It is a near-truism that philosophy operates at a remove from the “real world.” Many philosophers suppose that the answers to questions in logic, epistemology and metaphysics are independent of particular empirical facts about how human society happens to be set up. But what about ethics and political philosophy? How far should philosophers concerned with these areas take into account the messy reality of everyday life?
Not far at all, says one venerable tradition that dates back at least to Kant in the 18th century, and probably as far as Plato. From this perspective, the job of ethics and political philosophy is to work out how things ought to be. This need not be closely related to how things actually are. For the philosopher trying to imagine the ideal society or specify the nature of virtue, engaging in detail with the world in its current state (or in its historical forms) may be unnecessary or even unhelpful.
This traditional picture, however, has always had its detractors. In recent years the attack has been led by a group identifying themselves as “political realists,” counting amongst their number philosophers such as Raymond Geuss and the late Bernard Williams. According to the realists, the traditional picture risks making political philosophy both irrelevant and falsely universalistic, mistakenly supposing that the same abstract principles are applicable to societies of radically different kinds. Realists have singled out many of the most prominent political philosophers of the 20th century—John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin and GA Cohen—for particular scorn.
The realist critique of these philosophers—let’s call them, by contrast, the “idealists”— encompasses a number of distinct charges, not all of which sit well together. One criticism is that the idealists’ abstract theories of justice are insufficiently engaged with real politics. Another related accusation is that their demands are unrealistic, standing no chance of being implemented. Another common charge, although a very different line of attack, is that idealists—Rawls in particular—are apologists for the political status quo, cooking up a convenient justification for the US’s particular brand of liberal democracy. Finally, the realists sometimes seem sceptical about the whole project of formulating theories of justice, suspecting that such theories are merely ideological devices that obscure power relations, or that there is in fact no universal theory of justice independent of particular societies and their convictions. They argue that trying to design a single political theory to apply to, say, Britain, China and Morocco—not to mention the political cultures of the past—is hopelessly naive.
Although there is something appealing about these lines of criticism, many existing articulations suffer from a mixture of blustering polemic (Geuss allegedly sent a number of colleagues a postcard juxtaposing the pictures of Kant, Rawls, George W Bush and an Abu Ghraib prisoner) and faux-profound obscurantism (see, for instance, Geuss and Williams’s proclamations about the “uniqueness of the political”). They also frequently rely on rather uncharitable readings of the idealists and on a desire to engineer a kind of showdown between rival approaches in political philosophy, a tactic which often obscures points of agreement between traditions.
In the midst of this confused debate, the arrival of David Miller’s richly nuanced, philosophically acute, and finely written book, Justice for Earthlings (Cambridge University Press, £18.99), is very welcome. Miller avoids the label “realist,” preferring a more moderate position which he calls “contextualism.” He argues that, whilst there is some capacity for political philosophy to critique existing political ideas, there is a limit to how revisionary it can be—a limit to the extent of its aspirations to reform both our sense of what justice is and our concrete political system. Rather, its fundamental business is to systematise and make consistent our existing convictions. Moreover, Miller agrees with the realists that in a society with radically different convictions, the appropriate fundamental principles of justice would be different. Most provocatively, as Miller puts it, “justice [is] a human invention that accordingly is shaped by the circumstances of human life.” There is no true theory of justice independent of us.
At first glance this might seem like a much more attractive approach to political philosophy than the idealist one. After all, societies have differed widely in their ideas of justice, and it can seem like cultural imperialism to say that it is only the modern western conception that has got it right. Furthermore, Miller is surely correct that the justifiability of particular political policies sometimes depends on circumstances and on the convictions of citizens. An example may help here. Sikh men are unable to wear regular motorcycle helmets because of their turbans. Passing a law making it compulsory to wear motorcycle helmets would force such individuals to violate their own religious convictions, and, particularly in majority-Sikh societies, would go against the overwhelming democratic will of the people. Thus it would not be legitimate for a government to pass such a law. Yet in a society with no Sikh citizens—where passing the law would not violate religious convictions or go against the democratic will—it might be completely legitimate. So, the circumstances, and the convictions of individuals, make a difference to what is justifiable.
But it is not only contextualists like Miller who can offer this kind of sensitive approach to circumstances. So, too, can many idealists—a fact made clear by a fascinating exchange over the years between Miller and the late, great socialist philosopher GA Cohen. Questions like whether motorcycle-helmet-wearing should be mandated or not, Cohen argued, are not fundamental questions of justice. Rather, there are more fundamental principles—do not force people to violate their core religious identities; do not legislate against the overwhelming democratic will of the people—which themselves explain why we get one verdict in one set of circumstances, and a different verdict in another. And it is only the most fundamental principles, on Cohen’s view, which are universal. So he can acknowledge much of the context-sensitivity that Miller helpfully points us towards.
What divides Cohen and Miller is Miller’s claim that there need not be deeper universal principles of the sort that Cohen envisages underlying particular political prescriptions. So what’s the attraction of Cohen’s idealism over Miller’s contextualism? Well, according to Cohen, we can only explain why particular circumstances must be taken into account by providing more general principles that specify how they do so. Moreover, one requires such fundamental principles to adjudicate more borderline cases. To return to our example: what if the turban-wearing group is a sizeable minority, for example, but nowhere near a democratic majority—what policy is appropriate then?
Miller’s contextualism, and relativist views more generally, can seem appealing due to a humane desire to be tolerant and sensitive to the views and practices of others. We want to make room for people to pursue the good life as they see it, informed by their own historical, cultural and religious perspectives—and not to be told by the state what is good for them and what to value. But, as the old point goes, there is only reason to be tolerant if tolerance has a value that is not itself relative. It’s partly for this reason that philosophers have been so hesitant to move beyond sensitivity to circumstances, and embrace Miller’s bolder claim that justice is a human invention.
