Justified Political Theories are Sets of Coherent Normative Claims

05 Nov 2014

Firstly, lets distinguish between Political Theory and political theories. The former is a field of study into the history of political ideas, as well as the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. The latter is a collection of beliefs concerning how individuals, groups, institutions, and society should act and be organised. Political theories are normative. They are action guiding accounts of what we should do and why we should do it. And they are rarely self-standing, but instead rely on a range of earlier or lower order normative beliefs.

What then does it mean for a political theory to be justified? In everyday language, to justify something means simply to give reasons in support of it. Clearly however, just any reasons are not enough. Consider the following:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Therefore the use of force to ensure radical egalitarianism is morally permissible.

Clearly something is wrong with this ‘justification’, not least of which includes the faulty conclusion. Firstly there is no logical entailment between the premises and conclusion. But even if there were, it would likely still not be enough to adequately justify the claim in question:

If roses are red, then the use of force to ensure radical egalitarianism is morally permissible.
Roses are red
Therefore the use of force to ensure radical egalitarianism is morally permissible.

We now have logical validity but clearly lack soundness thanks to premise one. So perhaps then any justification of a political theory requires a sound argument. And ‘logically sound reasons’ certainly seems like a sufficient criterion for the justification of political theories. After all, who could deny claims that are both logically valid and true?

The immediate problem with this conception of justification however is that it is too demanding. Any epistemic conception involving truth, like definitions of knowledge as justified true belief [^knowledge?], are highly problematic and fail against well know counter-examples like Gettier problems. This is even more problematic for moral and political theories however, as they often lack any truth content.

Political beliefs typically concern values. And values, like any preference, rarely contain any claim to some objective truth content. That’s because values are agent relative…..[need an argument here for value over truth]

So if truth, and therefore soundness, are too demanding a criterion for justification of political theories, what about validity? Again, this requirement also seems to require too much. Validity implies entailment which in turn implies binary matters of fact. Our world however, and especially our political life, is anything but binary. The types of claims we make are rarely absolute but rather matters of degrees. This means that our ‘political logic’ will often consist of inductive rather than deductive arguments, denying the very possibility of logical validity.

A much more plausible criteria for the justification of political beliefs then is coherence. Coherence is compatible with soundness, validity, inductive strength, and any other logical relationship short of contradiction. It permits any compatible set of claims but therein lies another problem. Coherence alone is too permissive, allowing arguments like our earlier examples.

Those examples however were not rejected because of their truth content but because of the absurdity of particular premises. The value laden nature of political discourse means that we can’t accept or reject claims based on their truth content. Rather, we must evaluate them relative to some other value.

The agent relative nature of values however means that we can never hope to have some universal justification of political theories. Unless of course, we can reach some universal agreement on the earlier claims that the theory is built upon. The candidate conception of justification that I have in mind is this:

A political theory is justified iff it is supported by a coherent set of normative claims that some agent could accept

If you accept normative claims ABC&D, and ABC&D entail normative claim E, then E is a justified political theory. An unjustified theory is therefore any theory that isn’t supported by a coherent set of normative beliefs that some agent could except. What might that mean? Three scenarios are possible: