In 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)