Home > Philosophy, Policy > On the ideal/non-ideal distinction in political theory (or, why policy is really hard)

On the ideal/non-ideal distinction in political theory (or, why policy is really hard)

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while is the ‘ideal/non-ideal’ distinction in political theory. A lot of ink has been spilled on exactly what the distinction is or should be, and up front I will say I haven’t read most of it (I really hope to soon get round to reading my former political theory tutor Lea Ypi‘s new book ‘Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency‘, which has a discussion on the topic. Lea, if I screw this post up in some horribly obvious way – I’m sorry!). But the gist (I think) of the distinction is this: when doing ideal theory, we are thinking about what the perfectly just world would look like. When doing non-ideal theory, we are thinking about what justice demands of us in the imperfect world in which we actually live.

One way of thinking about what we are doing in political theory is that we establish what the ideal is (ideal theory), and then figure out how to make the actual world look as much like the ideal world as possible (non-ideal theory). I have a problem with this way of thinking about political philosophy. And it’s essentially the same problem I have with economic theories that are deduced from assumptions that are unrealistic, and whose conclusions are not backed up through some other methodology. The Lipsey-Lancaster Theorem ( or ‘Theory of Second Best‘) in economics states that when one of the optimality conditions for a theory cannot be satisfied, it does not follow that the that other optimality conditions still hold. That is to say, if your proof that x is optimal requires y and z, and y does not hold, it is not necessarily the case that the best alternative to x has z as an optimality condition. When I first read the paper, by Richard Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster, my mind was blown. But it’s just a particular instance of a very general phenomenon: that when you have a deductive  argument following from certain premises, and then weaken one of the premises – all bets are off. It may be the case that a weakened premise can still support a weakened conclusion, but it’s equally possible that nothing follows at all.

I think this relates directly to the ideal/non-ideal theory question, because once you have weakened one of your assumptions about , say, what people are actually like (or especially what people can know, which is almost always ignored) then it just doesn’t follow that moving the world towards something more closely approximating the just world (as derived from ideal premises) is actually what justice demands of us. I take this to be a simple point of logic.

I think this can make the question of advocacy really difficult. If there is anything I have ever learned, it is that often an ‘answer’ to a problem requires a number of distinct elements in order to work. Once you take one of those elements away from me, I have to completely rethink what the right answer is (I find this to be especially true when thinking about financial regulation). If my ‘ideal’ answer would be a world featuring x, y and z, and I can’t have z, it simply doesn’t follow that I should still want x and y. X and y might be a deadly combination on their own! (For example, read x as ‘capital requirements for banks based on risk-weighted assets’, y as ‘having ratings agencies assess the riskiness of assets for regulatory purposes’ and z as ‘competition and competence in the ratings agency business’. We didn’t have z, and it worked out really badly). This means that people can so easily end up talking past each other, because they have different implicit assumptions as to what possibilities are allowed within the particular ‘non-ideal’ rules of the debate.

Of course, too often I use this as an excuse to be lazy about advocacy. I definitely have a tendency to go too far in the sceptical direction, and just throw my hands up in the air and say I have no idea what to do (although when it comes to effectively relieving deprivation, I generally trust GiveWell). But maybe I see difficulty where there is none. If that is the case, I would very much like to know.

Categories: Philosophy, Policy
  1. Rigo
    May 9, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    This distinction is between ideal/non-ideal is what Amartya Sen refers to as “Transcendental Institutionalism” in his excellent book Justice – determining what the perfect state is, and then trying to obtain it. He contrasts it with realization focused theories of justice which are more pragmatic. Well worth a read (if you haven’t already)

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