How to 'Orient' a Theory of Justice: Rawls and the Ideal/Non-Ideal Distinction
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This thesis deals with two broad questions: (1) “What makes a theory of justice ideal as opposed to non-ideal?”, and (2) “what are the consequences of taking one or the other approach?”. In the first part of the thesis, I discuss ways of drawing a distinction between ideal and non-ideal theories of justice, drawing from contemporary debates in political philosophy. I then propose that we ought to view the distinction as being about the overall purposes of a theory of justice. Theories that try to give an account of justice, I argue, are ideal theories and those that give an account of injustice are non-ideal. This leads to the conclusion that justice is a negative concept, indicating the lack of injustice in the world. Where theories of justice have traditionally gone wrong in trying to give an account of justice from the wrong direction, by beginning with an account of a perfect society, I argue that non-ideal theories have a better chance of responding to real injustices. Finally, I show that there are negative consequences from taking the ideal theory approach. In particular, I show that the ideal method- as exemplified by John Rawls- can exclude discussion of important injustices because of its methodological starting point.