Ideal Theory


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But the difficulty arises when decisions must be made concerning the allocation of the public funds needed to run an election and ensures citizens can exercise their right to vote. Prohibiting citizens from voting is not the only way citizens can be disenfranchised.

The distribution of polling stations within a geographical territory and the hours of operation of a polling station, etc. Will also have an impact on the opportunity citizens have to exercise the right to vote Farrely, This means that, given the scarcity of resources in a poor country, it may be more important to fight against inequalities than granting the right to vote for everyone. Since that all rights have costs, fighting poverty may be more useful than investing funds so that everyone can vote. This is a classic example of a criticism that ideal theory may have to answer.

Sen also argues against this emphasis in the liberty principle, claiming that this priority may be too extreme.


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In unfavourable circumstances there is no reason to think that hunger, starvation or medical neglect is less important than any kind of personal liberty Sen, So, by focusing too much in the assumption that the theory is going to be fully complied, ideal theory is ignoring that the principles endorsed may be counterproductive in order to achieve the goal of going towards a more fair society. However, it is not clear that Rawls could not answer this criticisms.

He does not ignore that sometimes it may be difficult to implement the ideal principles, and, in those circumstances, nonideal theories have an important role, provided that they fulfil the task of making it easy to pursue the goals prescribed by the ideal theory Rawls, So, for Rawls, nonideal theory is a means for achieving ideal theory under unfavourable circumstances. For instance, Rawls gives the example of obeying an unfair law.

He admits that citizens should obey that law, provided that those laws are reasonably just Rawls, So, in that circumstance, citizens should obey if the law is not too unjust and the society is, on the whole, just.

When Is Non-Ideal Theory Too Ideal?

But, if the laws do not fulfil in any way the purposes of ideal theory, then there is a justification to put a nonideal theory in action. In this particular case, civil disobedience is legitimate. So far we have explained the origin of the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory. We have seen that it appeared firstly in the work of Rawls. The most important difference between the two of them is related to the full compliance and the partial compliance distinction.

It is important to note, however, that there are many other ways in which we can make a distinction between ideal theory and nonideal theory. Several authors have stressed many important differences between the two theories. According to this definition:. In other words, ideal theory is less fact-sensitive than nonideal theory because its goal is to prescribe how a fully just society must be. In order to do that, it must assume full compliance, and that assumption does not require any special attention to facts in the sense that it tells us how the world should be rather than showing us how it really is.

These considerations lead us to another distinction: the distinction between utopian and realistic theories. If ideal theory is less fact-sensitive than nonideal theory, one tend to say it is utopian.

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The main criticism made by those who think ideal theory is utopian may be summarized in this way: a perfect ideal of justice may be imagined but not achievable [1] Valentini, Therefore, a utopian theory does not concern itself about feasibility constraints, because it does not address the problem of achievability. It assumes that the theory will be fully complied or should be. A more realistic theory is the one that addresses the possibility that the theory will not be completely fulfilled. However, even though utopian theories are related to ideal theories, it does not mean that an ideal theory is always utopian.

Rawls thinks that principles should be implemented in an ideal society, but he also acknowledges the need to implement nonideal theories in unfavourable circumstances.


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Valentini also points out that ideal theory is an end-state theory, and nonideal theory is a transitional theory. An end-state theory is a theory that shows us a final goal that a society should pursue. A nonideal theory is transitional because it gives us gradual steps in order to achieve a better world ibid. So, ideal theory is an end-state theory because it guides our action towards a final goal — the perfectly just society. Nonideal theory is a transitional theory because it assumes that the improvements of justice are made in small steps.

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In the following chapter, we will address the problem of noncompliance. Like we have seen, there are many other possible distinctions that we can find in the literature, but we will focus our attention on the problem of noncompliance. Our claim is that, although these distinctions are very important, they all relate to the problem of noncompliance.

