In this essay, I will first define the questions that I think that matter in normative political philosophy. Secondly, I will try to see how much different approaches to political theory can help me to answer these questions. The approaches that I will talk about are the ones developed and presented by Ronald Beiner, Ryan Balot, Margaret Kohn, Clifford Orwin and Joseph Carens. This choice of theorists is not random, as I chose to talk about approaches that I consider as the most connected to my interests and to the questions that I think that matter for political philosophy.
I will not talk about the questions that I think that matter for non normative political philosophy, although I think that one could only work at an ontological level in political philosophy in trying to elaborate and discuss the best definitions of political elements and notions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that normative political philosophers have to propose and defend (or simply presuppose) first definitions of certain political elements in order to be able to prescribe or evaluate then. From that perspective, it seems that normative political philosophy always implies ontological political philosophy (at least presupposed), but that the opposite is not true (indeed, one can practice ontological political philosophy without practicing normative political philosophy).
1. Central questions for normative political philosophy
I think that a central question for political philosophy has been identified by Robert Nozick in his famous book Anarchy, state and utopia:
“The fundamental question of political philosophy, one that precedes questions about how the state should be organized, is whether there should be any state at all. Why not have anarchy?”
Indeed, if one has not answered this question first, then what is the point of writing about how the state should be organized? If the possibility that anarchy is a sound position remains, then the doubt about the utility of any reflection about how the state should be organized remains also.
Nozick thinks even that if one finds out that anarchy is the best possible way of organizing the society, then it “undercuts the whole subject of political philosophy”. I disagree with him about that statement, because I consider that some important political philosophical questions still remain. Among them I would cite: What should be considered as a legitimate property in an anarchist society? Is (a form of) democracy justified to exercise collective (or majority) coercion against minorities in an anarchist society? What should be the rights of people living in an anarchist society? Is wage labor a violation of the rights of individuals? Would discrimination or social ostracism be, or not, a problem in an anarchist society? Furthermore, a political philosopher could have proved the value of anarchy and still had a very essential task to realize in refuting all alternative claims and views on the subject. After all, refuting alternative theses is a gain of knowledge, as Karl Popper defended it about the progress of knowledge in natural sciences.
However, what if this central question of the value or the non value of anarchy was answered (positively or negatively)? For example, Nozick considers that anarchism is not a valuable or sustainable position (because he thinks that a certain type of state can appear without violating any rights). Then the debate focuses of course about what is the justified size of the state. So we can say that the central questions for political philosophy are for Nozick to know if the state is justified at all and then to discover what size of the state is justified. I completely share here Nozick's point of view about the centrality of these questions for political philosophy. At the opposite, a philosopher like John Rawls begins his exploration of political philosophy in presupposing directly that a certain type of state (that he would call liberal and democratic) is justified.
In order to answer the central questions of political philosophy that has identified Nozick, I think that we need first to know how and if we can assert any political statements and if there is a point to assert these kind of statements. As far as I know, Nozick does not bring any answer to this important debate, but he acknowledges though that: “Moral philosophy sets the background for, and boundaries of, political philosophy. (…) The moral prohibitions it is permissible to enforce are the source of whatever legitimacy the state's fundamental coercive power has.” I would agree with him about the importance of moral philosophy if we want to be able to answer the set of fundamental questions for political philosophy that Nozick has identified and that I mentioned earlier. More precisely, I think that a certain number of questions can be raised from these fundamental questions of political philosophy: How can one assert a valuable and sound political statement? What justifies political statements? If the answer is that nothing can justify political statements, or that political statements only serve some interests without ever having any kind of objectivity, then political philosophy is a nonsense because there is nothing to be found and political statements are empty of any sort of value (there are neither right nor wrong).
Following again Nozick, my answer would be that we could find a moral theory that would justify certain political statements in respecting certain moral conditions or criteria. And if one can justify political statements it means that one can prescribe political institutions/patterns and evaluate actual, possible or proposed political patterns. There are several different moral theories that have been formulated in moral philosophy, and among them I could cite at least: utilitarianism, deontologism, ethics of virtue, contractualism and jusnaturalism. Moreover, there are many different versions of each of these (main) moral theories. So in order to practice political philosophy, the philosopher, who is interested to answer the questions mentioned earlier, should first find which version of a moral theory is sound and valuable (because then he could thus justify certain political statements and condemn others on a sound basis).
In addition to all that, I think that moral statements (and moral theories) presuppose another question which is: Can moral statements be objective? This is a debate in meta-ethics between many theories and among them: objectivism (realism), subjectivism, relativism, emotivism and nihilism. Therefore, a philosopher who wants to assert a moral statement should first show that moral statements can be objective. Finally, it is possible that philosophers should also work first at an ontological level in order to elaborate good definitions of moral notions used in moral debates.
