Being Realistic without Realism. Feasibility and Efficacy in Normative Political Theories

WP-LPF 3/12

Centro Einaudi
Articolo completo/Full text


When we think that some normative political principles should be action-guiding, we assume that such principles should be in some way realizable in social reality. Political philosophers usually address this problem by requiring that what is prescribed by normative theories should be in some sense feasible. In this paper I claim that although the feasibility requirement accounts for some important dimensions concerning the general issue of realizability, in particular those revolving around the constraints posed by the world on the implementation of a normative theory, it does not cover all the issues at stake, in particular those concerning how such constraints may be overcome and how a normative theory can be put into practice. In this paper I shall propose to address this problem by appealing to the notion of efficacy. In ordinary language efficacy means the capacity to obtain the desired result. But given the impossibility of providing ex ante criteria to account for the practical success of the implementation of normative theories, I shall propose a minimal notion of efficacy, one based on the idea that the prevention of possible failures is a preliminary step and an indirect way to achieve practical success. I shall propose three criteria drawn from practical rationality to assess the plausibility of failure prevention strategies:
1. likelihood of the preconditions,
2. efficiency of the actions implementing the theory,
3. reliability of the normative plan.
On the basis of these criteria an implementation plan is efficacious if it is parsimonious in assuming favourable preconditions (1), efficient in using resources (2), and capable of preventing possible unintended consequences (3). Finally, I show the theoretical and general interest of the idea of efficacy.