Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

By Marcel Wissenburg | Go to book overview
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L'homme est libre et partout il est dans les fers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1973:165).
A remark in margine: in view of the reactions it evoked (e.g. special issues of Political Studies and Utilitas in 1996, Kelly's (1998) collection of essays), Barry's Justice as Impartiality (1995) seems to have done what Barry himself expected to be impossible (cf. Barry 1991): it revived the debate on grand theories of justice, which for the preceding five years had been overshadowed by discussions of a far more limited and technical nature. The evidence supports David Miller's recent observation that 'the social justice industry' (Miller 1998) is still going strong. See e.g. Cupit (1996), Powers (1996), Roemer (1996), Shapiro (1996) and Paden (1997a, 1997b).
Shields (1941:26) says that '(t)he first appearance of the phrase social justice known to this writer was in A. Tapparelli's Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale, published in 1845'. But Shields did not explicitly look for a primal source; nevertheless, he may well have discovered its first appearance in Thomistic literature (Tapparelli being a Jesuit), the history of which he did investigate rather thoroughly.
Note that any transfer of goods or rights in a society can be assessed from a distributive and a commercial point of view. The worker's wage can be judged, commercially, as a just or unjust reward for his or her services; it can also, distributively, be judged as a just or unjust share in the product of co-operation. It all depends on whom one considers to be the 'true' owner of a good: a collective body, or a (set of) individuals. The more a liberal theorist believes that personal talents or qualities are undeserved, the less likely he or she is to take the point of view of commercial justice, and let the distribution of rights and goods be a result of market forces.
From Justinian's Institutions, quoted in Freund (1962:94).
On the centrality of (personal) virtue in Thomistic ethics see also Bourke 1986:64 ff.
Cf. Marx' critique of one-sided solutions (either distributive or general justice) to the class struggle in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1967:105 ff.; 1965:15 ff).
This point has also been made by Klaus Scherer (1992:ix), David Miller (1972) and most recently John Rawls himself (1995:138). A rare exception is Ewald (1986).


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