Being Realistic and Demanding the Impossible

9 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2015 Last revised: 31 Jan 2015

Date Written: January 3, 2015


Characterising realism by contrasting it with moralism leaves open several questions to do with realism’s practical import. If political judgment is not to be derived — exclusively or at all — from pre-political moral commitments, what scope is there for genuinely normative political thinking? And even if there is some scope for political normativity, does realism’s reliance on interpretations of political practices condemn it to some form of status quo bias? In this paper I address those questions. My main aim is to assuage some worries about realism’s alleged conservative tendencies. I argue that there is an important sense in which realists can support radical and even unachievable political change — one can be realistic and demand the impossible, as the soixante- huitard slogan goes. To see how that may be the case one needs to characterise realism by contrasting it with both non-ideal theory and utopianism. In a nutshell, realism differs from non- ideal theory because it need not be concerned with feasibility constraints, and it differs from utopianism because it eschews detailed blueprints of the perfect polity.

Keywords: realism and moralism in political theory, method in political theory, ideology

Suggested Citation

Rossi, Enzo, Being Realistic and Demanding the Impossible (January 3, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Enzo Rossi (Contact Author)

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Department of Political Science
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 237
Amsterdam, 1012 DL


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