What the Fuck does Political Philosophy Have to do with Anything?

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Betram has this to say about political philosophy (of a Rawlsian/Kantian variety):

“Political philosophy (of the Rawlsian/Kantian variety) isn’t an entirely fact-free zone, but the way we often discuss matters of principle tends to push us towards favouring policies independently of the way things actually are. So we might ask, what should be the foreign policy of a just liberal state and what attitude should such a state have to “outlaw regimes” which are engaged in systematic human rights violations. And, in the light of such thinking, what would the laws of a just international order look like? What rights against interference would states have? When would there be a duty to intervene? And so on.”

This post resonated for me in a big way, because ever since I spent four years studying political theory/philosophy in Berkeley, and ever since I decided to spend another five or six years doing the same thing in a Ph.D program somewhere, the nature and project of political philosophy has always weighed on my mind.

First, there is the problem of applicability: just how, and can we, apply the independently-arrived normative conclusions in political philosophy in the real world, where everything is non-ideal. Bertram addresses this worry:

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking the questions that get asked in philosophy seminars. But the temptation is there to read the answers across to the actual world and to support policies as if the philosopher’s premises were true. So, in asking what the policy of a liberal state should be, we proceed as if the actual states in which we live “liberal democracies” approximate that moral ideal rather closely. (They don’t.) And we tend to be less aware of practical objections than we ought to be. (We don’t tend to inquire too deeply into what would happen if we encoded our ideally-justified permission to intervene in international law. How might doing so change the incentives facing political actors?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love doing this kind of thinking and reading works by other philosophers who are doing the same thing. Why else would I spend my summer going through A Theory of Justice from the beginning to the end? However, there is a part of me which is deeply sceptical about both the goal of philosophy. Granted, someone like Rawls repeats over and over again that what he’s doing is pure ideal theory, but how does the awareness or the admission of this fact really help in the real world? If the normative conclusions reached in philosophizing is sound, and also assuming that one ought to do what is normatively correct, then it is incredibly frustrating to see that the real world–and the political actors in them–fail to recognize these normative conclusions and implement them to the best of their abilities. But if political philosophy, or normative philosophy of any kind, lacks independent persuasive power to influence the behavior of people who actually makes political decision, then what the fuck are we doing?

However, I do not want to reject the normative force of independently-arrived conclusions in political philosophy. For example, the normative claim that the institution of slavery is inherent immoral has normative force regardless of what the actual situation is: even in a society where slavery is wholly accepted and practiced, that still does not diminish the truth of the normative claim.

So where does that leave me? The same place that I started: I love doing and reading political philosophy, but I am not completely sold on its project, or at least, the kind of project in the Rawlsian/Kantian variety.


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