The priority of non ideal theory on ideal theory

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How should we do political philosophy? What do we presuppose when we try to answer a political philosophical question? How many constraints from our actual world and reality should we take into account in our works? What are ideal and non ideal theory? Which one is prior to the other?

These are some of the questions that arise in the debate about ideal and non ideal theory and that I will try to answer.


I will first discuss what could be considered as relevant constraints for political philosophy in order to define then what is ideal theory and what is non ideal theory. Secondly, I will show that non ideal theory is prior to ideal theory.


1. The relevant constraints for political philosophy.


In order to find what would be relevant constraints for political philosophy, I think that it is useful to consider the methodological canvas developed by Pablo Gilabert and Holly Lawford-Smith1. In their article, they introduce the concepts of hard constraints and soft constraints2.The hardest constraints are for them logical constraints, less hard are physical and biological ones, softer are economical and cultural ones, and finally psychological and motivational ones are the softest ones. After reconsidering these different types of possible constraints they reject psychological (except pathological) and motivational constraints from the category of constraints that should be taken into account by political philosophy, because “the fact that people do not want to do something does not mean that we should think getting it done is infeasible, it just means we should think about how to change incentive structures and thereby change people's desires”3. Hard constraints are said hard because they are impossible to be modified or unlikely to become possible to be modified in a probable future and soft constrains are said soft because they are (in some way) possible to modify.


I agree with Gilabert and Lawford-Smith that the hardest constraints are logical constraints and that in second come the physical and biological constraints. A political philosopher who would reject these constraints would practice total ideal theory and would look like an omnipotent god, able to redefine and rebuild the world as he wishes. But what could we learn from the non taking into account of these fundamental constraints about our world? What could we learn for example from a world with flying human beings or with circles which are triangles in the same time? Of course one can imagine ethical problems that could matter in a world where for example the possibility of becoming immortal exist but only for a little number of persons, but the fact that these problems are not actual problems for our actual world and are not likely to become so in a probable future make these problems amusements for the pleasure of novelists and their readers, but not an appropriate activity for political philosophers. So, as we can see, what matters for political philosophers is what is an actual problem in our actual world or is likely to become in a probable future4. It does not mean that considering unlikely futures is always a non political philosophical task. For example, there are utopias, like Utopia from Thomas More (1516), or dystopias, like 1984 from George Orwell (1949), or mixed (ambiguous) cases, like The Dispossessed from Ursula Le Guin (1974) or The moon is a harsh mistress from Robert Heinlein (1966), that imagine unlikely future in order to raise questions about our actual world. In that cases, considering unlikely futures is a tool to talk about our actual world.


There is however one exception that I could imagine to this point: the case of someone who wants to judge God (or gods if he is polytheist). Indeed, for a political philosopher who believes in the existence of a god that would have created our world, it could make sense to imagine how this god should have created the world and to compare the result to the actual world in order to judge the moral burden of the god in question. Nevertheless, this is a very specific case where total ideal theory seems justified.


I agree with Gilabert and Lawford-Smith that economical and cultural constraints as soft constraints, constraints that can be modified, but I disagree with them when they consider that psychological constraints (except pathological ones) are not constraints that philosophers should take into account. Like Rousseau, quoted by Rawls about that subject, I think that political philosophers should “consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be5”. Indeed, I think that psychological features are parts of what make human beings what they are.

I would like to quote David Friedman about this question: “It is no more than a slightly exuberant exaggeration to say that a government functions properly only if it is made up exclusively of saints, and an anarchy fails only if it is inhabited exclusively by devils6.” I think that we should consider that human beings have some psychological features, which would be that they are neither saints nor devils, because both hypotheses seem implausible. The more a philosopher shows that his theory – about how the world should be – works with evil human beings, the more plausible can be considered his theory. But to consider that psychological constraints do not matter for the political philosopher is a mistake, for it could lead to the idea that you just need to modify the psychology of human beings, using the necessary means in order to get to the ideal world. I fear that it is an idea that can lead to re-education camps and other uses of the force to coerce people in order to adapt their minds (their psychology) to the supposed intelligent design of utopias designers (this is what Friedrich Hayek would call constructivism).

