The Truth in Conservatism

by Harry on November 21, 2007

G.A. Cohen’s paper, A Truth in Conservatism: rescuing conservatism from the conservatives, is well worth a read, both for the substance and the humour. I heartily endorse the basic message of the paper, and recommend it to you for Thanksgiving table discussion (I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t made the tabloids actually: “Marxist philosopher endorses conservatism without abandoning socialism”). But there is one thing he says, as a preliminary, that I partly disagree with (pp 4-5):

Please do not expect me to say to what extent our practice should honour the truth I hope to expose, in comparison with other truths the honouring of which may sometimes conflict with honouring this particular conservative truth. Philosophers like me are not primarily, as philosophers, interested in what should be done in practice, all things considered. We are interested, instead, in what distinct things are worth considering. We care more about what ingredients should go into the cake than about the proportions in which they are to be combined.

Cohen is right that, qua philosophers, we are not concerned with what is what should be done in practice all things considered. People concerned with that must draw on philosophical claims, but must draw also on much that philosophy cannot supply. But I think he’s wrong that we are not concerned with the “proportions in which [relevant value considerations] are to be combined”. Surely it is a philosophical question how valuable one value is relative to another both in the abstract and in contingent circumstances — this is exactly the kind of philosophical result on which agents will want to draw when determining how to act.

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John Emerson 11.21.07 at 7:03 pm

I disagree more than you do, because he’s excluding the people who do think about these things from philosophy. As I understand, in the pursuit of certainty, correct method, and universality philosophy has just abandoned the field in certain areas, and I don’t think that it should have.


harry b 11.21.07 at 7:07 pm

Can I request commenters not to feed emerson in this case — I like you john, and appreciate your comments, but ask people to resist turning every thread on political philosophy into a discussion of your antagonism to the analytic version.


Grand Moff Texan 11.21.07 at 7:16 pm

Whoa! You mean there was about to be a battle royale between continental and analytic philosophy and I almost stepped in it?

In that case, there’s bound to be one person present who’s never seen this before:

Jerry [reading from card]: So, Todd, you’re here to tell your girlfriend something. What is it?

Todd: Well, Jerry, my girlfriend Ursula and I have been going out for three years now. We did everything together. We were really inseparable. But then she discovered post-Marxist political and literary theory, and it’s been nothing but fighting ever since.

Jerry: Why is that?

Todd: You see, Jerry, I’m a traditional Cartesian rationalist. I believe that the individual self, the “I” or ego is the foundation of all metaphysics. She, on the other hand, believes that the contemporary self is a socially constructed, multi-faceted subjectivity reflecting the political and economic realities of late capitalist consumerist discourse.

Crowd: Ooooohhhh!

Todd: I know! I know! Is that infantile, or what?

Jerry: So what do you want to tell her today?

Todd: I want to tell her that unless she ditches the post-modernism, we’re through. I just can’t go on having a relationship with a woman who doesn’t believe I exist.

Jerry: Well, you’re going to get your chance. Here’s Ursula!

Ursula storms onstage and charges up to Todd.

Ursula: Patriarchal colonizer!

She slaps him viciously. Todd leaps up, but the security guys pull them apart before things can go any further.

Ursula: Don’t listen to him! Logic is a male hysteria! Rationality equals oppression and the silencing of marginalized voices!


Matt 11.21.07 at 7:23 pm

I’ll read the paper soon enough. I suppose I’ll have to. But the sarcastic side of me wants strongly to say that this is a convenient position for Cohen to take since his positions are in general either deeply implausible or would involve an awful lot of egg breaking before we started to see something like an omelette in sight.


Micah Tillman 11.21.07 at 8:21 pm

I’ve never heard of Cohen before, much less read anything by him, but it seems to me he’s made some very helpful observations about the nature of value and its relation to envalued things (e.g., things can be valued for playing the role of carrying value).

Whether his analysis overall is cogent I cannot say (I had to read it quickly), but even presenting such claims must help navigate the world of value theory a little easier.

It does seem to me that he has brought to light a fundamental phenomenon (his small-c conservatism) and made a good deal of progress in exploring its structure.

Puts me in mind of Nietzsche’s “antiquarian history” from “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life.”


Micah Tillman 11.21.07 at 8:23 pm

*must help navigating the world of value theory be a little easier.


