Ideal Theories Bad


Ethical theories that create moral rules without having referents in the current social context fail to analyze asymmetries in wealth and treatment.

Charles Mills explains using the example of discrimination against blacks:

Mills, C. W. (2009), Rawls on Race/Race in Rawls. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 47: 161–184 “Now how can…ever did arrive.”

Now how can this ideal ideal—a society not merely without a past history of racism but without races themselves—serve to adjudicate the merits of competing policies aimed at correcting for a long history of white supremacy manifest in Native American expropriation, African slavery, residential and educational segregation, large differentials in income and huge differentials in wealth, nonwhite underrepresentation in high-prestige occupations and overrepresentation in the prison system, contested national narratives and cultural representations, widespread white evasion and bad faith on issues of their racial privilege, and a corresponding hostile white backlash against (what remains of) those mild corrective measures already implemented? Obviously, it cannot. As Thomas Nagel concedes: “Ideal theory enables you to say when a society is unjust, because it falls short of the ideal. But it does not tell you what to do if, as is almost always the case, you find yourself in an unjust society, and want to correct that injustice” (2003a, 82). Ideal theory represents an unattainable target that would require us to roll back the clock and start over. So in a sense it is an ideal with little or no practical worth. What is required is the nonideal (rectificatory) ideal that starts from the reality of these injustices and then seeks some fair means of correcting for them, recognizing that in most cases the original prediscrimination situation (even if it can be intelligibly characterized and stipulated) cannot be restored. Trying to rectify systemic black disadvantage through affirma- tive action is not the equivalent of not discriminating against blacks, especially when there are no blacks to be discriminated against. Far from being indispensable to the elaboration of non- ideal theory, ideal theory would have been revealed to be largely useless for it. But the situation is worse than that. As the example just given illustrates, it is not merely a matter of an ideal with problems of operationalization and relevance, but of an ideal likely to lend itself more readily to retrograde political agendas. If the ideal ideal rather than the rectificatory ideal is to guide us, then a world without races and any kind of distinction- drawing by race may seem to be an attractive goal. One takes the ideal to be colorblind nondiscrimination, as appropriate for a society beginning from the state of nature, and then—com- pletely ignoring the nonideal history that has given whites a systemic illicit advantage [and so] over people of color—conflates together as “discrimination” all attempts to draw racial distinctions for public policy goals, no matter what their motivation, on the grounds that this perpetuates race and invidious differential treatment by race. In the magisterial judgment of Chief Justice John Roberts in the June 2007 Supreme Court decision on the Seattle and Louisville cases where schools were using race as a factor to maintain diversity, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,”6 a statement achieving the remarkable feat of depicting not merely as true, but as tautologically true, the equating of Jim Crow segregation and the attempt to remedy Jim Crow segregation! [So] What is ideally called for under ideal circumstances is not, or at least is not necessarily, what is ideally called for under nonideal circumstances. Claiming that all we need to do is to cease (what is here characterized as) discrimination ignores the differential advantages and privileges that have accumulated in the white population because of the past history of discrimination. So the defense in terms of ideal theory is doubly problematic. In the first place, ideal theory was never supposed to be an end in itself, but a means to improving our handling of nonideal matters, and the fact that Rawls and his disciples and commen- tators have for the most part stayed in the realm of the ideal represents an evasion of the imperative of dealing with what were supposed to be the really pressing issues. And in the second place, it is questionable in any case how useful the ideal ideal in the Rawlsian sense is or ever would have been in assisting this task. So it is not merely that ideal theory has not come to the aid of those dealing with nonideal injustice but that it was unlikely to have been of much help when and if it ever did arrive.