This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.
Luke Herrine –
In 1987 Robert Gordon recounted finding among those “in the center or left of American liberalism…this paralysis, founded in their sense that legal and social realities are frozen, that we have reached the end of history and that the possibility of fundamental change is now forever closed to us.” Gordon’s experience is not unique, of course. The critical project of “unfreezing legal reality” to make it more pliable for egalitarian restructuring has had to confront not only the legal system’s own defense mechanisms but a set of discourses that make it hard to think outside the current system.
As many members of this blog have noted, neoclassical economics has been the most powerful such discourse, but moral philosophy—even that produced by egalitarians—has been similarly unforgiving. Most debates in Anglo-American moral and political philosophy have taken place in the realm of the ideal. Political morality amounts to articulating the constitution reasonable persons would agree to ideal conditions. Legal reasoning requires “rational reconstruction” of existing institutions to understand their moral structure. Egalitarianism is about figuring out how to set up idealized (read: using neoclassical assumptions) insurance markets to correct for inequalities of luck while maintaining room for agency. The idealizations of the debates tend to vacillate between being so unlike our actual world as to be difficult to make sense of or so like our actual world as to “freeze” it by moralizing existing institutions. They may help clear up some of our ideas, but they do not give us much to work with in the project of dismantling oppressive institutions and building democratic ones in their place.
Many critical legal theorists sought alternatives in deconstructive theories, which more often than not were so totalizing that they left little sense that one anybody (except perhaps judges) could do anything productive to reshape society.
Elizabeth Anderson has been the foremost advocate of a pragmatic alternative that treats moral theory like realists treat law: as a going concern. Following a venerable American tradition starting with Peirce, James, and Dewey, she understands moral debate as happening in media res, between socially and historically situated actors attempting to make sense of their attitudes about the world in the process of acting on it. Concepts like “freedom”, “equality”, and “exploitation” evolve out of historically embedded attempts to express attitudes about certain institutional arrangement; they necessarily evolve as arrangements change and as we reflect on what we really ought to care about regarding them. Moral philosophy is merely an extension of everyday reflective and discursive practices, and, if it strays too far from those practices, it results in concepts and arguments that have little or confused relevance to the real world. The process of deciding on ends is not separated from the evaluation of available means in any given context, and both are tied to our evolving understandings of how the world works. It is a process of ongoing recalibration.