Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

The Relevance of Ideal Justice

2011 (33) Issue 2
Guest-Editors: Lukas Meyer / Pranay Sanklecha


Whether and how normative theorising can be relevant for guiding people’s actions is one of the classical questions of moral and political philosophy. Platon’s dialogues Politeia, Politikos and Nomoi provide fascinating discussions on the topic. Recently normative theorists have investigated some aspects of these questions under the title of ideal and non-ideal theorising—relying on a distinction that Rawls introduced in A Theory of Justice (1971) and made use of in his The Law of Peoples (1999). We think that the articles in this issue make important contributions to this ongoing debate both when taken individually and when considered as a collection.

One central insight of the thematic issue is the idea that ideal justice matters. Each of the articles exemplifies this insight, though of course in different ways. Wilfried Hinsch, for example, takes issue with Amartya Sen’s dismissal of ’transcendental institutionalism’ and argues that ideal theorising matters even if we think that all theorising about justice has to have practical relevance to be worthwhile. David Estlund, meanwhile, argues that theorising about justice is valuable even if it has no practical relevance; that is to say, even if the most trenchant critics of ideal theory are right when they say that ideal theorising is completely useless in the real world, they cannot conclude from this that ideal theorising is not valuable. Véronique Zanetti takes, at least for the purposes of her article, a certain set of non-ideal assumptions as given, but rather than using this to argue for the primacy of non-ideal theorising, she attempts to replace one ideal (justice) with another (peace), and the ideal of peace is used to provide guidance under non-ideal circumstances. Lukas Meyer and Pranay Sanklecha argue in their contribution that the ideal with respect to climate justice affects what people may permissibly do under current non-ideal circumstances; once again, that is, ideal theorising matters even under non-ideal circumstances. Finally, Sabine Hohl and Dominic Roser accept that the current situation with respect to climate change is non-ideal, and argue also that specifying duties under full compliance does not settle the issue with regard to duties under partial compliance, but then use the ideal of human rights (in part) to defend the claim that there is at least a pro tanto reason for countries to take up the slack caused by the non-compliance of other countries with their duties with respect to climate justice.

All these articles, then, argue in some way for the importance or relevance of ideal theorising. The second major insight that comes from considering them together is the need for further work on how best to understand non-ideal circumstances and why considering these matters for what people ought to do. Each of the articles adopts a particular understanding of non-ideal circumstances—not just of their significance, but also simply of what they are. To take just one example—while Hohl and Roser follow Rawls in characterising non-ideal circumstances in terms of less than full compliance, in other papers (Hinsch and Zanetti) we meet the question of reasonable disagreement over principles of justice, and morality more widely. Implicitly then the articles ask the question: what are different kinds of non-ideal circumstances, and what is the normative significance of each of these kinds? While each of the articles uses a particular understanding of non-ideal circumstances and argues for a certain view of their relevance, they also reflect the current lack of a shared understanding of both a taxonomy of non-ideal circumstances, and an interpretation of their normative significance.

One final note about what you will find in these pages. Each article is followed by a short critical comment. The brief we gave our commentators was wide—they were asked not to worry about trying to cover the entire paper, but to focus on whatever it was that they found particularly interesting and important.

The idea for this special issue, and many of the articles in it, came out of a workshop on ideal and non-ideal theory that we organised in Graz on 14–16 October 2010. The other participants at the workshop were Dieter Birnbacher, Julian Culp, David Estlund, Christian Hiebaum, Wilfried Hinsch, Nora Kreft, Peter Koller, Anton Leist, Corinna Mieth, Adam Swift and Andrew Williams.

In addition to all the participants, we would like to thank the following institutions for supporting the workshop, financially and otherwise: the Mayor’s Office of the City of Graz; the Rector, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Research Office of the University of Graz; the Austrian Research Foundation; the Austrian Federal Ministry for Science and Research; and the Government of Styria, Section 3 (Science and Research). We would also like to thank the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), as the work of editing this special issue was partially financed through a research project “Climate Justice. The Significance of Historical Emissions“ (P12345-B51) funded by them. Furthermore, we would like to thank Christine Wilhelm, on whom much of the work of organising the workshop devolved.

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Table of Contents

Title: Ideal Justice and Rational Dissent. A Critique of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice
Author: Wilfried Hinsch
Page: 371-386

Abstract: In The Idea of Justice Amartya Sen criticises ’transcendental institutionalism’ for entertaining notions of ’ideal justice’ that are neither necessary nor sufficient for the advancement of justice in the real world. Sen argues in favor of a ’realization-focused’ and ’comparative’ understanding of justice that he associates with the names of Adam Smith, Marx, and J. S. Mill. Conceptions of ideal justice, Sen believes, are useless since in practice we do not need them to advance justice. And they are ’infeasible’ because all conceptions of ideal justice can be reasonably rejected for one reason or other. I shall address both complaints in turn and maintain that Sen’s rigid contraposition of ideal and comparative justice is overstated. It will also be discussed how the institutional focus of ’transcendental institutionalism’ links up with the need for an ideal conception of justice. Finally, some implications of rational dissent about justice and two common strategies to deal with it will be discussed.

