There's No Such Thing as Ideal Theory

Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1-2) 312-333, October 2016

24 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2014 Last revised: 11 Dec 2016

See all articles by Jacob T. Levy

Jacob T. Levy

McGill University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: April 3, 2014


Final published version now available in Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1-2) 312-333. -------

In this paper I argue against the now-conventional bright-line distinction between ideal and non-ideal normative political theory, a distinction used to distinguish “stages” of theorizing such that ideal political principles can be deduced and examined before compromises with the flawed political world are made. The distinction took on its familiar form in Rawls and has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the past few years.

I argue that the idea of a categorical distinction — the kind that could allow for a sequencing of stages of theorizing — is misconceived, because wholly “ideal” normative political theory is a conceptual mistake — the equivalent of taking the simplifying models of introductory physics (“frictionless movement in a vacuum”) and trying to develop an ideal theory of aerodynamics. Political organization and justice are about moral friction in the first instance. For example: one of the central idealizations of ideal theory is “full compliance” — the idea that a theory of justice should be analyzed , and the choice among such theories made, in the first instance without reference to whether persons will do as they oughtn’t and violate the principles. We choose among ideal principles in their best and most coherent forms, without worrying about whether the non-compliant will jeopardize the stability of the system.

But, as Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary;” as Hume argued, “if men were endowed with [extensive and public-spirited] benevolence, these rules [of justice] would never have been dreamt of.” So-called ideal theories of normative political justice are derived assuming full compliance with whatever they happen to demand; but do nothing to justify being in the business of normative political theorizing about justice if humans could be assumed to fully comply with moral demands. Taking “full compliance” seriously would mean assuming away the crime that justifies the state’s control of the means of violence, the limited beneficence that sits at the base of theories of justice in property and in the coercive provision of social welfare, and more generally the failings that make politics and justice unavoidable.

I examine both logical and epistemological arguments for the position that we need the idealizing assumptions of ideal theory in order to arrive at, or to know, a genuine theory of justice or political morality; and I find them wanting. Such assumptions as full compliance, consensus, and the publicity principle of universal knowledge about consensus can sometimes be useful, if used carefully and with justification; but they are not categorically different from other idealizing and abstracting assumptions in generating normative theory. What is referred to as “non-ideal” theory is all that there is, and it is many kinds of theory not one: the many ways in which we learn about justice and injustice, and seek to answer questions of practical reason about what ought to be done in our political world.

Keywords: ideal theory, non-ideal theory, political philosophy, justice, full compliance, injustice

Suggested Citation

Levy, Jacob T., There's No Such Thing as Ideal Theory (April 3, 2014). Social Philosophy and Policy 33(1-2) 312-333, October 2016 , Available at SSRN: or

Jacob T. Levy (Contact Author)

McGill University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Montreal, Quebec H3A 1G5

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