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On Ideal and Nonideal Theory and Racial and Gender Categories for Anti-oppression Liberalism (Bhandary)

The project of transformative liberalism requires both ideal and nonideal theory. It also requires attention to the facts of oppression and privilege, and to their manifestations in the world and in philosophers. Under the umbrella of the project we may call “caring liberalisms,” these chapters encompass multiple approaches and projects that include both ideal and nonideal theory - conceptual revision, justification, policy proposals, arguments for new practices, and ameliorative virtues. These projects, though, may be broadly described within the terrain of the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory. In the following section, I discuss that distinction before identifying some additional methodological criteria of adequacy for anti-oppression liberalisms.

The distinction between ideal and nonideal theory originated with Rawls, but uses of these categories have now moved beyond Rawls’s senses (Rawls 1999).23 Perhaps the cleanest distinction, and an apt point of departure, is Zofia Stemplowska’s evaluation of ideal and nonideal theory in terms of different goals (2008). Ideal theory is theory that seeks to refine our concepts. In contrast, nonideal theory, according to Stem- plowska, offers action-guiding recommendations that are achievable and desirable. Understood in this way, conceptual revisions are a type of ideal theory, and proposals for just policy interventions are instances of nonideal theory.

Several chapters in this volume refine concepts and therefore would count as ideal theory in Stemplowska’s sense: Engster’s argument for freedom, which is a conceptual revision based on empirical evidence from attachment theory; Hartley and Watson’s assessment of the idea of equality central to relational egalitarians; and Varden’s claims about the centrality of vulnerability to Kant’s account of the self. Contract theory’s structure of justification is also standardly characterized as ideal theory. Incorporating the facts of dependency into constructivism, Bhandary and Baehr devise ways of modifying the contract device to include dependency care. Bhandary’s two-level contract theory tethers the contract device to the world with a layer of theory about the context in which the philosopher theorizes, thereby acknowledging the complexity and diversity of real-world perspectives. Baehr modifies the contract idea by adding the point of view of persons immersed in and attending to caregiving needs. We can see, though, that even within these closely related endeavors, approaches to ideal and nonideal theory differ, for Baehr identifies her Rawlsian constructivism as ideal theory. Bhandary, too, calls her neo-Rawlsian theory of liberal dependency care ideal theory, but she identifies it as a new variant of ideal theory called “nonideological ideal theory,” a category that will be defined and discussed further in the following section.

Nonideal theory, as philosophy that seeks to improve the real world (Sen 2009), includes policy proposals, like Eichner’s arguments for a number of policies that support families as sites of care, and assessments of the practical consequences of possible principles, which we can see in Schouten’s assessment of tradeoffs between gender equity and poverty mitigation. The philosophers who evaluate how people should be educated and how we should cultivate ourselves and others, given an imperfect world, may also be described as engaged in the project of nonideal theory. For example, Donner, Engster, and Bhandary evaluate the developmental and educational process for real people, taking the real world into account in a variety of ways with recommendations for well- rounded self-development, social conditions to support healthy attachments, and the antiracist and antisexist virtue of reciprocity. In fact, Donner’s engagement with Mill’s utilitarianism and liberalism highlights his awareness of the pragmatic constraints of his time, showing us that he was strategic in arguing for an improvement that did not disrupt the status quo as much as male-gendered caregiving would have. Mill’s arguments about women’s equality might therefore be characterized as nonideal theory, in the sense that he defended change that was achievable and desirable.

In addition, “ideal theory” is also used as a critical descriptor for theory that is ideological (Mills 2004) or that persistently evades the sources and manifestations of oppression (Schwartzman 2006). Charles Mills’s criticism of the whiteness of political philosophy identifies the persistent exclusion of facts about race (2004). In a parallel argument, upon which Mills draws, feminist ethicists reject ideal theory altogether for obscuring the facts and manifestations of oppression (Schwartzman 2006; Tessman 2009). Liberalism, and Rawlsian liberalism in particular, is the primary subject of these criticisms.

But liberalism need not be ideological. As the chapters in this volume attest, including care in liberalism involves conceptual revisions, policy proposals, criticisms of socialization, proposals for new virtues, and novel accounts of justification and principles of justice. Incorporating care into liberalism should become known as a classic case of insisting upon the salience of a fact that was previously occluded through ideological perception.

