Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Not sure how I hadn't known about the blog of Waterloo political theorist Colin Farrelly, In search of enlightenment. Onto the blogroll it goes. A sample from a recent post on some of my favorite methodological themes in political theory, titled "What Justice Demands, 'Many-Things Considered.'" See also his post on Political "Philosophy."

Our attention to the demands of justice can be developed at many different levels of abstraction. Here is a simplistic typology of the different levels of analysis one could be concerned with:

(1) what the demands of justice are, “all-things-considered”
(2) what the demands of justice are, “many-things-considered”
(3) what the demands of justice are, “some-things-considered”
(4) what the demands of justice are ,“when only abstract concepts (e.g. equality) are considered” (or, what justice requires when justice is construed purely as an abstract ideal or Platonic form).

I believe that something like this typology is very useful and can help political philosophers and theorists explain a lot of what is going on between proponents of different theoretical traditions. Egalitarians believe that others (like libertarians) ignore the harmful effects of the free market (e.g. the vulnerability of the worst off, inequality, etc.). Libertarians believe that egalitarians ignore the importance of side constraints or the inefficiency of the planned economy, etc. Feminists believe liberals ignore the realities of patriarchy. Multiculturalists believe that liberals ignore the fact of cultural inequality. And finally deliberative democrats believe justice-theorists ignore the limitations of their own armchair theorizing and the importance of democratic practices and institutions, disagreement, etc. One could go on and on, revealing how some theories are attuned to different kinds of concerns and ignore (or bracket) others.

These various considerations have lead me to be much more a pluralist than I once was. Certain values have an important role to play in certain contexts but not others, and figuring out when they have a role to play is the real important challenge. So for me the real action takes place in (2) (with (1) being a kind of ideal that we strive for but never reach), rather than in (3) or (4).

The most influential example of (3) is John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness”. Rawls takes some important considerations (e.g. moderate scarcity, pluralism, impartiality, etc.) seriously but he also invokes a number of idealizing assumptions that impoverish his theory (e.g. full compliance, society is closed and full of normal functioning people). And these idealized assumptions really skew and impair the prescriptions of Rawlsian justice.

Those partial to (4) might argue that I am confusing two different things- principles of justice and principles of regulation. This of course raises important questions concerning what kind of principles the principles of justice are (e.g. do they serve as a guide for human action). And this adds a further layer of debate to these issues. For me, there is no substantive difference between principles of justice and principles of regulation (though not every principle of justice need be a principle to regulate an institution). The principles of justice are those principles that dictate how a just society is to be regulated. That is why I think the important action takes place closer to (1) and (2) rather than (3) or (4).

The ideal/non-ideal theory debate, which is beginning to gain real momentum, will hopefully lead to a more serious debate about which kinds of considerations should be incorporated into (2). Which considerations- of the many, many considerations that arise- should a normative theorist take seriously? (and which should we ignore, etc.) Asking, and attempting to answer, that question will result (hopefully!) in us taking a “big picture” perspective on these issues. And that could really transform our moral sensibilities in important ways. It could open our eyes to new concerns we tended to ignore (e.g. the limitations of government, dangers of group polarization, etc.) or it could help us realize that certain convictions or beliefs are no longer tenable, etc.

I believe the best consequence that will likely result of our taking this big picture perspective is that it is more likely to lead us to taking a *proportionate* response to the different demands of justice that arise in real, non-ideal societies. To ensure our response to any particular demand of justice (X) is fair and proportionate we must appreciate not only the moral stakes at risk in pursuing X (e.g. equality, liberty, sufficiency, etc.), but also the costs, risks and tradeoffs involved with aggressively pursuing X rather than other laudable aims (e.g. Y and Z).

I think further benefits will be reaped by taking “justice-many-things-considered” (rather than (3) or (4)) seriously. It should make normative theorists realize how limited their armchair theorizing is. Defensible normative theories must take empirical considerations seriously and strive for something more meaningful than winning an abstract “first-best conceptualism” debate. A serious debate about which constraints or considerations we should take seriously will necessitate interdisciplinary dialogue and research, and this should help philosophers become more aware of the contentious assumptions they make (but do not have to defend) when they only engage in debate and dialogue amongst themselves. Furthermore, taking these various constraints seriously will make us realize that the demands of justice are provisional (both morally and politically provisional).