: Ideal Theory, Non-Ideal Theory and Institutional Justification in Water Management

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Water management in environmental ethics should be realistic when justifying institutions. In particular, it should pay heed to the lessons of political economy concerning the limits of human knowledge and motivation. However, the existing literature in water management has adopted a methodology of evaluating institutions that is disconnected from the insights of political economy, without challenging said methodology. I aim to fill the gap in the literature by explicitly articulating the prevailing method as one of ideal theorizing, with the realistic alternative being that of non-ideal theorizing. I then link the choice of methodology to various theories of institutional justifiability resulting in different approaches to a variety of situations, ranging from floods in New Orleans, indigenous meetings in Kenya, radical ecological movements in Scotland and fisheries in Colombia.

In doing so, I contribute to the literature by offering a comprehensive critique of utopianism in water management spanning four different theoretical instances – top-down cost- benefit analysis, environmental justice, deep ecology and deliberative democracy. I engage each of these paradigms on an epistemic and motivational basis to prove the importance of political economy to water management. I subsequently show how these theories’ inability to consider the knowledge and incentive problems that institutions face renders their prescriptions inapplicable and self-undermining. Secondly, I bridge environmental ethics with political economy by translating the framework of robust political economy into philosophy. I hence reconstruct the non-ideal method as a type of theorizing that is robust and comparative in nature. I then offer a defence of the Bloomington School as an instantiation of such thinking in water management. Moreover, I display the synergies between my critique of utopianism and my defence of non-ideal theorizing when it comes to other approaches in political economy as well – namely, market process theory and the Virginia School of public choice.
Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Pennington (Supervisor) & John Meadowcroft (Supervisor)

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