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2011 (33) Heft 2

The Relevance of Ideal Justice


Guest-Editors: Lukas Meyer / Pranay Sanklecha

Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

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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