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Episode 21: Political Philosophy as Practical Philosophy / March 26, 2021

With Dr Simon Hope

Hosted by Ross Patrizio Alexandros Constantinou

Edited by Constantinos Stylianou

Posted in Political Philosophy Main feed

In this episode Alex and Ross are joined by Dr. Simon Hope of Stirling University to discuss the role and scope of political philosophy; what do we do when we do political philosophy and whose viewpoint gets to count?

What exactly is it that we’re doing when we’re doing political philosophy? They also delve deep into the scope of political philosophy. Philosophers—especially within the western, analytic tradition—often speak in terms of global, or universal principles, but can we speak in such terms without firstly taking a truly global perspective? And what would we need to do in order to adopt such a perspective in our philosophical theorising?


01:19 - Simon Hope’s past and current motivations in moral and political philosophy

03:45 - The problem of reliance on intuition and who philosophers address when saying “we”

07:40 - The Domesticating Global Justice network – importance of global perspectives in answers to global justice

12:37 - Morality in the context of colonisation and global perspectives on justice beyond Western academia

20:30 - Introducing political philosophy as practical knowledge accessible across political and cultural perspectives

24:57 - Theoretical vs. practical judgement and what it means for justice

28:31 - How does our day-to-day experience and culture lend to our practical judgment of how to live?

32:40 - Action guidance as a necessarily practical component of understanding justice

37:16 - Discerning justice where action guidance is impossible


Simon Hope: I actually got a very nice book for being first in Classics, um…

Ross Patrizio: Oh, wow.

SH: There was only one other person in the class!

[everyone laughs]


Alexandros Constantinou: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Dr. Simon Hope, who is a lecturer at the University of Stirling. Simon works in moral and political philosophy, specifically on the importance of imperfect duties and considerations of the accessibility of exchange of moral reasons. We dive deep into the intersection of morality and political philosophy, culminating in the seemingly universal ideal of human rights. Do we really require the idea of human rights to guide us in our understanding of justice? And how can one understand justice if not by the actions that we ourselves perform? Here are some Thoughts on political philosophy as practical philosophy.

AC: Right. Simon, welcome on the show.

Simon Hope: Thank you.

AC: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start us off with your interest in philosophy? How it happened? When did it come about? And what exactly interested you to start thinking about?

SH: Ah, em… Yeah, I started as an undergraduate. I mean, I went to a small rural school in New Zealand, so philosophy wasn’t something that you did. And I started doing it, and then I didn’t really stop. What really helped me, I think, was a module that involved thinking through some Maori moral concepts. Because up until that point, I sort of- I was doing philosophy, but I was pretty sure I knew what was right and what was wrong, you know? I was an angry animal rights activist and so on. But then really being pushed out my comfort zone, having to try and think about culturally alien concepts and how one might make sense of them, really sort of… That’s when I really got into philosophy. I realised that philosophy is not just kind of working out what you already think is right, but thinking outside of your comfort zone, and really having to sort of think something through in a… And that’s where the difficult but all the really interesting stuff is. Philippa Foot says somewhere that you ask a philosopher a question and after they’ve talked for a bit, you don’t understand your question anymore.

AC: [laugh]

SH: And when I first heard that I thought, oh, that’s a bit… glib. But actually, I think it’s fundamentally true?

AC: [laugh]

SH: But yeah, it’s only once I started asking questions and then realising I didn’t understand the questions that I got really hooked on philosophy. And then just kept going!

AC: Well, on that note, what’s a recent question that you have been mulling over, that you have been thinking about? After reading your papers, and in particular thinking about the Western culture in philosophy and its impact on the world?

SH: I mean, officially, I’m a political philosopher. That’s what Stirling pays me to do, what they employed me to do. But increasingly, I find myself preoccupied with the question of, “what is political philosophy exactly?”, rather than just sort of going ahead and, you know, writing something about justice. I am increasingly preoccupied with the question of, gosh, I don’t really know what I’m doing. [laugh] I’m trying to figure it out. And a whole bunch of questions are connected to that which really keeps me busy. So, yeah, that’s what I spend most of my time thinking about at the moment.

