Theories of justice

The aim of this paper is to review three theories of justice as suggested by Fraser, Rawls and Nussbaum with regard to their ethical plausibility and practical implementability in the real world politics.

According to Fraser’s theory, in the post-socialist age group identity replaces class interest as the chief medium of political mobilization, cultural domination replaces exploitation as the ultimate form of injustice, and cultural recognition rather than socioeconomic redistribution becomes the goal of any political struggle. Patterns of representation, interpretation, and communication always reflect power and domination of one cultural group over another. This view appears well-grounded given the rise of identity politics and the multicultural nature of most contemporary societies.

However, the issue of material inequality should be also taken into account. Therefore, Fraser’s theory combines material and ideational forces and suggests that justice in a modern world requires both redistribution and recognition, since economic disadvantage and cultural disrespect often go hand in hand. Cultural norms can be deeply embedded in institutional design – either explicitly or implicitly – thus preventing certain groups from meaningful participation in political or economic life of their communities.

Most collectivities, according to Fraser, are bivalent, meaning that they have both cultural and socioeconomic dimensions. The most prominent types of identities, gender and ‘race’, are in fact bivalent. For example, females are discriminated both at the workplace and in the symbolic cultural space dominated by valorization of masculinity. In Fraser’s opinion, social justice – both at symbolic and socio-economic level – can be achieved by restructuring the underlying generative framework that privileges certain identities over all the others.

Nussbaum’s theory of justice focuses on human capabilities. She argues that in most of the world women have dramatically unequal human capabilities as compared with their male counterparts. For many decades, the sole indicator of how well a nation was faring has been the measure of wealth and income, GNP per capita. Yet this approach ignored many other factors such as life expectancy, infant mortality, educational opportunities, health care, employment opportunities, land rights, political liberties. GNP per capita also fails to capture relative distribution of wealth within a society. Furthermore, different persons have different abilities to convert resources into functioning, for physical and cultural reasons.

Just like this resource-based approach, preference-based approach and human rights approach are also deficient. Preference-based approach fails to assess justice objectively, since preferences are social determined: a woman can be in the dark about the fact she actually has rights before she encounters a suitable role model. Human rights approach is more utile, yet the language of human rights is still ambiguous and leaves space for speculation about who grants rights and how they should be guaranteed.

Therefore, the ideal of justice is a society where all human being are able to achieve what they are capable of doing. It is not the question of using resources; it is the question of potential to use resources. It means that all members of a community should have enough freedom to develop their capabilities to the fullest extent, given that the quest for development – just like the quest for eating, warmth, play and bodily integrity – is one of the deepest human desires and entitlements.

Rawl’s theory of justice is founded on two main principles. The first principle is that all people should have the same scheme of equal basic liberties. The second principle is that social and economic inequalities can exist if the following rules are observed: offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. The latest statement is commonly referred to as the difference principle.

Thus, this theory suggests that social and economic inequality is an inevitable feature of any society and can be tolerated as long as all members of a polity are given the chance to improve their lot by means of economic advancement and change the ‘rules of the game’ by means of political participation and free expression. Well-functioning market and a strong constitutional framework that ensures civil liberties are able to deliver this ‘justice as fairness’, in Rawl’s view. The difference principle, however, places an important restraint on the permissibility of inequalities. Inequalities can exist only if they are to the advantage of or are approved by the least advantaged groups in society.

It appears that Fraser’s theory is the most workable in a contemporary society. While Nussbaum’s theory is rather vague and provides no ‘road map’ for achieving full development of human capabilities, Fraser’s focus on recognition and redistribution seems to constitute a comprehensive solution to the most burning issues in our societies, discrimination and inequality. Rawl’s theory does not take into account cultural factors at all and is therefore unable to provide remedy for various forms of hidden injustice which cannot be measured and quantified by social or economic indicators. Both economic and symbolic discrimination have to be countered in order to achieve a just society.