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Justice in American Thought

Puritan Conceptions Of Justice, Providential View Of Justice, The Individual And The State, John Rawls

Justice appears as a paradoxical concept in the history of the United States. On the one hand, it has been absent as a rallying cry in the major struggles that have shaped, and continue to shape, the plurality of identities of the American nation. The concept "justice" is not prominent in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution. It was not the cornerstone of the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the women's suffrage movement, or the civil rights movement. It did not surface in the demands of Native Americans against the encroaching and overwhelming force of local states and the federal government. Nor does it carry major weight in the prostatehood movement that is still hoping to move Puerto Rico away from its colonial status and to see the island as a state of the American union. In contrast to the Platonic Republic, in which justice is viewed as the central virtue of an ideal society, justice seems to appear as an afterthought, as in the last sentence in the pledge of allegiance.

On the other hand, justice has infused the political ideas and practices that define the American society, and it should not be confined exclusively to the arena of legal procedures. Rather, justice has been refracted through the ideas of rights, liberty, equality, democracy, state institutions, and other concepts that have dominated the moral language of American citizens or the people who wanted to become, or were forced into the framework of, American citizenship. The absence of clear definitions of justice guiding public discussions since the arrival of the Puritans takes a different meaning when the theoretical inquiry focuses on the multiplicity of dimensions entwined with justice.

These dimensions include: a providential understanding of a communal identity; the conception of individuality; the relationship between individuals and the government; the view of political power and the proper nature of the state; the protections and bulwarks in the judicial sphere; and justice as the first principle that ought to guide both the individual's life and governmental policies. All these dimensions place a high premium on rights, but the relationship between rights and justice is clarified by looking at the link between liberty and justice. This link presupposes that people must be free to choose rules of justice, but then justice is understood as the principle that delineates the scope of liberty, which means that justice defines the boundaries of rights. The refracted and yet ubiquitous presence of justice in American thought helps to explain why John Rawls's philosophy, which dominated American liberalism in the last three decades of the twentieth century, portrayed justice as the standard by which to measure both a well-ordered society and a just citizen.

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