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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 78-81

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Liberal Theory and the "Loyal Opposition" in Democratic Justice

Steven H. Shiffrin

The Good Society did not make a mistake when it selected Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice for special treatment in these pages. As is characteristic of Shapiro's work, insights flash from page to page. The book exhibits a sophisticated understanding of liberal, communitarian, and democratic theory, a strong grasp of policy literatures relating to childhood, domestic life, work, old age, and dying, and an ease of movement between theory and practice together with a profound appreciation of the relationship between the two. Simply put, this is an important book, and no one who seeks to understand democratic theory, the relationship between democracy and justice, or the set of cradle-to-grave issues he discusses should fail to read it.

According to Shapiro, liberal theory is unsatisfactory largely because it does not appreciate the relationship between democracy and justice. Shapiro doubts that there is a single right answer to the question of how a just society ought to be constituted. Too many values interact in too many complicated ways to justify the expectation that abstract theory has resolving power over the issues it seeks to resolve. Moreover, liberal theory tackles too few of the issues that a political theory needs to tackle. Unjust power relations are not just confined to the basic structure of society: They permeate the society, and a theory that ignores those relations is unduly narrow. Liberalism's conception of the political is also too restrictive in a different sense. Shapiro denigrates rights prescriptions as "gag rules" for politics, rules that are insufficiently attentive to the controversial character of rights, at the very least in their application, and to the virtues of deciding such matters in the political sphere. In addition, Shapiro maintains that the pre-political character of rights theory unhelpfully slights the political because it ignores where we are and how we might get to a better place. Even if John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, or Amartya Sen were able to produce a perfect theory of justice, he does not believe that is sufficient reason to impose it upon society.

What is the alternative? Shapiro believes that liberals have underestimated the relationship between democracy and justice, and that thoroughgoing attention to and struggle for an appropriate conception of democracy can bring us closer to a more just society. For Shapiro, democracy implicates two main principles: collective self-government and opposition. Properly understood and applied in a variety of complex contexts, these two principles are the most defensible means of combating the unjust characteristics of power relations throughout the society. Let us look back at Shapiro's critique of liberalism and proceed to take the two principles in turn.

As I have recounted, Shapiro purports to reject liberal theories of justice. He believes that such theories rest on controversial assumptions, and he has little patience for the idea that some smart philosopher or anyone else for that matter should decide our collective arrangements for us. Of course no liberal philosopher has any such pretensions. No liberal philosopher is proposing to be king. Liberal philosophers propose what they believe to be the best arrangements. It is up to us to agree or disagree. Of course, some liberal philosophers suppose that they have proven what the best arrangements are. Shapiro is quite right in contending that they have not, but he goes too far in implying that the controversial character of liberal theories make them suspect. All political theories are controversial including Shapiro's. Moreover, he goes over the top in suggesting that liberal theorists are necessarily implying that their theory should be imposed upon society. Liberal theorists would obviously prefer that people fight for their vision of justice through democratic processes. This might not be possible in some societies, and liberal philosophers divide on when or whether undemocratic means are defensible in bringing about a just society. Shapiro himself defends the use of undemocratic means in the institution of the South African Constitution.

How then is Shapiro...


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