A Thought on the Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory Distinction

Many of you have probably seen Simmons’ article just out in PPA on ideal and non-ideal theory. Simmons defends Rawls’ account of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction and his paper is a must read. That said, I have been ruminating over a slightly different take on the debate over the nature of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction and so thought I’d throw an idea out there.

Drawing on John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice many have suggested that the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction is akin to the full/partial compliance distinction. In creating his ideal theory, Rawls assumes that people will comply (almost) perfectly with the requirements of justice. He then uses his original position argument to conclude that his first principle of justice should have priority over his second. Next, Rawls weakens his ideal theory assumptions, adding the constraint that people may not abide by the requirements of justice. He concludes that we should only embrace his general conception of justice in non-ideal theory.

Unfortunately, the canonical examples of ideal and non-ideal theories cannot be fully characterized as full and partial compliance theories respectively. As Simmons and others note, even Rawls says ideal theory requires more than perfect compliance. In creating his ideal theory he assumes, for instance, that the circumstances do not prevent justice from being secured. Furthermore, others have more recently provided ideal and non-ideal theories that are not full and partial compliance theories (respectively). The main thing that distinguishes Allen Buchanan’s and Michael Blake’s non-ideal theories from their ideal theories, for instance, is that their non-ideal theories assume that there will be states and consider what we should do given that we are confined to a statist system. Similarly, the main thing that distinguishes Ronald Dworkin’s non-ideal theory from his ideal theory is that he assumes that people only have different talents and disabilities in his ideal theory. Blake’s, Buchanan’s, and Dworkin’s ideal theories do not require perfect compliance. Assuming that there is something to the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction and these authors are not just using the terms in completely different ways, the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction cannot just be the full/partial compliance distinction.

Reflecting on the many ways people seem to use the terms, one might despair at the thought of trying to unify such disparate ideal and non-ideal theories. In the draft of his book manuscript Michael Blake suggests, for instance, that the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction is not that useful because it can mean many different things. He implores others to be careful to explain just what assumptions they are making in advancing any theory. Perhaps this is part of what drives Simmons and others to argue for one or another of these ways of thinking about the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction.

But, even if one or another of these authors is right and one of these conceptions is generally better than the others, a neutral conception of the ideal/non-ideal theory divide may be desirable. For, I do not see why it is illegitimate to do many different kinds of non-ideal theory and perhaps even ideal theory. In any case, I wonder if it would be possible to cash out a neutral conception of this distinction starting from one way of thinking about moral theories.

One way of thinking about moral theories is that fully developed theories provide a value function that ranges over one or more independent parameters. The parameter(s) can take on a range of values subject to constraints provided by the scope of the theory. The function tells us what is optimal or satisfactory when it specifies an acceptable value or range of values for its parameter(s). Often this requires maximizing or minimizing the value of some parameter(s) in the theory. Utilitarian theories, for instance, specify a maximizing function on utility. Similarly, in his early writing, Rawls’ first principle of justice (part of his ideal theory) suggests maximizing each person’s basic liberties subject to the constraint that doing so be compatible with everyone else having equal liberty. Sometimes a theory only specifies thresholds over or under which the values of its parameter(s) must lie. Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory, for instance, only specifies thresholds over or under which the values of its parameter(s) must lie. Nussbaum holds, for instance, that each person must be able to function fully in each of ten basic capabilities specifying that each capability is a parameter whose value must pass the full functioning threshold. Many simple deontological theories (or constraints) are also like this.

Adopting this way of thinking about theories, is it possible that non-ideal theories just include additional constraints or variables that, relative to an ideal, brings them closer to the real world in some sense (let us call such constraints or variables r-restrictions). Any theory not explicitly r-restricted relative to an ideal is an ideal theory. So, for instance, Blake and Buchanan add the r-restriction that we are, in the short term, confined to a world with states in in creating a non-ideal theory relative to the ideal theory that lacks that restriction. A theory that assumes that we are, in the short term, confined to a world with states is closer to the real world than one that does not make this assumption.

