Philosophy, Society

Justice as impartiality

One common answer to the question of what should characterize an acceptable theory of justice is that it should be “impartial.” This is generally understood to mean that a theory of justice should not be tailored to the interests of specific individuals (or groups of individuals). This raises two questions. First, do we have reason to accept such an account of justice? Second, what follows from such an account of justice?

One weakness of presenting justice as impartiality is that it assumes that people stand in need, or recognize the need, to justify their actions to others in a moral framework. But as the philosopher David Gauthier points out, such a need can be treated as

“the secularized residue of the doctrine that persons seek to justify their actions before God. But once that residue is being recognized for what it is, it surely loses all credibility. And so justice as impartiality lacks a plausible view of justification” (David Gauthier, “Mutual Advantage and Impartiality,” in: Impartiality, Neutrality and Justice : Re-Reading Brian Barry’s Justice as Impartiality).

If there is a prospect of reconciling practical reason and justice it needs to be found in the fact that all persons, whatever their values are, will need to choose justice as dictated by practical reason. The best candidate for such a theory of justice is justice as mutual advantage.

The other issue with justice as impartiality is what it would entail. Justice as impartiality is often linked to the view that the arbitrarinesses of nature should not be reflected in the rules of justice. The fact that a person is more talented or better off is not deserved and should be morally irrelevant. But what actually follows from that is that:

nobody deserves anything at all – neither the fortunate, nor the unfortunate. If justice is served by depriving people of what they came by as the result of morally arbitrary processes, then we must take everything from everyone…” (Jan Narveson, “Egalitarianism: Partial, Counterproductive, and Baseless,” (Ratio, Volume 10, Number 3, December 1997, pp. 280-295 (16).

If the rules of justice are decided in a framework that is impartial, the best guarantee for acceptance and compliance with the substance of those rules is that they reflect mutual advantage, in which no one is made worse off for the benefit of others. This conception of justice does not exclude acts that confer a unilateral benefit on others, but these acts should be left to the choice of individuals and not be enforced through coercion.