Prescribing Institutions Without Ideal Theory

Journal of Political Philosophy 20 (1):45-70 (2011)
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Abstract

It is conventional wisdom among political philosophers that ideal principles of justice must guide our attempts to design institutions to avert actual injustice. Call this the ideal guidance approach. I argue that this view is misguided— ideal principles of justice are not appropriate "guiding principles" that actual institutions must aim to realize, even if only approximately. Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is also avoidable. In this paper, I develop an alternative approach to institutional design, which I call institutional failure analysis. The basic intuition of this approach is that our moral assessment of institutional proposals is most effective when we proceed from a detailed understanding of the causal processes generating problematic social outcomes. Failure analysis takes the institutional primary design task to be obviating or averting institutional failures. Consequently, failure analysis enables theorists to prescribe more effective solutions to actual injustice because its focuses on understanding the injustice, rather than specifying an ideal of justice

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David Wiens
University of California, San Diego

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