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How can there be disagreement about justice?

Examining the reasons behind different accounts of justice

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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