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Action-Guidance, Oppression, and Nonideal Theory


Lisa Tessman’s Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality raises important questions about ideal theory, oppression, and the role of action guidance in normative philosophy. After a brief overview of feminist and anti-racist philosophers’ critiques of ideal theory, I examine Tessman’s claim that nonideal oppression theorists focus too narrowly on action guidance and thereby obscure other important normative issues, such as the problem of moral failure. Although I agree with Tessman’s advocacy of a wider focus—and with her suggestion that situations of inevitable moral failure are particularly important to examine in contexts of oppression—I question whether nonideal oppression theorists actually emphasize action guidance to the exclusion of other concerns. I conclude with a brief examination of the way that ideal and nonideal theory have been defined and understood in debates about normative methodology, and I suggest that a move away from Rawls’s account of the ideal/nonideal distinction would benefit feminists and other oppression theorists.

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