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  • Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates ed. by Michael Weber, Kevin Vallier
  • Mark Stephen Jendrysik
Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier, eds. Political Utopias: Contemporary Debates.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 260 pp. Paper, $39.95; cloth, $105.00, isbn 978-0-19-028060-4

The question of the true nature of justice, whether as a conventional product of human action and human limitations or as a universal ideal, is one that has inspired philosophical debate since Plato. In this volume a number of scholars wrestle with this question. They ask whether justice should be utopian, focused solely on the ideal, or whether just must be realist (or realistic), taking into account the constraints of contemporary human existence. As [End Page 429] the editors note in their introduction, it should come as no great shock that the answer cannot rest comfortably and completely in either of these binary choices. But as in all great debates in philosophy, reaching a final answer to the question becomes much less important than the argument itself.

The works in this anthology could be described as less about theories of justice and more concerned with theories about theories of justice. But this doesn’t mean that the contributors do not provide insight into how ideal or nonideal theories of justice could be employed to critique and challenge the real problems facing us today.

To get full value from this text the reader will need to be familiar with recent debates in political philosophy about the nature of justice and how best to theorize about justice. One should also be familiar with John Rawls’s famous theory of justice and various critiques of that theory. The reader should also be aware of Rawls’s theory of a well-ordered society as a “realistic utopia” discussed in his late work The Law of Peoples (1999) and with his overall philosophical project laid out in A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993; rev. ed. 2005).

In the opening essay of the volume, building off work by David Estlund, Laura Valentini posits a distinction between “Utopophobia” and “Factophobia.” She sees a conflict between those philosophers (Utopophobes, realists, nonidealists) who fear becoming trapped by dangerously idealistic visions and who “problematically compromise normative principles in order to accommodate empirical realities” and those (Factophobes, ideal theorists) who “elaborate normative principles under deeply counterfactual assumptions” (10). This conflict has made debates about justice messy because each of the two positions sees the other as fundamentally misguided and liable to lead to dangerous outcomes if applied. Ideal theorists, in their hostility to the existing imperfect world, would force reality to meet their theories, come what may. In contrast, realists give themselves no position from which to challenge existing injustices and simply ratify the status quo (15–16).

Valentini also provides an excellent overview of the requirements of a theory of justice. She provides the reader with a clear delineation of the difference between normative and evaluative theories. Finally, and I believe most usefully for utopian scholarship, she discusses the important question of “Ought implies can” (23ff.). She notes that how one interprets this statement is linked to the fundamental question of human nature. In the utopian sense this idea suggests that things ought to be done because they are right and good and they can be done given sufficient [End Page 430] desire or will within a community. Valentini supports this view, saying, “We should take human nature as definitive of the limits of possibility and adopt an optimistic stance of what those limits are. In other words, the burden of proof of showing that something morally desirable is in fact impossible falls on the skeptic. . . . [W]e should not be afraid of theorizing under assumptions that appear highly unlikely” (31).

In his chapter, David Estlund considers the role of justice in a community without moral faults. Estlund calls this “prime justice.” I found this chapter to be one of the more interesting in this book for utopians, since utopias seem to start at this situation. The concessions utopian theorists are willing to make to moral failings, if any, are critical to utopia design. Estlund wants to start speculation about justice from this...


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