Ross Patrizio: When you… It’s interesting what you said earlier, that, you know, philosophy might be about putting yourself out outside of your comfort zone in trying to do meaningful philosophy. What exactly does that mean? Does that mean kind of taking in different perspectives or, you know, putting yourself in uncomfortable positions? Like, how are you thinking about that?

SH: Yeah. I mean, one style of philosophy I just can’t get into is the stuff that uses very clever but very artificial thought experiments to try and motivate []. The stuff that just assumes there’s a kind of bedrock of reasonable intuition that you can do that from, which you do see a lot in modern moral and political philosophy. It’s as though the starting points are already clear, and you just kind of go from there. Which is interesting! It’s interesting to sort of take an idea and see how far it goes, but I worry that that assumption of reasonable consensus is both philosophically and politically problematic. And so, yeah, I guess getting out of your comfort zone, for me, means trying to think about… Well, trying to think in a different way. Trying to sort of, you don’t take your intuitions as fixed points, but you need to sort of think of some way of- some account of objectivity in thought that doesn’t just take it for granted that everyone agrees with ‘this’. I mean, that’s very difficult to do. That is, for me, being outside of my comfort zone.

RP: Yeah, I’ve always found it funny in philosophy, like how… the kind of role that intuitions play. It’s pretty huge. Like, I mean, obviously, not everywhere and for all philosophy, but it seems like a really valid and quite often powerful objection to something is like, “that just doesn’t sit with my intuitions” or “I don’t have that intuition”. And when you’re talking about this in a more broad way and thinking about where these traditions are coming from, that kind of seems quite ridiculous, almost.

SH: Yes, yes. And here’s another way of putting the thought. Modern moral and political philosophers in particular often talk about “we”, but who is included in that maniple? It’s never specified. I think that’s a really fundamental philosophical issue, who you are taking to be included in that, in the maniple you are speaking to or for. And yet it just doesn’t seem explored. And if the “we” turned out to be much more restrictive than they assume it is, then that could be a problem.

AC: So, I’ve always assumed that the “we” that the philosophical readings referred to seemed obvious to me – that it’s each and every one of the humans that are alive, or were alive.

SH: Mm-hmm.

AC: So, that seemed very obvious to me growing up, and in recent years while I’m an undergraduate. Is that a wrong assumption to make?

SH: I don’t think so. Though one thing I find really interesting, I’m not sure what thing that is. If you read really careful studies in the history of ideas, you get a very clear sense of who exactly someone like Thomas Hobbes is speaking to. And then, I’m not [laugh] really sure who I’m speaking to. You know, Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ is a response to the engagement controversy in, you know, Interregnum England. [Kant] got his concerns about the state of pressure in Europe and so on, and Aristotle’s got his concerns about civic life in Athens. And it’s not clear to me who modern philosophers take themselves to be talking to. But yeah, so in once sense- I mean, if it’s good philosophy, if it’s universal, then in a sense it speaks to everyone. Or rather, it aims to speak to everyone. But speech is communication and communication has to meet certain conditions. It has to be followable in thought by those you address it to, and I’m not sure all of the philosophy that aims to speak to all of us actually acknowledges those conditions.

RP: Yeah. Maybe it’s a good time to introduce your… So, you worked on a conference or a project called ‘Domesticating Global Justice’. Is that right? Can you tell us a bit about that?

SH: Yeah. It was a network that ran for several years.

AC: So, that network provided a platform for Western philosophers, if I can use that term, to connect with… Was it specifically philosophers in Africa or was it philosophers from all over the world?

SH: No, it’s… We didn’t have the budget for, em… [laugh] all over the world.

AC: [laugh]

SH: I mean, the air fairs were pretty brutal connecting Europe and Africa. Yeah, it was connecting Western philosophers, working on global justice in particular, with African philosophers. That was the idea.

