Political Political Theory: Essays on Institutions

By Farris, Jeremy D.; Edmundson, William A. | Constitutional Commentary, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Political Political Theory: Essays on Institutions


Farris, Jeremy D., Edmundson, William A., Constitutional Commentary


POLITICAL POLITICAL THEORY: ESSAYS ON INSTITUTIONS. By Jeremy Waldron. (1) Harvard University Press. 2016. Pp. 403. $35.00 (cloth).

INTRODUCTION

Political theory has not always been a self-confident discipline. In 1961, Isaiah Berlin, the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, wondered whether it continued to exist. His answer was irresolute. Berlin thought that political theory's existence was assured because it poses normative questions that are unanswerable by empirical political science. (4) Certain questions elude resolution by empirical observation--e.g., How should scarce goods be distributed? Why should persons comply with law? What actions may a state permissibly coerce? Ironically, such normative questions also seem to have eluded Berlin. Instead of positing and defending a coherent set of answers to these questions, Berlin's approach to political theory was far more circumspect, concerned foremost to recite the history of answers supplied by the mighty dead, whom he chided for ignoring either the irreducible plurality of value or the mischievous tendency of "positive" liberty.

Then came John Rawls. After the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls's critic and colleague Robert Nozick wrote, "Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls's theory or explain why not." (5) Most have chosen to work within or against Rawls's framework, using tools supplied by analytic philosophy. The lion's share of the work has been focused on clarifying the meaning and requirements of justice and explaining the relationship of justice to other normative concepts. Representative of this tradition is G.A. Cohen, late Quain Professor at University College London and previously Chichele Professor at Oxford. Cohen began his Oxford graduate seminar on contemporary political philosophy by teaching that the subject, properly understood, concerned three distinct questions: What are the correct principles of justice? What should the state do? And which social states of affairs ought to be brought about? (6)

Today, those normative questions delineate much of the discipline of political theory. But compare those questions with this one: Are there decisive reasons for or against a supermajoritarian cloture rule in the upper chamber of a legislative assembly? Like Cohen's triptych of questions, the "filibuster question" is neither empirical nor legal, but straightforwardly normative. As such, the inquiry about the filibuster rule falls somewhere within the discipline-organizing question about what the state should do. Yet, having begun at Cohen's high level of generality, it is unclear how, or even if, the specific "filibuster question" will be addressed. This is because the general question--What should the state do?--leads naturally to subsequent inquiry about which goals states should pursue and what states must not do in their pursuit. From that point of departure, a political theorist likely proceeds to further discussion of the justification of those goals that the state should promote and the foundation of the rights that constrain state action. Political theory never gets to questions about cloture rules; unless, of course, it begins there.

And that is just what Jeremy Waldron has in mind. With the publication of Political Political Theory, the latest (though, not current) holder of Oxford's Chichele Professorship, now University Professor at New York University Law School, hopes to "encourage young political theorists to understand that there is life beyond Rawls" (p. ix). Although one may doubt whether the refocusing that Waldron has in mind really is to be found "beyond Rawls"--for Rawls was also deeply focused on the justification of democratic institutions--Waldron's meaning is clear: For those working in political theory, he says, there is life "beyond the abstract understanding of liberty, justice, and egalitarianism..." (p. ix). Instead of attempting to elucidate the meaning of our largest normative concepts, instead of testing the soundness of hypothesized normative principles against all manner of counterfactual thought experiments, political theory should focus on the evaluation of the rules and structure of state institutions. …

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