Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World

| September 2019
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Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World, Michael Goodhart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 298 pp., $99 cloth, $29.95 paper, $19.99 eBook.

For roughly four decades, a paradigm rooted in analytical philosophy has dominated global justice theory. In Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World, Michael Goodhart claims that this dominant paradigm’s quest for “spotless” justice blinds scholars to the lived injustices of marginalized peoples, and he outlines a broad critique of numerous thinkers and schools, from John Rawls to contemporary cosmopolitans, republicans, and democratic theorists, among others, who fall into this trap. As a remedy, he argues for a paradigm shift toward the politics of injustices across the world. That is, he encourages readers to disengage from the abstract philosophizing of pristine moral “oughts” and instead engage in political analysis that incorporates the insights of activists challenging existing power arrangements.

The book starts with Goodhart confessing his personal and academic disillusionment with the dominant paradigm’s main feature—the tendency toward what he calls ideal moral theory (IMT). His worry that philosophical theorizing makes little actual impact on the world sustains an engaging argument. Consistent with the argument, the prose is lively, provocative, and informal. The author outlines a set of clear problems, proposes a new paradigm and methodology, and considers the implications of the radical political stances that he adopts. The book is challenging, lucid, and mostly convincing. At times, however, the argument lacks nuance, is insufficiently reflective on the author’s assumptions, and overlooks certain real-world injustices, such as genocide and war crimes. Of course, no book is perfect, and with Injustice the imperfections are mostly a consequence of the author veering from the provocative to the polemical.

As noted, Goodhart identifies a problem of excessive idealism and abstraction that exists in much of the theorizing about global justice. Here he builds on Judith Shklar’s writings to argue that the problem is not a lack of progress in achieving spotless justice but rather a flawed assumption that justice is simply the absence or opposite of injustice, which leads to a subsequent neglect of injustices. Goodhart also claims that the concept of justice is not a neutral avatar of morality that allows a clear path to the elimination of injustices. Instead, justice is a political and ideological claim, and existing global justice theorists are too utopian and naïve to reflect on their own complicity with injustices. These theorists, he writes, accept a neoliberal ideology that naturalizes the current global economic and political order.

Here Goodhart’s analysis is problematic. Although he concedes to constructing a “composite sketch” that “emphasizes common features rather than an accurate portrait of any particular thinker or theory” (p. 24), he then lumps together a number of actual—and very different—scholars into a single uncharitable, if not untenable, point of view. He argues that scholars using IMT are unable to see the world’s real injustices for what they are, much less appreciate the causes of these injustices, because of “epistemological limitations,” “biases,” and, in some cases, outright “collusion” with the causes of the injustices themselves (p. 44).

But many of the theorists he names are very critical of neoliberalism, concerned about making their theories more applicable to the real world, and well aware of the epistemic challenges of dealing with a complex reality. Although there is much nuance in existing global justice theory, many working in this field would not recognize themselves or their work in Goodhart’s critique. Beyond this, these are puzzling accusations because Goodhart also states that he does not disagree with the conclusions of IMT approaches to global justice (for example, that we have moral obligations to eliminate the injustices of global poverty and inequality) but only with how the scholars arrive at such findings.

In any case, Goodhart proposes an alternative “bifocal approach” to global injustices. With this approach, one can simultaneously see two different facets of global injustices. First, there is an analytical lens revealing how power and ideological justifications are used to create and perpetuate injustices. Second, a partisan lens reveals a hypothetical (rather than categorical) conception of one’s political responsibility to oppose injustices, and to persuade others to join the struggle. Goodhart believes that IMT’s philosophical mode of analysis is insufficient to properly understand political reality, and that its theorists deny (and cannot even see) that their moral claims contain partisan and ideological contents. At first, Goodhart’s bifocal approach seems no less abstract in conception than the IMT composite sketch he critiques. But then he shows how his approach resonates with the epistemological and normative commitments of feminist political theory and social science, revealing it as a much more empathetic, concrete, and situated perspective. Goodhart also draws on contemporary examples of economic and racial justice campaigns in the United States and elsewhere to flesh out the benefits of his bifocal approach. It is indeed difficult to grasp how injustices are directly experienced, and how people on the ground organize to counter their effects, through purified philosophical constructs.

Although there are benefits to the first two lenses, and limitations to a philosophical lens alone, Goodhart does not consider the option of a “trifocal approach”—the power of combining analytical, partisan, and philosophical perspectives. His concerns noted above about bias, distortion, and unwitting collusion in IMT seem to preclude him from entertaining a positive role for philosophical analyses of global injustices. Arguably, philosophy can inform a radical, transformative discourse, particularly when it changes our assumptions and inspires agents to challenge orthodoxies. Goodhart seems to view the recalcitrance of today’s global injustices as a strong confirmation of his supposition that philosophical analysis is both conservative and inconsequential. Many readers will question this supposition.

A final critique worth noting is that it would have been interesting to see whether and how the author’s bifocal approach could illuminate the moral questions posed by other real-world problems such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. The author does not explain the absence of these subjects in the book, and the reader is left to conclude they are less important than, or a consequence of, the deeper power structures that cause the marginalization that Goodhart analyzes throughout. Moreover, the book fails to examine the role of states and international institutions in potentially ameliorating or combatting injustices. For Goodhart, the main agents of justice are people outside of the corridors of formal decision-making. Perhaps this is in keeping with his sympathies toward the marginalized and excluded constituencies of global politics, and with a deep suspicion that neoliberalism has entrenched roots within institutionalized political arenas.

Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World covers much ground and contributes to our understanding of numerous issues in global justice debates. And no book can cover every form of injustice in global politics. Ultimately, the book is well worth reading, debating, and criticizing precisely because it illuminates and advances our overall understanding of ethics and global politics. As Goodhart rightly notes, we should acknowledge and embrace, rather than deny, “the essentially contested nature of justice and the pluralism it engenders” (p. 115).

 


—Antonio Franceschet

Antonio Franceschet is professor of political science at the University of Calgary. His research and publications focus on international political theory, ethics, and law.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 33.3

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