Moreover, think it is not only necessary to take into account some realistic perspective about the basic psychology of human beings (as the fact that they are not completely altruistic and cannot become so), but also to apply this view of human being to the state, because the state is composed by people (functionaries and bureaucrats) and because these people share with other human beings the same weaknesses and imperfections. For these reasons, I consider psychological constraints as relevant hard constraints.


However, I do agree with Pablo Gilabert and Holly Lawford-Smith that motivational constraints are not to be taking into account for the political philosopher. Motivational constraints mean actually political positions and views of people: for example if a majority of people is not motivated to legalize drugs, then it just means that this is their political view. Political views can be changed and are only the results of political forces that are in action and in conflict. Motivational constraints are then just a way of talking about political feasibility. But political feasibility is not the affair of philosopher but the affair of activists (by activists, I mean people trying to change the world and to make it better). Obviously, one can be a philosopher and an activist, but these are two different roles and activities in his life. Political philosophers are concerned by what is true, good and right, and not by what is politically feasible. Of course, political philosophers have an influence on the becoming of the world (and so on what is politically feasible), but it is hard to see how discovering what is true, good or right could harm the society (have a bad influence on what is politically feasible). Indeed, for a libertarian, what is right is the principle of non aggression and defending this kind of principle does not seem a priori to have the power to harm society7. Political feasibility is then a concern for what I would call total non ideal theory, but not for political philosophy.


Between total ideal theory (the philosopher who thinks without any constraints about how should be the world in order to judge God or the novelist) and total non ideal theory (the activist who thinks about what would be politically feasible), there is ideal theory and non ideal theory. Ideal theory is the activity of defining what would be a just world considering the existence of hard constraints (logical, physical, biological, psychological) and non ideal theory is the activity of defining what would be right in our actual world considering the existence of soft constraints (economical and cultural).


2. Non ideal theory is prior to ideal theory.


How do we find what is an ideal world? As I am a rules-utilitarian, I think that we can find what is an ideal world in thinking what would be the institutions that would maximize the well-being of all the individuals8. How do we find what kind of reforms or changes we would need in our actual world? As I am a rules-utilitarian, I think that we can find what would be these reforms in thinking about how to reform the institutions in order that they would maximize the well-being of all the individuals. The important point is that we do not need the knowledge of what would be an ideal world in order to imagine what could improve our actual world. For that reason I do not share the position of John Rawls when he asserts that “until the ideal is identified non ideal theory lacks an objective, an aim, by reference to which its queries can be answered9” The position of Rawls is only the consequence of his deontologist positions: Rawls needs a set of principles in order to evaluate the world and to offer reforms proposals. On the opposite, the rules-utilitarian can evaluate the actual world in exploring if the actual institutions maximize or not the well-being of all individuals. So from the rules-utilitarian perspective, there is no conflict between ideal and non ideal theory and we can get a critical perspective from both of them.


However, non ideal theory is more important that ideal theory, because ideal theory is discovered through non ideal theory: there is an epistemological hierarchy between them, or alternatively said, non ideal theory is epistemologically prior to ideal theory. An ideal world is the result, the addition, of the reforms of all the aspects of our actual world, of all the processes of thinking what changes would maximize the well-being of all individuals: the sum of all the steps give us the picture of the complete stairs. It's only when we have the picture of the stairs that we can see how far we are from the top and how long is still our path to the ultimate goal.