To summarize my view about what are the questions that matter for political philosophy and how to answer them, I think that the question of what kind of society is needed (anarchy, a state, a certain size of state, a certain type of state) implies the question of how to justify political statements, which implies the debate between different versions of diverse moral theories, which itself implies the question of if moral statements can be objective. If one does not have answer these questions, one is building theories on weak foundations with the consequence that if any foundation falls then there is a risk that the whole theoretical structure falls as well.
In these three big debates (desirable size of the state, moral theory justifying a political statement, objectivity of moral statements), I have positions that I do not consider sound and strong enough because of the lack of arguments and knowledge. Nevertheless, I do have positions which are: no state is necessary and desirable (free market anarchism), rules-utilitarianism is the best moral theory to justify political statements, and moral statements can be objective. From these positions, other questions matter to me in addition to the ones I mentioned at the beginning (at the page 1 and 2 of this essay), and among them I would cite: What is the desirable order of reforms (transitional steps) to transform the society from our actual situation to the ideal situation?
I will now consider five different approaches to political theory and try to see how much they can help me to answer these questions.
2. Different methodological approaches to political theory
In this second part of my essay, I will talk about how much helpful I find different approaches to political theory in order to help me to answer the questions that I think that matter for political philosophy (which was the aim of the first part) and in what aspects I find these approaches not helpful or problematic.
(1) Ronald Beiner's approach
The great value of the approach of Beiner seems to me to be his choice to study and write about different important political philosophies and to refuse to consider that egalitarian democratic liberalism (and his welfare state capitalism model) is the end of history. Political philosophies generally articulate answers to the central question of what should the state do or should not do (which is another way of asking about what should be the size of the state) as well as the questions about the possibility to justify political statements and how (for example, John Rawls defines principles of justice to organize political institutions). To study important and well known political philosophers' works seems then a good way of finding answers to the questions that matter to me. Furthermore, Beiner's focus on different conceptions of the human good seems to me to converge with my interest for different moral theories that try to support different political projects. And his reject of Isaiah Berlin's pluralism about conceptions of human good in favor of a monism seems to embody the same position as I share about the importance of finding which moral theory is the best (the most valuable and sound) to support prescriptions of political patterns.
At the opposite, I am quite puzzled when I read Beiner saying that “it is not a question of mobilizing rationally binding arguments for the simple reason that human beings are not easy to convince”. First, I do not consider that how to convince an audience is a question that matters for the philosopher. Following the teachings of Kevin Mulligan, Pascal Engel or Jacques Bouveresse, I consider that philosophy seeks for the truth and has not to be confused with rhetoric (the ability to convince x of any ideas, good or bad). Of course, a philosopher can also act (speak) as a rhetor or as an activist (which was the case for example of Nozick, Rothbard, Hess, Marx or Proudhon), but these are two distinct roles that he can embody. Second, I cannot understand how we could hope to reach some philosophical truths if we abandon the use of arguments. I fear that logic, examples and thought experiments (although very helpful) are not sufficient to demonstrate soundly something in philosophy and that's why we need to use arguments.
Beiner asserts also that “philosophy and literature are much more closely aligned than they are generally thought to be”. This can be true. For example, Kevin Mulligan used to present The unbearable lightness of being by Milan Kundera as a philosophical analysis of the nature of the kitsch although the book is in the same time a novel (a fiction). But the fact that literature can content philosophical analysis does not entail that this analysis is made of non arguments. Even when philosophy is mixed with literature, I think that philosophy is still built on arguments.
Finally, I think that there is an ambiguity with Beiner's notion of “conception of the human good” or “reflection on the meaning of humanity”. Is Beiner here talking about moral theory about how to justify institutional patterns (as I was saying earlier in this text) or is he talking about individual ethics? I think that the confusion of these two notions is not a good thing, because these are two different debates. How one individual should live his life (personal ethics) is not the same question that what moral theory justifies a way of organizing the society (inter-personal ethics). Indeed, x can prefer to live his life in a certain way independently of any possible way of how the society is organized. Of course, maybe the organization of the society could restrain or influence x in his individual ethical preferences though. However, political institutions do not necessarily have an impact on every possible individual ethical choice, and that is why I consider that it is worth to distinguish these two fields of reflection.
(2) Ryan Balot's approach
Balot seems to be mainly interested by the study of ancient political institutions and more precisely by the study of ancient Athens and ancient Rome. His approach is that political theorists should go “beyond the tyranny of ''Western'' perspectives and presentism”. I agree with him about the value of studying non Western perspectives and non actual or present theories, because as he says: “Through studying the Greeks and Romans on citizenship, we acquire a more variegated and subtle vocabulary for discussing political difficulties of our time, and of all time”. Indeed, if we are looking for answers to the questions that I think that matter for political philosophy then there is not point to restrain ourselves to the study of theories from any time or any geographical localization, because any epoch or any geographical space can incarnate possible valuable institutional patterns (at least partly).
