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Is a non-ideological political philosophy possible?


Political philosophers are often critical of “ideologues.” Ideologues are, presumably, those who advocate for a series of laws and policies based on a narrow set of political principles that mangle complex moral reality and are inappropriately insensitive to counter evidence. The problem with the ideologue is that she is both irrational and intolerant, convinced of her own rectitude while simultaneously reasoning poorly about political matters and threatening to impose the conclusions of that poor reasoning on others. That’s at least part of why being an “ideologue” is problematic.

The problem is that many political philosophers fit this description. They advocate a small set of principles and associated policies based on a narrow set of political principles that mangle complex moral realities and are not properly sensitive to counter evidence. For example, one ideological position in contemporary analytic political philosophy these days is luck-egalitarianism. Luck-egalitarians often make it their business to defend political principles against the very possibility of empirical refutation. That is how I understand luck-egalitarian defenses of ideal theory. We take a simple principle, immune to refutation, and prepare to impose political ideas on the public based on these principles.

I think Rawlsianism, despite my great love for Rawls’s program, has degenerated mostly into ideology. It’s reverence for the master with, again, attempts to insulate Rawls’s principles from empirical refutation and sometimes against any philosophical refutation at all. The response you often here is, “Well, that misunderstands Rawls.” While Rawlsians are in principle more sensitive to evidence and less prone to authoritarian uses of force to impose their views, in practice many of the orthodox Rawlsians I know are not that way. You can see this from how they throw around the word “reasonable” to marginalize folks they dislike.

I think analytic libertarians can be pretty damned ideological too, though I think the day of the major libertarian ideologues in political philosophy has passed. (Perhaps that’s just my judgment as a biased ideologue myself though I like to think if you review my blog posts they reveal someone a bit less self-deluded than that).

So it seems to me that political philosophy today is full of ideology. And that seems to me bad. But what can be done about it?

Some will say there’s nothing to be done. After all, all there is in politics are competing ideologies. In this post, I’m going to assume that view is false, and I think political philosophy as a practice is predicated on it being false. Impartial conceptual and empirical inquiry should hopefully help us shed ideology-in-the-bad-sense. Maybe it can’t. But I’m not convinced.

2000px-Multi-axis_political_spectrum.svgHere’s one thing we can’t do to avoid ideology – become flat-footed empiricists. All too often empiricists are unaware of their deeper conceptual and value commitments, leading them to biased endorsements of some experiments and empirical data over others. Making political principles more empirically sensitive will help, but I don’t want to forestall the possibility that many issues in political philosophy cannot in principle be settled based on empirical matters. “Follow the evidence wherever it leads” is itself a philosophical principle whose truth or falsity does not seem to depend entirely on empirical facts.

We also can’t easily avoid ideology by going pluralist about moral foundations. All too often pluralists weight their preferred ideological values more heavily than the other values they acknowledge, reproducing ideology in effect. Now, being more open to pluralistic foundations and avoiding monomaniacal focus on a few principles or a single principle would probably help political philosophy be less ideological, but I don’t want to forestall the possibility that there is in fact a single, small set of true political principles.

We also can’t easily avoid ideology by making our political principles depend on dialectical challenge, as deliberative democracy and democratic pragmatist theories often do with their principles. Deliberative democrats are known for building their policy prescriptions into the presuppositions of discourse, and I think the same thing can be said of some Deweyian pragmatists. Of course, having a mindset of openness to argumentative challenge will certainly help political philosophers be less ideological, but that’s not quite what dialectical challenge amounts to.

So, I feel stuck. On the one hand, much of political philosophy is ideological. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to avoid it. In principle, political philosophy should help us shed ideology, but we can’t just go empiricist, pluralist and dialectical. These positions may help, but they may also help people deceive themselves about their ideological principles.

I’d like your help. Is a non-ideological political philosophy possible? If so, how so? Isn’t there a real difference between the zealous Marxist political philosopher defending Stalin and a Socrates-like political philosopher, open to constant challenge and wisdom? How are we to understand the difference? Is being non-ideological simply a matter of personal epistemic virtue? Or could there be a research program or two that counts as non-ideological?

The article first appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarian.


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