Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

Synopsis

Imperfection and Impartiality argues, from a liberal perspective, for a radical re-interpretation of existing ideas about social justice. This model cherishes plurality and tolerance, instead of uniformity and moral indifference.

Excerpt

The natural thing to do, confronted with a vague or ambiguous concept like social justice, is to ask what it means-or more precisely, to ask if there are any conventions on its meaning. Aristotle opened the fifth book of his Nicomachean Ethics with the dullest of propositions, announcing his programme for a conceptual analysis: 'With regard to justice and injustice we must consider (1) what kind of actions they are concerned with, (2) what sort of mean justice is, and (3) between what extremes the just act is intermediate' (Aristotle 1959:1129 1). These are some of the questions on which I shall touch here, albeit in relation to the liberal idea of social justice only. What I have to offer in this section is a probably very dull list of the terms used by liberal theorists of social justice and of the concepts they represent.

Let me start with the clearest distinction, the one between moral justice, the normative or evaluative concept, and legal justice, which is more or less synonymous with positive law. Ideally, legal justice would be fully compatible with moral justice. In practice, laws are of course designed and applied with reference to moral justice as well as other criteria, which means that discrepancies between the two can and do arise. As from now, I shall use the term justice to refer to moral justice exclusively. The concept of (moral) justice is often used in connection with ideas like the good, the right, and morality. The connotations of these three terms differ from language to language and from author to author, yet there seems to be a certain consensus on their hierarchy: what is good is a broader concept than, and embraces, what is moral. The domain of justice is in turn more limited than that of morality. The fourth term, right (as in 'the right thing to do'), is more promiscuous: it can refer to 'straight' or correct behaviour, correct reasoning, honesty and legality. In justice theory, it is used as an equivalent of rationality, justice or, most often, morality (cf. Frankena 1962; for a dissenting view, see Brandt 1979:306-7). However, this does not tell us anything about

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