To discuss this view with an example, let's take the problem of access to vital minimum in supposing the validity of free market anarchism. In (most of?) our actual Western10 societies, the state is providing to poor people (at least to the ones who are citizens from this state) an access to the vital minimum. From the ideal theoretical perspective, we do not need the state in order to provide to poor people an access to vital minimum, because in an ideal world the individuals are enough rich not to need help from others in order to access to the vital minimum or there are enough individuals who are rich enough and altruistic enough to provide voluntarily this access to the vital minimum to poor people. So from the ideal perspective, poor people do not need help from the state. But from the non ideal perspective, it is plausible to think that the actual suppression of this help for poor people would not maximize the well-being of the individuals because some poor people would not have anymore an access to vital minimum. Actually, the ideal world would be the result of the addition of many reforms in all fields of human activities that would lead to the increase of wealth for individuals (which would decrease the cost of altruism and increases the external cost11 related to the existence of people not having access to the vital minimum – for example the feeling of guilt). So the non ideal perspective is prior and more important than the ideal perspective, because it gives us an idea of what would be a fair order of transitions and reforms.

That's why I would here agree with Karl Marx about the idea that not everything is possible anytime but that there is an order (probably not a teleological order though) in which we can get to the ideal world, or, as Christian Michel says: “Every phase of development is necessary for the next to happen. One could not have conceived a libertarian society at the seventeenth century, in a time where knowledge and techniques attained in the next centuries, the separation of spiritual and temporal powers, the rise of a civil society, the prosperity brought by industrial revolution, and so on had not informed the moral consciousness of people. The evolution is still not achieved. We are not at the end of History12.” Alternatively said, actual economical and cultural constraints do matter to determine how far and how quick we can go in direction to the ideal society.


To conclude, I have tried in this essay first to define the appropriate constraints that political philosophers should adopt in their works. I have then defined what is ideal and non ideal theory and showed that non ideal theory is prior to ideal theory. It seems to me that the importance that this debate about ideal and non ideal theory has taken in contemporary political philosophy is linked to the predominance of a non rules-utilitarian approach (maybe because of Rawls' influence I guess). Nevertheless, the priority of non ideal theory on ideal theory is an essential point that has to be pointed if one wants to use the rules-utilitarian approach in an effective and correct way.





1 GILABERT Pablo and LAWFORD-SMITH Holly, “Political Feasibility : a conceptual exploration” in Political Studies, volume 60, pp. 809-825., Political Studies Association, 2012.

2 Ibidem, p. 813.

3 Idem.

4 However, we can imagine thoughts experiments without biological realistic constraints that could be useful to think about moral theories. For example, we could imagine a world with human beings that can eat fat food without any health consequence for their body and consider what it shows us about the hierarchy of values when we consider the value of good health and the value of pleasure. But I think is only means that moral theory has its own presuppositions and appropriate constraints that differ from the ones of political philosophy.

5 RAWLS John, The law of peoples, Harvard University Press, p.13., London, 1999.

6 FRIEDMAN David, The machinery of freedom, [], p. 82, 1973.

7 Of course, it is probable that more of the majority of political philosophers is not currently libertarian, so, if we suppose that libertarianism is a valuable position, what they say or write could indeed be (or is already) harmful for the society. The problem is then not to express what is true or right, but to express what is wrong or unfair. But it is also likely that this expression of non truths cannot be changed in another way than in having this political philosophical debate.

8 This point shows us that the whole enterprise of political philosophy presupposes some moral philosophical answers about what is a valid and sound moral theory, which presupposes itself the meta-ethical realist theory about moral judgments.

9 RAWLS John, The law of peoples, Harvard University Press, p.90., London, 1999.

10 By Western societies I mean West Europa, Canada, United-States, Australia and New-Zealand.

11 This idea of external cost of poverty on other people has been developed by Milton Friedman in his book from 1962 Capitalism and freedom.

12 CANLORBE Grégoire, Entretien avec Christian Michel, [], Institut Coppet, 23 January 2015.






- CANLORBE Grégoire, Entretien avec Christian Michel, [], Institut Coppet, 23 January 2015.


- GILABERT Pablo and LAWFORD-SMITH Holly, “Political Feasibility : a conceptual exploration” in Political Studies, volume 60, pp. 809-825., Political Studies Association, 2012.


- FRIEDMAN David, The machinery of freedom, [], 1973.


- RAWLS John, The law of peoples, Harvard University Press, London, 1999.







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