Governmentality by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Foucault, Michel. 1991. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Check out this (YouTube video, 11 minutes), this (Encyclopedia Britannica entry) and this (learned introduction from the blog, Critical Legal Thinking), in order, before proceeding. Or better not proceed!

Political writing concerning the ‘art’ of government —  of the self (by, well, the self), of souls (by the priest), of children (by the father/teacher) and, especially, of the state (by the prince) — develops and flourishes starting from the 16th century. Questions concerning “how to be ruled, how strictly, by whom, to what end, by what methods, etc.” become salient in this period thanks to the double movement of state centralisation due to the fall of feudalism and religious rupture due to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

This development may be fruitfully examined against the backdrop of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince which is the starting point and well as the point of departure for the literature on the art of government.

The art of government that Machiavelli’s work presented was centred on the interest of the prince.[1]This prince is external to the principality and the link between the two is merely synthetic.[2] This being so, the link is fragile and constantly under threat. If the prince want to maintain his principality, he has to strengthen this link and is this link — “the prince’s relation with what he own” — that is the object of Machiavelli’s art of government.

It is this notion of the art of government — that of maintaining a principality — that is being questioned by the new political writing. Consider Guillaue de La Perrière’s Miroir Politique.

Firstly, it is recognised that the art of government in not to be associated with the prince alone. There are — as mentioned in the beginning — multiple forms of government which are immanent within the state, for example, the government of the family. The task is to establish linkages between these different forms of government. In fact, the art of government in this literature, is concerned with extending the model of family management ([private] economy) to the state (political economy).[3] This model implies exercising “a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and goods.”

Secondly, government is defined as “the right disposition of things, arranged so as to lead to a convenient end.” The ‘things’ are neither the subjects nor the territory in which they live. Rather they are men in their relations with material things, with culture and with natural events.[4] Government relates to this complex of men and things of which men and their territory are only variables.

Thirdly, government is directed to ‘a convenient end’. In La Perrière, this end is not “the form of the common good” — for Samuel Pufendorf, ‘public utility’; for Machiavelli, maintenance of the principality —  but rather something which is “‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed.” The end then is not a singular and circular one but a purality of specific ends. They are to be attained by disposing — managing, or arranging — things in ways such that the specific ends may be achieved.[5]

Lastly, the wisdom of the ruler or governor, understood as knowledge of the things he manages and his diligence, understood as acting in such a way as if he were in the service of those he is governing, are essential to government.

This abstract notion of the art of government did not remain abstract but first got concretized in the notion of the ‘reason of state’ in the late 16th and early 17th century. The reason of state simply refers to the idea that the state could be governed according to rational principles. But the growth of the art of government was frustrated by 17th century political and economic crises[6] as well as the pre-eminence of the question of sovereignty.

Mercantilism represents the first application of the art of government. It is the “first rationalisation of the exercise of power as a practice of government”. However, as its object was the sovereign’s might, and its instruments — laws, decrees, regulations — those of sovereignty, it remained immobilized by the institution of sovereignty.

On the one hand, then, the art of government was hampered by the rigid, large, and abstract framework of sovereignty. On the other hand, it suffered because of its reliance on the weak model of the family. (How could this model hope to succeed at the level of the state?)

The rigid framework of sovereignty was broken through the rise of the science of government in the ‘economic’ plane which enabled reflection on the art of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

The limiting model of the family was overcome through the emergence of ‘population’ which replaced the family as a model for government and relegated it to the role of a ‘privileged instrument’. The population — the interests of its constituents, understood collectively as well as individually — became the end of government, that is to say, the target of its tactics. The population also constituted the domain whose knowledge it was essential for the ruler to have. In short, the population became the new subject.

The new science called political economy arises out of the perception of new networks of continuous and multiple relations between population, territory and wealth; and this is accompanied by the formation of a type of intervention characteristic of government, namely intervention in the field of economy and population. In other words, the transition which takes place in the 18th century from an art of government to a political science, from a regime dominated by structures of sovereignty to one ruled by techniques of government, turns on the theme of population and hence also on the birth of political economy.

Having said these, neither sovereignty nor discipline became less important as the art of government developed. The former had to be given a juridical foundation and the latter had to be inculcated to manage the population.

Governmentality, to conclude, is the ‘ensemble’ of “institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics” which realise government. It is the tendency that has led to the pre-eminence of government (over other forms of power like sovereignty, discipline). It is the process through which the state has become governmentalized.

Maybe what is really important for our modernity — that is, for our present — is not so much the étatisation of society as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state.


[1] Whether or not this interpretation is correct is not important. What is important is the it was interpreted in this way.

“Let us leave aside the question of whether the interpretation of Machiavelli in these debates was accurate or not.” (p. 89)

[2] The link between the father and the child in a family, in contrast, is natural and ‘essential’.

[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Political Economy.

[4] Consider this metaphor. To govern a ship means to take care of the ship and sailors. But it also means to take care of its cargo, to reckon with storms, to establish relations between the sailors and the cargo and the ship all of which are to be taken care of. Government relates to this complex of men and things.

[5] Foucault contrasts sovereignty with government as part of this point. The end of sovereignty, understood as the common good, is achieved essentially by obedience to the law, which is given by the sovereign. The purpose of sovereignty then is served by the exercise of sovereignty. The end of government, on the other hand, is a plurality of specific ends which are convenient for each of the things governed and which will be achieved through a mutiplicity of tactics, of which law is but only one. The purpose of government is served by the application of tactics to the things it manages.

[6] “[F]irst the Thirty Years War with its ruin and devastation; then in the mid-century the peasant and urban rebellions; and finally the financial crisis, the crisis of revenues which affected all Western monarchies at the end of the century.” (p. 97)



Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1985. “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14 (3). Wiley: 223–51.

Section I explains “justice as fairness” as a political conception of justice applicable to the basic structure of society in a democratic society.

Section II asserts the intractability of disagreements over fundamental questions in any society and describes what a political conception of justice can do to adjudicate between these disagreements. It then indicates how justice as fairness could achieve that. It also indicates why justice as fairness is a political and not a metaphysical conception.

Section III states the overarching idea of justice as fairness as referring to a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. It then expands on the idea of fair terms (or system) of cooperation and the notion of persons.

Section IV explains through what process the fair terms of cooperation are determined and considers (possible) objections to that process.