RP: And I understanding’s that the thought behind that was like – correct me if I’m wrong – that Western academic institutions kind of spend a lot of time theorising about global issues and trying to come up with global principles, but then really that’s coming from quite a sort of narrow specific context and framework, and that it might be better informed or be kind of developed by including truly more global contexts, I suppose, to bring them to the fore.

SH: Yes! Yes, that’s right. And you know, it was started by my friend Katrin Flikschuh at the LSE who has a wonderful book saying that perhaps we don’t understand the problem of global justice. Because the literature in the mainstream journals typically takes concepts familiar from our domestic settings and just transfers it to the global setting without really interrogating whether that application is appropriate. So, her thought is that we don’t actually know necessarily that the problems of global justice is until we’ve understood how other people who are also affected by it understand it. And it’s only in light of that that you could possibly have confidence that your domestic ideas can transfer to the global setting. So, she’s not denying that they could. She’s just saying there’s a step missing. She also thinks that when you do that step, you see that they probably don’t. [laugh] So, that’s the basic idea - that to understand the problem, you need to get multiple perspectives on it. Or- and what we think the problem is might not be what philosophers in other places think is the problem.

AC: So, the idea is that we’re trying to find these universal and common values, or principles, that should solve problems. But the problem with this is that we only are familiar with problems at home, and the problems that we have at home are restricted and have a specific historical context to them, and they are defined by the audience that is implicated by them. And when we try to generalise out of that context into the global stage, we run into problems because our experiences differ so much. Is that an apt description?

SH: Yes, though I think there’s also something missing from it. Like, yeah, I didn’t understand the project, and I don’t think most of us involved understood the project as finding the universal principles. There’s an even more fundamental problem of working out what accessible reasoning could be in these contexts. So, the sort of- the search for universal principles might sound too quick and that we’ve already… you know, we know how to think about this. We need to think it through. But the problem is more, we’re not even sure how to think about it, exactly.

AC: So, this is “where we don’t understand the question” phase of philosophy.

SH: Yea- oh, yeah! [laugh]

RP: [laugh]

SH: It’s not- it’s not taking for granted that there are universal values, but it’s more sort of asking about the, “what would the necessary preconditions for an answer to the question of global justice be?”. And that would have to be some kind of, I’m tempted to say, public reasoning. But I don’t mean that on any sort of narrow John Rawls style way. I mean it more in the broader sense that Kant speaks about it. Reasoning that’s followable in thought and actionable in principle by an unbounded domain. And we, you know, we’ve got to work out what that could be. And that’s what I think the project is mostly about. It wasn’t, like, another attempt at the UN document where, “here, let’s get everyone together and work out...”

[everyone laugh]

SH: Let’s get everyone together and see what possibilities there are after talking to each other. And I don’t think everyone in the project was even committed to the idea of coming up with universal principles at the end. There were some that thought perhaps there was something more contextual or relativist must be the way to go, though. So… Yeah, we disagreed about that, so…

RP: [laugh]

SH: So, yeah, that’s what we were… That’s what the project was… It was really just a kind of first step to try and get those connections going.

AC: The question now, I think, is, what did you take out of this project? How did your thinking going into this project change as you came out of the project?

SH: Oh, man. That’s a huge question.

RP: Definitely. [laugh]

SH: So, one thing I took out of it, actually, this is probably the most immediate thing. I’m not really sure why I was in the project, to be honest.

AC: [laugh]

SH: I’m not any kind of big name. But one thing I sort of took into the project was, I’m pretty familiar with what it is to live in an ’attempting to decolonise’ society in the South Pacific. But Africa was not on anyone’s radar. Like, my friends in Maori Studies at the University of Oakland looked to North America and Australia, because I guess the context is kind of broadly similar, for their intellectual connections. So, I was interested in getting a completely different perspective. And one thing that sort of disfigures all of our thinking about morality and justice is the gross history of colonisation. That’s the kind of broad context in which all modern thinking takes place. And one thing I took out of the network is that it’s very difficult to generalise about the injustices of colonisations. It’s so myriad and complex and played out in very different ways in very different places. There was- this is… I think this isn’t too much of a side-track. When India achieved independence from Britain, some American anthropologists went into rural India to do a study about what the locals thought about the British leading. And they had to give it up because they couldn’t find anyone who knew what the British were, frankly.

