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Political Philosophy and Political Change

ivorytowerIn a memorable sequence in his book, Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy depicts the young dog, “George’s son” who works for the farmer, Oak, as a sheepdog. The main job of George’s son is to run after the sheep to make sure that they stay together and do not run away. Tragically, however, the sheepdog being under the impression that the more he runs after the sheep, the better, one day drives all the sheep off a cliff. George’s son, thinking that he has done an exceptional job, returns happily to Oak, who is now left with nothing. Hardy writes that George’s son met the “untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise. “

The problem to which Hardy alludes here is one of applying a stringent methodology to one’s surroundings with complete disregard for the consequences.  This problem, Hardy notes, is one that afflicts both dogs and philosophers. In this manner, he reflects an age-old critique of political philosophers that they have too much “love of wisdom” and too little “love of actual progress and development.” The problem is, critics contend, that such philosophers are unworldly daydreamers thinking up abstract ideals with no regard for how these will be received in the actual world. But what, one might ask, is the alternative?  Should political philosophers be in the business of advocating and facilitating political change? Yes – at least partly, I believe.

A more common answer seems to be “no.” The job of political philosophers, some claim, is to decipher truths about how society should be shaped (even if this means running a few sheep off the cliff). For example, to establish moral principles about how benefits and burdens should be distributed in a society, about our obligations to fellow citizens, and regarding which procedures we are to make collective decisions. They should aim to figure out what we ought to do – and this question is fundamentally distinct from what we are able to do right now. And, importantly, mixing these two questions could very well lead to dangerous compromises with moral truths for immediate political gains, which is why political philosophers should not seek to create political change. The fear that motivates this view is that theorists who are also political activists will become too caught up with political agendas of parties or social movements. This may make them lose sight of long-term societal goals and undermine their academic independence. If political philosophers are just spokeswomen for political parties, where, then, will we find unbiased answers conceived beyond the shadow of the ruling ideologies, the critique goes.

Two things need to be said here. First, political philosophers are not just seekers of truth (whatever else you may believe). They construct arguments and principles which are meant to be action-guiding (and this is the case even when they take a more abstract form). Political philosophers, for this reason, are political agents who, at least potentially, shape political reality. So, even if we think that political philosophers should avoid becoming partisan demagogues, avoiding political impact entirely is not a viable (or attractive) alternative. What they did would cease to be political philosophy. Second, we could hold a different (and, I think, more plausible) view about truth.  Whilst admitting that truth does indeed have independent value, we could hold that truth is not the only value with which political philosophers should be concerned and that it is a value that can sometimes be outweighed. Even if we agree that truth is important, it should rarely be pursued at the expense of furthering political emancipation and alleviating human suffering.

Maybe, there is a middle ground to be found saying that truth is important, but not so important that it always trumps the possibility of motivating people for political change? Or, perhaps, we could say, instead, that we should put an activist constraint or limit on the pursuit of truth? This would mean that political theorists (and, I should say, social scientists in general) should generally seek to work out the truth about the world and the most plausible and coherent set of moral principles, but there would be the added restriction that they should refrain from advocating or disseminating this truth if it would predictably be used to make the world morally worse or serve to uphold unjust practices.

I am not advocating that political philosophers should, for this reason, seek to avoid engaging with politics for fear of making the world worse. Not only is political philosophy unavoidably political, political philosophers are also in a privileged position vis-à-vis political debates qua their training in conceptual clarity, distinctions, and the creation and analysis of arguments. Political philosophers are engaged in politics and have the training to make this count.

(Picture courtesy of nickagin.com)

David is a research fellow in the Government Department at The London School of Economics and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University. He sometimes arrives late at the airport (twice this year, so far), misses his plane and then gets very angry with himself.



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  1. Thanks for this David!

