Justice and the State
Essays Politics

Justice and the State

Dhananjay Jagannathan

Against a Christian Caliphate

The Proper Home of Justice

It is hard to think well about justice in our time. It is not simply that we have pervasive disagreements about what is just. Such disagreement is hardly new, as ancient Greek literature and philosophy prove amply. When Achilles complains about the structure of benefits and burdens in the Argive army at the start of the Iliad, he is gesturing at a conflict between different conceptions of merit that fret us even now as we think about issues like college admissions or executive compensation. Likewise, when Sophocles’s Antigone opposes traditional norms of familial right to the political edicts of Creon, she invites reflection on how different sources of authority may yield different practical recommendations, just as we now struggle over the competing demands of human rights and national sovereignty.

The difficulty with justice is that it manifests itself to us prismatically. Economic justice, social justice, legal justice, reparative justice—which of these is primary? Indeed, the word justice can signify virtually the whole of moral goodness, what once was called righteousness. Whenever we sense that something has gone wrong, we tend to appeal to justice and injustice. But these appeals are sometimes inapt.

Consider recent debates about responsibility for climate change. Developed countries are described as having had their fair chance at high consumption lifestyles. We are told that developing countries should be allowed to take their turn, to equalize matters. Of course, when basic aspects of welfare are concerned, there is something to this point; lifting people out of poverty is an urgent task. But the equalization argument makes no sense when framed as an issue of justice. No one—whether in a developed or a developing country—deserves a share of car culture or luxury goods. What has gone wrong in anthropogenic climate change is our relationship to the environment as a whole, and the most relevant virtue to a conversation about consumption is moderation. The high consumption lifestyles we lead in the developed world are out of proportion taken simply on their own, without any consideration of what happens elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the classical framing that prescribes distinct virtues for different domains of life is severely out of fashion. We have, in large part, forgotten how to think about moderation and courage, generosity and piety. I submit that the reason for this forgetfulness is our inability to see that the virtues belong to people first and to societies or institutions only secondarily.

That is why justice consumes our attention, since we can sensibly talk about the justice of institutions and situations without first considering the sort of people that would build and defend those institutions or that would care about bringing about those situations, avoiding their opposites, and so on. By contrast, there is evidently no such thing as a courageous situation; there are only courageous people, with their characteristic ways of thinking, attitudes, and patterns of motivation and responsiveness.

Let me attempt a brief and very rough genealogy of this difficulty. Virtue in the classical tradition—whether in the hands of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, or Cicero—was treated both as a psychological matter and as a mode of responsiveness to reality: the virtuous person sees the world rightly and acts accordingly.

A brave person, for instance, has the right relationship to danger because they appreciate what kinds of risks are worth taking to preserve what is precious in our shared life. While we can help acquaint ourselves with bravery by considering the precepts such a person would apply to their conduct, these precepts are not themselves the reality to which a brave person responds. Rather, a brave person lives attuned to their circumstances, which are continually changing and which afford opportunities for both action and wise restraint.

The psychological nature of virtue, in classical theory, lies in the fact that we must appeal to the outlook, behavior, and values of the brave person to explain what bravery is. But, at the same time, this quality would not be bravery unless it were a responsiveness to the facts about danger, reasonable risk, and the defense of what is valuable.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, by contrast, the psychological realm came to be defined by subjectivity: individual experiences and ideas. So, morality, if it was to be real, had to be found in something objective. Justice, as the heart, if not the whole, of morality, found its home in things or situations or perhaps at most in objective relations among people. Just people came to be identified simply as those who conform themselves to justice, understood objectively.

It is worth saying that justice as an ideal can move us, even if we mistake its nature. Perhaps it is so elusive an idea in its totality that a partial perspective is all we can manage to have. (This is a version of a thought Augustine develops in City of God Book XIX.) Still, I believe there are clear examples of wrong-headed thinking about justice now that can be traced to the impoverished conception we have of it. That is what I mean to explore in the rest of this essay.

Absolute Prohibitions and the Error of Consequentialism

Elizabeth Anscombe, writing in the mid 20th century, diagnosed a distinct but related source of error in our thinking in “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Anscombe’s main concern is that modern moral philosophy, in the traditions that go back to Kant as well as to Hume, lacks the ability to prohibit certain act-types as categorically wrong, that is, as the kinds of things no good person could countenance. Everything is permissible, if the price is high enough. Anscombe notes that we are invited by modern moral philosophers to entertain wild scenarios in which, say, the imprisonment of an innocent person might be the only means to avert some disaster. Anscombe’s critique is chiefly of the assumptions behind this way of thinking, whether it is the theorist who speaks or some government official pleading their case.

The cultural problem Anscombe diagnosed in the 1950s remains with us. Most everyone would agree, I think, that holding people for decades who are accused of no crime outside the ordinary judicial system despite being thought innocent even by government officials is plainly unjust. Yet, this is what has happened and continues to happen at Guantanamo Bay. (The story of Mansoor Adayfi is sadly typical.) We are told that this unjust price—for our collective safety from terrorism—must be extracted, no matter the harm done to individuals.

