On the Conceptual Status of Justice
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In contemporary debates about justice, political philosophers take themselves to be engaged with a subject that’s narrower than the whole of morality. Many contemporary liberals, notably John Rawls, understand this narrowness in terms of context specificity. On their view, justice is the part of morality that applies to the context of a society’s institutions, but only has indirect application to the context of citizens’ personal lives (unlike the rest of morality). In contrast, many value pluralists, notably G.A. Cohen, understand justice’s narrowness in terms of singularity against a plural background. On their view, justice is one fundamental value amongst a plurality of fundamental values. The purpose of my thesis is to establish that the pluralist conception of justice’s narrowness is (a) theoretically significant and (b) true. To establish its theoretical significance, I argue that proper attention to the ways in which different understandings of narrowness inform the work of contemporary egalitarians explains a considerable amount of disagreement between them concerning the content and scope of distributive justice. On the one hand, I’ll argue that if we understand justice’s narrowness in the manner Cohen and other pluralists do, i.e., understand a conception of justice to be a conception of a particular fundamental value, then both luck-egalitarianism and the claim that justice extends to the personal context are compelling. On the other hand, I’ll argue that if we understand justice’s narrowness in a contextual manner, i.e., understand justice to comprise one or more all-things-considered principles adopted for the institutional context, then both luck-egalitarianism and the claim that justice extends to the personal context prove implausible. To establish the truth of the pluralist conception of narrowness, I argue first, that the contextual understanding is only plausible if fairness should be understood procedurally instead of substantively; and second, that substantive fairness cannot be eliminated, as specifying the content of procedural fairness requires a substantive criterion. The upshot is that justice’s narrowness is best understood in terms of singularity against a plural background, rather than in terms of context specificity.