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John Rawls: an ideal theorist for nonideal times?

Fifty years ago, the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice started a conversation in political philosophy that continues today. Rawls’s voice remains central in contemporary philosophical debates across a wide variety of topics—from arguments about principles of economic justice to questions of fair policies for international relations; from basic philosophical methodology to the grounds of democratic legitimacy.

Despite the enduring significance of Rawls’s work in contemporary political philosophy, some critics question its relevance to pressing issues of injustice such as racial inequity and health care disparity. Critics like Amartya Sen and Charles Mills argue that Rawls’s theory is either unnecessary or misleading when it comes to addressing real injustices in our world.

John Rawls describes the “main concern” of A Theory of Justice as being “ideal theory”. Although there is some ambiguity in his use of that term, at least part of what Rawls means by “ideal theory” is theory aimed at identifying the ideal principles of justice that should be used to evaluate our political and social institutions. If a society were completely to satisfy these principles, it would be fully just. A second part of what Rawls means by “ideal theory” is that it involves certain simplifying assumptions about society—most notably, that citizens will fully comply with the rules. In focusing on these standards of evaluation for ideal conditions, Rawls has very little to say about their application to real-world injustices and the question of how to overcome these injustices on the way to a more just society. Yet Rawls ultimately thinks ideal theory should serve as a guide for theorizing about how to overcome injustices in the nonideal world. Rawls writes, “the reason for beginning with ideal theory is that it provides, I believe, the only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems [of nonideal theory]”. Critics challenge the claim that nonideal theory depends on ideal theory in this way.

“Rawls ultimately thinks ideal theory should serve as a guide for theorizing about how to overcome injustices in the nonideal world”

Amartya Sen argues that identifying ideals of justice is neither necessary nor sufficient for identifying and eliminating actual injustices. He argues that we do not need to know the principles of a perfectly just system in order to recognize the many injustices in our current systems. We can discern that racial discrimination is wrong, for example, without developing a complete theory of justice. Going even further, Charles Mills argues that doing ideal theory is not merely unnecessary, but inimical to the project of rectifying real injustices. He argues that the standards of justice for ideal conditions are not the same as the standards of justice for nonideal conditions. As such, using the ideal standards as a guide in the real world could lead us to more injustice. He points to the example of colorblind policies. In an ideal world, just social policies would not take into account a citizen’s racial identity. Yet, in a non-ideal society characterized by racial injustice, such a colorblind principle risks ignoring and perpetuating existing inequality.

Surely Mills is right that just policies must recognize and respond to existing racial disparities and other injustices. The policies one should enact in the real, unjust world are different than the ones one should enact in a world without racism and sexism. These are important points. What’s less clear is the implication of these claims for ideal theory. Does this show ideal theory is an inappropriate guide in the nonideal world? There is not space here for a comprehensive discussion of the ideal theory debate, but it is worth noting that defenders of Rawls have responded by arguing that in nonideal conditions, we should evaluate policies based on the likelihood of moving a society in the direction of ideal justice. If a colorblind policy is likely to perpetuate injustice given actual historical conditions, then whatever we might hope for in the ideal, Rawls’s theory would not support such a policy. The point is that one must have a grasp of the ideal towards which we are aiming in order to tell whether a proposed response to existing injustice would move us in the direction of a more just society. Of course, ideal theory by itself won’t tell us the likely effects of various policies. That requires the specialized contribution of political scientists, sociologists, historians, economists, and others. But ideal theory has a role to play, as well. It helps us to think systematically about the values used to evaluate these policies.

No doubt Sen is also correct that one can identify and address many injustices without having worked out a full theory of justice. In fact, Rawls does not claim that ideal theory is necessary for the identification of each and every injustice. Rawls’s own methodology is to begin with our considered convictions about particular cases of injustice, such as the injustice of racial discrimination and religious intolerance, as well as abstract principles, and to attempt to work out a theory that reaches “reflective equilibrium” between them. Rawls argued that working out an ideal theory was necessary for a “more systematic grasp” of injustices and to extend our understanding of what justice requires in more difficult cases. Matthew Adams defends this claim, arguing:

When we are confronted with easy cases such as whether slavery should be abolished, we do not need the best theoretical account of why slavery is wrong to know that it is wrong. With respect to such easy cases, therefore, ideal-content theory plays no essential guidance function. Non-ideal theory, however, does not just consists of such easy cases. It also encompasses difficult—greatly contested—cases such as whether certain affirmative action policies would be adopted and how progressive rates of taxation would be determined. With respect to such difficult cases, one may well not be able to know how to act justly without the guidance of ideal-content theory. For such vexing and contested cases will plausibly require the long-term and complete picture of political values that ideal-content theory provides.

Rawls’s ideal theory of justice is perhaps particularly relevant in these divisive times. His entire approach is about how people who have different conceptions of the good, comprehensive doctrines, world views, and religions, can share just institutions without denying their differences or compromising their values. In their own ways, this is the point of both the original position and the idea of public reason. As Rawls observes, “one of the aims of moral philosophy is to look for possible bases of agreement where none seem to exist.” In other words, the question at the center of Rawls’s life work is a question at the center of public political debate today: what values ought to guide the terms of cooperation in a divided nation? Ultimately, Rawls argues that a just pluralist society must ensure that all citizens have a fair chance to pursue their own diverse conceptions of the good life. This requires strong protections for basic liberties, special attention to the needs of the least advantaged, and fair equality of opportunity for all.

It is true that Rawls wrote very little about how to address real-world injustices and move toward a more just system. But this is because Rawls views the project of understanding and addressing real-world injustice as a collaborative, interdisciplinary project. Philosophers have an important role to play, but so do many others, including, of course, politicians and citizens generally. The distinctive contribution that philosophers can make is to develop explicit understanding of the underlying standards to be used to assess the justice of various institutional arrangements. But there is much more work to be done than identifying guiding principles. Rawls himself did not think that his theory would or should be the last word on this matter, and his work certainly does not relieve us of the burden of thinking carefully about real-world injustice for ourselves, both individually and collectively. He aims to help orient our approach to these issues and to contribute to the public debate rather than to solve them for us.

Featured image by Ryoji Iwata

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  1. […] “Fifty years ago, the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice started a conversation in political philosophy that continues today. Rawls’s voice remains central in contemporary philosophical debates across a wide variety of topics – from arguments about principles of economic justice to questions of fair policies for international relations; from basic philosophical methodology to the grounds of democratic legitimacy …” (more) […]

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