RP: [laugh]

SH: Impoverished rural India, they… Obviously, the empire had shaped their lives in all sorts of fundamental ways, but it wasn’t ways that were visible to them. As far as they were concerned, they weren’t sure that they had been colonised. So, it’s very difficult to… I mean, there is a lot of literature about what’s wrong with colonisation. Looking for sort of- trying to boil it down, like you’ve got a Bunsen burner and you’re trying to extract the essence of the injustice. And it struck me that that’s probably not the way to think about complex problems. You want to try and keep certain places in view. So, that’s the main thing, the main thing I got out of it, I suppose. But also, just a whole lot of really interesting connections with literature and people that I really wasn’t very aware of.

AC: Right. So, while you were talking, what struck me was the vast kaleidoscope of possibilities for experiences in the colonising context. If we were to simplify and say that there’s a divide between ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’, which I’m not sure we can, across that divide there’s so many different experiences. And I’m guessing that the literature on colonisation primarily comes from Western analytical philosophical tradition. So, how does that define that literature in a way that may not be inclusive from the other side of that divide?

SH: Mm.

AC: How does the Western philosophical tradition come and impose itself and says, “right, so we’ve done those things, they’re wrong, and now that we have acknowledged that they’re wrong, it’s fine”? Is that a way that that happens, or are there more to play?

SH: I think, again, that’s a really big question. And I think there are multiple literatures on colonisation, and a number of them are not written by Western academics. And I’m increasingly becoming aware of the African literature, but there’s, you know, there’ll be Asian and South American literatures and so on that I’m completely unaware of. I’m aware of sort of North American and Pacific literatures as well, where I grew up. But some- sorry, I’m waffling. Here’s the thought. Just to take one literature, the recent debate in Western journals about what’s wrong with colonisation, a good friend of mine wrote a very good, really thoughtful and interesting contribution to hat. But he didn’t mention one source outside of the narrow Western literature. He really gives you a sense of a bunch of established Western academics talking to each other about this and not trying to reach out to other literatures. That strikes me as problematic. But there’s also, I guess, what’s the bigger issue here?

It would also be helpful, I think, to separate two questions. There’s a question that’s sort of internal to the Western tradition of whether we can actually disentangle the philosophical insights from pretty much the entire corpuses from their racist and sexist and from the older prejudices of their time. But that’s a kind of question entirely internal to that tradition. There’s also the question of what it would be to engage with that tradition from outside of it, given that it doesn’t speak to you. And this is something that African philosophy is very alive in. You know, people like Paulin Hountondji saying that it’s very clear when they read the classics that the authors never expected an African to be reading those things. And actually, you find exactly the same thought in the most recent London Review of Books, someone writing about antisemitism in literature saying that it was very aware to her as a child that Virginia Woolf and Roald Dahl were not expecting a Jew to read their… yeah. It’s not just colonisation understood as the particular kind of historical process of political and cultural domination, but that question really interests me. And it’s not one that can be answered from just within the Western tradition, because it’s not a question that just concerns the Western tradition. And so, that’s where you really need to reach out across boundaries of literatures, I think. Make connections to other ways of thinking about them or other perspectives.

RP: I mean, I also- I wonder if you’d say more about what you think the kind of constructive ways forward are, then. Because I think one question would be – and it’s not a critical question – but I mean, one question is just, well, aside from maybe pulling in a couple of different slightly more varied sources, let’s say, what every individual person who’s writing a paper on one of these issues or someone who’s giving a talk, what you think would be a good first step, even? I’m not expecting you to solve- [laugh] solve all the issues with the answers to this question. But you know, you know, em… Yeah, what do you think about that?

