Political progress in context

Dr. Ilaria Cozzaglio

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 07/2018 – 06/2021

The notion of progress is seminal when envisaging the future of our democracies. After all, when we think of what we wish for, and then look at what we actually have, we tend to envisage a way to reach the desired state of affairs. This ultimately means thinking of how we make progress.
The theoretical structure implied in the notion of progress, so far, has been the following: there is a state of affairs, an ideal, and a possible movement (progress) towards the ideal. Accordingly, the ideal is morally characterised as e.g. justice, equality, etc. However, in a political context more and more characterised by disagreement about values, and increasing scepticism about the existence of an objective moral truth, it seems difficult to reach an agreement on which ideal we should aim at. Therefore, either we renounce the idea of progress (Allen, 2016) or we are forced to conceive of it in a non-teleological way. Some proposals in the direction of conceiving of a non-teleological account of progress have been suggested (Forst, 2017). However, scholars suggesting this approach usually resist to conceive of progress as a contextualised notion, being worried that, by doing so, the notion might be emptied of its normative capacity. Although the concern is understandable, there is a shortcoming. Theorists in political realism may object that without a reference to the context, a universally valid notion of progress may be too detached from the vision of the world held by individuals subject to political power. In contrast, to ground a notion of progress on bottom-up standards, namely dependent on the values individuals hold in a specific context, has the advantage of letting people have a say when defining how their society should make progress. This represents a third option, i.e. a teleological notion of progress that includes bottom-up and context-dependent standards rather than universal ones.
To develop this third option, a realist notion of progress will be elaborated. Progress will be defined as a condition in which the political order increasingly reflects individuals’ justified beliefs and standards. While Singer (2011) defined progress as ‘expanding the circle of moral concern’, I will claim that we have political progress when there is an expansion of the circle of political concern, i.e. an expansion of the perspectives that participate, through the public debate, to defining the standards required to the regime.
The notion of progress will present three characteristics. First, it is understood as a political instead of a moral notion, which entails the specification of a new scope of application of the notion.  Political realism claims the autonomy of the political from the moral sphere and prioritises the demand for security and stability over the need for justice (Williams, 2005). Therefore, progress relates to securing more effectively cooperation and compliance (Ypi, 2013). Yet if this is the case, an agreement about which are the aims individuals cooperate for is critical to the notion of progress itself. Those aims are the result of bottom-up standards that individuals elaborate when envisaging which kind of political order they wish to live in.
Second, it will distinguish between a concept and a conception. A concept of progress describes the functioning mechanism of the notion: what progress is and what its content depends on; a conception of progress is a contextualised concept of progress that highlights the specific values individuals agreed on as seminal for their political community.
Third, it will entail the expansion of the circle of political concern, i.e. an expansion of the perspectives that participate to defining the standards required to the regime. Different perspectives, even if ultimately not included in the final standards elaborated by the majority of people living in a given regime, need to be at least listened to in a robust sense, i.e. individuals must have their own belief challenged by different beliefs, and provide the reasons of an eventual refusal to accept them. I will show how this claim can be justified in terms of political realism.
Following from this realist concept of progress, I will examine the related normative constraints. First, individuals’ beliefs need to pass the coherence test, which guarantees that the belief expressed is understandable by others (even if not shared). Second, to check the coherence of their own beliefs, individuals need to have them challenged by different beliefs, that is, they have to participate to the public debate in which different voices have a say. This constraint entails the duty to listen to minorities as part of the public debate space. Third, given that the overall progress partly depends on progress in coherence, there is a duty to check and revise beliefs, to acquire new information, and to promote cultural innovation (borrowing the term from Buchanan&Powell (2016)).


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