Practical vs principled analysis


practice theory
practical ideology
outcome process


When someone asserts that something is right both on principled and on practical grounds, they're probably fooling themselves, both about what is true and about what they believe. It's likely that they're cherry-picking facts to support the principle they already believe in. So the first thing to do, when talking to somebody like this, is to try to determine what they really believe.

Like so:
Alice: A pure market system is the best economic system morally, and it will produce the best outcome.
Bob: If you became convinced that such a system was not the best morally, but it still produced the best outcome, would you still favor it? Or (more likely) would you favor such a system if you became convinced it was still the best system morally, but did not produce the best outcomes.

Within the analytical strand of political philosophy, there are roughly two different types of answers to the question: “What is the purpose of doing political philosophy?” The first answer is that political philosophy should be truth-seeking, even if that implies, for example, that political ideals such as justice, equality or democracy are unachievable. The truth-seeking strand within political philosophy produces a focused and often highly abstract type of analysis, which does not make the messy compromises that are needed to make the analysis directly relevant for practice (e.g., subjecting the analysis to constraints of feasibility). G.A. Cohen has been a prominent exponent of the truth-seeking strand within political philosophy (Cohen 2008: 1–25). The alternative approach to political philosophy is the practical approach, whose purpose is the direct (or indirect) guidance of our actions and decisions. The practical approach to political philosophy is more likely to take into account several types of constraints on our actions, including feasibility constraints but also facts about the world as we know it, such as the condition of relative scarcity of resources. The practical approach to political philosophy obviously also aims to respect truth (in so far as this is known) in its analyses, but is willing to make some simplifications and the above-mentioned compromises in order to move the analysis forward to the realm of practical recommendations—a realm in which the truth-seeking approach is much less likely to arrive due to the never-ending analysis of yet another detail of the structure or properties of a concept that needs to be analyzed.

- Ingrid Robeyns, The Capability Approach (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Process vs outcome

Process itself can't do all the work to get us to decent social arrangements

When we ask ourselves what would be a just and decent society, we are faced by conflicting intuitions, standards that are imprecise and poorly formulated, and significant questions of fact. Relying on some of these intuitions to the exclusion of others, we may seem to escape complexity and conflict, but at the risk of pursuing a mere logical exercise, and not a very interesting one at that. The hazards are well illustrated by some contemporary discussion. Consider, for example, the "entitlement theory of justice," now enjoying a certain vogue. According to this theory, a person has a right to whatever he has acquired by means that are just. If, by luck or labor or ingenuity, a person acquires such and such, then he is entitled to keep it and dispose of it as he wills, and a just society will not infringe on this right.

One can easily determine where such a principle might lead. It is entirely possible that by legitimate means — say, luck supplemented by contractual arrangements "freely undertaken" under pressure of need — one person might gain control of the necessities of life. Others are then free to sell themselves to this person as slaves, if he is willing to accept them. Otherwise, they are free to perish. Without extra question-begging conditions, the society is just.

The argument has all the merits of a proof that 2 + 2 = 5. Presented with such a proof, we may be sufficiently intrigued to try to find the source of error in faulty reasoning or incorrect assumptions. Or, we may disregard it and proceed to more important matters. In a field with real intellectual substance, such as mathematics, it may be interesting, and has in the past really proven fruitful, to pursue such questions. In considering the problems of society and human life, the enterprise is of dubious value. Suppose that some concept of a "just society" is advanced that fails to characterize the situation just described as unjust, to an extreme (however the outcome may have come about). Then one of two conclusions is in order. We may conclude that the concept is simply unimportant and of no interest as a guide to thought or action, since it fails to apply properly even in such an elementary case as this. Or we may conclude that the concept advanced is to be dismissed in that it fails to correspond to the pretheoretical notion that it intends to capture in clear cases. If our intuitive concept of justice is clear enough to rule social arrangements of the sort described as grossly unjust, then the sole interest of a demonstration that this outcome might be "just" under a given "theory of justice" lies in the inference by reductio ad absurdum to the conclusion that the theory is hopelessly inadequate. While it may capture some partial intuition regarding justice, it evidently neglects others.

