Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I Can Do No Other
I was reading - in bed: devotion to the cause I tell you - one of the early, pre-A Theory of Justice Rawls papers last night, entitled 'The Sense of Justice', and was struck by its explanation of a sense of justice in terms of guilt. The idea is, perhaps more commonly than I'm aware, that it is our capacity to form relationship both with others and to principles where failures to live up to the terms of those relationships generates guilt that accounts for and makes sense of our idea of justice and so our inclusion in the scope of principles of justice. In the absence of a sense of justice, we wouldn't be able to have those relationships; we might be able to have relationships of a similar sort, but since those relationships are marked by the way in which we conceptualise our failures to live up to their terms, we wouldn't be able to have them. Now, what's interesting about this is its foundation in guilt. People have been criticizing Kantianism for secularising - more and less successfully - the fiercely self-directed and often self-critical religious sentiments of mid-to-late eighteenth century Prussia for some time; it's been a persistent theme of Alasdair MacIntyre's writings, for example. For a Kantianly-minded philosopher to begin from guilt though, is perhaps rare. It's also revealing, because it makes it clear how central an ethic of responsibility is to Kantians, or at least Rawls. Unlike shame, guilt is only an appropriate response to something you're responsible for, so to make the capacity for guilt central to being a subject of justice is to make one's sense of responsibility, of having to bear the costs of your actions, central to being a subject of justice.