Human Needs and Political Judgment

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Seminar Date
October 15, 2008
Judgment is central to politics and political theory. But it is also elusive. It requires and involves a wide range of skills, capacities, sentiments, values, and institutions. Some theorists respond to this elusive jumble of abilities, emotions, and forms of interaction by transcending them or abstracting from them. Instead they resort to reason alone. This is particularly true of contemporary liberal political thought and its dependence on the odd coupling of "rights" and "preferences". Rights, it is supposed, have a natural association with individual utility via the notion of subjective "preferences" (or avowed human wants): a properly instituted and enforced objective rights structure guarantees human life and liberty, and provides equal freedom for all with regard to their preferences and choices (Rawls 1996, pp. xli, xlviii). This is not only untrue (Geuss 2001, p. 148), but also detrimental to thinking about political judgment. In these terms a good political judgment becomes one that accords with a set of pre-determined, abstract rights. This jettisons understanding the various reasons or motivations for actions (rational or irrational) in favor of prescription: political judgment conceived in terms of maxims or principles for action, with rights acting as the universal criteria for judgment. Other theorists, on the other hand, think that it is impossible to give, once and for all, a single, or single set of criteria for political judgment. This is because political judgment is always, everywhere contextual, prospective and often takes place within a non-recurrent situation. Judgment about how to get from "here and now" to a desirable "future there" is likely to involve consideration of objective human goods} but it is impossible without knowledge about the here and now, the means to get "there" and a vision of what "there" could be like. Thus, it is more helpful, these theorists claim, to think about what kinds of political institutions will best enable this kind of judgment in context, that is, what conditions generate good political judgment. In this chapter I join the latter camp. But I do so on my own terms: I reintroduce reason. I argue that, properly conceived, a political philosophy of needs generates a felicitous account of political judgment and how to perfect it. Not only does it focus attention on the determination and satisfaction of urgent human goods; it also captures, rather than ignores, the wide range of skills, sentiments, and institutions that constitute and affect judgment in politics. It is therefore a good candidate for thinking about what kinds of political institutions generate good political judgment. In particular, this is the case for four main reasons. First, it is realist. Second, it does not pre-determine the relevant facts, sentiments, and values in any particular situation of judgment. Third, it provides a conceptual language that highlights real motivations or reasons for action - existing emotions, desires, values - and links these to a framework for assessing human goods and institutions. Fourth, it supplies mechanisms for deliberation and persuasion between rulers and ruled. In this way, it provides the cognitive and institutional means for successful political judgment amongst rulers and ruled.
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