Chomsky, Equality

We care (and should care) about both process and outcome

I began the class by asking students whether they would approve of my carrying out a particular magic experiment. I picked two volunteers, Nicholas and John, and told them that I was capable of making $200 disappear from Nicholas’s bank account – poof! – while adding $300 to John’s.amp#160; This feat of social engineering would leave the class as a whole better off by $100. Would they allow me to carry out this magic trick?

Those who voted affirmatively were only a tiny minority. Many were uncertain. Even more opposed the change.

Clearly the students were uncomfortable about condoning a significant redistribution of income, even if the economic pie grew as a result. How is it possible, I asked, that almost all of them had instinctively favored free trade, which entails a similar – in fact, most likely greater – redistribution from losers to winners? They appeared taken aback.

Let’s assume, I said next, that Nicholas and John own two small firms that compete with each other. Suppose that John got richer by $300 because he worked harder, saved and invested more, and created better products, driving Nicholas out of business and causing him a loss of $200. How many of the students now approved of the change? This time a vast majority did – in fact, everyone except Nicholas approved!

I posed other hypotheticals, now directly related to international trade. Suppose John had driven Nicholas out of business by importing higher-quality inputs from Germany? By outsourcing to China, where labor rights are not well protected? By hiring child workers in Indonesia? Support for the proposed change dropped with each one of these alternatives.

But what about technological innovation, which, like trade, often leaves some people worse off. Here, few students would condone blocking technological progress. Banning the light bulb because candle makers would lose their jobs strikes almost everyone as a silly idea.

So the students were not necessarily against redistribution. They were against certain kinds of redistribution. Like most of us, they care about procedural fairness.

To pass judgment on redistributive outcomes, we need to know about the circumstances that cause them.

- Dani Rodrik on Free-Trade Blinders - Project Syndicate


Libertarians (not all of them, but rather a lot of them), weave back between arguments about how markets maximize economic efficiency, and arguments about how markets realize human freedom. This leads to more general confusion about what markets are good for, especially because there is no very good reason to believe that libertarians are right in their assumption that social affairs are so happily arranged that the most efficient social arrangement available is just that which maximizes human freedom. I don’t know of any better statement of this than this old post by Cosma Shalizithis old post by Cosma Shalizi.

> On the one hand, the sanctity of private property and private contracts is held to be a matter of inalienable natural right, guaranteed by the fundamental facts of morality, if not a basic part of Objective Reality; capitalism is the Right Thing to Do. On the other hand, much effort is devoted to arguing that unfettered laissez-faire capitalism is also the economic system which will produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number, indeed for all, if only people would just see it. Natural right therefore coincides exactly with personal interest. A clearer example of wishful thinking could hardly be asked for. It’s not hard to see what function this plays, rhetorically. Many people who are not persuaded by the natural right argument can be lead to go along with libertarian proposals by considerations of economic efficiency. (I imagine the number of people who are unpersuaded of the economics, but buy the sanctity of property, is much smaller.)
- Markets and Freedom: Common Mistakes — Crooked Timber

Misc, to-do

"Is the main difference between you and, say, Stephan Kinsella, that Stephan can give a long answer to the question, "OK, how do we define a just law?" whereas your answer is, "I don't know, but I know Nazism doesn't count"?" Close, but not quite. Stephan can give you a long and detailed answer because he has an ideology. The purpose of ideology is to do away with the need for practial judgment and replace it with rules. I could tell you, but not in the abstract. Imagine sitting between a really skilled NBA coach and some "average fan" at a bar. Your team is down 10 and falling further behind with 5 minutes to go. The fan is likely to have a rule like "They have to put in a three point shooter!" But, if you ask the coach, "I don't know — it would depend, depend on who I have on the bench, how much I've played them, who is on the other team, how the game is developing, the crowd, and more." So, now Murphy says to the coach, "If you're so smart, how come he had a ready answer and you don't?" Essentially, in a series of posts in which I've been criticizing ideology, you're here responding, "Well, then, what is YOUR ideology?"
Gene Callahan, La Bocca della Verità: Look at the Violence Inherent in the System!


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