In current political philosophy, a schism exists between ideal and nonideal theorists, the divide resting upon differential beliefs about how to bring about a just society. Ideal theorists hold that focusing on the fundamental principles of a just society is of the utmost importance. John Rawls writes, “the current conflict in democratic thought is in good part what conception of justice is most appropriate for a democratic society under reasonably favorable conditions” adding that ideal theory will provide “guidance in thinking about nonideal theory, and so about difficult cases of how to deal with existing injustices” (Rawls & Kelly 13). Opposing this belief, nonideal theorists argue that their counterpart’s methodology is incapable of bringing about a just society, stipulating that the mechanisms of nonideal forces such as oppression must be considered at the genesis of any political theory. Charles Mills writes, “the best way to bring about the ideal is by recognizing the nonideal, and that by assuming the ideal or the near-ideal, one is only guaranteeing the perpetuation of the nonideal” (Mills 182).
In this paper, I will argue in favor of ideal theory by beginning with an analytic model of its basic procedure. Using this, I will show that standpoint bias is a necessary condition of individual-based ideal theory. From this, I will propose a group-based mechanism by which this bias can be avoided. After contending an objection related to individual cognitive spheres, I will then show why group-based ideal theory is superior to both individual-based ideal theory and the current practice of nonideal theory.
Ideal Theory Doesn’t Necessitate Social Group Marginalization
As Mills writes, “the ultimate point of ethics is to guide our actions and make ourselves better people and the world a better place” (Mills 170). If this is not the case, then we would not suppose that we are obligated to do good and to not harm. Being a subset of ethics, political philosophy must likewise have this aim.
Suppose that we refer to the current world as W. Suppose that we refer to an ideal version of the world as Ideal W. Because the world is infinitely complex, we create models of W, abstracting away features to simplify conjecturing about it. Although this practice may seem objectionable, modeling W does not mean that any facts about it are lost. Consider everything we know about Euclidean Space. By virtue of its systemization, every true statement is a logical consequence of five postulates. Hence, creating a model composed of just these postulates would mean that no facts about Euclidean space would be lost. Thus, modeling W does not necessitate any loss of facts.
Now, consider how ideal theorists would refer to their basic theoretical process. First, they formulate a model of Ideal W. Then, in combination with empirical observations about W, they proscribe actions such that W can transition into Ideal W.
Yet, this description does not take into account the crucial first step. All ideal theorists will first draw empirical and/or analytical propositions from W. From these, theorists then formulate models of Ideal W. This distinction is crucial, because no matter how “ideal” any ideal theorist asserts his/her theory to be, it will be influenced by background assumptions of what W is like.
As noted by W’s infinite complexity, it is not possible for any individual to have an objective understanding of such. Even construing W to be the smallest possible set of objects relevant to this argument – those comprising our joint moral, social, and political reality – it is still more nuanced than is fully graspable by one person. This is especially true given the effect of social status on individuals. An upper class white male will never fully understand the world through the eyes of an impoverished, black woman.
This is where we meet the strongest objection to ideal theory. As Mills writes, “what distinguishes ideal theory is the reliance on idealization to the exclusion, or at least marginalization, of the actual” (Mills 168). Although we cannot claim this with deductive certainty, in all likelihood, any model of ideal W that is claimed to be strong enough to proscribe real world action will be have a set of assumptions that will marginalize some aspects of W. This is direct consequence of the limited empirical and analytical propositions that informs its creation.
Yet, this objection assumes that ideal theory is something that can only be undertaken by individuals. This assumption is false.
Even though almost all philosophical theories derive from individuals, philosophy is very much a collective activity. So, although against the paradigm, group construction of ideal theory remains a possibility. Through illustrating one such group-based mechanism, I will argue that ideal theory remains legitimate in light of Mills’s objection. Call the following Genetic Standpoint Constriction: GSC. The purpose of this is to completely control individual predispositions so as to rule out all conclusions that derive from involuntary social group membership.
Genetic Standpoint Constriction
First, create a list of all involuntary social groups. For the purposes of explanation, I will assume that race, gender, and sexuality are the only social groups. Then, calculate the total number of possibilities for social group membership. Suppose this total number of possibilities is M. Then, we would artificially conceive a fetus and replicate it M times. With each replication, we would modify its genetics with the least number of DNA nucleotide insertions and deletions such that each fetus falls under a differential social group. Because the number of DNA operations is minimized, this will ensure the preservation of the maximum number of genetic predispositions. Upon birth, each then will be raised under a family that has been deemed as typical of someone of that social group. Upon reaching maturity, each will then be given sufficient exposure to the current state of political theory so as to make educated arguments about it. Then, each individual will formulate a model of Ideal W. Collect every assumption from every individual, and then pool them together into one large set. Then, remove all contradictory assumptions within this set. Left with this final set of assumptions, this becomes our model of Ideal W. As a result of this setup, we have controlled for all biases that result solely from differential social group standpoints.
