Post No.: 0632
Is justice ever absolute or is it bound within the relative and particular values that happen to prevail in a particular society at a particular time and place?
One view is that justice isn’t absolute but relative to social contexts. A given society is just if the substantive lives of its members are lived in a certain way – a way that’s faithful to the shared understandings of its members. Therefore our conceptions of the good, the right or what’s moral, or not – whatever they might be – depends highly on our community and what we overall (perhaps democratically) agree on as a whole. We don’t live alone – we are each individually and collectively a part of what makes the place we live in, its laws and conceptions of justice. Justice may simply be a matter of adhering to the shared understandings, values or conventions that prevail in any given society at the given juncture.
But just because conceptions of justice cannot be easily separated from one’s situation, history, time or place – will this make them right?
Can we pick and choose from different moral philosophies as we see fit for each situation on a case-by-case basis? Or would this lack conviction, or more significantly create inconsistencies and contradictions because we’re just cherry-picking whichever rule suits us in a given situation? (This was also touched upon in Post No.: 0391.) So we might assert, “We should minimise as much suffering in society as possible”; but if some public health policy intrudes on our personal liberties we might contradict that with, “But the government shouldn’t force us to do anything, even if it’s good for us.”
If justice can mean anything a society wants it to mean then will it mean anything meaningful at all? As in if something can mean anything you want it to mean then will it essentially mean nothing at all? (Like if ‘football’ could mean using your hands whenever you want, biting the ankles of your opponents, using riot shields, or whatever you want it to mean – then ‘football’ won’t really mean anything meaningful at all.)
And just because a society agrees upon a set of laws – that alone won’t make those laws right. Possessing slaves in the past was lawful, as was drowning or burning suspected witches in some places. Isn’t there something that has to be objective about conceptions of justice – something that transcends time, place, cultures or particulars to give it critical rigour?
There’s often a conflict between individual rights and doing what’s good. Immoral acts will occur too frequently if everybody lived according to their own laws and desires; but how can we consider a universal conception of the good without comparing it to some particular conception of the good (e.g. Aristotle’s conception of the good life, a Christian’s ideas, or Dave’s down the road)?
What seems right for justice mightn’t create outcomes that are good, and vice-versa. They can conflict at times, yet arguments about justice cannot be detached from questions of the good – they’re inescapably intertwined. Telling us about the good (or purpose, ends, telos or what we should all strive for in life) of something is to indirectly tell us what rights (or principles) we should therefore adhere to (e.g. if political life is about maximising aggregate societal happiness then that suggests a distributive kind of justice, or if a good is ‘we should all work hard’ then a corresponding right might be ‘all hard workers should be rewarded highly’). And telling us about our rights is to indirectly tell us what the good of something therefore is (e.g. if abortion is about freedom of choice then that suggests that there’s no higher purpose in a foetus’s, or potentially anyone’s, life). We cannot argue on the right without taking a stance on the good. (So if you argue that football is for the good of kicking a ball with your feet, yet on the other paw say that people can by rights always autonomously do whatever they like, then these views are incompatible because someone might wish to use their hands to carry the ball across the pitch. Thus to make a stance on the good of football is to make a certain stance on the rights of people who want to play football.)
And so should the right take priority over the good, or should the good take priority over the right? Even this isn’t as clear-cut as it may initially seem. Kant and Rawls, for instance, believed that what’s just or right comes prior to and independent of any particular conception of ‘the good life’ – moreover, they limit the range of conceptions of the good that people are allowed to pursue in a political community. Bentham and Aristotle, for instance, meanwhile believed the opposite – that the good comes prior to and independent of the right i.e. the ends justify the means.
A moral relativist would insist that conceptions of justice are about whatever values happen to prevail within a given place and time – so don’t judge others by any outside standards but conceive justice as a matter of being faithful to the shared understandings of a particular population and tradition (which is quite a communitarian philosophy). Is it a case of no action being inherently good/bad because they’re just responses to threats or opportunities, and it’s just dependent on what we’re comparing things with? But the concern with this is that justice will be arbitrary; a product of convention or circumstance rather than true moral rigour.
A non-relativist way of tying justice with the good would be to not conceive of justice as something based on the values that happen to prevail in a particular place or time but instead on the moral worth or intrinsic good of the ends that rights serve. However, the challenge with this approach is how can we reason about the good if different people hold different conceptions of the good and what social and human goods are worthy of honour and recognition, particularly in a pluralist society? How can we come up with one universal form of justice without relying on one particular conception of the good or particular purpose? Yet to argue about justice is to unavoidably argue about the good! Reasoning about the purposes, ends or the good, and of rights, stances and institutions, is a necessary feature of arguing about justice. So can this conundrum ever be solved?!
