Justice as Ideology

April 26, 2007

A concept such as justice should never be accepted as a concrete reality, for, as a singularity, it can only exist in the consciousness; as an imagined ideal. Because to accept justice as a concrete reality is to accept it as it is defined by power. When justice becomes reality, it becomes ideology; once it is institutionalized it is in someone’s hands. Once a society has accepted a supposed universal notion of a concept so powerful as justice, it gives the right to those in power to define justice – even when power is classless. To treat justice as an absolute, or ever existing in reality in any way, is in fact to give up any notion of justice.

This should not be seen as a form of nihilism. To say that a concept such as justice is an ideal which should continually be deconstructed and never accepted as concrete is not to say it should not be continually strived for. On the contrary, to accept an absolute notion of justice is equally as dangerous as giving up on it. Justice must exist as an ideal in our consciousness, constantly re-informed, deconstructed, yet forever strived for. For it is only possible to build a “more just” society rather than an indefinitely and absolutely just one.

Jed Rouhana


6 Responses to “Justice as Ideology”

  1. Andrew Zimmerman Says:

    Right on. Justice is a name given to a universal that is never already realized. When empire names this universal “justice” (or “human rights” or “freedom” or whatever) and pretends it exists in its world, it does so to hijack the current struggle toward the universal and drive it into the ground.

    But that justice today is subjective is an historical effect of the objective injustice of empire, not an inherent characteristic of the universal.

  2. Craig R. Lee Says:

    “Justice as fairness,” as coined by John Rawls, uses his principles of freedom and equality to defend his two principles of justice. Rawls views the flaws of utilitarianism as the greatest problems to society; he aims to correct it by reconciling his inalienable first principle with the disenfranchised individual. John Rawls introduces to us a contemporary concept of justice that combines the “equal right to most extensive
    basic liberty” and the reality of natural winners, and natural losers.
    A Theory of Justice begins attacking the very essence of utilitarianism. As Rawl’s sees it, the problem is that the philosophy does not care about the individual in society with regard to their general well being. “Since the principle for an individual is to advance as far as possible his own welfare, his own system of desires, the principle of society is to advance as far as possible the welfare of the group, to realize to the greatest extent the comprehensive system of desire arrived at from the desire of its members.” Furthermore, he complains, “Social justice is the principle of the rational prudence applied to the aggregative conception of the welfare of the group.” For Rawls, utilitarianism does the complete opposite of this. “Thus there is no reason in principle why the greatest gains of some should not compensate for the lesser losses of others or more importantly, why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many.” Rawls is setting up the foundation for his second principle by attacking how goods are distributed in a utilitarian society; that is, without regard to the losers. The problem with utilitarianism rests in its failure to protect against the tyranny of the majority; it fails to address the distribution of “satisfaction” throughout society.
    As a result, Rawls is interested in protecting not only the general liberty of each person, but to make sure that the lowest members of society are not left out. He introduces the imaginary concept of the Original Position to replace what traditional Western philosophy has titled the “state of nature.” As Rawls explains, “The idea of the original position is to set up a fair proceedings that any principles agreed to will be just.”

    The Original Position relies upon humans acting behind a “veil of ignorance” and agreeing upon the first principle; that all men should have equal rights (the First Principle) of Justice). Rawls defends this assumption by referencing utilitarianism again. “He would appear to reject utilitarianism on much the same grounds suggested earlier: namely, that it improperly extends the principle of choice for one person to choices facing society.” Rawls considers this problem with great length; it is this available opportunity that runs contrary to the Original Position.

    The veil of ignorance makes an agreement possible concerning justice because men, in the Original Position, do not know in what faculties they can be either advantaged or disadvantaged. With the veil of ignorance, people will think rationally as to maximize their advantages and minimize their disadvantages. “They know that, in principle, they must try to protect their liberties, widen their opportunities, and enlarge their means for promoting their aims whatever these are. Guided by the theory of the good and the general facts of moral psychology, their deliberations are no longer guesswork. They can make a rational decision in the ordinary sense.” By this, Rawls asserts that, on an equal playing field, men will seek a win-win situation.
    Since it is contradictory to know what faculties and talents we are given because of the veil of ignorance, no man has the ability to maximize his personal ends; this prevents the benefit of a minority at the expense of the masses. The first principle of justice becomes obvious to agree upon in a veil of ignorance because we all agree that no person should have an advantage over another. As Rawls states, “They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation they turn out to belong to.”

