Academic Philosophy

Is a Non-Ideological Political Philosophy Possible?

Political philosophers are often critical of “ideologues.” Ideologues are, presumably, those who advocate for a series of laws and policies based on a narrow set of political principles that mangle complex moral reality and are inappropriately insensitive to counter evidence. The problem with the ideologue is that she is both irrational and intolerant, convinced of her own rectitude while simultaneously reasoning poorly about political matters and threatening to impose the conclusions of that poor reasoning on others. That’s at least part of why being an “ideologue” is problematic.

The problem is that many political philosophers fit this description. They advocate a small set of principles and associated policies based on a narrow set of political principles that mangle complex moral realities and are not properly sensitive to counter evidence. For example, one ideological position in contemporary analytic political philosophy these days is luck-egalitarianism. Luck-egalitarians often make it their business to defend political principles against the very possibility of empirical refutation. That is how I understand luck-egalitarian defenses of ideal theory. We take a simple principle, immune to refutation, and prepare to impose political ideas on the public based on these principles.

I think Rawlsianism, despite my great love for Rawls’s program, has degenerated mostly into ideology. It’s reverence for the master with, again, attempts to insulate Rawls’s principles from empirical refutation and sometimes against any philosophical refutation at all. The response you often here is, “Well, that misunderstands Rawls.” While Rawlsians are in principle more sensitive to evidence and less prone to authoritarian uses of force to impose their views, in practice many of the orthodox Rawlsians I know are not that way. You can see this from how they throw around the word “reasonable” to marginalize folks they dislike.

I think analytic libertarians can be pretty damned ideological too, though I think the day of the major libertarian ideologues in political philosophy has passed. (Perhaps that’s just my judgment as a biased ideologue myself though I like to think if you review my blog posts they reveal someone a bit less self-deluded than that).

So it seems to me that political philosophy today is full of ideology. And that seems to me bad. But what can be done about it?

Some will say there’s nothing to be done. After all, all there is in politics are competing ideologies. In this post, I’m going to assume that view is false, and I think political philosophy as a practice is predicated on it being false. Impartial conceptual and empirical inquiry should hopefully help us shed ideology-in-the-bad-sense. Maybe it can’t. But I’m not convinced.

Here’s one thing we can’t do to avoid ideology – become flat-footed empiricists. All too often empiricists are unaware of their deeper conceptual and value commitments, leading them to biased endorsements of some experiments and empirical data over others. Making political principles more empirically sensitive will help, but I don’t want to forestall the possibility that many issues in political philosophy cannot in principle be settled based on empirical matters. “Follow the evidence wherever it leads” is itself a philosophical principle whose truth or falsity does not seem to depend entirely on empirical facts.

We also can’t easily avoid ideology by going pluralist about moral foundations. All too often pluralists weight their preferred ideological values more heavily than the other values they acknowledge, reproducing ideology in effect. Now, being more open to pluralistic foundations and avoiding monomaniacal focus on a few principles or a single principle would probably help political philosophy be less ideological, but I don’t want to forestall the possibility that there is in fact a single, small set of true political principles.

We also can’t easily avoid ideology by making our political principles depend on dialectical challenge, as deliberative democracy and democratic pragmatist theories often do with their principles. Deliberative democrats are known for building their policy prescriptions into the presuppositions of discourse, and I think the same thing can be said of some Deweyian pragmatists. Of course, having a mindset of openness to argumentative challenge will certainly help political philosophers be less ideological, but that’s not quite what dialectical challenge amounts to.

So, I feel stuck. On the one hand, much of political philosophy is ideological. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to avoid it. In principle, political philosophy should help us shed ideology, but we can’t just go empiricist, pluralist and dialectical. These positions may help, but they may also help people deceive themselves about their ideological principles.

I’d like your help. Is a non-ideological political philosophy possible? If so, how so? Isn’t there a real difference between the zealous Marxist political philosopher defending Stalin and a Socrates-like political philosopher, open to constant challenge and wisdom? How are we to understand the difference? Is being non-ideological simply a matter of personal epistemic virtue? Or could there be a research program or two that counts as non-ideological?

  • BenBachrach

    To me, many of the BHL supporters seem to suffer from “fatal conceit”, that one can gain enough knowledge to predict the future, and thus justify a system with limited rights of self-ownership. If not willing to accept either “might makes right” or the “ends justify the means” makes someone an ideologue, then I don’t mind being labeled an ideologue.

    • OdinofAzgard

      I doubt it’s just BHL supporters who believe they can predict the future behaviors of criminals and the greedy rich if left unchecked. If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?

      • BenBachrach

        Sorry that you thought I was implying that only some BHL supporters suffer from fatal conceit . I assumed that readers would be familiar with work by F.A. Hayek and others that claim it is socialists and other central planners who suffer from fatal conceit.The phase – the ends don’t justify the means – refers to the concept that people should use only moral means to try to obtain objectives, no matter how laudable your objectives, you should not use aggression to achieve them.

        • OdinofAzgard

          Would you say the involuntary quarantining of Typhoid Mary was a moral means to accomplish the laudable ends of reducing typhoid victims? Was it a fatal conceit of the authorities to predict she’d keep infecting people if not quarantined?

