This paper provides a critical overview of the realist current in contemporary political philosophy. We define political realism on the basis of its attempt to give varying degrees of autonomy to politics as a sphere of human activity, in large part through its exploration of the sources of normativity appropriate for the political and so distinguish sharply between political realism and non-ideal theory. We then identify and discuss four key arguments advanced by political realists: from ideology, from the relationship of (...) ethics to politics, from the priority of legitimacy over justice and from the nature of political judgement. Next, we ask to what extent realism is a methodological approach as opposed to a substantive political position and so discuss the relationship between realism and a few such positions. We close by pointing out the links between contemporary realism and the realist strand that runs through much of the history of Western political thought. (shrink)
This paper outlines an account of political realism as a form of ideology critique. Our focus is a defence of the normative edge of this critical-theoretic project against the common charge that there is a problematic trade-off between a theory’s groundedness in facts about the political status quo and its ability to consistently envisage radical departures from the status quo. To overcome that problem we combine insights from three distant corners of the philosophical landscape: theories of legitimacy by Bernard Williams (...) and other realists, Frankfurt School-inspired Critical Theory, and recent analytic epistemological and metaphysical theories of cognitive bias, ideology, and social construction. The upshot is a novel account of realism as empirically-informed diagnosis- critique of social and political phenomena. This view rejects a sharp divide between descriptive and normative theory, and so is an alternative to the anti- empiricism of some approaches to Critical Theory as well as to the complacency towards existing power structures found within liberal realism, let alone mainstream normative political philosophy, liberal or otherwise. (shrink)
Is there more to the recent surge in political realism than just a debate on how best to continue doing what political theorists are already doing? I use two recent books, by Michael Freeden and Matt Sleat, as a testing ground for realism’s claims about its import on the discipline. I argue that both book take realism beyond the Methodenstreit, though each in a different direction: Freeden’s takes us in the realm of meta-metatheory, Sleat’s is a genuine exercise in grounding (...) liberal normative theory in a non-moralistic way. I conclude with wider methodological observations. I argue that unlike communitarianism, realism has the potential to open new vistas, though their novelty is to a large extent relative to the last forty years or so: realism is best thought of as a return to a more traditional way of doing political philosophy. (shrink)
One of the main challenges faced by realists in political philosophy is that of offering an account of authority that is genuinely normative and yet does not consist of a moralistic application of general, abstract ethical principles to the practice of politics. Political moralists typically start by devising a conception of justice based on their pre-political moral commitments; authority would then be legitimate only if political power is exercised in accordance with justice. As an alternative to that dominant approach I (...) put forward the idea that upturning the relationship between justice and legitimacy affords a normative notion of authority that does not depend on a pre-political account of morality, and thus avoids some serious problems faced by mainstream theories of justice. I then argue that the appropriate purpose of justice is simply to specify the implementation of an independently grounded conception of legitimacy, which in turn rests on a context- and practice-sensitive understanding of the purpose of political power. (shrink)
Can political theory be action-guiding without relying on pre-political normative commitments? I answer that question affirmatively by unpacking two related tenets of Raymond Geuss’ political realism: the view that political philosophy should not be a branch of ethics, and the ensuing empirically-informed conception of legitimacy. I argue that the former idea can be made sense of by reference to Hobbes’ account of authorization, and that realist legitimacy can be normatively salient in so far as it stands in the correct relation (...) to a theory of justice and problematizes its sources of value through what Geuss terms ‘political imagination’. (shrink)
Should our factual understanding of the world influence our normative theorising about it? G.A. Cohen has argued that our ultimate normative principles should not be constrained by facts. David Estlund and others have defended subsets of that claim. In this paper I dispute those positions by arguing that, in order to resist the conclusion that ultimate normative principles rest on facts about possibility or conceivability, one has to embrace an unsatisfactory account of how principles generate normative political judgments. So political (...) theorists have to choose between principles ostensibly unbiased by our current understanding of human motivation and political reality, or principles capable of reliably generating political judgments. I conclude with wider methodological observations in defence of the latter option, and so of a return to political philosophy’s traditional blend of normative and descriptive elements. (shrink)
In this review I try and show the ways in which Geuss’ new work may advance the (radical) realist programme. The main contribution in the new essays, as I see it, is the emphasis on the counterintuitively transformative potential of a realist approach, as opposed to the false promise of highly moralised approaches. I also highlight some open questions about Geuss’ realism, primarily to do with his contextualism and with the role of feasibility constraints.
