Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Theorizing the “Non-Ideal” (Part 1)

As academics we have the luxury of spending significant amounts of time and energy learning about this world, and contributing to the project of creating, and disseminating, knowledge. And with this opportunity comes great responsibility- to use our time, and talents, prudently. This requires us to be critically reflective inquisitors, to ask ourselves what is important to know, and what is important to challenge, and why.

Within my field of research- political philosophy- there is often a general (somewhat ambiguous) divide between what is called “ideal” and “non-ideal” theory. What constitutes this divide is very contentious, with some arguing that the distinction itself lacks precision and muddies the intellectual waters rather than helps things. But I remain convinced that this general distinction is helpful, despite what the naysayers might argue.

Ideal theorists tend to theorize “the ideal” (with perhaps some occasional smatterings of the non-ideal variety thrown in as an afterthought). Plato is perhaps the best example of an ideal theorist. And so this multi-series blog post begins with a discussion, and brief criticism, of ideal theory and Plato.

Plato’s Republic is concerned with the question “What is justice?”. And after rejecting the conceptions championed by his contemporaries (e.g. justice is telling the truth and returning anything borrowed, justice is in the interest of the stronger party, etc.), Plato came up with his own conception of justice- both at the level of the individual (his account of the hierarchy between reason, courage and the appetites) and for society as a whole (his account of the hierarchy between philosophers, soldiers and the masses).

When deriving his account of justice Plato theorized ideals- his “epistocracy” posits philosopher kings and queens, people like Socrates, who pursue, and comprehend, the truth. The allegory of the cave, and the philosopher as possessing the rare intellectual virtues needed to grasp “the forms”, is a great example of this ideal theorizing. As is his assumption of our soul’s immortality, which provides the foundational justification for why justice has intrinsic (as well as extrinsic) value.

Of course Plato does consider some non-ideal considerations along the way- filling in details of why his ideal society is necessary and how it could be viable. For example, Plato believed that democracy was epistemically bankrupt because it gave political power to those skilled at pandering to the masses rather than those who genuinely possessed intellectual virtue. To ensure this elite intellectual class ruled for the “common good” rather than their own private interests, the Guardians would not be permitted to own private property or be distracted by the parental duties of the family. And Plato advocated selective eugenic breeding and emphasized the importance education would play in forming character.

I love Plato’s work, I think Plato’s Republic is among one of the most significant contributions to the history of political thought. But I think we have learned a lot in the past 2.5 thousand years, such that theorists today, in the 21st century, are not justified in doing the arm-chair theorizing Plato engaged in.

Plato could be excused for pontificating from the armchair about our propensity towards intellectual vice and virtue because psychology, for example, had not yet shed light on the various biases and shortcomings and strengths of the human mind. And perhaps Plato could be permitted to fixate solely on the alleged shortcomings of democracy because he lacked the empirical insights needed to make an informed, more comprehensive and comparative analysis of what the virtues and vices are of democratic and non-democratic forms of governance. But today we know much more about human nature and governance than Plato knew living in Ancient Greece. So I do not think we should start with “theorizing the ideal” in the manner Plato does.

A contemporary example of this Platonic form of ideal theorizing is luck egalitarianism (LE), which was/(is?) a prominent position in the field during the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. The “equality of what?” debate was mostly preoccupied with figuring out what the distributive ideal was (e.g. welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare, capabilities, etc.). Inequalities that were chosen were fine, according to LE, but inequalities that arose because of circumstances beyond our control were unjust. Little concern was given to the reality that many inequalities are a complex mix of chosen and unchosen factors, or that some types of inequalities might be more easily redressed than others, etc. The literature on equality was dominated not by analyses explaining how real (income) inequality was created and perpetuated over time. Instead it was dominated by hypothetical stories about shipwrecked survivors engaging in clam auctions and Malibu surfers expecting to be fed without any expectation that they should be willing to work in order to enjoy the benefits of the welfare state.

Defenders of ideal theory often respond to criticisms of it by saying one of two things: (1) that we should “let a thousand flowers bloom” in our discipline and/or (2) non-ideal theory needs ideal theory, for the latter details the objective, and non-ideal details the route to realize that objective. I don’t find either response particularly satisfactory.

With (1) I have no problem with the discipline being diverse in its methodology, with some theorists doing “high theory” while others work on more concrete/applied topics. Ten years ago my complaint would have been that too few people did non-ideal theory compared to ideal theory. Things seem to have shifted somewhat. But I think the dominance of the ideal-theory paradigm has stunted even the development of our non-ideal theorizing. (1) should not be done in a fashion that impairs the development of intellectual virtue- such as an understanding of our history and the current state of the world, or why real injustices occur and persist, or what constitutes large vs small societal problems, etc. So what might strike some of my colleagues as my “intolerant” attitude towards ideal theorizing stems from my conviction that I believe ideal theory impedes what ought to be the raison d’être of the discipline- namely, the creation of emancipatory knowledge.

Political philosophy is the exercise of practical reason. It is in the business of diagnosing practical predicaments that we perhaps underappreciate the significance of, or are blinded to, without the insight of the political philosopher. And it is in the business of offering some practical guidance to help us move from the “here and now” to a more fair and humane future. It is not a discipline for navel gazing, contemplating, as medieval scholastics did, the epistemic characteristics of angels (e.g. do they think more clearly in the morning?).

The reason I do not take the “let a thousand flowers bloom” mentality about the discipline is that I believe, as educators employed at institutions of higher education, we should be in the business of cultivating and refining intellectual virtue. Our undergraduate and graduate students are with us only for a few years, and if the time they spend with us in our courses doesn't help them better understand the predicaments of the world, or to critically evaluate different moral and political aspirations, then we have failed in our job. If our students walk away with bafflement about the bizarre thought experiments constructed by ideal theorists, or walk away with reinforced moral intuitions and convictions without every seriously challenging and defending them, then our pedagogical mission to help cultivate and disseminate emancipatory knowledge has failed.

I think our research and teaching are deeply and intricately related. The latter is not a burden academics must endure in order to get a pay cheque. Like doing research and writing, teaching ought to be something that motivates us to get out of bed each day, to learn something new, to challenge our own intellectual growth and curiosity. We are extremely fortunate to get to interact daily with bright young students who have diverse and interesting perspectives on these issues.

In my next post I plan to write something about one historical figure that I think exemplified “non-ideal” theory in that he theorized the non-ideal- and that figure is Karl Marx. Stay tuned!