How can there be disagreement about justice?

Examining the reasons behind different accounts of justice

November 30, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Everyone has an interest in justice. Everyone would say they want justice and despise injustice. We learn about the complexity of justice as we age, but are born into the world with a spectacularly sensitive sense of justice. No child, for example, has to be told to feel angry about being wronged; the sense is innate. Injustice is rightly decried, denounced, and opposed. Justice is universal. 

The existence of rather widespread disagreement about justice today hardly requires elaborate argument. Some of our most significant disagreements as a society are at base disagreements about the meaning and scope of justice. Abortion, capital punishment, universal health care, immigration, warfare; these and similar issues are at their core about promoting justice and curtailing injustice. But this raises the question of why, if all these pressing social questions are fundamentally about justice, there remains such broad, deeply-felt disagreement about what justice really involves. How can there be rival accounts of something so basic and fundamental to social life?

Explaining rival accounts of understanding justice 

That is the central question raised by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In pluralistic societies of the West, we simply assume disagreement on core social questions as a matter of course, but we cannot stop there if we are to avoid a relativist conclusion. Instead we must ask, “How ought we to decide among the claims of rival and incompatible accounts of justice competing for our moral, social, and political allegiance?”1WJWR, 2. MacIntyre’s answer to this question is fascinating, but on final reckoning, incorrect. It’s precisely why and how it is finally incorrect that the book continues to be of great importance.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality, like MacIntyre’s earlier work After Virtue, stands in the genre of modernity criticism common among intellectual histories of the past four to five decades. It is a compelling how-we-got-here story. Disagreements about justice are disagreements about practical reason, our thinking about judgement and action. But finding a solution through analysis of practical reason is equally futile, because accounts of practical reason are equally divergent. As MacIntyre puts it: “we inhabit a culture in which an inability to arrive at agreed rationally justifiable conclusions on the nature of justice and practical rationality coexists with appeals by contending social groups to sets of rival and conflicting convictions unsupported by rational justification.” Any resolution to this cycle of assertion and counter-assertion is fleeting, and any appearance of consensus simply disguises the facts of disagreement. 

The only reason we are able to discourse at all is because we all inhabit traditions. A tradition here functions as a ground for human agency; we all inherited one, and we all rely on the atmosphere our tradition provides. For simplicity’s sake, you can think of a tradition as being something like a way of thinking and acting durable over time. Exactly how these traditions converge and diverge occupies the large majority of MacIntyre’s account, the reason being is that we aren’t educated into one coherent way of thinking and acting but instead absorb an “amalgam of social and cultural fragments.”2Ibid. Whatever is true or justified is true or justified for that tradition because of principles internal to it. MacIntyre’s account of how various traditions conceive of justice is meticulous, learned, and often dazzling; a great strength of the book.

The primary culprit to our intractable disagreement is modernity itself, particularly its Enlightenment ideals and liberal sensibilities. If everyone is afforded the freedom to pursue their own individual end, as liberalism promises, then what counts as most decisive will be relative to the cluster of people holding roughly similar commitments. According to MacIntyre, modern liberalism not only protects the conditions needed for intractable disagreement, it enshrines them. The only way to get past this intractability and irresolution is to get beyond liberalism itself. This line of argument (among others) has made MacIntyre an important voice in post-liberal intellectual circles.

Areas of agreement

Before offering a few problems with MacIntyre’s account, let me first identify a few things he gets right. First, he is correct to question basic precepts of modern self-understanding. We have, all of us, been inescapably shaped by the liberal tradition. It has formed us. We, to a great extent, want a free and equal society where justice prevails while at the same time admitting that the principled foundations of that liberal order can never secure those lofty aims.  

Second, MacIntyre identifies a modern feeling shared by many, especially Christians, that social disagreement is intractable and irresolvable. A strength of MacIntyre’s account is highlighting why that disagreement occurs as it does. Even if it isn’t true that disagreement is intractable and that traditions are irreconcilable, it certainly feels as though our social situation is permanent. And in desperation or disgust we might contrive our own solution, retreating into localities, embodying our faith as called and commanded. A commendable strategy irrespective the liberal state of things, but, if we cherish truth, then it is worth asserting and reasserting, for without truth justice disintegrates into precisely the malaise MacIntyre posits.

Third, MacIntyre is correct that liberalism is under duress. Everywhere is evidence of social dissolution and fracture. Freedoms crash into one another. Our order is strained. 

Lastly, he is correct that, shorn of any notion of Final End (or telos), liberalism can at best propose only a provisional notion of justice, a notion that assumes some future unanimity but without accepting there’s a Truth about justice. This idea explains some of the resistance to the notion of “social justice” common today. It supposes not a static standard of justice—i.e., giving each their due—but a pliable, often amorphous standard of equality that shifts with the winds of opinion and sentiment. What sort of justice isn’t social, after all? It isn’t a program. It is a virtue and objective authority. Anything that is just for society must also be Good and True. And the question with respect to “social justice” is not whether equality is a worthy aim—of course it is—but of how much inequality and untruth this particular conception of equality may hide within itself.

The problem with MacInyre’s argument

Problems in MacIntyre’s account are well-noted. There is, first of all, the notoriously challenging method of intellectual history itself. Telling a how-we-got-here story, what academics call a genealogy, requires what every story requires—a selection of cast, setting, plot, etc. Including some means and not including others makes it difficult to near-impossible to avoid exaggerating some claims or features and understating others. MacIntyre’s history is selective in this way. Second, and most glaring, is MacIntyre’s argument that truth is relative to traditions of rationality. It simply cannot be that what is just is just because my tradition of rationality justifies that conclusion. Justice, if it is to be meaningful, must be about what is Good and Right. As such, it challenges our errors and biases.  

WSWR is among the most important books on justice of the 20th century. A challenging book for the average reader, but one that, if read carefully, is full of ideas and perceptive to the contested nature of justice today, provided that readers remember that Whose Justice? Which Rationality? offers not a solution but penetrating insight into the nature of our social disagreements about justice. If, on the Christian account, justice has its root in God, then there is a justice that bears universal scope.

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24