A contemporary reprise of theories of justice

This blog’s being sponsored by an evangelical Christian university means, among other things, that at least some contributors, notably the current writer, tend to adopt a set of basic Christian assumptions (monotheism, tenets of historic Christianity, biblicism) in approaching matters of bioethics, including justice.  In that light, a recent summary of a Christian framework for justice, by the Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller, is worth a careful read.  It is a concise and erudite summary of the different secular approaches to justice in pluralistic American society, contrasting them with a Christian approach.  (It does not attempt to address frameworks specifically grounded in other religious traditions.)

Drawing on the teachings of the Bible, especially the example of Old Testament Israel as embodying universal, enduring principles of justice intended by God, Keller characterizes biblical justice as encompassing concern for community that entails a moral imperative to generosity; equity in treatment of all human beings; corporate responsibility, meaning that sometimes, people bear responsibility for sins of others; but also individual responsibility, meaning “I am finally responsible for my sins, but not all my outcomes”; and an imperative to advocate for poor and marginalized people.  Of these, the contours of corporate vs individual responsibility will certainly spark debate among Christians, but living out these principals is, Keller argues, the responsibility of the Church in a secular world.

The big contrast is with atheistic, secular approaches to justice, which must and do fail because they neglect, avoid, or despise appreciation for human teleology—what are people for, what is their purpose?  Keller invokes Alastair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? and, with MacIntyre, takes the position that “behind every understanding of justice is a set of philosophical beliefs about (a) human nature and purpose (b) morality, and (c) practical rationality—how we know things and justify true beliefs.”  Disagreement about these, particularly about human nature and purpose, leaves the prospect for secular agreement about justice well-nigh hopeless.  The rationality of the Enlightenment failed in this regard, and the popular current secular default that morality springs from common sense begs the question, assuming a common moral intuition that need not and does not pertain.

The current American secular landscape is dominated by four theories, which lie, progressively, on a spectrum of sorts, from individualist to collectivist, in order:

  • libertarianism, the position that justice is the maximization of individual freedom, which fails to appreciate the importance of community and the depths to which sin distorts human affairs, and which is too grounded in individual self-interest;
  • modern liberalism, which focuses on fairness, most recently following John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and emphasizes rights or entitlements, often to be guaranteed by the state.  It fails for reasons that have been well-rehearsed many times elsewhere: an enthronement of individual autonomy, a lack of a standard for adjudicating conflicting rights-claims, and an unwarranted faith in reason (notably in cost-benefit analyses), attempting to exclude religious values, but, in America at least, assuming Judaeo-Christian principals and values to support fairness judgments;
  • utilitarianism—justice is what produces the greatest good for the greatest number—which, for all its usefulness in individual judgments, fails as an overarching approach for many well-known reasons, including incommensurability of goods, potential to embrace mistreatment of minorities, insufficient criteria for what is “good” in the first place, and over-reliance on the language of “harm” to ground judgments;
  • postmodernism, the notion that “a just society subverts the power of dominant groups in favor of the oppressed.”  This may be the loudest current voice, and it draws the lion’s share of Keller’s attention.  This approach, Marxist in its foundations, starts from the presupposition that human affairs are the product of impersonal social or historical forces—the old “scientific theory of history.”  Keller provides an excellent, quick digest and explanation of what the current radicals, articulating Critical Theory (or Critical Race Theory when applied to racial relations), are talking about when they invoke “dominant discourses,” “intersectionality,” and “checking one’s privilege.”

Let us be clear—Critical Theory is rubbish, and Keller hits it hard.  Among its defects: deep incoherence—if everyone is blinded by their circumstances, so are the Critical Theorists; it reduces humans to automatons and fails to account for universal sin, moral agency, and the union of soul and body (I suppose if you deny that people have souls, and think they are just bodies, you just might be a  Marxist materialist); it denies human sinfulness and common humanity and makes forgiveness and reconciliation impossible; it invites extreme self-righteousness on the part of its adherents; and it sets the stage for oppression under the disguise of opposing oppression.  (Memo to the young: we just spent a century battling the various demons of totalitarianism, and you get to decide what you think of the second coming of Mao.  Study well.  Read attentively.  Choose carefully.)

Read the whole thing.

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