          • The ethics of prior restraint generally take a deeper discussion than is possible here, but can be addressed by property rights and contract. Mary Mallon and other carriers of infectious diseases are aggressors, and proper remedies of self defense against aggressors are moral. Mary Mallon agreed to stop working as a cook, and when she changed her name and used fraud to obtain positions as a cook involuntary quarantine was justified.

          • OdinofAzgard

            Ok, how about the use of eminent domain to take people’s property to build highways? Is it fatal conceit to predict speculators would drive up land prices to stratospheric levels? Does the ends (affordable highways) justify societal aggression against property owners who’re either unwilling to sell or want exorbitant profits?

          • Affordable anything does not justify aggression. If you go down that road (sorry for the metaphor), you could accept starting a war to achieve lower gasoline prices. How do you define exorbitant profits? If the market cannot support the purchase of land for a new road, then most likely a new road is not needed. In a just society, governments would not own or build roads so eminent domain would not apply anyway.

          • OdinofAzgard

            I define exorbitant as paying millions of dollars an acre for farmland that’d be worth a fraction of that if it wasn’t a necessary link to make a highway work. The thought of a society in which land owners go wild (more than they do now) every time a road gets built is not a pleasant one. No interstate highways in your just society?

            Lowering gas prices, OTOH, is an end that doesn’t justify the means of war.

          • I don’t know if there would be interstate highways without eminent domain land takings. Remember I don’t try to predict the future based on government policies. I consider the morality of each step.

            There have been limited access roads that were built with private funds. The Long Island Motor Parkway was 45 miles long, and it was built with private funds.

            Is it an exorbitant profit to buy a $2 lottery ticket, and receive $117 million.

            Why not regard the lucky landowners who just happen to have land in a desirable right of way like lottery winners? Besides if they are too unreasonable, then the road builders could choose a different route.

            The Romans and others used slaves to build roads to keep them affordable. In your society would using slaves be okay if no other way was considered feasible?

  • We cannot escape ideology any more than we can escape cognitive biases. The best thinkers and philosophers are aware of this and make an open and honest effort to do their best within these constraints, just as all of us must do our best to achieve other, perhaps more mundane goals in a world of scarce resources.

    In short, I do not think it is productive to spend all your energy looking for an escape from ideology; as you hinted in your look at empiricism, aversion to ideology is itself an ideology. Pluralism as an ideal or a strategy is also an ideology. That reasoning of this sort can only operate within the constraints of ideology is perhaps a good argument in favor of pluralism, but I also believe there is great value in seeing the logic of particular ideologies through to their conclusions, of testing their limitations.

    I personally think Michael Oakeshott was one of the best thinkers on this subject.

    • charlielives

      I think that this argument loses the distinction between ideology and strategy, which you lump together in one sentence. A strategy is simply the most effective means to an end. An ideology develops when one believes the same strategy will always be equally effective. I agree that escaping ideology is probably somewhat futile, as I think there is a human tendency to develop behavioral patterns whereby the success or failure of an employed strategy creates a feedback mechanism which predisposes us towards uncritically deploying or rejecting that same strategy in the future. It’s not that ideologies possess a limit, as if they were some object in the ether. It’s that ideologies are precisely what we encounter at the human limit of our empirical encounter with the world. I don’t think, though, that this precludes the careful thinker from resisting ideology at a high level.

      So I’d be all for a few things: placing ends before means, viewing political philosophies as means to an end and not the end themselves, and exposing ourselves to a plurality of philosophies so that we have many arrows in our quiver to choose from.

      Of course, to your point, I suppose my argument can be defined as a sort of pragmatic pluralism. But I suppose there’s even a time to reject that strategy – I will never accept an argument for military dictatorship, for example.

      • “An ideology develops when one believes the same strategy will always be equally effective.”

        Ideology, as I have understood the word, generally has as much to do with the moral assumptions embedded in a way of thinking as with the particular strategies for actions one is supposed to take.

        Ideology as you have defined it only makes sense if you view it through a narrowly consequentialist lens—which itself relies on the prior (non-consequence-justified) assumption that the value of outcomes is all one need to be concerned with.

        But there are also deontological ideologies, which focus entirely on determining what one’s duty is—and they may offer specific “strategies” for determining what one’s duty is in a variety of scenarios, but the ideology-ness of it is not in the strategy, but in the initial set of values.

        • charlielives

          One might make the argument that Kant was rather consequentialist himself, but argued that the advancement of man himself is the end worth pursuing. Duties arise as a means to protect and preserve the integrity and dignity of what it means to be human. But this does not preclude consequentialism – if adherence to one’s duties fails to live up to this goal, then ultimately the duty is meaningless.

          Act in such a manner that you could will all others behaved accordingly. So, never lie. This becomes a duty, but, if in the exercise of my duty, I answer the question of a serial killer that allows him to track down his next victim, then what value the duty? Oh, so then we need to be more nuanced – never lie, except to preserve some greater good. And there’s an exception to that, and more refinement, which then needs more refinement. And we ultimately end up with a convoluted way of saying – fulfill your duty, except where the results are absurd. Very much consequentialist.

          • Attempting to fit deontology into a consequentialist straightjacket doesn’t change the fact that they are distinct traditions with distinct ideologies that have spawned from each. I’m not sure what you were attempting to prove other than your commitment to the consequentialist mindset.