Could the notion of compromise help us overcoming – or at least negotiating – the frequent tension, in normative political theory, between the realistic desideratum of peaceful coexistence and the idealistic desideratum of justice? That is to say, an analysis of compromise may help us moving beyond the contrast between two widespread contrasting attitudes in contemporary political philosophy: ‘fiat iustitia, pereat mundus’ on the one side, ‘salus populi suprema lex’ on the other side. More specifically, compromise may provide the backbone (...) of a conception of legitimacy that mediates between idealistic (or moralistic) and realistic (or pragmatic) desiderata of political theory, i.e. between the aspiration to peace and the aspiration to justice. In other words, this paper considers whether an account of compromise could feature in a viable realistic conception of political legitimacy, in much the same way in which consensus features in more idealistic conceptions of legitimacy (a move that may be attributed to some realist theorists, especially Bernard Williams). My conclusions, however, are largely sceptical: I argue that grounding legitimacy in any kind of normatively salient agreement does require the trappings of idealistic political philosophy, for better or – in my view – worse. (shrink)
Agonist theorists have argued against deliberative democrats that democratic institutions should not seek to establish a rational consensus, but rather allow political disagreements to be expressed in an adversarial form. But democratic agonism is not antagonism: some restriction of the plurality of admissible expressions is not incompatible with a legitimate public sphere. However, is it generally possible to grant this distinction between antagonism and agonism without accepting normative standards in public discourse that saliently resemble those advocated by (some) deliberative democrats? (...) In this paper we provide an analysis of one important aspect of political communication, the use of slippery slope arguments, and show that the fact of pluralism weakens the agonists’ case for contestation as a sufficient ingredient for appropriately democratic public discourse. We illustrate that contention by identifying two specific kinds of what we call pluralism slippery slopes, i.e. mechanisms whereby pluralism reinforces the efficacy of slippery slope arguments. (shrink)
In this paper I argue that equal respect-based accounts of the normative basis of tolerance are self-defeating, insofar as they are unable to specify the limits of tolerance in a way that is consistent with their own commitment to the equal treatment of all conceptions of the good. I show how this argument is a variant of the long-standing ‘conflict of freedoms’ objection to Kantian-inspired, freedom-based accounts of the justification of systems of norms. I criticize Thomas Scanlon’s defence of ‘pure (...) tolerance’, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti’s work on the relationship between tolerance, equal respect and recognition, and Arthur Ripstein’s recent response to the ‘conflict of freedoms’ objection. The upshot of my argument is that, while valuing tolerance for its own sake may be an appealing ideal, it is not a feasible way of grounding a system of norms. I close with a thumbnail sketch of two alternative, instrumental (i.e. non-Kantian) approaches to the normative foundations of tolerance. (shrink)
In this rejoinder to Erman and Möller’s reply to our “Political Norms and Moral Values” we clarify the sense in which there can be specifically political values, and expound the practice-dependent notion of legitimacy adopted by our preferred version of political realism.