In his study of ancient institutions, Balot claims that our actual society organization is close to the ancient Rome, which would be according to him a bad model, and prescribes the ancient Athens as a good model. I think this is a possible good way of practicing political philosophy that is linked to my question about what should be the state like. Exploring and defending institutional models (from the epoch x and the localization y) is necessary if we want to have the possibility to evaluate them in order to find which one is the best, as well as it is worth criticizing our own actual model in the light of comparison with them.
I think that my difficulty with Balot's work is that he does not answer to the question about why democracy is worth it. He seems to presuppose that democracy is better than alternatives, like (free market or another type of) anarchy or an authoritarian regime (of one kind of another), which puzzles me because I think that this debate should be taken care before defending a specific and more detailed version of democracy (like ancient Athens). Studying different versions of democracy can be interesting of course, but if we do not consider democracy as the best model, then we will have a different perspective on the whole work on this subject. Moreover, I think that it could be worth to have the debate between thin and thick conceptions of democracy before talking about specific models of democracy, because as long as it is not clear what is valued in democracy (the decisions process, the rights system, both, etc.) then it is unclear what we are really talking about. Finally, I think that the value of citizenship itself should also be put in questions and defended before defending a particular type of citizenship.
(3) Margaret Kohn's approach (and Hans Sluga's one)
Kohn has an interest for the history of political ideas and, among them, for the history of solidarism. Political ideas can refer to: political concepts, political intuitions, ontological analysis of political concepts and normative arguments prescribing certain institutional arrangements (using ontological analysis of political concepts). I think that the difference between political ideas and political philosophies is that political philosophies are often not only ontological analysis but also normative arguments, which is not the case for political ideas that can be only ontological analysis, or, more simply, political concepts or political intuitions. Political ideas study is of course also important for the questions that I think that matter for political philosophy. The case of solidarism in particular is interesting because it is a direct challenge to my own free market positions but also to radical anti-free market positions (like marxism), because as we can see in the following quote: “The theory of solidarism was intended as an alternative to two dominant ideologies: laissez-faire liberalism and socialism.” This type of middle-term positions are good challenges for me (and other libertarians) and necessitate an appropriate argumentation if one wants to be able to refute correctly these positions. Solidarism prescribes a certain type (size) of state according to a certain argumentation and from that perspective it integrates itself well in the debate that matters to me about what should be the size of the state.
Moreover, with her study of solidarism she talks about another debate that matters to me and that I mentioned in the first part of this essay: the debate about what should be considered as a legitimate property. Indeed, solidarism “rests on the claim that the division of labor creates a social product that does not naturally belong to the individuals who control it as their private property” which would imply that “wealthy have a quasi-contractual debt to society that they are obliged to repay”. It is here an interesting challenge for the theories about what is a legitimate property articulated by John Locke or Murray Rothbard and the rest of the laissez-faire liberalism family.
Finally, Kohn presents a methodological reflection from Hans Sluga as a possible (close) model of her methodological views. Sluga defends a contextual objectivism in morality: a normative claim is objectively valuable only in relation to a specific context. Nevertheless, this context can be quite broad as Sluga gives the example of capitalism and Marx's normative claim about it. I have some difficulty to imagine that there is no human nature, any features shared by all humans beings. This ontological intuition about the existence of something shared by all human beings seems to me very strong. (Is not this intuition the one that feeds our conviction that all human begins are equal?) If we all share some identical features then I think it implies that we can find some universal and general truths about how the best we should organize our societies and which institutions we should adopt. Like other utilitarian, I consider indeed that we can begin our political philosophical work from the intuitive presupposition (axiom) that all human beings prefer maximize their well-being and/or minimize their ill-being. Of course, it is likely that we do not have a very clear idea of what is well-being for all human beings - after all, not everybody is an adept of sado-masochism - and precising and elaborating philosophical solutions and answers to this potential lack of knowledge is clearly a very important question for me. However, a possible answer would be to say that the concept of human well-being is what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. This idea is expressed by David Friedman in the following quote:
“How can we say whether something which makes one person worse off and another better off produces a net increase in human happiness? The answer, I believe, is that we may not be able to make such comparisons very well or describe clearly how we make them, but we still do it. When you decide to give ten dollars' worth of food and clothing to someone whose house has just burned down instead of sending a ten-dollar check as an unsolicited gift to a random millionaire, you are expressing an opinion about which of them values the money more. When you decide where to take your children for vacation, you are making a complicated judgment about whether their total happiness will be greater camping in a forest or wading on the seashore. We cannot reduce the decision to a matter of precise calculation, but few of us doubt that the unhappiness A gets from the prick of a pin is less than the unhappiness B gets from being tortured to death.”
