Ideal Theory after Auschwitz? The Practical Uses and Ideological Abuses of Political Theory as Reconciliation

Journal of Politics 79 (4):1177-1190 (2017)
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Contemporary debates about ideal and nonideal theory rest on an underlying consensus that the primary practical task of political theory is directing action. This overlooks other urgent practical work that theory can do, including showing how injustice can be made bearable and how resisting it can be meaningful. I illustrate this important possibility by revisiting the purpose for which John Rawls originally developed the concept of ideal theory: reconciling a democratic public to living in a flawed world that may otherwise seem more of a home for catastrophe than justice. However, Rawls’s account of reconciliation is flawed; because of his methodology, the realistic utopia he constructs as a source of hope can be used to defend an unjust status quo. By drawing lessons from Theodor Adorno’s contrasting view of reconciliation after the Holocaust, I offer a more democratic method for political theory to offer sources of hope to the public.

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Benjamin McKean
Ohio State University


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