What’s a Political Theorist to Do?

Rawls, the Fair Value of the Basic Political Liberties, and the Collapse of the Distinction Between ‘Ideal’ and ‘Nonideal’ Theory

in Theoria
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Abstract

John Rawls famously distinguishes between ideal and nonideal theory, according priority to the former. He depicts his own efforts to articulate the conception of justice as fairness as an instance of ideal theory. Subsequent political theorists have taken Rawls’s distinction as a template for how we should understand the tasks of political theory. Yet they also have struggled to clarify the underlying distinction with notable lack of success. We argue that Rawls himself does not abide by the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory and that this affords a good reason to set the distinction aside as a distraction.

Contributor Notes

James Johnson teaches social and political theory at the University of Rochester, where he is professor of political science. His research cuts across pragmatist political thought, democratic theory, philosophy of social science, and political economy. E­mail: jd.johnson@rochester.edu

Susan Orr is associate professor of political science at College at Brockport, State University of New York. Her research traverses empirical and normative concerns related to political institutions and civic engagement. She is particularly interested in questions located at the intersection of politics and the workplace. E­mail: sorr@brockport.edu

Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

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