Freedom Without Idealization: Non-Ideal Approaches to Freedom of Communication

Kari Karppinen, Helsingin yliopisto

What kind of normative theory is needed for producing hope and imagining a better future? This paper discusses the normative perspectives that guide debates on freedom of communication and media from the perspective of the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In political theory, it has been suggested that abstract ideals of societal perfection may not always provide the most useful conceptual basis for normative theory and critical research. Ideal theories about notions, such as freedom, justice or democracy, in particular have been widely criticized for being too abstract and detached from real-world circumstances to guide normative analyses or political action.

Similarly, in media and communication studies it can be argued that abstract and idealized models of freedom of communication and media may not provide the most useful theoretical resources for analyzing the factors that enable or constrain communication in the current situation. The paper discusses the implication of three different non-ideal approaches to freedom that have arguably been, if not neglected, at least underdeveloped in normative debates in communication studies: Axel Honneth’s normative reconstruction, the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, and the notion of agonistic freedom associated with radical-democratic theory. While they are not without problems, I argue that these perspectives, in different ways, provide some a basis for hope as theoretical perspectives for evaluating the structures and practices that enable or constrain freedom of communication today.