Our chapter on this large theme  starts slow but then delivers a solid point too often neglected by partisans of free-market democracy: “In a good society, there will be something more than prosperity; there will also be justice.”

Dr. King’s dream is a step closer, segregation is no longer defended by “respectable” people, there’s a Caucasian-African-American in the Oval Office… but bigotry and ugly race-hatred still frustrate the full flourishing of a genuinely Good Society, a Kantian Kingdom of Ends, a republic of virtue, a land of liberty and justice for all.

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’… I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

Philosopher Cornel West is one of our more charismatic and energetic dream-keepers today, a “drum major for justice” in books like Race Matters and in pop culture venues (like musical recordings and film) where academics rarely tread.  It’s his tireless theme (check all the references to justice in the Cornel West Reader, for instance.) “Who wants to be well-adjusted to injustice? What kind of human being do you want to be?”

Here he is, in a snippet from the film “Examined Life,” talking about philosophy, democracy, and some of the reigning impediments to justice in our time.

“From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” The Marxist conception of justice, so summarized, sounds eminently fair. But perhaps fairness doesn’t unleash the incentives required by those who will work only for more than they need.  Do the industriously rich sometimes deserve it, earn it by the sweat of their brows and the cleverness of their entrepreneurial or inventive skills? No question, there have been benefactors  as well as malefactors of great wealth– sometimes wrapped up in the same skin– from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Buffett.

BlindJusticeArtJohn Rawls‘ 1971 classic A Theory of Justice, a modern version of the old social contract approach to political philosophy, explores fairness behind a “veil of ignorance,” the “original position” we should supposedly want rational contractarians  to occupy when deliberating principles of justice. (This is not quite the traditional sense in which justice is supposed to be blind, but it’s related.) It asks: what principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent?

Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

Rawlsian procedural justice raises this challenge: can we be motivated to think constructively about justice, or anything else, if we’re supposed to be ignorant of the most pertinent details of our personal identities (vocation, income, party allegiance, et al)? Would we still be capable of mustering a King- or West-like passion for justice, behind Rawls’ veil? Robert Solomon is among those who’ve raised this worry, rightly I think. Rawls was more concerned with securing the dispassion, the detachment necessary to unleash our full commitment to the common good undistracted by private self-interest.

There must be a connection between this question and the vexing issue of psychological continuity and personal identity that I’m trying to be lucid about by Saturday. Possibly it’s something to do with the forward-looking , prospective nature of both the contractarian approach to justice and the continuity of persons.

In a word, might it be our vision of the future that both impels the march for justice and unifies the self?



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