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THE PRACTICALITY OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY*

  • Justin Weinberg (a1)
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I would like to thank David Schmidtz, Carmen Pavel, Rosie Johnson, and several anonymous referees for helpful written comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I am also grateful to the other contributors to this volume for their critical comments and discussion of these ideas. A version of the essay was delivered at the Midsouth Philosophy Conference in Memphis, Tennessee in February of 2013, and I would like to thank my audience there and my commentator, Ashley Acosta-Fox, for their questions and comments.

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1 Rawls, John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 7. Also see the discussion of “optimization” as the “confrontation of desirability with feasibility considerations” in Brennan, Geoffrey, “Feasibility in Optimizing Ethics,” Social Philosophy and Policy 30, nos. 1-2 (2013): 314.

2 In Section III, I explain how G. A. Cohen and David Estlund are idealists in this sense.

3 The views of specific implementers are described in Section II.

4 For a similar spectrum, see Farrelly, Colin, “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation,” Political Theory 55, no. 4 (2007): 844–64.

5 The reader should assume that subsequent references to practicality are to substantive practicality, unless otherwise noted.

6 The distinction between formal and substantive practicality is important because it clears up a vagueness that can be confusing. See, for example, the discussion in Section III.

7 For some general discussions of the distinction, see Valentini, Laura, “Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map,” Philosophy Compass 7, no. 9 (2012): 654–64; Simmons, A. John., “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38, no. 1 (2010): 536; Schmidtz, David, “Nonideal Theory: What It Is and What It Needs To Be,” Ethics 121, no. 4 (2011): 772–96.

8 My conception of ideal theory is based largely on what I take to be Rawls's view. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 78. See also p. 4 on well-ordered society; p. 125, on strict compliance; and pp. 215ff on nonideal theory.

9 Justin Weinberg, “A Little Reality is a Dangerous Thing” (unpublished manuscript).

10 See Farrelly, “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation.”

11 Mills, Charles W., “Rawls on Race/Race in Rawls,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 47, no. 1 (2009): 161–84. Also see Mills, , “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20 (2005): 165–84.

12 Murphy, Liam, “Institutions and the Demands of Justice,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27, no. 4 (1998): 251–91.

13 Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

14 Robeyns, Ingrid, “Ideal Theory in Theory and Practice,” Social Theory and Practice 34 no. 3 (2008): 341–62, at 361.

15 Sen, Amartya, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

16 Wiens, David, “Prescribing Institutions without Ideal Theory,” Journal of Political Philosophy 20, no. 1 (2012): 4570, at 67.

17 Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 84.

18 Ibid., 86.

19 Estlund, David, “Human Nature and the Limits (if any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39, no. 3 (2011): 207–37, at 226.

20 “The content of justice … might … precede any facts about what humans or any beings happen to be like” (Estlund, “Human Nature,” 229), including facts about their altruistic tendencies or abilities to comply with particular laws or support particular institutions.

21 Estlund, David, Democratic Authority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 264–67.

22 Cohen, Rescuing Justice, 271.

23 Ibid., 301.

24 Fundamental principles of justice, according to Cohen, are “in no way dependent on the character of any facts.” Ibid., 281.

25 Ibid., 272.

26 Estlund, Democratic Authority, 268.

28 Ibid., 266.

31 Cohen, Rescuing Justice, 268.

32 As a reminder, unless otherwise noted, “practical” refers to “substantively practical.”

33 If you object to using the term “correct” to describe principles of justice, substitute “most acceptable” for it.

34 Again, this point is neutral between realist and constructivist accounts of evaluative standards. We could be revising our standards in an attempt to achieve mere reflective equilibrium, or we could think that it is only through investigation that we have a chance of properly identifying the mind-independently true evaluative standards. If we are constructivists of some sort, then of course we would need to try them out to agree on them in any informed way. But if we are realists, that the principles seemed right to us when we tried them would merely be good evidence that we have discovered the right principles. Given that we are often wrong in our predictions about what works, we should not trust our armchair judgments.

35 Sen, Amartya, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1992) chap. 1.

36 My view on these matters is influenced by Millgram, Elijah, Practical Induction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) and Richardson, Henry, Practical Reasoning about Final Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

37 Discussed in Weinberg, “A Little Reality is a Dangerous Thing.”

38 Note that changing the language from “impossible” to “unlikely” does not help the implementers, as likelihood is going to be prospectively judged, based on an interpretation of the facts—an interpretation we have reason to distrust.

39 Derek Parfit famously says of nonreligious ethics, that, because it is so young a science, “it is not irrational to have high hopes” for its success. Parfit, , Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 453–54. I add here that because it is so young, it might be unreasonable to think that it has already succeeded.

40 Brandeis, Louis J.. New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (dissenting), 285 U.S. 311 (1932).

41 This version of the objection was put to me by Chris Bertram.

* I would like to thank David Schmidtz, Carmen Pavel, Rosie Johnson, and several anonymous referees for helpful written comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I am also grateful to the other contributors to this volume for their critical comments and discussion of these ideas. A version of the essay was delivered at the Midsouth Philosophy Conference in Memphis, Tennessee in February of 2013, and I would like to thank my audience there and my commentator, Ashley Acosta-Fox, for their questions and comments.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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