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John Rawls: an ideal theorist for nonideal times?

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Fifty years ago, the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice started a conversation in political philosophy that continues today. Rawls’s voice remains central in contemporary philosophical debates across a wide variety of topics—from arguments about principles of economic justice to questions of fair policies for international relations; from basic philosophical methodology to the grounds of democratic legitimacy.Despite the enduring significance of Rawls’s work in contemporary political philosophy, some critics question its relevance to pressing issues of injustice such as racial inequity and health care disparity. Critics like Amartya Sen and Charles Mills argue that Rawls’s theory is either unnecessary or misleading when it comes to addressing real injustices in our world.John Rawls describes the “main concern” of A Theory of Justice as being “ideal theory”. Although there is some ambiguity in his use of that term, at least part of what Rawls means by “ideal theory” is theory aimed at identifying the ideal principles of justice that should be used to evaluate our political and social institutions. If a society were completely to satisfy these principles, it would be fully just. A second part of what Rawls means by “ideal theory” is that it involves certain simplifying assumptions about society—most notably, that citizens will fully comply with the rules. In focusing on these standards of evaluation for ideal conditions, Rawls has very little to say about their application to real-world injustices and the question of how to overcome these injustices on the way to a more just society. Yet Rawls ultimately thinks ideal theory should serve as a guide for theorizing about how to overcome injustices in the nonideal world. Rawls writes, “the reason for beginning with ideal theory is that it provides, I believe, the only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems [of nonideal theory]”. Critics challenge the claim that nonideal theory depends. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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