Monday, 6 September 2010

Rawls on Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory (III)

In my last posting on this topic I discussed the way in which Rawls' lexical priority of principles was meant to limit the role of intuition in non-ideal theory. Non-ideal theory is meant to deal with conditions of non-compliance and Rawls discusses two types of way this is meant to work. On the one hand, there are natural limitations and historical contingencies. On the other hand, there need to be principles for how to "meet" injustice. If we relate the principle of liberty to principles of non-compliance, for example, we can see one of the "permanent" conditions of human life concerns the need for order and this need limits, in certain respects, the application of the principle of liberty. The "meeting" of injustice has to be assessed by, for example, considering the ways in which liberty has to deal with those who lack tolerance and in regard to them we have to draw lines that show ways in which tolerance gets limited. However the degrees of limitation of this principle of liberty are quite different to the degrees of limitation of Rawls' second principle (concerning equality) given the lexical priority of this principle over the second principle.

Rawls' discussion of historical contingencies is, however, only really appropriately part of non-ideal theory in certain respects since he makes clear that paternalistic principles (such as apply in treatment of children) are really not based on departures from ideal principles but rather on applications of them to special circumstances. By contrast, in section 26 of Theory he points to cases in which "social circumstances do not allow the effective establishment" of basic rights such as are given in the two principles. In those cases there is a sense in which they are limited by serious historical contingencies which can even effect the degree to which the principle of liberty is given appliance. (Though this has to be "essential" to changing the "conditions of civilization".) Interestingly, there is also mention in section 11 of Theory of something called the "general conception" of justice and there it is stated that the two principles are special cases of this more general conception. Rawls gives there a formulation of this general conception:

All social values--liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect--are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage.

This formula even leads Rawls in section 11 to describe injustice in the most general way he gives, namely as "inequalities that are not to the benefit of all". If there is such a general conception, then what role does it play in relation to "historical contingencies" by contrast to the specific principles on the one hand and reference to non-compliance notions on the other? Rawls appears to give no specific answer to this question although we might expect that the more general principle would have to guide how we limited the specific principles especially given the lexical priority of the first of the special principles over the second.

When Rawls comes to international theory in the Law of Peoples the distinction between the two elements of non-ideal theory produces a clearer division than we appear to reach in Theory alone though the divisions of the Law of Peoples have problems of their own. Included within "ideal theory" here are the "decent peoples" that are not liberal democratic societies since the nature of the law set out in ideal theory here is meant to be one that such peoples could agree to, in line with the divergence from the strict conditions of compliance that were laid out in Theory but later somewhat attenuated in Political Liberalism. As the latter lays out a notion of a society that does not meet the strict conditions of Theory due to Rawls' intervening abandonment of the notion of "comprehensive views" so the Law of Peoples operates with a notion of ideal theory that can allow the "decent peoples" to be included within the ambit of ideal theory. Questions about that will have to wait until a different time though.

The more important point for today's posting is that the province of non-ideal theory is more sharply presented in the Law of Peoples than in Theory. Now Rawls describes non-ideal theory in such a way that its two elements relate to two different kinds of society. The society that has the unfavourable conditions referred to in Theory is now described as a "burdened society" whilst the one that outright refuses to relate to the principles of well-ordered societies are now termed "outlaw states". This division resumes the distinction from Theory and now requires the conditions of non-ideal theory to be laid out in a more determinate way in reference to more fully-rounded conceptions of the societies that operate in accordance with its two parts. However, if we apply to the former the reasoning that Rawls used with regard to the general conditions of divergence from ideal theory in Theory then it should follow that departure from conditions of ideal theory in the cases of "burdened societies" are not necessarily in themselves unjust. This raises some interesting questions with regard to how the conduct of those societies would have to assessed on Rawls' model and what is meant by describing their conditions in relation to the "general" conception of justice. I will subsequently return to these questions as we begin to look in more detail at how this distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is meant to work in Rawls' theory of international relations.

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