For instance, if ideal theory is less fact-sensitive than nonideal theory, it is so because it assumes strict compliance of the theory, no matter what the problems of implementation are. Ideal theory is also related to utopian theories for the same reason, as we have seen. In that context, we will analyse the arguments of two important authors, Stemplowska and Robeyns. After that, we will analyse the relations between principles and facts. We will focus our analysis in G. Cohen's work. Our main claim is that principles are not completely independent from facts, but they are important too.

Also, if facts can make us reanalyse principles, we will try to see how it can be done, and weather that analysis should make us still endorse those principles or not.

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Ideal and Nonideal Theory: Why Classical Liberals and Egalitarian Liberals Disagree

Several authors have analysed the relationship between ideal and nonideal theory. Some of them argue that ideal theory can be useful to develop public policies to increase justice in the real world, others argue that it is not useful at all. In order to discuss this subject, one must analyse the problem of noncompliance.

Ideal theory is a theory that assumes full compliance, under favourable circumstances, as we have seen. But in the real world, what we consider more just may not be followed due to economic constraints or lack of motivation of individuals to whom it applies, or other reasons. We will analyse some arguments regarding this problem. According to Robeyns, idealizations are assumptions that are not met in reality Robeyns, The reason why they are not met in reality is connected to the definitions we have analysed in the previous chapter. Ideal theory makes assumptions that are not met in reality because it tells us how a perfect society should be — it is an end-state theory.

So, the prescriptions made by ideal theory are also less fact-sensitive than prescriptions made by nonideal theory because they do not accommodate possible constraints that can be evidenced by facts. But there are some good reasons to do so. One possible reason is that ideal theory should not be concerned about how the world really is, but should be concerned about how the world should be.

Even if facts show that an ideal theory is not complied, that does not mean it should not be, as Estlund, for instance, argued Estlund, One example of an assumption that may not be met in reality is the one made by Rawls. Considering that all citizens are free and morally equals is an essential aspect of his theory. But there is another important aspect. All people have common sense and all are capable of conceiving the best for them and the others Robeyins, What if some people cannot show those qualities?

It may happen that in the real world some people may prefer a different theory of justice, because they are willing to take the risk that they can be poor, but they prefer that they are not coerced to pay taxes, because they believe that they are talented enough to succeed. Maybe this example does not show an incapability of thinking in a rational way, but at least it shows that in the real world people may disagree about the best way of thinking about what is the best thing to do to care about themselves and the others. Robeyns stresses that, by its own nature, ideal theory is compelled to use idealizations.

But she also recognizes the importance of an idealization for the success of a theory:. The use of idealizations is necessary to keep the complexity of the theory within manageable boundaries. By introducing idealizations, we reduce the number of parameters that the theory has to deal with ibid.

For instance, in the real world there are prejudices and discrimination. But, of course, if one wants to prescribe how the world should be, we may make the assumption that in an ideal society there is no prejudices nor discriminations.

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However, not all idealizations are good. For Robeyns, a bad idealization is an idealization that does not serve legitimate purposes ibid. One of the examples of this is a theory that ignores the need that human beings have of each other ibid. If human beings are, by their own nature, social, a theory that demands that they do not have that need is not legitimate.

Let us analyse the example of Robeyns about the distribution of care in modern societies. Her claim is that the distribution of care is not equally distributed in modern societies. Also, most of the care services are made by women and immigrants. By making the assumption that human beings do not need each other, we are biasing against the groups that are in worst social conditions ibid.

There is another problem regarding idealizations. Being an end-state theory rather than a transitional theory, ideal theory will not be very helpful in order to reach the principles it endorses. It is the task of nonideal theory to think about how we will reach those principles. That is why Robeyns compares ideal theory with a paradise island where we ideally would like to be, but we do not know the way to achieve it ibid.

So, what are the options when it comes to implementing idealizations in the real world? According to Robeyns, there are two options. The first one is to wait that idealizations materialize. The problem with this is that researches within cognitive psychology show that the causal mechanisms of injustices are very persistent. The other option is to implement those principles, even though the circumstances are not favourable. The problem is that, since those principles depend on conditions that do not exist in real world, that implementation may have unpredictable consequences ibid.

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