SH: No, no, exactly... I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, you don’t want to just be negative and say it’s difficult. So, I guess two things. One, certainly don’t assume that the discussion begins and end in Philosophy & Public Affairs and Ethics and the other mainstream journals. It’s definitely worth trying to investigate other sources. But also, I guess the other thing where I think maybe productive thought could start, is thinking about what it would be for someone to engage with what you’re saying, given that cultural and political context might not be the same as yours. That would be the most important first step, I think. And that will also mean thinking about… Well, sort of drawing on philosophers who have stuff to say about how we might reason with others, rather than just assuming that we all start from a common point.

AC: So, we’ve been bouncing around your paper basically, the ideas that are in your paper. I think it’s time to talk explicitly about it.

[everyone laugh]

AC: So, your paper… [laugh] It’s called ‘Political Philosophy as Practical Philosophy: A Response to “Political Realism”’. And you posit in that paper, in very general terms, that when we talk about philosophy, we should be talking about a practice. About something that we do in our daily lives. So, this refers to something you said also earlier about concepts being actionable and understood and seen. How does that fit into the discussion of the divide between Western philosophy and, for example, African philosophy?

SH: Em… I see it promising, because… Well, for a couple of reasons. So, in the background here I guess is Kant, who is after all the philosopher who tells us that knowledge of how we should live is practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge, which is an unusual thought these days. And I guess once you understand… Or, on a certain reading of Kant – which I think is the right reading but we don’t need to get into why that is – the concern with universalisability is a concern with… It’s trying to find a standard of objectivity to thinking about how we should live, where objectivity is a matter of everyone being able to adopt the maxims in question – the principles, if you like. And so, he’s trying to give a philosophical account of what it would be for someone to be able to adopt a principle, which is exactly the kind of thing I was suggesting you don’t get when we start with a set of comfortable assumptions about- or intuitions that people have, [], because you’re already assuming acceptable of basic moral commitment.

I’m not suggesting Kant’s trying to say something to someone who rejects the idea of morality entirely. I don’t think he is. It more works recursively. Given that we think moral principles are principles for all, what would have to be true of the reasoning that justifies those principles if that were the case? And that reasoning is practical reasoning, which I think is also helpful because… There are a whole bunch of theoretical judgements that their truth value doesn’t depend upon their accessibility. The world is not flat regardless of what anyone might think, and my judgement of ‘the world is not flat’ doesn’t need to be accessible to someone who thinks it is. The thought is practical knowledge can’t be like that, because the object of practical knowledge is what should be done which has yet to be done. So, it has no reality independent of the judgements that express it.

And that seems like a helpful way of trying to reach forward to an account of what it would be for reasoning to be accessible across different perspectives. It doesn’t have to be taken up for them to be motivationally sufficient, but it does have… It’s a modal claim. And so, it’s sort of… My interest in the idea of knowledge of how we should live, knowledge of what justice and morality are as being practical rather than theoretical knowledge is connected to my kind of sense of where the philosophical and political problems might lie when we’re thinking about how to live. Given that we think, as you guys said earlier, given that we think that accounts of how we live speak to everyone. So, that’s the complicated connection, but I see in Kant an attempt at giving an account of what it would be for reason to be followable, and that strikes me as very promising. And so, the political realists who emphasise the cultural and historical and political contexts and don’t want political philosophy to be, you know, done in isolation from that, I think they’re… They’re right about that – I’d want to emphasise that too – but it doesn’t strike me that that’s a problem peculiar to political philosophy. Moral philosophy is also [] how we should live. Given that we disagree about how we should live! So, some account of reasoning that could be followable in thought and actionable in principle, by all of us, is needed in both cases.

AC: I’m wondering if you could, for our listeners, very simply define the idea of theoretical knowledge when it comes to political and moral philosophy and the idea of practical knowledge when it comes to…

SH: Oh, sorry, yes. This is getting really complicated. But then, philosophy does get…

RP: [laugh]

AC: That’s very true.

