Science and Ethics: Nonideal Theory and Bioethics (PHIL*6760) | College of Arts

Science and Ethics: Nonideal Theory and Bioethics (PHIL*6760)

Code and section: PHIL*6760*01

Term: Winter 2022

Instructor: Maya Goldenberg


Course Description:

Nonideal theory developed in social and political philosophy as a response to John Rawls’s idealized theorizing about justice.1  Rawls’s theory of justice works towards perfecting social institutions. Institutions are therefore assumed to be perfectible, and ideals are assumed to be necessary guides for correcting injustices. Nonideal theorists challenge the thinking that such abstractions-- away from the messy realities of injustice, oppression, and exploitation--steer us towards improving our nonideal situation(s). The criticisms are both methodological and practical. Amartya Sen,2  for example, argues that ideal theory is not helpful for addressing real-world injustices. Charles Mills3  and Carole Pateman and Mills4  see ideal theories of justice to harmful insofar as they obfuscate the lived experiences of people who experience oppression and marginalization. 

Bioethics offers much fodder for nonideal theory, with its preponderance of imperfect decisionmaking conditions and imperfect decisionmakers. Yet nonideal theory has not been systematically connected to bioethics.5  With the exception of Madison Powers and Ruth Faden’s 2006 monograph6  on social justice in health care and public health grounded in a capabilities approach account of human wellbeing (cf. Sen, Martha Nussbaum), the text selected for this course, published in 2021, is the first book-length investigation into nonideal theory and bioethics. Still, there have been theoretical incursions of nonideal theory into bioethics (regardless of whether the authors identified this theoretical commitment). For example, feminist philosopher Lisa Tessman’s work on moral distress,7  the feeling of guilt when suboptimal decisions are made, and moral failure,8  has been taken up in nursing ethics and clinical bioethics. The prevalence of ablism, gender-based discrimination, and racism in the clinical experiences of both patients and practitioners typically receive nonideal normative theorizing—not just in describing the imperfect conditions but in addressing what to do about it. 

Seminar members will undertake their own research into any topic related to nonideal theory and applied ethics-- theoretical (i.e. ideal vs. nonideal), methodological, or applied issues-- for a leading a seminar and their final papers.  


Victor, Elizabeth, and Laura K. Guidry-Grimes. 2021. Applying Nonideal Theory to Bioethics: Living and Dying in a Nonideal World. Springer.

Articles will be posted on Courselink

1  Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
2  Sen, Amartya. 2009. The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane.
3  Mills, Charles. 2005. “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology.” Hypatia 20 (3): 165-184.
4  Pateman, Carole, and Charles Mills. 2007. Contract and Domination. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
5  Arras, John, "Theory and Bioethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. Notably, the section on non-ideal theory and bioethics was removed from the updated (Nov 2020) version of this entry, authored by Jennifer Flynn. 
6  Powers, Madison, and Ruth Faden. 2006. Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy, New York: Oxford University Press.
7  Tessman, Lisa. 2010. “Idealizing Morality.” Hypatia 25 (4): 797-824.
8  Tessman, Lisa. 2016. Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality. Oxford.