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  • Introduction: The Quest for Universality in Contemporary Context
  • Stephen A. Simon (bio)

In this series, scholars address questions about the universality of justice with an eye to their salience within a diverse world.* The question is challenging because a deep tension lies at the center of debate over universal approaches to justice. Questions about the universality of justice, of course, have deep historical roots but also present themselves today within a distinctive political context.

In Sophocles' Antigone (written in or before 441 B.C.E.), Creon, the King of Thebes, decrees that no one shall bury the corpse of Polynices, who betrayed Thebes in civil war. Antigone buries Polynices in defiance of the order, viewing it as a sibling's sacred duty. Against the charge that she has committed a grave crime, Antigone proclaims her action justified by dictates of justice higher than the King's law. Creon rejects Antigone's appeal to a standard of justice independent of the city's law, insisting that the law of Thebes is simply what he commands. In Plato's Republic, written roughly eighty years later, Thrasymachus insists that laws are nothing but tools that the strong use to impose their will on the weak.1 Rulers drape laws with the exalted name of justice simply to induce compliance. The meaning of justice, then, turns on the happenstance of which party prevails in the struggle for dominance. In opposition to Thrasymachus, Socrates envisions a properly ordered society rooted in an ideal of justice. For Socrates, justice is an eternal standard, transcending the will of any ruler.

Universality was a topic of debate in ancient Greece and it has been a persistent topic of debate across widely varying historical and cultural contexts. The study of American constitutionalism, for example, finds intellectual roots in Cicero and Roman Stoicism, Aquinas and medieval Scholasticism, the early British jurists Fortescue and Coke, and modern social contract theorists like Hobbes and Locke.2 To engage the universality of justice is to join a longstanding debate.

At the same time, questions about universality arise today within a distinctive context. Universal approaches to justice focus on moral considerations that are common to all people. Globalization makes it easier to recognize things that all people share regardless of contingencies like a person's place of birth or ethnic background. And communications technology makes it easier to witness the suffering of people at a distance. Thus, we are more aware of the plights of others who increasingly seem indistinguishable from ourselves with respect to the things that matter morally. Globalization also makes us more aware of how our actions affect people at a distance. We feel more interconnected both practically and ethically.

We have strong impulses, then, to thinking about principles of justice that would apply to everyone. But other factors make us wary of moral talk that is couched in universal terms. We are keenly aware of entrenched disagreements over the meaning of justice,3 and the devastation that such disagreements have spawned. This awareness is related closely with an abiding suspicion of foundational theories that seek to explain everything from the ground up.4

The tension between reasons for seeking universal approaches to justice and reasons for resisting them is visible in the opposition of two widely held perspectives on the development of universal political thought. From one perspective, the development of universal political thought represents a crucial element of the struggle against inhumanity. Universal standards provide a compelling basis for resisting official injustice. One might discern a line of continuity between Antigone's defiance of Creon and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s stirring words in resisting racial oppression:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are...


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pp. 77-78
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