Political philosophers have been discussing the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in earnest for about ten years. But they’ve tended to apply the debate to liberal and socialist theories of justice and legitimacy. What happens when we try to apply some of this literature to the new Catholic integralism?
There are lots of ways to distinguish between ideal and non-ideal theory. Here’s a rough and ready way to make the distinction for integralism. Integralist ideal theory is an account of how an integralist order will work once established, and when conditions are favorable, including people’s willingness to comply with the directives of integralist institutions (but not Rawlsian *full* compliance). Integralist non-ideal theory is an account of how to transition to an integralist order from current conditions, with actors with less inclination towards compliance.
Integralists can draw on historical integralist models for ideal theory to show how it might work today. At the very least, integralists can say that integralist regimes have existed, which is more than what can be said for most ideals in political philosophy. However, integralist non-ideal theory is more difficult because few societies have become integralist in recent memory (unless you count Russia, since Orthodoxy is pretty similar to Catholicism). In particular, no liberal democratic order has ever become integralist, and so we have little idea how to make the transition work. Vermeule has speculated, but the real theoretical work hasn’t yet begun.
Integralism supposes a strong distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory because the integralist ideal is pretty far from where we are. If your ideal is pretty close to where we are now, as it is in some forms of conservatism, the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction isn’t very important. But integralism, as its proponents know well, is not really a branch of conservatism.*
And, indeed, I think Vermuele’s exchange with Deneen in this discussion at Notre Dame shows that Vermeule is supposing a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction. When Deneen described integralists as “crazy,” Vermeule responded by asking whether it was crazy to think of integralism as an ideal (if I recall correctly).
Why does it matter that integralism involves a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction? Because it helps us to understand how to justify or refute integralism. The case for integralism will involve two broad parts. The first part is to show that integralism is an ideal, in terms of the good, justice, and its capacity to stabilize itself. The second part is to show that we can get to integralism from where we are, because if we can’t, that casts doubt on integralism as an ideal (radical socialists like G. A. Cohen can deny this connection between an ideal and its feasibility, but I think integralists cannot). We can also classify criticisms of integralism in terms of whether they target integralist ideal theory or integralist non-ideal theory. I think Deneen’s concerns, for instance, are primarily about integralist non-ideal theory.
But for now, my aim is simply to properly carve up the conceptual territory for assessing integralism. And I think my point here isn’t too controversial and will hopefully prove helpful for future discussion.
*Well, strictly speaking, I would say integralism is metaphysically conservative but epistemologically moderate; metaphysically conservative because of how integralism conceives of the place of humans in the cosmic order, its attitudes towards hierarchy, etc., but epistemologically moderate because it supposes we can identify a political ideal for us that it is pretty distant from our own circumstances, though not so distant that it would qualify as epistemologically radical, like libertarianism, or most radically, communism.