Abstract and Keywords
This article begins by setting out Rawls's conception and defense of ideal theory as a necessary precursor to the kind of nonideal theory that can guide action in the real world. It then evaluates the critique of those, such as Amartya Sen, who insist that knowing what an ideally just society would look like is simply not helpful for that purpose. Having also addressed the complaint that the Rawlsian approach is ideological, and hence worse than useless, the discussion broadens out to compass the more wide-ranging critique of mainstream contemporary political philosophy leveled by so-called political realists. It then turns to Cohen's very different objection—that Rawls's ideal theory of justice is too tailored to empirical circumstance. It concludes with an attempt to identify the variety of different things that might be conceived as nonideal theory. Ideal theory may be understood in many different ways, but nonideal theory fares little better.
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