Public justification-based accounts of liberal legitimacy rely on the idea that a polity’s basic structure should, in some sense, be acceptable to its citizens. In this paper I discuss the prospects of that approach through the lens of Gerald Gaus’ critique of John Rawls’ paradigmatic account of democratic public justification. I argue that Gaus does succeed in pointing out some significant problems for Rawls’ political liberalism; yet his alternative, justificatory liberalism, is not voluntaristic enough to satisfy the desiderata of a (...) genuinely democratic theory of public justification. So I contend that—pace Gaus, but also Rawls—rather than simply amending political liberalism, the claims of justificatory liberalism bring out fatal tensions between the desiderata of any theory of liberal-democratic legitimacy through public justification. (shrink)
This paper provides an interpretation of the licensing provisions envisaged under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 as a model for a rule and exemption-based procedural strategy for the adjudication of potential ethical controversies, and it offers an account of the liberal-democratic legitimacy of the procedure’s outcomes as well as of the legal procedure itself. Drawing on a novel articulation of the distinction between exceptions and exemptions, the paper argues that such a rule and exemption mechanism, while not devoid (...) of attractions, is not immune from the criticisms often levied against procedural approaches to the management of pluralism: it either has to fall back on substantive justification in ways that are not helpful when trying to arbitrate a moral controversy, or it appears justificatorily groundless. (shrink)
A polity is grounded in a modus vivendi (MV) when its main features can be presented as the outcome of a virtually unrestricted bargaining process. Is MV compatible with the consensus-based account of liberal legitimacy, i.e. the view that political authority is well grounded only if the citizenry have in some sense freely consented to its exercise? I show that the attraction of MV for consensus theorists lies mainly in the thought that a MV can be presented as legitimated through (...) a realist account of public justification. Yet I argue that, because of persistent ethical diversity, that realism problematically conflicts with the liberal commitments that underpin the very ideas of consensus and public justification. Thus, despite the interest it has recently attracted from critics of political liberalism and deliberative democracy, MV is not an option for those wishing to ground liberal political authority in some form of consensus. So if realist and agonistic critiques are on target, then the fact that modus vivendi is not an option casts some serious doubt on the viability of the consensus view of liberal legitimacy. (shrink)
In this paper I analyze the theory of legitimacy at the core of John Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls argues that a political system is well grounded when it is stable. This notion of stability embodies both pragmatic and moral elements, each of which constitutes a key desideratum of Rawlsian liberal legitimacy. But those desiderata are in tension with each other. My main claim is that Rawls’ strategy to overcome that tension through his theory of public justification is ultimately unsuccessful, because (...) the account of consensus it envisages is unstably placed between the extremes of moralized redundancy and pragmatic free-for-all. In other words, what counts as consensus is either regulated too tightly, or not enough. -/- . (shrink)
A critical discussion of Toula Nicolacopoulos' 'The Radical Critique of Liberalism'. I analyse her methodology of 'critical reconstructionism' and argue that considerations about the epistemic status of the inquiring practices leading to the formulation of liberal political theory need not affect the viability and desirability of liberal political practice, especially if we adopt a historically-informed realist account of the foundations of liberalism.
In this paper we argue that Sen's defence of liberal democracy suffers from a moralistic and pro-liberal bias that renders it unable to take pluralism as seriously as it professes to do. That is because Sen’s commitment to respecting pluralism is not matched by his account of how to individuate the sorts of preferences that ought to be included in democratic deliberation. Our argument generalises as a critique of the two most common responses to the fact of pluralism in contemporary (...) (i.e. post-Rawls) liberalism: a broadly procedural understanding of autonomy and the idea of deliberative democracy. That is to say, the difficulties with pluralism we identify can be traced back to the particular version of Kantian deontology prevalent in contemporary liberalism, and to the equally prevalent aspiration to ground political legitimacy in a moralised consensus. (shrink)
What do we talk about when we talk about ethical diversity as a challenge to the normative justifiability of liberal democracy? Many theorists claim that liberal democracy ought to be reformed or rejected for not being sufficiently ‘inclusive’ towards diversity; others argue that, on the contrary, liberalism is desirable because it accommodates (some level of) diversity. Moreover, it has been argued that concern for diversity should lead us to favour (say) neutralistic over perfectionist, universalistic over particularistic, participative over representative versions (...) of liberal democracy. This paper provides a conceptual framework to situate those debates, and argues that there are two fundamental ways in which diversity constitutes a challenge to the justificatory status of liberal democracy: consistency (whereby diversity causes clashes between the prescriptions generated by normative political theories), and adequacy (whereby diversity generates a rift between our experience of what is considered valuable and what the theory treats as such). (shrink)
