The Uselessness of Rawls’s “Ideal Theory”


Over the years a few authors have argued that Rawls’s ideal theory of justice is useless for the real world. This criticism has been largely ignored by Rawlsians, but in the light of a recent accumulation of such criticisms, some authors (in particular Holly Lawford-Smith, A. John Simmons, Zofia Stemplowska and Laura Valentini) have tried to defend ideal theory. In this article I will recapitulate the precise problem with Rawls’s ideal theory, argue that some of Rawls’s defenders misconceive it, and show that recent attempts to rescue Rawls’s ideal theory from the charge of being useless fail. While there are useful kinds of ideal theory, Rawls’s is not one of them. In addition, Rawls’s very tentative suggestions for some kind of bridge between ideal and non-ideal theory are contradictory insofar as they implicitly presuppose the non-existence of the problem they are meant to solve. Thus, Rawls’s “non-ideal theory” too, is useless, and not so much a theory at all but a set of ad hoc stipulations. Finally, I will show that certain attempts within the global justice debate to use some variation of the original position to directly derive guidelines for the real world are misguided and yield no useful results.

Author's Profile

Uwe Steinhoff
University of Hong Kong


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