"Ideal Theory" as Ideology
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Hypatia 20.3 (2005) 165-184



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"Ideal Theory" as Ideology

Recent surveys of the development of feminist ethics over the last three decades have emphasized that the exclusive and unitary focus on "care" with which it is still sometimes identified has long been misleading. While paying tribute to the historic significance and continuing influence of Carol Gilligan's and Nel Noddings's pathbreaking work (1982; 1984), commentators such as Samantha Brennan, Marilyn Friedman, and Alison Jaggar point to "the increasing connections between feminist ethics and mainstream moral theory" (Brennan 1999, 859), the "number of diverse methodological strategies" adopted (Friedman 2000, 211), and the "controversy and diversity" rather than "unity" within feminism, marking "the shift from asserting the radical otherness of feminist ethics to seeing feminist philosophers as making a diverse range of contributions to an ongoing [larger] tradition of ethical discussion" (Jaggar 2000, 452–53). Indeed, Samantha Brennan's 1999 Ethics survey article suggests that there is no "one" feminist ethic, and that the distinctive features of a feminist approach are simply the perception of the wrongness of women's oppression, and the resulting construction and orientation of theory—based on women's moral experiences—to the goal of understanding and ending that oppression (1999, 860). Obviously, then, this minimalist definition will permit a very broad spectrum of perspectives. In this respect, feminist ethics has interestingly come to converge with feminist political philosophy, which, at least from the "second wave" onward, also encompassed a wide variety of approaches whose common denominator was simply the goal of ending female subordination (Jaggar 1983; Tong 1998).

In this paper, I want to focus on an ethical strategy best and most self-consciously developed in feminist theory in the writings of Onora O'Neill (1987; [End Page 165] 1993), but that can arguably be traced back, at least in implicit and schematic form, to Marxism and classical left theory, and that would certainly be congenial to many people working on race. (I have found it very useful in my own work: Mills 1997; Mills 1998.) I refer to the distinction between idealizing and nonidealizing approaches to ethical theory, and the endorsement of the latter. I will argue that this normative strategy has the virtue of being potentially universalist in its application—able to address many, if not all, of the concerns not only of women, but also of those, men as well as women, subordinated by class, race, and the underdevelopment of the "South"—and reflecting the distinctive experience of the oppressed while avoiding particularism and relativism. Moreover, in certain respects it engages with mainstream ethics on what are nominally its own terms, thereby (at least in theory) making it somewhat harder to ignore and marginalize. Correspondingly, I will argue that the so-called ideal theory more dominant in mainstream ethics is in crucial respects obfuscatory, and can indeed be thought of as in part ideological, in the pejorative sense of a set of group ideas that reflect, and contribute to perpetuating, illicit group privilege. As O'Neill argues, and as I agree, the best way of realizing the ideal is through the recognition of the importance of theorizing the nonideal.

The Vices of Ideal Theory

Let us begin by differentiating various senses of ideal, since the ambiguities and multiple interpretations of the term partially contribute, in my opinion, to whatever superficial plausibility "ideal theory" may have as an approach. To start with, of course, in a trivial sense "ideal" theory applies to moral theory as a whole (at least to normative ethics as against metaethics). Since ethics deals by definition with normative/prescriptive/evaluative issues, as against factual/descriptive issues, and so involves the appeal to values and ideals, it is obviously ideal theory in that generic sense, regardless of any divergence in approaches taken. Call this uncontroversial background normative sense of the ideal, with which we will not be concerned: ideal-as-normative.

Central to our focus, by contrast, is a different sense of ideal—ideal as model. Call this ideal-as-model. Obviously, this sense is not at all peculiar to...