To put the proposed ideal/non-ideal distinction a different way, non-ideal theories are theories of the second best relative to some way of specifying what the first best scenario looks like. A non-ideal theory must just be closer to reality in some sense than an ideal theory. So, for instance, Rawls adds the r-restriction that people will not comply perfectly with principles of justice in making his theory non-ideal. A theory that assumes people will not comply perfectly with principles of justice is (presently) closer to reality than one that assumes they will comply perfectly.

This characterization of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction is different from Christopher Farrelly’s categorization of theories of justice as more or less ideal in terms of their fact-sensitivity if by “fact sensitivity” he means to indicate only empirical facts. For, on the above account, non-ideal theories might be closer to the real world in terms of normative facts.

Furthermore, on this account, a theory might only include non-empirical principles. Hence, this conception of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction does not hang on debate about the fact-sensitivity of normative theories.

If this account of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction is right, the key to clarifying the distinction is figuring out what being closer to the real world than another theory requires. One thing we might say is that, on balance, non-ideal theory must include more (significant) truths and fewer (significant) falsehoods than ideal theory. Though, then, we would have to give an account of how to weigh and balance the significance of different truths and falsehoods. Alternately, we might appeal to possible world semantics.

The proposed way of drawing the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction is different than, but related to, the idea of first/second best theory distinction in economics. There is a single well specified ideal in economics (i.e. the perfectly competitive market). There is no single well defined ideal in moral and political philosophy. It is just essential to non-ideal theory, in the suggested sense, that it is r-restricted relative to an ideal theory.

On this account, there is no such thing as ideal theory or non-ideal theory simpliciter. Rather, there are many ideal and non-ideal theories (and almost any theory can be non-ideal relative to a host of other theories). This allows us to account for many of the different ideal and non-ideal theories in the literature. When Rawls weakens his ideal theory assumptions, for instance, he adds the r-restriction that people may not abide by the requirements of justice. This is an r-restriction because it brings us closer to the real world. It eliminates a false (perfect compliance) idealization or abstraction that Rawls assumes in doing ideal theory. Buchanan’s non-ideal theory is r-restricted because it assumes states exist. A world where states exist is closer to the real world than one without states. Dworkin’s non-ideal theory would, presumably, be r-restricted by taking into account other important features of human beings besides their disabilities and talents.

Although it is impossible to rank all theories on a single scale, this way of drawing the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction also helps us account for the fact that theories can be more or less ideal. Some authors distinguish between extremely, moderately, and mildly ideal theories, but on this way of drawing the distinction, theories fall on a full spectrum from completely ideal to very non-ideal.

I suppose the biggest objection to this way of drawing the distinction might be that theories need not be action-guiding on this account. Though I’m working on some arguments against the idea that (ideal or non-ideal) theories must be action-guiding, one could append that condition to the account…

Thoughts?

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12 Responses to A Thought on the Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory Distinction

  1. Robert Jubb says:

    I’m not sure I fully understand how you’re proposing understanding the ideal – non-ideal theory distinction, but it doesn’t seem to me enormously different from the way it is currently usually understood. If I’ve got your proposal right, the idea would be something like, the more like the world we face the world a theory uses to generate prescriptions is, the more non-ideal it is. I’m not sure this is really different from what Stemplowska or Farrelly say, for example, when they connect the category of the non-ideal to the ability to provide direct practical guidance here and now. Personally, I think it would be much better to understand the distinction in terms of the problems raised by non-compliance, since that would divide the field into particular normative questions. The alternative would be to make the ideal or non-ideal status of a theory depend on the actual state of the world, rather than what it aimed at. This way of understanding the distinction would also have us describing a Hobbesian State of Nature as ideal theory, which would at least be perverse.

