What’s the point of political philosophy?

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What’s the point of political philosophy?

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In majority-Sikh societies, a law making it compulsory to wear a motorcycle helmet would go against the will of the people. Are principles of justice universal or contextual? © Flickmor

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

  1. May 17, 2013

    Alyson

    ‘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.’

    Rights to basic equality, self-determination and freedom of speech, enshrined in law, are pre-requisites for effective democracy. As soon as a theocracy or one-party system denies some elements of the population any of these three pre-requisites, then rule of law is not open to improvement, to universal human rights or multi-culturalism.

    It is easy to stifle dissent when the penalties are too high to mount an effective challenge to the ruling cadres.

  2. May 18, 2013

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    What may philosopher wrote that one his unconscious autobiography.All philosophers are wrote about ideal society which they want to be come in reality. that one is compelled on them from readers.All readers are expected guidance from philosopher how live on earth.From Plato to Sartre .spread illusion in society.If they tell the truth people may stone them.Just consider how many generation of west abused to Machiavelli because he told truth.spoke on reality

  3. May 18, 2013

    John Black

    David Miller says that our sense of justice is a human construct. The human eye is not a human construct. Are altruism and concern for others human constructs? We seem to share these impulses with other mammals and without them human society and species survival seem unlikely.

  4. May 18, 2013

    Greg McColm

    Actually, “realism” in political philosophy goes back to Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli, and their are signs of it in Aristotle and Han Fei. Meanwhile, this looks like a debate over situation ethics (what should we do given the situation) than political philosophy (what is really happening?).

  5. May 19, 2013

    Charles

    If you think Plato didn’t concern himself with the messiness of the reality of politics as his wrote his Republic and Laws, the you haven’t read either book ver well. A primary concern in the “rule if philosophers” is whether this is even possible. At the very least consider the diminution of Eros in the Republic and how Plato uses prisoners at the center of his government in the “nocturnal counsel” in The Laws.

  6. May 19, 2013

    Steve

    Democracy is not defined here sufficiently for the needs of the whole point.
    Masses want to rule just as much as elites. Rulers want to vanquish their competitors, definitely not give anywhere near “equal treatment” to others. Where the real bone of contention is; how do you let them live?
    That’s a fact not only in the US, but in more equitable environs (like Scandinavia) too.
    The popular power of religion in over 2/3d of the global population, clearly proves the widespread desire to be above “oth-ers”. Racial, ethnic, regional inferiority theories form alliances.
    Funny that motorcycle helmet laws are at the top of the message. They were hugely unpopular among riders in the US, (including myself, though I always wore mine when going faster than app. 30 mph (48 kmph) but big money rammed it through legislation. Curiously, that may tell me why I live in a first world democracy: the majority is somewhat balanced by big money. Having come from the killing fields of Europe, I’ve seen enough to believe majority rule needs counter-weight if the minority is to survive.
    Unchecked majority rule (democracy?) crashes, and it’s not pretty. Look at the third Reich, USSR, Napoleon, etc. They didn’t have the majority you say? Hmm. I’ve seen two of them close up; when things went well: most, nearly all, were for it. Just like the US voter in my 56 years here, one war after another. Domestic, (drugs, crime, poverty (there’s a good one), and many more, and foreign. Granada; Yeaa. Vietnam; Boo.
    So let’s not even begin to talk about Democracy, Freedom, and other buzzwords. FDR (Eleanor?) defined four freedoms. Today, Obama rides roughshod over the first; freedom of speech. (Manning? Wiki?) Heads of state, any state, give marching orders to armies of lackeys persecuting dissidents. It’s a fact. Democracy, =majority votes, = command of the state armies (too numerous to mention) to the powerful; the moneyed, the popular, the vote getter.
    What is Democracy?

    • May 28, 2013

      Rational Hoplite

      Bravo.

  7. May 19, 2013

    James

    A fantastic read. Bravo.

  8. May 19, 2013

    Sand

    Instead of assuming absolutes of the rights to conform or not conform to various traditions, religious or otherwise, it might be worthwhile to consider the possible results of enforcement of particular behavior. Society can accept various illogical traditions if they cause no harm. If Sikhs wear no helmets while motorcycling, do they have a sizable injury and death rate over those who do wear helmets and is this acceptable among Sikhs? And if the rates are higher, then, justifiably Sikhs should have a higher insurance rate for a motorcycle license to cover the cost of disability and thereby relieve society in general of the extra costs and in cases of accidents there should be some acceptable prejudice against Sikhs in reparations for head injuries because of the lack of helmets. Various dangerous sports are tolerated in society as long as health and medical costs for these indulgences are not put on the rest of society.

