Every political system or theory has an underlying morality which it espouses. Some critics of modern political liberalism – a political theory expressed most notably by the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls – have argued that the modern state has unjustifiably assumed a role as the framer of morality. (Works of eminent critics include Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self.) As Nicholas Wolterstorff argues, according to the modern liberal position ‘the proper goal of political action in a liberal democratic society . . . is justice’ where ‘justice’ is defined modernistically as the procedural ‘rules governing our social interaction’. (See Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issue’, in Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, ed. Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 73). But is such modernistic ‘justice’ really justice at all?
Rawls’ own principal pronouncement, on which he bases his theory of justice, reads as follows: ‘[J]ustice is the first virtue of social institutions [which essentially] distribute fundamental rights and duties’ (A Theory of Justice, pp. 3-6). But could such conceptions of civic justice and of the role of the modern state be adequate to provide the resources to forge the kind of public morality needed in the highly pluralistic societies of the late modern world? I turn briefly to a critic of Rawlsian political liberalism – the theologian Oliver O’Donovan – from whose insights I argue that the answers to these questions are in the negative.
O’Donovan, drawing on the famed seventeenth-century legal and political thinker Hugo Grotius, provides some helpful insights into the nature of the state, especially in its reliance on a modernist understanding of justice. Grotius argued that, while ‘expletive (or compensatory) justice [is] justice in the technical or strict sense of the term’, by contrast ‘attributive justice’ which takes into account the ‘fitness’ of the justice meted out is what is needed to provide a genuine understanding of justice. (See Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace [De Jure Belli Ac Pacis], ed. A. C. Campbell (Westport: Hyperion Press, 1979), Bk. 1, Ch. 1, Para. 8). In other words, attributive justice, according to Grotius, essentially ‘depends on what is being done in each case and what the business in hand requires’. The criteria for attributive justice, thus, ‘must vary from one enterprise to the next’ (O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, p. 39). I submit that this understanding of justice, which comports well with an Aristotelian view of justice, is far different to suggesting an unqualified view of ‘equality’ so characteristic of modern notions of justice and freedom – a view to which Rawls is consistently inclined. (See Aristotle, Politics, see esp. Bk. 1, Ch. 2 and Bk. 5, Ch. 9). In other words, for the modern political liberalist just consists in equality of a strict kind which trumps true political liberty – i.e., human flourishing.
That is, in order to provide the basis of a truly just society, one must first understand what it means for human persons to be free: humans are free when they are free to flourish according to their nature. The modernistic understanding of the jurisdiction and role of the state is deeply incompatible with the classical notion of justice – a notion which naturally lends itself to discourse about and practices pertaining to human flourishing in a way that modernistic notions of justice simply do not.