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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What Do We Mean by Justice?

I want to commend to everyone Michael Sandel's book and companion DVD, "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?". The book is based on his the popular class he teaches at Harvard. Over a 1,000 students fill Harvard's campus theater each time he teaches the class in order to hear him expound on issues such as whether the free market is fair, what constitutes freedom, how individual rights can sometimes conflict with the common good and so on. The DVD is actually a film of him teaching the class in the Fall of 2009 (filmed by the public television affiliate WGBH in Boston) and is quite engaging. He doesn't only lecture. He also throws out questions to the students that often lead to very interesting debates on various issues. Our church (First Congregational Church of San Jose) plans to use the DVD and book later this fall as the basis for a series of adult education forums.

What makes Sandel's class/book so compelling is that he spells out four approaches to the question of justice (Sandel actually says there are three -- however, he groups Libertarian Ethics and Rawls's Liberal Egalitarianism under the heading of "freedom"). Briefly they are as follows:

1) Utilitarian ethics, which is associated with philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argues that when deciding what's the right thing to do, we need to weigh the costs and benefits of various actions, ultimately choosing what is best for the common (greater) good. Put differently, the right thing to do is select the option that provides the greatest utility or pleasure for the greatest number of people. Thus, an action is considered just if it increases happiness and unjust if it causes suffering. A common critique of utilitarianism is that when only the common good is taken into account, individual liberties and rights can be trampled on. For example, while one could make the case that the pleasure that Roman citizens experienced when Christians were tossed to the lions exceeded the pain that the Christians suffered, I think we would be hard-pressed to argue that justice was served.

2) Libertarian ethics, which is associated with Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman, favors free markets and oppose government regulation not, as many assume, in order to promote economic efficiency but in order to promote human freedom. Libertarians argue that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. Libertarians tend to favor a minimalist government and oppose what Sandel refers to as (a) paternalistic legislation -- that is, laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) moral legislation -- laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) legislation that redistributes income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect). This perspective is often criticized for ignoring the plight of those who aren't as free to make choices as are those who hold a more privileged place in society.

3) Liberal egalitarian ethics, which has it roots in Immanuel Kant and it most influential modern proponent John Rawls, opposes both utilitarian and libertarian ethics. It argues that people possess certain inalienable rights (hence, the greater good doesn't always trump the interest of individuals) and seeks to locate principles of justice that are independent of all interest-based perspectives (i.e., principles that would be arrived at by rational individuals as long as they set aside their personal moral and religious convictions). In particular, Kant sought a law (what he called "the categorical imperative") that would bind rational individuals together regardless of their particular ends, while Rawls argued that principles of justice are those that all of us would choose if we chose from an original position of equality. According to Rawls, the two most important principles are a) equal basic liberties for all citizens and b) social and economic equality although it doesn't necessarily require the complete redistribution of income and wealth in order for this to be fulfilled. A common critique of this approach is that when it comes to questions of justice, setting aside one's moral and religious convictions isn't always possible, and many question whether or not Rawls (unconsciously) imposed his own belief about what is right and good in arriving at these principles.

4) Teleological ethics, which has it roots in Aristotle but has modern proponents in folks like Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, argues that we cannot know what is just apart from a prior conception of the good life. That is, Rawls's belief that basic principles of justice can be derived through reason independently of some moral community or worldview is misguided. The Aristotelian approach argues that while Rawls's theory of justice is nice in principle, from a practical point of view it is useless because there isn't a "neutral" moral universe "out there" from which rational individuals can derive principles of justice. Instead, all of us, when attempting to arrive at just decisions, draw on some worldview of what the good life entails. The challenge then becomes how we can have a reasoned debate about what constitutes the good life and the principles of justice that stem from it.

Theologians, not surprisingly, can be found arguing out of one or more of these "camps." James Gustafson from University of Chicago articulates something of a Rawlsian position in his attempts to make the Christian ethic "intelligible" to secular academics, while Stanley Hauerwas (interestingly, a former student of Gustafson's) takes more of a Aristotelian perspective in that he argues for a Chrisitan ethic in which Jesus Christ actually matters. Of course, within the Roman Catholic tradition St. Thomas Aquinas drew on Aristotle, and his perspective still dominates official Roman Catholic doctrine. Not bad for a guy who wrote back in the 13th century!

I have certainly not done "justice" to the nuances of these perspectives, and whether you agree with them or not, they all are well-reasoned and all deserve our attention (and reasoned debate). Thus, it will be well worth your while picking up the book or watch the DVD (you can find the episodes on iTunes U too) and see how it informs how your think about justice.

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