Friday, December 25, 2009

More on the Ideal and the Real

Larry:

Okay, Itzik -- I have to say that I appreciate the stimulation a dialogue like this provides and thank you for it. I also have to say, though, respectfully, that I disagree with most of your last, starting with the puzzling business about "whether it’s really necessary to go behind Halbertal's presupposition". I don't think I ever said it was necessary (I mean, it's not necessary to think at all, is it, apart from thinking about how to get through the day?), but I'll assume you're implying it's not necessary to question his presupposition in order to arrive at a usable notion of justice.

Well, but then the necessity of that is pretty much the whole point I've been trying to make, precisely because without some notion of right, whether tacit or explicit, we just don't have a usable or effective notion of justice (we'd be left just to bemoan the injustice of things, i.e.). The tacit claim to a right, in fact, is just what's contained in the presupposition, and what makes it a presupposition -- if someone then comes along and both makes that tacit claim explicit and questions it, it's not going to suffice just to say don't worry about it. (Similarly, saying that something is "inconceivable" to you is not going to have much weight when somebody else is obviously conceiving it.)

So, just to open up that long road again, I'll make my disagreements with the claims you call "tritely obvious" explicit:

"[Justice]’s standpoints necessarily include what is best for individuals, what is best for the groups they organize themselves into, and what is best for the group in the interest of promoting overall betterment." No -- regardless of utilitarianism, "justice" is not a god, nor are its human administrators, and has no standpoint from which to make such judgments. Individuals, of course (and the voluntary groups they're part of), do make such judgments for themselves because that's their business, but it's neither the business, nor within the capacity, of justice as such.

"It necessarily involves the allocation and distribution of resources." No -- regardless of egalitarianism, neither justice in the abstract nor its human administrators have any proper claim to resources that individual human beings produce and trade (though justice may be involved in resolving disputes in such matters).

"It necessarily involves proportionality in the balancing of the conflicting claims." No -- though I suppose that some kind of "proportionality" might occasionally be a factor in dispute resolution, justice in a particular conflict is a matter of both facts and rights, not some necessary "proportionality".

"... there is no overriding criterion that can answer absolutely and with certainty all the competing claims that necessarily issue out of people in social arrangements." True, but only in the (now indeed "tritely obvious") sense that absoluteness and certainty are never obtainable in the real world -- that's not an argument against the quest for an overriding criterion of justice that we can use to resolve conflicts, however contingently, when different such criteria themselves conflict.

Now, each of your propositions and my contradictions could obviously be argued much further, taking us down that long road, but my point in this exchange is really just to say two things:


- first, that it's important to continue to try to think about these matters in a more systematic and general way, as opposed to contenting ourselves with merely making lists of old criteria, and saying we can pick and choose from them as we like;


- and second, that the review in this case I think miscast the meta-issue of justice by framing all items in that list of old criteria as though they were of the same kind, or on the same level, when actually one of them logically/morally precedes the others. (In saying that, by the way, I'm not necessarily privileging property rights as such, but simply saying that the notion of "right" of some sort must be a fundamental component of justice.)

(One more btw: I think the reviewer, and presumably Sen, agree with the need for an overriding criterion of justice to resolve conflicts between other criteria, and this explains the somewhat tortuous resort to a notion of maximizing "human capabilites" -- which looks to me like just a species of utilitarianism, with "capability" substituting for "good".)

Which is as far down the road as I can go for now at least. Well, except for maybe one observation I can't resist. In our discussions on similar topics, there comes a point where you bring up "liberal democracy" in a tone that has a kind of "best of all possible worlds" ring about it to me. I may be wrong, and in any case I'm a fan of liberal democracy myself, as against its alternatives of fascism, communism, or various flavours of theocracy.

But I would say that, just as it was important for people to be aware of the flaws of older systems in order to bring about what we currently call liberal democracy, so it's important now for people to be aware of liberal democracy's flaws in order to move, carefully but surely, toward something better. Another reason why it's essential that we continue to be able to think about more fundamental matters than processes and procedures -- i.e., what the processes and procedures are for -- so that we can be aware of their limitations. And the primary reason why I am not a conservative.

This awaits response from me, which will follow shortly.

1 comment:

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