Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ideal Theory Paper

I have just finished making the final revisions to my paper "Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation" which is forthcoming in the journal Political Studies. I have added the paper to my research page and you can download it here. The paper is a challenge to political philosophers who defend accounts of distributive justice in "ideal theory".

The debate between ideal and non-ideal theorists is really a debate over how fact-sensitive a theory of distributive justice ought to be. There are dangers to both extremes on the spectrum. If one takes all existing constraints as a given then there is a danger that one's account of justice simply reinforces the status quo. On the other hand, if one adopts a fact-insensitive position one risks endorsing a theory that yields misguided or impotent prescriptions for real (non-ideal) societies.

In the paper I focus on (and critique) moderate ideal theorists (Rawls and Dworkin). More specifically, I argue that liberal egalitarians who function at the level of ideal theory adopt a cost-blind approach to rights and a narrow view of possible human misfortune. The former issue leads liberal egalitarians to give priority to a serially ordered principle of equal basic liberties (Rawls, 1971, 1996) or to treat rights as “trumps” (Dworkin, 1978); and the latter to a stringent prioritarian principle (Rawls’s difference principle) or luck egalitarianism. Taken together, the cost-blind approach to rights, coupled with the narrow view of human misfortune, mean the liberal egalitarian theories of justice cannot address the issue of tradeoffs that inevitably arises in real non-ideal societies that face the fact of scarcity. This makes liberal egalitarianism an ineffective theory of social justice.

This paper is part of a book-length project I am in the final stages of completing. So over the summer months I will post a few blogs on the various topics I address in that larger project.