Anscombe coins the term ‘consequentialism’ for the view that there can be such a price for justice and injustice. The word consequentialism has since come to be applied to a slightly different set of philosophical views, those in which good and bad reside purely in states of the world, as in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and those inspired by him.[1] But Anscombe’s own focus is on what various views say about action itself and whether we can assess it as right or wrong, permitted or prohibited, in itself. Her charge is that, if we fail to see that some kinds of action are such that no one should do them, we cannot get a grip on the idea of right or wrong action at all.

The error Anscombe identifies turns out to be entwined with the one I described above, and, as it happens, her remedy—for those who cannot countenance a divine lawgiver of the kind she acknowledges and whose Law prohibits such actions—is to go back to ancient Greek conception of the virtues as belonging properly to human beings. On the ancient (or medieval) view, we can easily make sense of the idea that some act-types are, in themselves, contrary to a virtue: bilking someone in an economic transaction is inconsistent with justice, committing adultery is inconsistent with chastity (or with temperance), and so on.

Anscombe’s own Thomistic commitment to the promulgation of the precepts of natural law in our capacity for conscience offers an even more direct means of accepting categorical prohibitions. Aristotle may help the secular philosopher get to the point of rejecting consequentialism after careful reflection on the nature of virtue, but for the Christian or Jewish philosopher, there is simply no question on this point. That is why, perhaps, Anscombe did not go on to do work in neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics herself, despite the field springing up in the wake of her article.

There are many branches to neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, but all are agreed on the psychological character of virtue: its association not simply with rules or precepts that could be described externally but with patterns of motivation, deliberation, and choice that must be seen from the “inside” of the virtuous person’s outlook. But neo-Aristotelians have largely neglected Anscombe’s point about categorical prohibition and its centrality to the ancient and medieval conception of action, perhaps because talk of law and prohibition might seem uncomfortably near talk of externally describable rules and precepts.

In fact, Anscombe’s critique of modern moral philosophy—as unable to articulate absolute prohibitions—and my own critique of it—as unable to reckon with the psychological dimension of virtue—actually work together.

Categorical prohibitions appear arbitrary when they are framed simply as rules: thou shalt not bilk. We get no explanation, from a rule-like description of the precept, why it deserves our compliance. From the psychological dimension of virtue, by contrast, we can explain categorical prohibitions as describing act-types that cannot be countenanced by a decent person. Such an aversion is not mere psychological compulsion or the production of mindless habituation. Rather, some types of actions are seen by the virtuous person to be “out” because they are ruinous or corrosive of the types of value and the forms of relationship or community to which that person is committed, ranging from the value of human life itself (in the prohibition against murder) to the mutuality on which social life depends (in the prohibition against fraud).[2]

Just Means and the Limits of Authority

Anscombe was right to think that consequentialism is a powerful cultural force, a topic she also discusses in her pamphlet arguing against the awarding of an Oxford honorary degree to Harry Truman and in her witty radio address “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?” In fact, it is such a powerful force that even those who voice their commitment to a classical or Christian virtue theory can struggle to escape it. I want to discuss one such recent example: the integralism defended by some (usually Roman Catholic) social and political theorists.

Integralists are committed to the use of temporal political power to promote the goals or ends proper to human life as these goals are understood within Christian theology. Depending on the broader political orientation of the integralist, however, this axiom ends up being developed in quite different ways.[3] It will help briefly to consider the wide range of policies that might be encompassed under the head of integralism.[4]

For example, integralists typically emphasize the primacy of the family against the secular, liberal construction of society as composed of individuals who freely consent to various types of economic relationships. For some integralists, regarding the family merely as an economic unit will lead us to provide families, especially those with children, insufficient support, as in fact US social policy presently does. But other integralists want to use this basic framework in defense of what they see as the Biblical model of family life and, so, to outlaw divorce and same-sex marriage where these have come to be accepted.

Likewise, integralists typically affirm their commitment to the idea that private property is always ordered to the common good. This commitment can be used to argue against the unlimited accumulation of private property in the hands of some and, therefore, the establishment of limits on individual wealth. Yet other integralists, such as Fr. Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, use this very claim about the teleology of private property to argue against socialism.[5] (Indeed, John Locke, the father of most modern liberal and libertarian theories of property, himself accepted that private property must be ordered to the common good, understood in explicitly theological terms.)

Here, I want to focus on the subset of integralists—typified by the academic Adrian Vermeule, the journalist Sohrab Ahmari, and the Cistercian monk Pater Edmund Waldstein—who hold that political authority ought to be wielded very widely to direct citizens toward a theologically-saturated conception of the goal of human life (its “final end”). Pater Edmund, for instance, argues that putting heretics to death can be an acceptable means to this fundamental task of political authority, a view (among others) that has tended to alienate fellow critics of liberalism who are otherwise sympathetic.

