Defending The Priority of Democracy

by Jack Knight and James Johnson on February 20, 2013


We’d like to start by thanking the crew at Crooked Timber for hosting this conversation and Henry Farrell in particular for coordinating it. It is reasonably rare to have a baker’s half dozen smart people offer critical commentary on your work. So we appreciate the willingness of our interlocutors to participate in this discussion. That said, while we are tempted to rest content with the opening superlatives the discussants offer, we instead will take the opportunity to respond to the various qualms they have expressed. These, we think, fall fairly neatly into three categories: (1) questions regarding the relation of our enterprise to the sorts of ‘ideal theory’ exemplified by Rawls and those who have written in his wake; (2) doubts about operational problems with our argument – stated in terms of whether the conception of pragmatist democracy we advance is coherent or stable; and (3) questions about the sorts of learning and inquiry our arguments presuppose. We address each of these sets of qualms in turn even though, as will become clear, they intersect in important ways.

 

1


 

Ingrid Robeyns offers a qualified defense of “Rawlsian-style normative theory” in order to challenge the skepticism we voice regarding the project of “ideal theory” that such work represents.

In some respects we can hardly disagree. We come to that momentarily. First, however, it is important to note that we explicitly set aside the more extreme defenses of “ideal theory” such as G.A. Cohen’s claim that political theorists can and should explore principles literally without regard to “the facts.” This view is, we suspect, more or less wholly unsustainable to the extent that it relies on just the sort of fact-value dichotomy that pragmatists resist. And while in The Priority of Democracy we do not offer anything like an argument for the implausibility of Cohen’s stance, we think it unlikely that it can withstand the arguments Hilary Putnam makes regarding the thoroughgoing entanglement of facts and values in social and political inquiry.[i] It is little surprise that the protagonist in Putnam’s tale is Amartya Sen who has himself taken aim at the enterprise of “ideal theory.”

Rather than take up Cohen’s more extreme view, we instead address Rawls’s own late characterization of “justice as fairness as ideal, or strict compliance, theory.” We find this approach problematic insofar as it assumes “that (nearly) everyone strictly complies with, and so abides by, the principles of justice.”[ii] So, our characterization of  “ideal theory” is not, as Robeyns implies, ours, so much as it is Rawls’s. And it is this view – that matters of compliance are secondary – that we find deeply problematic. We think it important that conceptual exploration – meaning theoretical arguments about such principles as freedom or equality or justice – keep an eye on matters of compliance rather than, like Rawls and the many who work in his wake, simply assuming it will follow. As will become clear, several of the other participants, fault us for not taking our own skepticism about ideal theory to heart.

Clearly, then, Robeyns is correct. Political theorists conceptualize the enterprise of “ideal theory” in a variety of ways. And of late – meaning roughly four decades after Rawls first published A Theory of Justice – she and others have begun to examine the vicissitudes of embracing or repudiating this or that version of ideal theory. And while we want to step away from that enterprise in many ways, it is important to be clear about what that entails.

First, Robeyns is right that it is crucially important to investigate basic principles. She is correct too that this is central both to the task of political theory and to politics. Since we start by characterizing the “circumstances of politics” as constituted by persistent disagreement over not just interests and attachments but also by difference generated by diverse moral and ethical commitments, we agree with her on that point. At bottom our argument just is about how to think about the institutional arrangements that structure such inevitable disagreement. Second, it is clear that pragmatists from Dewey onward want to draw analytical distinctions between ideals (like democracy) and the mechanisms in which those ideals are embodied in this or that historical circumstance. Yet, while we think that ideals or principles are only contingently related to any particular institutional manifestation, we nevertheless insist that they must find some such embodiment. And that latter imperative will constrain how we conceptualize principles. Finally, we do think of institutions as ultimately self-enforcing – and that implies that the constraint will take a particular form. Specifically it will require that matters of compliance cannot be assumed. To use Rawls’s language, the institutional arrangements in any utopia must actually be realistic. We are unsure how far Robeyns would go along with all this. But it does lead us to concerns raised by Peter Boettke, Melissa Schwartzberg, and Adrian Vermeule.

