Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Rawls, Non-Ideal Theory and International Relations

In yesterday's posting the topic of the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory for John Rawls reached the point of intersection with his view of international relations as expressed in his book The Law of Peoples. In this work, one of Rawls last publications, he describes two forms of society that match the generic conditions of non-ideal theory. On the one hand, there are "burdened societies" that are the victim of historical contingencies and as a result of these we would expect that their application of the conditions of ideal theory is partial and compromised. On the other hand, there are societies that deliberately and consciously work against the conditions of ideal theory and these latter are termed "outlaw states". This opens out the question of how states that approximate more closely to the conditions of ideal theory should deal with states in the two positions that are decidedly non-ideal.

At the opening of the discussion of non-ideal theory in the Law of Peoples Rawls describes the need for "policies and courses of action" that are are "morally permissible and politically possible as well as likely to be effective". There are here three distinct requirements that could in principle be independently detailed and related to each other. Rawls does not specify either how these notions are to be understood or how the relationship between them should be guided which ensures that there is rather ample space left here for "intuition". Nor does Rawls discuss whether we should aim in dealing with these requirements at conditions that follow some general rule that is independent of them all whether that rule be one of some general maxim of efficiency or expediency or utility.  There is, however, some guidance in the pages of Theory since in section 46 of it Rawls gives two priority rules, one that that has been discussed previously to the effect that liberty has priority over the second principle of equality and the other that states justice has priority over efficiency and welfare. This second rule addresses our query here in stating that the principle of equality is prior to any principle of efficiency (including utility). 

The notion of "moral permissibility" listed at the opening of the discussion of non-ideal theory in the Law of Peoples is not further specified there. Back in Theory we note in section 19 a discussion of what Rawls terms "natural duties" and it might be reasonable to assume that these would form part of the guidance for what is "morally permissible". Included there under the heading of "natural duties" we find duties of mutual aid (pertinent with regard to "burdened societies"), duties of non-maleficence and duties of beneficence. Here Rawls also specifically wrote that such duties should be recognised in the conduct of states.

With regard to the question of "political possibility" and "likely effectiveness" there are further questions. Firstly, what is politically possible may be what is possible within certain societies in relation to others. So, despite being well-ordered, some societies might manifest more or less tendencies amongst their citizens to either help other societies or engage in confrontation with them. This may make some actions more or less "politically possible". Similarly, what is "effective" may not be what is most "possible". And, what is understood to be "effective" could be either measures that remove specific injustices or the overall group of injustices. Removal of some specific injustices might be more "politically possible" and yet have little overall effect on the general conditions of injustice. Presumably the best outcome (though this involves some notion of optimality) would be to remove the general conditions of injustice but this might well not only lead to some specific injustices being unaddressed but could even lead to circumstances that perpetuated these specific injustices.

These problems point up matters that need to be considered when reading through the discussion of non-ideal theory in the Law of Peoples in more detail as I intend to do on a future occasion.

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