3 minute read


Communitarian Justice

Another prominent political ideal defended by contemporary philosophers is the communitarian ideal of the common good. As one might expect, many contemporary defenders regard the communitarian conception of justice as rooted in Aristotelian moral theory. In the Nicomachean Ethics (c. 335–322 B.C.E.), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) distinguishes between different varieties of justice. He first distinguishes between justice as the whole of virtue and justice as a particular part of virtue. In the former sense, justice is understood as what is lawful, and the just person is equivalent to the moral person. In the latter sense, justice is understood as what is fair or equal, and the just person is one who takes only a proper share. Aristotle focuses his discussion on justice as a part of virtue, which further divides into distributive justice, corrective justice, and justice in exchange. Each of these varieties of justice can be understood to be concerned with achieving equality. For distributive justice it is equality between equals; for corrective justice it is equality between punishment and the crime; and for justice in exchange it is equality between whatever goods are exchanged. Aristotle also claims that justice has both its natural and conventional aspects: This twofold character of justice seems to be behind Aristotle's discussion of equity, in which equity, which is a natural standard, is described as a corrective to legal justice, which is a conventional standard.

Note that few of the distinctions Aristotle makes seem tied to the acceptance of any particular conception of justice. One could, for example, accept the view that justice requires formal equality, but then specify the equality that is required in different ways. Even the ideal of justice as giving people what they deserve, which has its roots in Aristotle's account of distributive justice, is subject to various interpretations. An analysis of the concept of desert would show that there is no conceptual difficulty with claiming, for example, that every-one's needs should be satisfied or that everyone deserves an equal share of the goods distributed by society. Consequently Aristotle's argument is primarily helpful in clarifying the distinctions that can be made within the concept of justice without committing oneself to any particular conception of justice.

Rather than discussing the particular requirements of communitarian justice, proponents have frequently chosen to defend it by attacking other concepts. They have focused their criticism on the welfare liberal conception of justice.

Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, argues, in "The Privatization of the Good" (1990), that virtually all forms of liberalism attempt to separate rules defining right action from conceptions of the human good. MacIntyre contends that these forms of liberalism not only fail but have to fail because the rules defining right action cannot be adequately grounded apart from a conception of the good. For this reason, MacIntyre claims, only some version of a communitarian theory of justice that grounds rules supporting right action in a complete conception of the good can ever hope to be adequate.

But why not view most forms of liberalism as attempts to ground moral rules on part of a conception of the good—specifically, that part of a conception of the good that is more easily recognized, and should be publicly recognized, as good? For Rawls, for example, this partial conception of the good is a conception of contractual fairness, according to which no one deserves his or her native abilities or his or her initial starting place in society. If this way of interpreting liberalism is correct, then, in order to evaluate welfare liberal and communitarian conceptions of justice properly, we would need to do a comparative analysis of their conceptions of the good and their practical requirements. Moreover there is reason to think that once the practical requirements of both liberal and communitarian conceptions of justice are set out, they will be quite similar.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to KabbalahJustice - Libertarian Justice, Socialist Justice, Welfare Liberal Justice: The Contractarian Perspective, Welfare Liberal Justice: The Utilitarian Perspective