Colin Farrelly 11.21.07 at 8:31 pm

Let me take Cohen’s cooking analogy further to express what I find problematic with his position. I will use the example of making a yummy pumpkin soup rather than baking a cake.

Recipe #1: Good pumpkin soup recipe, “all-things-considered”

3.5 lbs pumpkin, chopped
6 cups of vegetable stock
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic
½ tsp of nutmeg
dash of salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp sour cream (optional)

1.Bring the vegetable stock to a boil in a medium pot.
2. Add the pumpkin, onions and garlic.
3. Simmer around 20 minutes or until soft.
4. Puree soup in a blender until smooth.
5. Return soup to the pot to reheat.
6. Season the soup with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
7. Pour the soup into bowls.
8. Swirl in some sour cream (optional).

Recipe #2: The “ideal” pumpkin soup

You simply must get the salt right! A dash of salt means exactly 1 table spoon (not more, not less). As for which kind of salt to use, there are two schools of thought here. I support the purist position which endorses using sea salt. Less sophisticated connoisseurs might endorse using table salt. Sure using table salt might be more convenient (e.g. it’s cheaper), but such facts should not influence our thoughts concerning the ideal soup.

Oh yeah, there are a bunch of other things as well (some pumpkins, water, etc.), you just stick them in a pot and boil it until it looks done. But anyways, back to the salt. I want to bring in some further distinctions here because I don’t think you appreciate how important the salt really is. So let me elaborate a bit further on the salt…

Which recipe would you prefer?



aaron_m 11.21.07 at 8:58 pm

I have not read the text, but the quote from Cohen does not seem to make much sense at all. Philosophy, especially political philosophy and ethics, would be a pretty empty endeavor if all we did was list the things worth considering. The real work is in trying to work out how we ought to act or what is morally justifiable when values, motives, duties, facts, etc…appear to be in conflict or cannot be easily mutually satisfied.

“Cohen is right that, qua philosophers, we are not concerned with what should be done in practice all things considered.”

Not sure what is being suggested here. There is of course lots of philosophy that just does not raise questions or ideas that make much difference for ‘practice.’ But the kinds of questions at issue above, if I am getting what the subject is about, are unavoidably about practice. Even the reasons that give rise to philosophical interest in the question in the first place are bound up with practice.


Ben Alpers 11.21.07 at 9:27 pm

Cohen goes on after the passage quoted to draw a distinction between “political philosophers” and “political theorists,” the latter of whom, he suggests, are the ones who (professionally) worry about the practical and the here-and-now.

As I am neither a political philosopher nor a political theorists, but reading the paragraph in which Cohen draws this contrast left me wondering whether it sounded right to most political theorists and political philosophers.


aaron_m 11.21.07 at 9:31 pm

Uh oh Ben! Political philosophers/theorists are great at distinctions, except for that one.


Colin Farrelly 11.21.07 at 9:42 pm

Like Aaron_m, I too was puzzled by Harry’s claim that “Cohen is right that, qua philosophers, we are not concerned with what should be done in practice all things considered.”

Much of course depends on what one thinks constitutes being a “philosopher”. The Greek definition of philosophy means “love of wisdom”. So, at least for me, a political philosopher is one who aspires to achieve phronesis. And thus political philosophy is inherently practical.

I suspect this vision of the discipline runs counter to the spirit of how Harry and Cohen would characterise what a political philosopher does. I don’t doubt that many academic philosophers employed in philosophy depts are not concerned with what should be done in practice all things considered. But if that is indeed the case then, in my opinion, so much the worse for the discipline.