One might, alternatively, be drawn to Miller’s work if one is worried that endorsing universal, rather than contextual, principles of justice will lead to enforcing a particular moral conception on citizens against their will. And it is an important insight of political philosophy that not every moral truth is an appropriate basis for the state to legislate on. For instance, it might be that, as private individuals, we are morally obligated to give a lot more money to charities, especially to those in the developing world, than most of us do. But it doesn’t follow that the state would be justified in forcing us to do so. Past a certain point, individual citizens in a liberal society must be free to come up morally short—and it is citizens, not the state, that are accountable for such failings.
But, once again, this does not show that political philosophy should not try to formulate universal principles. It’s just that these principles govern state action, not that of private individuals. The claim that states should not enforce particular moral conceptions on people is itself a moral claim: a claim about what the state has the right to legitimately do. And we need principles to fix the limits of the sphere in which the state is justified in compelling private citizens.
If, like Miller, you think that there need not be such deeper universal principles underlying particular prescriptions, what does make such prescriptions appropriate in one context but not another? For example, Miller suggests that even basic democratic principles are not applicable in some societies. Since formulating political principles is about articulating our convictions, says Miller, democratic principles may be inappropriate in a society where people do not support democracy. And this is not just a hypothetical scenario: recent polling data suggests that democracy does not always find popular support—even in countries such as Libya which have been portrayed as swept up in recent pro-democracy movements.
One way to justify the claim that democratic principles do not apply in such countries would be to say that basic political structures ought to be arranged in the way the citizenry want them to be. Whether convincing or not—and it looks rather self-defeating—Miller would be unlikely to pursue this line of argument. After all, it attempts to explain why democracy is appropriate in some contexts but not others in terms of a deeper principle: political structures should reflect the wishes of the citizenry. Instead, it seems that Miller believes that there is simply nothing more to a principle being “appropriate” than it reflecting peoples’ convictions. This is not just to say that our convictions are all we have to go on in working out what is just. Rather, it is to say that, since justice is a human invention, there is no fact of the matter about what is just: only what we think is just. There is no way to fundamentally justify such claims, and all political philosophy can aspire to do is to articulate them and make them consistent.
This puts us in a somewhat precarious position. When we have convictions about what is just, part of what makes them convictions is the feeling that they are not just arbitrary. When you believe, for instance, that racial discrimination is unjust, you don’t just believe that you believe that racial discrimination is unjust; you believe that racial discrimination is unjust. Of course, you should acknowledge that not all others share your view and that they are entitled to their views. But it’s part of believing that racial discrimination is unjust that you see those who deny this as in at least some way mistaken. It is hard—perhaps even incoherent—to cling on to one’s convictions if one has to simultaneously view them as no more correct than anyone else’s.
Most importantly, it is unclear what the point of giving a systematic articulation of our convictions would be if they were just arbitrary, and did not get at some deeper truth. If the convictions are arbitrary, why should I care what the convictions of my society as a whole are, as opposed to my own convictions, or those of my family, or gym club, or racial group? A picture of political philosophy as giving voice to arbitrary fictions which we just happen to have inherited makes it look significantly more pointless than a picture of political philosophy as making “utopian” demands that do not look like being fulfilled any time soon.
Admittedly, Miller would probably not accept this somewhat nihilistic picture. He does think that political philosophy should be more than a description of how we currently think. The question, however, is whether this is reconcilable with his view that justice is an invention, and that even the most fundamental norms should not be applied where they are not accepted. As many radical political philosophers have stressed, one key task of political philosophy is to alert us to the ways in which our existing political beliefs are distorted by bias and ideology, and thereby to seek to revise them. But the notion of our beliefs about justice being distorted by bias does not even make sense if there is no justice independent of our beliefs, as Miller’s claim that justice is a human invention implies. Things can only be distorted if there is a truth to distort.
That said, one can acknowledge Miller’s insights—retaining his objection to “utopian” political philosophy which makes demands that stand no chance of being achieved—without signing up to his entire programme. It may be right that political philosophers will marginalise themselves by seeming wildly out of touch with reality. Yet it may also be true that it is sensible to “start the bidding high” when making demands about changes to our political systems. Striking the balance here is a difficult task, and what strategy works best is an empirical question which we should not try to settle from the armchair. Nevertheless, these questions are not fundamentally about what justice is, but rather about how best to realise it.
Miller’s book raises one final, more pessimistic, question. Does the exact methodology of political philosophy really affect its chance of influencing political practice? It is true that a more “realistic” set of demands will be more relevant in the sense that they could be implemented if anyone were listening, but the reality is that, with the possible exception of a few very high-profile figures such as Rawls, most political philosophers do not influence public policy to a great degree. If this pessimism is apt, then it is unclear what the point of trying to make political philosophy more “relevant” is. A subtle methodological shift in the way political philosophy is practiced is unlikely to give it significantly more influence. In light of this, we should think twice about compromising its critical function, insofar as it has some influence through universities and think tanks, rather than put it in danger of becoming an apology for the failings of our society.
Michael Sandel and AC Grayling discuss markets, morals and MOOCs
Who was John Rawls?: The reclusive philosopher revived liberal political philosophy with A Theory of Justice. Ben Rogers looks at why he wrote it
The origins of globalisation: Can historians change the way we think about the modern world? asks Matthew Wolfson
Richard Rorty: He was arguably the most influential philosopher of our time: a radical American who is against war in Iraq – and against truth, reason and science. Yet his radicalism turns out to be oddly disarming, argues Simon Blackburn
Against pragmatism: Modern politicians like to present themselves as pragmatists dedicated to “what works.” This lets them subtly stifle dissent, says Alex Worsnip