for Normative Political Theory”
Normative political theory primarily involves theorisation at the level of ‘what ought to be’ as against ‘what is’ in political life, answering questions of moral philosophy and foundational questions affecting social institutions. Normative theory had had a glorious tradition leading up to the early years of the previous century, when its theoretical and cognitive apparatus increasingly came to be challenged from various sources. While scholars clamoured for empirical testability of theories and systematisation of political life through law-like generalisations derived out of layers of facts, a gradual tendency was evident in seeking to incorporate the analytical framework of politics within a hard-science orientation. In such an environment, normative theory lost a great deal of relevance; the shift towards empirical theory seemingly relegated it to the academic backwaters.
The first challenge to normative theory came from the logical positivists, who claimed that propositions are of two kinds: analytical and synthetic. An analytical proposition is one that is true by definition, while a synthetic proposition is one which is true by description. A theory lacking in these bears no claims to knowledge. Interestingly, this conception of theorisation is more scientific, as it accounts for falsification based on a true/false judgment, but makes no provisions for the cognitive, value-based dimension of making a right/wrong distinction. For the logical positivists, any apparatus outside the true/false complex falls outside the ambit of theory, and is incapable of telling objective truths. Behaviourists and linguistic analysts were also content in insulating values from factually (or logically) true propositions.
The second challenge to emerged from the relativists, who argued that value standards were plural, and the ‘appropriateness’ of the same can never be obtained. Hence, there remained no way of adjudicating between values in normative theory. It was ambiguous and indeterminate, which was an undesirable function of any theory. If everything were relative, and theory were unable to provide a position of strength, then all arguments were an exercise in futility, since they would invariably be inconclusive and matters of dispute.
The third important challenge to normative theory came from the determinists, who claim that human agents lack the capacity of any meaningful agency or choice. Internal and external imposition of structure is not always evident in normative theory, whereas structural constraints (from both within and without) may operate on individuals, limiting the range of their choices and preferences.
In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, they only well-placed strand of normative political theory was utilitarianism, which had the least of problems to adjust to empirical theory, because it was proximate to the latter. It could be given a concrete quantitative form. Utilitarianism, particularly the Benthamite version, was based on the idea of political actions founded on “basic facts of human nature disclosed by empirical observation”. Bentham devised a pleasure/pain calculus, and claimed that all morally correct positions were found in the actions of individuals seeking to maximise their pleasure or happiness. Immediately, we can see that in answering foundational questions of moral philosophy, Benthamite utilitarianism was problematic, because it gave no importance to abstraction or the claims of rights. The normative capacity of this school stretched only to the choice of action for individuals in appropriating maximum utility, though a classification of ends was never constructed.
However, the battle-lines between empirical and normative theory were drawn again with the onset of the 1970s, which saw the revival of the latter branch. Given utilitarianism’s affinity for quantification, it was definitely not the site from which to launch a counter-factual critique. This provided the space where some new schools to come in and reclaim normative theory’s lost salience. Their emergence was facilitated by the following factors:
(i) The nature of international politics at the time
(ii) The emergence of new key substantive questions of
political theory at the time
(iii) Exemplary defence of normative theory, by way of answering
Firstly, the war in Vietnam discredited utilitarianism. Many in the USA had justified the conflict in terms of a “national aggregate benefit”. The notion though, of the sacrifice of some innocent lives, contributing to the maximisation of the common aggregate ‘good’, did not sit well detractors and denigrators. As the US lost the war, the philosophical underpinning of the same was destroyed. The framework was laid for the revival of normative theory, which had to be developed outside utilitarianism
Secondly, the key substantive questions of political theory from the 1970s onwards located themselves in two arrangements. One questioned the basis for the existence and operationalisation of the state, while the other concerned itself with questions relating to distributive justice (and its effects on liberty). Neither utilitarianism, nor empirical theory was best equipped to answer these new questions, and solution came from two new branches of normative theory.
Thirdly, the re-emergence of normative theory in the form of deontological liberalism and communitarianism also meant that these new branches would have to confront the challenge of the positivists, relativists and determinists, in order to substantiate the claim of their credo’s revalidation, and to concretise the position of the same in political theory. This defence came in several counter-arguments to the critiques which had developed since the 1930s.
To the logical positivists, normative theorists responded by arguing that moral propositions were, indeed, not facts, but this did not jeopardise the aspect of such theorisation. Moreover, normative theory could very well use an existing body of evidence to further fortify and elaborate moral questions. On the other hand, some philosophers like Gewirth articulate arguments where moral truths can find foundations in external objects which can be sensually experienced. Rawls used quantification for the formalisation of some of his arguments, but his operation was still the clarification of moral philosophy. The moment Rawls talk of morality, his text becomes an exercise in normative theory.
