Reconstructing Rawls IX: Toward a political theory of injustice

Toward a political theory of injustice (completing a series of posts)

In listing of the burdens of building a theory of justice upon a basis of moral justification I have foreshadowed alternative approaches to questions of justice and injustice.  This by no means amounts to an alternative theory, but it does indicate some of the dimensions of the project required.  It should be clear that our attention needs to turn outwards, away from the individual moral or rational actor, towards the processes of social production and reproduction that facilitate or constrain action.  The boundaries of relevant inquiries expand enormously, perhaps disappearing over our intellectual horizons.  The appropriate concepts and methodologies for exploring the heterogeneous complexity of considerations are not obvious or well developed.  Furthermore, in the spirit of social constructivism, any claims of “appropriateness” require us to consider the location, background, and favored actions of the theory’s expositor.  The complexity of considerations then multiplies further.

This complexity leads me to withdraw my earlier concession that a definition of justice is needed to oppose injustice.  Clearly, it is not very helpful to command a football team simply to move toward the touch-down line.  There are many different sequences of co-ordinated moves by the players that may achieve the same end result, each depending on the co-ordinated responses of the other team to these moves.  Similarly, once we accept that social and economic arrangements are complex, involving conflict and the exercise of power, and that change requires changes in social processes not just in possession of social goods, then a definition of justice will not be very helpful.  There can be no pre-set instructions for climbing a hill with justice at the summit, for not only do individual actions and their collective summation change the shape of the many-peaked landscape, but actions have manifold consequences, reverberating out along different “webs.”  Even the most abstract and elegant theory has little impact without its expositor building in their work on diverse social and institutional arrangements, and, thus, at the same time reproducing those arrangements.  To march steadily toward an ideal of justice requires one to ignore the web one is walking on and the baggage one is carrying.  In fact, the most general burden that moral philosophers carry may be a commitment to unitary rationality, for this obstructs their appreciation of diverse and contingently constructed subjectivities.  (Anti-foundationalists, such as Fish (1989) advance a similar critique, but see note below.)

Clearly these are bold, bald statements, and are unlikely, without a great deal more argument, to move moral theorists to retool and alter radically their chosen enterprise.  After all, what I have called burdens can be interpreted as facilitating the actions of most moral theorists.  Moreover, overcoming the burdens of moral theory is not a matter of voluntarily choosing to adopt the alternatives outlined here.  Instead, it requires social reconstruction.  Living, working, and representing require any agent — intellectual or activist — to face many practical issues.  From the perspective of heterogeneous constructivism, we must harness many, diverse resources in order to act and any resource, in turn, constrains future possibilities.  Changing our lives, work, and representations requires mobilizing different resources (Taylor 1992, 1995; cf. the anti-normative position of Fish 1989).  The project(s) of illuminating what you want to call injustice, so you can oppose and undermine it, may be better served by articulating the many interconnected practical issues.  Given the political construction of injustice, substitution of moral for political analysis mystifies the diverse processes involved in social change.  And whom, to end on a moral tone, does that serve?[1]

Fish, S. (1989).  “Anti-Foundationalism, Theory Hope, and the Teaching of Composition,” pp. 343-355 in S. Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally:  Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies.  Durham and London: Duke University Press

MacIntyre, A. (1984).  After virtue : a study in moral theory.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press

Taylor, P.  (1992).  “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tool for the Job:  At work in twentieth century life sciences.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

—— (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3:66-98.

[1] Various contingencies intervened between the original acceptance of this paper and submission of the revised version for publication, providing more than enough time for me to draw on a wider literature and refine my position.  In deciding, however, to preserve the rhetorical position of newcomer-outsider I drew reinforcement from Alisdair MacIntyre, who in After Virtue (a work also criticizing moral philosophy for abstracting “arguments from social and historical contexts of activity and enquiry”, observes that “much contemporary analytic writing [consists of] passages of argument in which the most sophisticated logical and semantic techniques available are deployed in order to secure maximal rigor alternate with passages which seem to do no more than cobble together a set of loosely related arbitrary preferences” (MacIntyre 1984, p. 267).


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