Thursday, 20 February 2014

How Utopian can Political Philosophy be? (Part 2)

Gabriël Metsu, The Triumph of Justice
In the second of two posts, Ben Bessey discusses idealising methodology in political philosophy and asks how utopian political philosophy ought to be.

In my last post, I sketched an important challenge to idealising methodology in political philosophy. As I said,
many contemporary thinkers argue that idealisation, because it abstracts away from many of the features of our highly and persistently unjust world, will promote biases resulting from social inequalities, and threaten to cause more injustice than it alleviates.

However, the prospect of entirely abandoning consideration of the ideally just world should worry us. For one thing, an unrelenting focus on what better conduct can be expected of people within the confines of existing practices and institutions – sexist divisions of household labour, for example, or the prevalence and power of racial stereotypes – threatens to ossify those practices. If there is no space to claim that these portions of our society are unjust to their core, even though we have to find ways to live with them here and now, we will regard them as unproblematic, extending and deepening their grip on our collective lives.  For another, it isn't clear that anyone who genuinely values justice could aim merely at the mitigation of such injustices, rather than at their eradication. What we want is to live in a world without any injustice, where we can live rightly with others; we do not merely want to do the best we can.

Lisa Tessman1, in a recent paper, has forcefully developed this approach to the question of idealisation. She draws on the philosophical literature surrounding the concept of a dilemma to argue that questions about the right thing to do are not the only things with which we generally are, or should be, concerned. In a genuine dilemma, it cannot simply be the case that there is one right thing to do, which, when done, leaves no ethical remainder. Even if, in the final analysis, the correct option is chosen, this will not make everything OK. Similarly, most of the political choices before us will not leave the world a just place, even if we make them as well as we possibly can. Thus, a conception of justice that goes beyond what can be expected of people in our thoroughly non-ideal circumstances is necessary, to make sense of this further dissatisfaction with the state of our common lives.

My hope, building on Tessman's work, is that what this points to is a better division of labour in political philosophy. Much – probably most – political thought should be highly non-ideal, attempting to provide detailed, realistic accounts of contemporary political conditions, and then thinking pragmatically about the best way for differently situated individuals to improve those conditions. Questions about responsibility for wrongs and for their immediate repair, about what people are allowed to do or must do, and about what is best for them to do: all these are questions for non-idealised politics. Some of our reflections in political philosophy, however, will always have to go beyond this, mirroring our concern with true justice – with what it would really take for us all to live well together – and not merely with what we should expect from one another when we take injustice for granted.


1 Tessman 2010, 'Idealising Morality' in Hypatia Vol.25 No.4, pp.797-824.

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