The Best and the Rest: How Ideals Mislead and Distort -- Yet Sharpen -- Comparative Evaluation


Political philosophers sometimes defend the value of idealistic normative theories by arguing that they help specify principles for evaluating feasible solutions to real-world problems. I start by showing that this defense is ambiguous between three interpretations, one of which I show to be a nonstarter. The second interpretation says (roughly) that a description of a normatively ideal society provides a benchmark from which to measure deviations from the ideal; the third says (again, roughly) that a description of a normatively ideal society can provide useful information about the evaluative criteria that we should use when comparing social possibilities. Against the second defense, I show how measuring deviations from the ideal can mislead our comparative evaluation of nonideal options. Against the third defense, I show how descriptions of an ideal society can distort our judgments when evaluating feasible solutions to real-world problems. I conclude by proposing a way to understand ideal theory that enables us to vindicate the intuition that it can help us clarify our values while still accepting my critical arguments. In short, we should view ideal theory not as a device for articulating normative judgments, but for clarifying the concepts we use to articulate such judgments.



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David Wiens
University of California, San Diego

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References found in this work

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.John Rawls (ed.) - 2001 - Harvard University Press.
The Idea of Justice.Amartya Kumar Sen - 2009 - Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Rescuing Justice and Equality.G. A. Cohen (ed.) - 2008 - Harvard University Press.
The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society.Gerald Gaus - 2016 - Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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