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THE PRACTICALITY OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY*

  • Justin Weinberg (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

Must principles of justice be practical? Some political philosophers, the “implementers,” say yes. Others, the “idealists,” say no. Despite this disagreement, the implementers and idealists agree on what “practical” means, subscribing to the “implementation-prediction” (IP) conception of practicality. They also seem to agree that principles of so-called “ideal theory” need not be (and often are not) IP-practical. The implementers take this as a reason to reject ideal theory as an approach to principles of justice, while the idealists do not. In this paper, I argue that we should reject the IP conception of practicality. The implementers make a mistake, then, by requiring principles of justice to be IP-practical. But the idealists make a mistake, too, by rejecting in general the requirement that principles of justice be practical. For there is a plausible alternative conception of practicality that political philosophers should accept: the “experimentation-learning” (EL) conception. EL-practicality makes for a more realistic and epistemically accessible standard of practicality, and thus should be welcomed by the realistically-inclined implementers. It also preserves a crucial role for ideal theory, so should be welcomed by the idealists, too.

Abstract

Must principles of justice be practical? Some political philosophers, the “implementers,” say yes. Others, the “idealists,” say no. Despite this disagreement, the implementers and idealists agree on what “practical” means, subscribing to the “implementation-prediction” (IP) conception of practicality. They also seem to agree that principles of so-called “ideal theory” need not be (and often are not) IP-practical. The implementers take this as a reason to reject ideal theory as an approach to principles of justice, while the idealists do not. In this paper, I argue that we should reject the IP conception of practicality. The implementers make a mistake, then, by requiring principles of justice to be IP-practical. But the idealists make a mistake, too, by rejecting in general the requirement that principles of justice be practical. For there is a plausible alternative conception of practicality that political philosophers should accept: the “experimentation-learning” (EL) conception. EL-practicality makes for a more realistic and epistemically accessible standard of practicality, and thus should be welcomed by the realistically-inclined implementers. It also preserves a crucial role for ideal theory, so should be welcomed by the idealists, too.

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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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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Laura Valentini , “Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map,” Philosophy Compass 7, no. 9 (2012): 654–64

A. John. Simmons , “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38, no. 1 (2010): 536

David Schmidtz , “Nonideal Theory: What It Is and What It Needs To Be,” Ethics 121, no. 4 (2011): 772–96

Charles W. Mills , “Rawls on Race/Race in Rawls,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 47, no. 1 (2009): 161–84

Mills , “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20 (2005): 165–84

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

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

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

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

Henry Richardson , Practical Reasoning about Final Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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