The Practice-Dependence Red Herring and Better Reasons for Restricting the Scope of Justice

Raisons Politiques, Forthcoming

27 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2012 Last revised: 10 Jun 2013

See all articles by Saladin Meckled-Garcia

Saladin Meckled-Garcia

University College London - School of Public Policy/Department Political Science

Date Written: February 25, 2013


A number of views about the scope of justice in this debate have come to be grouped together under the heading of 'practice-dependence' in the literature. This is because they have something special to say about the relationship of moral principles to a practice. There are three questions that I wish to consider here. The first (sections 3 and 4) is whether there is a distinctive approach, different from standard moral reasoning that can be described as 'practice-dependence.' I shall argue that there is, both in human rights theory and in justice theory. The second (section 5) is whether that view is plausible in the light of an important moral test. That is a test for justifiability of a methodological premise when using such a premise in an account of justice will have a significant substantive upshot (an upshot affecting the entitlements and obligations people can be said to have). I argue that the practice-dependence view fails this test quite dramatically. In fact the approach has very little going for it in terms of rational motivation. Thirdly (section 6), I will consider whether the practice-dependence approach has been rightly attributed, by endorsers and critics of the approach alike, to moral theorists who put forward principles of justice that have social, or institutional, triggering conditions. These include Dworkin and Rawls. In answer to this I show that a number of theorists that have been identified as having practice-dependent approaches, both by endorsers and by critics of the approach, do not share in the distinctive premises of the approach. They in fact hold views incompatible with those, practice-dependence premises. In the concluding section (section 7), I argue that not only is the practice-dependence approach lacking in rational motivation and wrongly attributed to a particular group of theorists, it also distracts attention away from what is at stake in the scope-of-justice debate. By focusing on apparently methodological premises, the account overlooks the value-based reasons a theory might have for restricting the scope of principles of justice. Plausible value-based approaches exist, yet these have been mistakenly described as practice-dependence views in the literature, which has generated confusion as to their methodological commitments. Once properly understood, I argue, these views have the merit of at least addressing the justifiability test, which practice-dependence views do not. For those reasons, I conclude that practice-dependence is a red herring, raising more questions than it answers, for the global justice debate.

Keywords: moral methodology, global justice, scope-of-justice, practice-dependence, international justice, interpretitivism, practices, scope of justice, justice, cosmopolitanism

Suggested Citation

Meckled-Garcia, Saladin, The Practice-Dependence Red Herring and Better Reasons for Restricting the Scope of Justice (February 25, 2013). Raisons Politiques, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Saladin Meckled-Garcia (Contact Author)

University College London - School of Public Policy/Department Political Science ( email )

United States


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