SH: Em… As Kant and, I believe, Aristotle, both draw the distinction, the object of theoretical judgement is given to the [judgers] of it. So, it exists independently of that judgement. So, it’s a claim about the existential relation between object and judgement. In theoretical judgement, the object of judgement exists independent of the judgement, and so is given to the judging subject. In exactly the way I said before, you know. The world is a certain way regardless of what you think.

But things are different in practical judgement, because the object of practical judgement is yet to be done. And it’s not going to be done except in virtue of the judgement “I should do this”. So, the thought is, my understanding of justice is in part understanding of how I should live. What we mean when we say things like justice and honesty and so on are action-guided. To grasp those concepts is to understand something of the shape of your life if it’s to go well. And this is yet to be done, and it’s only… you know, you’re only going to live justly in virtue of your judgement “I should live justly”. I mean, someone might be just by accident, I guess. It’s just a pure fluke that they always give each their due without even really realising it. But I think it wants to say something… There was something defective in that. So, yeah, in practical judgement, the object of one’s judgement, which is what should be done, has no existence independent of that judgement. Your judgement sort of produces reality. And so, that’s the fundamental difference.

So, to finally answer your question, on a very standard view in moral and political philosophy, practical judgement is just the kind of… application? Of theoretical judgements about how we should live. But knowledge of what morality is and so on is theoretical knowledge, and then you just apply it. You know, you kind of put it into action and your practical judgement. Though I’m increasingly unsure that that’s right. Practical judgement isn’t just the follow-through on theoretical judgment []. Knowledge of how we should live is practical all the way down, is what I would want to say. So, don’t ask me to give you a knock-down watered-down argument for that yet.

AC: [laugh]

SH: But I think there is something… And this isn’t an argument for it, but it’s just a kind of acknowledgement point, is… It’s easier to fail to see the need to take different perspectives into account if you think that knowledge of how we should live is theoretical, because then it’s kind of out there regardless of what anyone thinks and its truth conditions don’t depend on… I mean, Parfit has a response along these lines. You know, he says, surely the question is “what’s true?”, not whether people can take it up. And now I think those were exactly the same question!

AC: [laugh]

SH: But you know, your conditions of practical truth require that it’s followable in thought and actionable. That’s the only way you get a kind of universalisable practical judgement.

AC: What I find interesting about that is that the question “surely what’s true?” seems to lose a lot of its bite when we’re talking about practical knowledge. Because the truth value of practical knowledge, if I’ve understood this correctly, depends on the way we construct or in the way we understand this knowledge and in the way that we create this reality. When I was reading your paper, what I found really motivating to an extent was when you were describing how the personal is political, how the political can’t only be about how we reach conclusions between different groups or between groups amongst themselves. And if I can read a bit of that description that you gave, which I found really apt and quite poetic [laugh] if I may say so.

SH: [laugh]

AC: So, you write: “A decision where to sit on a bus, or who to kiss in public, which job to apply for, which language to speak in, who to make friends with, how one modulates one’s voice, how one brings up a child, or what one’s academic programme of research will be—these are all contributions, either supportive or subversive, to the modes of legitimation operative in public life.”. I found that quite beautiful. But what- what… If I understood it as well, what you’re trying to say is that every personal action that we take comes from a practical understanding, or a sort of practical knowledge of how we should live, of how we answer the question “how should we live?”, or “how should we guide our lives?”, “how should we organise ourselves?”. So, do our everyday lives lend into the question of how we reach decisions, and if so, how should we think about what guides our lives?

