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  • Addressing Broad Challenges to Universal Theories of Justice
  • Stephen A. Simon (bio)

It seems intuitive to many that there are rights that apply to all people. It is easy to imagine governmental policies that would be morally unjustifiable regardless of place or cultural context. Universal rights are connected with equality. People differ in innumerable ways, but basic needs are common to everyone. Equality focuses attention on whether differences between people are morally relevant. The intuition for human rights is linked with the sense that many things that differentiate people, such as place of birth or ethnic background, are not always morally relevant. Equality can be a useful frame for thinking about rights across political and cultural boundaries. For instance, one might reason that tax policies may justifiably vary from place to place, but that no consenting adults should be constrained by government in their choice of intimate partners.

One way of approaching the universality of justice is to develop a specific universal theory of justice, and another is to critique universal theories developed by others. Rather than taking either of these tacks, this essay discusses strands of thought in the contemporary intellectual zeitgeist that pose obstacles to acceptance of any universal approach to justice. We should be concerned not only with articulation of principles, but also with prospects for their acceptance. The essay suggests reasons why universality is not undermined by a number of prominent ideas, including: the view that we can only know things in the scientific realm; relativism; and pragmatism.

The View that Knowledge Is Limited to the Realm of Science

Many believe that we can only make meaningful knowledge claims about things that can be tested according to the methodologies of contemporary science. The appeal of this view for some may be linked to a preference for operating within a realm of solid understanding rather than one of mystery. But science offers no escape from mystery. Prevailing models of quantum mechanics posit principles that challenge precepts long thought essential to rational understanding of the universe. What does it mean for a scientific theory to offer understanding? Is it enough that it make accurate predictions, or must it offer an account of the world that is comprehensible? The layperson's common sense cannot be the standard of evaluation for scientific propositions, but the gap between prevailing scientific theories and our ability to grasp their meaning presents a mystery defying explanation.

The view that knowledge must be scientific also gains appeal from the widespread intuition that everything that exists takes a physical form and is subject to a common set of physical rules. Since human beings are physical things, they must be subject to the same rules. Together, these ideas lead many to the conclusion that free will is an illusion. If we are made of stuff, and all stuff is subject to mechanistic rules, then we cannot escape the inexorability of those rules. It might seem to follow that the enterprise of moral philosophy is built on a fantasy, since theorizing about how people should act presumes they have a choice in the matter.

But this vantage point bumps into mysteries, it does not avoid them. How do states of consciousness fit into a world view that seeks to reduce everything to physical things? And how can material stuff give rise to an experience of free will? The experience of free will is relentlessly powerful. As a matter of disinterested observation, the human experience of autonomy across different time periods, places, and cultures furnishes a tremendous dataset with remarkably consistent results. Given repeated observations of the experience of free will, and the inability of science to provide an account that explains it away, it seems contrary to the scientific mindset simply to assume from the outset that free will cannot exist.

The assertion of determinism entails a contradiction. To assert the truth of determinism is to express an opinion. But it only makes sense to consider the expression of an opinion meaningful if it would have been possible to express a different opinion. If determinism is true, then it is not possible meaningfully to assert that determinism is true, because all expressions of opinions would follow as inevitably...


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pp. 75-78
Launched on MUSE
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