  9. May 19, 2013

    lloyd667

    Well, I stumbled pretty early on, at the example of violation of religious principles. Why would motorcycle helmets be illigitmate if the violate religious principles, but legitimate if not? On what philisophical principle, in other words, would we, as a “fundamental” matter, place religious belief above, say, a personal taste for riding without a helmet? Fundamentally, the proposition is nothing more than begging the question.

    And this is not an isolated example. Exactly thevsame comment applies, mutatis mutandis, to the examples of charity and racial discrimination. In all cases, what is to be proved is simply assumed.

    Maybe the author is just talking down to us plebs, rather than providing arguments that are legitimate but “too difficult”. If so, the article is a waste of paper. Or, maybe the author is accurately characterizing the state of political philosophy. if so, the article is quite the eye opener, and I would conclude that political philosophy departments should be shut down.

  10. May 19, 2013

    Saksin

    I find it revealing that so much of this thoughtful article deals with the influence of political philosophy and ethics, with “its aspirations to reform both our sense of what justice is and our concrete political system,” as the author puts it. If these philosophers cared more for understanding and explaining moral convictions, precepts, and systems, rather than for reforming, promulgating or advocating them (ultimately recommending policy) they might end up contributing to moral clarity rather than to academic controversy. They might then also find that though there obviously cannot be a theory of justice “independent of us”, there very likely can be one specific to us. That is, it would be specific to us in our capacity of human beings as opposed to pigs or asses, as already Heraclitus recognized when he penned his immortal lines
    “Pigs delight in mire rather than in clean water”,
    and
    “Asses would choose chaff rather than gold”
    The standard of comparison in both cases is of course human beings: We are the ones who would choose clean water and gold, and the differences ultimately come down to the different biological natures of the species in question. That the contrasting natures of biological species, which extend into their psychologies through the differing needs and consequent motivational structures, preferences and choices that derive from those contrasts, that such things should have nothing to do with the subject matter of political philosophy and ethics, seem implausible on the face of it. To explore what that relevance might in fact be, one would have to know what convictions human beings actually hold in these areas, along the lines of the cross-cultural studies of the psychological bases of morality pursued by Jonathan Haidt and others. The most general patterns in these matters can then be pursued as provisional candidates for moral derivatives of our species-specific human nature.

  11. May 19, 2013

    Barry Cooper

    A lot of gobbledy-gook disappears when you do two things: 1) assume progress is possible; and 2) define in what it would consist.

    The foundational problem philosophers–so-called–have, that plumbers do not, is that they don’t know what they are trying to do, and don’t know when they get there. Obviously, they spill a lot of words, but at what point does ANYONE insist that there be a real world consequence of their having lived and worked?

    Our civilization is imploding under the weight of bad ideas, ideas which are created and promulgated by people for whom being RELEVANT, much less useful, is of only marginal interest.

    In my view, I have solved these problems. I have an essay on my website, which should be linked, which deals with the nature of what I choose for simplicities’ sake to call Goodness.

    I would ask, as well, a general question: if you are neither building Goodness, nor even trying to define it in a useful way, in what respect are you not a waste of space and talent?

  12. May 20, 2013

    Klaus

    On reading this, I’m struck by the fact that Miller seems to be taking the same sort of adolescent relativist line that I refute every year in my Introduction to Philosophy classes. Facile, and not worthy of debate with Gerry Cohen!

  13. May 20, 2013

    IVAN TIRCUIT SR.

    Very balanced insights. Excellent Read.

  14. May 21, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    Right from the start of reading this piece I ‘m tripping myself up by distinguishing between ‘political philosophy’, the philosophy of politics’ and something I can only call ‘the politics of philosophy’–without having the vaguest idea what these concepts mean.

    The best I can do so far is to hook into the comment that ‘…justice is a human invention’, an idea that seems to me so obvious that I have a hard time taking alternative suggestions seriously. Of course I also assume religions are a human invention. But let me continue to read, so I may or may not learn something.

  15. May 21, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    Before immersing myself in further reading, what never fails to stick in my craw, or in a place very close to it, is the idea that people are/want to be ‘tolerant’ and ‘sensitive’ to diverging norms or customs by creating or allowing conditions in which other, presumably equally tolerant and sensitive folk can persist in being apparently less than fully tolerant and sensitive in turn. What’s that all about?

  16. May 22, 2013

    Mark

    The philosopher with the biggest claim to realism was Karl Marx. But he was also the philosopher who broke with deductive logic. Moving beyond philosophy as a description of how we currently think was a conscious project for Marx but it came with the cost of allowing a subjective rather than objective test of ‘truth’. The above is an interesting piece but really, the real challenge for political philosophy is how to take its ‘oughts’ seriously when it can’t properly establish the essence of the thing itself.

