DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 05, 2023, from

6. Critics of justice

The discussion so far has proceeded on the assumption that justice is the principal virtue of institutions. The theories of justice examined here would explain this primacy in different ways; by appealing to the most important shared understandings, the most stringent demands of Nature or God, the conduciveness of justice to utility or civil peace, or the role of justice in providing a fair framework for the pursuit of different conceptions of the good. But all agree that, where justice conflicts with other values, those other values must give way.

This consensus has been challenged on the grounds that under ideal conditions justice would be unnecessary, and appeals to it would actually destroy valuable social relationships. Thus, a marriage in which the spouses were constantly arguing in terms of rights and duties would be less good than one in which mutual love created spontaneous harmony. By an extension of this sentimental line of thought, an ideal community would be one in which justice had been transcended by a spirit of what used to be called (until feminist scholars objected) fraternity. This is one strand in the thought of Marx, and it recurs in the work of some contemporary feminist and communitarian writers (see Community and communitarianism; Feminist political philosophy §4).

The theorists of justice discussed above would not necessarily dispute such claims. Both Hume and Rawls argued that there are ‘circumstances of justice’ that make justice necessary. These are precisely the conditions – conflicting demands for material goods and unreconcilable aspirations – that the critics of justice believe would be transcended by a sufficiently strong community spirit. The disagreement is not analytical but turns on the view taken of the possibility and the desirability of creating a community in which justice ceased to be the first virtue. The partisans of justice can point out that the theoretical assault on ‘bourgeois morality’ has provided the supposed justification for the most appalling violations of rights (for example, in China, Cambodia and the former USSR), and ask if there is any reason to suppose that other social experiments driven by the same animus would be any more benign.

Citing this article:
Barry, Brian and Matt Matravers. Critics of justice. Justice, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.