Dullness is the First Principle of Justice


Every theory of justice should be boring and dull. Dullness is what justice is all about. “It depends on”, “it’s complicated”, “it varies”, “it’s very nuanced”, “it’s somewhere in between” should be the phrases populating any philosophical work on justice. Clear and simple principles, even if arrived at through nuanced and complex reasoning, are an injustice to the concept of justice.

Justice is about the boring middle. For instance, justice is not about equality, because “it depends”. Giving all students, no matter what their ability or effort or accomplishment an equal grade offends our conception of justice, even if in general we view equal treatment as fundamental to justice. Neither is justice about rights, or better it’s not only about rights. Rights are important, as is equality, but in primitive or dysfunctional societies without an adequate justice system it may be best from the point of view of justice to hand over a pedophile to the parents of his victim.

Clear, absolute and immediately comprehensible principles that are true no matter the context and that allow for no exceptions are tempting and often propounded as the essence of theories of justice – although not of most sophisticated ones. And yet such principles are always wrong to some extent and in some circumstances. But then what about torture, slavery, murder and rape you may ask. Well, most of us would concede that there can be extreme cases in which torture is acceptable, even if only in theory (think of ticking bomb cases). We condone forced labor on a massive scale in our prison systems. Not only do we condone it – our allowing it could be considered a moral shortcoming – but there may be good reasons, moral reasons, for it: teaching people skills, fostering a sense of community etc. While there’s probably no good reason for capital punishment, other cases of murder can be morally justified: self-defense only being the most commonly accepted. And rape? While I can’t see any good reason to rape anyone in any circumstance, we do accept that there’s rape in our societies. No theory of justice should claim that we have to do everything possible to avoid any and all cases of rape that currently occur in our societies. Trying to do that would mean giving up other important rights such as privacy. We do and must accept some amount of crime. Hence any theory of justice has to be non-ideal. Ideals are useful but only take us so far. It should be considered lazy to limit yourself to an exhortation of utopia, no matter how well you argue for it.

Even theories of justice that do allow for wishy washy nuance and boring contextuality often posit a small set of grand principles as a basic ground of justice. They permit exceptions, but rarify them. The nuance and complexity they allow is in the exceptions or in the build up to the clear and simple principles, not in the principles themselves. Theories such as those of Rawls are typical of this. The voluminous body of criticism that has followed the publication of A Theory of Justice proves my point. Not all of that criticism was justified, but some of it was – notably that of G.A. Cohen but others as well. Nobody today accepts Rawls’ principles of justice as they are stated in A Theory. We all see the complexity that Rawls avoided or ignored, for example regarding incentives.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no audience for dullness – I know what I’m talking about here. So people are tempted to strive towards simplicity and clearness. That’s OK as long as there’s a thriving community that can offer criticism and nuance. The problem is not the producers of theory, but the audience. Producers can and perhaps should offer clear and simple principles, on the condition that they have complex and nuanced justifications, but the audience should be aware that it never stops there. Unfortunately, it always stops there.