Political Philosophy’s “Fantasy World”

Political Philosophy’s “Fantasy World”


[M]ainstream political philosophy is seen as irrelevant… because of the bizarre way it has developed since Rawls (a bizarreness not recognized as such by its practitioners because of the aforementioned norms of disciplinary socialization). Social justice theory should be reconnected with its real-world roots, the correction of injustices, which means that rectificatory justice in non-ideal societies should be the theoretical priority, not distributive justice in ideal societies. Political philosophy needs to exit Rawlsland — a fantasy world in the same extraterrestrial league as Wonderland, Oz and Middle-earth (if not as much fun) — and return to planet Earth.

That’s Charles Mills, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, in an interview with George Yancy in “The Stone” in The New York Times. Mills and Yancy discuss assorted issues in political philosophy, including idealization and racism in political philosophy’s past and present. An excerpt:

George Yancy: So, would it be fair to say that contemporary political philosophy, as engaged by many white philosophers, is a species of white racism?

Charles Mills.: That would be too strong, though I certainly wouldn’t want to discount the ongoing influence of personal racism (now more likely to be culturalist than biological — that’s another aspect of the postwar shift), especially given the alarming recent findings of cognitive psychology about the pervasiveness of implicit bias. But racialized causality can work more indirectly and structurally. You have a historically white discipline — in the United States, about 97 percent white demographically (and it’s worse in Europe), with no or hardly any people of color to raise awkward questions; you have a disciplinary bent towards abstraction, which in conjunction with the unrepresentative demographic base facilitates idealizing abstractions that abstract away from racial and other subordinations (this is Onora O’Neill’s insight from many years ago); you have a Western social justice tradition that for more than 90 percent of its history has excluded the majority of the population from equal consideration (see my former colleague Samuel Fleischacker’s A Short History of Distributive Justice, which demonstrates how recent the concept actually is); and of course you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.

Rawls himself said in the opening pages of A Theory of Justice that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible.

The rest of the interview is here.

(art: map of Utopia by Ortelius, based on Thomas More’s Utopia)

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