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February 14, 2011

a real alternative to ideal theory in political philosophy

In philosophy, "ideal theory" means arguments about what a true just society would be like. Sometimes, proponents of ideal theory assert that it is useful for guiding our actual political decisions, which should steer toward the ideal state. John Rawls revived ideal theory with his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971). His position was egalitarian/liberal, but Robert Nozick joined the fray with his libertarian Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), and a huge literature followed.

Recently, various authors have been publishing critiques of ideal theory. I am, for example, reading Raymond Geuss' Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) right now. One of the most prominent critiques is by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice (2009). Sen argues that there is no way to settle reasonable disagreements about the ideal state. Knowing what is ideal is not necessary to make wise and ethical decisions. Even an ideally designed set of public institutions would not guarantee justice, because people must be given discretion to make private decisions, but those decisions can be deeply unjust. Finally, there is an alternative to the tradition of developing ideal social contracts, as Plato, More, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, Nozick, and many others did. The alternative is to compare on moral grounds actually existing societies or realizable reforms, in order to recommend improvements, a strategy epitomized by Aristotle, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville, and Sen (among many others).

I am for this but would push the critique further than Sen does. The non-ideal political theories that he admires are still addressed to some kind of sovereign: a potential author of laws and policies in the real world, a "decider" (as George W. Bush used to call himself). Sen, for example, in his various works, addresses two kinds of audiences: the general public, understood as sovereign because we can vote, or various specific authorities, such as the managers of the World Bank. In his work aimed at general readers, he envisions a "global dialogue," rich with "active public agitation, news commentary, and open discussion," to which he contributes guiding principles and methods. In turn, that global dialogue will influence the actual decision-makers, whether they are voters and consumers in various countries or powerful leaders.

Unfortunately, no reader is really in the position of a sovereign. You and I can vote, but not for elaborate social strategies. We vote for names on a ballot, while hundreds of millions of other people also vote with different goals in mind. If I prefer the social welfare system of Canada to the US system, I cannot vote to switch. Not can I persuade millions of Americans to share my preference, because I don't have the platform to reach them. Even legislators are not sovereigns, because there are many of them, and the legislature shares power with other branches and levels of government and with private institutions.

Thus "What is to be done?" is not a question that will yield practical guidance for individuals. It is a more relevant question for Sen than for me, because he has spent a long life in remarkably close interaction with famous and distinguished leaders from Bengal to California. (The "acknowledgments" section of The Idea of Justice is the longest I have ever seen and represents a Who's Who of public intellectuals.) But if Sen's full "theory of change" is to become internationally famous and then give advice to leaders, it will only work for a very few.

What then should we do (I who writes these words and you who read them, along with anyone whom we can enlist for our causes)? That seems to be the pressing question, but not if the answer stops with changes in our personal behavior and immediate circumstances. National and global needs are too important for us only to "be the change" that we want in the world. We must also change the world. Our own actions (yours and mine) must be plausibly connected to grand changes in society and policy. Thinking about what we should do raises an entirely different set of questions, dilemmas, models, opportunities, and case-studies than are familiar in modern philosophy.

February 14, 2011 1:04 PM | category: philosophy | Comments



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