          • charlielives

            I don’t think the two are so inseparable or so distinct, although I realize they are treated as such in the academic world. Consequentialism risks devolving into barbarianism without duty, so I’m certainly not trying to straightjacket one into the other. Perhaps I’m a lazy thinker, but I’d like to take the best from both worlds.

            Consequentialist and deontological arguments, as theories, are useless if one isn’t willing to discard them when we butt up against their limits in lived life. And I would say that goes for any political/ethical theory, assuming that no one will ever craft the perfect theory. And given that all theories will face gaps, I think employing various “ideologies” in various circumstances is perfetly acceptable.

          • In the context of this post’s discussion, you are simply attempting to impose your ideology’s notion of when a theory is or is not worthwhile (in your remark about when they are “useless if…”). If I had to summarize your point of view from our brief conversation here, it would be:

            1. Poltiical philosophy is only worth it if it is useful
            2. All classes of political philosophy arguments can be found useful in some circumstances
            3. The only valid way to think about those arguments, therefore, is how they can be thought of as means towards ends.
            4. In conclusion, the above is why we should not buy into any one ideology, but rather use a plurality of them to help achieve the best possible results.

            The only problem is that 1-4 is itself an ideology. So you’re not actually using a plurality at all, you’re using several other ideologies as the inputs to your One, True ideology.

            This is precisely what the post above is about—any attempt to get around ideology simply creates another one.

          • charlielives

            And I would have to cede your point. However, I would further admit that my “One, True ideology” admits of its own exceptions, and even if this brief session in thinking out loud had value as an ideology, would likely be superceded and left in the dustbin of history as situations changed.

            I’m always open to finding a better way. What I’m skeptical of is people who tell me that something is the *best* way. I humbly submit that nothing I will ever think should rise to the level of ideology, and grant the high ground to you.

          • And I think that talking in this way is definitely the “good” sort of political philosophy—it still is embedded within value assumptions, but it has a self-awareness and and awareness of alternatives. I don’t think we can ask for much more than that.

          • vintermann

            So there are exceptions all the way down?

            That has its own messy implications.

          • charlielives

            Sure. I’d argue it’s something like Godel’s incompleteness theorum as applies to ideology. Which, perhaps, as Adam pointed to, is my underlying ideological presupposition.

          • CbyN

            Is nihilism an ideology?

          • Yes.

          • vintermann

            The old serial killer/Nazi at the door scenario. I am not an academic philosopher, but what’s wrong with saying every time (whether you know or not) “Were I to know, I wouldn’t tell you”?

          • charlielives

            Because in reality, that often doesn’t satisfy the brutes, and they come rampaging through your home. Sometimes, justice in the face of power requires deceiving the powers that be.

          • vintermann

            So, they come rampaging through my home, and find nothing. Next time, I say the same thing, and they come rampaging through the home and find nothing. Now the habit catches on, and all my neighbors start responding the same way. The Nazis get frustrated, because it takes time futilely rampaging through houses all the time. Possibly they round us all up and shoot us, or they give up and accept that we’re not cooperating on this issue (more likely than you think. Quakers, probably the real-world group which comes closest to applying deontological ethics most consistently, got off extremely lightly in terms of Nazi persecution, despite being a small, pacifistic foreign religious minority!)

            In the original argument, Kant analyzes why lying is self-defeating. That analysis can be applied directly to the Jews-in-basement argument.

            If you do, you’ll conclude what should be really obvious: There’s no way the Nazis are going to skip your house just because you lie and say there are no Jews in the basement. There is no trust between you and the powers that be in such cases, as such it really makes no difference whether you lie or not. Better then to tell the truth, and the truth is that you wouldn’t tell.

  • ieiunus

    Intuitively, I could see how some people can be “ideologues” or plain dogmatic, in the way you put. Though, I think this post would be a lot more interesting if you provided some quotable examples, not ones anecdotal. However, even after you disperse examples, does it show that all political philosophy is like that, and so cannot be other than ideological?

    • Is it even possible to construct a philosophy of anything without expressing an ideology? I think not. The moment you move from “is” to “should,” you begin to express a value system. This will always be an ideological process, whether or not we want it to be.

      What is the purpose of political philosophy, except to outline how best to operate a polity? “How best” implies a value judgement. It’s simply not possible to separate philosophy from ideology.

      • ieiunus

        I don’t see how concern with how best to operate society is necessarily one ideological. In the way Vallier put, refusal to accept counter evidence contrary to held beliefs does not seem like a proper value judgment at all. Rather, it seems like garrisoning previously held beliefs, come what may, and therefore insusceptible to judgment that requires assessing new and countervailing evidence. Asking whether this sort of dogmatism occurs “naturally” or without much repose in political philosophy is a different question from whether political philosophy should be conducted that way, indeed. And so, a system that operates with placing values to incoming data may, independently of the agent, be set to a hierarchy of values. Once confidently shown the evaluation itself is unsatisfactory or is somehow flawed, we can at least assess the concerns and develop anew given the recently acquired evidence. Now, unless you can show me it is somehow impossible to get rid of systems of evaluation as easily as I obtain them, I do not see how one’s unwillingness to give way to previously held beliefs in light of new evidence translates into the necessity of the system of evaluation *not* to give way. Roughly speaking, political philosophy may be described as a set of beliefs, that may be eschewed or held fast.