(4) Clifford Orwin's approach (and Leo Strauss's one)
As it appears to me, Orwin's approach is multiple. First, there is an interest for the history of philosophy and in particular to the history of thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Orwin analyzes the main concepts that Rousseau developed and highlighted, like the value of authenticity or the virtue of ignorance, in relation to the context of living and writing of the thinker. This idea that there would be social (or public) virtues, values that individuals should embody (and not only respect) for the good of the society and not only for themselves (at the opposite of private virtues), is an interesting idea. I think it can be helpful to think about what social values should be adopted by individuals in any or certain kind of society. It seems to me to be a whole field of political philosophy that is additional and can be independent to the reflection about the desirable size of the state. However, I wonder how thick or thin is the boundary between private and public virtues and how easy it is to distinguish them.
Concerning the second main part of his approach, Orwin relies on Lea Strauss about how one should read philosophers and thinkers, especially the ones before the modern age of (partial) toleration in the Western world when “freedom of inquiry is not guaranteed as a basic right”. He defends the esoteric type of reading (the opposite being the exoteric type of reading) that prescribes to search in philosophical writings hidden truths - that are not mainly or explicitly asserted in the texts - but that have been to be sought like “hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work”. Strauss explains that this type of writing can be used by philosophers to protect themselves from political or social repressions as well as to preserve the access to the truth to a small minority (an intellectual elite?) having the ability to well understood the true meaning of the discourse of the philosopher. This last explanation can be realized in order to protect the society from truths that could harm them. This second part of the approach of Orwin (based on Strauss) seems to me quite interesting, but I am not sure how much it can be helpful in order to help to answer the questions that seem to me important in political philosophy. I will use some variables to show why.
1. x asserts that he believes that P is true.
2. x argues in order to show that P is true.
3. Actually x does not believe that P is true.
4. Actually x believes that non P is true.
5. x does not argue in order to show that non P is true.
If all these proposals are true, then esoteric writings cannot be very helpful because most of the philosophical work remains still to do. Indeed, most of the philosophical work would be to argue in order to show that non P is true. Moreover, if we already have P, then non P is easy to find. Furthermore, for x to argue in favor of a thesis that is thought to be non true by x seems to me to be a non philosophical work (but a sophistic work) as philosophy is according to me the search for truth through argumentation in favor of true theses and in disfavor of wrong theses. From that perspective, I'm not sure that this part of the approach of Orwin can be very helpful to help me to answer the questions that interest me in political philosophy.
(5) Joseph Carens' approach
In his reflection about presuppositions in political theory, Carens rejects the necessity to begin a political theoretical work with a full theory of justice. I agree with him about that, because I think that non ideal theory (the real and actual world) is prior to ideal theory (the just world). As a utilitarian, I consider indeed that we need to find in every contextual and specific situation what maximizes the well-being of individuals. In that sense, I also agree that we should have a contextual approach as Carens defends it. However, I do not think that we will find necessarily that “shared democratic ideas and principles” are the solutions to any possible situation and that we should presuppose them. Here, I would agree with Balot that we should go “beyond the tyranny of ''Western'' perspectives and presentism” and do not restrain ourself to transgress the limits of what is widely or democratically considered as right. As Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser denounce it in their works, dominant (majority) shared ideas could only be the ideas of the dominant class implemented by the control of ideological state apparatuses. Nevertheless, Carens does not follow this as he challenges the view that states should have the right to control their borders and who have the right to go across them. Of course, one could say that there is a distinction between presupposing a certain framework of ethical principles (like what Carens calls “democratic principles”) and a certain conception of what the state can do, even if both are linked as principles imply institutional patterns and states' desirable or acceptable size or field of action.
To conclude this essay, I would say that I have a strong interest to explore the roots and grounds of political philosophy. I am convinced that it is important to find and develop strong basis and foundations for this whole activity and I even want to ask myself about the mere possibility of it. As I tried to show in this essay, many approaches can be helpful to that purpose in different aspects, but every time I consider them I have this will and I feel the intellectual need to go deeper and interrogate (and maybe challenge) the presuppositions of all approaches that I talked about in this essay. The weakness of this approach is that maybe some very important concrete questions should be answered quickly pro bono publico and maybe from that perspective my approach would take too much time in quite abstract debates. This criticism is particularly strong if one considers that there is maybe no sound answer to the fundamental questions of how to establish foundations for political philosophy. But I could answer that one can work at two different levels in the same time. On the one hand, one can work at a very abstract level in trying to find and develop strong foundations for political philosophy. On the second hand, one can also presuppose some foundations, that seems to him at least probable, and work from them (for example I would presuppose moral objectivism and rules-utilitarianism in my work and try to find some answers in a non ideal context). This would be maybe an interpretation of Carens' concept of shifting presuppositions that I would find helpful, as I am interested to work at the two levels and not stop me at the only foundational level but also not to work without checking the value and soundness of my presuppositions.