The Idea of Justice

By Nobel Literate Prof

‘In the little world in which children have their existence’, says Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, ‘there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt, as injustice.’1 I expect Pip is right: he vividly recollects after his humiliating encounter with Estella the ‘capricious and violent coercion’ he suffered as a child at the hands of his own sister. But the strong perception of manifest injustice applies to adult human beings as well. What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the
realization that the world falls short of being completely just – which few of us expect – but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.
This is evident enough in our day-to-day life, with inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to resent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live. It is fair to assume that Parisians would not have stormed the Bastille, Gandhi would not have
challenged the empire on which the sun used not to set, Martin Luther King would not have fought white supremacy in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’, without their sense of manifest injustices that could be overcome. They were not trying to achieve a perfectly just world (even if there were any agreement on what that would be like), but they did want to remove clear injustices to the extent they could.
The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to thinkabout justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion.2 But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of justice and injustice? Why must we have a theory of justice?
To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning.
We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’, nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.
We also have to askwhat kinds of reasoning should count in the assessment of ethical and political concepts such as justice and injustice.
In what way can a diagnosis of injustice, or the identification of what would reduce or eliminate it, be objective? Does this demand impartiality in some particular sense, such as detachment from one’s own vested interests? Does it also demand re-examination of some attitudes even if they are not related to vested interests, but reflect local preconceptions and prejudices, which may not survive reasoned confrontation with others not restricted by the same parochialism?
What is the role of rationality and of reasonableness in understanding the demands of justice?
These concerns and some closely related general questions are addressed in the first ten chapters, before I move on to issues of application, involving critical assessment of the grounds on which judgments about justice are based (whether freedoms, capabilities, resources, happiness, well-being or something else), the special relevance of diverse considerations that figure under the general headings of equality and liberty, the evident connection between pursuing justice and seeking democracy seen as government by discussion, and the nature, viability and reach of claims of human rights.

What Kind of a Theory?

What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense. Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing
justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice. In this there are clear differences with the pre-eminent theories of justice in contemporary moral and political philosophy. As will be discussed more fully in the Introduction that follows, three differences in particular demand specific attention.
First, a theory of justice that can serve as the basis of practical reasoning must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice, rather than aiming only at the characterization of perfectly just societies – an exercise that is such a dominant feature of many theories of justice in political philosophy today. The two exercises for identifying perfectly just arrangements, and for determining whether a particular social change would enhance justice, do have motivational links but they are nevertheless analytically disjoined. The latter question, on which this work concentrates, is central to making decisions about institutions, behaviour and other determinants of justice, and how these decisions are derived cannot but be crucial to a theory of justice that aims at guiding practical reasoning about what should be done. The assumption that this comparative exercise cannot be undertaken without identifying, first, the demands of perfect justice, can be shown to be entirely incorrect (as is discussed in Chapter 4, ‘Voice and Social Choice’).

Second, while many comparative questions of justice can be successfully resolved – and agreed upon in reasoned arguments – there could well be other comparisons in which conflicting considerations are notfully resolved. It is argued here that there can exist several distinct reasons of justice, each of which survives critical scrutiny, but yields divergent conclusions.* Reasonable arguments in competing directions can emanate from people with diverse experiences and traditions, but they can also come from within a given society, or for that matter, even from the very same person.
There is a need for reasoned argument, with oneself and with others, in dealing with conflicting claims, rather than for what can be called ‘disengaged toleration’, with the comfort of such a lazy resolution as: ‘you are right in your community and I am right in mine’. Reasoning and impartial scrutiny are essential. However, even the most vigorous of critical examination can still leave conflicting and competing arguments that are not eliminated by impartial scrutiny. I shall have more to say on this in what follows, but I emphasize here that the necessity of reasoning and scrutiny is not compromised in any way by the possibility that some competing priorities may survive despite the confrontation of reason. The plurality with which we will then end up will be the result of reasoning, not of abstention from it.
Third, the presence of remediable injustice may well be connected with behavioural transgressions rather than with institutional shortcomings (Pip’s recollection, in Great Expectations, of his coercive sister was just that, not an indictment of the family as an institution).
Justice is ultimately connected with the way people’s lives go, and not merely with the nature of the institutions surrounding them. In contrast, many of the principal theories of justice concentrate over- whelming on how to establish ‘just institutions’, and give some derivative and subsidiary role to behavioural features. For example, John Rawls’s rightly celebrated approach of ‘justice as fairness’ yields a unique set of ‘principles of justice’ that are exclusively concerned with setting up ‘just institutions’ (to constitute the basic structure of the society), while requiring that people’s behaviour complies entirely with the demands of proper functioning of these institutions.3 In the approach to justice presented in this work, it is argued that there are some crucial inadequacies in this overpowering concentration on institutions (where behaviour is assumed to be appropriately compliant), rather than on the lives that people are able to lead. The focus on actual lives in the assessment of justice has many far-reaching implications for the nature and reach of the idea of justice.*

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