If we argue about justice based on secular versus religious grounds then we’ll virtually always reach an impasse – one side will see one moral viewpoint and the other will see another and there’ll be no way to break the deadlock. Debates about religion rarely ever make people change opinions one way or the other, so why not try to leave them out altogether? The two groups are drawing from different premises thus any justification that stems from a religious view, or view about a specific conception of ‘the good life’, will fail to justify a law based on this particular view or conception to every member of society.
So can we make laws neutral with respect to competing moral, ethical and religious views? Is it even possible for anyone to think neutrally and not be biased in how they view the world? (And the most biased people are those who think they’re never biased!) Whenever anyone makes judgements on a particular case, they consciously, subconsciously and/or unavoidably unconsciously draw on their own moral and religious/secular beliefs. Can we decide whether, say, homosexuality is permissible or not without taking a stand or making a judgement about the underlying moral principles of homosexuality?
Could we all take a liberal, neutral, voluntarist stance (as in everyone can autonomously do whatever they consent in doing) whatever everyone’s moral viewpoint? This is attractive but one’s decisions are seldom self-enclosed i.e. they usually affect other people in a society where people live together (e.g. adults who live unhealthily send a message to children that living unhealthily is acceptable, thus forming a part of the shared environmental effects that will influence young, impressionable and developing children and their ‘free will’). No matter how small the effect may be, it’s an effect on those who didn’t choose it. Very few (or no) choices and actions are truly isolated in cause or effect.
To anyone who studies philosophy – every known conception of justice seems to be debateable, and every single philosophy or idea has its challenges, paradoxes, dilemmas and/or doubts. Should we be seeking this elusive ‘absolute, indisputable, 100% defensible conception of justice’ – if one even exists?! Or should we concede that justice is simply whatever our community has a shared (preferably agreed) understanding of? If so, there’s no objective ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ but simply whatever understanding we share with each other as a particular group at a particular time and place.
Modern technology is making the world a smaller place, and more and more of us feel more a part of ‘a global community’ than a mere ‘national or local community’, which evolves our thinking and notions of community itself.
Science continues to advance in fields like genetics, and continues to uncover the consequences of our actions, like regarding air pollution. With an ever-growing history to learn from, our ideals and conceptions of justice must evolve too, like nature itself. Debates about justice will most probably – arguably rightfully – therefore never ever cease.
John Rawls applies his method of ‘reflective equilibrium’ to questions of justice, but not to questions of morality and the good life; hence why he remains committed to the priority of the right over the good i.e. justice, principles or rights prevail over morality or the meanings, nature or telos of things. He believes that reflective equilibrium (reflecting between general moral principles, to specific cases and examples, and back again, until one’s various beliefs are regarded as stable and not in conflict) can generate shared judgements about justice and rights, but not shared judgements about the good life or morals. This is because, in modern societies, there are pluralistic ideas about the good – even conscientious thinkers who reason well will disagree about matters regarding the good life, morality and religion, thus people may never reach a unanimous agreement on these.
But what if justice is actually the same? That, in modern societies, there are pluralistic ideas about justice too? For instance, some favour a libertarian theory of justice, others an egalitarian one, and they may disagree and never reach a unanimous consensus on these matters.
So are conceptions of the good and conceptions of justice both (equally) controversial? A single rule, maxim or criterion with which one can appeal to in every debate about morality is probably elusive – so should we apply the method of reflective equilibrium to not only questions of justice but also of the good?
If everything’s so controversial then how are we to live in harmony with and respect our fellow citizens whom we disagree with? Libertarians might proclaim we should try to skirt around such issues and leave people be for political purposes. Alternatively, a more plausible and growth-oriented way is to engage with those who hold differences in view to us – challenge them, contest with them in debate, and listen and learn from each other. This may not always lead to appreciation or agreement, but the respect for discourse and deliberation seems more ideal for a pluralist society and democratic life.
Some people hold and express certain views yet don’t necessarily use them to justify some kind of government action – they just want to share and discuss them to possibly persuade us to adopt the same views and beliefs. Hence there’s no need to be automatically defensive or dismissive. The politics of moral engagement will also better enable us to appreciate the variety of distinctive goods our different lives desire and express – it helps make us better, more understanding, tolerant, insightful and balanced, individuals.