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Tuesday, October 1, 1996

The Just Society

What Does "Justice" Mean?

Dr. Nash is professor of philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary and the author of Why the Left is Not Right: The Religious Left in America (Zondervan Publishing House).

Whenever one comes upon a university press book containing multiple essays by different authors, all of them academics, it’s a pretty safe bet that the book will never appear on any bestseller list. In the case of this book, most of the authors are professors of philosophy and their stated purpose is to throw some light upon social justice.

Another safe bet is that the essays will typically defend some liberal/statist/collectivist position: call it trickle-down Marxism. While the notion of justice is vitally important, its vagueness and the emotions it generates make it a convenient tool for liberals to use in their unending effort to enhance the power and size of coercive government. A number of chapters in this book do just that, occasionally in new and clever ways. Most readers of The Freeman, however, will be interested in the chapters that refuse to follow the prevailing statist orthodoxy of the day.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is titled “Designing Democratic Institutions and the Problem of Evil: A Liberal Chinese Perspective,” authored by Baogang He, a Chinese scholar now lecturing in political science at an Australian university. The word liberal in his title refers to the classical Western tradition of personal freedom and limited government (with special reference to John Locke and James Madison), not the monstrosity known as contemporary American liberalism. Professor He shows how the classical liberal tradition of the West with its emphasis upon property rights and limited government is influencing some scholars in the People’s Republic of China. The author identifies some of these scholars and lists their publications. He also makes special reference to an ongoing dispute within the PRC over the question of whether Chinese political thought should assume the perfectibility of human nature and the goodness of China’s political leaders (a basic assumption underlying Mao’s position) or whether all citizens, especially those holding political power, are evil. Such American founding fathers as Madison and John Adams, of course, held the latter view which entailed for them the conviction that political power ought to be widely diffused to make it difficult for evil men to attain total power. I especially commend this chapter to my Freeman audience.

On the statist side of the ledger, Larry Temkin, a philosopher at Rice University, finds the typical egalitarianism of the recent past too tepid for his taste. American political and social thought is replete with egalitarians committed to reducing inequalities between A and B when these two people were members of the same society. But egalitarians like Temkin are also anxious about inequalities between A and B when they belong to different nations or to different generations. As egalitarianism expands in scope, it is obvious that the size and power of the state must also expand, even perhaps to the point where it encompasses a one-world government.

It is interesting to see how few of the essays in this book about justice take the time to define justice. It is difficult to find much attention given to Aristotle’s intuition that justice means treating equals equally and treating unequals unequally. It is also difficult to find authors in this book who understand the essential difference between voluntary human societies and states that must by their very nature claim a monopoly on the use of coercive power.

Readers of The Freeman interested in knowing what philosophers are up to these days may want to take a look at this collection, even though many of them will end up objecting to a great deal that they encounter.

  • Ronald H. Nash was a philosophy professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Nash served as a professor for over 40 years, teaching and writing in the areas of worldview, apologetics, ethics, theology, and history.