Rules for Radical Thinking

by Harry on May 8, 2007

Erik Olin Wright has a nice short piece on his website forthcoming in the UK left-of-centre magazine Soundings, called Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias. It is a very useful outline and discussion of the rules we ought to observe when trying to come up with better institutional alternatives to the status quo, viz:

1. Evaluate alternatives in terms of three criteria: desirability, viability, achievability.
2. Do not let the problem of achievability dictate the discussion of viability.
3. Clarify the problem of winners and losers in structural transformation.
4. Identify normative trade-offs in institutional designs and the transition costs in their creation.
5. Analyze alternatives in terms of waystations and intermediary forms as well as destinations. Pay particular attention to the potential of waystations to open up virtuous cycles of transformation.

Although any of our readers will find it interesting, I especially recommend it to, and request comment from, the political philosophers and theorists who think of themselves as doing, or interested in, non-ideal theory.

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Tim Worstall
05.09.07 at 8:57 am



Kieran Healy 05.08.07 at 8:30 pm

6. Profit!

I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself.


dearieme 05.08.07 at 9:20 pm

If it’s for a British magazine, why say “envisioning” instead of “envisaging”? Come to that, what does “viability” mean outside biology?


Slocum 05.08.07 at 9:48 pm

If it’s for a British magazine, why say “envisioning” instead of “envisaging”?

For the same reason that a billion is a thousand million rather than a million million?

Come to that, what does “viability” mean outside biology?

Is that really a puzzle? Do we not talk about organizations and systems “thriving” or “failing”, “surviving” or “dying”?

From a non-political philosopher, it strikes me as a sound, sensible framework for analyzing proposals–especially the identification of winners & losers, tradeoffs, and waystations.

I’d think one area where this perspective would be useful would be in considering what to do about universal health insurance in the U.S. We have the advantage of having a number of viable systems as examples (which is not often the case)–but relatively speaking, that’s the easy part. The hard part lies in the area of winners & losers, tradeoffs, and waystations.


Tracy W 05.08.07 at 10:32 pm

Interesting that there’s no mention of Hayek’s _The Road to Serfdom_, though the author seems to pick up on some of the same problems in section 4.


harry b 05.08.07 at 11:47 pm

It occurs to me after slocum’s comment that the non-political philosophers may have been put off commenting by my desire especially to get comment from political philosophers. Comments from everyone else are as welcome as always — by “especially…” I meant something like “Read it, dammit”.


dearieme 05.09.07 at 5:59 am

Fair enough, slocum. I suppose really I just object to such ugly, affected English as “Evaluate alternatives in terms of three criteria: desirability, viability, achievability.” Serves me right for visiting a blog for Social Science people.


alphie 05.09.07 at 7:52 am

Imagine India’s 300,000,000 peasant farmers suddenly having good paying jobs in the IT sector…


Slocum 05.09.07 at 12:16 pm

BTW — should “reversibility” be a criterion as well? Just in case a ‘utopian’ scheme turns out to be both achievable and viable but otherwise a complete disaster in terms of desirability in ways that were not originally foreseen.


Monte Davis 05.09.07 at 12:52 pm

I’m ambivalent about “Do not let the problem of achievability dictate the discussion of viability.”

Not dictate, perhaps — but surely enter into the discussion sooner or later.

If there is no way from here to there, aren’t we (shouldn’t we be) inclined to invest less in discussing how great it might be there?


Nat Whilk 05.09.07 at 2:24 pm

One of the reasons these rules seem odd to non social scientists like myself is that many of our dictionaries and thesauri list “achievable” and “viable” as synonyms.


ingrid 05.09.07 at 3:00 pm

Alas, a bunch of political philosophers interersted in the question of non-ideal theory (if such a term can be coherently used) is currently gathering in Helsinki to debate issues of the ideal and non-ideal in political theory – you should repost this in a week´s time! :-)


harry b 05.09.07 at 3:19 pm

I thought the fact that they were all in one place might help get the word out, ingrid!


ingrid 05.11.07 at 10:22 am

harry, no kidding, we have no time to read CT… but I think we’ve made quite a bit of progress in disentagling what ideal and non-ideal theory is, and what (if anything) are the problems related to it. So if I don’t collapse when I get back home, I’ll post about it.
E.O. Wright’s work has been mentioned as a good example of what non-ideal theory is. We seem to have a set of intutions about clear cases of what ideal and non-ideal theory is, but whether we’ ve been able to draw the cut convincingly, is another question.


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