Philosophy and Real Politics

Geuss, Raymond

My comments 2021-12-09


A short, hard-hitting critique of ideal political theory as exemplified by Robert Nozick and John Rawls. Raymond Geuss has a number of, in my mind, valid points about the inherent problems with attempting to base morality and political theory on a small set (ideally one single) value or principle. Human social relations are so complex that claiming that e.g. "justice as fairness" can somehow be designated as the first virtue of social institutions (Rawls), or that simply stating as axiomatic the idea that "individuals have rights" (Nozick), cannot possibly capture all that is important or interesting about human social existence.

Geuss delivers some pretty drastic statements, and acknowledges that his task in this text is purely negative, i.e. critical. He does not present any political theory of his own. That is fine, except that I think his arguments are actually too strong because of this. They preclude many other possible political theories that are not as conceptually simple as Rawls or Nozick, and I think this is a mistake. Inherent in his approach is the idea that all morality is historically contingent, and I believe this is a mistake. There are many moral ideas that can be found among virtually all human societies, albeit in various constellations and combinations. Although the social morality may not be as simple as Nozick or Rawls presumes, neither may it be so arbitrary as Geuss seems to think.