Xudifsd Rational life

note on Justice


Although I love programming and make it as my profession, I still found studying philosophy of right interesting.

While idling at home, I watched <Justice> for the 3rd times, so this post is served as my notes on it.

classification of principle of justice

There are two kind of principle to reason what is right thing to do:

  • consequential
  • categorical

consequential way of justice judges an action based on the result produced by it, whereas categorical way of justice judges an action not by result but by categories the action belongs to, so from this point of view, murder is murder, no matter whether it is for saving other lives or for money.

Utilitarian is considered as consequential, because its underlying principle is “to maximize the utility of the whole society“, this principle is focusing on the result produced by an action, and say nothing about the categories that action belongs to. This principle, however, failed to respect individual rights. So libertarian do not like utilitarian for its dehumanization.


For libertarians, which I think I’m one of them, individual rights should not be violated either by other individuals or by government.

John Lock is considered as a libertarian, but he is a little bit different from libertarian in a sense that he think “right of life, liberty and property are unalienable“, and since it’s unalienable, we can not freely trade them.

There’s a tricky part of the Lock’s theory: since right of life, liberty and property are unalienable, how does government can tax people? Well, Lock says it is possible for the majority of people to agree on a general procedure not an arbitrary procedure to decide how to tax.

Kant (freedom as autonomous)

Kant reject utilitarian, he think that the individual person, all human beings have a certain dignity that commands our respect. The reason the individual is sacred or the bearer of rights doesn’t stem from the idea that we own ourselves but instead from the idea that we are all rational beings and autonomous beings. And he deny that pain and pleasure are our sovereign masters, he thinks that it’s our rational capacity that makes us distinctive, it makes us something more than just physical creatures with appetites.

And Kant have a special and interesting idea about freedom:

When we, like animals, seek after pleasure or the satisfaction of our desires or the avoidance of pain, when we do that, we aren’t really acting freely, because if we do so, we were acting as the slaves of those appetites and impulses, when I act to satisfy it, I’m just acting according to natural necessity. So for Kant, freedom is the opposite of necessity.

So, to act freely is to act autonomously, and to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself, not according to the physical laws of nature or the laws of cause and effect. To act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end, it’s to choose the end itself for its own sake. Insofar as we act on inclination or pursue pleasure, we act as means to the realization of ends given outside us, we are instruments rather than authors of the purposes we pursue. Respecting human dignity means regarding persons not just as means but also as ends in themselves. And this is why it’s wrong to use people for the sake of other peoples’ well-being or happiness.

I’m in love with above idea, actually I think I agreed with him many years ago even before I know Kant. Have you noticed that I used “Rational life” as my tagline of this blog? I used that subconsciously when I was building this blog site and never changed it. So there would be no double that I love Kant’s idea.

What gives an action its moral worth? Consists not in the consequences or in the results that flow from it but in the motive, in the quality of the will.

A good will isn’t good because of what it effects or accomplishes, it’s good in itself. Even if by utmost effort the good will accomplishes nothing it would still shine like jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. We should “act in such a way that you always treat humanity , whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always as the same time, as an end.

Although Kant’s idea appeals me, I found it lacks something to make that idea a great guidance for making law, it didn’t provide a practical approach to do that.


Rawls agree with Kant, and works “never happened contract” out with the device of what he calls the “veil of ignorance“. This, I think, provides the missing practical approach to serve as guidance to make law.

A subproblem needs to be solved first is: what makes contract restrictive? The sign of the contract is not a sufficient condition of the agreement being fair. And an actual agreement is not a sufficient condition of there being an obligation.

Actual contracts have their moral force in virtue of two distinguishable ideals: autonomy and reciprocity. But in real life every actual contract may fall short.

One student says that we would choose a system based on merit behind the veil of ignorance, but professor rejected that idea, because the effort itself is also largely shaped by family and education environment. And here comes my favorite part of the lecture: professor did a very interesting poll on how many students in Harvard University are first in birth order, it turns out that the majority of people are first.

The application of theory

Theories of distributive justice:

  • Libertarian – free market system (against a background of formal equality) but this will in favor of those who happen to be born to affluent families.
  • Meritocratic – fair equality of opportunity (to bring everyone to the same start point of line)
  • Egalitarian – Rawls’ difference principle (people may gain from the lucky they have, but only on terms that work to the advantage of the least well off)

Teleological reasoning

If you look at a range of thinkers this lecture has been considering, there does seem to be a reason they want to detach justice from desert that goes well beyond any concern for equality. They all agree that justice is not a matter of rewarding or honoring virtue or moral desert.

Somehow they think tying justice to moral merit or virtue is going to lead away from freedom, from respect for persons as free beings. But Aristotle is different.

Aristotle think that justice means giving each person his or her due.

For Kant and for Rawls, the point of politics is not to shape the moral character of citizens. It’s not to make us good. It’s to respect our freedom to choose our goods, our values, our ends consistent with a similar liberty for others. But Aristotle disagree: “Any polis which is truly so called, and is not merely one in name, must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness. Otherwise, political association sinks into a mere alliance.

Because in pluralist societies people would disagree about the nature of the good life, we shouldn’t try to base justice on any particular answer to that question. So Kant and Rawls reject teleology, they reject the idea of tying justice to some conception of the good. What’s at stake in the debate about teleology:

If you tie justice to a particular conception of the good, if you see justice as a matter of fit between a person and his or her roles, you don’t leave room for freedom, and to be free is to be independent of any particular roles or traditions or conventions that may be handed down by my parents or my society.

Well, I think this is why I do not like some parts of Chinese culture, it seems they are actually promoting some goods or ends and forcing us to do something towards those them, failed to provide freedom to chose. So I do agree that the best law is not the one that promotes certain goods, but provides a fair framework for people to achieve their own ends while respecting individual rights.


Kant and Rawls failed to provide ideas about obligations of membership, loyalty, and how to interact with other people. Kant is focusing on individual, and provides a set of way to live a rational life and respect people at the same time. And since I love his idea so much, his book <Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals> should be appended to the list of books I must read.

And in a sense that lacking respect for freedom to choose, the idea that law should promote certain goodness should be rejected. The only functionality of the law is to provide a framework for people lived in to achieve their own ends.

In later part of the lecture, the professor talked about how to respect fellow citizen which I found intriguing:

For libertarians, how to respect our fellow citizens’ moral and religious is just to ignore them. But that isn’t the only way even the most plausible way to do so. There is a different conception of respect according to which we respect our fellow citizens’ moral and religious convictions, not by ignoring, but by engaging them. By attending to them, sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening and learning from them. There’s no guarantee that this will lead to agreement, there’s no guarantee it will lead to appreciation for the moral and religious convictions of others. But compare to ignoring others, the respect of deliberation and engagement is more adequate, more suitable ideal for pluralist society. This kind of moral engagement will better enable us to appreciate the distinctive goods our different lives expressed.

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