    I am slightly worried by this activist constraint you propose and not entirely in agreement with the general critique you lodge against the truth seeking philosophers. It might be because of a different understanding we have to what it means to ‘seek the truth’ in this case. So let me ask you about two things

    (i) I’m not sure why you think that seeking the truth in philosophy involves following a thought to its logical conclusion, or following a strict methodology without regard to consequences. I take it when one is trying to find the true answer to a problem in political philosophy, one is trying to find the right solution to the problem; the right thing to think or to do. A theory which gives no regard to consequences is to be rejected not because it is truth seeking; but because it gets the truth wrong.

    (ii) this brings me to my second point, you seem to draw a distinction between philosophy as truth seeking, and philosophy as action guiding. But I don’t see that either: the truth tells us what the right thing to do is. I can’t see why someone might think that the right thing to do (i.e the truth) is to bring about a worse world. Do you perhaps then have in mind a different distinction between the right thing to think and the right thing to do and that you think that these come apart? Or perhaps your worry is about theories that tell us the right thing to do in a particular domain without considering their impact on other domains. If that is so, do you think philosophers should only provide an all things considered right view, and never think about particular implications of certain views?

    Let me leave it at that, I’m sure your answers will give more material for discussion!

  2. Thanks, Siba.

    What I think is that political philosophy is never only truth-seeking because it is also always an intervention in actual politics (it is, by definition, always action-guiding). Political philosophical principles and theories prescribe arguments for why agents ought (or ought not) act/function in a certain way. They are always political because they can be picked up and used directly in political arguments due to their argumentative form; because they (potentially) influence behavior and thereby politics; and because they redefine concepts and deconstruct arguments and thereby influence how we think and talk about politics.

    In this way, political philosophy is different from most of the natural sciences and other branches of philosophy such as philosophy of mind or history of philosophy, which are not fundamentally action-guiding. Whereas they teach us truths about the world, political philosophy sets standards for how we (as individuals, institutions, societies, or the world) should act in that world and uses arguments to make people want to live up to such standards. It is never just truth-seeking, but also always truth-creating.

    So regarding your (i), I am not talking about “finding the truth” in political philosophy (if such a thing is to be had), I am talking about publishing, otherwise disseminating, being a public intellectual, even teaching. All of which are political acts. My point is that when you “do” political philosophy, you are also doing/shaping politics – you are never just seeking the truth when doing political philosophy, so it is misconceived to talk about this element in isolation.

    Regarding (ii), I don’t think I share your view on truth as something that is clear and about which you can say (in any meaningful way) “the truth tells us what the right thing to do is”. But that might be a discussion for another time. My point here is another one. Take the two claims: “people should be held responsible for their choices” and “most people who are badly off in the world are not in this situation as a consequence of their choices.” These two theoretical statements are fully compatible and, in fact, a great number of theorists affirm both of them (i.e. hold them to be true).

    Political philosophy involves choices about which truths should be in the driving seat and how these truths should be delivered and framed. To return to the example, it may predictably make a significant difference whether the focus of a theory is that people should be held responsible for their choices (as in luck-egalitarianism) or that the focus is on helping people out of their misery for non-responsibility related reasons. A focus on the former could seem to feed into the discourse of the established elite trying to justify why the worst-off deserve their plight. A focus on the latter, on the other hand, seems to work in the opposite direction. The former predictably reinforces how things are, the latter critically opposes them.

    So, I simply think it misrepresents political philosophy to speak of it as telling us what to do. It simultaneously intervenes in politics, and, thus, must always be aware of how these interventions will predictably be received.

  3. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Alex, thanks for this post. I have a question of clarification, which might turn into an objection, depending on your answer. You emphasize that publishing arguments in political philosophy is per se a political act. I guess I agree in principle, leaving aside some questions about how the publishing process de facto works and who de facto reads articles in political philosophy. The problem I see is one of predictability: can we really understand our historical context well enough to see how certain arguments might be picked up and used or abused by political agents? I grant that there may be relatively clear-cut cases, at least in the short run. In the long run, who knows what happens, especially when ideas travel between cultural contexts. So there might be an argument for seeking truth that goes roughly like this: seeking truth is our best bet for having a positive influence, because it is most likely, overall, to guide policy makers to true insights.
    Now, to counter this move, one option would be to challenge the idea that there is such a thing as one (Platonic?) truth. I’m sympathetic to that move. But it leads to complicated questions about the historicity and plurality of reason, the limits of human cognition, individual vs. socially embedded truth-seeking etc. How far would you want to go down these paths?
    Also, do you have an alternative strategy for a “best bet” for having a positive influence? Is that always a context-dependent matter of judgment, or can we say a bit more here?