harry b 11.21.07 at 10:13 pm

I think that aaron and Colin are misunderstanding what I said, and in Colin’s case I’m puzzled why. The way I see the philosophical endeavour in politics is something like this. We try to work out what is genuinely valuable with as much precision as possible. This is a non-trivial task. We also try (contra Cohen) to figure out what weight different values have relative to one another with as much precision as possible. This is, perhaps, an even less trivial task (in fact, I think it is what most of political philosophy is really about). Of course, both tasks are enromously important in guiding action, as my post clearly implies. What, actually, to do in the circumstacnes we find ourselves in — well, that requires, among other things, a nuanced understanding of the way the institutions we are embedded within work and responsible, empirically informed, predictions about the likely effects of various courses of action (including, most importantly, their likely effects with respect to the salient values). This last does not seem to be a philosophical task, to me. This is not a matter of exclduing what other people do from philosophy, or pretending that Philosophy is pure in some way, but being appropriately humble about what philosophical methods can do and what philosophical knowledge is. Social science without philosophy cannot tell us what to do, all things concisdered, but philosophy without social science cannot, either. Perhaps unlike Jerry, my interest in political philosophy is driven in large part (but not wholly) by an interest in practical matters; I am interested in the non-ideal, thinking, like Rawls, that it is profoundly important, and if pusehd I’d say that about half of my time is spend thinking non-ideally. But non-ideal political philosophising is not sufficient to guide us in deciding what we should do all things considered, and it seems odd, and overly-ambitious, to me to think that it could. Surely, Colin, you don’t think so?


aaron_m 11.21.07 at 11:05 pm

“What, actually, to do in the circumstacnes we find ourselves in—well, that requires, among other things, a nuanced understanding of the way the institutions we are embedded within work and responsible, empirically informed, predictions about the likely effects of various courses of action (including, most importantly, their likely effects with respect to the salient values). This last does not seem to be a philosophical task, to me.”

We cannot expect philosophers to do everything or even a lot, and division of labor is necessary. I do wish more political philosophers worked closer with the described empirical questions, in part just because they are I think uniquely positioned to do so (e.g. I think, against what is usually advertised, that economists tend to be worse at philosophy than political philosophers are at dealing with empirical issues.)

But more importantly reasons for identifying and even more so weighing values seems only to give rise to philosophical urgency given questions about what “to do in the circumstacnes we find ourselves in,” in the sense described above.

This does not mean that abstracting away from the real world in order to theorize is a problem. But the notion of idealized political philosophy somehow free from the constraints of the conditions we find ourselves (e.g. empirical facts about the kinds of motivations beings like us have) is I take it, from my limited knowledge of these debates, pretty contested. But I may still be missing the mark somewhat on what Harry is saying.

“But non-ideal political philosophising is not sufficient to guide us in deciding what we should do all things considered, and it seems odd, and overly-ambitious, to me to think that it could.”

This statement seems to me to correctly limit the category of ‘ideal political philosophy’ to something that still can contribute to guiding”us in deciding what we should do all things considered.”


harry b 11.21.07 at 11:39 pm

aaron — I think I agree completely with nearly everything you say in #13. The final para I disagree with on the most natural reading (and maybe on any reading). First, because it might be that now we can discover things about the realm of value that are not pertinent to how we should act now, but might be pertinent how others in other circumstances should act, and I don’t think we should restrict oursleves to “our” questions (any more than pure scientists or pure mathematicians should restrict themselves to questions concerning the foreseeable developments of technology). Second, there may, really, be facts about the realm of value that, in fact, have no salience for action, and I don’t think we should, as philosophers, even as political philosophers, rule out thinking about them. But, I agree, that the recent (past 20 years, heavily influenced by Rawls) turn to questions that might matter for action has been a good thing!


aaron_m 11.21.07 at 11:54 pm

The last paragraph was more alluding to this stuff about the status of ideal theory about practical reason that at the same time is admittedly not practicable, at least in this non-ideal world. What can such theorizing tell us, is it appropriate to call results ‘ideal’ at all? But this is a different issue and off the point of the post.

Just started reading Cohen’s paper. It is kind of funny at the start in the way he is being so careful about how far his thinking on the subject has developed, while before he gets into the main issue he rushes through a bunch of stuff on what philosophers are and are not interested in. These comments could just be cut out without any effect and sent to the save for later pile.


Colin Farrelly 11.22.07 at 12:24 am

Harry, I agree with some of what you say in response at #12, especially about being “appropriately humble about what philosophical methods can do and what philosophical knowledge is”. I completely agree with you about that. But I don’t agree with the claim that “We [should] try to work out what is genuinely valuable with as much precision as possible”. Precision is important, but so is an appreciation of the context, proportionality, etc… Indeed these other things are, I would argue, much more important. So when the central concern of the philosopher becomes winning a debate concerning “first-best conceptualism” (e.g. what is the best conception of equality) the second task you mention (weigh the competing values, appreciate the institutional limitations, etc.) inevitably gets side-stepped or discarded. So I guess I interpreted your claim that philosophers, qua philosophers, “are not concerned with what should be done in practice all things considered” as a claim supporting a sharp division between these two things. I agree philosophers can only go so far with the second task, but the concerns that arise there (e.g. an appreciation of our history, scarcity, fallibility, vulnerability, etc.) ought to have an important bearing on what we say concerning what is genuinely valuable. And so political philosophers must go beyond pure ideal theory (which I thought you were endorsing with the claim that they are not concerned with what should be done in practice).