  2. Robert Jubb says:

    I’m not sure I’ve fully understood your proposal for our use of the ideal – non-ideal distinction, but it seems to me it’s pretty much how it usually gets used now anyway. If I’ve got what you’re saying right, the idea is that the more the world in which a theory generates prescriptions resembles ours, the more non-ideal a theory is. This is I think basically what Stemplowska and Farrelly have in mind when they connect non-ideal theory with the ability to give policy prescriptions which are achievable and desirable in our current circumstances, for example. The problem as I see it with that way of understanding the distinction is that it fails to divide up the field into discrete normative issues. What is ideal theory one day may be non-ideal theory the next. It also encourages us to describe theories which model the world as much more awful than it is as ideal theories, which is at least perverse. I think it would be better if we understood ideal theories as articulating ideals, in the sense of values perfected, in the way which Rawls suggests when first using the term in ToJ. That would divide the field into the distinct normative problems of what a value perfected looks like, and how to respond to a value when it cannot or will not be perfected. As far as justice goes, if we see strict compliance as the circumstances under which justice is perfected, then the idea would be that non-ideal theory theorises what to do in situations of non-compliance – which is at least plausibly a distinctive normative problem.

  3. I find this way of characterizing theories confusing. As I understand it you’ve proposed that the more truths (or less falsehoods) a theory has the more non-ideal that theory is. But as I understand Rawls’ theory at least, it doesn’t contain what I would call “falsehoods”. I prefer to think of the adequacy of theories, which is something like their ability to explain the real world. So for example, Rawls’ ideal theory can adequately explain the injustice experienced by native-born low wage workers in the US, but it doesn’t adequately explain the injustice faced by immigrant low-wage workers, because it assumes a self-contained nation.

    Maybe what I am calling Rawls’ assumption, you would call a falsehood, so that this assumption of a self-contained nation is one thing that makes Rawls’ theory ideal. But I’m worried that the number of assumptions has nothing to do with what I’m calling the adequacy of theories. In fact, the number of assumptions seems to me to be irrelevant in most respects. Perhaps it is the the quality and not the quantity of assumptions? This metric would of course make it less likely that we could get all theories to fit together on a spectrum. But I suppose the larger question is why we would want to fit all theories together in this way – I don’t know.

  4. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Kristina and Robert,

    Thanks for your comments! I have just a few thoughts.

    First, I should clarify: The idea is not “the more like the world we face the world a theory uses to generate prescriptions is, the more non-ideal it is.” Nor is the idea “that the more truths (or less falsehoods) a theory has the more non-ideal that theory is.” The suggestion is much more radical than that. 🙂 The idea is that a theory is only non-ideal if constrained *relative* to an ideal (where a constraint does imply that the non-ideal is closer to the real world than the ideal). But I say it is radical because Robert was right about some of its “perverse” implications: it entails that “what is ideal theory one day may be non-ideal theory the next.” What is ideal might also be non-ideal on the same day (relative to another theory). It is also possible that “theories which model the world as much more awful than it is as ideal theories” on the account. I’m not sure that this is unintuitive, however. For “ideal” doesn’t mean “better” or “more like something we’d like to achieve” on this account. I hope the clarification helps explain why I don’t think this is much like what others have suggested.

    Second, strange implications aside, I think it is fine to use the terms “ideal theory” or “non-ideal theory” in any way one might like. There are certainly advantages to being clear about intending to use it as Rawls does, for instance (though that’s not just the im/perfect compliance distinction). The advantage of doing it this way would only be that it could capture the full range of ways that people are using the terms (when clearly some do not use the terms the way Rawls did). Perhaps, though, Robert’s suggestion could also do that. I just wonder how we know a theory has perfected justice (do we judge it by that own theory’s lights? Is there only one ideal theory on this account? Why would perfect justice entail perfect compliance? etc.).

    Third, Kristina is probably right that it can’t just be the number of assumptions that makes a theory more or less ideal (how would we delineate them?). Perhaps quality has to be brought into a metric of closeness to the actual world. (Though, again, the idea isn’t that how ideal a theory is should be reflected in the measure of closeness but that a theory is non-ideal *relative* to another theory if it is closer to the actual world than that theory.) I do think Rawls’ assumption of a self-contained nation is false and so getting rid of that assumption would bring us closer to the real world. Hence, if one was doing Rawlsian theory without that assumption one would (other things equal) be doing a sort of non-ideal theory on this account. Also to reiterate “ideal” here does not mean “good” or even “adequate.” I want to leave aside the quality of a theory in assessing its type on this account.

