The Subjects of Justice

Simpson, Evan (1980) The Subjects of Justice. Ethics, 90 (4). pp. 490-501. ISSN 1539-297X

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What are the basic subjects of justice-individuals and their actions, societies and their basic institutions, or something else again? In the absence of an answer to this conceptual question, substantive disputes among political theories remain unresolved.' If, as John Rawls says, "the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society,"2 a just society may include many acts of apparent inequity to individuals, for social intrusions into the lives of everyone will likely be justified by principles defining a fair share of the social product. If, however, the subject of justice is identified more clearly in Robert Nozick's assertion that "individuals have rights," personal entitlements may provide immunity from assault by principles of specifically social justice.3 The contest between modern, interventionist liberalism and libertarianism is thus inseparable from the problem of the subject of justice. The disagreement is neither well defined nor resolvable until other possible subjects of justice are canvassed. Both the idea of justice to individuals and the idea of just social structures are significantly ambiguous. They interfere with clear perception of the matter of justicethe problems of power and domination, freedom and oppression, which are raised by conflicts of interest. A catalog of such conflicts indicates the inadequacy of both liberalism and libertarianism. As individualist theories of justice they lack the conceptual resources for mapping important areas of the domain of right action, notably that of class conflict.

Item Type: Article
Item ID: 1717
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > Philosophy
Date: July 1980
Date Type: Publication
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