ben saunders 11.22.07 at 12:55 am

“Philosophers like me are not primarily, as philosophers, interested in what should be done in practice, all things considered. We are interested, instead, in what distinct things are worth considering. We care more about what ingredients should go into the cake than about the proportions in which they are to be combined.”

I think much depends on the scope of the italicized phrase; but I think Jerry’s simply saying he and people like him are concerned with working out the requirements of justice, and happy to leave the relative weight of justice as against other values to others (political philosophers, theorists and/or practitioners) depending on empirical context.


Paul 11.22.07 at 1:47 am

I’m not sure if I’ve completely got Colin’s first-best/second-best distinction down (I should buy and read the book!), so it would interest me to know his thought re: If we follow Rawls (and commonsense, I think) in believing (1) that there is an important distinction between justice and legitimacy, where justice is something like “first-best” and legitimacy is something like “what is morally binding here and now in light of context (especially the outcome of democratic procedures, say),” and (2) that “At some point, the injustice of the outcome of a legitimate democratic procedure corrupts its legitimacy” (PL, p. 428) then why impugn so-called first-best theorizing? One of the services that political philosophers ought to provide is guidance on when disobedience and disruption (both nonviolent and, sometimes, violent) is called for. In light of both the grave injustices we face everyday as well as the risks and costs that inevitably attend disobedience and disruption, it seems to me that it might well be positively irresponsible for political philosophers not to be deeply concerned with (something that would naturally be called) first-best theorizing about justice.


Colin Farrelly 11.22.07 at 2:17 am


I actually borrow the term “first-best conceptualism” from Adrian Vermeule (Judging Under Uncertainty) who uses it in the context of legal philosophy, though I think it captures a similar range of issues in political philosophy (indeed Gutmann and Thompson use the term “first-order theory” to capture the same thing in Why Deliberative Democacy). So basically the central concern with such normative theorizing is to win the philosophical debate concerning the primacy of one’s favored concept- be it equality, liberty, democracy, sufficiency, priority, etc. Whereas a second-order theory is more concerned with determining what would constitute a reasonable balance between the competing values that arise in the debates at the first-order level.

I suspect my use of these terms don’t map neatly onto your distinction between justice and legitimacy. But none-the-less, I think a second-order theory can address the concern you have regarding civil disobedience, etc. Indeed, it probably is better suited in this respect than a first-order theory. Rawls’s discussion of civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice is actually a great example. For Rawls presents civil disobedience as a middle position we can pursue when a conflict arises between the duty to obey the law (in a nearly just society) and the duty to protect one’s rights and liberties. And he tries to reconcile these two things by stipulating that the injustices in question must be substantial, that one first try normal political appeals, your actions must be public, etc. So Rawls’s discussion of these things is a great example of second-order analysis of these issues. His primary concern is to reconcile these competing demands of justice rather than give absolute priority to one or the other. I just wish the bulk of A Theory of Justice followed the example Rawls outlined in the chapter on civil disobedience.



vivian 11.22.07 at 2:23 am

Sometimes, important professors say something that gets heard two different ways. (1) The thing I’m good at, and can best contribute to, is X; I’ll be silent on Y, since I’m just not as professionally qualified as others. (2) Because I only do X, clearly I find everything else is not worth my time, my silence on Y indicates utter contempt for people who do Y. Spend some time in academia, you’ll meet people who are utterly contemptuous of everything they don’t do, and you’ll meet people who are just very narrowly focused, among others.

