Agents of Change


Agents of Change - Political Philosophy in Practice

Harvard University Press 2021

In this book, I explore big picture questions about method and the relationship of theory to practice in political philosophy, intervening in central methodological conversations that have gripped the discipline since the death of Rawls. I defend what I call “the teleological conception” of the theory of justice. On this account, political philosophy begins by reflecting on the engaged exercise of our sense of justice in contestation around salient alleged injustices. Political philosophy raises this engaged practical thought to self-consciousness by articulating principles of justice that underwrite this critique and contestation. Together the principles of justice constitute a unitary end for our political hope and action. Working from this end, political philosophy reasons back to the conditions of action in the situations of injustice that confronts us. When carried to completion, such reasoning comes all the way back to an agent of political change and the question what is to be done. I present a framework for identifying agents of change, focusing on power, motivation, and normative appropriateness. I argue that the practical proposals of nonideal theory stand in a special relationship to the agent so specified, and that the relationship of theory to agents of change is a central and unavoidable topic if we wish to coherently bring theory together with practice.


"Ben Laurence has written an important, elegant book. Agents of Change cogently and rigorously argues for a type of “ideal theory”. Though it supplies a deep, bold, and illuminating criticism as well as a partial defense of Rawls, it is a quite original, freestanding work of political philosophy that will endure and guide our thought about change for a long time."

--Martha C. Nussbaum, The University of Chicago


"Must political philosophy aim at practical political action, or may it also pursue the nature and content of social justice, however unrealistic justice might be? If anyone thinks the voluminous debates about “ideal theory” are played out, or thinks some position has proven itself, Ben Laurence’s elegant and searching book shows otherwise. Laurence reminds us that the questions are profound, not merely scholastic, and shows us in new ways how powerful are some of the arguments on all sides. But most important, Agents of Change develops a new, broadly Aristotelian framework that yields at once an incisive, constructive interpretation of the existing debates—it would be essential reading if only for that—and a refreshingly large step forward."

--David Estlund, Brown University


"This is an outstanding and timely book. It clarifies and critically assesses the most important contributions to the ongoing debate between utopian and pragmatic approaches in political philosophy. Ben Laurence also advances a novel view—the teleological conception—which captures some of the best insights in the existing competing approaches while avoiding many of their pitfalls. His explanation of the practical standpoint adopted by agents of change pursuing social justice is especially illuminating. This lucid book will appeal widely to scholars and students in philosophy, political science, law, and economics."

--Pablo Gilabert, Concordia University


"From Williams's seminal political realist salvo against Rawlsian political liberalism to Estlund's strident defence of ideal theory, the first two decades of this century have seen a stream of novel work on the methodology of political philosophy. Ben Laurence's Agents of Change makes an original and ambitious contribution to these debates by arguing that political philosophy is a form of practical reason concerned primarily with justice as a practical good for society to achieve."

--Saranga Sudarshan, The Philosophical Quarterly 


"Agents of Change is an interesting, insightful, and very helpful book. Rather than aiming for counter-intuitive conclusions, Laurence seeks reconciliation. He concedes as much as he can to his interlocutors, aiming for middle grounds that capture the kernels of truth in competing positions. As a result, Laurence excels at explaining the reasoning and motivation behind even those views he rejects, making the book especially valuable for newcomers; I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to get up to speed."

--Jacob Barrett, Ethics


Selected as a notable book of 2021 by the Seminary Coop Bookstore.