 'political judgement' is as historically and currently contestable as any 'expertise' or professional judgement. In fact I'd say that, historically speaking, its like going from the frying pan into the fire. So rather than celebrate 'political judgement' as necessary and benign panacea to social organisation, i think we would be better off first understanding and scrutinising its practice before we understand its political effects. Its quite possible to systematically describe and study the regularities in 'political judgement' and the reflective thinking practices they are based upon, just as we describe the thinking tools of professional experts. This analysis would also include how political judgement is positioned in relation to other thinking practices (eg disciplinary expertise), who gets to exercise discretionary 'political' judgement, under what conditions and with what political effects. Then we can discuss whether we agree that the exercise of political judgement in any one of these domains needs reform or reconstitution or even shifting to some other social decision body.

I am not sure we disagree. Of course, there is no universally good political judgment. The exercise of political judgment is open to scrutiny in every case and should be. There is a sense in which all the debates in political philosophy are about the evaluation of political judgments. The point is something we both agree on: that with regard to technocratic expertise and political judgement both have a role. It is not either or; but ultimately all complex issues come down to a judgment regarding the best interests of the political community. And there will be in each case reasonable citizens who will disagree.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Sorry, I assumed you concurred with Berlin's 'Political Judgement' speech. Thanks for the reference, by the way, I found it an interesting read. My points have been in response to his position which certainly regards good 'political judgement' as something that can be ahistorically measured, is independent of ethical orientation or aim, and effectively synonymous with 'what works'. So whatever purpose the person has if they are successful in achieving it and it can be shown that they used their own judgement in that process then they have demonstrated good political judgement. According to Berlin political judgement is also a rather mysterious skill or 'art' that can't be taught. I think these days what he describes would now at least be partly covered by theories of 'emotional intelligence' and strategic gaming techniques. I doubt Berlin (1957) would accept that his account of what constitutes (and how you measure) good political judgement is contingent and subject to change. He is also unlikely to accept that the dominant mode of reflection of those practicing (or attempting to practice) 'good' political judgement are also contingent and subject to change. I think the fact that there has been growing valorisation of practical knowledge (which includes, I think, 'political judgement') relative to expert knowledge across many domains in the last few decades I think is an interesting phenomenon in itself that would be worth investigating.

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