    However, this is not to say that Rawls does not think that, given the first principle of justice, that people with greater talents and faculties will be able to be more advantaged in society after settling upon the Contract. Without resolving this problem, Rawls would not be solving the elements he finds so unjust in utilitarianism. Therefore, he must find a way to reconcile the natural talents given to individuals (at the loss of others) while protecting the first principle. This reconciliation is Rawls’s second principle of justice.

    Rawls addresses the potential injustices from the first principle by distinguishing what he considers equal and unequal liberty. “Liberty is unequal as when one class of persons has a greater liberty than another or liberty is less extensive than it should be. Now all the liberties of equal citizenship must be the same for each member of society.” Liberty can only be limited for the sake of liberty itself. Foreshadowing his coming arguments for social welfare, Rawls is suggesting that the “liberty” to become more powerful in society (via wealth) must be sacrificed to appease those less fortunate. Ignoring this would complete destroy his idea of equal opportunity, or “justice as fairness.”

    The second principle of justice addresses liberty being sacrificed for the sake of liberty itself. For Rawls, it is necessary for society to further the worth of liberty to those who are naturally less unfortunate in their capacities. “Taking the two principles together, the basic structure to be arranged to maximize the worth to the last advantaged of the complete scheme of equal liberty shared by all. This defines the end of social justice.” In essence, the second principle of justice makes up for the potential inequalities after agreeing upon the basic first principle of justice. The difference principle resolves this matter. “This is the principle that underserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. Thus the principle holds that in order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into the less favorable social positions.” Society would agree to satisfy the difference principle because it would not be justice to regard the disenfranchised without steps of welfare.

    John Rawls “Justice as fairness” reconciles the problems of utilitarianism with a sense of responsibility for social welfare. Rather than the individual being the master of his future, Rawls believes that society has a stake in ensuring some sort of welfare for the inequalities found in society. By agreeing upon the two principles of justice, Rawls paints a world where society cannot be considered just if it does not consider, with priority, the disadvantaged over the advantaged.

  3. Craig R. Lee Says:

    That is a paper i wrote on justice; an alternative to your view

  4. jed Says:

    hmm seems to be a basic neoliberal/modernist thesis – making the fatal mistake of assuming that rational self interest is to accumulate capital – allowing power to define what is “welfare”, to go on to control the discourse around what is “progress” and how to achieve it.. and on and on. nothing new here.

  5. craig r. lee Says:

    it doesnt make the assumption that rational self interest is to accumulate capital: it accepts the reality of the current US system but says that nobody should be rewarded for their talents because it is simply not what would we agree to behind a veil of ignorance. john rawls is not “nothing new here” – he possibly is the most influential 20th century philosopher the world has ever seen. read “a theory of justice”

    welfare is not defined as power – welfare is defined as making up for the injustices of some having more natural talents than others. behind the veil of ignorance, we would agree to be equal but in reality this is not the case. some people are born to be greater writer than others; some greater scientist; some greater musicians. the point of the difference principle is to make up for the natural advantages people have in society.

  6. withinempire Says:

    It seems that Jed’s post deals with Justice as it manifests in society, whereas Craig is defining it in abstract, Absolute terms. For a reconciliation between the two, we need not look any farther than Andrew Zimmerman’s post at the top of the page.

    When Justice is institutionalized in a society predicated on capitalist modes of production, it will always be manipulated to serve existing power relations. In other words, Capitalist power WILL hijack any notion of justice and exploit it to strengthen the already existing power dynamic.

    But this does not mean that Justice is unattainable or does not exist. The principles which Rawls puts forward are reasonable, but if they were institutionalized in the midst of a capitalist economic structure, they would be torn to shreds .

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