Aristotle and Moral Realism

By Robert Heinaman | Go to book overview

Justice at a distance -- less foundational, more naturalistic: a reply to Pierre Aubenque

TROELS ENGBERG-PEDERSEN

In his chapter on "Relativism and reflection" in Ethics and the limits of philosophy,1. Bernard Williams had some difficulty with fitting justice smoothly into his idea of an ethical "relativism of distance." On the one hand, Williams stated, "there is some pressure, if one thinks historically at all, to see modern conceptions of social justice, in terms of equal rights, for instance, as simply not applying to hierarchical societies of the past."2. Yet, as he continues,

there are strong pressures for the justice or injustice of past societies [and hence also, we may add, for their theories of justice] not merely to evaporate in the relativism of distance. Even if we refuse to apply to them determinately modern ideas, some conceptions of justice were used in those societies themselves, and it is not a pun or a linguistic error to call them that. One can see some modern conceptions of social justice as more radical . . . applications of ideas that have existed elsewhere and informed other societies; equally, historical continuities may be put to ethical use in the opposite direction . . . if radicals can identify more egalitarian modern conceptions as descendants of past conceptions of justice, so can conservatives try to find some less egalitarian analogue of the old conceptions to serve them now.3.

Williams concludes, however: "There is much more that should be said on these issues. It may be that considerations of justice are a central element of ethical thought that transcends the relativism of distance."4.

This sets the scene well for Pierre Aubenque paper. In a discussion of Aristotle and moral realism, his treatment of justice must have a very high priority, as even Williams' generally relativistic approach

____________________
1.
London, Fontana/Collins, 1985.

-48-

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