This paper provides a realist analysis of the EU's legitimacy. We propose a modification of Bernard Williams' theory of legitimacy, which we term critical responsiveness. For Williams, 'Basic Legitimation Demand + Modernity = Liberalism'. Drawing on that model, we make three claims. (i) The right side of the equation is insufficiently sensitive to popular sovereignty; (ii) The left side of the equation is best thought of as a 'legitimation story': a non-moralised normative account of how to shore up belief in (...) legitimacy while steering clear of both raw domination and ideological distortions. (iii) The EU's current legitimation story draws on a tradition of popular sovereignty that sits badly with the supranational delegation and pooling of sovereign powers. We conclude by suggesting that the EU's legitimation deficit may be best addressed demoicratically, by recovering the value of popular sovereignty at the expense of a degree of state sovereignty. (shrink)
Cécile Laborde has argued that the freedom we think of as ‘freedom of religion’ should be understood as a bundle of separate and relatively independent freedoms. I criticise that approach by pointing out that it is insufficiently sensitive to facts about the sorts of entities that liberal states are. I argue that states have good reasons to mould phenomena such as religion into easily governable monoliths. If this is a problem from the normative point of view, it is not due (...) to descriptively inadequate accounts of religion, but a problem with a lack of realism about the sort of institutions states are. My conclusion is a three-way disjunction: either one must reckon with liberal states’ historically determined limitations in the management of changing social phenomena, or one should direct one’s frustration at the marriage of liberalism and the state, or the very existence of states is normatively problematic. (shrink)
This thesis is a critique of the prominent strand of contemporary liberal political theory which maintains that liberal political authority must, in some sense, rest on the free consent of those subjected to it, and that such a consensus is achieved if a polity’s basic structure can be publicly justified to its citizenry, or to a relevant subset of it. Call that the liberal legitimacy view. I argue that the liberal legitimacy view cannot provide viable normative foundations for political authority, (...) for the hypothetical consensus it envisages cannot be achieved and sustained without either arbitrarily excluding conspicuous sectors of the citizenry or commanding a consent that is less than free. That is because the liberal legitimacy view’s structure is one that requires a form of consent that carries free-standing normative force (i.e. normative force generated by voluntariness), yet the particular form of hypothetical consent through public justification envisaged by the view does not possess such force, because of its built-in bias in favour of liberalism. I also argue that the liberal legitimacy view is the most recent instantiation of one of two main strands of liberal theory, namely the nowadays dominant contract-based liberalism, which seeks to ground liberal political authority in a hypothetical agreement between the citizens. My case against the liberal legitimacy view, then, contributes to the revitalisation of the other main approach to the normative foundations of liberalism, namely the substantivist one, which legitimates liberal political authority through an appeal to the substantive values and virtues safeguarded and promoted by liberal polities. (shrink)
In this paper we analyse the connection between the contested ethno-cultural labelling of Gipsy-Travellers in Wales and their position of social marginalisation, with special reference to spatial issues, such as the provision of campsites and public housing. Our main aim is to show how the formal and informal (mis)labelling of minority groups leads to a number of morally and politically questionable outcomes in their treatment on the part of political authorities. Our approach combines a close reading of official policy documents, (...) government-commissioned and independent empirical research with a theoretical framework drawn mainly from contemporary political philosophy, and especially from the debate on redistribution and recognition. (shrink)
Most contemporary political philosophers take justice—rather than legitimacy—to be the fundamental virtue of political institutions vis-à-vis the challenges of ethical diversity. Justice-driven theorists are primarily concerned with finding mutually acceptable terms to arbitrate the claims of conflicting individuals and groups. Legitimacy-driven theorists, instead, focus on the conditions under which those exercising political authority on an ethically heterogeneous polity are entitled to do so. But what difference would it make to the management of ethical diversity in liberal democratic societies if legitimacy (...) were prior to or independent from justice? -/- This question identifies a widely underexplored issue whose theoretical salience shows how the understanding of what constitutes the primary question of political philosophy has a deep impact on how practical political questions are interpreted and addressed. What difference would it make, for example, whether the difficulties concerning the safeguard of human rights were couched in terms of the justice or of the legitimacy of the documents and treaties sanctioning their implementation. How should the issue of the quality of democracies be addressed whether one assigned priority to the justice or legitimacy of democratic institutions? Addressing these and other topical questions, the book offers a new theoretical angle from which to consider a number of pressing social and political issues. (shrink)