The Idea of Justice by Otto A. Bird

The Idea of Justice (Concepts in Western Thought Series, #2)The Idea of Justice by Otto A. Bird
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short monograph sets out to clarify—not to resolve—the ancient idea of justice and thereby enable the reader to recognize and compare different arguments on and appeals to it.

The Idea of Justice was one of five such monographs created by the Institute for Philosophical Research in the 1960s under the guidance of the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. (The others were The Idea of Freedom, The Idea of Happiness, The Idea of Love, and The Idea of Progress.) They are all Great Ideas, as identified by Adler in his Syntopicon to The Britannica Great Books of the Western World series published in 1952. Through the 1940s Adler and his Britannica team compiled a list of the greatest books in the Western tradition and made an inventory of the idea content of the entire list—in effect, the main ideas discussed by the greatest writers in the Western tradition.

It was no small task. It took Adler years just to develop a method of identifying the ideas discussed in the great books, and several more years, working with a large, dedicated, and—needless to add—highly intelligent team, to establish a list of them. The number of ideas they came up with was 102 (later expanded to 103 with the inclusion of the Great Idea of Equality). These monographs treat five of those 102 ideas. It was Adler’s hope that the Institute would go on to treat all of them, but for whatever reason this did not pan out. So what we’ve got are books on five key and controversial Great Ideas.

The approach taken by the Institute was unique. While Otto A. Bird was the author of The Idea of Justice, this book, like the others, was a collegial effort of the Institute as a whole, in that the ideas and drafts were circulated and discussed repeatedly among the team before the book was published. The intention was to expunge any bias or personal editorial viewpoint on the part of the author. And while it’s not possible to achieve this, their method brought them as close to this ideal as can be done.

For The Idea of Justice is not a philosophical work, but rather, as the author stresses, a dialectical one. Its aim is not to establish what justice is or is not. Its aim is to summarize and to clarify the various competing theories of justice that have been advanced in the Western tradition without showing preference to any of them. In order to do this, the author had to survey a vast literature, identify the key assumptions and components of the different theories of justice, group them into families based on shared characteristics, and then find a simple and clear way of comparing and contrasting them with each other. And in all this he succeeded admirably.

The topic itself is sprawling and diverse. Different writers have different views and even different definitions of justice, many of which are implicit rather than explicit. Bird kept studying the material and boiling it down till he found that all writers on justice, no matter how they differed with each other in other ways, agreed on three basic points, or as Bird terms them, the “common notes” of justice:

  • Justice is a social norm
  • Justice is approbative
  • Justice is obligatory

Or, in other words: Justice involves relationships between people; justice is preferable to injustice; and justice imposes a duty on us that we are not morally free to reject.

Examining all the writings from these points of view, Bird discovered six fundamental issues in the question of justice:

  1. Is justice the same as legality?
  2. Is justice a criterion of law?
  3. Is justice based on natural right?
  4. Is justice, in any sense other than that of legality, an objective norm of human action?
  5. Is justice obligatory on its own, apart from legal or social sanctions?
  6. Is justice a distinct virtue?

Based on the answers to these questions, Bird determined that there are three basic theories of justice, which he names the Positive Law theory, the Social Good theory, and the Natural Right theory. For each of these he identified a number of “paradigm authors” whose works are the most typical and complete for the theory in question. Three of these authors are Thomas Hobbes (Positive Law theory), J. S. Mill (Social Good theory), and Thomas Aquinas (Natural Right theory).

He sets out the arguments of each of these theories in turn, and finally discusses the nature of the controversies between them: how they criticize each other and defend themselves.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Bird’s work here. For while the issue, and therefore the idea, of justice is important to each of us, what do we really know about it? We often hear—or say—”that’s not fair!”, but what exactly do we mean? Do we mean something beyond “I’m not getting as much as I want!”?

As Bird observes, even the paradigm authors do not each address all the issues contained in the idea of justice; often their views are implicit and must be deduced from what they say. Or one author’s views must be supplemented with those of another author in order to flesh out the full implications of a theory and make it complete and consistent.

No individual writer on justice in history has shown such a complete view of the topic as a whole as you can see in this book. No writer has demonstrated a knowledge of the full range of the issues connected with justice and how they relate with each other. They had not done the dialectical work that Otto A. Bird has done. Now, because he has done it, any reader of The Idea of Justice will come away with a broader and clearer grasp of the idea of justice, its key issues, arguments, and theories, than was possessed by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, or John Stuart Mill.

Think on that.

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