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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 39, Issue 1, January 2013

Eva Erman, Niklas Möller
Pages 19-44

Three Failed Charges against Ideal Theory

An intensified discussion on the role of normative ideals has re-emerged in several debates in political philosophy. What is often referred to as “ideal theory,” represented by liberal egalitarians such as John Rawls, is under attack from those that stress that political philosophy at large should take much more seriously the nonideal circumstances consisting of relations of domination and power under which normative ideals, principles, and ideas are supposed to be applied. While the debate so far has mainly been preoccupied with defending or rejecting ideal theory through a defense or rejection of a specific ideal theory, this paper instead focuses on a number of general philosophical concerns on which the critique relies. More specifically, it brings up for scrutiny, and ultimately rejects, three charges against ideal theory: the charge that ideal theory is not action-guiding, that ideal theory is impossible, and that ideal theory is distorting. By investigating these charges in tandem, the paper shows that the criticism against ideal theory is premised on assumptions about the relationships between thought and action and between concepts and the world for which there is little or no support.

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