On Ideal Theories of Justice

So I was paging through The New Republic‘s archives late last night and I came across this review for The Idea of Justice, a book I had previously heard much praise for without a lot of context (like, say, what it was about). And to be sure, Moshe Halbertal’s review convinced me it’s worth checking out. But being a scholar of note himself, he threw out some interesting ideas of his own I want to address, specifically in the following passage:

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make. By rejecting an ultimate theory of justice, we do not paralyze ourselves, or surrender our intention to improve the world. Quite the contrary. We liberate ourselves for the full complexity of the challenge before us, and equip ourselves with all the elements of comparative reasoning that the evaluation of an injustice requires. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions.


A couple things strike me here. The first is that this is supposed to be one of the reasons for a multi-party system. In a world where we had stumbled across one perfect, ideal theory of justice, I couldn’t give you any good reason why we should only have one party to carry out the business of the state in accordance with that theory. But because political philosophy is still a wide open field, it’s hard to imagine a state based around enacting a sole ideal theory with no competition that wouldn’t end in disaster.

Sadly, we’re on the opposite end of the disaster spectrum these days; say what you will about Communism, but it’s more ideologically coherent than the mish-mash of slogans, postures, panders and clever evasions that both of our major parties have adopted as platforms. Partially, that’s just a concession to reality, the result of the sort of compromises you need to make in order to form broad coalitions. But it’s also representative of how little practically anyone in the political mainstream cares about basic philosophical principles. And that’s a problem, because the result is a tendency to address problems from the position of that reflexive sloganeering, when some kind of theory of justice on both sides would suit us far better.

But there’s something else in this passage I want to note. It’s only implied, although he expresses it far more bluntly a couple paragraphs prior when he says:

The problem with grand theories of justice, we might say, is not that each of them is, in its own way, right, but that by aspiring to grandness and exclusivity they are, all of them, wrong. The very attempt to produce a total and ultimate theory for a perfectly just society will inevitably generate injustice.

That’s certainly true of any prominent existing theory of justice. And even were some enterprising philosopher to stumble upon the ideal theory of justice tomorrow, I would never be content with a system of governance in which it could forever go unchallenged. But that being said, I’m not willing to give up on the hunt for the ideal theory just yet. For one thing, the competing ideal theories that are so useful when played off one another were birthed from that hunt for the one perfect theory. Even if we grant that the existence of a grand, unifying theory of justice (so to speak) is a fiction, it’s a useful fiction insofar as it keeps us searching.

Besides, while I’ll admit that the odds of that we’ll ever perfect a theory of justice are extremely slim, but at the same time I’m highly skeptical of any claim of the form, “We’ll never discover X.” It reminds me far too much of the (admittedly apocryphal) 19th century patent officer who claimed that everything of significance that could be invented already had been. Unless Halbertal can expose the exact mechanism blocking such a discovery–sort of a philosophical Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle–then I think we assume too much in firmly concluding that it’s forever beyond humanity’s grasp.

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One Response

  1. [...] maybe those sorts of arguments won’t ever have an end. Why should they? I cited a passage from Moshe Halbertal a while back that I’d like to draw attention to again: The [...]

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