Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

8

JUSTICE AS A VIRTUE

Robert C. Solomon

In this essay, I am concerned with justice as a personal virtue. Talking about justice by way of the virtues and moral psychology has two considerable benefits: first, it embeds justice in concrete practices and personalities, rather than leaving it in the abstract as just so much “theory” (accordingly, virtue ethics has sometimes been called a “‘no theory’ theory”). And second, it makes justice into something personal, as I think it was for the great thinkers in the history of the subject, beginning with Socrates and Plato and certainly including Aristotle, David Hume, Adam Smith and, looking back and towards Asia, Confucius (I would also add Nietzsche, although what he has to say about justice would be much too complicated for me to get into here).

One might say that justice is one of, or akin to, the moral sentiments. Which is not to say that justice is, as our undergraduates would say, merely “subjective.” It is rather to insist that it is inextricable from people and community. It is in this sense “communitarian,” and virtue ethics and communitarianism are often considered strongly linked, if not (sometimes) identical. This is easy to understand in the light of Aristotle, and my thesis here might well be called an “Aristotelian” conception of justice. But I don’t want to wed myself to Aristotle’s particular concerns. Nor do I want to accept his rather antiquated objections to commerce. Nor do I want to suggest any sympathy whatever for the Athenian slave-state social structure in which Aristotle elaborated his Politics. Aristotle, of course, is sometimes considered the paragon communitarian, in the innocent sense that his conception of justice simply assumes the role of community in justice. Furthermore, although this is a point that is more often made in criticizing Aristotle, it is the community that determines what sorts of things count as just and unjust. But rather than join this attenuated effort to re-classify Aristotle in modern ideological garb, I want to limit myself to his general conception of ethics in terms of the virtues, and of justice in particular as a social virtue.

As for communitarianism, I want to distance myself as much as possible from many of the views that parade under this banner, a stance that Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps the most respected proponent of this kind of

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