Against Utopianism: Noncompliance and Multiple AgentsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Does it count against a normative theory in political philosophy that it is in some important sense infeasible, that its prescriptions are unlikely to be complied with? Though a positive answer seems plausible, it has proved hard to defend against the claim (most forcefully made by David Estlund) that this is not how normative theories work - noncompliance shows a problem with the noncomplying agents, not with the normative theory. I think that this line of thought - this defense of Utopianism - wins the battle but loses the war. It’s right about what does and what does not refute a normative theory. It’s wrong in misidentifying the problem. The right way to think about the feasibility worry is as essentially involving multiple agents, and how expected noncompliance by one agent may refute a normative claim addressed at another. Thus understood, feasibility problems may very well refute a theory in political philosophy. In this paper I develop this understanding of the feasibility worry, tie it to more general discussions in normative ethics (about the morally right way to take into account expected violations by others), and in political philosophy (about ideal and non-ideal theory; a long appendix engages that debate in detail).