Friday, January 23, 2009

Of what is political theory a subset?

The newly-engaged Will Wilkinson is back from southeast Asia and has been blogging up a non-stop storm of terrific posts for a week now. I keep wanting to put up one-line posts that say "what he said!" with a link, but that way lies Instapunditry and is best kept to a minimum.

In response to this post (and as much as I like Will as a commentator on current politics, I like him still better when he engages in political philosophy), I posted the following in comments.
Will, I wonder whether there are political facts which you think can be taken as given for purposes of moral inquiry in the same way that you take economic facts as given...?

Evidently you don't attribute to them just the same status. The gap between the Canadian and the Mexican dingus-tightener is to be the object of direct moral criticism in a way that the gap between the American dingus-tightener and the American widget-polisher is not. T

I know some of the moves that could be made here, but I don't want to provide too much of a prompt. So let me start with: Do political facts about the world occupy a categorically different status from economic facts about the world for purposes of moral inquiry? If so, why? If not, then why is the fact of the border-controlling 'nation-'state up for moral criticism in a way that market outcomes aren't?

(As always, I agree with your analysis of nearly everything! But I'm pulling on a loose thread to see what unravels, partly because it seems relevant to your argument and partly because I'm independently interested in it.)

Will says he'll answer at some point; I eagerly await his views. In the meantime, on to my own independent interests in it, as the exchange has crystallized some old thoughts in a new way for me.

I have a longstanding interest (dating, in my published work, to the first few pages of The Multiculturalism of Fear) in the puzzle of which facts of the world should be taken as given and which susceptible to deliberate reform in normative theory. This is closely tied to a favorite topic around here (see e.g. this post and the comments thread): the relationship of political theory to both political science and political philosophy. And today I was rereading parts of D’Alembert’s Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedie with its tree of domains of knowledge.

These all get me to the following framing:

Of what is political theory a subset?

The answer we get from the Rawlsian revival is: political theory/philosophy is a subset of moral philosophy/ethics. (As between the latter two categories, it doesn’t matter for my purposes which is a subset and which is a superset, or whether they’re distinct.) “What is the right thing to do?” has as a special applied case “what is the right thing to legislate?” or “what is the right thing for a judge to do?” It has other special applied cases: “What is the right thing for a doctor, a corporation, a biologist to do?” We call these medical ethics or business ethics or bioethics or… We don’t call “what is the right thing to legislate?” “political ethics,” because the person of the legislator disappears from that question; “political ethics” is reserved for questions that can’t be rendered actorless. (Should the legislator accept a donation? Should a bureaucrat resign?)

Nonetheless, I trust that the idea that political philosophy is a kind of applied ethics or moral philosophy is familiar enough. We treat a journal called Ethics as perhaps the highest-prestige place in which to publish political philosophy; the network of institutional interdisciplinary homes of political philosophy are often characterized as ethics centers, and the ur-center is a center for ethics and the professions; and the methodology of the canonical Theory of Justice is laid out and legitimized in an article called “the autonomy of moral theory.”

But political theory has (increasingly-atrophied) sister disciplines in the other social sciences: economic theory and social theory, both practiced by Montesquieu, Smith, Marx, and Weber, and at least one of which was practiced by Tocqueville, Foucault, Polanyi, Durkheim, Hayek, and Habermas. These are, broadly, descriptive and explanatory theoretical disciplines, attempts to understand the phenomena of the social world. They often analyze phenomena that are too broad and sweeping to be easily tractable by fine-grained and localized data analysis: modernization, modernity, industrialization, market society, nationalism, and so on. Stereotypically, these disciplines study such huge phenomena as to look like the sweep and tide of history, things that seem especially un-suited to analysis in terms of what the right thing for a person to do is. (Business ethics and economic theory in this sense are wholly distinct enterprises.) They are the study of necessity and given phenomena, not normative choice and deliberate reform. I regret the unavailability of the word “phenomenology” for this kind of study; let’s call it social-science theory.