 

2



Peter Boettke rightly notes we are concerned with “comparative institutional analysis.”  Given the plurality of available institutional arrangements there is no other option. But Boettke raises an issue that runs directly through the literatures on political-economic institutions, namely whether they will or can operate efficiently. More specifically he introduces the disagreement between economists Donald Wittman and Bryan Caplan about whether democratic institutions are efficient, indeed whether we can reasonably expect them to be. We do not address this particular debate in the book and will not do so here other than to note that it is unsurprising that two economists would be so preoccupied.  Our view is that there is little reason to expect institutions to operate efficiently. Nor, assuming as we do that political agents are rational, is there any reason to expect that institutions typically emerge from the pursuit of social efficiency however specified. On the standard neoclassical model, after all, markets generate efficient outcomes only given fairly restrictive initial conditions. Those conditions essentially bracket the operation of asymmetries among parties to exchange. They operate, in other words, to equalize influence. But agents trading in a market, or hoping to establish one, have no particular reason to attend to how their own strategies impact the conditions presupposed by effective markets.

While none of this is especially new, we argue that several things follow from it. First, the basic micro-economic model suggests that those enamored of markets as a way of coordinating all sorts of ongoing interactions often are no less utopian that many ideal theorists in political theory. They simply are utopian along a different dimension. Second, in order to deflate charges of utopianism, market fundamentalists would either have to offer some reason to believe that the initial conditions demanded by arguments for market efficiency obtain in fact, or at least be confident that those conditions might be brought about or approximated. Otherwise markets have no particular claim upon us relative to alternative ways of institutionalizing our ongoing interactions. Third, markets are not unique in this regard. The same holds, we argue, for other decentralized institutional mechanisms. Indeed, it holds of virtually all available institutional forms ranging from decentralized markets through highly centralized bureaucratic arrangements.  Indeed, it deflates any impulse to cultivate what Boettke terms a “democracy fetish”; absent specifiable initial conditions there is no reason to expect any social institution – democratic arrangements included – to operate effectively. We devote the bulk of part three in The Priority of Democracy to discussing the conditions presupposed by democratic arrangements. Finally, since the institutional scaffolding demanded by competitive markets must insure voluntary exchange, it must not just establish freedom of choice, it must distribute it equally. Hence, the tacit utopianism of market fundamentalists. But, more importantly for the sort of institutional analysis we endorse, our assessment of markets is a reminder that we must not simply consider a plurality of institutional forms, but invoke a plurality of normative commitments when we do so. Efficiency, in other words, is hardly enough.

And it is just here, we argue, that the priority of democracy presses itself upon us. Our argument, which we will not repeat here, is that unlike markets and other institutional mechanisms, democratic arrangements embody a reflexivity that renders them relatively well-suited to second-order assessments of institutional effectiveness. A heterogeneous population facing the problem of how to institutionalize their interactions over some domain, can best structure their disagreements over that matter by relying on democratic institutions. And, given the sorts of freedom and equality such institutions demand, they can be assured that those who lose – those whose views are overruled in the decision-making process – have reason to revisit the issue and, in the process, scrutinize the operation of whichever institutional form, in fact, is implemented by the majority. This does not guarantee that there is no risk that democratic institutions will fail. On our view no institution or set of institutions can offer solace on that score.

Both Melissa Schwartzberg and Adrian Vermeule directly address the possibilities of democratic failure, albeit in different ways.  Schwartzberg worries that our argument is unstable in normative terms, Vermeule worries that it is unstable in practical terms. We think their worries are misplaced.

If we understand her properly, Schwartzberg wonders if, on our view, the legitimacy of democratically formulated decisions derives primarily from their procedural properties, from their correctness, or from some combination of the two. There are at least two ways of approaching her concerns.

The first way would be to celebrate the epistemic properties of democratic procedures themselves. There is a tradition of research leading back to Condorcet that does just that. In pressing her criticism Schwartzberg asks whether our argument reduces to one recent variant of this tradition, namely “David Estlund’s epistemic proceduralism.” On our analysis this tradition confronts a set of what we take to be insurmountable practical and theoretical difficulties that revolve around establishing standards of voter competence, aggregating across sets of judgments, and, perhaps most troubling, the assumption that there is a “correct” solution to any given problem. These difficulties, we suspect, derail the project of epistemic democracy well before we risk descent into “epistocracy,” the notion of rule by the educated. That said, the broad alternative approach we endorse, shifts the focus of attention away from competence in ways that deflate any such risk.

