Beyond justice as fairness
by Ken Myers
“To speak of justice at all is in fact to speak of what it is in human relations that is not settled simply by power: imagining this is the fundamental issue of Plato’s Republic. For any social situation to be called ‘just’, it has to be capable of being presented as more than a just-about-bearable compromise between contending interests, arrived at by balancing potentially violent pressures. In the reality of practical politics, this aspect will regularly be to the fore, and it may reasonably be thought of as a search for fair settlement. But one of our problems is that, if the idea of what is ‘just’ is reduced simply to what is ‘fair’, the discourse never moves beyond a balance of the supposed entitlements each party begins with.
“In contrast, we could point to an older and richer usage in which acts that are ‘just’ are acts that respond appropriately to reality — acts that from another perspective . . . might be seen as ‘truthful’ responses to the reality with which the deal. The familiar words that follow the Sursum corda dialogue in the Roman Mass — Vere dignum et iustum, aequum et salutare — incorporate the language of justice into worship: what we do in worshipping God is what is appropriate to the reality that is God, and so is ‘just and equitable’. The measure of justice, in other words, is not primarily about a balance of interests but about an act of recognition. What I believe (or any particular agent believes) about my interest, may or may not correspond to what actually requires recognition — in myself or in others. The real difficulty of ‘doing justice’ is the labour of recognition, the identification — always vulnerable and provisional — of what is due to the reality before us ‘in itself’, not simply in relation to the agenda of the moment. Understood in this sense, justice is inescapably a notion that recedes over the horizon of achievement, retains a critical and utopian edge to it, and is bound up with a sustained critical practice over time. To say that it is never ‘arrived at’ is not to make it a formally regulative idea only; the point is that in any and every specific situation, it allows the question to arise of what and who is and is not acknowledged in their actuality, and of what process and habits would be needed for that acknowledgement to be better secured or realized.
“And this depends on ‘re-grounding’ our language about what is ‘just’ in an understanding of ius that takes seriously the metaphysical hinterland of the word in an older theological context. What is just is what is ‘aligned’ to truth; this is what the etymology of the Greek and Hebrew words for justice suggests. It is in this sense that we can say that justice is an attribute of God.”
— from Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021)