Ideals From A Distance: Assessing Objections To Idealization Within Moral And Political Theory

Chetan Cetty, University of Pennsylvania


In Ideals from a Distance, I defend the practice of idealization within moraland political philosophy. We idealize when we represent the world and the agents within it as being more perfect than their actual versions. For instance, philosophers have often articulated theories about what is good, just, and morally right on the grounds that rational or fully informed versions of us would endorse them. Idealization, they argue, is indispensable because it enables us to step back from our actual, imperfect points of view to consider such questions in a rational and impartial manner. Recently, some have challenged such use of idealization, contending that by idealizing, these theories fail to tell us what morality and justice require for actual agents who lack such capacities. This suggests that employing idealization within moral and political philosophy is generally problematic.

My dissertation argues that there is nothing generally problematic with idealization and that criticism of its use stems from an improper understanding of what should constrain our normative ethical and political projects. I examine four prominent objections to idealization: (1) that idealizing theories fail to be action-guiding; (2) that the ideal worlds they imagine are infeasible; (3) that their recommendations for what is good for us are alienating; and (4) that these theories’ justification for why we should appeal to idealized responses is ad hoc. I argue that once we cast each of these constraints (action-guidingness, feasibility, non-alienation, and adequate motivation) in their proper light, the respective theories can be shown to satisfy them. Idealization is unproblematic, on my view, if theories employing it can meet these constraints. I respond by showing first that idealization cannot be the source of these problems since, as I demonstrate, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for their occurrence. The remainder of the dissertation argues that idealization is not even incidental to these problems since, when conceived properly, the aforementioned theoretical constraints can be shown to be adequately satisfied by idealizing theories. By clarifying the role of idealization, my dissertation generates important lessons for how we should pursue the most fundamental questions within moral and political philosophy