Strategic interaction and the limits to “ideal” theorizing within political philosophy

The Freedom Center and Spring 2022 FC Talks series presents Kaveh Pourvand (University of Arizona).

In recent years political philosophy has been caught between two competing approaches. Ideal theorists outline a vision of the morally optimal society that is supposed to act as an end-target for political reformers in our messy real-world. Realists argue this approach misconstrues political life as a form of “applied ethics.” On their view, politics just is the process whereby factions with competing moral ideals clash with one another. The distinctive task of political theory is to articulate principles by which this conflict can be managed and civilized, rather than hopelessly assuming one’s own faction can fully implement their preferred ideal. This realist argument critically assumes that conflict is a permanent part of political life such that no one faction can win an enduring and comprehensive victory over their opponents.

This premise has been cast into doubt by Pablo Gilabert and Holly-Lawford Smith, defenders of the ideal approach. They contend that a constraint which renders our political ideal presently infeasible can nonetheless be overcome in future via “enabling steps.” For instance, if we cannot implement our ideal currently because insufficient citizens agree with it, we can start educational programs to change their minds thereby removing that constraint in future. If their position is correct, disagreement may not be a permanent constraint on the implementation of one’s political ideal and the ideal theory approach may be more feasible than realists imply. However, in this paper I argue that Gilabert and Lawford-Smith’s account fails to undermine the realist critique of ideal theory. For their account overlooks the strategic nature of political life. It is not only the advocates of one’s preferred ideal who can try to improve their chances of a permanent and comprehensive victory in the future via enabling steps, their opponents can play the same strategic game. Both basic game theory and our actual political experience suggests that no side will actually win a comprehensive and enduring victory under such circumstances, at least in a democratic society. I end by reflecting on what the proper role of the ideal theories should be in politically diverse societies.

Event Contacts
Kaveh Pourvand