DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

2. Conventionalism

Turning to social, or distributive, justice, the attraction of some form of conventionalist approach is clear. Since there are institutions, conventions and systems of law that determine what is due to whom, resolving issues of justice may be thought merely to require reading off the correct answer from such sources. The earliest extant statement of a conventionalist view of justice is offered by Socrates’ interlocutors, Cephalus and Polemarchus, in Book I of Plato’s Republic. Polemarchus states that justice is giving a man his due, or what is appropriate to him, and it is clear that for Polemarchus what is appropriate to each person is dictated by the conventions prevalent in contemporary Athenian society.

A more complicated statement of conventionalism has been offered by Michael Walzer (1983). He argues that every social good (for example, health care, wealth, income and political rights) has an appropriate criterion of distribution which is internally related to how that good is understood by society. For example, in the UK (as elsewhere), health care is understood essentially to concern itself with illness and the restoration of health. This shared understanding of health care seems to entail a distributive criterion: medical need. Anyone, therefore, who claims that health care in the UK (and many other societies) ought to be distributed in accordance with, say, status has either failed to grasp the nature of the good of health care or falls outside the community which is united and defined by its shared understandings. The only universal principle of distributive justice is the demand that respect be given to different shared understandings: no community ought to impose its own understanding of a given good, and its criterion for the distribution of that good, on any other community with different views.

The dependence of this theory on shared understandings has led to its being criticized on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Empirically, it is doubtful that any society is so homogenous as to boast a single, coherent and uncontested understanding of each of its social goods. (Is the freezing of embryos so that women might have children later in life, after they have established themselves in a career, meeting a medical need?) Theoretically, the account is flawed because the proposed universal principle of justice is not found in any society. A belief may be ‘ours’ in that it defines justice according to us; but it does not follow that we believe it is ‘ours’ in the sense of applying only to us. If justice is internally related to social understandings, there can be no perspective from which anyone might, from outside a given set of understandings, condemn the understandings or practices of a society as unjust. Yet there clearly is such a perspective. For example, in a hierarchical society it may be that the local conception of justice would require gross inequalities based on ascription at birth; this could be regarded as unjust.

The prima facie attraction of conventionalism is immediately undone when one asks why any given set of conventions, laws, or shared understandings should determine the distribution of benefits and burdens. Once this question is asked there is no reason why the answer has to flow from within the narrow resources of the community. It is at this point, when one asks why things are as they are, that the philosophical problem of justice really begins.

Citing this article:
Barry, Brian and Matt Matravers. Conventionalism. Justice, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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