    Finally, I’m not sure I understand Kristina’s “larger question [:..] why we would want to fit all theories together in this way[?]” Perhaps again the answer is just that this account might be general enough so that all of the ideal/non-ideal theories in the literature can be categorized appropriately using it. But, now I wonder if that’s very important. What’s important in understanding Rawls’ theory, for instance, is understanding why he uses the terms the way he does. Perhaps there is no reason to aim for a general account of the ideal/non-ideal distinction? But, if that’s not what you were after, can you explain the question?

    Thanks again for the great thoughts/discussion! -Nicole

  5. Thanks for the clarification Nicole. By my question I just meant “why do we want to get an account of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction that can account for all the uses of the terms currently in the literature?” In other words, why do we want a “neutral” account of the distinction? I’m working on the ideal/non-ideal distinction as well, but for now I’ve given up trying to find an account that can capture every other use of the terms, since it sems that some uses simply contradict other uses in the literature. But if there is some reason to try for a neutral account that I haven’t thought of I’d revise that. So let me know if you think of one!

  6. Robert Jubb says:

    So, let me try again to characterise your view, Nicole. A theory’d be non-ideal when it modelled what we should do under conditions which are both non-optimal for the realization of some ideal and more like the conditions we face than those which are optimal for the realization of that ideal are. For example, we could have an ideal of beer-drinking and sports-watching, which could be disrupted by bad television reception or someone trying to watch something else on the television. The theory of beer-drinking and sports-watching under these conditions would be non-ideal. It might be ideal for some other pursuit, say, disrupting beer-drinking and sports-watching, but it would be non-ideal for beer-drinking and sports-watching. The features of a theory which make it non-ideal are specified in the terms of the ideal that it is a theory of. For example, a non-ideal theory of justice would specify conditions under which justice is not fully realised. I think this is similar to my thought about an ideal theory being the perfection of a value that I raise in the second comment (my internet connection crashed, and I wasn’t sure whether the first comment had been submitted or not). A non-ideal theory would be specified in terms of its distance from the conditions under which an ideal could be realised. I may well still be confused though – it does happen fairly often. Nonetheless, I think it is worth noting that this is fairly clearly not the sense in which Farrelly, for example, uses the term. For Farrelly, a theory is less ideal the more like the situation we face it is. But there is no a priori reason to think that the situation we is not one in which ideals are realised. I think there are good reasons, to do with dividing the field up into distinctive problems, to use the distinction in the way I suggest, but I don’t think it’s a neutral distinction.

  7. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Sorry for the delay! Trying to get ready for the Columbia conference…

    First, as to Kristina’s question: “why do we want to get an account of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction that can account for all the uses of the terms currently in the literature?” In other words, why do we want a “neutral” account of the distinction?

    I guess I think it is fine to use the terms however one would like as long as one is clear about how one is using them. There are also good reasons to think we should do certain kinds of “ideal” theory – that some kinds are useful or important. Perhaps there are even reasons to think we should not do certain kinds of “ideal” theories. I doubt, though, that one can win a debate about what kinds of theories we should create by suggesting that something is or is not an ideal theory. It seems to me that, if one is interested just in what an ideal/non-ideal theory is, a good characterization should capture at least the canonical examples of such theories. Do you think the account I’ve suggested can do that?

    Robert, I think you’re close to what I have in mind when you say: A non-ideal theory would be specified in terms of its distance from the conditions under which an ideal could be realized. Less close when you say: A theory would be non-ideal when it modeled what we should do under conditions which are both non-optimal for the realization of some ideal and more like the conditions we face than those which are optimal for the realization of that ideal are.

    I might say that a theory is less ideal to the extent that it is further from some ideal. The only thing I balk at in the first characterization you suggest is that a theory’s being less ideal necessarily tells us anything about how easy it is to get from the less ideal to the more ideal. (I’m working on a paper on why neither good ideal nor non-ideal theories have to be particularly action guiding).

