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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2016

Jacob T. Levy*
Political Science, McGill University


In this essay, I argue against the bright-line distinction between ideal and nonideal normative political theory, a distinction used to distinguish “stages” of theorizing such that ideal political principles can be deduced and examined before compromises with the flawed political world are made. The distinction took on its familiar form in Rawls and has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the past few years. I argue that the idea of a categorical distinction — the kind that could allow for a sequencing of stages of theorizing — is misconceived, because wholly “ideal” normative political theory is a conceptual mistake, the equivalent of taking the simplifying models of introductory physics (“frictionless movement in a vacuum”) and trying to develop an ideal theory of aerodynamics. Political organization and justice are about moral friction in the first instance. I examine both logical and epistemological arguments for the position that we need the uniquely idealizing assumptions of ideal theory in order to arrive at, or to know, a genuine theory of justice or political morality; and I find them wanting. Such assumptions as full compliance, consensus, and the publicity principle of universal knowledge about consensus can sometimes be useful, if used carefully and with justification; but they are not categorically different from other idealizing and abstracting assumptions in generating normative theory. What is referred to as “nonideal” theory is all that there is, and it is many kinds of theory, not one — the many ways in which we learn about justice and injustice, and seek to answer questions of practical reason about what ought to be done in our political world.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2016 

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1 See, in various ways, Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Estlund, David, “Utopophobia: Concession and Aspiration in Democratic Theory,” in Estlund, , Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 2008);Google Scholar Estlund, “What Good Is It? Unrealistic Political Theory and the Value of Intellectual Work,” Analyse und Kritik (2011): 395–416; Estlund, “Human Nature and the limits (if any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39, no. 3 (2011); A. John Simmons, “Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38, no. 1 (2010): 5–36. I take these to be the leading contemporary expositors and defenders of ideal theory.

2 See, for example, Hendrix, Burke, “Where Should We Expect Change in Non-Ideal Theory?” Political Theory 41, no. 1 (2013): 116–43;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Murphy, Liam B., Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar Some important articles that do not straightforwardly advocate or only advocate one or the other category of theory include Laura Valentini, “Ideal vs. Nonideal Theory: A Conceptual Map,” Philosophy Compass 7 (2012): 654–64; Pablo Gilabert, “Comparative Assessments of Justice, Political Feasibility, and Ideal Theory,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (2012): 39–56; Pablo Gilabert and Holly Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility: A Conceptual Exploration,” Political Studies 60 (2012): 809–25; Zofia Stemplowska, “What’s Ideal About Ideal Theory?” Social Theory and Practice 34 (2008): 331–40; Zofia Stemplowska and Adam Swift, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” in David Estlund, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Charles Larmore, “What Is Political Philosophy?” Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (2013): 276–306. For pieces in the same spirit as the present argument see Miller, David, “Justice For Earthlings,” in Justice for Earthlings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012);CrossRefGoogle Scholar David Schmidtz, “After Solipsism,” unpublished manuscript [currently in press and due to be published in Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 6 (forthcoming, 2017)]; Andrew Sabl, Hume’s Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); and, of course, Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

3 As best as I can now recall, I arrived at the use of this analogy before seeing David Schmidtz’s far more evocative comparison with “ignoring wind resistance in predicting the behavior of a parachute,” but the idea is certainly the same (David Schmidtz, “Nonideal Theory: What It Is and What It Needs to Be,” Ethics 121, no. 4 [2011]: 772–96). For an objection, see Jennan Ismael, “A Philosopher of Science Looks At Idealization in Political Theory,” in the present volume. Ismael emphasizes the value of idealization as a mode of inquiry including in physics, but this only shows that one or another idealization is useful for one or another purpose. As will become clear below, I do not deny this; the claim of ideal theory is something much stronger. She briefly concedes that her argument does not provide any particular support for the sequencing of ideal and nonideal that is found in Rawls, and that sequencing is an important part of what I reject here.