SH: Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that question, I’m sorry. [laugh] It’s such a… It’s such a good question. They do. I think they have to. I mean… Yeah. There’s a lot to say in response, but I’ll try and be really quick. So, one way they have to, I think – this is a point John McDowell makes a lot and I think he is absolutely right – but all thinking depends on an inherited [] concept and an understanding of the world that’s culturally and historically depicted. I mean, that must be right. That’s the kind of creatures we are. It’s human nature to have a culture, and there aren’t that many cultural universals. So, that’s one way in which it impacts… And also, the question of which concepts I can embrace then depends on which concepts I already embrace. You know, sometimes in history with disastrous effect. Enlarging, if you want, or shifting of the conceptual boundaries, is something that couldn’t be immediate; it’ll have to be worked through and fought through and worked out. And so, yeah, what kind of concepts you’re capable of embracing depends on what concepts you already have access to. Which is not to say that you necessarily, you know, kind of live by those concepts, but at least you’ve kind of got them in your… within your horizon, if you like. And that horizon can expand the more perspectives you take on. So- and that- these are all ways in which the everyday stuff impact on our thinking, but I wouldn’t want to go as far as someone like Bernard Williams and think that good reasoning has to connect motivation in with all of that stuff. For me, the connection would be modal rather than motivational.

But yeah, I mean… Sorry, just to get back to the political stuff. How we think about that strikes me as very political as well. The thought was all of these things kind of subvert or support existing power relations. Also, yeah, sometimes [incidentally] open up different ways of thinking about things that might also subvert or support our relations, and yeah. It’s all political. That’s the best I can do, I think, to answer your question. I’m not sure if I did answer your question, though!

AC: I think I’m going to ask a follow-up to-

SH: Yeah, sure.

AC: To… kind of tease out some intuitions. So, I guess an opposing view to the one you’re taking is the idea – and this will have… I guess it’s grounded on the idea that practical knowledge flows from theoretical knowledge, that we discussed before. So, an opposing view would be, well, we experience reality, and so the assumptions we make about that reality do have objective truth values. So, the Earth isn’t flat, the table is made out of wood, and so on, until you come to a point where you base complex structures on something more fundamental, like the world is not a flat surface but it’s a sphere and so on. So, if we construct it in such a way, then it would seem that the conclusion would be that there are indeed truth values about how we should live and that, with the discovery of modern science, we do have a conceptual framework that is inclusive and that is understanding and that supports kind of an ethical or moral or political outlook. Is that quite true? Could somebody construct it in such a way as to draw conclusions from the history of the world that we ascribe to now, and kind of say that it’s not really about how we construct it ourselves – it’s about how we act in response to these facts, to these complex structures? Does that make sense? And how would you respond to that from your standpoint?

SH: Yeah. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how to do the philosophy that would justify that kind of… I guess it’s a view- sort of a robust moral realism about moral properties being in the world. So, I- yeah, I think negative on that. [laugh]

AC: [laugh]

SH: I guess that I don’t know how you could do it, which might seem like an incredibly arrogant thing to say, because obviously lots of people try. But also, I guess, I’d want to know if we also think that these moral standards are action-guiding. I want to know how the connection kind of runs there. Is it just that, well, if only you thought about this in the right way? If only you saw it clearly, then it would be action-guiding? Okay? That looks impractical to me. [laugh] And action guidance surely has to be practical. I mean, there’s a lot more to say here – I’m being very crude – but I realise I also need to be concise. Yeah. That seems an impractical answer. And so, you could give up the action-guiding claim. Someone like Jerry Cohen seems to do that. Principles of justice tell us what to do. But actually, that isn’t really what they do. They tell us what justice is, and if you can’t do it, then that doesn’t change the fact about what justice is. I find that really hard to get my head around, and you know, someone could be interested in what justice is without having any interest in acting justly. I’m sure that can’t be true. I’m sure you failed to understand something about what justice is if you don’t think it makes claims upon your actions, you don’t think it’s action-guiding. So, those are the two points I’d worry about.

RP: Sorry, just to be clear there on that – I find that really interesting, but would that mean that on your view, it would be literally- [laugh] like, theoretically impossible to fully understand and grasp what, for example, some principles of justice are and for it to be totally disconnected in a motivational sense from kind of enacting that in your everyday life? You’ve either not fully understood it, not fully done all the work, or- [laugh] What would the other side of that be? I don’t even know. [laugh] But it’s like there’s a necessary connection there, right, if you’re fully understanding it, grasping it, and doing the philosophy in that sense?

