Posted by: captainfalcon | August 27, 2009

Justice Quest

Compare these two accounts of what justice is about: one from libertarian Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea, the other from liberal John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. (1) Narveson: Justice is the area…in which literally coercive methods are, at least ultimately, in order, [whereas] other areas of morality [are] those in which they are not.” (2) Rawls: justice concerns “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (Rawls, 6).

Neither Rawls nor Narveson says anything about the concept of justice that’s obviously wrong. Indeed, they’d probably both largely agree with each others’ characterizations Still, it’s hard to resist making the – almost continental (and, therefore, analytically unseemly) – point that these different conceptions of what justice is about prime us, or those of us whose views haven’t already been corrupted by thinking about the subject (from whatever starting point we, no doubt arbitrarily, began), to react in very different ways to the subsequent discussions. Narveson’s suggests that justice is a violent, unseemly part of morality whose interferences with everyday lives should be minimized as much as possible (“literally coercive methods” are unhappy things). From Rawls, on the other hand, we get the sense that justice is fundamentally proactive, always operating to effect and tinker with distributions. On this account, it would be strange, indeed, were justice not pervasive.

It’s an obvious point that this sort of spin affects people insidiously. But this is a particularly clear example of its (potential) operation in the academy, which is one place that prides itself on being fairly insusceptible to non-rational suggestion.



  1. If I were writing an article about the health risks of carbonated soda, I could easily refer to Coca-Cola as “a caffeinated beverage containing roughly 3g of sugar per ounce.” If I were writing an article about American marketing, I could describe Coca-Cola as “the heavily-marketed beverage produced by The Coca-Cola Company which has been the best selling soda world-wide for the past decade.” In neither case would I be censurable for “insidious spin” because I did not define the drink with reference to both properties.

    To justify a claim that Rawls has lured his readers into fallacy with his tubiculous ways, you’d also need to indicate that the coercive nature of justice is also of sufficient importance to his discussion to be worth mention on the same level as the distribution and division of common goods and labor.

    As I haven’t read either of those works, I have no idea whether your criticism is, indeed, a fair one. However, as the tone of your discussion indicates that you are not writing this as a slap on the wrist to Rawls and Narveson so much as to highlight this type of danger danger to the average blog-reader (who presumably has also not read The Libertarian Idea and A Theory of Justice), your criticism is at best an incomplete one.

  2. I think we’re speaking at cross purposes.

    My speculation is that Narveson’s and Rawls’s characterizations of what justice is about might have insidious perlocutionary effects on a wide range of readers. That is, they might cause readers to form negative (in Narveson’s case) or positive (in Rawls’s) dispositions towards conceptions of justice according to which the State may do a number of different kinds of things (i.e. assume a large social role).

    I don’t see how what you’ve said about Coke has any relevance to my hypothesis. Nor do I take a stand on whether Rawls or Narveson should be “censured.”

    In order to disconfirm my hypothesis, you’d have to show that people don’t become inclined to accept e.g. libertarianism (or liberalism) after reading Narveson-like (Rawls-like) descriptions of what justice (or the role of the state) is about. At the very least, you’d have to supply reasons for thinking my narrative about how people are likely to react when reading the different characterizations is off-base. Did you do that?

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