"Justice and the Priority of Politics to Morality"
Journal of Political Philosophy (OnlineEarly Articles)
IT is uncontroversial that the limits imposed by existing institutions and practices are relevant in determining how best to implement a particular conception of justice. The set of precepts, rules, and policies that best realize the demands of justice (whatever one thinks they are) in Corsica will be different from those required in Poland. It is uncontroversial, that is, that information about institutional and political context is needed in coming to a concrete judgment regarding a particular course of action or policy. No one disagrees that constraints derived from particular institutional forms and practices should play a crucial role in the application of a theory to the ‘real world’.
Less well understood, by contrast, is whether existing institutions and practices should play any role in the basic justification and formulation of first principles.1 A common view holds that, in setting out and justifying first principles of justice, one should seek a normative point of view unfettered by the form or structure of existing institutions and practices. To assign any greater role to institutions and practices—to allow them, as I have said, to influence the formulation and justification of first principles of justice—is a fundamental mistake: constraining the content of justice by whatever social and political arrangements we happen to share gives undue normative weight to what is, at best, merely the product of arbitrary historical contingency or, at worst, the result of past injustice itself.
This article aims to bring to light, clarify, and defend the opposite view: existing institutions and practices, I shall argue, should play a crucial role in the justification of a conception of justice rather than merely its implementation. Our task is to explain both why and how. What I call the ‘practice-dependence thesis’ in its most general form is as follows:
Practice-dependence Thesis: The content, scope, and justification of a conception of justice depends on the structure and form of the practices that the conception is intended to govern.