Monday, August 22, 2005

Justice as Practical Reason

Bradley's dictum about metaphysics, which I cited last time, has an analogue in ethics, well expressed by Stuart Hampshire in the Preface to Justice is Conflict:
"In moral and political philosophy one is looking for adequate premises from which to infer conclusions already and independently accepted because of one's feelings and sympathies."
Because practical reason is not distinct from the rightness of one's emotional response (that is, from character), this is not a sceptical or relativist claim, and Hampshire is not deterred by it:
I came to recognize that my socialist sympathies, and loyalty to the political left, were far from unreasonable, and not at all difficult to defend, in proportion as they were traceable to emotions engendered by the persisting evils of human life: and poverty in all its modern forms is certainly one.
We should be moved by the perennial evils, and one "can read about the mutilations of war, tyranny, massacres, and starvation described by ancient writers, as if one is reading a twentieth-century newspaper." This is exactly right. It is what Simone Weil argued in "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" – force being "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing." And it is a reason for the permanent impact of Beethoven's Fidelio.

Hampshire's remarks might lead one to expect a book with few arguments, a book against argument in ethics. But it is really the opposite: a plea for procedural justice, in which both sides are heard. Justice is conflict – if conflict is conceived as adversarial reasoning.

Although he does not put it this way himself, Hampshire's argument for the plea can be seen as a radical response to the distinction between "ideal" and "non-ideal" political theory. He stands against the ideal tradition, in Plato and as it survives in Nozick and Rawls. The tactic of A Theory of Justice does not go far enough: we need to find an account of fairness that is not only neutral with respect to competing moral conceptions in liberal society, but with respect to societies that are illiberal (for instance, theocratic). Consequently, practical politics cannot be seen as the application of ideal theory, at all; the picture suggested by "non-ideal theory" is a mistake. For Hampshire, practical politics must always and everywhere be defined by fairness as the hearing of conflicting claims, though there is "no rational necessity about the more specific rules and conventions determining the criteria for success in argument in any particular institution".

The cardinal problem for this view is to explain why the demand for procedural justice, even in this vague form, is not itself a substantive claim, an illicit application of ideal theory. What justifies it? And how can it stand above the fray? Hampshire's response is suggestive but obscure. He presents "a kind of transcendental argument" that the "authority and the justification are to be found in the structure of practical reason itself." Individual rationality is the weighing of considerations; and Plato was right to draw an analogy between city and soul. Thus, procedural justice is part of practical reason.

This move is impossible to evaluate on the slender basis given by the book. In any case, I do not want to criticize. I have the habit of underlining memorable sentences or passages in whatever I read. With Justice is Conflict, I found myself marking up half of every page. The prose is perfect; not a word is wasted. And what it argues, however schematic or incomplete, is wise.


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