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The idealism of ideal theory

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Rawls' view that theories of justice should be developed within ideal theory has been subject to increasing attack. Colin Farrelly's position is representative of a broader trend towards seeking to make political philosophy more relevant to the real world. In a recent book he argues that no amount of tinkering with Rawls's theory will resolve the fundamental deficiencies that beset all approaches within the 'principled paradigm of ideal theory'. Farrelly proposes his alternative theory of civic liberalism as exemplifying a necessary paradigm shift from ideal to non-ideal theory. But, as Farrelly recognises, the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory has not been given rigorous classification in the literature. Moreover, there is an increasing recognition of the distinctiveness of Rawls's approach to social justice in relation to influential so-called luck egalitarian approaches. In this paper I propose a framework for understanding the ideal theory debate, give an interpretation of Rawls's ideal theory approach and defend it against the criticisms of Farrelly and others. I argue against representing ideal and non-ideal theory as at opposite ends of a fact-sensitivity spectrum and in favour of situating the debate about ideal theory within a broader debate regarding the relationship of theory and practice. In providing an interpretation of Rawls's ideal theory approach I sets it within the context of his view of political philosophy as realistically utopian and his wider remarks about the role of political philosophy. Finally, I argue that Rawls takes seriously the problem of the relationship between theory and practice and sees political philosophy as neither simply prescriptive nor descriptive but interpretive. Understanding the deep structure of Rawls's approach in this way adds new items to the agenda for discussions of possibilities for the future direction of political philosophy.

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