The second way to address Schwartzberg’s worry is to ask how inquiry into the natural and social worlds, inquiry largely conducted outside of properly political institutions, can enter into and inform democratic decision-making. A line of thinkers running from the classic pragmatists Peirce and Dewey through contemporary philosophers like Phillip Kitcher[iii] and Elizabeth Anderson[iv] (themselves indebted to pragmatism) articulate this approach. These theorists privilege the value of diversity over the claims of competence in practical terms. Their work therefore converges nicely with Scott Page’s recent claim that diversity trumps ability when it comes to collective problem solving efficacy. This allows them, in turn, to rely on the normative force of diversity as well.

The task, given a diverse group, is to structure inquiry and decision-making in productive ways. Hence, like Kitcher and Anderson, we emphasize the design of institutions that generate, authenticate, and disseminate information to potential users. Actually, it is fair to say that in The Priority of Democracy we do not do much more than gesture at this issue. It also is fair to say that the emergence of institutions to structure inquiry is itself subject to the vicissitudes we ascribe to any process of institutional emergence. Consequently, this is one instance in which our pragmatist commitment to a consequentialism tempered by procedural considerations is crucial. For while we are concerned that, as they confront problems in creating or reforming political economic institutions across a variety of domains, parties to democratic decision-making have access to reliable information, the criteria by which we assess reliability will reflect the soundness of the processes by which inquiry is conducted. And reliability will also be a function of the diversity of views that potentially enter both the system of inquiry and subsequent processes of political decision-making.

When pragmatists assess consequences, in other words, we are concerned, with what Amartya Sen terms “comprehensive” as opposed to mere “culmination” outcomes.[v] Crucially, this concern covers both the institutions governing inquiry and the processes of democratic decision-making that are informed by the results of inquiry. In both instances, we suggest, diversity does work on two fronts: in analytical terms it mitigates persistent concern regarding popular incompetence, in normative terms it displaces competence as a source of political legitimacy.

Adrian Vermeule worries that while we stress the equilibrium character of institutions, our own case for the second-order priority of democracy might itself not be in equilibrium. This precariousness assumes two forms: (1) second order democracy might collapse into simple first order democracy and (2) it might collapse altogether into some non-democratic political arrangement. In the latter case, Vermeule suggests that we confront “a particularly virulent form” of what he concedes is a risk run by all varieties of democratic regime. We take these up in reverse order.

As Vermeule sees it, because we ascribe epistemic weight to decisions reached by properly grounded democratic processes, we “aren’t entitled to have any objection” in an instance where a democratic polity opts democratically to self-immolate. There is indeed a risk that such self-subversion might occur. But democracy as we defend it is not uniquely susceptible in that respect. The issue is whether our account of democracy is especially susceptible to such an eventuality. We think not. In the first place it is important to recall that on our account democracy is reflexive in large part because it generates losers. We defend democracy not as a means of achieving consensus but as a means of structuring disagreement. It is unlikely that the self-immolation that concerns Vermeule will garner unanimous support. That means, of course, that those opposed to any such decision have not only the standing, but also the motivation to press for reconsideration – both immediately and over time. And because, in the second place, pragmatists stress the fallibility of beliefs and decisions, no matter how confidently they might be held, there always are grounds to challenge political outcomes, no matter how impeccable their pedigree. In the scenario Vermeule sketches, in other words, we should not only expect losers to dissent, we can recognize that they may well be justified in so doing. In the end then, while we acknowledge that democracy is susceptible to self-subversion, we do not see that our particular case for the priority of democracy is especially disabled in the way Vermeule suggests.

Vermeule’s second concern is that democratic publics, given leave to render complex judgments about institutional creation and reform, will rightly feel emboldened to establish their competence over myriad first order decisions. This tendency would, if sufficiently widespread, lead to the collapse of the second-order priority of democracy that we advocate. But if, like Vermeule, we consider the process of institutionalizing our ongoing interactions to itself be a continuing process, relevant publics will be compelled to confront pluralism – both institutional and value pluralism – in an iterated way. They will repeatedly confront questions of the scope and limits of, say, markets or bureaucratic regulatory regimes. And, in the process, they surely will come to appreciate the way such non-democratic forms can, in this or that domain, coordinate interactions in especially effective ways.

