Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory in Political Philosophy

What is the role of utopian thinking in politics? We can think of an ideal society such as, e.g., communism or libertarian anarchism—but should we? Is utopian thinking meaningful?

Political philosophers discuss these questions in detail in what I call the debate on ideal and non-ideal theory. Here, I have published two texts about this debate.

In the first text, which is titled ”Ideal and Non-ideal Theory in Political Philosophy,” I discuss various suggestions as to how the terms ”ideal” and ”non-ideal” theory should be understood in this context, and what the relation is between them. I briefly account for important criticism of ideal theory as well as defenses thereof.

In the second text, which is titled ”The Debate on Feasibility in Ideal Theory,” I elaborate on one topic in the debate on ideal and non-ideal theory, namely the role of feasibility in ideal theory. According to some, the truth of a political theory is constrained by the possibility of achieving the theory’s decrees in practice. Others disagree. The text provides an overview of this debate.

Download: Ideal and Non-ideal Theory in Political Philosophy

Download: The Debate on Feasibility in Ideal Theory

References and further readings

Arvan, M. (2014). First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice. Ethics & Global Politics 7(3), 95–117.

Carey, B. (2015). Towards a ‘Non-Ideal’ Non-Ideal Theory. The Journal of Applied Philosophy 32(2), 147–162.

Chahboun, N. (2014). Nonideal Theory and Compliance—A Clarification. European Journal of Political Theory 14(2), 229–245.

Erman, E. & Möller, N. (2013). Three Failed Charges Against Ideal Theory. Social Theory & Practice 39(1), 19–44.

—. (Forthcoming). A World of Possibilities: The Place of Feasibility in Political Theory. Res Publica.

Estlund, D. (2014). Utopophobia. Philosophy and Public Affairs 42, 113–134.

—. (2016). Reply to Wiens. European Journal of Political Theory 15(3), 353–362.

Farrelly, C. (2007). Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation. Political Studies 55, 844–864.

Gilabert, P. & Lawford-Smith, H. (2012). Political Feasibility: A Conceptual Exploration. Political Studies 60, 809–825.

Hall, E. (2013). Political Realism and Fact-Sensitivity. Res Publica 19, 173–181.

Hamlin, A. & Stemplowska, Z. (2012). Theory, Ideal Theory and the Theory of Ideals. Political Studies Review 10, 48–62.

Ismael, J. (2016). A Philosopher of Science Looks at Idealization in Political Theory. Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1–2), 11–31.

Levy, J. T. (2016). There Is No Such Thing as Ideal Theory. Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1-2), 312–333.

Mills, C. (2005). ‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology. Hypatia 20(3), 165–184.

Miller, D. (2016). In What Sense Must Political Philosophy be Political? Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1–2), 155–174.

O’Neill, O. (1987). Abstraction, Idealization and Ideology in Ethics. In J. D. G. Evans (Ed.), Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Problems (pp. 55–69). Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

Räikkä, J. (1998). The Feasibility Condition in Political Theory. The Journal of Political Philosophy 6(1), 27–40.

Schmidtz, D. (2011). Nonideal Theory: What It Is and What It Needs to Be. Ethics 121(4), 772–796.

—. (2016). A Realistic Political Ideal. Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1–2), 1–10.

Sen, A. (2006). What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice? The Journal of Philosophy 103, 215–238.

Simmons, J. (2010). Ideal and Nonideal Theory. Philosophy & Public Affairs 38, 5–36.

Southwood, N. (2016). Does “Ought” Imply “Feasible”? Philosophy & Public Affairs 44, 7–45.

Valentini, L. (2012). Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map. Philosophy Compass 7, 654–664.

—. (2017). The Case for Ideal Theory. In C. Brown and R. Eckersley (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of International Political Theory (pp. 664–676). Oxford University Press.

Wiens, D. (2015). Against Ideal Guidance. Journal of Politics 77(2), 433–446.

—. (2016). Motivational Limits on the Demands of Justice. European Journal of Political Theory 15(3), 333–352.

—. (2018). Rejoinder to Estlund (manuscript).

Woodward, J. (2016). Justice and Reciprocity: The Case for Nonideal Theory. Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1–2), 122–154.