Thursday, 17 June 2010

Times: Public debates on justice
Thursday, 17th June 2010 by Ranier Fsadni

In contemporary Malta, many public debates concern questions of justice. Except that it is not often that they are recognised as such.

Who should have the right to marry? Is there a point where my neighbour's property rights infringe upon my right to a clean environment or traditional village core? Should limits be placed on applications of biotechnology? These questions all concern justice, quite as much as our arguments over utility hikes and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority's transparency.

They may also involve questions of aesthetics, morality and religion. But, since they include resolving matters concerning access to social institutions and the value of public goods, they are also about justice.

Instead, they tend to be reduced to matters of expertise, taste, logic or partisan politics and clericalism.

Several reasons explain the reductionism. There are the usual prime suspects: the mass media and the market inevitably shape the message. Complex issues need considerable simplification given broadcasting constraints and competition.
Besides, the views of experts, aesthetes, logicians, politicians and clerics do and should carry weight in their own right. Reductionism occurs when the dimension of justice is not recognised.

Another reason has to do with the degradation of the notion of common good, often invoked but also misused. It has come to be, in many contexts, a euphemism for utilitarianism, that is, the maximisation of welfare for the greatest number.
In a society dominated by the market and economism (a doctrinaire creed in free markets) and where political parties scrabble for individual votes (having already convinced themselves that the common good is indubitably served by their being in government), one can see why utilitarianism wins out.

However, as philosophers like Michael Sandel have argued, utilitarianism makes justice a matter of calculation not principle. The slide towards calculation may well help explain why matters of justice often are transmuted into questions of expertise.
The issue, once again, is not that experts do not have something important to say. If we are concerned with a just distribution of access to the institution of marriage, expertise can be useful in telling you what permitting divorce (that is, remarriage) might do to the welfare distribution system. But it cannot tell you what the purpose of that social institution - what it ought to value and reward - should be.

Nor should anyone... if justice is to win out: This, at least, is the final major reason I would list in explaining why matters of justice remain unrecognised. The idea that justice, properly speaking, should be neutral about values.

The idea forms a major strand of western political thought. It is particularly associated with liberalism and its emphasis on freedom of choice. Justice has to do, on this view, with guaranteeing the right process in which individuals make their choices.

That view goes on: No one, certainly not the state, should be anything less than neutral, however, about the right way of valuing things. It should certainly not engage moral issues.

As an understanding of justice, the liberal view (in various permutations) is acquiring greater force in Maltese public discourse. In some cases, it is enough to express one's dissatisfaction with it to be labelled a conservative (never a compliment in Malta).

Once again, Michael Sandel is helpful in showing why the idea of neutrality on public issues is untenable and why the connection with social progress is tenuous.
Take divorce (that is, legalising remarriage after separation) or gay marriage. It is not possible to argue why they should be permitted without (explicitly or implicitly) deciding what marriage honours and who should be included in its rewards. That is not morally neutral.

Indeed, when gay marriage campaigners compare "marriage equality" to the campaign for racial equality in the US, they are drawing attention to a campaign that was not afraid to engage the very immorality of racial segregation laws. The liberalism (in the broad sense) of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr went hand in hand with a moral rhetoric about what kind of life was best for human flourishing.

Such civic engagement is again pressing in the contemporary world, perhaps especially so in Malta. Our lives are being shaped by three major drivers of change: climate and sustainable development, urbanisation and bio-engineering. We cannot live with the consequences of these transformations by being neutral about lifestyle preferences.
Should we accept them (any of them, take your pick) as they are? What if that lifestyle has consequences for the sustainability of our own?

An argument over what is just requires our civic engagement to recognise and take up issues of morality.

To do that, of course, requires challenging some major assumptions that are widespread. One is that it is civic-minded to ignore the religious and moral convictions of our fellow citizens. Another is that morality has to do primarily with sex and family.

Above all, we need to get used to the idea that it is a necessary part of justice - of what we owe each other - that we reason with each other.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

No comments:

Post a Comment