Vermeule offers a classical example from Athenian politics to illustrate the dangers posed by impassioned publics. As a counter-example we offer the ways that ACT UP and other activist groups confronted the NIH and CDC at the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The impassioned activists – driven indeed by fear and anger – did not take over the agencies in hopes of directly conducting research in a ‘democratic’ way. What they did do, however, was (here we rely on research by sociologist Steve Epstein[vi]) to question whether “sensible technocratic decisions by risk-regulation experts” were, in fact, “sensible” in a time of epidemic. They persuaded administrators and scientists at the government agencies to alter testing protocols and certification processes for anti-viral drugs. They challenged the business as usual processes of the bureaucracies. This, we would argue, is just how dissent and disagreement ought to work in democratic regimes. That publics may recognize expertise in some domain (say scientific or economic or military) does not mean that expertise can proceed with impunity or, indeed, that expertise is itself best defined solely by the experts themselves. In this example, the impact of diversity in democratic decision-making makes itself clear precisely insofar as the AIDS activists themselves were contesting not whether it is important to recognize competence or expertise, but what would count as competence of expertise in a particular, fraught circumstance.

Vermeule, of course, is eminently fair. He identifies risks to our conception of democracy and why we accord it priority. But he acknowledges that the difficulties he identifies are just that – risks. We differ with him, we suspect, not in denying that the risks exist, but in how we assess those risks.

Vermeule, of course, is eminently fair. He identifies risks to our conception of democracy and why we accord it priority. But he acknowledges that the difficulties he identifies are just that – risks. We differ with him, we suspect, not in denying that the risks exist, but in how we assess those risks.

 

3


 

Henry Farrell and Chris Ansell each make the issue of learning central to their remarks. They do so in different ways. Farrell is concerned with learning at the micro level, while Ansell is preoccupied instead with learning at the organizational or institutional level. Clearly (as Farrell’s reference to Phillip Kitcher suggests) this is a difficult distinction to sustain. But for analytical purposes it serves our purposes.

Farrell expresses four more or less friendly qualms about our argument. These are qualms that, he suspects, require an alternative approach to providing microfoundations for a plausible theory of democracy. We will set aside his first qualm, namely that our view presupposes that participants in democratic politics are willing to eschew violence as a means of settling disagreements. We make that basic point at the outset of The Priority of Democracy. As Dewey remarked, democracy involves substituting ballots for bullets. We agree. And while some sorts of theorist (e.g., contractarians or libertarians) feel compelled to offer origins myths to show why their preferred model of justification is persuasive, our own view of how institutions emerge dispenses with such consoling tales.

Farrell’s second qualm revolves around issues of competence and learning. He insists that participants in democratic politics cannot be too dim and that they must be what he terms ‘weak learners.’ But how dim is too dim? Although, as we noted above, we are reluctant to invoke competence as a basis for justification, epistemic democrats have not just established that a variety of voting methods have Condorcetian properties. (Note here we are restricting ourselves to just one of the two basic mechanisms of democratic politics; besides voting we spend considerable time talking about political argument, its conditions and its consequences.) Specifically, Christian List and Robert Goodin establish that plurality rule over multiple options in circumstances where the voting population is relatively large has robust “truth tracking” properties even where individual voters are considerably less than 50% likely to be “correct.”[vii]  Just as we differ with Vermeule in assessing the risk posed by myopic publics, we think the worries Farrell expresses about popular incompetence are overstated.  Given the tendency to extend citizenship rights – specifically the franchise – to the young and the mentally or psychologically challenged, this may turn out to be an empirical question.

Our differences, however may run even deeper. It seems that Farrell’s view tacitly presumes that democratic politics aims at establishing agreement or consensus whereas we think such politics simply works to structure disagreement. Here we confront Farrell’s final two qualms. On the one hand he worries about how bounds on the domain of politics are established. On the other hand he worries about the prospects that a substantial, well-entrenched portion of some constituency will block recognition that some matter constitutes a “problem” to be solved in the first place. Here he offers the example of climate change induced by human activities, but there are myriad possible other instances.