There are two possible outcomes for Genetic Standpoint Constriction: either an empty or a non-empty set. If the set is non-empty, we would then go about doing ideal theory as we have in the past, the stipulation being that philosophers can only utilize assumptions from this set. If the set is empty, we would then only utilize empirically based evidence to conjecture about our political world. If this is the case, the mechanism for this form of ideal theory would parallel that of nonideal theory. Yet, they are not one in the same, given the steps leading up to it. I believe that the general cooperation among social groups points towards this final set being non-empty, although I will not assert that it is a necessary consequence.
An opponent can claim that Genetic Standpoint Constriction asserts an equal, idealized cognitive sphere amongst all social groups. One could add that it entails members of historically oppressed social groups to make claims uncharacteristic of their background. Yet, this is not the case, because I have only argued for the strongest set of assumptions about Ideal W in which every social group agrees. This does not preclude the possibility that the cognitive sphere of one social group representative is very much inferior to others, that is, lacking the terminology to properly express his/her social, moral and political reality. Given the historical lack of many social groups in academia, such as homosexual Latina women, this is most likely the case. Now, given that they will be exposed to the general conceptual framework of current political philosophy, they will be inclined to reject traditional concepts. Due to their inferior cognitive sphere, they will be unable to separate subsets of a concept from the whole, and will consequently reject the full concept. Before the 1970’s, many men claimed that workplaces were equal. Yet, because sexual discrimination was not yet a widespread concept, women were inclined to say that workplaces as a whole were unequal, rather than classifying a subset of the workplace – sexist actions or workplace conditions – to be the source of inequality.
Hence, this group-based ideal theory will not be as strong as it could be. Although this may seem problematic, it is overruled by both the concerns for equality of standpoint and the pragmatic social effects. As the history of political philosophy makes clear, the prevailing theories reflect the compounding assurance of the most privileged social group – white males. If there is belief that the model of Ideal W is weaker than it ought to be, then the most privileged will be forced to acknowledge the disparity between social group cognitive spheres. As a result, there will be an intellectual push to reduce this disparity, combatting the intellectual effects of oppression that have led to the overrepresentation of whites within academic philosophy.
Since this group-based ideal theory is the intersection between all these models of Ideal W, it will be a proper subset of every philosopher’s beliefs. Yet, since every individual holds onto false beliefs, everyone will always believe that the model for Ideal W should be stronger than it is. This will guarantee the perpetuation of this push for social reform, and eventually the strongest ideal theory will result, even though it will never be agreed as so.
Also, future philosophers from each social group will argue for the adjustment of these initial assumptions. Yet, by its very nature, only assumptions will be added, never taken away. Thus, this ideal theory will be able to proscribe real-world action from its first iteration onwards.
Superiority of Group-Based Ideal Theory
Genetic Standpoint Constriction is supposed to provide an example of Group-Based ideal theory in its most ideal form. Yet, given its ethical, scientific and logistical contingencies, this would not be the version executed in the real world, if it even could be. Rather, it is meant to illustrate the extent to which the foundational principles should play a role in the establishment of another, more realistic Group-based Ideal Theory.
Now, by reason of Mills’s objection, this form of ideal theory is superior to individual-based forms. By creating a model of Ideal W that consists of only the assumptions that members of each involuntary social group will agree upon, it avoids marginalizing aspects of W. Likewise, it enforces equality of standpoints, a principle that the field of political theory very much does not reflect. Group-based Ideal Theory also takes into account past harms. As noted by the previous objection, past oppression will reflect through the limited cognitive spheres of subordinated social groups. Lastly, it incentivizes privileged academics to equalize cognitive sphere disparities.
While nonideal theory strives to equally reflect all standpoints, that belief is not reinforced in its current form. Rather, the prevailing arguments and theoretical discussion will reflect only the oppressed social groups that have the most representation within the domain of philosophical discourse. While equal standpoints is the central aim of nonideal theory, group-based ideal theory does a better job at enforcing it. Also, nonideal theory lacks the direct incentive for reducing cognitive sphere disparities. Lastly, when it comes to social improvement, humans are most motivated when they are cognizant of their final goal. This is why MLK’s I Have a Dream stands as one of his most influential speeches. He conjures images of an ideal world where “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” (“Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech”). In the same way, political theory that considers the ideal world first will do better to motivate both philosophers and readers in bringing about an ideal world. Thus, political philosophy ought to have a paradigm shift towards group-based ideal theory.
"Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech." Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech - American Rhetoric. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Mills, Charles, “Ideal Theory as Ideology.” Moral Psychology: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory. DesAutels, Peggy, and Margaret Urban Walker. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 166-184 Print.
Rawls, John, and Erin Kelly. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.