Skip to main content Accesibility Help


  • Michael L. Frazer (a1)

The debate between proponents of ideal and nonideal approaches to political philosophy has thus far been framed as a meta-level debate about normative theory. The argument of this essay will be that the ideal/nonideal debate can be helpfully reframed as a ground-level debate within normative theory. Specifically, it can be understood as a debate within the applied normative field of professional ethics, with the profession being examined that of political philosophy itself. If the community of academic political theorists and philosophers cannot help us navigate the problems we face in actual political life, they have not lived up to the moral demands of their vocation. A moderate form of what David Estlund decries as “utopophobia” is therefore an integral element of a proper professional ethic for political philosophers. The moderate utopophobe maintains that while devoting scarce time and resources to constructing utopias may sometimes be justifiable, it is never self-justifying. Utopianism is defensible only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to help inform or improve non-utopian political thinking.

Hide All

1 Translated by Walter Miller for the Loeb Classical Library Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913). Available online at

2 Ibid., 1: 155.

3 Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns” (1816), in Political Writings, trans. and ed. Biancamaria Fontana (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 308–28.

4 Schrag, Zachary M., Ethical Imperealism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). See also van den Hoonaard, Will C., The Seduction of Ethics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

5 See Stears, Marc, “The Vocation of Political Theory: Principles, Empirical Inquiry and the Politics of Opportunity,” European Journal of Political Theory 4, no. 4 (2005): 325–50.

6 David Estlund, “Utopophobia,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 42, no. 2 (2014): 113–34.

7 For a thorough overview, one to which I owe much of the story outlined more briefly here, see Stemplowska, Zofia and Swift, Adam, “Ideal and Nonideal Theory,” The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, ed. Estlund, David (New York: Oxford University Press), 373–90.

8 Rawls, John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 4.

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

10 Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 99. See also Sen, “What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice?” Journal of Philosophy 103, no. 5 (2006): 215–38.

11 Charles W. Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (2005): 165–84.

12 The complaints are generally heard off the record, so no citations are available.

13 Arthur Isak Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 10.

14 Ibid., 259.

15 Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” 179.

16 For the former, see Bernard Williams, “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), 1–18; and Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). For the latter, see Jeremy Waldron, “Political Political Theory: An Inaugural Lecture,” Journal of Political Philosophy 21, no. 1 (2013), 1–23; and Miller, David, “Political Philosophy for Earthlings,” in Justice for Earthlings: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1639.

17 Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 252–53.

18 Cohen, Why Not Socialism? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 80.

19 Adam Swift, “The Value of Philosophy in Nonideal Circumstances,” Social Theory and Practice 34, no. 3 (2008): 363–87, at 363.

20 Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality, 253. For another defense of a roughly similar thesis, see Estlund, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39, no. 3 (2011): 208–37.

21 On Cohen’s ambiguity here, see Stears, “The Vocation of Political Theory,” 333.

22 Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality, 306. The view rejected here is ascribed not to Swift, but to an unpublished manuscript by Rodney Pfeffer.

23 G. A. Cohen, “Fact and Principles,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 31, no. 3 (2003): 211–45, at 243.

24 Miller, Justice for Earthlings, 233.

25 Estlund, “What Good Is It? Unrealistic Political Theory and the Value of Intellectual Work,” Analyse und Kritik 2 (2011): 395–416, at 396.

26 Estlund, “Utopophobia,” 115.

27 Ibid., 118. Emphasis in original.

28 Ibid., 120.

29 Estlund draws here on R. G. Lipsey and K. J. Lancaster, “The General Theory of the Second Best,” Review of Economic Studies 24, no. 1 (1956): 11–33. For an overview of the topic, see Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit, “The Feasibility Issue,” in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, ed. Frank Jackson and Michael Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 258–79, especially 261.

30 Estlund “Utopophobia,” 123.

31 Estlund, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” 413.

32 Ibid., 404.

33 For an argument that all entities have at least a tiny bit of intrinsic value, see Scott A. Davison, On the Intrinsic Value of Everything (New York: Continuum, 2012).

34 Estlund, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” 405.

35 Estlund, “Utopophobia,” 133. Estlund cites David Hilbert, “Mathematical Problems: Lecture Delivered Before the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris” (1900), available online at∼djoyce/hilbert/problems.html and G. H. Hardy, “A Mathematician’s Apology” (1940). Published online by the University of Alberta Mathematical Sciences Society (2005) at

36 Estlund, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” 395.

37 Ibid., 407.

38 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 65.

39 Ibid., 91.

40 Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 194.

41 Ibid., 191.

42 Stears, “The Vocation of Political Theory: Principles, Empirical Inquiry and the Politics of Opportunity,” 327.

43 Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” 169–70.

44 Estlund, “Utopophobia,” 131.

45 Many have made this claim before, and quite rightly so, without realizing that they were talking about the ethics of our profession. Edward Hall’s contribution to this volume is an example.

46 Swift, “The Value of Philosophy in Nonideal Circumstances,” 364.

47 Ibid., 367.

48 Waldron, “What Plato Would Allow,” Nomos XXXVIII: Theory and Practice, ed. Ian Shapiro and J. W. DeCew (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 138–78, at 147. I would like to thank Robert Lamb for sharing an unpublished manuscript on this subject, which, despite our disagreements, has helped clarify my thinking on the matter immeasurably.

49 Waldron, ibid., 148.

50 Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 44.

51 Adam Swift and Stuart White, “Political Theory, Social Science, and Real Politics,” in Political Theory: Methods and Approaches, ed. David Leopold and Marc Stears (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 49–69, at 54.

52 Ibid., 54.

53 See, for example, Jacob Levy’s contribution to the present volume.

54 Estlund, “Utopophobia,” 128.

55 Estlund “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” 413.

56 Miller, “A Tale of Two Cities; or, Political Philosophy as Lamentation,” in Miller, Justice for Earthlings, 228–49.

57 Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans. II:21, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80.

58 At the time of composition, the barbarians were merely in the process of seizing control of one of the two main American political parties, but their victory was not yet complete.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed