Friday, November 09, 2007

Political Studies Article

My paper "Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation" is now available in the latest issue of Political Studies. Here is a sample:

Political philosophers have recently begun to take seriously methodological questions concerning what a theoretical examination of political ideals (e.g.justice) is supposed to accomplish and how effective theorizing in ideal theory is in securing those aims. Andrew Mason (2004) and G. A. Cohen (2003), for example, believe that the fundamental principles of justice are logically independent of issues of feasibility and questions about human nature. Their position contrasts sharply with political theorists like John Dunn (1990) and Joseph Carens (2000) who believe that normative theorizing must be integrated with an appreciation of the empirical realities of one’s society. Rather than bracket questions of feasibility and human nature, empirically oriented political theorists believe that real, non-ideal considerations (like our historical circumstances, problems of institutional design, etc.) must be taken seriously when deriving normative theories of justice. And some justice theorists, most notably John Rawls (1971; 1996), attempt to occupy a middle position that acknowledges some moderate feasibility constraints (e.g. pluralism) but also employs a number of idealizing assumptions (e.g. society is closed, full compliance, etc.) when deriving the principles of justice.

The disagreement between those political philosophers who feel inclined to invoke highly abstract hypotheticals when deriving the principles of justice, and those political theorists who take seriously real, non-ideal considerations, is a disagreement over how fact-sensitive a theory of distributive justice ought to be. Mason raises a challenge for the more empirically grounded political theorists when he asks:‘what reason do we have for thinking that any adequate analysis of an ideal such as justice must be conducted in the light of an investigation of what is feasible?’ (Mason, 2004, p. 255). In this article I hope to provide a compelling response to Mason’s question. I believe there is some conceptual incoherence involved in saying ‘This is what justice involves, but there is no way it could be implemented’ (Mason, 2004, p. 255). This incoherence stems from the fact that a theory of social justice, and the principles of justice it endorses, must function as an adequate guide for our collective action. A theory of social justice that yields impotent or misguided practical prescriptions is a deficient theory of justice. If the collective aspiration to implement the conclusions of a theory would not result in any noticeable increase in the justness of one’s society, then it fails as a normative theory.

In this article I argue that theorising about justice at the level of ideal theory is inherently flawed and thus has impoverished liberal egalitarianism. I believe that moderate ideal theorists, such as Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, are actually much closer to the idealizing end of the spectrum and thus their theories are not adequately fact-sensitive to be considered realistically utopian. Ideal theorists (falsely) assume that a political philosopher can easily determine (or has privileged access to) what constitutes the ‘best foreseeable conditions’. Furthermore, by assuming full compliance, ideal theorists violate the constraints of a realistic utopia.