Justice: The ordinary understanding examined
Hamilton, Lawson Bode
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“What is justice?” seems an interminable question. That is, we persistently disagree as to the nature and meaning of justice. Ought we, then, to despair of the concept? My project is in some sense a reason to think we should not, without attempting to uncover the one uniquely rational understanding of justice, for it seems unlikely that such an understanding is possible. Instead, my project is to begin with the ways we generally talk about justice in the context of ordinary life and to attempt to extract from this moral talk a plausible theory of justice. To that end, I turn first to the most prominent concerns we discuss in terms of justice in ordinary life. I do not attempt a direct definition of justice but a theory of what justice does, firstly, because the ordinary understanding of justice does not lead to a definition and, secondly, because the function of a thing is often the best way we have of making sense of what that thing is. What I find is that our ordinary talk of justice focuses negatively on the badness of injustice and the necessity of (as far as possible) undoing it. Given the economic language in which we typically discuss moral wrongdoing, I call my theory the Moral Debt Model of Justice. With a theory based on the ordinary understanding of justice in hand, beginning in Chapter 2, I attempt to determine whether this theory is plausible by considering how it fits within morality as a whole. My conclusion is that the social function of morality is to promote the ability of people to live together in relative peace and that, in the aggregate, justice is a device for the achievement of that end. The value of this project is not only to turn philosophical discussion of justice back toward ordinary life, but also to make sense of the vital importance of justice, even in the face of deep disagreement as to its nature. Thus, my theory offers an explanation of the social significance of justice while also demonstrating why we are not always wrong to compromise on justice for the sake of peace.