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… Continue reading