We are probably all familiar with the iconic symbol of justice in the Western world: the goddess with scales in one hand and a double-edged sword in the other. More importantly, she is often depicted as being blindfolded in order to show objectivity, so justice can be meted out fairly without fear or favor. This is the ideal concept of justice in the western tradition… fairness through impartiality. The fact that all of us probably instinctively conceive the notion of justice as being impartial and defending the universal ethics of civil society is the very point of today’s reading.
Iris Marion Young, especially, challenges us to reexamine the ideals of impartiality and universality in reference to issues of societal justice. Karen Lebacq uses a Biblical lens through which to examine the concept of societal justice itself. In her book Six Theories of Justice, Lebacq states: “From the covenant tradition we understand God to be God of justice. Justice in Scripture has several nuances. Most fundamentally, it means a sense of ‘what is right is right’ – including both sedaquah (righteousness) and mishpat (right judgement and concrete acts of justice).
However, there is a distinctive aspect of the Biblical presentation of justice: the justice of a community is measured by its treatment of the powerless in society. ” (p. 74). This then is the debate tasked to us by our authors Lebacq and Young: is true justice truly impartial? If impartiality is the goal, is it truly attainable? And, finally, do the presumed virtues of impartiality and universality truly render justice for the powerless in society or do they lead to the necessary exclusion of human particularity.
Please indulge me for a moment, and let’s step back from the academic reading at hand and just look at some scenarios with which most of us can relate. Over the past few months in Wisconsin, the role of public unions has been debated. Has collective bargaining of public service employees led to a stranglehold on state budgeting and placed an undue burden on Wisconsin society? Or has the right to collective bargaining raised the standard of living for countless families and improved civil service and upheld the dignity and rights of public workers? Is there an impartial and just solution to this public struggle?
And, significantly, has Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature been impartial in this debate? In November 2012, the state of Minnesota will be asked to vote on an amendment to the state constitution that will legally define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Does this proposed amendment recognize and strengthen the traditional family unit that undergirds our society? Or does this amendment prevent homosexual couples from being guaranteed the same basic rights as their fellow hetero-citizens? Were the legislative authors of this proposed amendment impartial?
Which “right” on either side of this debate can claim to be the universal one? And, just for fun, think back to that children’s classic Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. When the little runt pig, Wilbur, was saved from the axe, was that an act of justice? And was the farmer’s daughter, Fern, simply being impartial when she stepped in to save that little pig? Young asks us us to challenge our collective and cultural assumption that true, systematic justice is impartial and universal in ethic. Young dashes the very idea of impartiality, calling it “an idealist fiction. ” (p. 104).
She claims that the ideal of impartiality leads to grave political consequences and sets the stage for a distributive paradigm of justice. Modern political theory, formed in Western thought through such philosophers as Rousseau and Hegel and others, aims to embody this sense of reason and impartiality. In the traditional view of western political philosophy it is the assumption that people, left to their own devices and competing self-interests, cannot unify to govern themselves. Therefore, the state must serve as a neutral arbitrator. This ideal, again according to Young, is a myth.
She states: “If there are significant differences of power, resources, access to publicity, and so on among different classes, groups, or interests, decisionmaking procedures that are impartial in the sense of allowing equal formal opportunity to all to press their interests will usually yield outcomes in the interests of the more powerful. ” (p. 114). Impartiality not only legitimizes hierarchical organization and the idea of merit allocation, but, more importantly, what is socially and morally acceptable as dictated by the particularity of the dominant groups in society.
As Young describes it: “The ideal of impartiality generates a propensity to universalize the particular. ” (p. 115). In other words, the particular views and standards of the privileged are what is deemed normal and neutral. Young writes: “Not only are the experience and values of the oppressed thereby ignored and silenced, but they become disadvantaged by their situated identities. It is not necessary for the privileged to be selfishly pursuing their own interests at the expense of others to make this situation unjust.
Their partial manner of constructing the needs and interests of others, or of unintentionally ignoring them, suffices. If oppressed groups challenge the alleged neutrality of prevailing assumptions and policies and express their own experiences and perspectives, their claims are heard as those of biased, selfish special interests that deviate from the impartial general interest. Commitment to an ideal of impartiality thus makes it difficult to expose the partiality of the supposedly general standpoint, and to claim a voice for the oppressed. ” (p. 116).
The remedy for this systemic oppression, according to Young, is the dismantling of the old hierarchical model and the understanding of an alternative, communicative – and truly democratic – ethic. Instead of a fictional contract, what is required is a real participatory structure in which people, with their gender, cultural, and economic differences, “assert their perspectives on social issues within institutions that encourage the representation of their distinct voices. ” (p. 116). Instead of leaving behind their particular group identities, voices in the public square express their particularities and needs.