Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Was the Year 2020 the nail in the coffin of “Ideal Theory”?


One of the most interesting debates in normative political theory/philosophy today is the methodological debate concerning what the purpose or function of an account of (distributive) justice is (or normative theory more generally).  The debate is often characterized in different ways as there are a range of different concerns- such as realism vs utopianism, ideal/non-ideal theory, etc.  In this post I am not interested in re-hashing specific details concerning what that debate is (as there are actually many distinct debates at play) but to offer some reflections upon the evolution of my own views on this debate, and conclude with my prediction about where things will go in the future (say over the next 20 years).

Back in the last century (1999) I defended my dissertation at the University of Bristol titled “Rights and Responsibilities : An Examination of Rawlsian justice”.  At the time I was what one might call a “committed Rawlsian” (I am now a critic of Rawlsian justice, though I have immense respect for John Rawls as a political philosopher and his contribution to the discipline).  My first few journal publications (which formed part of the thesis) applied Rawls’s account of justice to the basic income debate, free speech and the issue of economic incentives.  At that time I probably had the trajectory to become a life-long Rawlsian, which would have afforded a pretty safe career trajectory for me.  But a number of developments occurred which prevented that from being the case.

What I think is particularly noteworthy about my transformation is that it did not stem from anthing I actually read, certaintly not from any other political philosophers.  A few years after my ideas had already been transformed I encountered the work of Mills and Sen  and was very happy to see others shared deep reservations about the value of ideal theory.  It was certainly reassuring to see that I was in very good company indeed!  

I can identify some specific world, professional and personal developments that caused my moral sensibilities to shift dramatically over an important 2-3 period immediately after graduate school, from being a defender of Rawls to a critic of the Rawls industry and mainstream analytical political philosophy (as it existed 20 years ago).

Perhaps I should start by mentioning the career circumstances of this transformation before I address specific events and catalysts.  The year 2000 was the first time, since age 4, that I was no longer a student in a school.  Until that time I was always a student, either writing papers for particular classes, or a thesis with a supervisor.  So the transformation from being a graduate student to faculty member brought with it the flexibility to write on what I wanted to write, and how I wanted to write it.  I think this was why this period of time was fertile for my intellectual growth and development.  A similar effect occurred after I received tenure, and promotion to full professor, but that can be the focus of another post.  Now to the specific events I think shaped my thinking, while in this “plastic and flexible” state of mind post-PhD.    

Firstly, in February 2001, two teams published their draft versions of the human genome. The publicly funded Human Genome Project published its results in the scientific journal Nature, while the private US firm Celera Genomics published its results in Science.  While I didn’t realize it initially at the time, my interest in contemplating how the expansion of the “natural lottery of life” into the purview of Rawlsian justice would end up with me, first revising, and then eventually abandoning, Rawlsian justice. I started to learn about biology and science, and realized that the bracketing of non-ideal concerns like nature/nurture and the safety, efficacy and cost of medical innovations, in addition to the the pluralistic nature of real world disadvantage, made an account of justice impotent.  Such a theory was needed precisely because of these uncertainties and complexities.  

My interest in the genetic revolution, and then aging research (around the year 2006), were crucial developments in the evolution of my thinking.  I didn’t become a critic of Rawls because of anything I read by another philosopher.  I became a critic because of what I saw as a disturbing disconnect between the pressing societal problems of the real world and the premises of his account of justice.  Rather than remaining committed to the normative theory I was working with, I was able to "pivot" to see if adjustments could solve the problem, including the adjustment of discarding the starting theory.  This cognitive flexibility accounted for the big shift in my thinking.  I cared more about figuring the problem of genetic justice out than I did in remaining committed to Rawlsian justice. 

