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  • Jacob T. Levy (a1)

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

Burke Hendrix , “Where Should We Expect Change in Non-Ideal Theory?” Political Theory 41, no. 1 (2013): 116–43;

David Miller , “Justice For Earthlings,” in Justice for Earthlings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012);

William Galston , “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9 no. 4 (2010): 385411;

Robert Jubb , “Playing Kant in the Court of King Arthur,” Political Studies 63, no. 4 (2015): 919–34.

Gregory Kavka , “Why Even Morally Perfect People Would Need Government,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12, no. 1 (1995): 118.

Eric Cave , “Would Pluralist Angels (Really) Need Government?” Philosophical Studies 81 (1996): 227–46.

David Wiens , “Prescribing Institutions Without Ideal Theory,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 20, no. 1 (2012): 4570.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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