Monday, 17 February 2014

How Utopian can Political Philosophy be? (Part 1)

This week, Doctoral Researcher Ben Bessey discusses idealisation and the proper methodology of political philosophy.

One of my current research interests concerns the proper methodology of political philosophy. In this post, and the next, I'll discuss one strand of thinking about this topic, and then sketch one way of responding to it, which I'll be talking about at a conference in April.

Several recent political thinkers have argued that the theories that academics have advanced to explain what justice requires have relied on too much idealisation. Often, political philosophers attempt to describe a world that differs radically from our own, not least in that they assume that citizens within it will generally be motivated to act correctly, in a way that is free from bias. For example, they assume that racism and sexism will have ceased to exist as significant motivating factors in the lives of most, or all, citizens. Opponents of idealisation1 have responded that this has terrible consequences for our understanding of justice as it affects the actual world.

This criticism takes two main forms. Firstly, some argue that obscuring the existence of racism and sexism (etc.), and thinking about justice and its attainment without acknowledging the multifaceted ways in which these unjust social practices affect people's lives will lead to conclusions that are themselves unjust. For example, if we think about the behaviours that are required of people without the history of sexism in mind, and then import our conclusions back to the real world without alteration, we are likely to impose unfair burdens on the current victims of sexism. In the real world, victims of sexism are likely to have less ability to contribute to a struggle against injustice without sacrificing their well-being, since sexism has caused them to have less power, and since their well-being may have become more fragile. Also, it is unfair to expect the victim of an injustice to contribute equally with relatively unharmed persons to that injustice's removal: they are probably less responsible for it.

Secondly, many have also argued that the presence of injustices such as racism or sexism affects the reliability of people's judgements2, including their judgements about what justice requires. Since the aspiration to produce idealised theories will encourage theorists to ignore their position in unjust social hierarchies (because in the ideal world such hierarchies would not exist), this aspiration will make them less aware of the true extent of their unreliability. As a result, idealised theory will not tend to give an accurate account of what justice requires.

If these arguments are compelling, idealised political philosophy seems to be an intellectual dead end, and engaging in it will probably do more harm than good. However, the alternative may seem equally unpalatable. If we cannot in any sense think about a world without (e.g.) racism, how can we aim at this world? And, if we are limited to considering only conservative changes to the institutions and practices that we already happen to have, isn't there a severe risk of complacency? In my next post, I'll discuss one recent partial defence of idealisation, and argue that it points us in the right direction.

1 Margaret Urban Walker's 2007 book, MoralUnderstandings (New York: Oxford University Press) focuses on such criticisms throughout, and Charles W. Mills' 2005 paper 'Ideal Theory as Ideology'(Hypatia Vol.20 No.3) provides a concise survey of much of this work.

2 Heidi Grasswick's encyclopedia entry for'Feminist Social Epistemology' (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)) includes discussion of some different ways that this argument has been made.

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