Continuing some reflections on methodology - here’s a first, critical cut at the topic, just to get things going.
An important moral-politico problem is traveling full speed down a set of rails carrying a cargo of important propositions and real-world observations but on the tracks is “the literature”, and the political theorist seems to be faced with a choice: she can either let the problem continue to move and see where it ends it’s journey, or she can pull the switch, saving the literature but derailing the problem’s journey. What should she do?
Of course, this is an extravagant recasting of a classic scenario typically used for sharpening our moral intuitions, but the theorist’s predicament seems a common occurrence. While I think we should ultimately come to understand that no such choice is necessarily entailed by doing political theory, I want to entertain this narrative to raise some critical points about what it means (ought to mean?) to do normative political thought (as compared to work that is properly identified as ‘history of political thought’) and to raise some concerns about the kinds of conversations the field of political theory tends to push its participants towards, often to the detriment of the problem at hand. Let me begin with the concern as this will allow me to (I hope) move more clearly in the substantive direction such a conversation should head.
[Disclaimer: none of what follows is a blanket indictment of the field of political theory, but I do mean to raise a concern about a disposition that is more common than it ought to be. Of course, that is one persons’ view, but that is why we argue, in good John Stuart Mill fashion].
So, vocational pet peeve: you have presented a paper that is a work in progress, but which is earnestly trying to figure out some political issue of normative significance because it affects real lives. Insert problem of choice: deep poverty, racial subordination, gender inequality, and so on. You finish your presentation and the first question is: “have you read so and so’s book? I think you should because s/he says……”
Why would a person do that? What does he or she think is at stake? I have a couple of ideas. The first answer is precisely that there has been a failure of imagination; an inability to separate the academic from the conceptual. I’ll return to this point in a moment. Second, canonical texts run very effective interference for the risks involved in political analysis. For example, why should I say that it seems unjust that we do not provide for the worst off, when Rawls says it? Our sociology of knowledge tends to operate on the basis of shortcuts, and some of these shortcuts have real conceptual currency such that it allows us to invoke an idea with less resistance and move on, and this is sometimes a very effective strategy, and sometimes it is quite legitimate if the aim is to pre-empt unwanted skepticism and promote the thesis in question.
But let me return to a portion of the first point, that being – failure of imagination such that there is a failure to separate the academic from the conceptual, for I think this is the main culprit. To see this, let’s ask a question: what do we do when we think about the world? Precisely because we cannot measure every normatively significant observation, and even when we can, the process is daunting, we categorize for the sake of general analysis. So we observe that in a capitalist society, for example, people tend to do worse than they otherwise would often because of an unfortunate starting place and we notice that socially valuable vocations are paid disproportionately low wages as compared to those that are merely tools of the capitalist enterprise (ahem, investment bankers) and we say something like: capitalism is fraught with a lot of injustice. And, in saying that we hope to be able to more or less treat the two kinds of specific instances as symptoms of a first-order cause. When we do this, we are certainly involved in conceptual work. For who are any of us to impose such categories on these various instances of social/political/economic phenomenon? But we do so and we try to offer arguments for doing so and these can be better or worse, and these can resonate or not.
But we sometimes exhibit confusion wherein we mistake academic work for conceptual work. For example, we say that Rawls was wrong about what justice amounts to because, to use G. A. Cohen’s complaint as an example, Rawls seemed confused to say that people have a sense of justice yet need incentives to provide for the least advantaged. If they had an adequately operational sense of justice, there would be much less inequality than that allowed by the difference principle. Thus, we conclude that justice might entail robust principles of personal action. Let’s for the moment grant G. A. Cohen his point for the sake of illustration and presume that all this is perfectly right.
…..but it is also all academic.
To see why, we need only ask a simple question: why would people’s commitments matter for justice so long as institutions are rightly ordered? We could answer this by saying something like, persons populate institutions thus the sharp distinction between institutions and persons is deeply misguided. And I think that is a fine answer. But a finer answer would be something like: U.S. history is littered with significant cases in which institutional reform failed to fully see through the promises entailed by that reform. One reason for the failure was that particular kinds of beliefs were in play (let’s take the inability of the Civil Rights victories to forestall racial inequality as an example) that preempted individual agents from being able to see the reason of the reform in the first place. And here, we wouldn’t merely gesture towards the case, but would engage the relevant particulars and work backwards towards arguments and principles. Notice that this retains the formal quality of the argument against a sharp distinction between persons and institutions, but it now has significant content that maps directly onto particular moral problems. It might be said in response that we would have to get a better handle on the relationship between institutional practices, elite political actors, and the polity at large to assess Cohen’s claim, and that this is very complex. Indeed it is, and that’s the point. The political world is complex, but thankfully being attentive to actual cases and being honest in interpreting those cases (for, in the end, even the most astute observations are susceptible to a degree of interpretation) can illuminate the problem at hand, saving it from being merely academic while not jettisoning the important work that concepts do for us in helping to give order to complexity. This, to my mind, is a core component of what it means to do political thought. And notice, no amount of reference to another person’s bad arguments about the nature of justice can get us to this point.
This entry is mostly critical and needs to be complemented with some positive recommendations/observations/intuitions, etc – and that will make it’s way here at some point in the near future. But let me add a final, gentler point. There is always room for the literature and I have stated my argument very strongly to motivate moving towards a middle point I find entirely acceptable. Rather than taking the aspects of the literature as representational heuristics for a problem, we take the literature as data points. What do I mean? Well, think of it this way. How much more illuminating would it be that rather than ask, how might Rawls be confused about the relationship between our sense of justice and the amount of redistribution we might or might not tolerate, we ask: why does he seem confused about this? What facts or reasonable intuitions about political life seem omitted from a generally elegant theory that we should accept as genuinely concerned with social injustice? I think asking this kind of a question is a good first step to keeping the literature and the problem side by side in an appropriate way that respects both on their own terms.