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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 82-85

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Comment on Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice

Clarissa Rile Hayward

There is a tendency among some recent theorists of democracy to write as if what they advocate is a set of procedures for deciding collective norms democratically, when in fact what they argue for is a subset of democratic decisions that yield outcomes they regard as just. Theorists exhibit this tendency in various ways. Some declare the outcomes they prefer to be prerequisites for authentically democratic decision-making. Others define as "unreasonable" views likely to produce results they consider unjust. Still others wish away the very possibility that the procedures they recommend might yield decisions they find unpalatable. The trouble with this style of argument is not only that it allows the theorist to introduce, unarticulated and undefended, controversial assumptions about what justice is and what it requires, but also that it allows her to advance profoundly anti-democratic claims in the name of collective self-determination. What "the people" really want, or what they would want if only they weren't so unreasonable, if only they deliberated long and well enough, tends to mirror the political preferences of the academic philosopher who appoints herself to interpret popular values and needs.

One of the many strengths of Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice is that it recognizes and draws critical attention to this mistake. Acknowledging that democracy and justice are distinct aims, aims that sometimes conflict with each other, Shapiro makes the case that political theorists should focus on aspects of each that support the other, with a view to informing institutional change that is simultaneously procedurally democratic and justice-promoting. Shapiro adopts an innovative approach to conceptualizing each of these two aims. In terms of democracy, he takes as his starting point the basic democratic premises that people who will be affected by a proposed norm should have a say in helping define it, and that people should have effective and legitimate avenues through which they can oppose established norms. From the latter premise he derives what he terms a "presumptive suspicion of hierarchies," and in particular of hierarchies that limit internal mobility and/or the capacity to exit, because these tend to undermine self-determination. The idea is not to do away with hierarchy altogether, but rather to democratize, without sabotaging, those hierarchies needed to serve valued social ends.

With respect to justice, rather than attempt a comprehensive argument about "what justice requires," Shapiro adopts the more modest aim of identifying ways to eliminate or at least to reduce injustice, defined in terms of violations of people's basic interests. He demonstrates in a series of applications of the argument (to parent-child relations, adult domestic relations, relations in the workplace, and relations involving the dependent elderly) that to reduce injustice thus understood would require significant changes to the ways people order major social institutions, such as educational, economic, and medical institutions. One does not need a definition of "what justice is," he argues, in order to develop systematic normative arguments about how to make social relations more just.

The basic intuition informing Shapiro's argument, then, is that, although distinct, democracy and social justice are interrelated. Democracy is linked to justice, Shapiro suggests, in that democratic processes are unlikely to be accepted as legitimate if they produce outcomes widely viewed as unjust. And justice is inextricably intertwined with democracy, in that any persuasive claim about what is right must contain important democratic proceduralist elements.

Oblique Appeals to Consensus

Near the start of Democratic Justice, Shapiro carefully distances his argument from the appeals to an alleged moral consensus characteristic of much of the social justice literature spawned by Rawls. The lack of any clear such consensus, he argues persuasively, undermines normative claims that democratic decision-making should be constrained by principles of justice. On this point he is worth quoting at length:

Once we grant that what justice requires is, and is likely to remain, debatable, some sort of procedural tack inevitably forces itself on the agenda. We are no longer in...


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pp. 82-85
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