Ideal and Nonideal Theory

Zofia Stemplowska and Adam Swift

in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy

Published in print June 2012 | ISBN: 9780195376692
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 Ideal and Nonideal Theory

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This article begins by setting out Rawls's conception and defense of ideal theory as a necessary precursor to the kind of nonideal theory that can guide action in the real world. It then evaluates the critique of those, such as Amartya Sen, who insist that knowing what an ideally just society would look like is simply not helpful for that purpose. Having also addressed the complaint that the Rawlsian approach is ideological, and hence worse than useless, the discussion broadens out to compass the more wide-ranging critique of mainstream contemporary political philosophy leveled by so-called political realists. It then turns to Cohen's very different objection—that Rawls's ideal theory of justice is too tailored to empirical circumstance. It concludes with an attempt to identify the variety of different things that might be conceived as nonideal theory. Ideal theory may be understood in many different ways, but nonideal theory fares little better.

Keywords: social justice; John Rawls; Amartya Sen; political philosophy; Cohen

Article.  8654 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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