(It’s obviously a little too simple to describe sociological theory, which has as one of its central axes the “structure or agency?” question, as all being about structural necessity—but the “agency” side of those debates isn’t about the deliberate normative choices people informed by social theory should make, but a descriptive/ explanatory claim about the world, about the efficacy of individual choices and actions.)

Political theory might—mightn’t it?—be a subset of social science theory. The political theorist might seek to be to states and wars and elections as Hayek or Marx or Polanyi or Weber are to markets, or as Foucault or Durkheim is to modernity, or as Gellner is to nationalism. I try to make a start in my article on David Miller's book, which gradually turns into an article on what normative political theory can look like if we take a social-science theory view of the world of states.

(Interestingly, legal philosophy, analytic jurisprudence as that field has come to exist since Hart, is not construed as a subset of ethics or as the study of the right choice to make; Hart characterized his enterprise as one of “descriptive sociology,” and even non-positivist or partly non-positivist successors such as Fuller, Finnis and Dworkin, have had to work out a theory of what law is in a way that has not been much paralleled in political philosophy. Legal philosophy, in this sense, looks more like social-science-theory than like political philosophy.)

Now, there are understandable reasons, both simple and complicated, for emphasizing politics as the domain of choice. One complicated reason has to do with the influence of Arendt and the idea of freedom in human action, located quintesentially in the realm of the political. One simple reason is that what politicians like to tell us about themselves is that they're always in the business of Doing Something, and that every Something they Do will dissolve some unpleasant thing in human social life. The domains studied by economists and sociologists tend to lack actors claiming those magical powers.

But here it's worth remembering my exchange with Will. He's far from believing in the magical ability of political officials to alter just any thing they wish in the social world. But he, too, treats politics as a domain differently from other domains; economic facts just are, whereas political facts are unjust results of human decisions that presumably could and should be decided differently. The world of states (and of states' relationships to borders and economies and labor migration) is up for normative grabs.

I believe in the importance and value of normative questions about politics, and normative theories that try to answer them! The possibility of freely-chosen deliberate normative reform is real. I don't think that political theory is best done as only a subset of a social-science theory of necessity. (Indeed, I suspect the same is true of theorizing about economics or culture or social structures.) But I also don't think it's best done as only a subset of ethics or moral theory. Our aspiration should be to do both-- to theorize the social phenomena of politics, and to analyze the morality of choices within politics, as well as to think about how each of those shapes the other. To be grandiose: we should try to reunify some of what's been divided in the human sciences, and to understand normative reflection and explanatory explorations as linked and complementary.

And I suspect that, even as we approach 40 years on from Theory of Justice, it's the social-science theory part of our vocabulary and intellectual toolkit that's currently underdeveloped. (This is truer in some parts of the field than others; those for whom Foucault or the early Habermas is more significant than Rawls aren't as likely to fit the "subset of ethics" model, and some of those explicitly reject normative theory as an enterprise. But that's not what I want, either.) I also suspect that developing that part of our intellectual toolkits will require abandoning the ideal/ non-ideal theory distinction. Perhaps individual moral decisions can be analyzed in an idealized abstraction; but social and political decisions, not so.

In the current literature, G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality (about which more in another post, or follow the beginnings of the symposium at Crooked Timber) seems especially strongly committed to the view I’m implicitly criticizing here. So too is David Estlund, a critic of what he calls "utopophobia." Any thing which is not naturally impossible (as Blackstone described Parliament’s legislative competence) is within the scope of what our normative political principles might legitimately demand. I haven't here offered any substantive argument against their views. I'm trying, however, to alter the terms of debate a bit. I think that there's a sense in which that substantive position is allowed to follow too quickly on an implicit sense of what our intellectual enterprise just is.

(NB: In an inchoate but real way this post is indebted to Jeremy Waldron's old essay "What Plato Would Allow," from Nomos: Theory and Practice, and to a related talk I heard him give at ANU sometime in the 1993-94 school year.)


Paul Gowder said...

Jacob, I was with you until right to the end, and then I started to wonder why there needs to be a unified approach or intellectual enterprise at all.