Section V discusses the notion of a political conception of the person, i.e., as a free citizen.

Section VI clarifies why justice as fairness is a truly liberal view.

Section VII concludes with remarks on how social unity might be forthcoming through justice as fairness.


Justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. It is of course a moral conception but one that is worked out for a specific subject — the “basic structure” of a modern constitutional democracy. This basic structure consists of the society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and the way in which they fit together into a unified system of social cooperation.

Justice as fairness, it follows from the previous paragraph, is not intended as comprehensive moral conception that applies to all general subjects. To reiterate, justice as fairness applies only to the basic structure and not to other subjects the personal actions or philosophies of persons. This is unlike a comprehensive moral doctrine like utilitarianism which is understood to hold for all kinds of subjects.

Justice as fairness is intended for — see the second sentence of the first paragraph — democratic society. It draws upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation.


Any society is bound to face situations where there is controversy regarding fundamental questions which might appear, and prove, to be intractable. In such situations, a firm foundation of justice supplied by a political conception of justice, such as justice as fairness, might help sufficiently narrow down the divergence of opinion so that political cooperation is, despite differences of opinion, made possible.

There is no agreement in democratic thought about how the values of liberty and equality can best be secured or distributed through the basic structure of the society. The disagreement may be understood, broadly and crudely, as a conflict between two traditions, one stressing individual freedoms and the other, public values.[1] Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these two traditions by proposing two principles of justice which regulate how the basic structure should realise the values of liberty and equality. These principles are:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Justice as fairness also specifies a point of view from which these principles are advanced as more appropriate to free and equal democratic citizens than other principles of justice.

How might the disagreement alluded to in the last paragraph be settled? It might not be possible to do so, and indeed, as pointed out earlier, the most that could be done could be to narrow the differences.

A political conception of justice should be in accordance with our “settled convictions”[2] as well as the “shared fund of implicitly recognised basic ideas and principles expressed by the public culture”. The public culture however is the source and arena of the disagreement. A political conception of justice then has to organise the basic ideas and principles such that they are seen to fit together properly. It could even go further and supply an overarching (more fundamental) idea with which to tie together these basic/familiar/intuitive ideas and principles. This can be done if the conception provides a reasonable way of shaping the underlying bases of agreement in the public culture into a coherent view.

If justice as fairness achieves these goals, it will provide a reasonable public standpoint from which citizens might judge the justness of the social institutions using principles supplied by the conception. Also, in this conception, the manner of judging and justifying institutions are not based on the logical validity or even soundness of arguments but instead on arguments which are derived from premises which are recognised as acceptable through a prior consensus. It is for this reason that the aim as well as the content of justice as fairness is not metaphysical but political. It is not a conception that pretends to be true metaphysically but one that serves as a basis for political agreement for resolving fundamental questions by free and equal persons.

Justice as fairness avoids disputed philosophical, moral, and religious questions simply because there is no way of resolving them politically. It also avoids metaphysical notions about the true nature of the self in conceptualising the idea of free and equal persons. By avoiding these irresolvable issues whose inclusion would make any political conception useless, justice as fairness hopes to moderate between differing political views.


The overarching intuitive idea behind justice as fairness is the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.

Cooperation as understood in justice as fairness is marked by three features:

  1. It refers to activity based on publicly recognised and accepted rules and procedures, and not to merely socially coordinated activity brought about by a higher authority but.
  2. It involves fair terms of cooperation meaning not only that the terms of cooperation should be ones that each person may reasonably accept provides others do but also that they specify reciprocity or mutuality.[3]
  3. It involves the idea that the participants are seeking to achieve their rational advantage or good.

The person as understood in justice as fairness is a person who can cooperatively participate in social life. That person is a citizen.[4] These participants are free and equal. That they are free is connected with their capacity for moral thought and for reason which enable independent judgment. That they are equal is connected to them having the aforesaid capacity to the requisite degree so as to ensure their full cooperation in society.

And in being fully cooperative participants, they have the capacities (“moral powers”) for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good. Having a sense of justice simply means they find it proper to adhere to the political/public conception of justice, here justice as fairness. Having a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and to rationally pursue one’s conception of rational advantage. In addition to these two moral powers, participants have at a given time a particular conception of the good which they try to achieve which they can pursue. This conception of the participants as having the two moral powers and therefore free and equal is a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.

“...[T]he fundamental question of political justice [is this]: ... what is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. It is this question that has been the focus of the liberal critique of aristocracy, of the socialist critique of liberal constitutional democracy, and of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at the present time over the claims of private property and the legitimacy (in contrast to the effectiveness) of social policies associated with the so-called welfare state.”


How are the fair terms of social cooperation to be determined? Through a contract by free and equal participants. However, this contract must be entered into in the appropriate condition, i.e., they must be situated fairly or symmetrically such that their decisions are not distorted by particular features of social institutions or indeed their own particular circumstances. This condition as achieved via the “veil of ignorance” which prescribes an “original position” where the participants are sheltered from the influence of contingent advantages.

But this original position is only a device of representation and does not occur in actual societies. This renders the contract nonhistorical and hypothetical. What significance can such a contract have? The significance lies in the features of the original position itself. Without those very features — the idea that the participants are symmetrically situated and that their contingent social circumstances are unknown to them — no contract can be truly fair.

As a device of representation the idea of the original position serves as a means of public reflection and self-clarification. We can use it to help us work out what we now think, once we are able to take a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires when society is conceived as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal persons over time from one generation to the next. The original position serves as a unifying idea by which our considered convictions at all levels of generality are brought to bear on one another so as to achieve greater mutual agreement and self-understanding.

However, the original position behind the veil of ignorance, even if it appears abstract, must not be misunderstood to presuppose, for example, some metaphysical notion of the person.[5]


What is entailed in conceptualising a political notion of the person, i.e., as a free citizen?

First, citizens are free in that they conceive themselves and others as having the capacity to have a conception of the good. This also means that they are capable of revising the conception on rational grounds and that their identity as free persons in the political/public sense is not tied to any particular conception of the good.[6] However, their nonpublic identity — their personal devotions and loyalties, their religious or philosophical convictions —could be very different from that expressed by their political identity.