        I would claim that arguing without the ability to change one’s own position should counterexamples and counterarguments prove immutable, does not serve the benefit of doing philosophy. The benefit of philosophy is to clear nubilous waters. That is, to make clearer the understanding of our beliefs. Once we find that some beliefs do not serve the purpose of benefiting us in clearer thought or better understanding, we give it away. Although, I do not believe that’s what you are arguing against.

        You claim political philosophy is not value-independent. But, that may or may not be so. However, the important part is whether we are able to give way to apt beliefs over incorrect ones, which does not seem to be the concern of the ideologue.

        • Sure, everyone agrees that we should favor truth and clarity over mindless dogma and muddled thinking; no one argues otherwise.

          But the idea that political philosophy involves immutable, value-independent truths is a tough one to credibly defend. Political philosophy is an application of ethics; ethics are value-dependent in each and every case. I guess we could think of a system deliberately constructed to thwart ethical analysis, such as the one I discussed yesterday on my blog. Perhaps such schemes are interesting as thought experiments, but no one would or should take them seriously in the real world.

          In the end, political philosophy is about doing the right thing, and that means values. Few people ever change their minds about their core values, and I’m not sure doing so is a particularly good or desirable thing.

  • Sean II

    “…attempts to insulate Rawls’s principles from empirical refutation and sometimes against any philosophical refutation at all. The response you often here is, “Well, that misunderstands Rawls.”

    I find it interesting that this problem comes in two types.

    On the one hand, you’ve got your Protestants – partisans of the Objectivist type. Not much room for claims of misunderstanding in that system, so they end up taking the position, “Rand was always right, literally”.

    On the other hand, you’ve got your Catholics – ideologues of the Rawls type*. Because of the way academic work is produced, that system grows like coral reef. So its partisans end up taking a position that amounts to “Rawls was never quite wrong. You’d know that, of course, if you’d read Sidney Kugelmass’ reformulation of Sandor Needleman’s novel re-packaging of Rawls’ own restatement of his theory (naturally, by “restatement” I don’t mean A Restatement, but simply a restatement prior to that).”

    * Another great example is Marx. Technically he was never wrong, because for anything you might think he said, one can always find some derivative scholarship to explain at great length why he didn’t say it, didn’t mean it, and how it doesn’t matter even though he did.

    • Jason Brennan

      You, Sir, just won the Internet.

    • vintermann

      I don’t know. It seems to me that academic philosophers in particular are adept at knocking down strawmen. Especially when it comes to long-dead philosophers, it seems a sure way to make progress in academia is to make a novel reinterpretation of them and then proceed to expose the errors in their (new, supposed) thinking.

      In other words, I see a lot less reinterpretation for the purpose of salvaging, and a lot more acrobatics to get around that sinking feeling that maybe what’s worth saying has already been said.

      There’s nothing wrong with building philosophy on some basis immune to empirical refutation. Everyone hopefully tries to, whether they acknowledge it or not.

  • I think it is false that impartial inquiry should help us shed ideology. The reason is that impartial enquiry is impossible. We cannot even begin an inquiry without adopting a point of view on the inquiry plus a whole framework of more general presuppositions, all of which are more or less epistemically arbitrary. See Hayek’s ‘Rules, Perception and Intelligibility’ and ‘The Errors of Constructivism.’ Also Popper’s ‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition.’

    What should be noticed, though, is that the history of science shows that inquirers have made progress in obtaining better (more explanatory or illuminating) theories despite being partial and often zealous. What explains the progress is that scientists not only hold their theories open to inter-subjective criticism, but that they also look for new ways to refute each other’s theories by invoking observation-statements that can be inter-subjectively agreed (not by all, but by sufficiently many, inquirers). See chapter 23 of Popper’s ‘Open Society.’

    I therefore suggest that if we are to break away from political ideologies and other humbuggery we must leave behind the solipsistic complacency of reflective equilibrium and develop instead a culture and tradition of testing political theories empirically. That means that we should never rest content with a political theory that cannot be tested empirically. It must either be developed into a concrete form in which it is empirically refutable or be abandoned as childish dreaming. It means also that empirical counterinstances to a theory must be taken seriously, rather than being ignored or accommodated by ad hoc adjustments (see Popper’s ‘Logic of Scientific Discovery,’ sections 19 and 20).

    This requires a wholesale culture-change in academic political philosophy departments. But given that the current incumbents are doing very nicely as they are, what could bring about such a change? See Gordon Tullock, ‘The Organization of Inquiry,’ chapters 7 and 8, for some relevant thoughts.


      Hi Danny:
      Not sure precisely what you have in mind here: “That means that we should never rest content with a political theory that cannot be tested empirically. It must either be developed into a concrete form in which it is empirically refutable or be abandoned as childish dreaming.”

      If you mean the sort of standard, “If, despite my noble intentions, my theory would if instantiated blow up the world,” then of course I agree. If you mean something more expansive, then I must disagree. You can’t turn moral/political philosophy into something resembling economics, because you still need a moral yardstick to evaluate the results. “Human flourishing” doesn’t work because it is indeterminate. One political/economic system might result in greater welfare, but fewer rights; another the converse. Which should we prefer?