    Finally, the distinction, if it works, is only “neutral” in the sense that it can capture many of the ideal/non-ideal theories in the literature, not that it can capture many of the attempted characterizations of this distinction (even by authors of the relevant theories).

    All my best! -Nicole

  8. Daryl Kaytor says:

    I don’t understand the distinction whatsoever. Is Plato an ideal or non-ideal theory? Is Socrates ironic?

    There can be no impetus for ‘non ideal’ theorizing that does not contain within itself completion of an end in a holistic manner. Anything done in a holistic manner seems to imply the ideal, which as Aristotle would say, is the “end” of a given thing.

  9. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Daryl,

    I really don’t know the ancients well enough to comment on your first few questions (you’d probably have to say which of their theories you are thinking about). I am also afraid I do not understand what you mean by “ironic” or “holistic” in this context.

    One thing I can say that might help is this: The term “ideal” in this context is a technical term – the meaning here is not just what is meant when we say something is “ideal” in ordinary conversation. Nor do I think that people in this debate have argued that the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction has anything to do with how Aristotle used the term “ideal.”

    All my best, -Nicole

  10. Daryl Kaytor says:

    On the contrary:

    “To put the proposed ideal/non-ideal distinction a different way, non-ideal theories are theories of the second best relative to some way of specifying what the first best scenario looks like. A non-ideal theory must just be closer to reality in some sense than an ideal theory.”

    ^^ Is this not exactly how the word is used in everyday context?

    This is precisely the distinction Aristotle makes between himself and Plato. Aristotle sees himself correcting Plato’s ideal theory by bringing it closer to reality. Aristotle points to the ground, Plato points to the sky.

    The real question you raise seems to be about “action guiding” theory, and whether this is properly the domain of ideal or non ideal theory, and whether a sliding scale approach is appropriate. If Socrates is ironic, then the Republic is at once “ideal” and “non-ideal”. If we can read utopian schemes as ironic, then what we are really doing is engaging in contemplation, and not “action guiding” theory at all. In a sense I am saying that the history of political philosophy, properly understood, is exactly as you might say not necessarily action guiding whatsoever.

  11. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Daryl,

    I think I understand your thought regarding Socrates a bit better. But, before we get to that, a quick note of clarification: I don’t think many people would say that the text you quote is using the term “ideal” in its normal sense because I do not suggest there are any constraints on “way[s] of specifying what the first best scenario looks like.” That’s why I said a theory can be ideal in my sense even if e.g. it suggests we do something really terribly unjust.

    But, on your more important point: Is your thought that utopian theories are sometimes satirical and, so, hard to categorize on my account? Voltaire’s Candide might provide a nice example here. Its clear that his theory is not intended to provide an ideal theory though it is not explicitly relativised to any other theory. So I’d probably have to say more to rule out characterizing satirical theories as ideal on my suggested account. Thanks!

    Also, I’d love to see the text your are thinking about if Aristotle suggests something like the distinction I’ve drawn.

    All my best, -N

  12. Hi Nicole,

    Thank you very much for sharing this, I found it very interesting. I’m writing up an account of the distinction for my PhD thesis, and am (tentatively) defending an account of the distinction as only relevant in cases where ideal theories must be complemented by nonideal theories in order to form a complete theory of ethics. (That is, ideal theories can’t form complete theories of ethics on their own.) Mine is a modification of Zofia Stemplowska’s view (in ‘What’s Ideal About Ideal Theory?’ 2008), and I’m saying that ideal theories are those that do not depend for their validity on their ability to offer achievable and desirable aims. They might offer achievable and desirable aims, but aren’t rendered invalid if they do not. (I’m just saying for the moment ‘this is a useful definition’ not ‘mine is the one true account’…)

    I was just writing to ask whether you have posted or published any thoughts on the issue since this? I’d be keen to read it if so. Also, I was wondering whether you could please point me in the direction of any summaries of Blake and Buchanan’s views? For example, any places where they mention their assumption that an ideal world wouldn’t have states?

    Thank you very much,
    Michael

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