4 On realism, see Galston, William, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9 no. 4 (2010): 385411;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Williams, Bernard, “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory,” in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005);Google Scholar Williams, , “Political Philosophy and the Analytic Tradition,” in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).Google Scholar For an argument denying that ideal/ nonideal and moralism/ realism are closely related distinctions, see Enzo Rossi and Matt Sleat, “Realism in Normative Political Theory,” Philosophy Compass 9, no. 10 (2014): 689–701.

5 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958).

6 Sometimes David Estlund has described his view of utopian theory in that way: he is describing one thing that one might do, defending the legitimacy of one intellectual project that one might have among others. See Estlund, “What Good Is It?” But that is decidedly not Rawls’s account.

7 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999),Google Scholar 8, emphasis added.

8 In Rawls’s own theory, there must be a qualification here for the discussion of the strains of commitment; see discussion in Simmons. If we place a great deal of weight on the strains of commitment, then we might think Rawls himself falls afoul of Estlund’s denial that motivational limits are relevant for the evaluation of claims of justice or obligation — that is, that Rawls is not an ideal theorist by the standards of the contemporary literature. I am unsure what to think about this, as a matter of Rawls interpretation.

9 For an objection, see David Wiens, “Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice,” European Journal of Political Theory, forthcoming, online first DOI 10.1177/1474885115578446. See also David Estlund, “Reply to Wiens,” European Journal of Political Theory, forthcoming, online first DOI 10.1177/1474885115602369

10 Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, III.1. Hume also held that justice pertained only to cases of moderate scarcity, and that what we now think of as lifeboat ethics lies outside of justice. I think this is right, but it is not relevant to our concerns for the moment and so I set it aside.

11 I object to this account in Jacob T. Levy, review of Rescuing Justice and Equality, in Political Theory 38, no. 4 (2010): 593–96. Justice is the legalistic virtue and the virtue of legal systems; it is ius. In my view, Cohen’s argument is an attack on the idea of justice, not a rescuing of it. See also Stemplowska and Swift, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory.” Compare Allan Beever, Forgotten Justice: The Forms of Justice in the History of Legal and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

12 Again, see Beever, Forgotten Justice. In his terms, I am here endorsing his argument that commutative justice is as fundamental to what justice means as distributive justice, although I have other disagreements with his account.

13 Even here it may be revealing that most common law developed for a very long time around access to remedies; institutionally, writs came before rights. But of course this is because judicial action was only needed in case of breach or violation. Society was assumed to run on an ongoing basis of most rights being respected most of the time, and so institutional cognitive energy was better spent on specifying writs than on conducting a comprehensive census of rights. One could therefore plausibly think that the history of the common law is compatible with the thought that (tacitly acknowledged) rights precede (institutionally developed) remedies. And I would not want to place too much weight on the quirky history of the common law. Still, I find the example telling, if nothing else then as evidence against the epistemological defense of ideal theory that will be discussed in Section III: English law learned how to specify rights gradually, by identifying breaches of them.

14 For an argument that Rawls’s view was more compatible with political realism in the fashion of Bernard Williams as he first appears, see Jubb, Robert, “Playing Kant in the Court of King Arthur,” Political Studies 63, no. 4 (2015): 919–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Kavka, Gregory, “Why Even Morally Perfect People Would Need Government,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12, no. 1 (1995): 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See in reply Cave, Eric, “Would Pluralist Angels (Really) Need Government?” Philosophical Studies 81 (1996): 227–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 It also comes close to Jeremy Waldron’s account of the “circumstances of politics”; see Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) — and, as noted above, to ideas developed by Hannah Arendt, whose influence Waldron acknowledges.

17 Mark Philp, “Realism Without Illusions,” 635.

18 Waldron, Law and Disagreement, 102.

19 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 4.

