2024 Maguire Lecture in Ethics

Thursday, April 4, 2024
6:00PM | McCord Auditorium, Dallas Hall (3rd Floor)

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Dr. David Estlund's lecture will focus on his new book Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy

About Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy

We are told that political philosophy must not be utopian, but what does that rule out? For example, what if justice is not realistic? What would justify us in assuming that it is? One question is what it takes to meet a standard of social justice. It’s a separate question how likely people are to meet that standard. So, if a theory of social justice is offered, and it is objected, “But you and I both know people will never do that,” I believe the right response is (as a starter), “I never said they would.” That is, I argue that moral theories of social justice, political authority, political legitimacy, etc., are not shown to have any defect in virtue of the standards or their preconditions being unlikely ever to be met.

More about the 2024 Maguire Lecture in Ethics

About David Estlund and Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy

Throughout the history of political philosophy and politics, there has been continual debate about the roles of idealism versus realism. For contemporary political philosophy, this debate manifests in notions of ideal theory versus nonideal theory. Nonideal thinkers shift their focus from theorizing about full social justice, asking instead which feasible institutional and political changes would make a society more just. Ideal thinkers, on the other hand, question whether full justice is a standard that any society is likely ever to satisfy. And, if social justice is unrealistic, are attempts to understand it without value or importance, and merely utopian?

Utopophobia argues against thinking that justice must be realistic, or that understanding justice is only valuable if it can be realized. David Estlund does not offer a particular theory of justice, nor does he assert that justice is indeed unrealizable—only that it could be, and this possibility upsets common ways of proceeding in political thought. Estlund engages critically with important strands in traditional and contemporary political philosophy that assume a sound theory of justice has the overriding, defining task of contributing practical guidance toward greater social justice. Along the way, he counters several tempting perspectives, including the view that inquiry in political philosophy could have significant value only as a guide to practical political action, and that understanding true justice would necessarily have practical value, at least as an ideal arrangement to be approximated.

Demonstrating that unrealistic standards of justice can be both sound and valuable to understand, Utopophobia stands as a trenchant defense of ideal theory in political philosophy.

About Dr. David Estlund

David Estlund is the Lombardo Family Professor of Philosophy in the Philosophy Department at Brown University. He previously taught at University of California, Irvine, and has visited at Australian National University, Harvard Law, and Stanford. His research interests center around such issues as democracy, social justice, political authority and justification, and debates about feasibility and ideal theory. He is editor, recently, of The Oxford Handbook in Political Philosophy (2012), and the author of Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, 2008), and Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy (2020). Estlund has recently offered seminars on political authority, structural injustice, protest and dissent, democracy, and (with Charles Larmore) the philosophy of G. A. Cohen, and Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.

SMU Ethics Workshop on Structural Injustice

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Select "Faculty Member" to register for the workshop. 

Friday, April 5 | All day; three 2-hour sessions, w/ breaks for lunch and coffee/snacks

Session 1 – Dr. Lucia Rafanelli, George Washington University
9:30am – 11:30am

11:30am – 1:00pm

Session 2 – Dr. Valerie Soon, University of California San Diego
1:00pm – 3:00pm

3:00 – 3:30pm

Session 3 – Dr. David Estlund, Brown University
3:30pm – 5:30pm

This event is open to faculty members only.