Second, citizens regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. Claims founded on duties and obligations which are based on the moral doctrines and conceptions of the good that they uphold are also considered as self-originating. To say that citizens are free in this way is to say that in democratic societies they actually think of themselves in this way. The importance of this aspect of their being free is to state that in so far as the claims do not derive from duties and obligations, that is in so far as the claims are not self-originating, they have no weight.[7]

Third, citizens are capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their claims are assessed. Briefly stated, this means that citizens are capable of adjusting or restricting their claims so that they can be pursued through mean which can reasonably be available to all. The weight of the claims in other words is not determined by the pyschological intensity of the desires but why considerations of cooperation and reciprocity.


Justice as fairness is a liberal view. In a democratic society, there will surely be incommensurable conceptions of the good. This fact, which is a given, is why the person is conceptualised as and restricted to a political notion, i.e., as citizens. Persons are free to be committed to comprehensive doctrines or ideals, whether liberal or otherwise, in non-political parts of their lives as long as these doctrines are not introduced into political discussion. This point is crucial because an insistence on liberal ideals would make the conception incompatible with other conceptions of the good turning liberalism itself into a dogmatic doctrine.

In any just democratic society, conceptions of the good apart from liberalism are likely to persist and it is this variety that justice as fairness tries to account for by identifying areas of “overlapping consensus”, i.e., intuitive ideas shared by diverse conceptions of the good. This consensus is the most that can be achieved.

But isn’t justice as fairness merely a modus vivendi that allows groups to pursue their own good subject to certain restraints? First, justice as fairness is a moral conception even if not a comprehensive one that stresses the virtues of cooperation. It is not merely a modus vivendi. Second, the principles of justice are accepted by the diverse conceptions of the good or as integral to them and not merely as convenient means apart from their moral doctrines.


Most political conceptions of justice do not allow a plurality of conceptions of the good. Examples of such conceptions include those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition and classical utilitarianism. By contrast, liberalism does allow for a plurality of competing or even incommensurable conceptions of the good. It assumes that a public agreement on one conception of the good is not possible.

How can social unity be secured if this is the case? Justice as fairness understands social unity as founded not on a singular conception of the good but on the public acceptance of a conception of justice as regulating the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is independent from and prior to the concept of goodness in that the principles of justice specify the acceptable conceptions of the good.

End Notes

[1] The first can be identified with John Locke (what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the moderns”) and the latter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or the “freedom of the ancients”).

[2] These might include “the belief in religious toleration and the rejection of slavery”.

[3] For more on this point, see John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

[4] ‘Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. We add the phrase “over a complete life” because a society is viewed as a more or less complete and self-sufficient scheme of cooperation, making room within itself for all the necessities and activities of life, from birth until death.’

[5] When, we simulate being in this position,  [behind the veil of ignorance,] our reasoning no more commits us to a metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than our playing a game like Monopoly commits us to thinking that we are landlords engaged in a desperate rivalry, winner take all.

[6] For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before. There is no loss of what we may call their public identity, their identity as a matter of basic law.

[7] “Laws that prohibit the abuse and maltreatment of slaves are not founded on claims made by slaves on their own behalf, but on claims originating either from slaveholders, or from the general interests of society (which does not include the interests of slaves).”

Another importance of this aspect is that it clearly identifies that it as peculiar to a particular conception of justice. The example about slaves just given flows from a political conception of justice where certain groups slaves are not viewed as self-originating sources of claims.

Justice as Fairness by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1958. “Justice as Fairness.” The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

Section I claims that the fundamental idea for the concept of justice is fairness.

Section II introduces the two principles of this conception.

Section III explains how these two principles are arrived at.

Section IV pre-empts possible criticisms against justice as fairness as developed in Sections II and III.

Section V sketches why fairness should be central to any concept of justice.

Section VI characterises the utilitarian conception of justice as one concerned with efficacy.

Section VII discusses why such utilitarianism fails as a conception of justice.


The fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness. The paper will try to justify this claim. It is this aspect of justice (as fairness) that classical utilitarianism fails to account for.

Three things should be kept in mind. First, justice is considered as a virtue of social institutions[1] (henceforth “practices”[2] as Rawls does) and its function is essentially distributive.[3] Second, justice is considered as only one of the many virtues of practices. Justice is just one aspect of any conception of a good society. Third, the principles of justice discussed below are not the principles of justice.


There are two principles of justice as fairness:

(a) first, each person[4] participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all;

(b) and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The first principle expresses a presumption against “distinctions and classifications” created by practices. Put another way, the first principle presumes an original situation of equality. However, it does not rule out deviations from this state — “there can be, and there often is, a justification for doing so”.

The second principle defines what sort of deviations from this original situation of equality — or inequalities[5] — permissible. First, only those inequalities are permitted which benefit everyone.[6] Second, those offices and positions that have benefits attached to them must be open for all to acquire through fair competition.


How are these two principles arrived at?

Imagine a society of persons where a system of practices is well in place. Now suppose that they are, by and large, mutually self-interested. This means that they are self-interested but not always so. They have loyalties to their families, nations, churches and the like whose interests they also pursue. This does not imply however that they are mutually self-interested under all circumstances. They are so only when they participate in “common practices”. Also, suppose also that they are rational meaning that (a) they know their own interests, (b) they can foresee the consequences of their actions, (c) they can adhere to their chosen course of action, (d) they can resist enticements for immediate gain, and (e) they are comfortable with certain limited differences in their condition and that of others.[7] Finally, suppose that they have similar needs and interests which enables their fruitful cooperation.

This society of mutually self-interested, rational, and similarly situated persons, since they already have a system of practices in place, can be imagined to regularly discuss complaints about the practices they have set up. They first establish the principles based on which their complaints will be judged by letting everyone propose the principles based on which he thinks complaints should be tried. This is done on the understanding that once the principles are adopted, they will be binding on all future occasions. This provision disallows principles that may be peculiarly advantageous for a particular complaint as they will be, if adopted, imposed on everyone for every complaint that might arise.

The two parts of this conjectural story have definite significance. The first part reflects the typical circumstances in which questions of justice arise. Such circumstances are those where conflicting demands are brought to bear on the design of a practice by persons insisting on what they consider to be their rights. The second part represents the constraints under which persons are brought to act reasonably. The constraints are those of morality which, at the very least, imply acknowledgement (a) of principles that must be pursued even if they conflict with self-interest[8] and (b) that principles must be applied impartially to all.

