Political Realism as Methods not Metaethics

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 25 (3):449-463 (2022)
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Abstract

This paper makes the case for a revision of contemporary forms of political realism in political theory. I argue that contemporary realists have gone awry in increasingly centring their approach around a metaethical claim: that political theory should be rooted in a political form of normativity that is distinct from moral normativity. Several critics of realism have argued that this claim is unconvincing. But I suggest that it is also a counterintuitive starting point for realism, and one unnecessary to avoid the ‘applied morality’ approach to political theory that realists oppose. Instead, realism should be methodologically orientated around what I term ‘empirically constitutive political realities’ - enduring features of real political contexts that are systematically consequential in their normative implications. Realists can persuasively argue that such empirically constitutive political realities must be attended to in political theory-building, and not merely treated as a context in which independently formulated moral theories are simply applied. This framing of realism accords real politics a genuinely foundational theoretical role, but without requiring any contentious metaethical stance about a non-moral political normativity. I explain some methodological implications that follow for realism – in particular the need to prioritise empirically grounded theorisation of real political contexts over abstract and rather essentialist claims about ‘the political’. I also argue that such a framing of realism helps engender a more accurate, less divisive, and more pluralist conception of methodological debates within political theory.

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Citations of this work

Taking rulers' interests seriously: The case for realist theories of legitimacy.Ben Cross - 2024 - European Journal of Political Theory 23 (2):159-181.
Taking rulers' interests seriously: The case for realist theories of legitimacy.Ben Cross - 2024 - European Journal of Political Theory 23 (2):159-181.
Doing Realist Political Theory: Introduction.Manon Westphal & Ulrich Willems - 2023 - Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 26 (3):319-334.

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References found in this work

Rationality Through Reasoning.John Broome (ed.) - 2013 - Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
The sources of normativity.Christine M. Korsgaard - 1996 - New York: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Onora O'Neill.
Realism in Normative Political Theory.Enzo Rossi & Matt Sleat - 2014 - Philosophy Compass 9 (10):689-701.
Political Liberalism.J. Rawls - 1995 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 57 (3):596-598.
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.Bernard Williams - 1985 - Cambridge, Mass.: Routledge.

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