Communitarians, in retaliation to the relativists, argue that there may be room for specific values and moralities, even though an over-riding, universal morality maybe absent. However, this rebuttal itself is riddled with several problems. The most robust response to relativism from normative theory comes in the conception of certain basic precepts which are universally recognised as moral, like the recognition of human rights. Thus, community-transcending universal moralities are present, though they do not necessarily have to be just or without detractors.
In the case of determinism, normative theorists argue that there may be structural constraints on individuals, but value-judgments still pervade individual decision-making. Morality often locates itself as the base of, and tries to find articulation in value-free claims about causal phenomena. Moreover, it is impossible to argue, even with the presentation of facts that people are never left with morally relevant choices, when they operate under constraints. Claims of human agency thus have to be admitted, given that the list of morally relevant choices is a lengthy one.
Thus, the 1970s saw a revival of normative theory, which had assumed new variants and seemed prepared to contend with the emergent dynamics within politics. In essence, however, the stand-off between normative theory and empirical theory was one between moral philosophy and scientific enquiry. It is where scientific rationality reaches its limits that normative theory comes in to provide justification and offer clarity.
Each of these attributes provides a sound understanding and coherence to scientific research. The ontology of this research is quantification and proof. However, the same ontology cannot be extrapolated into political enquiry and research. There remains a clear distinction between science (causal) on the one hand, and philosophy (any belief, causal or otherwise) on the other. Elements of science have universal behavioural patterns, which can be verified, tested and recorded. On the basis of such records, science can claim to predict the nature of behaviour of such elements when performing experiments with the same. This, however, can never relate directly to politics, for feelings such as nationalism, allegiance, voting etc. are innately volatile, and cannot conform to any premeditated pattern.
Philosophers can verify the internal consistency of any theory or argument through a test of logic, but it is when there are two internally consistent theories, which are inconsistent to each other, that the philosopher is at a loss to adjudicate. The normal course of science is to eliminate that which is not backed by facts. But in philosophy, the same bank of evidence may supply mutually inconsistent theories their backbones of factual ratification. However, this cannot be the point of negation of philosophy, because the negation would also underrate the role of logical consistency in a mechanism of negative elimination. Given the case of the tussle between liberalism and Nazism, the truth of either could not be contested, and the adjudication was left to one’s moral choice.
Empirical theory maintained that there was no moral end in politics, and the revival of normative theory was geared to correct this inaccuracy. As MacIntyre argues, for an end in politics, one needs a theoretical framework, which answers questions inherent to the theory. Any researcher, when studying, would encounter a problem which is looked at from several vantage points. To go by a singular viewpoint would be to follow a restricted view. Theoretical problems are like idioms, articulated in terms of the norms of its curriculum. Contrary to the promise of empirical social science, there is no “true objective reality”. Any political explanation cannot be a description, because political propositions are not observable terms or statements of behaviour. They are, rather, explained in the counter-factual recantation of the intentionality of the actors involved. Any political theory has to be an exercise in unearthing intention. Because intentions cannot be validated, it is only by building a theoretical counter-factual that it can be interpreted. Unless intention is imputed, no political explanation is complete.
In normative theory, clarification is a second-order function. The first function is the critical evaluation of beliefs. For empirical theory, the latter is impossible, and so they concentrate on the former. They claim that normative theory cannot refine concepts, since concepts cannot be adjudicated in the first place. However, this attack seems to be directed more towards the Philosophy of Science, rather than the Philosophy of Practice. In the latter, conceptual clarification is a continuous process. Over time and context, ideas and concepts change due to the variation of elements. Conceptual clarity is desirable if better substitutes can be found, because that sharpens one’s perspectives. Thus, conceptual clarification is a legitimate activity. The role of normative theory is not finality, but only clarity.
In conclusion, thus, it is wise to invoke Connolly when making the case for normative theory by saying that political theory needs to give up its desperate aspiration to science. This aspiration needlessly limits the theoretical remit of politics, which is not a black-or-white exercise or even just the adjustment to a shade of grey in between. Sometimes, the questions of moral philosophy and the human condition assume entirely different hues altogether.
- Daryl Glaser – “Normative Theory”, Theory and Methods
in Political Science, Gerry Stoker and
David Marsh (eds), St. Martin’s Press, 1997
- Richard Bellamy – “The Demise and Rise of Political Theory”,
Theories and Concepts of Politics,
Manchester University Press, 1993
- Alasdair MacIntyre – “The Indispensability of Political
Theory”, The Nature of Political
Theory, D. Miller and L. Siendentop (eds), Clarendon
- William Connolly – “Essentially Contested Concepts”, The
Terms of Political Discourse, Princeton
University Press, 1993