Idealizing Morality

Hypatia 25 (4):797 - 824 (2010)
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Implicit in feminist and other critiques of ideal theorizing is a particular view of what normative theory should be like. Although I agree with the rejection of ideal theorizing that oppression theorists (and other theorists of justice) have advocated, the proposed alternative of nonideal theorizing is also problematic. Nonideal theorizing permits one to address oppression by first describing (nonideal) oppressive conditions, and then prescribing the best action that is possible or feasible given the conditions. Borrowing an insight from the "moral dilemmas debate"— namely that moral wrongdoing or failure can be unavoidable—I suggest that offering (only) action-guidance under non-ideal conditions obscures the presence and significance of unavoidable moral failure. An adequate normative theory should be able to issue a further, non-action-guiding evaluative chim, namely that the best that is possible under oppressive conditions is not good enough, and may constitute a moral failure. I find exclusively action-guiding nonideal theory to be both insufficiently nonidealizing (because it idealizes the moral agent by falsely characterizing the agent as always able to avoid moral wrongdoing) and meanwhile too strongly adapted to the nonideal (because normative expectations are lowered and detrimentally adapted to options that, while the best possible, are still unacceptable)

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Lisa Tessman
State University of New York at Binghamton


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