Agents of Change


Agents of Change - Political Philosophy in Practice

Forthcoming from Harvard University Press

The appeal of political philosophy is that it will answer questions about justice for the sake of political action. Contemporary political philosophy struggles to live up to this promise. Since the death of John Rawls, political philosophers have become absorbed in methodological debates, leading to an impasse between two unattractive tendencies: utopians argue that philosophy should focus uncompromisingly on abstract questions of justice, while practicalists argue that we should concern ourselves only with local efforts to ameliorate injustice. In Agents of Change I argue that we can combine utopian justice and the practical response to injustice in a political philosophy that unifies theory and practice in pursuit of change. Political philosophy is not a purely normative theory disconnected from practice. Rather, political philosophy is itself a practice—an exercise of practical reason issuing in action. This begins in ordinary life with the confrontation with injustice. Philosophy draws ideas about justice from this encounter to be pursued through political action. I argue that the task of political philosophy is not complete until it answers the question “What is to be done?” and comes all the way back to agents of change in their struggle against injustice.


"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

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