      • Hi Mark,

        The political theory includes moral values in any case. So just add the moral yardstick to the theory. You then end up with predictions which are purely empirical. So long as values are connected to facts in significant ways (‘ought’ implies ‘can’ is probably the weakest way, but there are many others), then theories can be compared with respect to how many agreed facts are accommodated and how well.

        Of course, this will lead initially to a great diversity of theories with nothing to choose between them empirically. But that is how things were in pre-Socratic thought with regard to physics. However, physical theorists managed, over a considerable period of time, to turn the speculations of Democritus and Anaximander into quantum physics and relativity theory. And they did it by developing ever more sophisticated theories, encompassing matter, light, the composition of the solar system and beyond, the structure of the smallest particles, etc., etc., which could be tested against agreed observation-statements in ever more surprising ways. Without the determination to build and attempt to test outrageous hypotheses, and to persist in the face of disagreement and ridicule, we would still be debating the speculations of the pre-Socratics.


          Can you say more about how adding a moral yardstick to a political theory generates “predictions which are purely empirical.” For example, what does Nozick’s rights-based, minimal state theory predict? And, how will these predictions be evaluated?

          • As it stands, I am not sure that Nozick’s theory predicts anything. But if that is so, it shows that Nozick’s theory is undeveloped. How might we develop it? In any number of ways. Here’s one. We add the hypothesis: a Nozickean nightwatchman state would, if realised, permit greater human flourishing than any other arrangement.

            You object: people disagree, on moral grounds, about what counts as human flourishing. Okay, we have to add some further hypotheses. After a great deal of thought we list a number of features of human life and we propose a formula for weighting and adding these such that a state of affairs which scores more highly on the formula realises greater human flourishing than a state of affairs that scores less highly. We thereby propound a complex form of what David Sobel (below) is calling a moral conditional.

            You object: other people will propose different features and formulae, different moral conditionals. That’s okay; let them do so. They have their research programme, we have ours. We will be able to evaluate the two programmes empirically as our work of theoretical development and testing proceeds. If lots of groups of theorists develop their own research programmes we can compare them with regard to empirical adequacy, as well as with regard to theoretical adequacy (e.g., simplicity), and the research programme that scores highest will be the one that propounds the leading political theory.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks, but I am puzzled by this: “We will be able to evaluate the two programmes empirically as our work of theoretical development and testing proceeds.” Say research groups A and B have their different proposed political theories and formulas for what will best promote “human flourishing.” After examining their respective work, both groups agree that a society with organizing principles x scores highest on A’s scale and society with organizing principles y scores highest on B’s scale. Which political theory is preferable?

          • If that is all the information we have so far, we cannot say which is preferable. The next step is to work out what further information might be able to tell in favour of one theory and against the other. For example, we might try to generate inconsistencies within one of the theories, e.g., if the weighting of the elements of flourishing in that theory leads to some consequences which are in conflict with the rest of the theory. Or one may develop an additional hypothesis about related matters which, when conjoined with one of the theories yields novel empirical predictions which survive testing, but when conjoined with the other theory yields no new predictions or only predictions which are refuted. For example, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems gave the same predictions of the positions of the planets (or could be made to do so with the addition of epicycles – which Copernicus had not eschewed). But when you add to them Galileo’s (primitive) theory of the telescope, you get conclusions (e.g., that the heavenly bodies are corruptible, that Jupiter has moons) which are consistent with the Copernican view but not with the Ptolemaic.

            Your question was a good one. It was precisely the kind of question in the face of which moral or political philosophers would typically give up the enterprise of trying to develop empirically testable theory. But, as I hope my illustration from physics/astronomy indicates, in the sciences things are different. Scientists find questions of your type a challenge, and one to which they rise. That is (one reason) why physics has made substantial progress while moral and political philosophy struggles. Gordon Tullock expressed a view like this in his ‘Organization of Inquiry,’ which I recommend (you can download it for free from the online library of liberty).

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I think you should work out the details and submit a paper along these lines to one of the journals.

          • It’s funny you should say that…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, then, good luck with it…

          • I’ll need it…

          • Michael Philip


            The success of physics has relied much on quantification, via numbers, formulas and measurement. These are the most precise meanings we have. Philosophy relies mostly on words, rarely quantification (excepting ‘all’, ‘some’, and ‘none’). So it can’t attain the kind of precision that numbers formulas and measurement allow. In philosophy key terms used often have very wide application and the different meanings people have for them can vary widely. In physics the opposite is true. The application may be wide in a spatial sense or cover a wide range of phenomena, but it doesn’t pertain to nearly as many aspects of reality and experience as philosophy does. Physics has dealt with simpler things (at least before QM), whose behavior is easier to describe and far more uniform, than what philosophy often deals with. To illustrate compare the complexity and uniformity of the motions of classical physical objects to that of human behavior.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      I agree with you Mr. Frederick. Any person who has bothered to spend some time studying and thinking about the great issues of life will after a while come to some conclusions. Those conclusions amount to an ideology. Of course many people bypass this process and just swallow some other group’s ideology wholesale. .
      The problem is not our biases or ideology, the problem we face is when people see everything colored by that philosophy and are immune to either contrary evidence, or compromise.

    • Michael Philip

      that’s a pretty inefficient idea.

