Every social and political theory is entangled with ethics. The great political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed that the person who would separate politics from ethics will fail to understand both. Despite the efforts of practitioners of "value-free social science," the concepts and categories with which political theorists work—order, freedom, authority, legitimacy, justice—are part and parcel of competing ethical frameworks. It is very difficult to talk about justice without talking about fairness. What is fair is an ethical question that cannot be adjudicated without some reference to what is good for human beings or what kind of good human beings may strive to attain. Terms that circulate within ordinary discourse, such as "fairness" and "freedom," are also central themes within social and political thinking. The implication for bioethics is straightforward. No matter how strenuously the bioethicist may hope to isolate his or her perspective from metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, and civic imperatives, social and political theory frames and penetrates all bioethical considerations.
The human sciences cannot be value-free. In Charles Taylor's words, "they are moral sciences in a more radical sense than the eighteenth century understood" (p. 51).
There are, according to Taylor, inescapable epistemological arguments for what might be called an interpretive approach to the human sciences, for human beings are self-defining animals. These self-definitions, in turn, take place within a context that shapes our understanding of self and other as well as our appreciation of human possibilities and the need for constraint. We are caught in conceptual webs. It is the task of social and political theory to make more explicit the nature of the frameworks within which we think and act, and hence, the context within which bioethical imperatives make themselves felt, whether as advances in human freedom, triumphs of human control, or dangerous new forms of oppression. Based on an interpretive approach to political theory, this entry will demonstrate why political theory must be normative and will go on to rehearse contemporary debates in social and political theory using the public/private distinction and the women's movement as illustrative examples.
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