PPE Speaker Series: “Making Fair Comparisons in Political Theory” with David Wiens
March 20, 2024 @ 6:30 pm - 7:45 pm
Political theorists frequently compare hypothetical scenarios for the purpose of identifying reasons to prefer one kind of institution to alternatives. We develop some best practices for these types of comparisons. To start, we examine three types of “unfair” comparisons and the reasoning errors associated with each. A theorist makes an obscure comparison when one (or more) of the alternatives under consideration is underspecified; a theorist makes a mismatched comparison when they fail to hold fixed the relevant contextual factors while comparing alternatives; and a theorist makes an irrelevant comparison when they compare alternatives assuming contextual factors that differ in important respects from those they “should” assume given their theoretical aims. We then use the example of game theory to introduce the idea of a modeling mindset and show how this mindset can help theorists detect and avoid the three types of error. We conclude with a reconstruction of G.A. Cohen’s (2009) famous camping trip thought experiment to illustrate the modeling mindset in action.
David Wiens is currently a professor of political science at UC San Diego. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and political economy. Most of his current research explicates the ways in which political philosophy and political science are deeply integrated modes of inquiry. Wiens is particularly interested in the role of (formal and informal) models in philosophical and scientific inquiry, and in sorting out what we can learn about the nature and value of justice from models of collective choice, social bargaining, and institutional development.