Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ideal and Nonideal theory, some questions to think about

1. Suppose scientists were to discover a “partiality gene” that all humans possess.  According to the scientists, human beings randomly developed a gene that drives human agents to impart greater value and importance on persons and projects that are closer in proximity (intimacy) to the individual in question.  What difference, if any, should such a finding make to how we should think about questions of communal / societal / global moral responsibilities and the demands of justice?
2.  Suppose you are a married man.  You are in a marriage going on 10 years and a father of three.  You and your wife split the responsibilities equally, and by any plausible account of the moral requirements parents owe their children, you and your wife are living up to them.  While being a good parent, you also have the opportunity to do many things you enjoy and pursue long-term projects that fit best into your life plan.  You and your wife both work less than 50 hours a week at jobs you both enjoy.  In fact, a few years back you were able to leave a high-paying job at a fancy law firm that made you miserable in order to pursue a less-lucrative but much more fulfilling career as a college professor.  You are much happier with this lifestyle, and you frequently tell others that “income” is not measured entirely by monetary compensation, but importantly includes quality-of-life opportunities, and such income cannot be measured easily in dollars and cents. Now suppose that one day out of the blue your wife decides to bolt, leaving you to raise your three children alone. Are you now subject to greater moral responsibilities in the sense that you are now morally required to do more things and sacrifice more of your projects and pursuits for the sake of your children? Or does morality permit you to continue with the path you are on, that is, you are able to discharge all of your parental obligations without making a change at all (any additional sacrifices being supererogatory)? More generally, are your moral responsibilities affected at all by the parental failings of your former wife?
3. Suppose a certain moral-political ideal requires certain outputs that can only be brought about by institutional schemes designed to produce such outputs.  Suppose that, upon further theorizing about institutional design, it becomes clear that the ideal can only be realized at the cost of other cherished values, a consequence not taken into account in the original conceptualization and explication of the fundamental ideals.  This is because at the ideal stage, the theorists made certain idealizing assumptions regarding the epistemic capacities of individuals and ideal institutional schemes.  What difference, if any, should such a finding make on how we should think about the structure and content of our fundamental values, moral responsibilities, and the demands of justice?  Should we revisit our reasoning that led to this particular formulation of the ideal?
4. Suppose that in an ideal society, everyone has as much liberty, educational opportunity, self-respect, income, and wealth as can be reasonably hoped for consistent with the principles of ideal justice.  Suppose that in our nonideal world we face a decision among two feasible policies options: (1) we can pursue a policy that will slightly increase equality in educational opportunity, but significantly decrease the income of the worst-off, or (2) we can pursue another policy which will maintain the (slight) inequalities in educational opportunity, diminish the social bases of self-respect, but increase, over time, the income of the worst-off. Which course of action should we pursue? What difference, if any, does it make to know that in an ideal society, we would have much more income, educational opportunity, and self-respect than we do now or can expect to have given our current feasible options?
5. Suppose that you are a partner at a fancy corporate law firm in New York city, with many lower-level associates and employees at your beck-and-call.  Suppose that you were able to achieve such a position partly because of the superior quality of your educational background (private schooling as a child and teenager, Ivy League undergraduate and law school credentials) in comparison to those who work for you.  Suppose further that you value greatly your own freedom and the flexibility your senior position permits you: you love being your own boss, getting around to things when you feel like it, not when some crotchety old man tells you to.  Now suppose that you come to learn that this flexibility you value so greatly—a flexibility made possible partly by differences in educational history—has serious negative health effects on those who work for you (the stress arising from unpredictability, etc.).  Does the fact that your position was made possible by differences in educational opportunities make any difference to how you ought to behave within the context of the employer-employee relationship?  Do such facts make any difference from the point of view of justice?
6. Suppose scientists were to discover certain biological and cognitive features possessed by the vast majority of people that results in irresponsible, irrational, and closed-minded behavior.  How, if at all, should such a scientific discovery affect how we think about fundamental moral-political values, such as autonomy, political equality, and democratic self-governance?
These questions, along with many others like them, fall within the broad scope of a more general philosophical terrain, covering such issues as the role, purpose, and value of ideal and nonideal theorizing, and how they relate to and influence each other.  These questions are extremely complex and of first importance.  The “problem of utopianism,” the problem of “complacent realism,” and the issues surrounding the ideal-nonideal debate are of central concern for moral and political philosophy.

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