Norms, Evaluations and Ideal and Nonideal Theory

Social Philosophy and Policy 33 (1-2):393-412 (2016)
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This essay discusses the relation between ideal theory and two forms of political moralism identified by Bernard Williams, structural and enactment views. It argues that ideal theory, at least in the sense Rawls used that term, only makes sense for structural forms of moralism. These theories see their task as describing the constraints that properly apply to political agents and institutions. As a result, they are primarily concerned with norms that govern action. In contrast, many critiques of ideal theory are structured and motivated by their commitment to an enactment model of political theorizing. This instead sees political agents and institutions as instruments for producing or promoting better states of affairs. Enactment models treat the evaluations that rank different states of affairs as justificatorily basic, rather than norms governing action on which structural models focus. This reveals an important feature of debates about ideal theory. Whether ideal theory is capable of appropriately guiding action will depend on what the criteria for appropriately guiding action are, about which different theorists have importantly different views. For example, some popular strategies for defending ideal theory fail, while it may be much less clear that some alternatives to ideal theory can provide action guidance than their advocates claim.
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