Professor GA Cohen, (and Harry B too), in writing, in tales from people who know him, come across as thoughtful, kind and gentle person, who is sometimes not interested in doing things he, nevertheless, respects. (Harry, you engage more widely, here at least.) But I see no claims about the worth of disciplines where he distinguishes politics or PT from political philosophy/ethics. So he prefers gardening to cooking – we actually need both.


kid bitzer 11.22.07 at 2:44 am

i know cohen is a great guy and all, but it sure felt weird to read his paeans to all soul’s “autonomy” and “independence” and never see the words “surplus value” mentioned anywhere. i mean, he even considers in a footnote that all soul’s vaunted independence depends on its ‘portfolio’. i.e., it lives on rents.

oh well.

as for the rest of it, i’ll need to read the second half, but the first half looks a lot like the standard conservative dodge of saying “i cannot justify my preferences in any above-board, articulate manner, so i’m going to erect a theory that makes my underhanded, inarticulate inability into a new kind of justification–and claim that it’s a morally superior kind, to boot.”

i’m hoping it gets better.


abb1 11.22.07 at 8:58 am

We care more about what ingredients should go into the cake than about the proportions in which they are to be combined.

99% sugar, please!


Tom Hurka 11.22.07 at 12:14 pm

Jerry’s conservatism paper is a great paper, so good job, Harry, for linking to it. Two thoughts.

In his brief methodological remarks, Jerry runs together two claims: that philosophers qua philosophers aren’t interested at all in how values weigh against each other, and that they aren’t interested in *exactly* how they weigh against each other. (For the latter see, e.g. the remark about the person who mentions decor in restaurants.)

The first claim seems to me, descriptively, inaccurate. I can show you lots of philosophical discussions of how, in general, equality weighs against utility or virtue against pleasure. But it may be true that philosophers don’t usually go beyond fairly abstract comparisons to attempt exact ones, and Jerry could be right in so far as he makes just that weaker claim.

Moreover, the claim about interest could be rephrased as one about ability, i.e. that philosophers qua philosophers are no better than anyone else at making exact comparative judgements. They may better at what Jerry’s paper does, i.e. looking at ongoing ethical discussions and extracting from them and making explicit a type of value-consideration that people are using without being fully aware of that fact. They may also be better at formulating abstract possibilities for how values compare with each other and maybe choosing between them. (So they can say that 99% sugar is out.) But they may be no better — they may even be worse! — at making exact comparisons. That may require a kind of context-sensitive judgement that they have no more capacity for than others. And what they’re no better at qua philosophers, they should be hesitant about doing qua philosophers.

I certainly think some humility can be called for in philosophical discussions of concrete ethical issues. Past a point those issues require a kind of judgement that philosophical training need not give you more of and may even leave you with less of.


chris armstrong 11.22.07 at 1:44 pm

Colin’s cake-baking analogy at 7 is witty and interesting, but there’s an obvious way in which defenders of ideal theory could respond to it. A recipe is a list of instructions that is designed on the assumption that each time we try it, the outcome will be the same, given that the conditions are the same (if the temperature, pressure, quality of the ingredients etc differ significantly, the recipe won’t work). But socio-political conditions do vary significantly, and it would be futile to hope that we could provide this rigorous a recipe for policy prescriptions (the more specific the instructions, the less likely we’ll encounter the conditions that will make it useful).

As such, it is possible to suggest that we shouldn’t be providing recipes of this kind – we should be providing an account of which ingredients we should use, and a more or less detailed account of what the relationship between / priority of the ingredients should be. We could make this very detailed and run the risk it won’t be helpful in diverse circumstances (non-ideal theory?), or we could make it very generally-applicable, and run the risk that it won’t provide us with all the details we need in practice (ideal theory?). The cake analogy doesn’t produce an argument for one or the other, it seems to me.


Paul 11.22.07 at 2:20 pm

Colin writes:

So basically the central concern with such normative theorizing is to win the philosophical debate concerning the primacy of one’s favored concept- be it equality, liberty, democracy, sufficiency, priority, etc. Whereas a second-order theory is more concerned with determining what would constitute a reasonable balance between the competing values that arise in the debates at the first-order level.

I suspect my use of these terms don’t map neatly onto your distinction between justice and legitimacy.