But instead of focusing on such extreme examples, I want to draw attention to the underlying theory of power in this integralist view and the grave danger in it of falling into a consequentialist mindset. The problem is this: once we set up an ambitious account of what human life is for, its final end, the question of appropriate means can tend to fade into the background. But church and state power both are bound by the demands of justice. No authority is entitled to act unjustly, simply because it recognizes that a genuine human good may be promoted thereby.

Critics of liberalism have rightly charged that—with its focus on rights, especially rights of non-interference—a liberal theory of the state occludes the question of the purpose of human life. Indeed, this occlusion is disingenuous, since the centrality of economic relations to liberalism means that the pursuit of wealth and security is assumed to be the chief goal of human beings, to which family and religious life must inevitably be subordinated.

But in pursuing this critique, we should not also throw out the principles of justice that such rights aim to protect.[6] That is what the integralists threaten to do, when, for instance, they condemn a universal protection for liberty of conscience or religious freedom.

It is only by clearly articulating substantive principles of justice that we can build back our way back to a healthier vision of human society. Take religious freedom. That such freedom is good is not as a bare fact about rights with which we are mysteriously endowed, but because a healthy society makes possible the discernment by which human beings come to recognize truth. Religious freedom, then, is rooted in the fact that human beings have discursive and receptive intellects, that conviction for us comes from seeing things for ourselves. Such use of our intellects is something we are owed by society, which makes it a matter of justice.[7]

Of course, there are uses of the intellect that will transgress some other important value that ought to be protected. The rights we have in accordance with substantive principles of justice are certainly not limitless. Freedom of conscience is not mere license. But the Truth, of its own accord, draws us near to it. The magistrate ought not be in the business of quashing spiritual error, even as the Church has a responsibility for ensuring the clear dissemination of its doctrine.

Surprising consequences may also emerge from this process of articulating principles of justice. For example, religious freedom, in the analysis I have just provided, is connected not only with (a rather non-absolutist version of) freedom of speech but also with a robust commitment to the duty of families and political communities to promote education.

Of course, a wide range of substantive policy is consistent with this principle of justice. But one thing that seems to be ruled out is the Christian Caliphate desired by some integralists, where non-believers are pushed to the margins of society and believers’ lives are heavily regulated by the concerns of spiritual welfare.

Imagining Our Way Toward Justice

To be fair to Pater Edmund and other integralists of his stripe, I must note that they certainly grant that principles of justice ought to regulate the limits of authority. But it is not enough—although it is very easy—to pay only lip service to the principle that Anscombe reminds us of: fiat iustitia, ruat caelum (Let justice be done though the heavens fall). Within the integralist framework, it will always be tempting to see valuable outcomes as more important than the appropriate means for achieving them. (Likewise, within liberalism, procedural fairness will be elevated over the substantive goods political community is meant to secure.) But justice, insofar as it operates as a constraint on what we may do, regulates what are acceptable means and what are not.

Instead of imagining the operations of an impersonal authority—secular or spiritual—we would do better to imagine the mindset of just citizens and just magistrates chosen from among them, to consider those in our own lives who might exemplify these qualities, and in general, to begin from what is most knowable in a sphere where our intellectual deficiencies are vast. While full clarity may be far off, it is, I believe, possible to draw on tradition to remedy these deficiencies. In doing so, we must be on guard not to reproduce the very errors we seek to avoid.

  1. That is because actions will turn out to be right or wrong based on how they change the balance of such states, understood as consequences or results. ↩︎

  2. I owe this interpretation of the force of Anscombe’s point to Molly Gurdon Pinkoski, who is developing a fuller argument in its defense in her doctoral dissertation. ↩︎

  3. John Ehrett, noting this divide, distinguishes between postliberals and integralists proper. ↩︎

  4. I’m grateful to Susannah Black for pushing me to clarify my analysis of integralism in this section. ↩︎

  5. See their Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy (Editiones Scholasticae, 2020), especially chapter 9 on political economy. ↩︎

  6. Timothy Troutner pursues a different, more theological and frankly Christological version of the criticism that integralists go too far in their opposition to liberalism. ↩︎

  7. In a similar vein, John R. Bowlin eschews the liberal defense of the practice of toleration and locates tolerance instead as part of the virtue of justice in his Tolerance Among the Virtues (Princeton Univ Press, 2016). Thanks to Luke Zerra for his discussion of this point. ↩︎

Featured image: St. Peter's Square, Rome in painting (1630) by Viviano Codazzi via Wikimedia Commons.

Dhananjay Jagannathan teaches philosophy and classical studies at Columbia University. He has contributed essays on a range of topics to Earth & Altar, Plough Quarterly, and Breaking Ground and co-writes the Substack newsletter Line of Beauty.