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Professor Lea Ypi
London School of Economics and Political Science
Philip Leverhulme Prize

What is political progress?

Progress is both a necessary and a dangerous idea. It is necessary if one tries to improve the way things are, and it is dangerous because the pursuit of progress has often given rise to experiences of paternalism, colonial domination and narratives of civilisational superiority. In my research I try to defend a critical account of progress by distinguishing between moral and political progress, and by exploring the relation between political progress and justice. I believe that we make progress not when we approximate an ideal of justice that is always known to us, but when the political institutions we construct reflect what we learn from the trials and failures of the past. To outline how such learning processes take place, I explore the idea that the basic function of justice is to regulate the coercive use of power. It is also crucial to explain how we should understand progress in the norms of justice as the result of cumulative processes of evolution of different views of how power ought to be exercised. We need not think of this process as one that is driven only by the rational endorsement of principled alternatives: the interests of particular social groups play a crucial role. Nor do we have to think of it as a linear process that occurs without lapses to regressive forms of political rule even when more progressive ones are epistemically accessible. 

In any particular context of the justification of political norms, we can identify the principles that articulate the function of justice by reflecting on the structure of social roles vis-à-vis the system of rules that governs a society and the economic structure that enables its development. The historical analysis of different types of regimes can be seen as a way of addressing the problem of the justification of power. The challenge is to identify how existing political regimes relate to existing socio-economic structures and how they connect justice to the exercise of power. The genealogy of distinct forms of political rule is varied. But the point of reflecting on political progress as a process of refinement of justice-based norms is that we can rely on it to reflect critically on existing forms of rule therefore continuing to develop the process of learning from the trials, failures, and successes of the past. This account does not rest on acritical teleological premises or an apologetic analysis that implicitly assumes that history is written by its winners.

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