One of the most familiar and irritating moves in political philosophy is when a person says “oh, but my point was in ideal theory” as a response to some objection that references the grim and complicated real world. Not that I object in principle to ideal theory. But I do want to write this blog post to share a hypothesis about the ideal/non-ideal distinction and about why it has become more of a problem over time. The hypothesis is this: that in 1971 the gap between the ideal and the actual was a lot smaller than it is now. The world resembled Rawls’s ideal of the well-ordered society a lot more than it does now. Or at least, the North American bit of the world did.
Given that closer resemblance, people could do ideal theory without it looking like they were engaging in arcane hypotheses about a distant possible world. Political philosophy of the ideal variety looked a lot more relevant to what ought to happen.
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