I agree: these terms don’t map neatly onto the distinction between justice and legitimacy (as I set it out above). But I guess then I find the terms somewhat misleading. I suppose I would prefer something like “myopic” or “fetishistic” instead of your “first-order,” since it is quite possible to reject a single-minded concern with “distributive equality” or “freedom as non-interference” or “efficiency as optimal GDP” and still engage in a sort of “ideal” or “first-best” theorizing that, while useful for the purpose I identify in my last comment above, is not sufficient to guide action in our imperfect world. And even if it fails to hit its mark, I guess I see Rawls’s TJ as decidedly second-order (in your term) theorizing. It certainly makes no fetish out of any particular value in the way that many in the “Equality of What” debate have done when they say, at the outset, “I admit that my discussion touches on only one aspect of justice. It will certainly be necessary, even at the level of ideal theory, to balance distributive equality (of resources, welfare, opportunity for advantage, etc.) against other values, such as efficiency, non-interference, and the individual prerogatives of those whose grew up with an unfair bundle of resources.”

And I don’t think Rawls is as unique in this regard. Consider Dworkin, who in “Equality of Resources” says that his envy test may always fail, since we cannot realistically redress all deficits in “internal resources”. My guess is that you would count this as problematically first-order reasoning, since it simply explores the nature of an ideal of justice that is one amongst many, and indeed one that cannot be fully satisfied and must be weighed against those considerations that stand in the way its full realization. But then, in chs. 8 & 9 of Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin offers arguments for a different envy test, which can in fact be satisfied even when there remain deficits in internal resources. Yet instead of lamenting, as he did in ch. 2, that his ideal of equality of resources can never be realized, he offers the following diagnosis: the fact that it can never be realized in light of the costs it would impose is itself a reason to rethink equality of resources, as defended in ch. 2, as an ideal of justice. The demands of justice must be sensitive not only to the ideals of distributive equality, but also to the costs of implementing it, and an accurate account of what justice is will respond to both of these, rather than elevating one to an ideal consideration while counting the other as a mere practical constraint that impedes the realization of justice in this world.

While I’m not sure that Dworkin or Rawls gets it right in the end, I am hesitant to call either a first-order theorist. And since you suggest that much of TJ is first-order, I suppose you would count Dworkin as first-order too. But this seems to overlook sometimes subtle yet still central moves and themes in their work. And once we’re on the lookout for such themes in the work of others, I wonder just how much first-order theorizing there really is out there. From what I can tell, most political philosophy these days is decidedly second-order, in your sense.


Colin Farrelly 11.22.07 at 2:50 pm

Fair point Chris. I guess my example of the analogy was to suggest that focusing primarily (or indeed exclusively) on just one of the things that add value to pumpkin soup (like a dash of salt) misses the importance of proportions and other vital details (like the ingredient of pumpkin itself!). And so when one fixates their attention on one small ingredient we are lead astray in the sense that one is left with the impression that the dash of salt is the key to making good pumpkin soup. But of course it is not.

I agree with you that conditions can vary significantly. I think the most the theorist (even the non-ideal theorist) can hope for is to give us a sense of what the “big picture” (of the moral and political landscape) looks like in particular cases (e.g. justice in affluent, unequal liberal democracies, etc.). So some abstraction is needed, and there will inevitably be some indeterminacy, etc. Thus I think what we (i.e. normative theorists) really ought to be concerned with is what justice requires “many-things-considered”. See my post here:

So for me the key issue becomes- what can we afford to ignore or bracket in our normative theorizing. And I think the ideal theorist makes a fatal mistake by ignoring too much (thus giving us an impotent theory). Granted the non-ideal theorist will face potential problems as well. But I would rather see us invest a greater portion of our energies into tackling those concerns.

And Paul, Yes- I would consider Dworkin (like Rawls) to be a first-order theorist. Granted Rawls is more nuanced in this respect than say Nozick. Nozick is more obviously a first-order theorist- liberty wins the day (end of story). For Rawls the story is- liberty is first, equality of opportunity second and then the difference principle third.



Rob 11.22.07 at 4:44 pm

The problem with Colin’s position is that it, in the terms of his analogy, can end up looking like it says ‘look, find a big orange vegetable; cook it somehow’. We want to be able to make distinctions between various normative ingredients of the all-things-considered prescription, so that we know what they are, and unless we think about those ingredients individually, it’s unlikely we can do that. That’s not to say that that’s what Colin ends up doing: but it can look like that’s what he’s advocating. There is a debate to be had about how abstract political philosophy should be, both in terms of how effective it’ll be in realising its ends – whatever those are – and in terms of how possible it is to be as abstract as someone like Cohen wants to be, but I think that just ruling out someone like Rawls, who is explicitly concerned with the possibility of implementing his schemes, on the same grounds as someone like Cohen is not obviously the way to go about having it.


loren 11.22.07 at 5:05 pm

I agree with Harry’s final point and subsequent elaborations in the discussion. I also agree with Tom and Vivian.

