Friday, August 21, 2015

Does justice trump other considerations?

One sometimes hears the idea that justice trumps other considerations. There is a sense in which this is true, but it's not a very interesting sense: ultima facie duties of justice trump other considerations--but they do that not because they are duties of justice, but simply because they are ultima facie duties. Other ultima facie duties--say, ultima facie duties of beneficence or of chastity--also trump other considerations, as that's what we mean by saying that they are ultima facie duties. (One might have some worries here about real dilemmas. But one had better not say that in real dilemmas the ultima facie duties of justice trump other kinds of ultima facie duties, since that would contradict these other duties being ultima facie.) I suppose one could think that only justice gives rise to ultima facie duties. That might be true but only if one has an expansive unity-of-the-virtues kind of view of justice. And that expansive view also trivializes the trumping thesis simply by taking all the other kinds of considerations under the umbrella of justice.

And it's just false that all considerations of justice trump all other considerations. Considerations of justice range over a full spectrum of strength. For instance, there are very weak considerations of justice: whenever I see someone having done the right thing, I have a reason of justice to praise, and whenever I see someone having done the wrong thing, I have a reason of justice to criticize. But these reasons are typically extremely weak, being easily overcome by reasons of social propriety. ("Good for you, you didn't cheat on the test" isn't very appropriate, nor should I criticize every driving infraction I observe a friend making.)


Jeremy Pierce said...

If by justice you mean something to do with what people deserve, then there are easily things that trump it if Christianity is true. Otherwise the cross is morally wrong, and God shouldn't save anyone.

If by justice you mean something like distributive justice, then counterexamples abound, e.g. the case of raising everyone's well-being (however you measure that) but raising one person's notably more than everyone else's. Clearly everyone is better off, but it is less distributively just. It amazes me that anyone could think that situation is worse or that you ought to prefer the first.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do mean by justice something like what people deserve. I assume that's what distributive justice is, too. If it's not, the word "justice" in "distributive justice" is of merely mesmeric force.

I assume in your distributive justice example there is no fairer distribution method available, i.e., the choice is between the situation you describe and a situation where everyone is at the lower level. If so, then it's far from clear that this isn't distributively just. Certainly it sounds just on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance criterion: under the veil of ignorance I'd prefer one person being at a higher level than everyone else to everyone being at the lower level, since (a) I lose nothing by the first option if I'm not the one special person (assuming that when we calculated the "level" we already took into account envy and the like) while (b) I gain by the first option if I am the one special person and my being the one special person has nonzero probability, and so by domination I should go for the first option.

Jeremy Pierce said...

The view of justice I had in mind (and maybe it's not what everyone means by distributive justice) is that justice amounts to absolute equality, and any inequality is unjust. Then the claim is that justice always trumps other considerations, even considerations such as the relative level of goodness of the entirety of all beings and the average level of goodness of the entirety of all beings. Mere equality is taken to win out over everything else. (I've seen people bite the bullet on that one, by the way.)

Unknown said...

"The view of justice I had in mind (and maybe it's not what everyone means by distributive justice) is that justice amounts to absolute equality, and any inequality is unjust."

Equality, though, is a comparative notion. Justice is not. If I give everyone in my class a "D," I have treated them equally. But I might have treated most unjustly. I can treat a single individual justly and KNOW that I have treated him justly without making comparisons with anyone else.

Heath White said...

Maybe the point is that considerations of justice do a lot of silencing or excluding of other kinds of reasons. For example, "X will make me a lot of money" is ordinarily a reason to do X, and while it might outweigh other reasons not to do X it is not going to silence, exclude, or otherwise render them irrelevant. But "X is unjust" is an excluding kind of reason, after which "X will make me a lot of money" is just irrelevant.

It is true that trivial considerations of justice are easily outweighed and do no excluding. But in the serious cases I think we treat them (ideally) as excluding reasons.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, but unless justice is understood very broadly, there are exclusionary reasons not of justice. The most obvious (to me) case is of exclusionary reasons of chastity.

Heath White said...

I cannot think of a conflict that might occur between reasons of justice and reasons of chastity. Can you? (Is chastity actually a species of justice?)

I wasn't trying to defend the idea that justice was some kind of Ultimate Trump Card over every other kind of reason. Just trying to get at the sense that it is a "trumping" consideration in ways that many other (kinds of) reasons are not.

(BTW, in the present political context, "trumping" considerations don't sound so good.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

One can have a conflict between prima facie reasons of justice and exclusionary reasons of chastity. One way to generate such conflicts is to imagine cases where the only way to bring about the distributively or reactively just treatment of someone is through fornication (e.g., an unjust judge who will convict an innocent person unless one fornicates with the judge; a millionaire who will give money to the food bank on condition of fornication).

Is chastity of species of justice? Maybe, but if so that's probably because we have an expansive unity-of-virtues view of justice that subsumes other considerations, and the trumping thesis trivializes.

Heath White said...

an unjust judge who will convict an innocent person unless one fornicates with the judge; a millionaire who will give money to the food bank on condition of fornication

These are situations in which one has some reason to act so as to bring about a just outcome (innocent people are not convicted; resources are equitably distributed) but I do not think of bringing about just outcomes as the same thing as a just action. To some extent that is, of course, terminological. However, I don’t think most people (including me) would say that bringing about a (more) just state of affairs is a trumping or excluding consideration at all; it has to be balanced against lots of other reasons. On the other hand, when a prospective action of mine would be unjust (e.g. I convict an innocent person as a means, somehow, to a world with more equitably distributed resources) that seems like a trumping consideration against it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Take people who strive for a more just social system. What virtue motivates them? It seems to be the virtue of justice.

But I see there is a distinction here. Some actions are somehow *properly* just. When the juror votes "not guilty", because that's what the evidence shows, that action is properly just. When the expert witness examines the evidence with a microscope, that action serves justice but is not properly just (though the testimony of the witness is, one hopes, properly just).

There will be some cases where one omits a properly just action for good reason. For instance, one might omit justly punishing someone out of mercy, or because the punishment would lead to great evils. Those great evils could include unchastity: imagine that I am a police officer and a terrorist tells me that unless I release Jim, whom I am holding for a minor parking infraction, he will put into the water a drug that will turn the state into a cesspool of unchastity.

I don't think there are cases where one permissibly does a properly unjust action for the sake of chastity. But I think that neither are there cases where one permissibly does a properly unchaste action for the sake of justice.

Unknown said...

There is a tendency in recent literature on justice to think of justice in terms of rights and duties. Justice, we might think, is a relation of rendering or being rendered what one is due. From the patient side it is having ones rights honored, from the agent side it is doing one's duty.

Utilitarians I think tend not to think of rights as trumps. That's because there can never be any breaks put on the maximization of utility. Individual worth and respect for worth don't play a role in the theory. Similar things might be true of Eudaimonists.

But if one thinks (similar to Kant) that worth grounds rights, and rights ground duties, it's natural to think of rights as trumps to the maximization or promotion of other goods. (Dworkin and Wolterstorff are examples of people who think of rights as trumps.) Now, you haven't spoken of RIGHTS as trumps when talking about justice--you haven't mentioned rights at all, but I think that when justice is thought of as a trump, it is a theory of justice in terms of rights that is probably in mind, and it's a theory of rights as trumps. If one's ethical theory is not a theory of rights, it's probably less plausible that there's an interesting sense in which justice involves the notion of trumping.