Christianity and Equality 6: Four Theories of Justice

Remember our basic thesis, stated in this blog’s first post: “There are certain ways of thinking about justice and equality that undermine historic Christian doctrines.” We’ve done work articulating some of these doctrines, and we’ve also considered the relationship between God and the world, on the one hand, and the relationship between justice and equality, on the other. I’d hoped to start coordinating Christianity, justice, and equality in this post, but I realized I needed to offer one last piece of analysis before starting that work. So we must continue to strain what Hercule Poirot called our “little grey cells,” reminding ourselves of the pressing importance of this issue and simply doing the best we can.

 Photo by  Ian Parker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ian Parker on Unsplash

Justice’s Four Settings

We previously described what we call the four settings of justice: judicial, familial, political, and economic. Judicial justice looks to impartiality; familial justice expresses itself in preference; political justice focuses on the community, and economic justice focuses on exchange. But, of course, being in a particular setting (e.g., being a father or a judge) doesn’t determine what kind of justice one will seek in the situation. A father, full of preferential love, can nevertheless see the question of punishment impartially, viewing his son’s transgression as a judge, rather than as a father. So, too, the owner of a local restaurant may look for profit in exchange (or he will if he wants to keep his restaurant open) while nevertheless hoping for, and working towards, the general wellbeing of his community.

Four Theories of Justice

These settings of justice naturally combine in a variety of ways. We’ll consider four such combinations, which we’ll call the four theories of justice. I’ve struggled, quite frankly, over what names to give these theories. I’ve thought of offering depoliticized names to try to make things as politically neutral as possible, but doing so would make the four theories seem distant from our everyday lives, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to show. So I’ve decided to give them recognizably political names, even though doing so creates two kinds of difficulties. First, it increases partisan rancor; second, it creates the opportunity for someone who has a certain political position to say I’ve misread what he thinks about justice. Well, it is what it is. We just have to do the best we can.

Here we go. The four theories of justice are conservative justice, which is judicial and familial; socialist justice, which is political and familial; libertarian justice, which is economic and judicial, and progressive justice, which is economic and political.

We can distinguish the four theories by asking two different questions. First, we can ask how they judge differences. Should we look to impartiality or to equality to answer the question of whether or not a difference is an injustice? Conservative justice and libertarian justice look to impartiality. Socialist justice and progressive justice expect more. Impartiality plays a role in socialist justice and progressive justice, but its role is by no means determinative. Socialist justice and progressive justice look to equality.

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Second, different theories of justice take a different attitude towards the role of consent. Consent plays a role in all theories, of course. The question is whether or not consent plays a major, or a comparatively minor, role. For libertarian justice and progressive justice, actual or idealized consent plays a determinative role in deciding whether an action or situation is just. The same is not the case in conservative justice and socialist justice. We can call a need for a certain kind of consent constructivist.

By contrast, conservative justice and socialist justice think consent may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for justice. Conservative justice, though seeing the importance of choices in determining moral responsibility, takes justice to be something received or recognized rather than something chosen or selected. Some things are unjust, even if people freely choose them—indeed, even if most people freely choose them. Socialist justice—a slogan some socialists would surely reject, but a placeholder for their views nevertheless—ironically embraces a similar view. Though no friend of conservatives, socialist justice accepts that people can be hurt even if they consent to their treatment. For example, according to socialist justice, people working in deplorable conditions can still be harmed by the injustice of working there even though they choose to work there. Something beyond their choices determines the injustice. This focus on something other than consent, present in conservative and socialist accounts of justice, is realist.

So conservative justice views justice as judgment. We don’t invent justice; we discover it, and we should apply rules without preferential treatment. By contrast, socialist justice seeks liberation from oppression, and libertarian justice believes in justice as voluntariness, seeking to apply freely chosen rules without prejudice. Finally, progressive justice, similarly constructivist, nevertheless prefers equality, seeing justice as fairness.

Example 1: The Apprenticeship

These distinctions, which appear otherworldly, can actually help us classify our basic intuitions about justice in society. Should everyone have the opportunity to become a software developer, declared the very best of “The 100 Best Jobs” by U.S. News & World Report? If so, why? And what do we mean by opportunity? Let’s further test our intuitions with the following admittedly hypothetical case: Bill, Jill, Phil, and Will all want to be elevator installers and repairers. The trade pays well, and they all have unique reasons to pursue the trade.

 Photo by  andrew welch  on  Unsplash

Photo by andrew welch on Unsplash


Bill passed his apprenticeship entrance exams with a perfect score, and no wonder: Bill’s father has worked on elevators his whole life; indeed, he helped write the exams! Though Bill’s father didn’t share the test questions with his son, Bill profited immensely from his upbringing. His whole life prepared him for the tests. Starting the apprenticeship will set Bill on the road to becoming like his dad, whom he admires intensely.

Jill, by contrast, passed the exams, but she did not do as well as Bill. To her credit, though, she worked very hard; she simply could not overcome the advantage Bill’s upbringing gave him. Her parents, both personal injury lawyers, wanted Jill to go to law school. But her parents’ careers persuaded Jill that more work should be done to keep people safe, so they don’t get injured in the first place. For Jill, elevator work fits that description.

