Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

By Marcel Wissenburg | Go to book overview

3

Between community and nature

Social justice: temporal, substantial and impartial

The liberal theory of social justice focuses on distributive justice within societies, and it is deeply committed to social ideals like liberty, equality, and impartiality, as we saw in the previous chapter. These basic ideas, however, do not in themselves constitute a meaningful theory of social justice. For that purpose we also need intermediate premises: premises defining a justification procedure that is consistent with the prior principles mentioned in the previous chapter and premises delineating distribution rules consistent with the justification procedure. In the next three chapters, I shall be concerned with the first kind of premises.

Chapter 4 discusses one of the most disturbing problems for theorists of impartiality: how to prefer one distributive scheme over others without preferring one morality over others. This is known, with a mind-boggling metaphor, as the search for an Archimedean point, the point from which any reasonable moral theory or plan of life can be 'lifted' and included in the theory of a just and impartial society. My version of the Archimedean point will simply be called archpoint, or, more precisely, archpoint of view.

At the basis of this search for an Archimedean point lies another question, often referred to as the (Rawlsian) problem of the thin theory of the good. It is said that, in choosing principles of justice that do not unjustifiably promote some reasonable plans of life more than others, people in the original position must have something like a minimal ('thin') notion of the human good, that is, a theory of what matters about a person and for a person regardless of so-called contingent circumstances like class, culture, sex, race, history, or innate capacities. The solution I propose in Chapter 4 is based on a notion similar to the classical idea of virtue: full reasons. Full reasons are fundamental reasons for behaviour, reasons that cannot be denied without also denying that being a person matters from a moral point of view. Denying (or 'neutralizing', or 'impartializing') them reduces personality to a status of moral irrelevancy.

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