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Book Review: Justice in Society Print E-mail

justice-in-society-intro.jpgPublisher: The Federation Press

Authors: Belinda Carpenter and Matthew Ball

Reviewer: Benjamin Dighton

It is a function of this rights-obsessed age that most discussion or analysis of “justice” necessarily involves a tour through the landscape of freedoms and liberties. This is perfectly legitimate in itself. However, any such discussion must be immeasurably enriched by due regard to their equal and opposite obligations and duties. Hayek lamented that freedom and liberty are “words so worn with use and abuse” that they no longer resemble the ideals for which they stood. That was in 1943. It might be thought that any dull gleam that remained has long since lost its lustre.

Happily, Justice in Society is not a work that throws around these weighty concepts with glib abandon. Nor does it try to neatly parcel them as straightforwardly divisible and definable propositions. Reading the examples and studies relied upon in this book reinforces that a chasm exists between theory and reality in pursuing the ideal of justice, with the Form remaining, perhaps always, elusive. In this respect Justice in Society is, refreshingly, a true discussion, with the reader left in many instances to draw their own conclusions based on arguments and well-selected statistics.

The problem with posing the ideal of justice is defining it. The title itself raises a semantic quandary. For whom is justice being sought? Which implies the unfortunate possibility that justice for some must come at the expense of others. Justice for society would be a far simpler exercise in majoritarianism. But justice in society is a phrase behind which a host of sensibilities and prejudices can hide. There would be few more protean concepts than justice when put to the constituents of any given society.

To get around, in part, the pitfalls in objectivity of tackling a fundamentally subjective concept, the authors employ a narrative device of the “two stories” of justice. These stories are dressed up in a number of ways throughout the book but the competing narratives represent the left and right of the social and economic divide. The intent behind the device is admirable, attempting to divorce the authors from any ideological taint and ensuring neutrality on partisan themes. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t reach those heights as these stories become one-dimensional and muddle the thrust of the book. In the latter chapters, one story tails off altogether while the other gains considerable momentum.

The strength of this book is its targeted and precise discussion of issues highly relevant to the way our society is evolving. It is only a slender work but the arguments, or the “questioning of assumptions”, as the book states, is done with an impressive brevity given the breadth and complexity of the issues addressed. The book achieves this through its commendable reticence to declare propositions as self-evident truths. Instead, the authors question and re-examine the theories behind and the reasons why mores, attitudes, policies and laws exist in the way they do. This strength is also a weakness, but perhaps an unavoidable one. Such brevity comes at the occasional expense of shallow expression. At one point, the cry of the French Revolution of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” is cited as an illustration of a revolution fought and won in the name of the inherent worth of the individual. It is a trite but simplistic example. The period that followed the French Revolution was called The Terror for a reason. It was certainly not just the high born that suffered its havoc. It would have been illuminating to put the question of justice in society to the man or woman on the tumbrel. Tennyson makes the best refutation :

“Proclaiming social truth shall spread,

And justice, even tho' thrice again

The red fool fury of the Seine

Should pile her barricades with dead.”

The fact of the minutiae of this criticism is indicative of the overall merits of this book (it is perhaps unfair to cite such an example to a readership for whom the fate of Sydney Carton is uncomfortably close to the bone).

The clearest impression taken from the book is how, despite the impressive edifices we have constructed, our approximation of justice remains just that. This is not made as an explicit argument but naturally arises from the subject matter. Pascal thought that truth and justice were points so fine that our inelegant tools could never rest upon them. Certainly, it is not to be implied that there is a fault element here. It is substantially a function of social evolution.

In some ways, we haven’t come that far at all. The opening words of the sixth century Institutes of Justinian stated that “justice is the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due”. We have not strayed from this guiding precept. In other ways, we are an aeon ahead. We’re some way past the realisation that the Institutes were great for anyone who wasn’t a woman or a slave.

The principle, and the book, is salutary. Far we may have come but it is hardly the time to sit back, replete and self-congratulatory. The civilisations in two hundred years may well marvel at our quaint ideals and institutions. Or pity us in the same way we do the patients of Enlightenment doctors prescribing their modern science of bloodletting and leeches . In this respect, a book that poses the question of justice and provokes an answer, instead of delivering it, is to be applauded.

Benjamin Dighton


28 June 2013

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