Utopophobia as a vocation: The professional ethics of ideal and nonideal political theory

Social Philosophy and Policy 33 (1-2):175-192 (2016)
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Abstract

: The debate between proponents of ideal and non-ideal approaches to political philosophy has thus far been framed as a meta-level debate about normative theory. The argument of this essay will be that the ideal/non-ideal debate can be helpfully reframed as a ground-level debate within normative theory. Specifically, it can be understood as a debate within the applied normative field of professional ethics, with the profession being examined that of political philosophy itself. If the community of academic political theorists and philosophers cannot help us navigate the problems we face in actual political life, they have not lived up to the moral demands of their vocation. A moderate form of what David Estlund decries as “utopophobia” is therefore an integral element of a proper professional ethic for political philosophers. The moderate utopophobe maintains that while devoting scarce time and resources to constructing utopias may sometimes be justifiable, it is never self-justifying. Utopianism is defensible only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to help inform or improve nonutopian political thinking.

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Michael L. Frazer
University of East Anglia

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