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Theorising the non-ideal society

We all make assumptions to different extents and in different situations. We try to predict how other people will act in certain situations based on what we know about them. Often we are wrong.

Teachers assume certain techniques will work with their students. Journalists assume that their readership will have an interest in their work. In politics, parties and officials make assumptions about the electorate and how they’re likely to behave in a given situation, or the likely outcomes of policies

Underlying practical political activity, are theoretical claims which provide a framework for discussion. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, much of the discussion has focused on rights of free expression, to freedom of thought, and religious freedoms. Not many people understand the nature of rights, the way they conflict with democracy, or their historic development. Nonetheless, they invoke them uncritically.

Part of the reason for this is what can be called an intellectual division of labour. Not everyone has the time or inclination to analyse every idea or concept that they discuss. It is the job of political theorists to perform the task of clarifying concepts, ideas, and theories, which then pass into the public lexicon.

But, the problem with this intellectual task is that even though academics are entrusted with improving the public fund of knowledge, even their claims are built on shaky foundations, and this passes into public minds.

Some people may scoff at the suggestion that philosophers really inform public debate, but we only have to consider Philip Pettit’s theory of neo-republicanism and how it impacted upon Spanish legislation, or Cass Sunstein’s role as former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

So, we have two ways in which these ideas can pass into the public sphere: the dissemination of ideas to the wider public who then take them up and use them; and the direct inclusion of theorists and philosophers within governments.

All well and good, except academic theories are far from uncontroversial and, while intellectually stimulating, can be practically dangerous. The reason for this is that in political theory, as in the real world, assumptions have to be made. We have to make claims about how people act, or what they want, or what they deserve etc. The assumptions here, though, are not quite the same as the probabilistic ones adopted in real life. While we may dispute whether people are wholly or solely self-interested, theorists often use much narrower, and much more idealised assumptions.

In 2004, Zapatero in Spain used Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom to inform some of his legislative proposals, and later invited him back to audit the government’s record. But, Pettit’s work is not without its own problems, and we should be wary of the ways in which it is used to inform political decision-making.

In brief, Pettit builds on the Roman republican conception of a free person in order to offer an account of how contemporary societies might be designed to enable people to live freely. But, in order to be able to offer an account of the free person, he has to utilise a conception of people in order to describe what would make them free. Pettit’s conceptualisation of individuals involves making a distinction between their role in society as a citizen and their role as a particular person. We are both citizens of our societies, and individual persons with our own particular interests, and these two aspects of people may conflict. As a theoretical citizen, we might have an interest in a criminal justice system, but as particular people, we might break laws. Our hypothetical interests justify and legitimise our legal and institutional system, and we therefore theoretically agree to be subject to certain laws, even though we may break them.

It is an stimulating account of how we might reconcile freedom and subjection to laws, but it is built on an idealised conception of individuals which is highly problematic.

As a result of his distinction between citizens and particular persons, Pettit’s ideal society is heavily constitutionalised. Citizens are assumed to have an interest in a contestatory democracy, rather than a directly participatory one, and they have a few other loosely specified interests which it is not necessary to consider here. The upshot of this is that our hypothetical interests in a certain kind of society may conflict with our actual interests.

As an intellectual exercise, this isn’t too much of a problem, since other academics can critique the theory and suggest improvements.

But, when political theorists and philosophers become involved in government, we have to be wary, just as we have to be wary not to decontextualise academic ideas and uncritically import them into public decision-making.

What it boils down to, then, is the way in which we apply ideal concepts and types to the non-ideal world. We have seen how Marxist thought was perverted in its implementation Communist societies. We can see in the UK how personal responsibility becomes embedded in the public consciousness and is used to berate welfare dependency.

We all have our favoured political preferences, but we need to dig deeper and ask what ideals our opinions are premised on. Do socialists or Marxists question the underlying, and extremely controversial, assumptions which ground their ideas? Do they understand the ontological and epistemological claims that Marx makes? Do neo-liberals or libertarians understand the conception of humanity which underlie their emphasis on protecting property rights? The answer, sadly, is probably not.

Nonetheless, ideas pass from academia into real world politics, and are taken up and defended by people who do not understand the implications of their views.

Very rarely do people question these things, but they need to. We should all have an interest in questioning the basic assumptions which underlie our worldviews, and which come to structure our ways of thinking.

Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1997).

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