Notice that Farrell’s qualms pull him in different directions here. On the latter score Farrell rightly suggests that here we confront the need to discuss non-political institutions – for instance the components of what Phillip Kitcher terms the Inquiry-and-Information-System by which reliable knowledge is generated, certified and disseminated. (Here you might include not just educational institutions, but the interconnected practices of science, medicine, engineering and public health.) As we intimate above, this “system” is itself shot through with political tensions. But that admission underscores what we take to be the impossibility of offering a final reply to the former of Farrell’s qualms. He worries that in The Priority of Democracy we do not resolve the problem of how to circumscribe the domain of politics. We do not see that task as a problem but as an ongoing, unavoidable predicament that informs what we call the “circumstances of politics” in the first place. The bounds of politics are permeable, shifting and contested. And any conception –whether advanced by a theorist or a political actor – claiming to “settle” those boundaries will not only be provisional, but could well be seen as arbitrary insofar as it might require that the views of some substantial segment of a democratic constituency be overridden. We are relatively unconcerned here, not because we claim to have resolved matters, but because we hope to have brought them into clearer view. Democratic theory should not promise more than it needs to deliver. And although we will not make the argument here, we suspect the temptation to over promise reflects the too common pre-occupation with ideal theory that we discuss above.

Our final interlocutor is Chris Ansell, with whom we have been disagreeing since we were all graduate students at Chicago many years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly the terms of our disagreement remain more or less unchanged. So much for the prospect of learning! But perhaps even more surprisingly, our divergent paths have led us all to endorse pragmatism.[viii] Ansell raises two important matters. He objects to our reliance on results generated by abstract rational choice models. His concern is not just methodological; he worries that our reliance on the models skews our grasp of what is central to democratic politics. He also objects to our preoccupation with consequentialism, suggesting instead that pragmatists ought to be concerned with processes of learning.

We rely on rational choice models for two primary purposes. The first is that we find them useful for exploring the domain of politics. We will not defend this part of our commitment here. But if, following Dewey, one recognizes the need for a method of inquiry than illuminates social and political interdependencies and their consequences, rational choice models seem relatively well suited to the task.  We rely on rational choice models too as a way of assuming a burden of argument. That is because many rational choice theorists (as well as many critics of the approach) presume that the results of the modeling enterprise sustain thoroughgoing skepticism – whether conservative or libertarian – about democratic politics and institutions. Our claim is that if we can defend the priority of democracy on this intellectual terrain, it will be easy enough to do so on grounds seemingly more hospitable to our views.

Ansell worries that the commitment to rational choice models tacitly distorts our view of democracy, directing us to concentrate on voting instead of grappling “critically with democracy as it exists.” Our reply is that the basic institutional mechanisms – voting and argument – that we examine with the help of rational choice models just are democracy as it exists. Voting and argument are central to the operation of political institutions of all sorts – not just to legislative bodies but also, say, to multi-member judicial panels and, crucially, to the boards and committees that constitute regulatory agencies and service providing authorities from the local to transnational level. Moreover, while Ansell worries that we are “dismissive” of mechanisms other than voting we devote a significant (some might think inordinate) amount of attention to the operation of political argument. Our claim on that score is hardly that argument is unimportant or secondary. Rather, we simply think that it does not work miracles and that it is important to develop a plausible understanding of how argument operates in “democracy as it exists.”[ix]

Finally, Ansell thinks that we overstate the pragmatist commitment to consequentialism. Of course, starting from Peirce and Dewey pragmatists have themselves endorsed the “pragmatic maxim” which instructs us to look to the consequences in practice if we hope to ascertain the meaning of an idea, practice, policy or institution. Ansell is correct. We do accord priority to this commitment. By contrast, he suggests that pragmatists are properly concerned more with the way “public agencies function as organizations” and especially with how they contribute to learning as they interact with democratic publics. In some sense this might be a semantic dispute. We surely do not dispute that pragmatism does draw attention to precisely such interactions. However we remain convinced that absent an eye toward consequences, it is difficult to grasp how the broadly educational features of such interactions in fact operate. On this point Ansell is, it is important to note, generous. He suggests that the difference between us here is one of emphasis. In this respect his generosity reflects the comments of all of the other interlocutors we have engaged in our reply. We thank them all once again.


NOTES

 

[i] Hilary Putnam. 2002. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Harvard University Press.

 


[ii] John Rawls. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Harvard University Press, page 13.

 


[iii] Phillip Kitcher. 2006. “Public Knowledge and the Difficulties of Democracy,” Social Research 73:1205-24; Phillip Kitcher. 2011. Science in a Democratic Society. Prometheus Books.

 


[iv] Elizabeth Anderson. 2006. “The Epistemology of Democracy,” Episteme 3:8-22; Elizabeth Anderson. 2011. “Democracy, Public Policy and Lay Assessments of Scientific testimony,” Episteme 8:144-64.

 


[v] Amartya Sen. 2009. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, pages 215-7.

