As philosophers, we seek to understand the fundamental nature of things. In order to do so, we often abstract from the particularities of actual lived experience. Instead of getting bogged down in the messy details of how knowledge, desire, virtue, or justice manifest in the world, we seek to understand their perfect essence. In much of the analytic tradition, we use ‘clean’ cases that allow us to get clear on what is essential or fundamental to such concepts.
In political philosophy, this methodology has come under critique from a variety of sources. Amartya Sen, in his book The Idea of Justice, has argued that we don’t need to understand what ‘ideal’ justice is in order to compare the relative justice of two feasible alternatives. What we need, he claims, is a way to evaluate the non-ideal alternatives we actually do confront— for instance, faced with limited, resources, should we support a clean water initiative or invest in early childhood education? Charles Mills has argued that philosophers who focus on ideal justice problematically distort the subject by ignoring the very real injustices in the world in which we live, such as racial and gender discrimination. These critiques suggest that the methodology that political philosophers use to understand the essential nature of abstract ideals or concepts leads them to utopian theories so far removed from the messy and unjust world in which we live that they are either irrelevant or, more problematically, untrue. Though I think there is room for ideal theorising in political philosophy, there is something important about these critiques. They point to an important potential pitfall in philosophical methodology—the risk of abstracting so far from our actual lived experience as thinkers, citizens, and agents that we distort it beyond recognition.
Although the relative merits of ideal and non-ideal theory have been most hotly debated within the discourse of political philosophy, the methodological concerns it brings up could be raised in many other areas of philosophy. We idealise when we theorise about agency, rationality, freedom, knowledge, belief, and all manner of philosophical concepts. Should philosophers who work in these other areas also be concerned with idealisation?
Take theories of agency, for example. Much of this literature focuses on specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for an agent to be ‘fully behind’ or ‘identify’ with her actions. Much philosophy of agency considers this an important first step in figuring out whether and how to hold people responsible for what they do. Is the drug addict fully behind her actions when she is compelled by her addiction? What about the agent who is under the control of an evil neuroscientist? Though cases of addiction and manipulative evil neuroscientists are interesting, part of their theoretical appeal is that they allow us to focus very clearly on the one factor that is potentially undermining agency—addiction or manipulation. While teaching these theories to my students at the City College of New York, a recurrent critique has been that the resultant theories seem to describe the agential psychology of well-off people with time on their hands. Their point was not that these theories demanded wealth or time for reflection, but that the obstacles to agency discussed were not ones that felt like the familiar obstacles to their agency–poverty, vicious employers, exhaustion, or institutional constraints What do our theories of agency have to say about the agency of the tired low-wage worker swiping purchases at the cash register? He is not being manipulated or compelled by addiction and no gun is being held to his head, but it seems inapt to claim that his agency is full-blooded or that he ‘identifies’ with his action.
Let’s turn now to another related example. When we try to get clear on what rationality requires, we often proceed by thinking about how an ideally rational agent would reason. In the real world, of course, people fail to live up to those assumptions in systematic and predictable ways. And yet philosophers have a habit of interpreting this as evidence that people are irrational, rather than suggesting that there might be anything wrong with their own theories. Consider for example, people who favour pursuing short-term goals at the expense of their long-term plans. This is taken by many theories to be irrational. Yet, recent empirical work by economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir on the effect of poverty on decision-making suggests that people who are living in poverty are liable to engage in this kind of short-term focused thinking. As philosophers, we might take this evidence to simply show that poverty makes people more liable to reason irrationally. But we could also consider the possibility that our theories of rationality derived in the abstract realm of the philosophical armchair give us the wrong theory of rationality, in particular, for contexts of poverty. Perhaps, living in poverty requires a different kind of reasoning. This is not merely a theoretical concern. We hold people responsible for failures that result from their own irrationality, but in doing so we assume that we have the right theory of what rationality requires. A methodological failure in this case could have very real consequences.
Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan, 2013.
Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, 2009.