Analytic Political Theory and the Science Question

Building on my post responding to Patrick Jackson’s The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations, I wanted to highlight a book on methodologies in political theory that I’ve been working my way through.

In my post I suggested that “normative” theorists would object to Jackson’s characterization of their work as essentially the same as political activism or religious speculation – which I stand by.

I struggle to think of an approach to ethical theory whose adherents don’t aspire to be systematic, accountable, and oriented toward discovering or producing practical ethical knowledge. While the meaning of these terms and the methods by which one pursues these aims would obviously differ from those used in strictly empirical investigations, Jackson’s broad practical definition of science raises the possibility that those of us concerned to make ethical evaluations maybe be entitled to declare: “we are scientists!”

I came across a chapter by Daniel McDermott in Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (edited by David Leopold and Marc Stears) that illustrates my point extremely well. In the chapter, “Analytical Political Philosophy,” McDermott says the following:

Analytical political philosophy is a complement to social science. Whereas social scientists aim to determine the empirical facts about human behaviour and institutions, political philosophers aim to determine what ought to be done in light of that information… There are a number of different ways to characterize it, but probably the best is that analytical political philosophy is an approach to gaining knowledge that falls into the same broad category as science.

McDermott goes on to draw parallels between the natural and social sciences and analytical political philosophy, which he admits depends upon the reality of moral facts. He avoids the controversies surrounding this issue by distinguishing metaethics from political philosophy, drawing a further comparison between science.

This leads to a deeper, and more interesting, version of the objection to the political philosopher’s project: there simply are no moral facts, ever. The theories political philosophers develop really are theories about nothing, like those medieval theologians developed about the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. This is a genuine worry, but it is the kind of metaethical worry that is none of the political philosopher’s business. In philosophy, as in most intellectual endeavours, progress depends in part upon a successful division of labour. All of biology, for example, is ultimately physics, but that does not mean biologists should become physicists. Nor would they allow worries about the origins of the universe to distract them from their projects… My claim is that political philosophers should set aside worries about whether there are moral facts is controversial…

I want to highlight this argument because it (a) clearly advocates for a line of reasoning that is rarely stated so forcefully and fully, and (b) because it underlines the point I made about Jackson’s Weberian starting point. Jackson’s fact/value distinction is a substantive metaethical position that is anti-pluralist so far as it excludes other metaethical understandings of the nature of moral claims, and the corresponding relationship between social science and ethics, as fields of study. (I would, however, emphatically disagree with McDermott’s specific argument – but that is another post)

McDermott continues, as if responding directly to Jackson’s account of “normative” theory as a political activity:

This objection confuses political philosophy with politics. Political philosophy is not about getting things done – it is about discovering the truth. As part of this, political philosophers should aggressively defend their theories, but the motive for doing this should not be to gather support for some political project, but to put those theories to the test, to see whether they survive public scrutiny.

The implications of this line of thinking for a pluralist study of international relations would be that we should respect a variety of metaethical positions in social inquiry, such that subjectivists that deny the existence of moral facts are not able to use their power within the discipline to exclude those who hold a metaethical position that denies the unknowability of morality as a subject. In essence, Jackson’s subjectivism plays the same role in limiting inquiry that neopositivism does in mainstream international relations, but on metaethical rather than ontological grounds. Hearing McDermott describe his own work it would seem there is no a priori justification for his inclusion from the science club:

Critics of analytical political philosophy sometimes complain that it is too dry and technical, that it is so myopically obsessed with trivial details that it loses sight of what is interesting and important about politics. Some of those who make this complaint flatter themselves into thinking that they have deep methodological objections to the analytical project, when they only real problem they have is that the ‘method’, when rigorously applied, doesn’t deliver the substantive conclusions to which they are already committed… I wouldn’t dare suggest that the amount of progress made in political philosophy is comparable to that made in science, but I do believe (perhaps naively) that there has been significant progress. I also believe that political philosophers should approach their task with the same sense of humility as scientists, and they the should be happy to make a successful contribution, however small and unsexy it may seem, to the overall project of increasing human knowledge.

To halt the critique of Jackson for a minute, I do think of virtue of his argument is that it opens up these kinds of questions, and I would recommend that anyone interested in the normative/ethical elements of social inquiry look at the Leopold and Stears text – read along side Jackson’s book it has challenged me to clarify my understanding of social inquiry and will undoubtedly generate further reflections, both here and elsewhere.


4 thoughts on “Analytic Political Theory and the Science Question

  1. Andrew Rehfeld’s article “Offensive Political Theory,” Perspectives on Politics (2010) may bear on these issues (I glanced at it very quickly, I don’t think I entirely agreed with it). Also perhaps relevant – the first part of Alan Gilbert’s Democratic Individuality (which, again, I haven’t read but it defends objectivity of morality). F.w.i.w.


    • Thanks for the references – though I have to admit, I have very little sympathy for McDermott’s position and any sort of objectivity for normative questions I might defend would be on very different ground. But I do think it’s a great/clear piece for social science types that think of moral theory as a nether world of relativity and subjectivism.


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