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Methods in Political Theory and Normative Analysis

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5 – Friday 9 August

09:00–10:30 and 11:00–12:30


Andres Moles

Central European University

Political theory is a peculiar sub-discipline which lies between political science and philosophy. This course will discuss some methodological issues on normative political theory. It will not deal with the specific methodological issues of history of political thought.

One of these peculiarities is that there is little consensus about whether even asking about methods in political theory makes sense. When facing this question, many theorists respond that political theory is done by reading a lot, thinking hard and emulating good theorists. Nothing else besides imagination, creativity and general rules of logics. One reason for this might be that methodological questions are not neutral to (or isolated from) substantive questions.

Despite this common reply, there has been a renewed interest in methodological considerations in political theory. There are, at least, three reasons for that: first, it has been noticed that the intractability of some debates is due to different methodological approaches. Clarifying the loci of disagreement has helped advance normative questions to an important degree. Second, political theorists have also tried to better clarify the type of questions they ask, and make explicit the assumptions that play a role in the arguments they develop. Third, there is a practical need to be self-conscious about methodological questions raising from granting agencies that demand that methodological issues are explicitly addressed.

ECTS Credits for this course, and below, the tasks for additional credits

1–2 credits As above, plus a 30-minute presentation to be decided on the first day (if there are more students than slots, we’ll find a suitable arrangement)

3–4 credits As above, plus a 4,000-word paper.

Instructor Bio

Andres Moles is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Philosophy and Political Science at CEU.

His interests are in liberal political theory and distributive justice, with an emphasis on how findings in behavioural sciences affects normative moral principles.

Andres' work has appeared in Res Publica, Social Theory and Practice and Political Studies among others.


This course aims to explore different methodological questions and approaches prevalent in contemporary normative political theory. It will not cover the methodological approaches specific to the history of ideas, including the history of political thought.

Methodological awareness is common in the social sciences and history, but much less so in political theory. In fact, very few articles or books in political theory mention explicitly the methodological commitments their authors use, let alone include a section on methods. This is regrettable for at least two reasons. First, it is possible that being clearer about the methodological assumptions authors make might help to resolve many disagreements. Second, as a consequence, more clarity can help us locate where the normative, substantive disagreements are. This lack of methodological clarity is because methodological issues in normative political theory are partly substantive. That is, choosing a methodological approach is not disconnected to the substantive claims political theorists aim to make. Ronald Dworkin defends an extreme version of this claim. He holds that all methodological issues (including meta-ethics) are fully substantive.

Day 1

We begin by revising the type of questions that political theorists usually get involved with, and the structure of normative political theory. It is only natural to think that before we can make methodological decisions, we need to know the subject matter of political theory. It is possible to distinguish between three different types of questions. First, we might want to ask about the value of certain state of affairs. We can evaluate the world (or possible worlds) according to how valuable they are: how much goodness or badness exists. These are axiological questions. Second, we might want to ask about when people are blameworthy or praiseworthy for their actions (or omissions). These are attributive questions. Third, we might want to ask how we should act: what we owe to others (or to ourselves). This narrow set of questions is normative in the sense that they give us reasons for action. We might also want to ask whether normative principles are person affecting or not. Clarifying the structure of political theory in this way might shed light into some of the methodological commitments that can guide us when we address substantive questions.

A popular strategy in political theory involves analysing political concepts. The hope is that clarifying the nature of central concepts to political theory will resolve the normative issues we face. For instance, a theory of political freedom might be developed and defended by analysing the concept of freedom and its relation to other political concepts such as equality, authority, power, etc. Although this approach has been subject to significant criticism, it is still widely used not only in political theory but in political science as well.

Day 2

We turn to ‘reflective equilibrium’, a methodological approach that has been extremely influential in the last 45 years. Reflective equilibrium involves seeking coherence between our considered (moral or political) judgements about specific cases and general principles that govern them. Ideally, our judgments would be coherent not only among themselves, but also with the principles that justify and explain them. When conflicts emerge we might need to adjust either by reducing the credence of the particular case or by revising the principle. Reflective equilibrium works back and forth until we secure (full or sufficient) coherence. This approach has been criticised because it relies too much on intuition. Some people might be willing to stick to some of their particular judgments no matter how rational a principle that doesn’t support the judgment seems. Moreover, it might be possible that the plausibility of certain judgments depends on arbitrary facts such as our evolutionary history.

