Can Ideal Political Theory Be Valuable For a Pragmatist?

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 14, 2013

Jack Knight’s and James Johnson’s book is fascinating, interesting and compelling. It is not the kind of book on which I could write deep or far-reaching criticisms, so I fear that I will have to limit myself here to quibbling about what could perhaps be seen as details – and that is their criticism of Rawlsian-style normative political theory.

Knight and Johnson understand Rawlsian ‘ideal theory’ as being characterized by the fact that “nearly everyone complies with, and abides by, the principles of justice” (quoting Rawls). They criticize Rawlsian ideal theory since “participants in these normative debates commonly assume that their relevant audience has already committed to the nonviolent resolution of their disagreements and differences” (Knight and Johnson p. 275). They also criticize Rawlsian ideal theory for its lack of analysis of institutions, for assuming that “matters of implementation are of secondary concern”, and for its belief that “the concern for institutions is derivative or parasitic on the specifications of ideals” (p. 15)

I have a lot of sympathy and respect for their project, and some sympathy for their criticism of (Rawlsian) ideal theory (witness my discussion of priorities in ideal and nonideal theory here at Crooked Timber a while ago). However, I am worried that Knight and Johnson are throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Is it not possible to suggest that Rawlsian-style normative theory is valuable if we understand its meta-theoretical status a little differently? Rather than understanding ideal theory as sketching a utopian world where all comply with the normative ideals and which is taken to be the one and only truth the theorist believes in and wants all of us to believe in, we could understand such theories rather as examining the moral values and normative principles which would be feasible if all would endorse them (hence the full compliance clause), and which could serve as an ideal which we can use in our democratic deliberations on which normative principles our institutions should embody.

Much actual democratic debate proceeds without being aware of the normative claims made, and without seeing the values embodied in particular institutional proposals (there are plenty of examples around – such as the turn to commodifying higher education in Europe right now, which is wrongly seen by many as a ‘technocratic’ and value-free proposal but in fact has deep normative consequences). Ideal theories such as those in mainstream normative political philosophy are indeed (as Knight and Johnson rightly point out) most of the time (but not always!) limited to discussions about these values and normative principles, but the depth of those discussions make clear that these are complex notions – which real political debate often does not recognize. Using a metaphor, ideal theory is not a proposal for a law, but rather fuel and inspiration for real-life political debate. Different types of vehicles need different types of fuel – but some for some vehicles this will be the best type of fuel.

So my suggestion would be that one could read ideal theory more charitably, by not assuming that it tries to give the one and only right answer to questions about how we should organize society, but rather by focusing on three other functions it has. First, studying ideal normative political theory has the important role of increasing the normative skills and capacities of participants in real democratic debates. Second, ideal theory analyses the complexities of the values which economic and social institutions and policies entail in great detail. Thirdly, ideal theory sketches institutional proposals (such as Rawls’s property-owning democracy, or Philippe Van Parijs’s unconditional basic income) which participants in real-democratic debates could propose in political debates as an experiment which they want to try out (which in the case of basic income was done by the village Otjivero in Namibia).

An additional defense of ideal theory would be to regard it as one task that needs to be performed in an intellectual division of labor. If we want our theoretical work to have sufficient depth, some of us will indeed spend 15 years working on an account of the notion of justice, leaving the institutional chapter of that project to others (is it problematic that Rawls has merely hinted that property-owning democracy would be an institutional design which we should consider, and which he takes to be best in line with his principles of justice, if other political scholars such as Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson are the ones who develop that institutional account in more detail?).

All I’ve said in no way diminishes the claim that an institutional turn in normative political philosophy is much needed, and that normative political theorists should take pragmatism more seriously (although I expect that not all will be willing to go this consequentionalist and nonfoundationalist route). My claim is more limited, namely that even those who endorse a pragmatist project like the one proposed in The Priority of Democracy need not have to reject mainstream normative political theory – as long as the status of those theories is seen in a different light than described by Knight and Johnson.

{ 14 comments }

1

ex 02.14.13 at 6:05 pm

“Rather than understanding ideal theory as [1] sketching a utopian world where all comply with the normative ideals and which is taken to be the one and only truth the theorist believes in and wants all of us to believe in, we could understand such theories rather as [2] examining the moral values and normative principles which would be feasible if all would endorse them (hence the full compliance clause), and which could serve as an ideal which we can use in our democratic deliberations on which normative principles our institutions should embody.”

What is the difference between [1] and [2]? I see a difference in phrasing but I do not see any difference in the underlying claims.

