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  • Michael Huemer (a1)

Ideal theorists in political philosophy seek to describe a perfect political society, and to evaluate political principles by reference to their consequences in a world where everyone complies with the principles. I argue that ideal theory is not needed to set goals for practical inquiries, nor to define justice, nor to enable rankings of injustices. Nor is it useful to theorize about very different kinds of society that might occur in the far future. Ideal theory tempts us to make each of three kinds of error: it tempts us to propose norms that no specific agent can act on, to posit crazy exaggerations of moral virtues, and to place too much trust in abstract philosophical reasoning. A better approach to normative questions is to rely on analogical arguments starting from uncontroversial intuitions about concrete scenarios.

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1 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 8.

2 Ibid., 126.

3 Cf. Laura Valentini’s three-way distinction among strict compliance theory, utopian theory, and end-state theory (“Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map,” Philosophy Compass 7 [2012]: 654–64). My “perfection theory” is a combination of Valentini’s “utopian theory” and “end-state theory.”

4 Here are the two principles: “FIRST PRINCIPLE: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. SECOND PRINCIPLE: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged [ . . . ] and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls, Theory of Justice, 266). Part (a) of the second principle is “the Difference Principle.”

5 Cohen G. A., Why Not Socialism? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 80, 82.

6 From Joseph Carens, Equality, Moral Incentives, and the Market (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 96: “The basic position I shall adopt [ . . . ] is that all human motivation is the result of socialization and that it is theoretically possible to socialize people in the egalitarian system into placing as much value on the satisfactions associated with performing their social duty to earn pre-tax income as individuals in the PPM [private-property market] system place on the satisfactions derived from acquiring income for consumption.” Carens does not claim that his system would make for a perfect society, since he thinks it retains some undesirable features of capitalism (Carens, Equality, Moral Incentives and the Market, xi, 178). Nevertheless, it seems fair to consider this as a kind of ideal theory.

7 Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (New York: Routledge, 2014), chap. 4. In fairness, Brennan’s utopia is more realistic than the others since it does not require dramatic shifts in most people’s motivational structure.

8 Compare Robert Nozick’s “framework for utopias” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia [New York: Basic Books, 1974], chap. 10).

9 The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 90. For similar remarks, see Rawls, Theory of Justice, 8; Ingrid Robeyns, “Ideal Theory in Theory and Practice,” Social Theory and Practice 34 (2008): 341–62, at 344–45.

10 Stemplowska Zofia and Swift Adam, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, ed. Estlund David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 379. For similar remarks, see A. John Simmons, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38 (2010): 5–36, at 34.

11 Thus, Charles Mills’s well-known criticisms of ideal theory are driven by the desire to see racial inequities addressed, which he thinks is made less likely by the focus on ideal theory (“‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20 (2005): 165–84).

12 See also Simmons, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” 22–24.

13 See my “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Social Theory and Practice 36 (2010): 429–61.

14 Simmons, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” 34. Cf. Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? 71 (approvingly explaining Cohen’s defense of utopian theorizing): “[I]f you imagine a society in which people sometimes did wrong things, you’d be imagining a society with some injustice in it, and thus be imagining a less than fully just society. So, if you care at all about what justice requires, you have to ask what utopia would be like.”

15 See Simmons, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” 34: “[T]he priority to be given to grievous (over less grievous) injustices is to be understood in terms of the lexical ordering of the principles of ideal theory violated by the injustices at issue.”

16 Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? 71–72.

17 One might wonder why my own defense of anarchism (The Problem of Political Authority [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], part 2) is not similarly too utopian. The answer is that the anarcho-capitalist system does not require alterations of human nature; it works with normal levels of human selfishness and strife — or so I argue.

18 See Brandt Richard, Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), chap. 7.

19 See my “America’s Unjust Drug War,” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 5th edition, ed. James Rachels and Stuart Rachels (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 223–36; and William Chambliss, “Another Lost War: The Costs and Consequences of Drug Prohibition,” Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order 22 (1995): 101–24.

20 See David Estlund, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2011): 207–37, at 235–37.

21 Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 266. Estlund (“Human Nature,” 217) also recognizes Carens’s system as a valid normative political theory.

22 Estlund, “Human Nature,” 207–14.

23 David Shore (writer), Sara Hess (writer), and Greg Yaitanes (director), “Charity Case” (television series episode), House, M.D., season 8, episode 3, aired Oct. 17, 2011 (NBCUniversal Television Distribution).

24 Ibid., at 32:44–34:26.

25 I refer to Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

26 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 11–19.

27 On immigration, see my “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” op. cit. I apply the approach to other issues in my “America’s Unjust Drug War,” op. cit.; “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?” Social Theory and Practice 29 (2003): 297–324; and The Problem of Political Authority, op. cit.

28 See Jonathan Dancy, Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

29 See Peter Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions,” Journal of Ethics 9 (2005): 331–52; Unger, op. cit.; Joshua Greene, “From Neural ‘Is’ to Moral ‘Ought’: What Are the Moral Implications of Neuroscientific Moral Psychology?” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4 (2003): 847–50. For general doubts about ethical intuition, see also Sinnott-Armstrong Walter, Moral Skepticisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

30 There are exceptions to this: certain formal ethical intuitions, such as the transitivity of “better than,” are immune to charges of ideological bias, as discussed in my “Revisionary Intuitionism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 25 (2008): 368–92, at 383–87.

31 “Revisionary Intuitionism,” op. cit.

* I would like to thank David Schmidtz, David Estlund, and the other contributors to this volume for their many smart, interesting, and helpful comments on the issues in this essay. I have done my best to address those I knew how to address.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
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