And ideal theory need not be ideological. It can be, instead, “non- ideological ideal theory” - or theoretical work that engages in the project of conceptual clarification and justification, but that does so in ways keenly attuned to the facts of oppression.24 More precisely, nonideological ideal theory approaches ideal theory in ways that do not occlude vital facts bearing on oppression (Bhandary 2017, 5). Insofar as facts about human dependency care are central to every chapter in this volume, this volume does not, in this way, perpetuate the ideological project of supporting a privileged lifestyle for white men. For example, Stark’s evaluation of the role of gendered ideology in the basic structure works with the Rawlsian apparatus to show that a more foundational understanding of his account of moral desert rules out a gendered division of labor.

In addition, the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory might change when a smaller proportion of ideal theory persists in being ideological. For instance, when Serene Khader classifies her arguments against independence individualism as nonideal theory, she locates her work in the tradition of Tessman (2009), Mills (2004), and Sen (2009). She argues that development interventions like microcredit purport to promote women’s independence but actually erode kinship ties, and thereby make women more vulnerable. These premises are strongly fact-sensitive, which is one of the markers of nonideal theory (Farrelly 2007). However, insofar as Khader identifies a concept - independence individualism - and argues that this version of the concept of individualism should be precluded from feminism, and possibly also from liberal feminism, she clarifies a concept. In this way, Khader’s project is one of conceptual revision that draws on relevant facts, and thus could also be placed in the category of nonideological ideal theory, along with the other chapters in the volume that approach conceptual work in this way.

Another mark of nonideological ideal theory is that it aims to avoid parochialism masquerading as universalism. Nonideological ideal theory therefore includes a philosophical assessment of the ways exploitation and subordination can occur, for instance, if the category “women” implies a unitary experience. Feminist liberalisms, too, must evaluate the ways patriarchy and racism shape patterns of deference and intellectual attribution that shape the field and the process of knowledge production.25 It is only when these aspects of the production of liberalism are brought into view and acknowledged that liberalism will truly have theoretical and practical power to address oppression and its intersectional nature, where, in societies that have achieved a modicum of gender equity in the white population, white women can be sources of violence against women of color by appropriating time, energy, and intellectual insights. These occurrences will not be detected when “woman” is used as a unitary category for all purposes, because a unitary conceptualization of women makes it more difficult to identify the oppression of one subset of that group by another. However, when women of color become a central category of analysis, and work using this category is conducted by women of color, liberalism will have the epistemic legitimacy needed to identify and address the care-based oppression and systemic oppression that are customary in patriarchal and racist societies.

Therefore, caring liberalisms must continue to investigate the ways in which the theories assume the experience of affluent white women when using the term “women” or the experiences of white heterosexual relationships when evaluating gendered socialization. The queering of conceptualizations of caring relationships by Brake (2012), for example, lays bare the heteronormative assumptions and philosophical presumptions that shape legal marriage. In this way, liberalisms that address care must be explicit about the decisions made to include a set of concerns as those most salient for injustice. Questions about how to frame the opening concerns of justice require decisions about what to include in the circumstances of justice, which depends on whose interests are salient to the actual people engaged in the endeavor of building the theory. Correspondingly, more work is needed to bring questions about race and intersectionality into the center of evaluations of just caregiving in liberalism. To better address racist injustice, caring liberalisms must work explicitly with the concept of race and track race, gender, and intersectional identities (Crenshaw 1991) as categories of analysis in caregiving arrangements (Bhandary 2017; 2020, 72). Doing so in ways that do not perpetrate what Shannon Sullivan calls white “ontological expansiveness” (Sullivan 2006, 10) requires white liberals to engage with the work of philosophers whose perspectives on justice are shaped by the daily experience of racial injustice and to take care to remedy practices of silencing (Dotson 2011, 241) that mute the work of philosophers of color.

Anti-oppression liberalisms must address care, but the work of antioppression liberalism is not complete once care is included. Stated differently, incorporating care is necessary, but it is not a sufficient criterion to yield an anti-oppression liberalism, nor is it sufficient for a transformative liberalism. Instead, liberal theorists must learn about and evaluate the specific prejudices and histories of our societies. What this means for liberal theorists in the United States is that we must also pay attention to race and make explicit the content of concepts and the modeling decisions that are made about the core liberal values and concepts including freedom, autonomy, and the self.26

 
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