SH: Yes! Yes, I think so. I think that’s right. I mean, there’s room for being weak-willed and so on, because then you do understand that you should do it, but you’re not doing it. [laugh] But it’s possible to utter true propositions. Even Donald Trump could articulate a morally true proposition about the basic quality of human beings, but then-

RP: [laugh]

SH: You look at how he lives and you’d think, “but actually, he doesn’t understand that”, because… I mean, it’s not that what he said would be false, but he doesn’t understand what that actually means, because he’s not attempting to live by it. It’s not guiding his actions. So, I have to turn my own doubt on myself at this point. I’m not completely sure how to do the philosophy to mitigate that. [laugh]

AC: Mm.

SH: But I think the way to go might be asking what would have to be true of the principle for it to be action-guided, and it would have- “The judgement ‘x’ is just” would have to have this kind of productive element to it.

RP: Yeah, I was just thinking, would one worry be there if you figured out that what justice involved- Like, because of the state of the world was in now, just as a kind of historical fact, and if because of a bunch of complicated reasons the world was in such a state that enacting justice or even making steps towards that, it seems possible to me that our philosophy could reveal something about what was needed to get us closer to justice. It was just so unbelievably difficult as to be almost practically impossible.

SH: Mm.

RP: And that would maybe be theoretically impossible on your view? Does that make sense? You see what I’m kind of…

SH: Yeah. Yeah, I think you would’ve lost your concept at that point.

RP: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

SH: There’s a wonderful book by Johnathan Lear called ‘Radical Hope’ about how the Crow in North America lost their ethical concept when they were moved onto the reservation, because it no longer became- I mean, they could understand what it was to act with honour. That was, you know, hunting the buffalo and killing the Sioux and taking their scout. But none of that was possible anymore, and so even though they could still make sense of their history, practical thinking is prospective. It’s concerned with that’s yet to be done. And they couldn’t make sense of what that could mean. And I think, if you want another example, I don’t know if either of you have read this novel ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy.

RP: I’ve actually never read it. I’ve heard of it.

AC: Me neither.

SH: Yeah. It’s also- there’s a film with Aragorn from Lord of the Rings in it, but the book is good. Book is amazing. The man is in a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to bring up his son well, but he’s no longer clear… I mean, what could it mean to act justly when the environment’s completely destroyed and everyone you meet is trying to kill and eat you?

RP: [laugh]

SH: What is it that [] do? I mean, you might be able to give an account of what in better times that would mean, but that world is gone and it’s not coming back. So, it provides no action guidance now. So, the man is kind of losing his grip. And I would say, if we think justice is action-guiding, it would not be possible – it cannot be possible – to give an account of what justice is in a world where it would be impossible to manifest that in what we do. We would be disoriented with respect to justice. We wouldn’t know what we were doing when we try to act justly. It would provide no guidance. If you want to give up the action-guiding claim, then fine, you know?

RP: Yeah, yeah.

SH: I’ve got nothing to say to you then, but…

RP: No, that’s different, yeah.

SH: Yeah. But, hardly anyone does want to give up the action…

RP: [laugh]

SH: But yeah!

RP: No, that’s really interesting, really interesting. Unfortunately, I think we’ve ran out of time, so I think we’re going to have to wrap up there, but thank you so much. That was really, really interesting. Thanks for coming on the show today.

SH: Thank you for all the questions! And sorry I didn’t do a very good job of answering them concisely, but they were just really big and demanding questions, so thank you!

RP: No, not at all, that was amazing! Thanks so much.


AC: Thank you to everybody for listening. Remember, you can find us on social media - on Facebook under Thoughts UofG, on Twitter under the same name, and on Instagram under @thoughts_uofg. See everybody next time!