Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ideas for New Paper

This blog post is posted on my FB page with comments open. If you are a political philosopher who wishes to comment please send me a FB friend request.

In the coming weeks I hope to develop some ideas that I have been mulling over for a few years now on methodological issues in normative political philosophy into a coherent paper tentatively titled “Justice by Earthlings” or "Psychology Constrains Political Philosophy".

I thought I would try something new for me and invite FB friends interested in ideal/non-ideal theory to offer comments, suggestions, etc. as I work through these ideas while they are still at a somewhat embryonic stage of development. I would be very appreciative for any suggested readings, criticisms, etc.

What I propose to do is post 2 or 3 short FB posts on the central arguments I am developing. What follows below is an overall summary of the paper I envision writing. A future post will expand upon some of these points in greater detail. Comments and suggestions most welcome!

In recent years political philosophers have turned their attention to methodological issues within the discipline. A number of questions have been raised concerning the relation between empirical facts about humans (e.g. human nature) and societies (e.g. racism, scarcity of goods, colonialism, globalization, etc.) and the normative principles and theories developed by political philosophers. Most of this debate has focused attention on the potential constraints human nature ought, or ought not, to have on the principles of justice themselves. In this paper I emphasize the importance of extending an empirically-informed critical light on the discipline even further, namely, to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher herself. Doing so can, I argue, help progress the so-called “ideal/non-ideal” debate in novel and useful ways. Defenders of ideal theory presuppose that the normative theorist can deduce “fact-insensitive” (Cohen) normative principles or those appropriate for a “realistic utopia” (Rawls). By drawing attention to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher, the limitations and hazards of highly idealized and abstract analyses of justice can be effectively highlighted.

In Justice for Earthlings David Miller suggests that political philosophers should invest a greater amount of their time and energy in ensuring that the empirical claims their theories or principles are predicated upon are valid or defensible. To determine how much weight and attention should be devoted to empirical insights from the social sciences, argues Miller, theorists must not only ponder “What is political theory?”, but also “How, and why, should we go about doing it?” Employing a “virtue epistemological” (Greco, Zagzebski) analysis of the goals and aspirations of political theory/philosophy, one that equates knowledge with “success from ability”, I argue that the ultimate aim of the discipline is to yield emancipatory knowledge. However, to have success in this endeavor the normative theorist must develop insights, theories, and principles that guard against (at least) three common cognitive limitations and errors of “Earthlings”- (1) categorical thinking (at least those kinds which undermine emancipatory knowledge), (2) prospection errors (which can skew the aspirations of a normative theory, even a “realistic utopia”) and (3) thinking in terms of sacred values (which can make normative principles or theories inert by obstructing our ability to contemplate reasonable ways of navigating the tradeoffs that must inevitably be made between desired goals and values in the real world).

I conclude that the take home message of the “psychology constrains political philosophy” maxim is that normative theorists should develop more contextualized and provisional theories and principles than those typical of the ideal theory paradigm.