Saturday, December 26, 2009

Last Word for now on the Ideal and the Real


You write: "My “Real”— based challenge to you is this: give me an example of any society ever in our history that has manifested, for various betters and bads, justice as anything but, analytically, the trade offs and tensions and adjustments and balancing of competing claims and so on. If you cannot, and that is my presumption, you will need to question both the utility of long voyage and whether it will take you anywhere. ... [I'll come back to the omission in a bit]

To reduce this challenge to one, amongst many, concrete case, has there ever in human history been a society in which the state did not have an expropriating power?"

I'll respond by posing a hypothetical: suppose we were writing about 150 years ago, and you were to ask "Has there ever in human history been a society in which the state's government was elected by secret ballot of every citizen of age" -- would that be a convincing and "real" argument against democracy to you? Some things are new under the sun, and while their newness isn't in itself an argument for them, I think even fairly hidebound conservatives would be reluctant to make it, in itself, an argument against them.

And, while I'll certainly admit that there have always been (and always will be) arguments over what justice is in the abstract, or requires in particular instances -- that's all that I mean in referring to the "long road", after all -- that's not at all to say that justice itself just IS these "trade offs and tensions and adjustments", etc.

I'm repeating myself now too, but I'll say again that without some substantive sense of what justice is or requires, you have no way of knowing how to make, justly, such trade offs, etc. -- and that sense must include knowing how to at least prioritize among competing notions or claims of justice.

But I'll go back to the omitted bit: "“I think your real argument is not to go back to philosophical first principles properly to conceive a theory of justice. I think it’s really concerned with the “philosophical legitimacy” of a greater emphasis on the libertarian claim.”"

No, I'd say my "real argument" here is precisely to deal with philosophical first principles of justice, which is what I took as the point of the review and of Sen's book. But it's no secret (I hope) that I view such first principles as leading toward something like a classical liberal view of justice, which, as I see it, stems from a fundamental notion of "right", and which in turn requires that there be limits to state behavior that is just -- in other words, just limits to state intervention as a means of bringing about certain conditions (e.g., maximized good, equality, capability, whatever), even if those conditions themselves are seen as more just.

The very existence of constitutions, of course -- which certainly weren't always around -- is a testament to the force of that fundamental notion. Now, maybe it so happens that the present limits, as for example embodied in the "Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791", are the correct ones -- but maybe they're not, in that clause and/or elsewhere. Either way, it's no argument to say that the mere existence of such and such a particular limit means that it's correct.

Of course, "as a matter of the “Real”", states can do whatever they both want to and have the power to do, and that will be true right up to the point at which a greater force or violence, whether internal, through revolution, or external, through war and invasion, prevents them. But it's just exactly those sorts of historical realities that have led people to want to try to think of justice in a more general and principled way, and then to try to construct states that operate, more or less, by such principles -- i.e., to set up an Ideal as a guide for the Real.

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