Monday, 7 June 2010

Rawls on Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory (I)

A great deal has been written about John Rawls' work The Law of Peoples and much of what has been written is very critical. What I would like to begin focusing on is the account of non-ideal theory given there. However, in order to get focused on the view of non-ideal theory within it, it is first necessary to look at some of the ways Rawls distinguishes between ideal and non-ideal theory.

The distinction itself is not new to The Law of Peoples as it was earlier discussed in A Theory of Justice. As was clear from Theory one of the points of the distinction is to reflect what the earlier work termed "natural limitations" although a further point concerns what Rawls calls "partial compliance". This second component of the notion of non-ideal theory is relatively easy to contrast with ideal theory since ideal theory supposes "strict compliance" with the standards of justice. Ideal theory assumes, that is, that we have a perfectly just basic structure and so, by contrast, non-ideal theory will be working with an imperfect situation where the basic structure is only partially congruent with the standards of justice. However, this situation of partial compliance means that in non-ideal theory we are dealing with the existence, in some degree, of injustice and are trying in such a case to work out principles for how to, as Rawls puts this, "meet" such injustice. (Section 39 of Theory.)

One of the peculiarities about the distinction as set out in Theory is the degree of allowance made there to intuition as Rawls simply states that the degree of departure from the standards of justice in the case of non-ideal theory is left to this. We also clearly require more to be said about what Rawls terms "the basic structure", a topic that threatens in itself to require major exegetical and philosophical work. Rather than undertake this here I would simply refer to the basic definition in section 2 of Theory: "the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation". The "major social institutions" are there understood to include laws governing free thought and conscience, markets, private property in the means of production and the monogamous family. Much could be said both about the definition and what Rawls fits under it but, for the time being, I will leave this topic.

More important at this stage is to indicate the ways in which the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory seems to alter when we reach The Law of Peoples. There was, in Theory, acknowledgment of the notion of an international version of the original position (discussed in section 58). There we discovered that the basic principle of such a position between nations was equality. From the notion of the equality of all parties we arrived at the consequence of self-determination, right of self-defense against attack and the need for treaties to be kept.

However, at the opening of The Law of Peoples, Rawls now lists 5 types of domestic society and then proceeds to describe the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in relation to these types. Ideal theory is now complicated as it is split into 2 distinct parts at the international level. The first part concerns the society of liberal democratic peoples whilst the second part extends the contractualist apparatus to societies of a different sort, societies that have "good standing" but which are not democratic. These second types of society are termed by Rawls "decent" societies and a lot has been written concerning the view he presents of them. The key initial point is the view that the "decent" societies are capable of agreeing to the same law of peoples as the liberal democratic societies.

Having thus expanded the notion of ideal theory Rawls then turns to characterising non-ideal theory in terms that still follow the outline of Theory as one part of it concerns "conditions of noncompliance" and concerns what Rawls views as "outlaw states" whilst the other part deals only with unfavourable conditions or what he terms "burdened societies". Future postings will begin the process of working through how the account of ideal theory at the international level incorporates a division that was not given previously and how the distinction between two kinds of non-ideal conditions relates to the ideal theory.

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