On Clarity and Ideal Theory

I know that I'm hugely late to the party on this, but better late than never, I suppose. Last week, the lefty blogosphere was all atwitter at Joe Klein's take on left wing extremism. I don't really have all that much to add to Klein's take. I said some fairly similar things once upon a time, though Klein's take manages to be at once both more detailed and less reasoned. At any rate, Klein's take wasn't terribly popular with the leftosphere, but as the debate itself is rather old at this point, I'm not going to try to add anything all that new. I do, however, want to say something about this claim, from Max Sawicky at TPMCafe, interesting:

As you get older, you do not get better. Sorry to break it to you. I am not talking physically; that's obvious enough. I mean in the capacity for moral reasoning. The unfortunate problem is that the valid ideals you learn while young become obstacles to professional, financial, and social advancement. You have to make compromises in order to progress, and you come to believe the justifications you devise along the way. This gives rise to unclear thinking. The better you do, the more muddle-headed you must become.

Now I realize that this is something of a throwaway line, or perhaps more accurately, it's a rhetorical device that Sawicky uses to take a cheap shot at Klein. But still, it led me to wonder whether Sawicky is right. Is it really true that ideals are a barrier to social, professional and financial advancement? The answer, I think, depends on how, exactly one cashes out Sawicky's claim. Consider:

    1. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one engages in immoral behavior.

Now if this is the claim, then its falsity seems obvious enough. Surely it's not necessary to list the hundreds and thousands of everyday, ordinary people who are quite successful without having to resort to overtly immoral behavior. But I suspect that Sawicky actually has something quite different in mind. Namely,

    2. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one abandons idealism.

I suspect that (2) may well be right. I saw that sort of reasoning pretty frequently when I worked in politics this past fall. Many of my young colleagues lamented having to construct ads that were sometimes...misleading. Most disliked writing negative pieces. Or more precisely, most disliked writing negative pieces on certain candidates; there was a general feeling that at least some of those guys were getting exactly what they deserved. But I digress. At any rate, nearly everyone with whom I discussed the issue said something to the effect of, "You have to get elected to govern and you have to campaign in order get elected." Under the assumption that our guy will be better than the other guy, we gritted our teeth and wrote the ads. Then celebrated when -- in most cases -- our candidates got elected last November. (The jury is still out on the underlying assumption.)

But if abandoning idealism is common practice in some (perhaps most?) fields, it still does not follow that those who do so are somehow deficient in their moral reasoning. To put the point another way, it's not clear that accepting (2) is tantamount to "unclear thinking" or to being "muddle-headed." Rather, the shift away from idealism corresponds to a recognition that we live in a non-ideal world.

For those of you not versed in political philosophy, the ideal/nonideal distinction has its origins in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, ideal theory

assumes strict compliance [with the principles of justice] and works out the prinicples that characterize a well-ordered society under favorable circumstances (TOJ, p. 245).

Nonideal theory, by contrast

is worked out after an ideal conception of justice has been chosen; only then do the parties ask which principles to adopt under less happy conditions (TOJ, pp. 245-6).

To put the point another way, ideal theory assumes that full compliance with all of the theory's normative requirements. Nonideal theory, on the other hand, assumes that our society is less than fully compliant with the ideal theory. We assume, in other words, that our nice theory is not going to be fully implemented in the actual world, and that even if it were fully implemented, individuals would sometimes fail to live up to its requirements. Accordingly, nonideal theorists design institutions to deal with the expected failures of our ideal theory.

Libertarians are familiar with the distinction even if they aren't familiar with the terminology. Ayn Rand is the ultimate ideal theorist. Randians are disinclined to accept any compromises with pure ideal theory (set your own wells on fire, anyone?) and are (largely) hostile to the notion of lending political support to any sort of gradualist program. Cato, by contrast, works within the current political structure, pushing for gradual change. Cato libertarians may still see redistribution as a bad idea, but, they also recognize that since redistribution isn't going away particularly soon, we can at least design market-friendly redistributive systems. I see something similar in discussions about war. "War," the argument goes, "is an irrational enterprise. They are economically inefficient for at least one side and are usually that way for both sides. Once states realize the irrationality of war, then they'll simply stop engaging in them." Libertarians of this sort often criticize just war theorists for attempting to codify irrational behavior. Just war theorists, on the other hand, point out that libertopian dreams of peace will last just until the next Napoleon comes along and rallies nationalist sentiment.

The point here is not to disparage ideal theory. Indeed, as a good political philosopher, ideal theory gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. But as a political philosopher with a pretty healthy interest in actual public policy, I've noticed something interesting. People don't always behave rationally.[1] If we design institutions for a world in which everyone follows ideal theory, then we're really doomed. Part of Madison's genius lies in his recognition of this truth. Madisonian institutions work precisely because men are not angels.

So what does all of this have to do with Sawicky's point? It's simple, really. The ideal/nonideal distinction applies equally well to morality. Ideal moral theory would give us Kant's refusal to lie to the murderer at the door. It's a view that sounds really good -- provided of course that one need not stray too terribly far from the University of Koenigsberg. Outside the ivory tower, ideal theory often works less well. Behaving in a way that would work out perfectly if everyone else did the same might well be noble, but it is fairly likely to lead to disappointment. (Just as an example, suppose that we all displayed humility at work, constantly praising others' contributions while downplaying our own role. If everyone does so, no problem. If I'm the only one to do so, then chances are good that, unless my boss is particularly perceptive, I'm going to watch everyone else get promoted around me.) Unless I have good reasons for believing that everyone else will follow my same moral code, I'm probably better off if I adopt nonideal theory.

Now don't get me wrong; it really would be wonderful if no one ever gave up on ideal theory. I'd be ecstatic if, say, political campaigns stopped peddling misinformation. Yes, a world characterized by ideal theory is a worthy goal, and one that's much worth working toward. But at the same time, I really can't imagine a campaign that unilaterally ditched nonideal for ideal theory. Actually, I can imagine such a campaign. It just wouldn't last very long. As long as the world is like it is, nonideal theory is likely to rule the roost. The best we can do in the meantime is work to make the world itself a different place.

So does success involve giving up certain ideals? Often, yes. But does giving up those ideals mean that our thinking is muddle-headed? No, it doesn't, at least not necessarily. Shaking off idealism isn't a sign of unclear thinking. It's a sign of a shift to nonideal theory. One doesn't have to make the shift, and it might be possible for someone who adopts an ideal moral theory to be just as successful as someone who doesn't. But those who do decide to shift to nonideal theory aren't doing something that is wrong or unclear. They're just acting from a different set of presuppositions.

1.I'd be willing to bet that somebody is going to make the argument that everyone always behaves rationally. There will be some reference to the fact that individuals have their own sets of preferences and to the fact that they always act according to their own personal orderings of those preferences and thus always act rationally. The argument doesn't work, but dealing with it here is off-topic. I'll do a whole post on it once someone actually makes the argument.

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