20 David Estlund, “What Is Circumstantial About Justice?” in this volume.

21 I should emphasize that my remarks on Kavka and Estlund here are conditional: even if it is the case that we can replace limited beneficence with disagreement, and so on, I continue to suspect that limited beneficence is crucially relevant to the conditions of the emergence of the norm of justice within human societies, and that those conditions of emergence are more relevant for our continuing understanding of justice than is allowed by Estlund in “What Is Circumstantial About Justice?” But I do not provide any argument for those suspicions here.

22 Schmidtz, David, Person, Polis, Planet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 8.Google Scholar

23 Levy, Jacob T., Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 In my review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), I suggest that Tomasi falls into this trap, being excessively concerned with showing that “free market fairness” counts as an ideal theory at the cost of probabilistic arguments that might leave his theory much more plausible. Jacob T. Levy, review of Free Market Fairness, Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 1–3, DOI:

25 My thoughts here have been significantly shaped by many conversations with Timothy Waligore, and by his “Rawls, Self-Respect, and Assurance: How Past Injustice Changes What Publicly Counts as Justice,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 15, no. 1 (2016): 42–66.

26 Rawls, Law of Peoples, 90.

27 Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

28 Shklar, The Faces of Injustice; Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1990). For an account of intellectual progress in normative institutional analysis based on avoiding evils rather than on ideal theory, see Wiens, David, “Prescribing Institutions Without Ideal Theory,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 20, no. 1 (2012): 4570.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 While I do not agree with all of Sen’s arguments against ideal theory in The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), the epistemic argument represented by the mountain-climbing metaphor — we do not have to know the location of Mount Everest in order to know the direction of “uphill” — seems absolutely correct.

30 Compare G. A. Cohen’s discussion of the talented holding society to ransom for the use of their talents in Rescuing Justice and Equality, a discussion that I think is substantively entirely wrong but structurally very illuminating.

31 For reasons that overlap in part with those of Charles Mills’s important article “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (2005): 165–83. It seems to me that the force of Mills’s argument remains widely underappreciated. Pointing out that ideal theory can yield very ambitious and demanding normative reform agendas is not, or at least not straightforwardly, responsive to his critique. The presentation of ideal theory as an idealized abstraction from real states of affairs — real democratic processes, real constitutional histories — makes it difficult to diagnose those processes and states of affairs as themselves primary sources of injustice. Rawls freely acknowledges, in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), that his conception of political philosophy includes a reconciliatory feature; it helps citizens to see the moral value in what really exists and the possibilities for moral improvement that lie immanent within it. Political philosophy can serve to legitimize real institutions in order to make moral reform within them seem attainable. But — I take Mills’s point to be in part — that kind of legitimation and reconciliation can also serve to mask existing institutions’ deep complicity with or commitment to injustice.

32 This implies that the Stanley Fish reference in the title could be completed: there’s no such thing as ideal theory and it’s a good thing, too. But the goodness of the thing is not the point of this essay, and I mean my argument to be persuasive even to those who would regret the realization that ideal theory is unavailable. By contrast, see Colin Farrelly, “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation,” Political Studies 55, no. 4 (2007): 844–64.

33 See also Lorna Finalyson, “With Radicals Like These, Who Needs Conservatives? Doom, Gloom, and Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory, forthcoming, DOI 10.1177/1474885114568815.

34 I discuss this idea in greater depth, and with reference to Augustine’s distinction between the principles and ethics of political life in earthly Babylon on the one hand and the moral truth available in Heaven on the other, in Jacob T. Levy, “Against Fraternity: Democracy Without Solidarity,” in Will Kymlicka and Keith Banting, eds., The Strains of Commitment: The Political Sources of Solidarity in Diverse Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

35 It would be customary to say “our normative intuitions,” but I think that word understates the likelihood that our normative sense is an evolutionary feature that — at least at relevant scales — provides reliable information about moral truth or what is good for humans in society. As social conditions or the circumstances of human social life change, they become less reliable guides. I don’t think we can actually know much about morality within a race of invulnerable immortals, for example. See also Jakob Elster, “How Outlandish Can Imaginary Cases Be?” Journal of Applied Philosophy 28, no. 3 (2011): 241–58.