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Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation

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Abstract

In this article I argue that theorizing about justice at the level of ideal theory is inherently flawed and thus has impoverished liberal egalitarianism. Ideal theorists (falsely) assume that a political philosopher can easily determine (or has privileged access to) what constitutes the ‘best foreseeable conditions’. Furthermore, by assuming full compliance, ideal theorists violate the constraints of a realistic utopia. More specifically I argue that liberal egalitarians who function at the level of ideal theory adopt a cost-blind approach to rights and a narrow view of possible human misfortune. The former issue leads liberal egalitarians to give priority to a serially ordered principle of equal basic liberties or to treat rights as ‘trumps’; and the latter to a stringent prioritarian principle (Rawls' difference principle) or luck egalitarianism. Taken together, the cost-blind approach to rights, coupled with the narrow view of human misfortune, mean the liberal egalitarian theories of justice cannot address the issue of trade-offs that inevitably arises in real non-ideal societies that face the fact of scarcity. This makes liberal egalitarianism an ineffective theory of social justice.

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