Given the circumstances and the constraints specified by the two parts, it can be seen how the two principles of justice put forth at the beginning of Section II might come about. This is not offered as proof that those two principles will necessarily be chosen but merely to show that those principles could be chosen.


Justice on this account appears to be a sort of pact between rational and egoistic persons similar to the sort advanced by Glaucon at the beginning of Book II of Plato’s Republic.[9] However, this is not entirely so.

First, the conjectural account does not advance any theory of human motivation (or human nature) underlying the actions and decisions of persons. The account refers simply to the fact, in the circumstances of justice, the different parties do press their conflicting and competing claims on one another and do regard themselves as representing interests which need to be considered. Second, the account does not seek to explain the establishment of any particular society or practice as most social contract theories set out to do. The different parties “jointly acknowledge certain principles of appraisal relating to their practices [which are] either already established or merely proposed” (emphases added). Third, the account does not imply that the parties are coming together for the first time. It applies even when highly developed social institutions already exist. This means that the account is not fictitious. In any society where people reflect on their practices, there will be times when principles of justice would actually be discussed in the way sketched by the account.


Thinking about justice in the manner so described brings out the idea that fairness must be central to justice. Rules of a practice are fair if they are accepted as applicable by all concerned on the basis of them (rules) being legitimate.[10] Similarly for principles of justice. It is this idea of mutual acceptance (or mutual acknowledgement) which makes fairness central to justice because when understood through the conjectural account, the principles of justice arrived at are what can be undoubtedly called as fair since they are premised on the notion of mutual acknowledgement brought about by the condition that these principles are binding on everyone. It is this notion of mutual acknowledgement that ensures a community between persons and their practices based not on force.

If the rules of a practice are correctly acknowledged as fair, duties on the part of the parties to act in accordance with those rules when it fall upon them to comply are born. This is the duty of “fair play”.[11] This obligation to abide by the rule does not depend on any explicit contract acknowledging the practice but merely requires knowing participation in and acceptance of the benefits of the practice.

The duty of fair play might enjoin upon the participants to sacrifice their self-interests in particular situations. This is the expected consequence of the strong commitment to the rules made in the general position (the situation described in the conjectural account, see Section III). The acceptance of the duty of fair play along with this constraint is recognition of the others as persons with similar interests and capacities, as specified in the general position.

These comments are made in order to anticipate and forestall the misinterpretation that the account presented of justice and fair play requires that there be de facto equality (“balance of powers”) in the general position. Such balance is important but is not the basis. The recognition of one another as persons with similar interests and capacities involved in a common practice is enough basis for the acceptance of the principles of justice and the duty of fair play.

One consequence of the conception as explicated thus far is that there is no moral value in satisfying a claim that is incompatible with it. Put concretely, there is no moral value in the satisfaction derived out of something which one imposes on others but would not accept for himself, regardless of the pleasure it generates.


For the classical utilitarians, justice is a kind of efficiency. Justice is tied to benevolence and benevolence is brought about through the most efficient design of institutions to promote the general welfare

A common objection is that this would “justify institutions highly offensive to our ordinary sense of justice”.[12] However, classical utilitarianism can answer this objection. For one, individuals are considered as having roughly the same utility function and differences due to accidents of birth and upbringing are ignored. For another, they accept the idea of marginal diminishing utility.[13] These two assumptions build a strong case for equality.

However, even if these assumptions actually operated and led to similar principles of justice, they would still be fundamentally different from justice as fairness. Firstly, in the utilitarian conception, the principles of justice are the contingent result of a higher administrative decision. Second, the individuals receiving the benefits due to the utilitarian calculus are non-related units to which resources may be allocated. Their enjoyment of the benefits has no moral connection with other persons.

It is assumed that the administrator will after considering all relevant criteria make the correct executive decision and that the principles of justice would result from this being so.


Many social decisions are of course administrative decisions. And classical utilitarianism can properly account for many of these decisions about social utility. However, as in interpretation of the principles of justice, classical utilitarianism fails.

It allows one to argue — not that the classical utilitarians did — that slavery is unjust because the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder. The point is not whether the disadvantages to one party can outweigh the advantage of the other but simply that slavery is not in accordance with principles that can be mutually acknowledged and it is for this reason that slavery will always be unjust. The classical utilitarian might retort that it is not always true that the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder and in the cases where this is not true, slavery is not wrong. Indeed, it is right, and for the same reason that justice is right. He might point out that utilitarianism gives no special weight to justice above and beyond the basic concern with effectiveness. And if slavery is effective, it is perfectly just.

But reasons of justice have a special weight which utilitarianism cannot account for but justice as fairness can. The argument that slavery is sufficiently advantageous might not be wildly irrelevant but it nevertheless constitutes a moral fallacy. Since slavery does not ensue from principles that could be mutually acknowledged, the advantages or disadvantages (benefits or burdens) that result from it have no moral significance. If the slaveholder recognises the injustice of slavery, he will disregard the advantages that might flow from it. Such advantages then cannot be grounds for defending a practice as just. For these reasons, the principles of justice have a special weight. With respect to the principle of the greatest satisfaction, they have an absolute weight. They are not contingent.

This criticism of utilitarianism does not depend upon whether or not the assumptions of similar utility functions for individuals and diminishing marginal utility (see section V, second paragraph) are understood to be scientific or psychological. It is certainly more attractive to consider the latter to be true. However, even if the assumptions are understood as moral or psychological, the mistaken belief in the intrinsic value of satisfaction of (moral and psychological) desires irrespective of the relations between persons still remains.


“By way of conclusion I should like to make two remarks: first, the original modification of the utilitarian principle (supra note 6) actually has a different conception of justice standing behind it. I have tried to show how this is so by developing the concept of justice … [which] involves the mutual acceptance, from a general position, of the principles on which a practice is founded, and how this in turn requires the exclusion from consideration of claims violating the principles of justice.

Second, … I have been dealing with the concept of justice. …Societies will differ from one another … in the range of cases to which they apply [the concept of justice as fairness] and in the emphasis which they give to it as compared with other moral concepts. A firm grasp of the concept of justice itself is necessary if these variations, and the reasons for them, are to be understood.”

End Notes

[1] Why is justice considered only in its application to social institutions? Because its application to social institutions is “basic” and may be “easily” applied to other “subjects of justice” such as persons or particular actions once its principles are established.

