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You may have come across something like the following phrase in a physics textbook: “Assume the flying sheep is perfectly spherical.” Though this is an unrealistic stipulation — for sheep don’t fly nor are they spherical — this hypothetical helps us develop a clearer understanding of the physical laws of motion while keeping all other variables constant.
Beyond the confines of a physics textbook, ideal theorizing manifests itself in all realms of public discourse. A historical chain of thinkers — from Plato to Rawls — have sided with idealism over realism in thinking hard about philosophical questions. Their inquiries begin to sound like something along the lines of: “What best principles would fully informed, impartial, and rational agents in an ideal society reach when deliberating about matters of morality or justice?”
Ideal theorizing happens as we sit back in the reclusive perches of the philosophers’ armchair, distancing ourselves from the world as it really is. We depart from realism in its strictest sense. Heads in the clouds, we toy around with high-level thought experiments replete with ‘what-ifs,’ whiting out real-life barriers and feasibility constraints. Everything is easily solved.
The real world as we experience it, however, is imperfect.
We conduct ethics in a broken world. Both knowingly and unknowingly, we are prone to making irrational, partial, flawed, and deficient moral judgements. Even the most devoted Kantians (and I can tell you, I know plenty of Kantians running around campus) fail to act strictly on maxims through which they can, at the same time, will as a universal law. Natural inclinations and emotions seep through the veil of pure practical reason. Outliers run rampant: criminals, psychopaths, amoralists, the list goes on and on.
If our understanding of morality can be only realized for perfectly situated agents living under utopic conditions, the term ‘everyday ethics’ seems like an oxymoron. Morality in all of its flawlessness might just be a Tantalean spring, perpetually out of reach. Stuck in the depths of Hades, Tantalus, son of Zeus, is condemned to an eternity of hunger and thirst; the fruits hanging on the tree above him forever elude his grasp, and the water always recedes before he drinks. His aim to attain an unattainable state of satisfaction is itself an impossible demand.
Following a similar vein, global human rights activism, for many, is disenchanting. No matter how valiant one’s altruistic intentions, it often appears that large-scale institutional and structural change is virtually impossible to realize, provided the unwillingness of the current political climate. ‘What-ifs’ devolve into ‘if-onlys.’ The blame game can be played by many.
A number of possible responses present themselves. Throwing darts of radical skepticism and charges of hypocrisy about activism might be one answer. Another way out of this paralysis is to bend our moral standards so as to conform to our natural inclinations. We could just lower the bar. Although this strategy avoids the problem of facing existential despair and moral futility, it comes at the expense of inducing an attitude of moral complacency. These proposals cave into premature forfeit.
The project of non-ideal theory emerges as a third alternative. It seeks to bridge the gap between principle and practice, thought and action, philosophy and policy, without having to abandon ideal theory in a world short of the ideal. Non-ideal theory often draws from the empirical social sciences, articulating principles designed to cope with current injustices from the ground up. It asks how we should resolve our felt social and political problems, inching towards making unjust societies more just. For even if we are unlikely to satisfactorily attain the golden mean of virtue, it could still be worth thinking about how we might.
While the spherical sheep flying in an isolated vacuum is certainly not a real sheep to most of us (aside from physicists and whoever did the CGI effects for the Cats movie), this deliberate setting aside of complications helps us to elucidate the most significant moving parts, all else equal, one at a time. Both by virtue of its elucidations and its aspirations, ideal theory provides both a starting point and an endpoint.
Understanding what constitutes ‘imperfections,’ that is, deviations from the ideal, is impossible without having defined the standard of what ‘perfection’ stands for in advance. The architect’s blueprints lend guidance to the builder’s craft. Even if the perfect building can never be built, we might as well do our best to close the distance between the imperfect and the perfect.
The very process of critically thinking, reflecting, (re)drafting, and sharpening our approach to the ideal through the non-ideal is a measure of growth, a statement of effort. For as long as we’re trying, we’re on the right path.
Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Daniel Shin ’22 is a Philosophy and Math concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Fridays.
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