First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice

Ethics and Global Politics 7 (3):95-117 (2014)
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Abstract
Theorists have long debated whether John Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness can be extended to nonideal (i.e. unjust) social and political conditions, and if so, what the proper way of extending it is. This paper argues that in order to properly extend justice as fairness to nonideal conditions, Rawls’ most famous innovation – the original position – must be reconceived in the form of a “nonideal original position.” I begin by providing a new analysis of the ideal/nonideal theory distinction within Rawls’ theoretical framework. I then systematically construct a nonideal original position, showing that although its parties must have Rawls’ principles of ideal justice and priority relations as background aims, the parties should be entirely free to weigh those aims against whatever burdens and benefits they might face under nonideal conditions. Next, I show that the parties ought to aim to secure for themselves a special class of nonideal primary goods: all-purpose goods similar to Rawls’ original primary goods, but which in this case are all-purpose goods individuals might use to (A) promote Rawlsian ideals under nonideal conditions, (B) weigh Rawls’ principles of ideal justice and priority relations against whatever burdens and benefits they might face under nonideal conditions, and (C) effectively pursue their most favored weighting thereof. I then defend a provisional list of nonideal primary goods which include opportunities to participate effectively in equitable and inclusive grassroots reform movements guided by a series of substantive aims. Finally, I briefly speculate on how the parties to the nonideal original position might deliberate to principles of nonideal justice for distributing nonideal primary goods, suggesting that those goods should be distributed in proportion to unjust disadvantage.
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First archival date: 2014-02-07
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