Will Wilkison: How political idealism leads us astray

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

11 Responses

  1. Murali says:

    Wilkinson and Sen understate the difficulty in knowing which direction is up. The whole problem of conflicting ideals is that different people think that different directions, sometimes radically different directions are up. Sometimes the boot on your neck is well deserved because you are the one who did a grievous wrong. Sen just fails to appreciate this point. If we were far from the pareto frontier, then sen would have a point. But that’s just not the case. Figuring out which tradeoff to make requires us to figure out what we need to move towards. Not all movement away from a given point is equally good. There are things we could do that would result in us doing worse vis a vis justice. Without ideal theory, we won’t even have adequate conceptual tools to spell out what justice requires, not even in the rough, imprecise sense which Gaus is after.Report

    • pillsy in reply to Murali says:

      I don’t think this is obviously right, because “moving up” depends on having an understanding of the local environment, while “moving towards” something seems to be depend much more on having a view of the local environment. Having a sense of “better” that is useful in evaluating whether a given change is a move up or not may not be easy, but it seems much more likely to be easy (and useful) than having a picture of an ideal society we should be progressing towards.

      There will also, of course, be instances where no one can come to a consensus on what “up” means, but there will be other instances where we do have that consensus.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to pillsy says:

        There’s also the conflict of which side of the mountain to climb toward “up”. Identifying up doesn’t necessarily tell us the best path to take.Report

      • Murali in reply to pillsy says:

        Well, if you do your political theory half assedly, you can make an arbitrary axiological assertion (pleasure is good, freedom is good, equality is good etc) see that X generates more pleasure, freedom and equality and then go home saying that that’s what we should do. In fact that’s pretty much what Sen does.

        Doing political philosophy right requires quite a bit more work than what Sen puts in (at least more than he put into that piece of drek known as the “idea of justice”)Report

    • James K in reply to Murali says:


      Based on the points he makes, I think what Wilkinson should be objecting to is utopianism, rather than ideals per se.

      Having a set of ideals just means having a way to tell the difference between better and worse (and I agree with you that this is a harder problem that Wilkinson and Sen seem to think it is). The dangers Wilkinson point to relate to people who A) believe they have managed to conceive of a perfect state and B) are disinclined to consider incremental improvements. Both of these problems are really caused by a lack of proper epistemic humility rather than by having ideals.Report

      • Murali in reply to James K says:


        It is one thing, I think to do non-ideal theory as a way of extending someone else’s ideal theory. The ideal theory tells you what the right terminal values are and their relative importance and provides a clear picture of what you will be compromising in actual situations. Non-ideal theory (while possibly premature) which is an extension of this at least does not pretend that ideal theory is useless. But the problem with Sen is that he very explicitly argues against ideal theory, not utopianism. Sen doesn’t just think that it is important to talk about non-ideal circumstances and local maxima, he thinks we should stop doing ideal theory altogether.

        In order for something to count as an ideal, it must be the sort of thing that could in principle be complied with (and also not look obviously horrible when this happens). That’s why the full compliance assumption is necessary. One plausible way of figuring out what the correct ideals are is by thinking about what an ideal society would look like. Think of it as an extended bit of soul searching. If your ideal society is unequal in some way, then you must not think that sort of equality as being of the particularly important kind. That is the point that Sen misses. Thinking about ideal justice is how you figure out what your ideals are. Because, you may think you want equality, but you may not like what a society in which that happened looked like even if everyone voluntarily acted in the way they would have to in order to achieve that equality.

        Gaus (given what we talked about 4 years ago*) is arguing that moral or political theory cannot in fact get you something so precise. Which is why a lot hangs on his argument of libertarianism (or a certain version of market liberalism) being a ready second best.

        *Yeah, his latest book has been in the works since at least 2010.Report

        • James K in reply to Murali says:


          Yes, I think that’s the mistake Wilkinson and Sen are making. They are thinking about instrumental values at the social structure level, and ignoring the importance of having a set of terminal values to evaluate policy proposals against.Report

  2. Dark Matter says:

    Seriously sounds like a Philosophy major… almost no practical words in there in terms of what to do.

    Looking him up…. yep. Philosophy major

  3. b-psycho says:

    I’m sure the people rotting in US prisons or being killed overseas with US weapons will greatly appreciate this decision to stick to what “we” got…Report

    • Joe Sal in reply to b-psycho says:

      Proudhon Connor: “The collectivists did too good a job in collecting, they amassed huge anti-authoritarian armies and held them in these things we called prisons. All the revolt needed was a set of keys”Report

  4. We are living in the age of Trump. The issue isn’t the perfect being the enemy of the good; the issue is the completely awful being the enemy of the not completely awful.Report