That said, I do wonder if there’s just a hint of condescension lurking in this, the second use of “rescuing” in a draft paper title from Cohen?

“Rescuing” seems strongly to suggest that someone or something needs to be rescued, and that others in a position to give aid are either impotent to do so or fail to recognize the need. Would I be forgiven for suspecting that Cohen’s word choice implies that he (rather than, say, a muddled constructivist or bona fide conservative) is the man for the job?

I find much that is interesting and fruitful in Colin’s work, and I know that Rawls gave us the ideal/nonideal distinction, but I’m not sure the distinction is really all that useful, especially for understanding what Rawls himself was up to, or what we can do in the real world with his approach. Nor am I persuaded that the really critical problem with purported ideal and first-order theorists (Nozick, Dworkin, Rawls, GA Cohen?) is that they ‘ignore too much’ of the messy real world.

For Rawls there seems to be a pretty good interpretive case that his later concerns with reasonable disagreement and public justification (roughly, second-order concerns) are entirely consistent with the constructivist elements of Theory of Justice. True, Rawls gives priority to liberty, but his discussion and deployment of reflective equilibrium (narrow and wide) seems to suggest a far richer approach to reasoning about justice and the real world than you seem willing to grant him, Colin.

More pointedly, without something that looks like “ideal theory” philosophical analysis, I wonder if we can persuasively endorse one nonideal approach and set of prescriptions from competing approaches and recommendations within the same rough issue space?

Finally (and murkily, and perhaps contradicting my point directly above), I’m really not sure what all the fuss is about. If some metaethics and normative ethics types want to learn some history and do some social science to explore questions of justice and legitimacy in the real world, thus complicating their concepts and arguments, then fantastic! If some cognitive and social scientists and historical-interpretive political theorists want to get up to speed on, and contribute to, abstract debates in, say, epistemology, ethics, and (“ideal theory”) political philosophy, then that’s great too! Indeed, this describes a real-world trend.

There are culture shocks and the inevitable faux pas here and there, but by and large there’s much interesting work going on along a spectrum from abstract conceptual analysis and argument, on the one hand, and straight-up practical study and recommendations about what we should do in the real world, on the other. All of us here could together create a vast list of colleagues working somewhere between abstract philosophy and practical theorizing — some are in philosophy departments, others in social science or humanities departments, some in interdisciplinary centers, and some are not in academic employment at all, but instead are doing cool stuff in the real world, yet are strongly informed by theoretical debates they themselves occasionally contribute to.

I guess that, given this fruitful diversity of backgrounds and approaches we’ve seen emerging of late, I’m not sure what’s gained by pushing so hard to fit some folks into the “ideal theory” box with an eye to insisting on their fatal simplifications vis-a-vis the real world. That distinction certainly doesn’t help explain why I find your work on genetics and justice so interesting: my endorsement (everyone, read Colin’s stuff) does not turn on the fact that you consider yourself working in nonideal theory. Nor does my unease with, say, Cohen’s critiques of Rawlsian constructivism have to do with Cohen doing ideal theory.


Colin Farrelly 11.22.07 at 6:18 pm

Hey Loren, nice response. One last point and I’ll go away (I think my pumpkin soup is burning!)

I agree that there is a pretty good interpretive case that the later Rawls is up to much more than I have given him credit here. But I also think there is an equally good interpretive case that Rawls (and the Rawlsian project more generally) is guilty of the things I claim. But the real significance of the ideal/non-ideal distinction, at least for me, doesn’t concern figuring out what Rawls was up to (though that is an interesting question as well). It concerns how we go about constructing, and assessing, our normative theories. And so echoing Loren’s approval of Harry’s final point, I agree that we need a sense of both the ingredients and proportions.



Ingrid Robeyns 11.22.07 at 6:59 pm

Very quickly since I’m in a hurry too: for those interested in the debate on ideal/non-ideal in theories of justice: watch out for the April 2008 issue of Social Theory and Practice, which will have several papers on this topic. (disclosure: I’m one of the guest-editors, together with Adam Swift). I will write more in due course, that is, next April when the issue is out and you can read the papers if you like.

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