Constructive Interpretation and the Status Quo: The Case against Practice-Dependence
The notion of practice-dependent theorizing has played a central role in what may be described as the “methodological turn” that the global justice debate has undergone in recent years. While there are some differences in the ways in which the concept of practice-dependence has come to be understood by different authors, one of the central defining characteristics of the position defended by the original proponents of practice-dependence is a methodological commitment to the Dworkinian model of constructive interpretation. The purpose of this paper is to provide a critique of this commitment. More specifically, my aim is to show that the systematic role that the model of constructive interpretation assigns to the features of existing practice has significant substantive implications that, upon reflection, turn out to lack the required justification. As a consequence, the methodological approach defended by the proponents of practice-dependence entails an undue bias in favor of the status quo. The structure of the paper is as follows. First, I am going to provide a summary of the core features of the model of constructive interpretation. Second, I am going to show that the model of constructive interpretation entails what I will refer to as the presumption in favor of interpretation, in virtue of which the features of existing practice act as a systematic and strict constraint on our reasoning about moral principles. In light of the substantive implications of this constraint, the presumption in favor of interpretation is in need of justification, lest the model of constructive interpretation be vulnerable to the charge of being unduly biased in favor of the status quo. Third, I am going to consider two possible bases for a justification of the presumption in favor of interpretation, namely a concern for political stability and a concern for equal respect, and show that neither concern succeeds in providing the required justification. Lastly, I am going to discuss two possible ways in which proponents of practice-dependence may react to the lack of an ultimate justification for the presumption in favor of interpretation. I conclude that a defense against the charge of being unduly biased in favor of the status quo comes at the expense of either depriving the approach of its methodological distinctiveness or restricting its normative aspiration to an exercise in non-ideal theory.