  17. May 22, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    Whoww, this is a good read, say I, entirely unversed in pol phil.

    Truth, like all abstractions (love, justice, progress etc), has the sharp, solid outlines of a mirage, which provides a reassuring boost to our convictions and beliefs (incl. religious faith). When we get coser to reality or context, though, it begins to look different.

  18. May 22, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    ‘coser’ in my previous pensee is better written and pronounced as ‘closer’.

    By way of variant: abstractions are absolutes, it seems to me, and as such a source of constant conflict in human affairs.

  19. May 23, 2013

    Alyson

    ‘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’

    Is political philosophy description or prescription? Is it comparative or does it seek a deeper underpinning to offer to political systems?

    Montesquieu, in his ‘Esprit de Lois’ 1748, proposed the political institutions of England as a model to the government of the continent. He was clear that its effectiveness lay in its mixed, or moderate, constitution, which combined the distinctive principles of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, while also ensuring that a clear separation existed between the legislature, the executive and the judicature. [Halevy, 1924, A History of the English People]

    • May 24, 2013

      Mark

      I think Marx was very focused on the concept of people ‘listening’ to political philosophy, so much so that he pushed ahead with his ‘imminence’ project and in doing so, broke with the Young Hegelians. Marx, of course, had a massive impact on politics, economics and – in the contemporary West – academic and popular culture. It seems that the relationship between philosophy and politics has always been vexed, and even the separation between philosophers and the ‘praxis’ of politics has never been quite enough to calm the philosophers or their fears of irrelevance. Karl Marx, way back in the 1830s, argued that philosophy couldn’t maintain a distance from the ‘crisis’ (of the industrial revolution) – that philosophy had to be involved the crisis, hence ‘critical theory’. Marx succeeded overtly – perhaps other philosophers influenced styles of governing more covertly?

  20. May 23, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    “…there’s only reason to be tolerant if tolerance has a value that is not itself relative”

    is an assertion I am still grappling with. What could it mean, beyond being cutely semantic? One is tolerant to avoid or escape confrontation; or being tolerant expresses an appreciation of the rights and desires of others.

    The ‘not itself relative’ part of tolerance escapes me, except perhaps as a sign that when one comes to the end of tolerance there will be an absolute change in attitude. But then one no longer talks about tolerance.

  21. May 24, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    One last point.
    The reviewer opines that “…the notion of our beliefs about justice being distorted by bias does not…make sense if there is no justice independent of our beliefs, as Milder’s claim…justice is a human invention implies”, explaining further that “Things can only be distorted if there is a truth to distort”.

    I find this reasoning impenetrable.

    The opinions on what I take to be justice by the U.S.Supreme Court, e.g., can in many cases be perused as to whether a conservative or a liberal judge is pronouncing. The ‘literalists’, so-called, pretend to understand what the writers of the Constitution intended. They were Earthlings, it is generally assumed. The Judges are Earthlings too, although sometimes you wonder.

  22. May 24, 2013

    Gordon Simmons

    Guess I’m with Nietzsche & Sartre: Yeah, humans create (make up) values. Why is knowing that ever a reason not to keep on doing it?

  23. May 28, 2013

    Rational Hoplite

    Perhaps one baby-step in the right direction (for a contextualist) is: While we’re abandoning the pursuit of a (non-contextual? transcendental?) theory of justice, let us each worry more about the political/legislative/judicial condition of our own nation (state, county, city, town), and less about the polities or domains of others. Not my polity, no my problem — that’s my motto. (When their polity is a security threat to my polity, however…)

    And there’s the rub. Red-in-tooth-and-claw political realism (or contextualism), however, doesn’t seem to have a fighting chance. The popular and persuasive rhetoric of human rights, the mission-creep of the WHO, and the thriving aid/humanitarian relief industry all rest upon (or: take for granted) a number or normative universals. Many Westerners like – or seem to like – some of these wannabe universal moral truisms, even if (apropos of domestic matters) they self-describe as realists/contextualists. But so long as Westerns/Western nations believe in the duty to now and then wag fingers at the norms, folkways, policies, and prejudices of other peoples, contextualism will itself always be pointing to an ideal.

  24. July 12, 2013

    Anjum Altaf

    Alex: I am not a philosopher. That may be the reason it seemed obvious to me that a theory of justice that did not factor in the reality of power would be of little use for activists.

    I came to this conclusion after reading Sen’s The Idea of Justice. My concern was expressed in the following:

    http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/justice-power-and-truth/

    Of course, not being a philosopher, I may be completely off the wall here.

  25. September 19, 2013

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Alex Worsnip
Alex Worsnip is a doctoral student and Teaching Fellow in philosophy at Yale University. Follow him on twitter @AWorsnip 




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