Day 3

We touch on a related methodological issue: should facts play any role in political theory, and if so, how much weight should we give them?

G.A. Cohen argues that fundamental principles are fact insensitive. This means that principles that can be rejected by appealing to facts rely on other, more fundamental, principles that do not depend on facts. On the other hand, others think that fundamental principles depend on facts. For instance, if life on Earth was very different than it is, perhaps other principles would be more plausible. In this session, besides trying to understand fact sensitivity we will try to see how it is related to both reflective equilibrium and the nature of concepts.

Day 4

We address issues of idealisation. A dominant trend in contemporary political theory starts by developing ideal theories. In this class we will focus on three questions. First, what makes ideal theory ideal; what kind of circumstances, attitudes and behaviours should we idealise? Second, what is the point of ideal theory? Some authors suggest that ideal theory is unnecessary or harmful to provide guidance in the non-ideal world we inhabit. Third, what is the relation between ideal and non-ideal theories? Do the latter depend on the former? If so, what type of dependence there is between them?

Day 5

We discuss whether political theory should abandon its moral core. So far, political theory has been presented as a branch of moral theory in the sense of being highly dependent on it. Political realists pledge to construct a theory of politics that is not tightly connected to morality and yet is still normative. Whether they succeed is the topic of this day.

This is an introductory course to methods in contemporary political theory. Although no prerequisite knowledge is required, some familiarity with contemporary analytical philosophy would be an advantage.

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least two hours. The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Please check your course format before registering.

Online courses

Live classes will be held daily for two hours on a video meeting platform, allowing you to interact with both the instructor and other participants in real-time. To avoid online fatigue, the course employs a pedagogy that includes small-group work, short and focused tasks, as well as troubleshooting exercises that utilise a variety of online applications to facilitate collaboration and engagement with the course content.

In-person courses

In-person courses will consist of daily three-hour classroom sessions, featuring a range of interactive in-class activities including short lectures, peer feedback, group exercises, and presentations.


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc.). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.

Day Topic Details
1 Introduction: Methods in political theory? Concepts/Conceptual analysis

45 mins lecture. 45 mins seminar, 90 mins seminar (optional 45-minute student presentation)

2 Reflective Equilibrium

45 mins lecture. 45 mins seminar, 90 mins seminar (optional 45-minute student presentation)

3 What is the relationship between facts and principles?

45 mins lecture. 45 mins seminar, 90 mins seminar (optional 45-minute student presentation)

4 Ideal and non-ideal theory

45 mins lecture. 45 mins seminar, 90 mins seminar (optional 45-minute student presentation)

5 Political realism and political moralism

45 mins lecture. 45 mins seminar, 90 mins seminar (optional 45-minute student presentation)

Day Readings

Cohen, G.A. ‘How to do Political Philosophy?’ in his On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. M. Otsuka, (Princeton, Princeton University Press 2011); Rawls TJ sec. 1, 9. Chalmers, D. 'Verbal disputes', Philosophical Review 120, 2011. Dworkin, R. Justice from Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, Chapter on conceptual interpretation


Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice (Revised edition) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), section 9; McMahan, J., 2000, ‘Moral Intuition’, in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, H. LaFollette (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, chap. 5; Scanlon, T. 'Rawls on Justification' in S. Freeman The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 2003).


Cohen, G.A. Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008) chapters 6-7; Rawls TJ, sec. 1-2, Rawls JFR part 1.


Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice (Revised edition) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), sections 2, 53; Sen, A. The Idea of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009)Ch. 4


Williams, B. “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory” in In the Beginning was the Deed, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



Miller, D. Justice for Earthlings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Cohen, G.A. Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008)

Stears and Leopold, Political Theory: Methods and Approaches, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Dworkin, R. Justice from Hedgehogs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Raz, J. The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986)

Kagan, S. The Limits of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Blau, A. Methods in Analytical Political Theory, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)