 


[vi] Steven Epstein. 2000. “Democracy, Expertise & AIDS Treatment Activism.” In Science, Technology and Democracy. Ed. Daniel Kleinman. SUNY Press.

 


[vii] Christian List and Robert Goodin. 2001. “Epistemic Democracy: Generalizing the Condorcet Jury Theorem,” Journal of Political Philosophy 9:277-306.

 


[viii] Christopher Ansell. 2011. Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

 


[ix] Here it is important to note that theorists of deliberative democracy – none of them terribly impressed by rational choice models or their results – lately have come to accept claims we have been pressing upon them for years. See Jane Mansbridge, et. al. 2010. “The Place of Self-Interest and the Role of Power in Deliberative Democracy,” Journal of Political Philosophy 18:64-100.


{ 5 comments }

1

Tim Wilkinson 02.20.13 at 7:32 pm

Looking up Scott Page on diverse problem solvers, I came across Hong and Page, Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers.

I was slightly hoping for a study in empirical human psychology, but never mind that. I thought the title misleading in a more salient way – the study did not in fact deal with groups stricto sensu, but rather aggregates. List and Goodin do the same, from a quick look: that is, they deal with aggregated outcomes of independent individual efforts. (Not that I’m concerned with criticising that approach – just drawing attention to it. I guess it would be well-nigh impossible to construct an adequate mathematical model of human group dynamics in any case.)

This is of some importance in this context, because the ‘wisdom of crowds’ idea depends quite heavily on the agents deciding (or inventing, etc) independently. As soon as we enter a mileu in which the agents interact, like (IIUC) the democratic deliberation sketched in the book, these kind of findings are unequivocally inapplicable, because phenomena like groupthink and information cascades have a major effect on the outcome.

2

david 02.20.13 at 9:28 pm

I suppose Shalizi’s remark was very brief, but it would be nice to know if Knight and Johnson regard his summary of the main argument as representative of their views.

3

Chris Bertram 02.20.13 at 11:46 pm

“G.A. Cohen’s claim that political theorists can and should explore principles literally without regard to “the facts.””

Nope, this is straw manning. Cohen’s view was that ultimate principles are fact-independent. That’s a thesis about their metaphysical status not a claim about how one should go about discovering them. Cohen was perfectly happy with “political theorists” muddling about with how “rules of regulation” (as he put it) might apply in real-world situations: he just didn’t think that such fact-dependent rules of regulation were ultimate normative principles.

4

Jacob McM 02.21.13 at 6:48 am

Perhaps the best step is for the liberal and conservative states to part ways. There is an interesting discussion on this topic over at the Orthosphere:

http://orthosphere.org/2013/02/19/jeffersonians-proposal-for-the-peaceful-separation/#comments

5

ingrid robeyns 02.25.13 at 9:51 pm

Sorry to be late in reacting — I have been traveling and days before traveling always lead to a madhouse with little or no time to read blogs.

The responses by Jack Knight and James Johnson are very detailed and I learnt a lot from these – many thanks for that.

As to the reaction to my comment: Rawls does understand ‘ideal theory’ really in at least two ways – one is assuming full compliance, and the other one is what Sen calls the ‘transcendental approach’. I agree that for comparative institutional theorising assuming full compliance may not lead to the best theory. Yet philosophers often analyse only one value (e.g. justice) which they want to analyse non-contaminated with feasibility issues, since they believe it is better to keep these analyses separated. A policy maker (or a political scientist) may need ‘all things considered’ principles for institutional design, whereas many philosophers offer only partial analyses of principles at high levels of abstraction. My hunch is that many (perhaps most?) philosophers don’t care that much about providing policy-relevant or applicable principles – they see their task at a higher level of abstraction and as probing the various detailed characteristics of those principles — nuances which are very likely to get lost in applied work.

The ‘ultimate’ principles of Cohen that Chris (@ #3) refers to are abstract moral principles, and they belong to the realm of ‘truth-seeking’ philosophy, not to the principles of action-guiding philosophy (or: “practical” philosophy to use a somewhat technical word). I think it is very unfortunate that Cohen called the latter ‘rules of regulation’ — for many political theorists these are rather the principles of justice that they consider relevant, since they are advising us what to do.

In short, the comment by Knight and Johnson made it clear(er) to me that in part our assessment of the usefulness of certain types of theory may be based on what we want that theory to do.

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