Title: Comment on Wilfried Hinsch: Ideal Justice and Rational Dissent: A Critique of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice
Author: Mathias Thaler
Page: 387-393

Title: What Good Is It? Unrealistic Political Theory and the Value of Intellectual Work
Author: David Estlund
Page: 395-416

Abstract: Suppose justice depends on some very unlikely good behavior. In that case the true (or correct, or best) theory of justice might have no practical value. But then, what good would it be? I consider analogies with science and mathematics in order to test various ways of tying their the value of intellectual work to practice, though I argue that these fail. If their value, or that of some political theory, is not practical then what is good about them? As for political theory, I consider the question of what would even count as an answer to this question, and I conclude with the tentative proposal that it is valuable to come to understand something that is, itself, important.

Title: Comment on David Estlund: What Good Is it? Unrealistic Political Theory and the Value of Intellectual Work
Author: Nora Kreft
Page: 417-421

Title: Justice, Peace and Compromise
Author: Véronique Zanetti
Page: 423-439

Abstract: Compromises are arrived at when, in spite of the efforts of those participating to mediate and defend their position in a rationally acceptable manner, each remains with his judgment while, at the same time, a decision must be made without further delay. What this means is that the parties agree to an option about which they are not, in their heart of hearts, entirely convinced. This article examines the notion of moral compromise, concentrating thereby on the case of political praxis. It asks whether, in view of the complexity and multiplicity of morally relevant decisions encountered in a pluralist society, it is at all realistic to expect much else from political institutions than what Rawls dismissively refers to as a modus vivendi and whether a conception of justice that is true or reasonable only given the reasonable pluralism of comprehensive doctrines is still a conception of justice, and not simply a compromise between the contending doctrines.

Title: Comment on Véronique Zanetti: On Moral Compromise
Author: Tim Waligore
Page: 441-448

Title: Individual Expectations and Climate Justice
Author: Lukas Meyer / Pranay Sanklecha
Page: 449-471

Abstract: Many people living in highly industrialised countries and elsewhere emit greenhouse gases at a certain high level as a by-product of their activities, and they expect to be able to continue to emit at that level. This level is far above the just per capita level. We investigate whether that expectation is legitimate and permissible. We argue that the expectation is epistemically legitimate. Given certain assumptions, we can also think of it as politically legitimate. Also, the expectation is shown to be morally permissible but with major qualifications. The interpretation of the significance of the expectation is compatible with the understanding that historical emissions should count in terms of fairly distributing the benefits of emission-generating activities over people’s lifetimes but constrains the way in which we may collectively respond to climate change.

Title: Comment on Lukas Meyer and Pranay Sanklecha: Individual Expectations and Climate Justice
Author: Julian Culp
Page: 473-476

Title: Stepping in for the Polluters? Climate Justice under Partial Compliance
Author: Sabine Hohl / Dominic Roser
Page: 477-500

Abstract: Not all countries do their fair share in the effort of preventing dangerous climate change. This presents those who are willing to do their part with the question whether they should ’take up the slack’ and try to compensate for the non-compliers’ failure to reduce emissions. There is a pro tanto reason for doing so given the human rights violations associated with dangerous climate change. The article focuses on fending off two objections against a duty to take up the slack: that it is unfair and ineffective. We grant that it is unfair if some have to step in for others but argue that this does not amount to a decisive objection under conditions of partial compliance. With regard to the charge of emission reductions being ineffective, we argue that the empirical case for this claim is missing and that even if it were not, there still remains the option of taking up the slack in other forms.

Title: Comment on Sabine Hohl and Dominic Roser: Stepping in for the Polluters? Climate Justice under Partial Compliance
Author: Thomas Pölzler
Page: 501-508

Title: Comment on Anton Leist: Comment on Anton Leist. Potentials of Cooperation (Analyse & Kritik 01/2011)
Author: Gebhard Kirchgässner
Page: 509-516

Abstract: I first discuss two aspects of a social order and cooperation which might be of high relevance: the problem of a spontaneous emerging of a social order, and the relation between exchange and cooperation. In doing so, I also discuss the role of production in separating areas of cooperation from those of competition. Second, I look more closely at the motivations for cooperative behaviour. It is argued that of the four kinds of motivation mentioned by Leist only two, self-interest and altruism, are really necessary to explain cooperation.