The division of labor is robust enough that we can have the Gerry Cohens and David Estlunds of the world doing ideal theory and abstracting away from the empirical realities (which may be more or less contingent) of the social world, as well as have the non-ideal normative theory types, and the "here's what the concept of a state is" types and the "here's a question that is empirically loaded but is way too big to be handled with a bunch of datasets" types -- all in the same department! (Perhaps even all in the same person!)

Jacob T. Levy said...

I'm sure you're basically right; pluralism is usually the right answer in such matters. But for a while I'm inclined to defer the pluralist division of labor answer.

That answer will tempt us into opportunism and sloppiness*; the ideal theorist pretends that everything is up for grabs but still implicitly and unexaminedly takes lots of social facts for granted, while the social-science-theorist either overlooks the force of ideas or implicitly assumes an emotivist position about those ideas ("yes, ideas matter, but they have no truth content, so they should be treated as mere social facts and psychological states of being"). I'd like to see a period of self-consciousness all around that's likely to be undermined if we just subdivide political theory/philosophy still further and say that the ethicists are off in their corner doing their thing while the social-science-theorists are off in a different corner doing a different thing.

*NB: Here I don't mean Estlund and Cohen, who by virtue of the fact that they're elevating their version of ideal theory into an explicit methodological and substantive commitment, are unusually explicit and self-conscious about what they're doing. But insofar as Rawls and Rawlsians are vulnerable to Cohen's critique, I suspect it's because they've been kind of haphazard about what "ideal theory" means taking for granted and what not.

djw said...

Excellent and helpful in clarifying my own thinking about these matters, thank you. I'll have more when I've figured out more about what to say.

(I used those comments in the first few pages of Multiculturalism of Fear to frame my dissertation chapter that purported to be a sort of meta-commentary on how political theorists attempt to address the challenges of "globalization", which was a good idea that I didn't pull off particularly well)

Matt said...

What's been interesting to me is to see G. Cohen move from a fairly social-science type position in his Marx book, where a theory of history is doing a lot of the work, to a distinctly normative view, one that's essentially platonic in character. (Justice is a normative concept that we know intuitively and is independent from 'facts' seems to be a fair account of his view now.) It's strange to me and retrograde, I think. Elster is someone else who is between worlds, but in a more reasonable way, I think.

As for what facts must be considered, it seems to me that some version of the "circumstances of justice" have to be taken into account if we want the view to be of interest (let alone use) to us at all. Whether we think it's Hume's version (used by Rawls) or Hobbes's (uses by Hart in his discussion of the "minimum content of natural law", or the more abstract account used by Kant, I just don't see how any theory that doesn't work within these constraints is of any use at all.

On Dworkin, I thought he was fairly explicit in saying that legal theory was part of moral theory or at least political philosophy. At least that's how I'd taken some parts of Law's Empire. Do you not think that's so?

Bryan said...

I wholeheartedly concur here - and it's interesting that Rosenblum would as well, no? Have you read Geuss's new book? That would seem to speak to this...

Matt said...

There was a very interesting review of Geuss's new book by Tom Hurka in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review a few days ago- certainly worth reading for those interested in that book.

Jacob T. Levy said...


Indeed, I think Rosenblum would agree-- and it's probably no accident that she was one of my important teachers.

Matt, you're certainly right that Dworkin thinks legal theory can't be done *without* moral philosophy. But I don't think he could think it was simply a subset. The supposedly decisive evidence from TRS that "that's not how judges think" and the examination of fit in LE seem to be a part of the same intellectual world as Hart's descriptive sociology; and then there's the sense in which Dworkin seems to think legal theory is a subset of philosophy of language (what is it we do when we speak or write a rule or principle? How do later hearers or readers of it interact with it?) I think Dworkin puts legal theory *more* under the umbrella of moral theory than any of the other anayltic jurisprudes, and too much so-- but he's still at least claiming to offer an account of the phenomenon of law.

Bryan said...

Ah, yes, the same for me. Funny how those influences percolate through.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I'm only just catching up with this, but: a brilliantly sharp, incisive bit of questioning and speculation, Jacob; as David says, very helpful and very clarifying. Many thanks.