  • mikewaz

    As soon as I read this article, my mind immediately leaped to pragmatism, aka a form of realpolitik. But implementing some form of pragmatic politics would require one to decide on what pragmatic goals to strive for above all others, and the choice of what those goals are is, to some extent, ideological. I could argue that one worthwhile goal is increasing the COLA median household income, but the reasons for choosing that goal are not inherently pragmatic. It’s based on the idea that increasing that figure will lead to more people being able to take charge of their lives.

  • CFV

    “the zealous Marxist political philosopher defending Stalin”.

    I think that’s unfair. Think, for example, in the distinguished Marxist philosopher Georgi Plekhanov (he even opposed the Bolsheviks!).

  • I am not sure what the benefit is of a political philosophy that eschews idealism. At any rate, these kinds of considerations tend to disappear with decentralization. Ideologues are a big problem for a diverse nation of 300+ million people living in places that are difficult to compare, but it is not much of a problem in a single cohesive political unit.

  • David Sobel

    Your claim that luck egalitarians offer principles that are
    immune to empirical falsification distracted me. I took you to be saying that
    it is inappropriate to hold moral principles in such a way. I have not thought
    about these issues but I don’t get the alternative. Usually what would count as
    an empirical falsification would be that results the theory predicts don’t
    materialize. For example, perhaps some will claim that lowering the minimum
    wage is good because it benefits the worst off. This is surely an empirical claim
    and surely empirical evidence could possibly show it to be false. And if there
    are people who refuse to accept that then they are silly. But what this shows
    is that we need to distinguish between the intrinsically morally recommended
    goal and the means that are thought to be useful for bringing about that goal.
    And pressure from thought experiments can surely get us to change our minds
    about what the intrinsic goal of morality is. We might think that maximizing
    welfare is the intrinsic goal of morality but realize that this goal can be
    satisfied in ways that are not morally ideal if, for example, the way to
    maximize the sum total of welfare would involve vast resources going to a
    utility monster. This just involves ordinary non-empirical considerations in
    favor or against this or that as being the intrinsic moral goal. What I do not
    yet see is how, after we have done all the non-empirical work of settling for
    ourselves what the intrinsic goal of morality is, how empirical considerations provide
    evidence for or against such an understanding. Essentially, it seems to me that
    the relevance of empirical claims to determining the intrinsic moral goal is
    best understood to be subsumed by non-empirical moral conditionals.

    • Kevin Vallier

      David, let’s take G.A. Cohen as an example. I know many will say he wasn’t personally an ideologue (after all, he spent much of his life trying to do “non-bullshit Marxism” and took Nozick seriously when the Rawlsians refused) but to make political principles wholly “fact-insensitive” does seem to permit a more ideological approach to political philosophy, even if it doesn’t require it. To say, for instance, that socialism is required by justice even if it is empirically infeasible seems to me the mark of an ideologue and an essentially ideological research program.

      And for those reading, I know that luck-egalitarianism is separable from Cohen’s approach to ideal theory. One can adopt Cohen’s view and reject luck-egalitarianism and vice versa. But my sense from reading the literature is that the two approaches go together for a reason.

      And even if you want to dispute my claim about luck-egalitarians, you know I’m right about the Rawlsians.

      • Jason Brennan

        I don’t agree about Cohen. I think he was an ideologue, in a sense, but not because he was committed to ideal theory. As my forthcoming book on capitalism will argue, the problem with Cohen wasn’t that he insisted on holding that facts about justice are insensitive to facts about moral motivation. Rather, the problem was that he didn’t do ideal theory properly–he had a tendency to compare idealized socialism to non-idealized alternatives. Once you compare ideal socialism to ideal capitalism, ideal capitalism wins.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Ideal theory certainly isn’t sufficient for being an ideologue. But I think there’s something to the idea that ideal theory makes it considerably easier to comfort yourself as a truth-seeker when you’re in fact an ideologue. There’s at least something to the idea that indifference to the empirical facts is correlated with being ideological. But as I say, I’m not entirely sure what explains that correlation.

          • David Sobel

            I was just using luck-egalitarianism, like you, as an example. My real interest was in what the alternative picture that has intrinsic moral goals refutable by empirical findings (in ways that are not screened off by the truth of moral conditionals). Take a person who has a fully worked out view for every possibility of the form “if the world is this way, then this is the intrinsic moral goal.” That so far is a completely non-empirical theory as it does not at all have to peek at which possible world is actual. I take you to be saying that which possible world is actual, that is empirical matters, are directly relevant to assessing a moral view. I don’t understand how that could be so yet.

          • David Sobel

            I posted this general issue over at PEA Soup in case people want to track what others say on this issue.


      • Chris Bertram

        Cohen doesn’t make “political principles” in general fact insensitive, the claim is about ultimate normative principles, including justice. Fact-sensitive principles, including in the domain of what Rawlsians call justice, are merely, for Cohen, rules of regulation.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Added “ultimate” in paratheses to compensate. Though ultimacy and the rules of regulation/principles of justice distinction are different. I take it Cohen would hold that there are fact-sensitive principles of justice whose normative force is derivative, but that these principles aren’t mere rules of regulation in virtue of being derivative, right?

          • Chris Bertram

            I’m not sure what the right answer to that question is.

  • It’s mostly personal epistemic virtue, but the content of belief helps too. I think a moderate general Pyrrhonism plus conceptually savvy empiricism plus pluralism plus a socially deliberative/procedural bent (not just democratic but also scientific) adds up to something close to non-ideological — as close one is likely to get, at any rate.

