(This working paper was published in September 2022.)
A background assumption in much contemporary political philosophy is that justice is the first virtue of social institutions, taking priority over other values such as beneficence. This assumption is typically treated as a methodological starting point, rather than as following from any particular moral or political theory. In this paper, I challenge this assumption. To frame my discussion, I argue, first, that justice doesn’t in principle override beneficence, and second, that justice doesn’t typically outweigh beneficence, since, in institutional contexts, the stakes of beneficence are often extremely high. While there are various ways one might resist this argument, none challenge the core methodological point that political philosophy should abandon its preoccupation with justice and begin to pay considerably more attention to social beneficence—that is, to beneficence understood as a virtue of social institutions. Along the way, I also highlight areas where focusing on social beneficence would lead political philosophers in new and fruitful directions, and where normative ethicists focused on personal beneficence might scale up their thinking to the institutional case.
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust… The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising. These propositions seem to express our intuitive conviction of the primacy of justice. No doubt they are expressed too strongly.
—John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 4
A background assumption in much contemporary political philosophy is that justice takes priority over beneficence. When evaluating social and political institutions, or thinking through questions of institutional design or reform, we should focus primarily on justice. This assumption is often associated with various further ideas, such as that justice but not beneficence is enforceable, that justice but not beneficence concerns rights, or that justice involves perfect duties but beneficence only imperfect ones. It is also typically assumed that justice is institutional, while beneficence is personal. There is much talk of social justice, and some talk of justice as a personal virtue, but, for the most part, we talk only of personal beneficence—not social beneficence.
This phenomenon extends beyond the academy. A similar concern with justice permeates our political discourse. Justice operates as a conversation stopper. If the status quo is unjust, this is taken as an almost conclusive argument against the status quo; if some policy promotes justice, this is taken as an almost conclusive argument in favor of the policy. In both political philosophy and everyday political discourse, we do, of course, recognize exceptions to this rule. In the face of a serious disaster, we may need to override justice—we shouldn’t really let justice be done though the heavens fall. But these exceptions are generally assumed to be rare—the heavens are only seldom falling. For the most part, then, contemporary political philosophy and discourse follows John Rawls’s statement in the above epigraph. It operates with an “intuitive conviction of the primacy of justice,” albeit, one that is sometimes “expressed too strongly.”
There are, again, some exceptions. Political realists in the tradition of Bernard Williams claim that we should focus more on legitimacy. G. A. Cohen argues that justice must be traded off against other values, such as liberty and efficiency. Yet this time, too, the exceptions are rare. Mainstream political philosophy, and mainstream political discourse, is obsessed with justice. But don’t take it from me. As Laura Valentini puts it in criticizing Cohen’s position:
Principles of justice are typically seen as particularly stringent, and as giving rise to rights. To say that something is a matter of justice is to make a particularly weighty normative assertion. If this is correct, arguably the Cohenite approach has the defect of depriving justice of its special interest and importance. If justice is only one value among many – with no special normative, rights-generating, status – then why obsess so much about it?
My goal in this paper is to argue that political philosophy should abandon its preoccupation with justice and begin to pay considerably more attention to social beneficence—that is, to beneficence understood as a virtue of social institutions. Since the main source of resistance to this claim is likely to be the thesis that (social) justice takes priority over (social) beneficence, I frame my discussion around a refutation of this thesis—first by arguing, in Part II, that justice doesn’t in principle override beneficence, and then by arguing, in Part III, that justice doesn’t typically outweigh beneficence. Although defenders of the priority of justice might respond at various points by appeal to stipulative definitions of “justice” or “beneficence,” to atypically expansive theories of justice, or to certain controversial moral claims, a running theme is that no such response—even if successful—challenges my claim that political philosophy must focus more on social beneficence because it can’t assume the priority of justice as a methodological starting point. Specifically, considerations paradigmatically associated with justice don’t override considerations paradigmatically associated with beneficence, and determining what justice requires doesn’t settle which institutions are justified in domains where justice and beneficence potentially conflict. Along the way, I also highlight areas where focusing on social beneficence would lead political philosophers in new and fruitful directions, and where normative ethicists focused on personal beneficence might scale up their thinking to the institutional case.
One limitation of my discussion is that I am concerned with the “justification” of institutions—with which institutions we should construct or maintain—as opposed to their “legitimacy” or “authority”—with who should decide which institutions we have, or when they rightfully command compliance. A related limitation is that I focus on first-order questions about when institutions are justified, rather than second-order questions about how to proceed given disagreements about first-order questions—although I briefly return to such issues in Part IV. Throughout, I treat beneficence as equivalent to charity, humanitarianism, or the portion of morality that utilitarians, say, believe is all of morality. The personally beneficent person promotes the good of others, or welfare more generally. Socially beneficent institutions do the same.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 4.
Bernard Williams, In The Beginning was the Deed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). See, e.g., Matthew Sleat, “Justice and Legitimacy in Contemporary Liberal Thought: A Critique,” Social Theory and Practice 41 (2015): 230-252.
G. A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Laura Valentini, “Ideal vs. Nonideal Theory: A Conceptual Map,” Philosophy Compass 7(2012): 654- 664. For an extended illustration of this obsession, see Chandran Kukathas, “Justicitis,” in M. Knoll, S. Snyder, N. Şimsek (eds.), New Perspectives on Distributive Justice (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 187-203. I will provide various further examples of political philosophers giving primacy to justice throughout.
See A. John Simmons, “Justification and Legitimacy,” Ethics 109 (1999): 739-771.