Saturday, April 02, 2005

Political philosophy is weird. No, I am.

Political philosophy isn't really my area. But I sat through a grad student talk on Rawls today and it brought home to me something I never really understood about the field.

What's weird is the way evaluative claims and descriptive claims are mixed. For a standard-issue consequentialist like me, figuring out what to do occurs in two distinct phases. First, you do the evaluative stuff and figure out what makes a state of affairs good. Then you do the descriptive stuff and determine what actions will bring about such a state of affairs. If political philosophers followed this model, they'd first figure out what makes a system of government good, and then figure out how to pack the maximum goodness into a system of government, perhaps given some constraints about the particular practices and behavior of the citizens.

Instead what I see is a strangely mixed process. First one generates evaluative claims ("what matters is whether people have enough, not whether they have as much as others do"), then one considers a few very general descriptive claims ("if you expend enough resources to give the poor more than a certain level of well-being, the rich will be pissed and bail on the system"), then one goes evaluative again ("people who buy into the social contract should be rewarded for their contributions") and descriptive ("If we remind the wealthy of the equality of all citizens, they'll be cool with lifting poor people out of really intense poverty that prevents them from acting as proper moral/political agents.")

Maybe the reason this seems so weird to my Benthamite self is that I'm bringing a very simple theory of value into a very complex world. So it's perfectly reasonable for me to do the value theory in one neat step and never bother with it again. But normal people with normal theories accept a motley horde of values and obligations. They can't easily construct some general function that will map possible systems of government onto levels of goodness, with full consideration of everything good and bad. They've got to do political philosophy piecemeal, considering various ways to solve problems and figuring out their evaluative significance.


Blue said...

I feel the same way about economics often. It can be good for constructing positive models about what people will do... but the normative models are pretty bad. Tax cuts or other social welfare devices, because they reduce over-all surplus or economic activity (or increase) don't necessarily receive the same response from liberal-utilitarians because we accept that it's important for some people to have more $, even causing negative-sum wealth transfer. And may other cases.

Never enjoyed formalistic political philosophy enough to study it further, but even just reading Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and whatnot, I see the problems you suggest. Though I'm not convincing people to separate positive and normative analyses will actually enhance political dialogue in our culture.

Anonymous said...

it seems that constructing arguments in different ways can be useful because one particular way of arguing things may structurally miss or negate or whatever certain points, and if you come to the same conclusion after arguing via several different methods, then that conclusion may be stronger.

on the other hand, such things always seemed to me to be just problems of people using sloppy logic. (not that i'm all squeakily logic clean and pure or anything...)