[2] The word “practice” is used as a technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves. penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure

[3] “The principles of justice … formulat[e] restrictions as to how practices may define positions and offices, and assign thereto powers and liabilities, rights and duties”.

[4] The term “person” could mean human individuals, nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on.  In any case, the principles apply to all. The use of the term is self-confessedly ambiguous.

[5] These inequalities are not the differences in offices and positions and the differences in benefits and burden that ensue from them.

[6] This modification of the utilitarian principle that everyone must benefit from the inequality disallows utilitarian justifications that appeal to the greater magnitude of the benefits accruing to some compared to the burdens borne by others.

[7] The last point implies that the rational man in not greatly worried by seeing others in a better position unless that were the result of injustice. The rational man, in a word, is free from envy.

[8] “A man whose moral judgments always coincided with his interests could be suspected of having no morality at all.”

[9] “They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him, that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins.” John M. Cooper ed., 1997, Plato: Complete Works, Indianapolis: Hackett, 358e–359b. (See this if you don’t know what the numbers mean.)

[10] “A practice will strike the parties as fair if none feels that, by participating in it, they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate.

[11] “…[T]o refer to it in this way is, perhaps, to extend the ordinary notion of fairness. Usually acting unfairly is not so much the breaking of any particular rule … but taking advantage of loop-holes or ambiguities in rules, … and more generally, acting contrary to the intention of a practice.”

[12] Rawls of course is referring to the objection that the general welfare could be bought at great particular cost. The greatest happiness of the many, to use other words, could come at the expense of the greatest suffering of the few.

[13] Satisfaction derived from additional units of a good diminishes. The implication is that fantastic differences in levels of satisfaction are unlikely to occur.


Negative and Positive Freedom by Gerald C MacCallum, Jr. — A Summary

MacCallum, Gerald C. 1967. “Negative and Positive Freedom.” The Philosophical Review 76 (3). Duke University Press: 312–34.


Disputes about freedom have been about what it constitutes, how its attainment relates to the attainment of other “social benefits” like “economic and military security, technological efficiency”, where it may be ranked among such benefits, and what consequences policies may have on the attainment of freedom.

Once one admits that freedom is not the only benefit a society may secure its members, disputes about reconciling it with other benefits or values may arise. We may legitimately ask whether reconciliation is possible; and if possible, whether it is desirable. However, in practice, these questions are often obscured by disputes about the implications of policy  on these values.

It has also been common for “partisans” of all kinds to claim for themselves special affinity to freedom in light of the policies or forms of organisation that they advocate, while reserving the opposite treatment to their rivals. This is why freedom has come to be associated with so wide an array of social and individual benefits as to utterly obscure its meaning. This has suited the “purposes of the polemicist”.

The distinction between negative and positive liberty must be seen against this backdrop of confusion, and being influenced by it, the distinction itself is confused because it fails to fully understand  the conditions under which the use of the concept of freedom is intelligible.


Freedom is always freedom of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something; it is a triadic relation which can be expressed as: “x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” where x ranges over agents, y ranges over such “preventing conditions” as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance. Not all of the three terms need be explicitly stated because the missing term can often be inferred from the context.

It must not be construed that the claim that freedom is a triadic relation is about what we say. Rather, it is about conditions under which what we say may be intelligible. In other words, simply saying something is free or not free does warrant the application of this claim. To put it even more concretely, the claim does not apply to the statements such as “The sky is now free of clouds” or “His record is free of blemish”. The two statements are not intelligible as claims about freedom. The first does not deal with agents at all and in the second, it is not clear whether the statement is about the freedom of the agent or of something/someone else.

Let us look at some troublesome cases where not all the terms of the triadic relationship are clear.

(a) Cases where agents are not mentioned: Consider expressions of the form “free x” where x does not clearly refer to an agent — “free will” — or where x clearly does not refer to an agent — “free beer”. These cases, even if the agents not explicitly mentioned, nevertheless are concerned about agents and are intelligible only if they are understood as such. “Free will” for example is obviously concerned with the freedom of persons or selves. While not as obvious, “free beer” still refers to beer that “people are free from the ordinary restrictions of the market place to drink without paying for it.”

(b) Cases where it is not clear what corresponds to the second term: Consider the expression “freedom of choice”. The preventing conditions are usually clear from the context. In political matters, they are usually legal. In Mill, they were social pressures.

(c) Cases where it is not clear what corresponds to the third term: Consider the expression “freedom from hunger”. It could simply mean being rid of hunger. This doesn’t conform to the triadic schema. However, it could also mean that to be free from hunger is to be free to do the things one can’t do when hungry. Even more satisfactorily, it could mean “a world in which people would be free from barriers constituted by various specifiable agricultural, economic, and political conditions to get enough food to prevent hunger”. This last view of “freedom from hunger” both makes perfect historical sense and conforms to the triadic schema of freedom.

The conventional characterisation of the difference between negative and positive freedom as “freedom from” and “freedom to” does not distinguish between two genuinely different kinds of freedom. Rather, it serves to emphasise one or the other of two features or variables that are present in every kind of freedom.


The next problem is how, or if, the differing answers to the question “When are persons free?” survive the agreement that freedom is a triadic relation. For example, differing views on what is the “true” identity or desire of an agent or on what counts as a constraint or on the range of things agents might be free (or not free) to do (or become) might offer dramatically different accounts of when persons are free. Given the variables involved, accounts of freedom can diverge in many ways. It is therefore crucial to get the range of the variables quite clear.

The distinction between negative and positive freedom has made this difficult by encouraging the wrong questions. It is often asked which one of the two is correct, or desirable. Instead, what should be asked is what the range of the variables are. In other words, “[i]t would be far better to insist that the same concept of freedom is operating throughout, and that the differences, rather than being about what freedom is, are for example about what persons are, and about what can count as an obstacle to or interference with the freedom of persons so conceived”.

This insistence is necessary. Consider the differences between negative and positive freedom. Once the distinction between them as “freedom from” and “freedom to” is debunked (see above), the differences appear to be the following.

