Philosophy Today

Volume 67, Issue 2, Spring 2023

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Pages 349-371

How Ideal Is Ideal Theory, Actually?
Rawls, Mills, Reverse Racism and Justice as Failure

In this article, I argue that Rawls is not actually an ideal theorist (as it is commonly understood), that his political theory remains unconvincing nevertheless, and that we should understand justice as failure in order to unlearn our adherence to dysfunctional ideals. I demonstrate that Rawlsian ideals are not removed from actuality, as both ideal theorists and their critics seem to think. Instead, they are already actualized as something to aspire to in a given culture. They are actual ideals. Non-ideal theorists, such as Charles Mills, who claim that instead of starting from ideals we should start from actual conditions thus miss the target. I then present an argument against theories of actual ideals: the original position requires optimal epistemological conditions in order to source actual ideals from public discourse. I offer Aamer Rahman’s “Reverse Racism” joke as a test for whether these conditions apply. I argue that in our world, they do not. Finally, I suggest justice as failure as a critical practice that may help us to unlearn our inherited dysfunctional actual ideals.