Teaching Theory of Justice

I offer an insight into my Introduction to Philosophy course. Right now, I offer a Great Books format on the topics of justice and epistmeology. We begin with Plato’s Republic and end with Locke’s Second Treatise and Rousseau’s scathing critique in “Discourse on Inequality.” Then, we shift to modern empiricism culminating in Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and end the course with an explanation of the necessity, power, and limitations of abduction as a logical response to Hume’s critique of induction. The end occurs within the context of coming to understand contemporary science and scientific logic and applied abduction. Below is an introductory discussion forum post that goes with the other instructional materials, and might be of interest….

The first unit of the course is on justice, especially political justice. However, both the book and even my podcast give only the barest definition. Here, I want to discuss what it is in more detail. We are not looking for a dictionary definition, which is both uninformative and misleading. Per uninformative, here are the first two denations in a dictionary that I grabbed, “just behavior or treatment” and “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” Uh, Mr. Dictionary Dude, what does that mean?

The mistake there is that you should never define a word using its own terms, e.g., “I define justice as justice!” Likewise, don’t use synonymous: “Justice is rightness!” or “Justice is fairness!”  Riiiiight. Real helpful, buddy … I paid what for this dictionary? If you want a good definition, especially for terms in this course, you need a philosophical dictionary, which is like a cross between a dictionary and an encyclopedia. You see, dictionaries only tell you how people use the term, but not why that is a good use of the term, where it comes from, the proper conditions under which to use it, etc.

In philosophy in general, and in this course, we establish the primary definitions of terms before we do anything else. And that is precisely what we’re doing in the first reading. However, we’re going to keep developing the definition of “justice” and later “political justice” into full theories of justice in response to various problems with any one definition. In the process, we learn a lot about justice and get a better and better definition, where “better” means “able to solve more problems and better respond to more objections.” For instance, liberal democracy and its variant of justice is a response to a specific set of problems that we will discuss, culminating in the end of the unit of justice. Where we end, many “U.S. Government” courses in Texas begin, unless you had a really awesome and ambitious professor.

Let us start the course with a working definition. “Justice” in general means the “minimum and universal obligations we have to people in the community, including ourselves and others.” By “minimum,” I mean that we must do the stated obligations, or we have merited and should expect some form of enforcement or punishment. By “universal,” I mean that everyone must do these. These obligations come from and are to other “people,” and not rocks, for instance. Finally, there’s a limit to the number and scope of people to whom we owe obligations that is spelled out in whatever “community” we’re talking about.

For instance, if we’re talking about “moral justice,” the “community” usually means all “persons,” which most commonly includes other humans. If you’re from an Abrahamic faith (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam), “persons” may include angels and God/Jaweh/Allah. If you’re an animal rights activist, it might include “all sentient animals” or “all animals.” In this class, however, we’re focused on humans and secular concerns though I will make reference to Christian religion since it is so formative for justice in western civilization, which is our focus. We will talk about moral justice in the beginning of the course, but our main focus is political justice.

Political justice restricts the “community” to the polis/body politic/state/nation/etc. Political justice is concerned with obligations that we owe each other in virtue of being members of a political body of some sort, and not because we are moral persons. Hence, there is a strict difference between the idea of “universal moral rights” (which we would owe all persons no matter what) and “civil rights” that we would owe only to members of our civil community; e.g., in the U.S. that would be state’s rights or federal rights. Moral and political justice frequently overlap, but it is possible for them to conflict, especially if one accepts political realism that we will address when we start Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Much of the first part of the course will focus on how to define and defend a theory of justice. Although, Plato will presume that moral and political justice are identical, which is anti-thetical to most western notions. The reason for this is due to the pre-eminence of Christianity in the west, since early Christianity that became the Catholic Church embraced the separation of religion and politicals (in principle but not always in fact, and I am omitting Eastern Orthodox, the Gnostic and Coptic traditions, etc.). In contrast, which has become a heated issue recently, Islam was founded on the notion of the identity of moral and political justice, which is anethema to most westerners given their Christian heritage regardless of whether that individual is Christian or not. It’s in the cultural water, and we’ve been drinking it for so many centuries that we long ago forgot the legacy of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

This should be a good start for us…


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