  1. Writers adhering to the concept of “negative” freedom hold that only the presence of something can render a person unfree; writers adhering to the concept of “positive” freedom hold that the absence of something may also render a person unfree.
  2. The former hold that a person is free to do x just in case nothing due to arrangements made by other persons stops him from doing x; the latter adopt no such restriction.
  3. The former hold that the agents whose freedom is in question (for example, “persons,” “men”) are, in effect, identifiable as Anglo-American law would identify “natural” (as opposed to “artificial”) persons; the latter sometimes hold quite different views as to how these agents are to be identified (see below).

These differences break down or, at least, become less dramatic when probed. With respect to the first, would proponents of “negative” liberty be disallowed from saying that a chained man is unfree because he lacks a key (absence of something), and not only because he is chained (presence of something)? Or would proponents of “positive” liberty be disallowed from saying that an untrained person failed to get a job because of existing economic or educational systems (presence of something) which led to the person being deprived of training (absence of something)? The answer to both is: no. They can, and do, give those answers. The point of difference, then, is not as dramatic as it is made out to be.

Also, the organisation of thinkers into two camps is ill-considered.[1] Locke’s views on liberty as those actions that man “himself wills it” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. 11, ch. xxi, sec. 15) or his view that law should not just “abolish or restrain, but … preserve and enlarge freedom” (Second Treatise of Government, sec. 57) should make him a serious candidate for inclusion in the “positive” camp but instead, he is made the poster boy of the “negative” camp.

Who is the proper agent whose freedom is in question? What is the proper range of obstacles or constraints? And what is the proper range of what that agent may be free (or not free) to be (or become)? For the adherents of negative freedom, the proper agent is a “person” understood in the most ordinary sense of the word. The proper range of obstacles is populated by just what we would ordinarily call “obstacles” which are arrangements made by human beings. The proper range of what an agent may be free (or not free) to be (or become) are what he “wants” to do or be, and what he wants to do or be can be “determined by what he says he wants to do, or by what he manifestly tries to do, or even does do.”

For adherents of “positive” liberty, the answers to the three questions are anything but ordinary. The proper agent is not the ordinary person but the “real”, or “moral”, or “rational” person who is often hidden within the ordinary person. The agent could also incorporate “the institutions and members, the histories and futures of the communities” of which he is an extricable part. This contraction of the meaning of the proper agent is the result of a worry that what we ordinarily want may not be what we “really want” in so far as they may be detrimental to our own interests. It’s expansion, on the other hand, stems from the idea that what we “really are” may be determined in part by our association with our families, communities, and so forth.

Given the radical departure in understanding who the proper agent is, what counts as an obstacle to that agent, unsurprisingly, is very different from that of “negative” freedom. While adherents of “negative” freedom see as obstacles only those arrangements which are the “made by human beings”, their “opponents” might not consider this qualification as relevant. In other words, the presence of obstacles, whether placed by humans or otherwise, is quite inessential. What is important for them is whether human arrangements can remove them.

As regards the third variable, proponents of “positive” liberty “emphasise conditions of character rather than actions”. The range of character conditions and actions are necessarily bound up with the idea of who an agent is and what obstacles are, of which there are, as already seen, many.

All of these divergences can be managed only if they are seen as disagreements on the range of variables that are part of the same idea of freedom as a triadic relationship.


This approach has been neglected because philosophers have made the mistake of asking unadorned questions like “When are men free?” or, alternatively, “When are men really free?”. These questions take it for granted that persons can be simply free or not free.

“One might suppose that, strictly speaking, a person could be free simpliciter only if there were no interference from which he was not free, and nothing that he was not free to do or become.” Given that societies invariably exercise some form of coercion and given the disputes regarding the proper range of the variables of the triadic relation, it should be obvious that persons in cannot be free or unfree simpliciter.

Perhaps, “in certain (conceivable) societies there is no activity in which men in that society are not free to engage, and no possible restriction or barrier from which they are not free.”

The burden of such an argument is to demonstrate that what is ordinarily considered as an interference or a barrier is actually not so, and that everything a person is ordinarily considered not free to do or become is actually irrelevant to freedom. However, other pitfalls remain. Often, questions regarding the legitimacy of interference are reduced to questions concerning genuineness as interference. Also, questions concerning the desirability are reduced to questions about possibility.

 ‘Perhaps, however, the claim that certain men are free simpliciter is merely elliptical for the claim that they are free in every important respect, or in most important respects, or “on the whole.”’ This, however, does not remove the need of asking, in “the most important aspects”, for example, what they are free from and what they are free to become. And straightforward answers to these questions will enable evaluation of whether men are free as claimed.


“Freedom is always and necessarily from restraint; thus, in so far as the adherents of positive freedom speak of persons being made free by means of restraint, they cannot be talking about freedom.” Let us examine the implications of this argument made by friends of “negative” freedom by investigating how we can we can make sense of the alleged claim of adherents of “positive” liberty that, for example, Smith is (or can be) made free by restraining (constraining, coercing) him.

The first interpretation is that “restraining Smith by means a [say, a regulation] from doing b [that prevents his crossing the streets wherever he likes] produces a situation in which he is now able to do c [but allows him to have a right of way over automobile traffic at pedestrian crossings] because restraint d [while abolishing the automobiles having general right of way over pedestrians] is lifted. He is thereby, by means of restraint a, made free from d to do c, although he can no longer do b.”

This interpretation is straightforward. It presents problems only if it is assumed that persons are free or not free simpliciter and also that the claim in question is that Smith can be  made free simpliciter. If these assumptions are made, the following interpretation might be appropriate. Smith is not being “restrained” but being helped to do what he really wants to do or what he would do if he were reasonable (moral, prudent). The “constraint” put on him actually lifts a genuine constraint (ignorance, passion) that was upon him.

This is not at all straightforward. However, it can be disentangled by insisting on the specifications of the triadic relationship being advanced. What, for instance, is Smith being made free from? Perhaps he is made free from the constraint produced by the arbitrary uncontrolled actions of other residents, or perhaps it is the “constraint” arising from his own ignorance or passion, or perhaps it’s both. If it’s the former, the specification is straightforward. If it’s the latter, further argument will be needed for it is difficult to find the range of passion or ignorance that might limit freedom.

Who, for another, is the “true” Smith? The answer will be met if the third specification of the triadic relationship, what Smith is made free to do, is examined. Apparently, he is made free to do as he wishes, really wishes, or would wish if he were reasonable. But there is obviously something he is not free to do. That is the whole point of restraining Smith. But what is he not free to do? The problem with this question is realised when we realise that what usually appears as a “restraint” is not a restraint at all.

