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Methodological challenges to liberal egalitarianism



While liberal egalitarian theories of justice have been subjected to extensive critique since the publication of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice , in recent years there has been a turn toward methodological objections that contest egalitarians’ fundamental assumptions about how to approach political philosophy. Critics on the left, such as Carole Pateman and Charles Mills, have taken aim at the Rawlsian reliance on ideal theory and hypothetical contracting, which they argue fails to adequately address racial and gender oppression. More recently, right-libertarians have advanced a number of methodological objections to egalitarian and socialist theories of justice.  For example, Christopher Freiman has argued that Rawlsian and left-liberal egalitarians help themselves to various idealizations when defending their own theories while denying their opponents similar philosophical license. Similarly, Jason Brennan has argued that G. A. Cohen’s moral case for socialism is fatally compromised by the fact that it unfairly compares the most objectionable forms of capitalism to only idealized socialist arrangements. Brennan has separately objected to Cohen’s argument for luck egalitarianism, which he argues rests on the undefended assumption that inequality demands justification while equality does not. As he puts it, “We cannot just assume, without argument, that equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified. But without a sound argument for this assumption, Cohen’s strategy of refuting justifications for inequality makes no difference, even if it succeeds. A non-egalitarian can just say, ‘Sure, these arguments for inequality fail, but as far as I’m concerned, they do not need to succeed, because we have no reason to presume equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified’.

The various challenges appear to be methodological in that they target the foundational axioms and starting assumptions of liberal egalitarian theories. This workshop aims to explore various novel objections to—and defenses of—(liberal) egalitarian methodology and argument.We welcome papers on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Ideal vs. non-ideal theory in the context of egalitarian theories of distributive justice;Asymmetries in the justificatory burdens assumed by egalitarian arguments;Evaluative standards for assessing egalitarian vs. inegalitarian theories of distributive justice;What counts a distinctly methodological objection;Rival ways of doing political philosophy (in the context of distributive justice);The use of models and idealizations in the context of distributive justiceThe appropriate starting points for a liberal egalitarian theory of justice

By directing attention to these foundational questions about how to approach political philosophy, we hope to get clearer on what we are doing when we argue about distributive justice and potentially help generate new progress in long-stalled debates in this sub-field. Relatedly, if we are to resolve disagreements about the foundations of liberal egalitarianism, it seems crucial that we first negotiate differences over how such theorizing is to proceed.

Abstracts should be 500-1000 words and should be sent by May 25th, 2019 to Jesse Spafford ( and Chetan Cetty (