The second major catalyst that helped shift my thinking twenty years ago was Sept 11, 2001.  The reality of terrorism, and the governmental decisions to respond to those threats in ways that entailed infringing upon basic liberties, waging wars, and creating enormous debts also made the cognitive dissonance of trying to do, and defend, ideal theory intolerable for me.  Pretending society was closed, filled with fully compliant, healthy and productive people who had no debt did not seem like a credible project to be defending, let alone taking seriously.  So instead of publishing my initial PhD dissertation, I ended up writing this book , critiquing ideal theory and defending a virtue-oriented account of justice.

The genetic revolution and 9/11 were the two major catalyst events that propelled my doubts about the importance and coherence of ideal theory.  I also wrote a textbook about contemporary political theory shortly after completing my PhD, and canvassing a plurality of theoretical traditions, especially concerns arising in the 1990s from feminism, multiculturalism, deliberative democracy and global justice, made me also realize there were serious chinks in the armour of Rawlsian justice.  At the same time I switched from teaching in philosophy departments to political science departments.  Students in the latter did not have a high tolerance for discussing Dworkin’s “clam shell” auction or Rawls’s “closed society” when events like globalization, terrorism and climate change were occurring in the real world.  For many philosophy students the discipline can be a refuge from the real world, but for political science students the opposite is often true. 

And finally, becoming a busy parent and father, first in 2000, then again in 2002, and one more time in 2007, also made me aware of the complexities of navigating the moral predicaments of life when there is such a deluge of responsibilities and demands on people’s time, resources, attention, etc.  Most debates in ethics and political philosophy seem to presume the average person in life exists solely as a full-time moral philosopher who has nothing else to do but contemplate how unethical a specific behaviour or action is in isolation from all the other decisions and actions they must undertake.  This tendency to focus on one moral duty or ethical predicament in isolation from the totality of the moral landscape seemed to me (and still does) to be particularly problematic for an area of study that purports to contribute wisdom to how we ought to live our lives.

That is a summary of my own personal journey from ideal to non-ideal theory.  The realities of the real world are just too important to bracket or ignore (especially for theorists of justice).  I have a great appreciation for the contributions of Mills and Sen to these debates, for they too bring to the fore the realities of the non-ideal world, in the form of the existence and persistence of racism and our ability to engage with the “eyes of mankind”.  

So why do I think the year 2020 might be the “nail on the coffin” of ideal theory?  Firstly, let me say I titled the post mostly in jest.  I actually do not want to see ideal theory disappear completely.  I have no problem with some, marginal, area of the discipline dedicated to studying that topic.  What I do have a problem with is ideal theory being the dominant paradigm of the discipline.  As it was in the year 2000 when my thinking started to change and I thought there must be something wrong with my thinking as I was going against the grain of the discipline and I found my research critical of Rawls had a much harder getting published than my material defended Rawls.  I do not think ideal theory enjoys the prominence it once did, and I think the year 2020 will further cement its marginalization, for at least 3 reasons.

Three very significant events occurred in the year 2020 that strain the legitimacy of ideal theory projects- these were (1) the COVID-19 pandemic (2) the global BLM protests to the killing of George Floyd, and (3) Donald Trump’s presidency.  In the Rawlsian ideal society there are no viruses, let alone those that can travel across oceans to cause a pandemic.  In the Rawlsian ideal society there is no institutional racism, nor Presidents that show disdain for democratic traditions and institutions and inspire hate. 

A lot has changed in the discipline over 40 years, and I believe the events of 2020 will continue the trend of the past 10 years.  I predict the future of value theory (ethics and political philosophy) will become more interdisciplinary, with a more "applied focus" and less armchair/ idealized theory.  Of course my prediction is biased by my own experience, so I could well be wrong about this (there could very well be a renaissance of ideal theory- but I don’t think the optics of that occurring look likely).  I think it was easier for someone in academia, writing in the early 1970s, to be somewhat aloof to developments in the real world.  But I think that is much harder to do, let alone justify, in the 21st century.  

I look forward to seeing how the discipline evolves in the years to come.