    I stopped calling myself a libertarian in part because I thought my many marginal disagreements added up to something really substantive and categorical. Mostly, though, because ideological self-definition inwardly encourages a spirit of community and camaraderie and partisanship that is one of the blessings of life, but which also makes true philosophy next to impossible. I struggle daily with the possibility that I have made the wrong decision, and that belonging, even on the basis of shared error, is more important than truth. Where my label was, there is a scar.

    • OdinofAzgard

      Was the label bandaid or wound? From Wiki –

      “An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations and actions. An ideology is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things (compare worldview) as in several philosophical tendencies (see political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a “received consciousness” or product of socialization).”

      The “comprehensive” in this definition seems to contradict Vallier’s “narrow.”

      If he wants to define and assign negative characteristics to ideologues, that’s fine by me, but ideology?

  • John


  • famadeo

    All forms of discourse, even the hardest sciences, involve value-ladden perspectives. There’s no such thing as inert objectivity. Political discourse is not only no exception, but, dealing with human affairs, it’s particularly vulnerable to this. Ideology is nothing other than a certain articulation of a set of values. I don’t even see this as problematic since, ultimately, everything is prone to discussion.

  • martinbrock

    No. Non-ideological thought is not possible.

  • AP

    Can we draw a distinction between political philosophies which are inherently ideological, those which are not in themselves ideological but can easily become ideological, and those which are in principle not at all ideological but will be heavily informed by the biases of the thinker? I would tend to see most forms of Marxism in the first category, natural-rights libertarianism in the second (there are plenty of ideological NR-Libts, but there are some rather nuanced takes on it) and utilitarianism (in so far as that is an actual political philosophy) in the third. Someone advocating any of them will be affected by ideology and bias, but not all of the positions are themselves ideological.

  • good_in_theory

    I think there is a sort of conflation that happens between being ideological and being hagiographic or otherwise prone to canonization and dogma. Those are the best words I can think of, at least. The, “figure x can do no wrong and all their writings can be construed in a way such that they have done no wrong,” is maybe a particular way of being ideological, but one can be quite ideological without subscribing to be some sort of cult of personality.

  • Thomas Cushman

    Isn’t this a variant of the most fundamental problem in the sociology of knowledge posed many years ago by Karl Mannheim? Namely: is non-ideological, disinterested thought possible? Mannheim was good at pointing out the ideological cast of mostly all thinking that imagined itself reasonable, but we never have found a way out of the trap of ideology. My sense is that most political philosophers and even most social scientists do not have an operant theory of ideology as they pursue their own work, and thus reproduce ideology in sometimes quite banal ways and imagine it as pure reason.

  • Chris Bertram

    I think the post here runs together two different things: ultimate moral commitment and the kind of defensive shuffling within a system that characterizes a lot of recent Rawlsian political philosophy. The latter can be frustrating to the critic, because the Rawls-casuist evades the force of the objection (or fails to see it) and finds the objection too easy to answer. The former looks to be to be both unavoidable and necessary. Take Cohen’s engagement with Nozick. Nozick discomfited Cohen (in a way that objections don’t discomfit the Rawls-casuist), because Cohen saw a challenge to the consistency of his own principles. His commitment to egalitarianism motivated him to develop a response to Nozick rather than just running up the white flag and becoming a deontological libertarian himself. But it was important to him personally and politically to find a reply that he found intellectually satisfactory. The unsatisfactory state of recent Rawls-related argument is probably not because people care so deeply about defending Rawls, but because churning out a pro-forma deployment of the Rawlsian machinery is an easy source of publications.


      Right, so why do the editors of these journals, academia’s best and brightest, accept warmed over Rawlsian crap for publication? It couldn’t be the sort of ideological bias Keven identifies in his post, could it?

      • Chris Bertram

        Well that’s part of the story, sure. But I suspect that another part concerns what is judged to be good within a field. Something that is an uberprofessional bit of metacommentary and nitpicking on Rawlsian public reason can be hard for referees and editors to reject, even if it bores them to tears, since it is good or even very good “of its kind”.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Good thoughts. Regarding Rawlsianism, though, I’ve found in the vast series of referee reports (mostly rejections!) I’ve received on my public reason stuff that there’s a real distinction between public reason stuff being rejected because it is a bad philosophical contribution (from my best referee reports) and being rejected because it departs too much from the master (from my worst referee reports).

          One of the most infuriating reports I’ve ever received went something like this: “This isn’t a public reason view.” My response: “Yes, it is, it’s been recognized as such for twenty years, see all these citations.” Their literal response: “I don’t care what the new literature says. That’s not a public reason view.” I am not exaggerating in the slightest and the journal was extremely prominent.

          I have other examples, from myself and others, but there is certainly a lot of gate-keeping going on that’s not just the result of a worked out research program that makes new publications in the public reason area easier. And I suspect the gate-keeping is easier to pull off because people can hide behind the “good” or “bad” of its kind excuse for rejecting new work.

  • Jay Baldwin

    You know what I like most about the BHL blog? The comments.

  • Damien S.

