More Brighouse Promotion

by Jon Mandle on August 13, 2005

About a month ago, Chris noted a new book that our own Harry Brighouse co-edited. Well, I’m here to tell you there’s more Brighouse that you should read! Specifically, Harry’s new book Justice published by Polity, as part of their “Key Concepts” series. Here’s a US link to it on amazon; here’s a UK link. (Disclosure: I just finished a book for the series that should be out early next year on Global Justice.)

This is simply the best introduction to contemporary philosophical accounts of justice around. So if readers of this blog want to learn about or brush up on their Rawls, Sen, Nussbaum, Nozick, Kymlicka, Jerry Cohen, et. al., you couldn’t do better than to read this. Best of all, it is written in a very accessible style that doesn’t presuppose any philosophical background. Really!

Harry writes that “This is an opinionated introduction to theories of justice.” (vii) And indeed it is – in the best possible sense. He doesn’t pretend to be convinced by all of the arguments that he discusses, and he points out both strengths and weaknesses of each theory along the way.

The (partial) list of authors that I gave suggests the orientation of the book – it is framed around Rawls, some variations to his approach, and some criticisms of it. So, after two introductory chapters, we get the longest chapter of the book that provides a clear and accessible overview of Rawls’s theory of justice. Harry draws mostly from Rawls’s recently published lecture notes, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, which incorporates and unifies elements from both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. In other words, his summary is based on Rawls’s final account of his own work.

This is followed by a chapter discussing the “Capability Approach” that has recently been championed by Sen and Nussbaum. This is often presented as a challenge to Rawls’s approach, but as Harry points out, it is not so clear that there really are any fundamental disagreements between the approaches. Indeed, Rawls’s account can itself be understood as a version of the capability approach.

The libertarian theories of Friedman and Nozick, discussed next, do represent a more fundamental challenge. Harry’s discussion, a mere 20 pages, is full of interesting insights and powerful arguments. Against Friedman, he concludes that “Friedman has given us a reason for rejecting widespread nationalization of the means of production, but not a reason for resisting a more equal ownership of the means of production.” (94) And against Nozick’s claim that taxation (for redistribution) is “on a par with forced labor”, he argues that “Taxation is no more coercive than policing to maintain private property, and no more intrusive into people’s pursuit of their own paths in life.” (102) What I’ve just reproduced are mere assertions, of course, but Harry backs them up with compelling arguments.

In recent years, philosophers have become more interested in issues of cultural diversity and recognition. Elsewhere, Harry has defended an approach that is sometimes called one of “benign neglect”. That is, in general, the government should not take as its goal the promotion or preservation of any particular cultural form or way of life. Therefore, I was especially interested to read his chapter discussing the work of Will Kymlicka as well as Margalit and Halbertal. Kymlicka argues that within a broadly liberal approach, there is room, indeed, a requirement, for special rights and protections for members of certain minority cultures, such as aboriginal communities. Harry rightly points out that the real-world cases to which Kymlicka appeals are typically cases in which standard liberal rights have been violated in the grossest possible ways, and this is clear without invoking any special group-based rights. But his main argument emphasizes the dynamic and contested nature of all cultures:

But government aid to a culture, if it is to be effective, has to be guided by some picture of how the culture is or should be… But this action takes the direction of the culture, to some extent, out of the hands of the members of the culture. Furthermore, within any culture, there are disagreements about the true content of the culture. In aiding the culture with a particular vision of it in mind, the government must of necessity take sides on these disagreements. It will thus be strengthening a particular vision of the culture against the wishes of some of the members of that very culture. (117)

Having surveyed these various theories of justice, Harry does something unusual in a book such as this – he applies them to some contemporary political issues. Specifically, he looks at affirmative action, equal opportunity and the family, and the gendered division of labor. Giving only a few pages to each of these issues, he doesn’t intend to present exhaustive discussions of any of these topics. Rather, the idea is to demonstrate that each of the previously discussed theories can be applied and to consider some of the implications of each theory. This helps to rebut the charge that political philosophy is always “excessively abstract and technical.” (11)

