The Left Critique of Normativity: A Comment

“In today’s legal academy, the critique of normativity is associated with the left.” The preceding sentence, which I have constructed to summarize the starting point of this essay, is both largely true and arguably incoherent. The incoherence occurs because describing a position as “the left” connotes values like egalitarianism, which are obviously normative. This essay examines the ways in which some writers associated with the left in the legal academy have tried to resolve the incoherence. The first Part shows that these writers can be identified with the left even in their critiques of normativity and also shows that they are reluctant to offer in their writings anything more than statements of their commitments to “the left,” which in turn has for them a rather thin content. Although the writers offer a variety of policy prescriptions of a generally egalitarian sort, they are reluctant to say why moving in the direction of equality rather than maintaining the status quo or increasing inequality (perhaps to increase the amount of material goods available even to the worst off) is a good thing. The second Part offers several sociological explanations for the thinness of their leftist commitment. The following Part discusses some alternatives to the thinness of that commitment, such as social democracy, pragmatism, and Roberto Unger’s theory of destabilization rights. The conclusion suggests that the best course for critics of normativity may lie in forgoing any attempt to support their leftist inclinations through rational arguments of the sort to which they are, by training, unfortunately committed as well.