Justice, Feasibility, and Social Science as it is

  • Emily McTernanEmail author


Political philosophy offers a range of utopian proposals, from open borders to global egalitarianism. Some object that these proposals ought to be constrained by what is feasible, while others insist that what justice demands does not depend on what we can bring about. Currently, this debate is mired in disputes over the fundamental nature of justice and the ultimate purpose of political philosophy. I take a different approach, proposing that we should consider which facts could fill out a feasibility requirement. This search for the facts requires requires looking to the social sciences, but I argue that it turns out that the social sciences will not provide us with findings that rule out, nor even count against, the kinds of proposals that political philosophers actually make, whether ideal or non-ideal. At the least, to deny this requires adopting deeply controversial commitments within the philosophy of social science. Thus, I conclude that a feasibility requirement has little practical use for political philosophers. Disputes over that requirement ought to be replaced by other, more fruitful ways for political philosophers to address both the findings of social science and the debates over non-ideal theory or political realism.


Justice Feasibility Social science Fact-sensitivity Methodology in political philosophy 



Research for this article was was completed under the ARC project DP120101507 on Political Normativity and the Feasibility Requirement. With thanks to Nicholas Southwood, Saladin Meckled-Garcia, Christopher Nathan, Albert Weale, Jeff Howard, and two anonymous referees for this journal for their written comments, and to audiences at the PPE seminar, Institute of Philosophy; Senior seminar, Philosophy Department, University of Glasgow; 10th Legal and Political Theory conference, Manchester; the Open University Philosophy day; and the Cherry Pickers workshop at UCL, for all their useful questions.


  1. Carens JH (1981) Equality, moral incentives, and the market: an essay in utopian politico-economic theory. University of Chicago PressGoogle Scholar
  2. Cartwright N (1999) The dappled world: a study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  3. Cartwright N, Hardie J (2012) Evidence-based policy: a practical guide to doing it better. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  4. Cartwright N, Montuschi E (2014) Philosophy of social science. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  5. Cohen GA (2003) Facts and principles. Philos Public Aff 31(3):211–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cohen GA (2008) Rescuing justice and equality. Harvard University PressGoogle Scholar
  7. Connelly K, Heesacker M (2012) Why is benevolent sexism appealing? Associations with system justification and life satisfaction. Psychol Women Q 36(4):432–443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Elster J (1998) A plea for mechanisms. In: Hedström P, Swedberg R (eds) Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  9. Elster J (2007) Explaining social behaviour: more nuts and bolts for the social sciences. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  10. Estlund D (2011) Human nature and the limits (if any) of political philosophy. Philos Public Aff 39(3):207–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Estlund D (2014) Utopophobia. Philos Public Aff 42(2):113–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gheaus A (2013) The feasibility constraint on the concept of justice. Philos Q 63(2520):445–464CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gilabert P (2017) Justice and feasibility: A dynamic approach. In: Weber M, Vallier K (eds) Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  14. Gilabert P, Lawford-Smith H (2012) Political feasibility: a conceptual exploration. Political Studies 60(4):809–825CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gorton, WA (n.d.) The philosophy of social science. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Available at
  16. Hamlin A (2017) Feasibility four ways. Soc Philos Policy 34(1):209–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hausman DM (ed) (1994) The philosophy of economics: an anthology. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  18. Keizer K, Lindenberg S, Steg L (2008) The spreading of disorder. Science 322(5908):1681–1685CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kitcher P (2003) Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  20. Lawford-Smith H (2013) Understanding political feasibility. J Polit Philos 21(3):243–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lawson T (1997) Economics and reality. Routledge, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Machlup F (1961) Are the social sciences really inferior? South Econ J 27(3):173–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Martin M, McIntyre LC (1994) Readings in the philosophy of social science. MIT PressGoogle Scholar
  24. Miller D (2013) Justice for earthlings: essays in political philosophy. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Neill, J. & O’Neill, M. (2012). Social justice and the future of flood insurance. Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. Available at
  26. Okin SM (1989) Justice, gender and the family. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  27. Open Science Collaboration (2015) Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science 349(6251):aac4716CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rawls JR (2001) Justice as fairness: a restatement. Harvard University PressGoogle Scholar
  29. Reiss J (2007) Do we need mechanisms in the social sciences? Philos Soc Sci 37(2):163–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rosenberg A (2015) Philosophy of social science. Westview PressGoogle Scholar
  31. Rossi E, Sleat M (2014) Realism in normative political theory. Philos Compass 9(10):689–701CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sober E (1991) Models of cultural evolution. In: Griffiths P (ed) Trees of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology. Kluwer, pp 477–492Google Scholar
  33. Southwood N (2015) The relevance of human nature. J Ethics Soc Philos 9:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Southwood N (2016) Does “ought” imply “feasible”? Philos Public Aff 44(1):7–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Southwood, N., & Wiens, D. (2016). “Actual” does not imply “feasible”. Philos Stud, 173(11): 3037-3060Google Scholar
  36. Tilly C (2001) Mechanisms in political processes. Annu Rev Polit Sci 4(1):21–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Valentini L (2012) Ideal vs. non-ideal theory: a conceptual map. Philos Compass 7:654–664CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wiens D (2014) Going evaluative to save justice from feasibility—a pyrrhic victory. Philos Q 64(255):301–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wiens D (2015) Political ideals and the feasibility frontier. Econ Philos 31(03):447–477CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science, UCLLondonUK

Personalised recommendations