  4. Thanks for the post, David. I am also interested to hear a bit more about how you see the relationship between philosophers doing/disseminating research and the take-up of ideas.

    In addition to Lisa’s thought that it is hard to see how ideas will be used, there is also a worry about the possible impact of not disseminating certain research or focusing research in a way that emphasises certain features rather than others (as you suggest in reply to Siba). Both of these approaches seem also potentially liable to certain political forces claiming pretext or deception in research and using such spin to their advantage.

    Given a general tendency for research and research strategy to be misused or manipulated, I, thus, also wondered whether it might not be a best bet simply to focus on seeking the truth? Or, perhaps, whether a preferable alteration to this strategy might not be to recommend a more proactive political role for philosophers pushing and defending claims about where their views actually lead in terms of policy and combating their misuse in public life?

  5. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Very interesting post, thank you! But in my view, David, you should make a distinction between two contexts of discourse. When writing in academic journals, political philosophers should be only concerned with truth. But when talking to a larger audience, they should pay more attention, as you suggest, to the way they will be interpreted and to the political consequences of what they (are taken to) say. Following your illustration, the luck egalitarian should keep insisting on the moral relevance of personal responsibility in her scientific work if she believes in its truth, but lay the emphasis on bad luck in public debates. As you mentioned during the workshop on luck egalitarianism in Louvain, luck egalitarians should pay attention to the take-away message of their discourses – but, I add, only outside the academic sphere.

    Besides, I fully agree with Andrew’s point about the importance for political philosophers to make clear “where their views actually lead in terms of policy” and to combat misuses.

  6. Thanks very much all of you for engaging with this and making up silly nicknames for me – thanks for great comments. Here are some thoughts:

    1. Two things regarding the distinction between seeking truth when publishing in scientific journals and doing politics when speaking to a larger audience (as you all, but especially Pierre-Etienne, point to):

    a. I think publishing in scientific journals, for social scientists (including political philosophers), only makes sense if conceived as (partly) a political act. It is a way of convincing fellow social scientists of a certain argument (or, refuting another argument). They, in turn, teach their students this who go on to become politicians, work in the political bureaucracy, or become influences of public opinion in other ways. Or, they use these arguments in their own publicly engaged work. Or, they use it in their role as experts when called upon by actual politicians or the media. Publishing social science is creating and changing the social about which we think. And I think this is the raison d’être of publishing.

    b. I don’t think political philosophers ever can be “only concerned with truth.” I don’t think there are truths in the social sciences that can be conceived independently of their effect. When you say something about how people and societies work or about which reasons people have to act in a certain way or another, you are intervening in the reality you are describing and changing it. To put it in a very simplified way: when you say that people have a reason to do X, you are simultaneously making people more likely to do X and then you change the political landscape that you were describing and the balance of reasons changes accordingly.

    2. Regarding the predictability (that both Lisa and Andrew raise) of how our arguments will be received:

    I agree that you cannot predict how arguments will be received. I do think that you can predict obvious cases like hardcore luck-egalitarianism being damaging in a context in which responsibility is to a very high degree used to disenfranchise the least well-off – both citizens and countries – or like statism in a world in which nationalism and xenophobia grows without any end in sight and where people’s lack of international solidarity is truly mind-boggling. And as I said, I do not think that it is a viable strategy to just “pursue truth,” because I think that is impossible and that the biggest problems arise exactly when political philosophers THINK they can do that and proceed to drive great flocks of sheep off the cliffs and come back wagging their tails.