Phil failed the exams, but just barely. He suffers from an intense fear of heights, a fear he has had since birth. Given his strong interest in working on elevators, he tried diligently to habituate himself to heights, but he cannot afford the therapy that would really help him. He loves the machinery, its design and elegance, and he also delights in the puzzles each installation offers.

Finally, there’s Will. He failed the exams, too. He’s also scared of heights, like Phil, but he has a different story about the source of his fear. Will used to be a smalltime tightrope walker at the local circus, until he tried to show off for some friends after getting uproariously drunk one night. He survived the fall, but the incident left him with a profound fear of heights. That night was the last he walked the wire. Obviously, like Phil, he needs therapy to overcome his fears, and, again like Phil, he cannot afford it. For Will, working in the sky will be a great reversal, a kind of absolution.

So who should receive the apprenticeship? In the language of equality and justice, we can say the following: If you think Bill should get the apprenticeship, you may favor careers open to talents. He got the highest score; he should get the apprenticeship. If you’re open to Jill getting the apprenticeship, though, you may prefer fair equality of opportunity. If Phil, then a level playing field. If Will, equality of welfare.

Now let’s think about Bill, Jill, Phil, and Will using the four theories of justice outlined above. Conservative justice says we should look at how things are, and we should make our comparisons with a view to impartiality, not to equality. Bill scored highest on the tests. He should get the apprenticeship. But that’s only if we assume there are no other relevant hiring requirements. If there are, then those should be taken into account as well.

The other three theories of justice may also require more information to make a determination. Following Friedrich Hayek, libertarians will want to learn the relevant “knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.” Perhaps employers will find Jill’s sensitivity to personal injury litigation highly desirable, for example.

Socialists and progressives, too, will want more information before offering particular advice. But, importantly, they will ask different questions. They may consider Will’s ability to pursue other careers, in contrast to Phil’s narrower scope of opportunities, for example. Progressives will treat Will differently from Phil, because Will did something to create his fear, whereas Phil was born with it. Socialists will say we should take into account the background of Will’s poor choices; he may have been born with that, too.

Example 2: Gay Marriage

Straining our little grey cells even more, let’s consider one of the most contested issues of our day: gay marriage. Consider the arguments for or against gay marriage from the perspective of justice (as opposed to charity, utility, or something else).

Conservative justice looks to impartiality, rather than to equality, as a test for justice. So conservatives are relatively immune to appeals to equality (but not to impartiality). Additionally, because they take justice—and nature—as a given, conservatives believe marriage is what it is, regardless of what we think it could be. Some conservative opponents of gay marriage even refused to use the term gay marriage precisely because, in their view, marriage, reserved for one man and one woman, cannot be applied to anything else.

For libertarian justice, marriage is a contract, and libertarian justice should at least be open to consenting adults contracting together in various ways, including marriage, regardless of gender. Unsurprisingly, given our schema, the Libertarian Party claims it has supported gay marriage since the party’s founding in 1971. (Obviously the libertarian theory of justice is different from the Libertarian Party, but this convergence of ideas with party politics supports what we have said, so we’ll take it.)

Progressive justice, with its constructivist bent and concern for equality, should have been at the forefront of gay marriage—and, indeed, it was. When Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, he wrote, “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest,” so that “laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter,” i.e., the Constitution. Notice how justice has a contractual, rather than a natural, patina, by Kennedy’s lights. Likewise, Kennedy voices a concern for equality, rather than impartiality. Exclusion from marriage has “the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects.”

If socialist justice—as we have defined it—supports gay marriage, then it does so from the perspective of equality and from the givenness of someone’s sexual preferences. Like progressive justice, socialist justice appeals to equality. Indeed, marriage equality became a term of art for supporting gay marriage. But socialist justice appeals to nature in a way egalitarian justice does not. Socialist justice rejects what is now called heteronormativity, the idea that one’s birth sex permanently determines one’s sexual identity. Instead, socialist justice believes that apart from one’s biological sex a person can feel or experience a need to be something else, perhaps determinatively so. Far from a rejection of the givenness of nature, socialist justice embraces a reality behind the nature, a deeper nature that is separate from a biological one—or something like that.

If these four theories of justice serve as placeholders for what people actually think about justice, then gay marriage was inevitable.

If these four theories of justice serve as placeholders for what people actually think about justice, then gay marriage was inevitable. More people in the United States are conservative or progressive than libertarian or socialist, but the specific breakdown doesn’t matter too much, given that conservative justice seemed alone in its ability to resist arguments for gay marriage. Libertarians seemed satisfied with people’s free choices; progressives and socialists needed to hear clear calls for equality, which they did.

Finally, and ironically, conservative appeals to the special uniqueness of heterosexual marriage could have motivated progressives and socialists to extend such uniqueness to others, either on the grounds that marriage is a social construct or on the grounds that other kinds of marriage have as much reason to be called natural as heterosexual marriage.

In future posts in this series, we’ll explore how the four theories of justice influence what we think about providence and free will, sin and salvation, and heaven and hell.

Until then, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.