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Sunday, July 19, 2009


I'm still thinking about that past post with NT Wright's mention of justice. He wrote on the subject of whether allowing all baptized people the chance to be a bishop is just ......

The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately”, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire”.

I don't know much about the philosophy of justice, so I looked up the concept at Wikipedia :) I'd like to mention two interesting things I read there, before I get on with it ...

According to a 2008 study done at UCLA, the idea of what is fair is wired into our brains (Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate, study shows), and we are not alone - a 2003 study done at Emory University showed that animals also understand the concepts of fairness and justice (Monkeys reject unequal pay).

But now back to NT Wright and what he wrote about justice not being "treating everyone the same" but "treating everyone appropriately according to their circumstance" ....

Justice is a big topic and even after reading the Wikipedia article (heh heh) I obviously don't understand all the nuances, but one thing I found interesting was one of the ideas of John Rawls, an American philosopher Wright mentioned. The idea is that of Original position.

Rawls thought that people are both rational and reasonable, and though it's rational to want to have one's needs met, it's also reasonable to allow others to meet their needs too, to cooperate. But given that we are all so different in our needs, due to our different situations, how can we find a principle of justice that will work for us all? Rawls imagined a situation in which representatives of citizenry choose a plan that will work for all, based on ignorance of what situation the citizens they represent are actually in ....

the original position — a thought experiment in which the parties are to choose among principles of justice to order the basic structure of society from behind a veil of ignorance — depriving the representatives of information about the particular characteristics (such as wealth and natural abilities) of the parties that they represent. Justice as Fairness is developed by Rawls in his now classic book, A Theory of Justice. (Justice as Fairness)

I can't say I understand Rawls, but from what little I've read of him, I'm not sure Wright used his ideas correctly in his op-ed piece quoted above ..... I mean, Rawls does see the necessity of addressing people's varying needs in distributive justice, but he affirms (I think) that they should be treated equally in that they should have an equal opportunity for goods (even if the equality is achieved by inequal means, like affirmative action) .... if I'm wrong, someone correct me.

More interesting to me is Rawl's idea of the veil of ignorance and how that affects the way we view the decisions we accept or dissent from made not just by our secular society but by our Church. Imagine for a minute that you didn't know what your station in life was. Imagine that there was an equal chance you might be not a Christian, but Jewish, or athesit, or a woman instead of a man, or not straight but gay ..... would you be as sanguine as you now are about the validity of the interpretation of some of the teachings of our Church?


Blogger cowboyangel said...

Very interesting post, Crystal.

"Rawls thought that people are both rational and reasonable."

I have to question any theory that takes this position as a starting point! I don't see how anyone can believe that people are rational and reasonable after the horrors of the 20th/21st century, not to mention the re-election of George W. Bush and the popularity of the Transformers movies.

Not having read the full context of Wright's statements, and being almost totally incapable of grasping philosophical concepts in general (I bailed out of the only Philosophy class I took in college), I can see why someone would say that "Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately”, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations."

While there are probably a few constants that appear in all societies, I simply can't imagine that everyone everywhere would agree on what "justice" is. We see the battles and the tension all the time. Capital punishment, for example. What is "justice" for someone who has raped and killed a young girl? Death, life in prison, rehabilitation?

I find Rawls's thought experiment pretty frightening, actually, at least from the excerpt in your post. Isn't it precisely our "particular characteristics" that make us human? Trying to ignore those smells too much like utilitarianism to me. What if society decided not to take into account vision difficulties? What kind of justice would that be?

Perhaps, though, I don't understand the concept.

On the other hand, the way Wright is trying to use this concept of justice is simply bigotry disguised in intellectualism. Pretty disgusting.

7:01 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William,

Yes, I also don't believe we are all rational and reasonable - I think most of us are somewhere between demented and sociopathic :)

But if those studies about the brin are sound, it means that most creatures have the ability to sense when something is fair or unfair - I think that's interesting. And kind of weird, since life itself isn't fair.

I do really like his idea of making decision for everyone without knowing our particular characteristics, because I think that would lead to a policy that has basic safeguards for everyone (because who knows, we might be anyone).

11:01 AM  

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