The kind of dog he likes

W.G. Runciman

  • Justice for Earthlings: Essays in Political Philosophy by David Miller
    Cambridge, 254 pp, £18.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 107 61375 1

Why ‘earthlings’? David Miller isn’t drawing a contrast with justice for creatures from outer space. Nor is he taking issue directly with Ronald Dworkin’s ‘justice for hedgehogs’ in Dworkin’s book of 2011 with that title, although Miller does say in a footnote that he disagrees with him. He has in his sights the ‘neo-Augustinians’, as he calls them, like the late G.A. Cohen, for whom justice can be realised only in a secular version of Augustine’s City of God, thereby leaving political philosophers with nothing to do but lament the size of the gap between the disappointing actual and the impossible ideal. What use is a Platonic idea of the truly just society which exists only in a disillusioned Marxist’s heaven?

For Miller, the aim of a theory of justice should be to present what John Rawls called a ‘realistic utopia’. Political philosophers should be ‘contextualists’ as opposed to ‘universalists’ and their prescriptions ‘fact-based’ in the sense of acknowledging the findings of empirical psychology and sociology. But, as he is aware, this poses two dangers. The first is a slide into a relativism that inhibits philosophers from branding as unjust a society whose members’ culture has no room for the notion of justice they would like to apply to it. The second is an excessive scepticism about the possibility of institutional changes that would carry the society in question some perceptible distance in the direction of a not wholly achievable but not meaningless ideal. Engineers, after all, don’t stop measuring the efficiency of heat engines because they can’t design them to reach more than 40 per cent of their theoretical maximum.

Anglophone political philosophers have been strenuously debating conflicting definitions of social justice for several decades, largely in the terms of an agenda set by the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. Any reader of Miller’s essays who, like me, is not a philosopher is likely to be equally struck by the subtlety and sophistication of the philosophers’ arguments and their persistent inability to come anywhere near to agreement with one another. None of them has been fully convinced by Rawls, despite an avowed admiration for his writings and the intuitive appeal of his notion of a ‘veil of ignorance’ behind which the parties to a hypothetical social contract lay down principles of justice in advance of knowing where their individual interests will lie. Most seem agreed that the idea of justice is linked to the idea of fairness in the arrangements by which a society allocates resources and rewards among its members, and that fairness enjoins equal treatment of every individual member as of right rather than out of benevolence. But what is being equally distributed? Freedom? Respect? Welfare, or the opportunity for welfare? Resources, or bundles of selected resources? Entitlement to reward for effort, or skill, or contribution to the common good, or costs incurred in the making of that contribution? Or no more than the right to pursue any chosen goal which is within the law and compatible with the equal right accorded to others?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in