    One could define ideology broadly and say that anyone with values has an ideology that equals their values, but then we’re conflating terms and perhaps losing potential precision. A common actual use is that an ideologue is dishonest for the sake of their ideology. Not just lying, which you might try to say is an ideology that lying is okay for their good, but refusing to recognize reality. If someone makes a prediction, which turns out to be false, they should update their beliefs in light of that. If they refuse, denying or suppressing the data, then they’re an ideologue in a bad sense.

    Another common use is of sacrificing what’s seen as common human decency for the sake of their ideology, ranging from tiresome argumentation to mass murder. Again, you could say that’s just part of their ideology, as opposed to an ideology that says decency should trump your beliefs, but do we really gain anything by defining ideology that way? Smacks a bit of “atheism is a religion, because it’s beliefs about religion.”

    “I don’t want to forestall the possibility that many issues in political
    philosophy cannot in principle be settled based on empirical matters” That’s totally true but I don’t see why it matters here. You can have intellectually honest people who agree about the basic state of the world but disagree in their moral evaluation of it, as well as ideologues who do the equivalent of insisting that the world is square because their values depend on the world being square. Of course, the square worlders will likely say they think the other people are denying reality (though it’s possible many square worlders are simply lying to the gullible, rather than believing it), but at least one side has to be wrong. (It could be that everyone is denying reality. But it needn’t be.)

    So yeah, I think one could say a non-ideological philosophy is one that doesn’t let its values get in the way of perceiving the world as it is. And maybe add something about not being a dick, though when you think someone really is advancing evil that gets problematic. But there shouldn’t be anything problematic about “I predicted X but I was wrong.”

  • Enzo Rossi

    Could we say that it is ideological to take one’s moral beliefs and apply them to politics? One may ask here: but how are we supposed to normative theory then? Well, that’s where the realist/practice-dependent critique of mainstream moralistic political philosophy may help: we can do non-ideological political philosophy by interpreting current practices, understanding their purpose, and advancing proposals for modifying them, even radically. Values are going to drive our interpretation, but at least they’re not going to completely determine the salient content of our normative conclusions (unlike in Cohen’s ultimate principles and any rules of regulation derived from them). At least that’s (part of) what I argue in (published last year, but I’m still working on this stuff.)

    Relatedly, I think there’s a key difference between the debate on ideal theory and the debate on realism/moralism. Crudely, the former is about whether we should care about feasibility, whereas the latter is about ideology and the sources of political normativity.

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  • Arun

    Yes, imagine you’re in a quantum state of superposition of two or more ideologies. You understand each one equally well, and can make each one’s case with as much conviction as the other. You have both the insider’s and the outsider’s view of each ideology. You could still be ideologically bound, but likely not.

  • eyelessgame

    What Brad DeLong said. Non-ideological political philosophy is called “liberalism.” It is empirical, consequentialist philosophy. Liberals try things that the best evidence suggests will improve lives for the citizenry as a whole – help more than hurt, hurt less than help – and, if wrong, abandon it as a mistake and try something else. Identify problems the market is not currently solving and solve them, or correct the externalities and provide incentives to help the market solve them.
    In the (ahem) ideal case.
    There can be ideologues committed to one or more liberal ideas, exactly as there can be atheists who have religious commitments to one or more nontheistic concepts. (Cf. Fred Hoyle.) But at its fundamentals, liberalism is to ideology as atheism is to religion: it is empirical and nondogmatic.

    • vintermann

      > improve lives for the citizenry as a whole

      And here we casually jumped over the whole issue, pretending it isn’t there.

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  • JohnTiger

    Focus on the motor, structure, goal and possible effects of political perspectives then, from this analytical approach, determine how it makes you feel. Ironically, even if feelings are probably the opposite of reason, they are good indicators of what should be ameliorated. If you get the sense of “this doesn’t feel right”, fallback on reason to try and explain why. Using this introspective method you will be yourself free of ideology. A word of warning, it will make you sad and cynical in light of how politics function. What I am trying to express is akin to the situationist approach of the eighties:

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  • Hans F. Lauritzen

    The main problem with ideologies is that they give non-existent expectations of someone’s goals or comprehensive visions on a social scale, pretty much like faith. The only way to avoid political philosophy (that might prove a success) become an ideology is by using the same tactical approach science has. Constantly embrace innovation, change and upgrade, instead of constantly hoping for it to happen. For me, the only way to avoid making political philosophy ideological or any idea whatsoever is by having a direct democracy and a non-partisan government. But for all I know you might be right and we will forever be stuck with this.

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  • Andrew Barker

    Ideologies are tools for analysis and as long as they are used as such they are useful. Tools don’t need to be defended or justified. Tools don’t have to part of a belief system. The problem arises when people identify themselves with ideologies (“I am a feminist”, “I am a nationalist” or “I am a socialist”). Drop the ideology (feminist, nationalist or socialist) and you are still you. It doesn’t help when one tries not to be something (just be yourself). It is useful to interrupt the cycle of self-justification that happens in all of us.

    Humans use tools to make work easier and more productive. There are patterns in the world, and ideologies and tools like the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), help us understand behaviors in economic/societal systems and individuals. Insight can be gained when trying to understand the motivations of others. What are their priorities? How can we respond? For example, if an individual is not behaving according to accepted moral norms, what if we try to understand their behavior from the point of view of them being a psychopath/sociopath? Ideologies are helpful, and the first step is to admit this, rather than try to suppress the use of tools.