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Jeremy Waldron on the Value of Institutions

Professor Jeremy Waldron has posted his inaugural lecture for the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, delivered on May 3, 2012: Political Political Theory .


Political theorists study (1) political virtue, (2) political processes and institutions, and (3) political ideals (like justice, liberty, and equality). Since the time of Hume, Madison, and Kant, it has been thought that (2) is more important than (1), because maybe we can set up institutions that work for the general good whatever the state of virtue of the people who administer them. But in the revival of political philosophy heralded by John Rawls’s book in 1971, there has been great emphasis on (3) and not nearly enough emphasis on (2). This is particularly true in the UK. Previous holders of the Chichele chair (G.A. Cohen and Isaiah Berlin) focused almost exclusively on (3) — with Berlin going so far as to announce that political philosophy was really just the study of “the ends of life.” The lecture argues that this way of conceiving the subject-matter of the Chichele chair is at best one-sided.

The lecture argues for a reorientation of political theory teaching and scholarship back towards institutions — particularly the normative evaluation of various aspects of the political process and the detailed theoretical exploration of institutional principles like democracy, representation, bicameralism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism and so on. It argues that these issues should not be left to empirical or comparative politcial science, because they raise important and complex questions of evaluation — including dignitary evaluation — that may be sold short by the pragmatic and consequentialist emphasis of empirical and comparative work. But political theory should respect the empirical study of institutions more than it does, and it should dovetail the normative and evaluative work that political theory involves with the understanding of institutions, processes, and practices that political science generates.

An excerpt:

Somebody in our discipline has to have the job of reflecting on our institutions, and our choices among institutional alternatives. The public lawyers do some of it; and if I had my way there would be much closer connection between political theory and law even if that were at the expense of the connection between political theory and philosophy. But really, we need both. We need a sophisticated philosophical understanding of the layers of value that are implicated in the assessment of our political institutions. Somebody has to make sure that we do not lose sight of the dignitarian and ontological elements. Someone has to consider how these questions of honor and dignity, political justice and respect stand alongside the criteria we use (like Rawlsian justice) for evaluating the output of our politics. They don’t fit easily together—that much, we can accept from the valuepluralism of Isaiah Berlin. But they are not to be neglected.

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