These comments do not seek to analyse in depth the claim made by “friends” of negative liberty. Rather, they are being made to examine and draw attention to the variety of interpretations that the analysis of freedom as a triadic relationship throws up. And these are interpretations that the “friends” of negative liberty do not consider or anticipate.


“In the end, then, discussions of the freedom of agents can be fully intelligible and rationally assessed only after the specification of each term of this triadic relation has been made or at least understood. The principal claim made here has been that insistence upon this single “concept” of freedom puts us in a position to see the interesting and important ranges of issues separating the philosophers who write about freedom in such different ways, and the ideologies that treat freedom so differently.”


[1] “Identified [by Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty]… as adherents of “negative” freedom, one finds Occam, Erasmus, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Constant, J. S. Mill, Tocqueville, Jefferson, Burke, Paine. Among adherents of “positive” freedom one finds Plato, Epictetus, St. Ambrose, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Kant, Herder, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Bukharin, Comte, Carlyle, T. H. Green, Bradley, Bosanquet.”


On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts By Christine Swanton — A Summary

Swanton, Christine. 1985. “On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts.” Ethics 95 (4). University of Chicago Press: 811–27.

Are the central concepts of political theory like justice, democracy, rights, freedom, and power “essentially contested”?


The “essential contestedness” of political concepts rests on the distinction between a concept x of which there may be many rival and incompatible conceptions or “interpretations” or “uses”.

There appears to be three current views on how that distinction can be made.

The first is to provide a “canonical form” for a concept x. Consider Gerald MacCallum’s schematic characterisation of the concept of liberty as a “triadic” relation: ‘x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z.’[1] The rival conceptions of liberty that arise concern the proper range of the variables x, y and z.

The second is to specify the “common content” of a concept x. John Rawls contends that all conceptions of justice concern with “determining rules for assigning basic rights and duties, and the proper nonarbitrary balancing of competing claims to the advantages of social life”. Rival conceptions of justice will arise, according to this view, based on disagreements about the principles to be accepted in determining those rules.

The third is to say that ‘[t]he concept of x is “derived” from an “exemplar” of x to which the concept of x paradigmatically applies.’ Consider W. B. Gallie’s champion bowling team which serves as an exemplar to all other teams playing the game.[2]

Whichever view one accepts, it is clear that essentially contested concepts do share a common core whose interpretations and specifications are essentially contested. The core is the concept proper and its interpretations are the conceptions.

In what way then is a concept x essentially contested?

“There are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.”[3]

There are two theses here. The first, that of “contestedness”, says that there are concepts which are recognised by their users as contestable and actually contested. The second, that of “essential contestedness”, says that the contests are “inevitable” and “endless” — that is why they are “essentially” contested.

The first thesis, C, can be expressed in the following manner: “There is at least one concept, central to political theory, which is such that (a) that concept admits of a variety of “interpretations” or “uses,” and (b) is such that its proper use is disputable, and conceptions are deployable both “aggressively and defensively” against rival conceptions.”

The second thesis has two variants: the relativist and the sceptical. The relativist version, PR, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of “interpretations” (namely, conceptions of x), and which is such that no interpretation of C is the best conception of x.”

The sceptical version, PE, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of interpretations (namely, conceptions of x) and which is such that for any interpretation, C’i, of C, there is no warrant for the belief that C’i is the best conception of x.”

The relativist version denies the existence of one best conception of x whereas the sceptical version dismisses the possibility of knowing the best conception of x even if there is one.


Essential contestedness views thus described — i.e., the conjunction of C and PR, and the conjunction of C and PE — have been accused of incoherence and lack of justification.

A version of the first charge points out that if there is no best interpretation or no way of knowing the best interpretation, there is no point in contestation. Brian Barry[4] for example accuses Steven Lukes[5] of arguing that debates about the proper use of power involve irresolvable value conflict and then suggesting the existence of criteria for settling them.

A defence against this charge would be to argue that the impossibility of knowing or non-existence of the best interpretation does not preclude knowledge about better interpretations. There is then a point and the point lies not in determining the best wheat, but in separating the wheat from the chaff.

A more serious charge attacks the distinction between concept and conception, or more precisely the belief in an uncontested “common core”. The question is: is the concept itself essentially contested? To reply no to this question is to admit that both PR and PE do not hold for the concept. In other words, the absolute truth value of the concept exists and can be determined. If this is the case, why is it not the same with the conceptions? To reply yes, on the other hand, would be to deny the very validity of the existence of a concept and this would force theorists to either abandon the idea of an uncontested concept or the idea of essential contestedness itself.

If the first of the replies is correct, it might be argued that the problem is no so serious. However, in the cases of freedom, justice, and rights, there is “no uncontested conceptual core”. Let us use the example of distributive justice.

Consider the following sample concepts of distributive justice.

C1: Whatever distribution of a social advantage arises from a just situation by just means is itself just.

C2: A proper nonarbitrary balance between competing claims for a social advantage is determined.

C3: There is a rendering unto each his/her due share or amount of social advantage.

There are multiple interpretations of “just situation” of historical entitlement theory expressed in C1, or the “proper nonarbitrary balance” of Rawlsian justice expressed in C2, or the “due share” of patterned theory expressed in C3. This then makes C1, C2, and C3 concepts of justice rather than full-blown conceptions. However, there is no agreement on which of the three should be adopted as the concept of distributive justice.

The first stresses procedure over outcome, the second presupposes competing interests as necessary for justice, while the last tries to match benefits and burdens with due consideration to relevant natural properties of individuals. The concept of distributive justice turns out then to be highly theory laden.

The implication is that the assumption of a concept which is common to all conceptions must be dropped if the charges of incoherence are to be adequately addressed. But how can theorists contest without knowing what they are contesting? In other words, if there is no concept of justice, how can theorists argue justice? The short answer is that the lack of a common meaning does not mean the lack of a common referent. In the case of freedom, one could refer to sufficiently many sample instances containing the word “free” and its cognates as constituting a common conception.

This resolution of the second charge of incoherence presupposes that it is sensible to talk about contested conceptions without there being a core concept as such and further that no such conception is the best. These presuppositions however have the effect of dissolving the difference between concepts and conceptions.


