An Ideal Theory? On Political Philosophy, Ideology and Multi-Species Justice

Nonhuman animals cannot participate in academic philosophy — so how ought we to theorise about them? On her return from the 6th Conference of the European Association for Critical Animal Studies, Honours Research Fellow Hal Conyngham explores this fraught philosophical landscape.

Image by David Dvoracek, via Unsplash


Quite aside from dramatically influencing late 20th-century and early 21st-century political philosophy in general, John Rawls was also the first to distinguish between ‘ideal’ and ‘nonideal’ theory — which, while largely unexamined in the years following his publication A Theory of Justice, have recently re-entered the theoretical landscape. According to Rawls, for a theory to count as ideal it must make certain assumptions.1Namely, it must assume ‘strict compliance’ (that the majority of agents act in accordance with the principles of justice), and ‘favourable conditions’ (that there are no external barriers to justice — such as famine, historical oppression, etc). Ideal theory picks out an ideal state of affairs — which nonideal theory, taking into account the here-and-now and the prior-and-then, subsequently draws a roadmap towards. And we cannot, according to Rawls, have a route without a destination.

Ideal theory is hardly uncontroversial, especially in the more recent philosophical atmosphere. Most relevant to our purposes here is Charles Mills’ argument, that ideal theory “can only serve the interests of the privileged”.2 One of his primary problems with ideal theory is that it has historically been written by the most privileged — marginalised groups, he says, do not tend to write it. In fact, the major advances in nonideal theory have come from those suffering injustices in the present and the past, who “generally see [ideal theory’s] glittering ideals as remote and unhelpful”.3 And while the historical predominance of ideal theory is not necessarily malicious, it may still be a severe enough blindspot in the eyes of the privileged to necessitate marginalised voices to be added to the conversation.4

But nonhuman animals cannot participate in academic philosophy. So how ought we to theorise about them? If we buy Mills’ assertions, how do we include the voices of animals — historically and currently some of the most exploited beings — or need we? Perhaps we truly can never know what it is like to be a bat, or maybe we really could not understand a talking lion.

To explicate this worry somewhat, it is not necessarily that we must include nonhuman voices in our scholarship — rather, the concern is about the ways in which to write nonideal theory when those suffering the relevant injustices cannot contribute—particularly if Mills is right in his assertions summarised above. An additional issue is whether ideal theory is dangerous, insofar as it risks perpetuating an undesirable theoretical ideology.

Rawlsian ideal theory also has its own, specific, problems. The prerequisite of ‘favourable conditions’ is the part which has been most criticised and it is, I think, the more worrying aspect when it comes to nonhuman animals. This is partially due to Mills’ aforementioned arguments which are likely enhanced in the cases of those who cannot participate in the conversation. Another difficulty is the presence of breeding practices. If we think that there are ethical problems with operations of breeding or genetic manipulation—and I don’t think it’s a stretch in the slightest to say that at least some practices were, or are, not okay (thing of short-nosed dogs who have trouble breathing, or the stress on chickens who have been genetically manipulated to have far more eggs than they otherwise would) — then we arguably cannot assume favourable conditions for domesticated animals. The echoes of injustice are written into their biological make-up. Without historically unfavourable conditions, these animals would not biologically exist.

Perhaps this isn’t really a problem (especially if we deny that there’s anything descriptively or normatively significant about species boundaries), but it might give us pause. Another consideration might be animals’ own capacities of justice, or lack thereof — particularly given Rawls’ emphasis on discovering a “realistic utopia”, which disallows theories that would strain our moral faculties.Presumably, if we are interested in expanding or altering our spheres of justice such that they can include nonhumans, this utopia must also be realistic for them. Particularly given Rawls’ reputation as an über-rationalist, we might think that on his conception of ideal theory this is fairly implausible.

At this week’s Multi-Species Justice Symposium Series, David Schlosberg’s paper announced his scepticism of political theorists’ methodologies when it comes to multi-species justice. While listening, my brain kept going ‘…but I’m quite fond of ideal theory’. Perhaps this is ironic, given how rarely I write it. But it’s something I’d like to save. And, if Rawls’ conception doesn’t work out, perhaps different varieties, such as the ‘utopian’ or ‘end-state’ theories picked out by Laura Valentini, can do better?6 More work to be done, as always.

This piece is partially taken from a paper that the author presented at the 6th Conference of the European Association for Critical Animal Studies. She extends her thanks to the conference organisers and attendees.

1. Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Boston: Harvard University Press.
2. Mills, Charles. 2005. “Ideal Theory as Ideology”. Hypatia 20 (3):165-184 p, 172.
3. Ibid, p. 170
4. Ibid, p.177
5. Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: with, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 128.
6. See Valentini, Laura. 2012. Ideal vs. non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map. Philosophy Compass 7(9): 654-664; and Valentini, Laura. 2009. On the Apparent Paradox of Ideal Theory. Political Philosophy 17(3) 332-355

Hal Conyngham is an Honours student in the University of Sydney’s philosophy department. Her thesis examines the political issues surrounding working animals, and explores the possible paths to creating an ethical framework for animal labour. Hal’s research interests include the intersections of animal studies and political philosophy, climate change in the context of international relations, and youth voting. She co-facilitates Reading Environments, and is a member of the Multispecies Justice HDR group.