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.
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