Assessing the Relevance of Ideal Theory

Assessing the Relevance of Ideal Theory


Convenors: Chetan Cetty (University of Pennsylvania) & Pierce Randall (University of Pennsylvania)

A natural way to theorize about social institutions and rules is to focus on first identifying what the perfect model of such arrangements looks like. After all, if we are interested in determining what justice in our specific situation requires, then it seems sensible to first figure out what justice requires in general. We might label a theory that takes up such an approach ideal theory. Rawls took the function of ideal theory to be the generation of guiding principles for how actual societies and political institutions should be arranged. On his view, ideal theory was to be supplemented with a nonideal theory, which is tasked at least partly with determining the morally justifiable and politically feasible means of moving actual societies closer to the ideal one. Of course, Rawls’s usage of the term “ideal theory” is narrower than how it is employed by contemporary writers on the subject. For Rawls, the term referred to a theory that imagines realistic utopia in which individuals are assumed to be fully compliant and possess an effective sense of justice. More generally, we can take ideal theory to also refer simply to any theory that advances a vision of a perfect society that fully embodies a normative political or moral value such as justice. Such an approach to theorizing is to be contrasted with any other that merely aims to solve moral or justice-related problems in our actual, imperfect world, without reference to a perfect society.

Ideal theory has come under heavy criticism in recent years. A major line of attack focuses on the seeming irrelevance of ideal theory for identifying and solving justice-related problems in the real world. The injustices and imperfections in our social and institutional order seem to require localized responses. Reference to general principles that are realizable only in some distant possible world seems unnecessary. Another major strand of criticism has focused on the infeasibility of these principles. If an account of justice is to be normative for us, actual persons, it seems like it must be one that we can, in some meaningful sense, realize without radically altering our psychological or collective dispositions. The ideal-theoretic approach seems to disregard this concern and thus, lose its normative relevance.

This workshop aims to explore the possibility of ideal theory serving as meaningful theoretical guide to identifying and solving justice-related problems in our world today. We welcome papers on a wide range of topics, such as:

  • the conditions for acceptable theoretical idealizations;
  • how best to characterize the feasibility constraint;
  • the cognitive or motivational demandingness of ideal theories;
  • the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory;
  • evaluating ideal theories empirically;
  • cognitive diversity and ideal theory;
  • exploring alternatives to ideal theory;
  • utopianism about justice.

The hope is to get clearer on what the proponents see as the value of ideal theory and what opponents see as its greatest shortcomings while exploring the possibility of meaningful resolution to the methodological challenges it rates.

Abstracts should be 500-1000 words, and should be sent by June 1st to Chetan Cetty ( and Pierce Randall (