So modified, essential contestedness can now be understood as the conjunction of C’ and P’R, and the conjunction of C’ and P’E.

C’:  There is at least one political ideal x, of which there are several conceptions, and these conceptions of x are deployable both aggressively and defensively against rival conceptions of x.

P’R:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and no conception of x is the best conception of x.

P’E:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and there is no warrant for a belief that any of those conceptions of x is the best conception of x.

Justifications of this modified view of essential contestedness come in three distinct flavours:

Q:  The criteria of many political concepts are multiple and evaluative, and stand in no settled relation of priority with one another.

R:  Conceptions of political ideals “arise within,” “operate within,” and “express” particular moral or political theories or “perspectives.”

S:  There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any moral and political perspective, from the standpoint of which we can judge any conception of a political ideal to be the best.

Consider Q. This thesis is visible in Gallie who explicates the essential contestedness of the concept of a champion team at bowling in terms of the “many valued features in the exemplar’s play, which stand in no settled relation of priority”. These “features” would be weighed differently by different appraisers.

To illustrate this thesis using justice, consider two kids A and B who agree to each clean half of person’s windows for ten dollars each. A does a barely satisfactory job in an hour and B does an excellent job in two. A’s family is poor while B’s is wealthy. On a criterion of entitlement by right, each should receive ten dollars each; on a criterion of desert, B should receive more; on a criterion of need, A should receive more.

If Q applies to this situation, given the conflict, any one criteria could override the others. This means that Q is compatible with an intuitionist conception of justice which allows multiple first principles for determining what is just but disallows methods for prioritising those principles, yet asserts the intuitive knowability of what the just thing to do is. The implication is that Q cannot then be compatible with P’R and P’E.


To turn to R, the argument appears to be, according to Lukes, that the rival uses of a concept express differing and incommensurable — in the Kuhnian sense — moral and political perspectives. This leads to their essential contestedness. Conceptions of justice embedded in different concepts of justice and given the incommensurability of the concepts, there can be no best conception of justice. Hence, R supports P’R via a thesis of incommensurability.

This incommensurability may be due to differing meanings of the terms used in the theories. If the referents too are assumed to be different — afterall, sense determines reference — then the theories cannot even be about the same thing. Incommensurability may also be merely because of the absence of any method of showing that the terms mean the same.

However, Lukes cannot use the thesis of incommensurability to consistently to derive P’R from R. If conceptions are embedded in concepts which are incommensurable, rival conceptions cannot have a common core — a necessity for Lukes’ thesis of essential contestedness. Even if the assumption of a common core is dropped, it remains to be seen if incommensurable concepts can be contested concepts. The consensus is that they cannot be.[6] Perhaps, then, sense doesn’t determine reference and incommensurable theories are in fact talking about the same referent. But this assumes that statements of different theories are intertranslatable. Something that the incommensurability thesis denies.

In short, the thesis of incommensurability undermines C’. If incommensurability can be used to derive P’R from R, then idea that the concepts are essentially contested has to be dropped.


What about S? Lukes, quoting FH Bradley, criticises John Rawls for attempting to “theoretical[ly] … isolate what cannot be isolated” when he speculates about the Original Position as an Archimedean point or judging the basic structure of society. The individuals of the Original Position are, for Lukes, “literally inconceivable”.

S, the thesis that rejects the existence of any Archimedean point, seems to lead to P’E through the following line of argument.

i. Conceptions of political ideals are embedded in moral or political theories or perspectives (thesis R).
ii.  Such perspectives always involve commitment to value systems.
iii.  There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any particular value system, from the standpoint of which we can judge any moral or political perspective to be true. Therefore:
iv.  There is no warrant for believing that any conception of an ideal embedded in such a perspective, is the best conception of that ideal.

But the conclusion iv does not follow from i, ii, and iii alone. It requires the following to be true.

v. There is no theory which both provides a warrant for a claim that a conception C is the best conception of x, and fails to constitute an “Archimedean point” for justification of such a claim.

In other words, to say that lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge differing moral perspectives to which people are committed does not warrant the abandonment of the belief in any one perspective as the best conception. For this to hold, it must further be (shown to be) true that any theory that provides warrant for a claim that a conception is the best also constitutes an Archimedean point for justifying that claim.

It will be argued that this critical final requirement is in certain cases not fulfilled. Consider a coherence epistemology that requires a coherence among “background theory, judgments, and conceptions;[7] and in a way that does justice to the endoxa — the beliefs of the many or the wise.” However, it cannot, without losing its coherence, provide for an Archimedean point upon which to “lever” one theory above the rest as the best.

A coherentist may, in claiming a theory as the best conception, only point to (a) a theory grounded in an “ideally rational perspective” or (b) a theory that comes closest to the former. A coherence epistemology can seek to justify claims that a certain conception is the best based on either of the two senses without appealing to the need of an Archimedean point. The principles for justification could be the “degree of coherence achieved, the number and significance of the endoxa considered as initial “data points,” and the degree to which the theoretical apparatus enables the point of the various endoxa considered to be preserved.”

To sum up, there are certain types of theory, like coherence theories for example, which do not constitute Archimedean points for justification and evaluation. This being true, S cannot lead to P’E.

“I conclude that neither Q, R, nor S establish the (modified) essential contestedness views. These three theses are, to my knowledge, the only grounds which have been advocated in defense of the essential contestedness of concepts. Attractive though the essential contestedness hypothesis is as a solution to the problem of intractable dispute in political and moral theory, the hypothesis has not yet been adequately defended.

End Notes

[1]MacCallum, Gerald C. 1967. “Negative and Positive Freedom.” The Philosophical Review 76(3): 312–34.

[2] Gallie, W B. 1955. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56: 167–98.

[3] Ibid., p. 169.

[4] Barry, Brian. 1975. “The Obscurities of Power.” Government and Opposition 10(2): 250–54.

[5] Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974)

[6] “Now it is generally thought that it is a confusion to believe that incommensurable theories are competing theories.”

[7] “(a) relevant judgments acceptable to the “many or the wise” and which at least presumptively reveal something of the nature of the ideal under investigation; (b) rival conceptions of the ideal under investigation; and (c) “background” theories whose purpose is to uncover the needs and interests served by the classification of items in terms of the ideal under investigation and to thereby discover the point of and strengths of the various judgments and conceptions.”