Some Realism about Political and Legal Philosophy

18 Pages Posted:

Date Written: June 15, 2022


There have been two main traditions of theorizing about society, politics, and law in Western thought, but they do not divide up along familiar lines of modern or ancient, Enlightenment or pre-Enlightenment, analytic or Continental, historical or systematic. On one side, we find, for example, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and--to mention more recent thinkers who are mostly on the realist side of the divide—H.L.A. Hart and Michel Foucault. On the other side, we find Plato, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Hegel and—once again, to mention more recent theorists—John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas and Ronald Dworkin. I treat the former as representing “realism” in political and legal thought, the latter “moralism,” terms whose meaning I explore.

“Realists,” in my non-metaphysical sense, are committed to some or all of the following ideas: (1) human beings, throughout history and across cultures, are motivated primarily by their passions and interests (not by “reason”) (“Humeanism” about motivation); (2) many human passions and interests are anti-social or “immoral” (people are, for example, frequently selfish, cruel, self-aggrandizing, avaricious, self-deceived, envious, etc.) (“Nietzscheanism” about motivation); (3) given what human being are like (either by nature or under existing conditions), theories devoted to articulating and discursively justifying people’s (perhaps rational?) moral obligations and duties, are irrelevant to changing people’s behavior—arguments do not change passions and interests; (4) indeed, there are no objective moral obligations or duties or other moral requirements, so arguing about them is a scholastic exercise; (5) people’s beliefs about their actions and motivations are mostly self-serving and post-hoc, designed to obscure or rationalize what they are really doing and what their real motivations are (philosophers are significant contributors to this obfuscation); (6) theories of society, politics, and law should try to explain what is really going on (e.g., the actual patterns of human behavior, both individual and social); (7) “ordinary opinion,” “common sense” and “folk intuitions” are data to be explained, not resources for genuine explanation; (8) theories of society, politics, and law should never assume that their subject-matter is morally defensible.

Moralists, by contrast, concern themselves, first and foremost, with discursive theories about how individuals and institutions morally ought to act. Moralists do not necessarily sit in judgment, wagging their finger at leaders and citizens who fail to live up to the moralist’s arguments about their obligations: sometimes, as with Hegel (or, in a different tradition, Confucius), they sometimes engage in elaborate rationalizations of the existing state of affairs (or, more precisely, the interests of the dominant class in the existing state of affairs). Often, they simply "press into formulas" (as Nietzsche says) prevailing moral opinions.

I develop both “realism” and “moralism” as ideal types and argue against moralism on both epistemic and practical grounds.

Keywords: realism, moralism, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx, Rawls, Dworkin, Hart, legal realism, political realism

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, Some Realism about Political and Legal Philosophy (June 15, 2022). Available at SSRN:

Brian Leiter (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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