The issue of the gendered division of labor, both in the family and in the workplace, leads to a discussion in the next chapter concerning whether the focus on social institutions, as opposed to individual behavior, is defensible. Although he associates this challenge with the slogan “the personal is political”, most of the discussion is of Jerry Cohen’s recent work on this topic. Cohen argues that a narrow focus on the basic structure of society is unwarranted and that the “ethos” of a society should be equally subject to evaluation and critique. Harry reviews a few possible replies to Cohen before introducing the concept of legitimacy. This allows him to concede that the ethos of a society may make it unjust – as Cohen wants – but at the same time to say that government intervention to attempt to correct the injustice may be illegitimate. “We can quite well say that they are doing something wrong, which makes society less just, but which, perhaps regrettably, cannot rightly be prohibited.” (159)

In a brief conclusion, Harry notes that he has not discussed conservatism (as opposed to libertarianism, with which it is sometimes confused). This is because, quite simply, “there just isn’t a contemporary theory of justice that properly qualifies as conservative.” (164) Still, conservatism serves a useful function of reminding us that “it is incumbent on reformers motivated by an ideal of social justice to think through the intrinsic and extrinsic transition costs, and also to acknowledge the reality of unintended consequences when proposing a reform.” (166) Such a reminder is characteristic of an author who is more interested in developing an accurate and useful account of social justice than in scoring rhetorical points against ideological opponents.

In short, for anyone interested in acquiring a basic map of contemporary philosophical discussions of justice, this is the book for you, but it is also sophisticated enough to be satisfying for professionals in the field.



Matt 08.13.05 at 9:41 pm

I looked at the book briefly in the bookstore just this afternoon, and while I haven’t read it yet I can at least say it looks like a fine and handsome volume. Congrats, Henry. Jon- I’ll be looking forward to your volume, too.


Glenn Bridgman 08.14.05 at 12:05 am

Ahhhhhh, it looks interesting and I want to respond to several of the arguments mentioned, but to do that I would have to read it and I already have three books in progress and more awaiting perusal. Damn your interesting material presenting bones, you drink the blood of puppies.


Laura 08.14.05 at 5:33 am

Excellent. Just as I was looking for new reading material.


harry b 08.14.05 at 2:13 pm

Thanks for this Jon — its a very nice review. One thing I can saqy is that writing a book like this has really increased my respect for peope who write textbooks. A good one (I hope mine is at least ok) is really hard work.
Glenn — it is not a hard read, at least (except, perhaps, for chapter 3: if you’re feeling energetic you might skip that, and read What’s Left Of Liberalism? by one Jon Mandle instead…


Glenn Bridgman 08.14.05 at 7:28 pm

Hrmm, I’ll probably pick it up next time Borders sends out one of there “Ridiculous % off” coupons.

In other news, a search for “What’s left of Liberalism? mangle” yielded this gem:

I would be strangely flattered if I was Jon Mandle.


Glenn Bridgman 08.14.05 at 7:28 pm

Err, mandle, not mangle:p


Jon Mandle 08.14.05 at 8:21 pm

I am strangely flattered.
Holy shit! Is that 39 dollars?!


Glenn Bridgman 08.14.05 at 9:26 pm

I know! It costs more than the book itself, for four pages!


jtthomps 08.15.05 at 5:14 am

I know, procedural justice and all that… but who will provide for national security? and who will guard the guardians?


Another Damned Medievalist 08.16.05 at 6:44 pm

Congrats, Harry!


djw 08.16.05 at 7:06 pm

It’s an excellent book, Harry, and I thank you for it–it’s a rare thing–a teaching and research resource and an excellent read at the same time.

One question–one approach to justice seemed conspicuous in it’s absense; Iris Young’s. I’ve always thought she provides a far more interesting set of reasons to support many of the substantive policy conclusions that Kymlicka endorses. In other words, I think her challenge to a strictly individualist conception of justice is more powerful and thought-provoking. I’m curious if you considered including her work, and if so, why you paid attention to Kymlicka so much more. From my view of the field, her work is just as influential, but I suppose that might be less true in a philosophy dept.

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