2

Kevin 02.14.13 at 9:10 pm

One important difference, clear in the phrasing I think, is that the former implies full actual compliance whereas teh second does not (and thus the second is closer to ‘reality’ than the first). More specifically, the second assumes full endorsement but not full actual compliance. The point is that the endorsement condition changes the ideal theory into a tool for critique and improvement of (inevitably( imperfect behaviour/compliance. The full compliance condition assumes that a successful theory aims (per impossible) at overcoming human imperfection practice. I think…

3

Kevin 02.14.13 at 9:11 pm

‘…overcoming human imperfection IN practice.”

4

Tony Lynch 02.14.13 at 10:51 pm

I feel like saying: “What has Rawls ever done for social democracy?” – except allow “progressives” to live exciting lives in fantasy land…

5

LFC 02.15.13 at 12:15 am

@4
Rawls indirectly helped contribute to the revived growth of concern about inequality and poverty that didn’t come fully into its own politically, perhaps, until after his death. Extensions of his ideas (and of those of some other normative theorists) have, as the OP indicates, in some cases made a practical contribution to reducing poverty.

6

Kevin 02.15.13 at 12:25 am

And, for god’s sake, he did provide the most influential and sophisticated intellectual defense of the welfare state when such a thing was actually still ascendant (or at least not depressingly descendant). Perhaps – just maybe? — at least one reason why the new right hasn’t been able to be even more destructive of social democracy than it has in fact been. Radical understatement definitely intended.

7

Anarcissie 02.15.13 at 3:35 pm

How is the behavior of a (capitalist) ruling class affected by a book of moralistic political philosophy? This is not a rhetorical question. I am curious as to how this is supposed to work.

8

Stephen Frug 02.15.13 at 4:04 pm

Just taking the title question at face value, it seems that the answer is basically obvious. Can ideal political theory be valuable for a pragmatist? Yes — if it works. (That is, if it (“in the long run and on the whole, of course”) improves matters.)

9

Tony Lynch 02.17.13 at 12:18 am

“A Theory of Justice” came out as social democracy went into real decline – I see no evidence that it did anything to even slow this down – though it did provide career path benefits for progressives whose potential for political activity could now assume scholastic form as they mined and argued and debated Rawls’s imaginary tale. It was the Owl of Minerva and it was Dusk…

10

LFC 02.17.13 at 3:28 am

I find it rather absurd that someone is arguing that A Theory of Justice (published in 1971) diverted progressives from political activity to ‘scholastic’ pursuits. I’m aware of no evidence to suggest that the revival of normative political theory in the Anglosphere (for lack of a better word) weakened what would otherwise have been a massive, enduring progressive political movement. That would seem to be the imaginary tale (or certainly a better candidate for one).

11

Tony Lynch 02.17.13 at 12:12 pm

I Rest My Case.

12

Derek 02.17.13 at 9:12 pm

Anarcissie asks, “How is the behavior of a (capitalist) ruling class affected by a book of moralistic political philosophy?”

I think it goes like this: a ruling class, capitalist or otherwise, is made up of human beings, and its status as the ‘ruling class’ depends upon the activities of other human beings. But the behavior of human beings is a product of – among other things – our beliefs about what is morally justifiable, what we are morally entitled to, and what is morally intolerable. So a work of moralistic political philosophy can affect the behavior of the ‘ruling class’ either directly, if it affects their moral beliefs, or indirectly, if it affects the moral beliefs of those whose actions (and inaction) they depend upon.

That this is possible in general is proven by the role of Locke’s moralized political theory in the American context. The Declaration of Independence reads like a Cliff’s Notes version of Locke’s social contract theory, and those same principles have been explicitly invoked in successful movements of political liberation. See, for example, Frederick Douglass’s stinging 4th of July oration, or King’s “Dream” speech.

Indeed, even an account that dismisses these moral appeals as mere ideological obfuscation thereby admits the political power of such moral ideals – why else should the powerful, or their opponents, bother with such a masquerade?

13

Tony Lynch 02.20.13 at 1:01 pm

Anarcissie asks, “How is the behavior of a (capitalist) ruling class affected by a book of moralistic political philosophy?”
]
Well, Rawls had no real, rather than scholastic effect. But Nozick – with a very bad book (which, I think, is why he never returned to political philosophy) – had an immense effect.

Why?

Nozick gave freedom to all in a universal contextless “economic” sense (I mean, the State as a Dominant Protection Agency) , and so to the rich. It was wonderful!

14

LFC 02.20.13 at 4:09 pm

Well, Rawls had no real, rather than scholastic effect. But Nozick … had an immense effect.

Nozick might have converted a few (prob. not that many) people to libertarianism and Anarchy State and Utopia might — and I emphasize ‘might’, b.c. I’ve no idea — have been read a bit more widely outside the academy than A Theory of Justice. But to say that Rawls had no “real effect” and Nozick had “an immense effect” is basically nonsense. Nozick perhaps happened to be more in tune w certain political currents of the time, but that doesn’t mean he caused them or even had that much to do w them.

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