Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Political "Philosophy"

Jo Wolff was here today at Oxford and gave a great talk about issues addressed in this PAPA paper. In particular, he outlined his discontents with contemporary theories of equality- for example, the over-reliance on abstract examples, the lack of a positive vision of the good society, and the assumption that we must strive to provide an account of the correct principles. I am very sympathetic to Jo’s approach and arguments, and I am looking forward to reading his new book, co-authored with Avner-de-Shalit, entitled Disadvantage.

During his talk Jo had emphasized the need for taking seriously the problem of transition (from here to the ideal society) and the need for a second-best theory. In the question period I probed him a bit on whether it is accurate to call the less idealized theory a “second-best” theory. In other words, if the so-called “1st best” theory is best only on paper, but ill-equipped to tackle the real challenges we face now, in what sense is it a “first-best” theory? Unfortunately I think most political philosophers ascribe the label “first-best” to “first-best conceptualism”. But I see no reason why we should privilege abstract philosophizing like this. The test of a theory’s adequacy, for me, is two-fold.

Firstly, it should help us diagnosis the injustices of real societies. So it will open our eyes to things we perhaps ignored or didn’t realize were that important or problematic. Secondly, the theory should inspire sage prescriptions for mitigating the disadvantages we find in real societies.

Because I think a theory of justice is an inherently practical theory, abstraction is, on the whole, probably going to do more harm than good. In particular it will be harmful if we make examples of abstract “2-person worlds” our main concern. Contra the mainstream, I do not think such examples have enhanced our deliberations about distributive justice. I think they have actually impoverished our deliberations. And this is most evident by the wide gap between theory and practice.

Thinking more about Jo’s talk got me thinking… I am being too harsh on ideal theorists? Isn’t it the job of philosophers to employ abstract examples, to search for principles of justice, etc.?… I agree that doing all this stuff is fun and engaging, but at the end of the day these abstract activities do not really get us anywhere, I think, really interesting.

This got me thinking further- Does this mean I am not a political “philosopher”? No doubt some would say I am not. But what, exactly, makes one a political philosopher? To answer this question we could turn to the activities of those employed in philosophy departments and simply describe what they are doing as the ideal type. But I myself do not want to do that. I guess I have a much more perfectionist understanding of the discipline. And I thought I would outline some of my thoughts here.

Political philosophers are concerned with many different issues that relate to how we ought to live, collectively, as a society. Some questions covered in standard political philosophy courses include: the state- is it legitimate?; Equality- does it matter? if so, how and why?; Liberty- what does it mean to be free?; Democracy- good or bad? Again, reflecting on these questions is great stuff and an important part of our intellectual culture. I make my living teaching these things and I love it.

But what, really, makes one a political philosopher in the truest sense of “philosopher”? This question is something I believe many academic philosophers don’t really ask or try to answer. I suspect most people think it is self-evident. “I know real political philosophy when I see it!” For analytically trained philosophers this will (primarily) involve deploying the conceptual tools and analyses of analytical philosophy. But I myself do not think this is what makes one a philosopher.

The Greek definition of philosophy means “love of wisdom”. So a political philosopher is one who aspires to achieve phronesis. Prudence, argues Aristotle, is concerned with particulars as well as universals. And particulars become known through experience (not abstraction). When political philosophy is dominated by “first-best conceptualism” we inhibit the exercise of phronesis as our focus becomes fixed on abstract hypotheticals and pristine theories that yield a shortlist of principles. And this focus comes at the expense of an appreciation of our history (cultural, socio-political), the challenges raised by scarcity, problems of institutional design, non-compliance, etc.

So a true philosopher is not interested in winning the “first-best conceptualism” debate. Rather they are concerned with diagnosing practical predicaments and showing us how best to confront them. Recall my post “What is political theory?” So political theorists of the sort Dunn outlines are, I believe, the true political philosophers.

And my sense of things is that the tide is slowly starting to turn away from ideal theory. For example, just this month alone the CPA has a symposium on “Political Philosophy and Non-Ideal Theory” and the ECPR held a workshop on “Social Justice: Ideal Theory, Non-Ideal Circumstances” (and a number of those papers attack my paper, but I welcome this debate and know full well that Rawlsians and Dworkians will not concede ground without a fight!).

The attention being given to non-ideal theory is, in my opinion, a very good development indeed. And I am genuinely excited about where such debates might take the discipline in the decades to come!