Does Justice belong to ethical domain?

1. In “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”, David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, raises a question, which has always been one of the basic concerns of ethical investigations in the modern western intellectual tradition: what theory of morals could serve any useful purpose, he asks, unless it can be shown that all the duties it recommends are also in the true interest of each individual? Even though there are several interesting things about this question, I will just indicate two of them. Firstly, the belief is that an individual requires reasons to behave morally which is what a theory of morals is supposed to provide. Secondly, he requires reasons to be moral because moral rules constrain his actions. Since it is rational that each individual pursues his ‘own’ interests, any constraint placed on his behavior requires some kind of justification. Together, these two assumptions yield us the better-known question in ethical theorizing: is it rational to be moral? Or, more imply put in terms of an even older question: why ought we to be moral?

Ever since the German Romantics, another thought, which reverses the above question, is also a part of the modern-day consciousness: is it moral to be rational? However, the elaboration of this question is not only implicit but it is also confined mostly to a criticism of local rationalities: the economic rationality, the technological rationality, the scientific rationality, the rationality of progress, etc. The reversal is only implicit and the criticisms only local because even where some person formulates criticisms of (some such) rationality in some domain or the other, there the same individual chooses to be rational in other fields of human endeavor. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this attitude: we are rightly afraid of obscurantist rejections of rationality. However, the problems are these: of what kind of rationality ought we to be critical? That is to say, when are we morally obliged to criticize rationality? What kind of rationality is susceptible to such a moral criticism?

2. If you look at these two paragraphs a bit carefully and think about both kinds of problems, you notice two things: (a) rationality is a value and (b) morality is defended rationally. To ‘say’ what the moral certainty is we need to formulate it in rational terms. Any such formulation is hypothetical. That is one of the reasons why attempts to provide a different kind of ‘certainty’ to morality (for instance, ‘intuitionism’ in moral theorizing) have failed. When people have different moral judgments about the same problem (abortion, homosexuality, etc are the obvious examples), they all feel equally ‘certain’ about their judgments. So, how do we solve such moral disagreements? Here, it appears, we need reason. This, however, is a familiar situation.

Consider now the situation that we (Sarah and I) sketch in our article on Dialogue and violence. Here, we show how a reasonable attempt to resolve differences through a rational dialogue generates, feeds and sustains violence. I am inclined to think (encouraged in this direction by Ashok Dhareshwar, who pointed this out to me first) that there is a very important and fundamental ‘theorem’ lurking somewhere in the vicinity of this article, even though I have so far failed to formulate it at the required level of generality. There are many results that surprise me in this article. Let me notice just two: (a) the requirements of reason conflict with the requirements of morality; (b) the requirements of reason pervert the cause of justice. (There are more, but they are not necessary for this post.) I have failed to discover inconsistencies in this article so far; equally, I have failed to identify the premises that lead me to these and allied conclusions.

3. The reason why I was intrigued by Siegfried’s post and the contrast that I see between justice and well-being is this. In the course of working on the above article, I began to think that ‘justice’ does not belong to the ethical domain. (Our Indian intuitions allow for a king to be to be both cruel and just or be both immoral and just.) At the same time, what we consider as ethics (the non-normative variety) takes human well-being as the goal and defines ethical thinking as the process of reflection about what this is and how to achieve it. (This is what ethics is to Aristotle as well: help people reach eudaimonia.) Now, here comes Siegfried and postulates that ‘Justice’ and ‘Eudaimonia’ can be used to define the ‘political right’ and the ‘political left’. In western political thought, Justice is fundamentally ‘normative’ and is indissolubly a part of the ethical domain. Equally, the ‘left’ has become synonymous with wanting to ‘build a just society’. I have begun to think that there is something very wrong here because, I begin to believe that a ‘just’ society (or a ‘just’ principle) can be immoral. I think we can say this without the fear of saying something that is a contradiction in terms. Siegfried, coming from another direction, appears to suggest something similar. So, I am keen on knowing why he says this. If he can elaborate on his proposal, it might throw some new light on a topic that urgently requires to be illumined (as far as I am concerned).

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