    3. I think that Andrew’s idea of a “more proactive political role for philosophers pushing and defending claims about where their views actually lead in terms of policy and combating their misuse in public life” is a good one. I think political philosophers should do both.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Thanks for the reply, David! I have been thinking about a historical example that is close to my heart, and that seems to fit your description of someone who tried to push for political change (at least according to my reading, based on an analysis of his rhetoric): Adam Smith. Adam Smith (again, according to my reading) wrote the Wealth of Nations as an attack on the mercantile system and the privileges of certain “merchants and manufacturers” that had monopolies and extracted unjust profits, and also against inherited privileges of rich noblemen. In his day, he was perceived as a friend of the poor. In the course of the 19th and 20th century, he became the hero of free market radicals who would not bother to see his writings in the historical context and to read up to book V of the Wealth of Nations, let alone look at the Theory of Moral Sentiments. What the name of Smith came to stand for seems to be also quite akin to driving sheep off cliffs. So isn’t there a symmetrical danger for that strategy as well?

  7. Jonatan

    I disagree with this article.

    Throughout history, disregard for the truth has frequently had disastrous consequences. This is exemplified in its most extreme form in communist dictatorships such as USSR and North Korea. The truth here was / is not held as having any value in itself, and as a result the population is kept highly misinformed and oppressed. Even though there were countless brilliant people in the Soviet union, little science of value was produced, largely as a result of dogmatism and suppression of truth. Progress was held back for centuries due to suppression of truth by the church in the early middle ages. Et cetera. In contrast, the fastest progress of humanity has taken place in free societies where the truth was plainly spoken.

    The value of truth is clear and has been proved time and time again throughout history. On the other hand, examples where dissemination of truth has made the world worse are hard to think of.

    It is possible to set up some theoretical scenario where it is better not to tell the truth. This discussion reminds me of those regarding torture. It is also possible to create a fictional, isolated scenario in which torture is preferable. However, this scenario may never realistically occur in the real world. The future consequences of performing the torture may be worse than the gains in the specific instance. And the a priori allowing for torture may lead to torture being overused, if people too often think that they are in the specific scenario where it is preferable. These same three arguments can be used in an argument about disregard for the truth.

    Nevertheless it is possible that there are several conving and realistic scenarios in which disregard for the truth is preferable. If so, these should be stated so they can be evaluated. I am not entirely sure, but I think that David presents two such examples in one of the comments. However, these examples are not convincing to me.

    “I do think that you can predict obvious cases like hardcore luck-egalitarianism being damaging in a context in which responsibility is to a very high degree used to disenfranchise the least well-off – both citizens and countries – or like statism in a world in which nationalism and xenophobia grows without any end in sight and where people’s lack of international solidarity is truly mind-boggling.”

    I have the same problem with both of these examples; let’s look at the statism one. Let us assume you are a political theorist in this world, and you don’t believe statism is the morally true philosophy in this world. Then you would not advocate statism, and there is no problem. Let us now assume that you are a political theorist in this world and you do believe that statism is the morally true philosophy. Since you believe that it is the true philosophy, even in this world, you do not think that it would lead to bad consequences overall. And thus you would have no reason to lie about it. Of course a third person may disagree and hope that you lie about it, but that should not affect your decision.

    • About statism and nationalism: I think there is a genuine danger. You can believe that statism is morally true and yet be afraid of the potentially disastrous consequences of nationalism. Read On Nationality by David Miller, for example. He spends time distinguishing his position from xenophobic nationalism, and I think he should spend even more time doing this in public debates.

      It is not the consequences of his conviction that he fears, but the consequences of a misunderstanding. So he does not need to disregard truth, but balance his concerns for truth and for desirable consequences.

      • Jonatan

        I agree that ideas can be misunderstood and that this can lead to bad consequences. You can address this problem by being very careful regarding potential misunderstandings, and in distinguishing your position from similar but incorrect positions. This is of course something I support.

        As I read your comment, you seem to state this viewpoint as well. You say “He spends time distinguishing his position from xenophobic nationalism, and I think he should spend even more time doing this in public debates.” Not “I think he should not even state his ideas in fear of these potential misunderstandings.”

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