I’ve recently been sympathetic to two different positions which seem to stand in some tension with one another. I’ve blogged about them both here, but on separate occasions. On one hand, to some degree happiness seems to require justice: to live happily with others, we need a sense of obligation and legitimate expectation, in terms of something like an Aristotelian mean. On the other, the assignment of blame and moral responsibility – what we might even associate with morality itself, if we distinguish it from ethics – leads to anger and a drive to punishment. Śāntideva even opposes the idea of free will for this reason, because it’s what allows us blame and moral responsibility. It’s so hard for Śāntideva to take this position against blame – he strives for a monastic life that doesn’t depend on other people, so he doesn’t need justice to be happy. But that’s an option I’ve rejected, and I imagine most of my readers have too.
If one is to live in society, dependent on others, one is likely to require justice. That’s what I learned dealing with my loud neighbours in Texas: without a conception of justice, you cannot have a clear conscience; you cannot arbitrate between the competing demands that others make on you. The rub is that justice seems to require blame and moral responsibility (and therefore some kind or degree of free will). Aristotle says that justice consists of giving people what they deserve; doesn’t that very idea of desert or merit imply moral responsibility?
I don’t know Aristotle well enough to know his answer to that question. But Aristotle or not, I suspect it’s possible to have a conception of justice that doesn’t require moral responsibility. The virtue of justice is a mean, in that just behaviour lies somewhere in between taking too much and giving too little (greed, miserliness) and giving too much and taking too little (submissiveness, servility). How do you decide what’s too little or too much? It depends on the particulars of the situation, but it would surely involve some combination of prevailing social norms and mores (what Hegel would call Sittlichkeit) and something like the Golden Rule, treating others as you would wish to be treated (or in some cases as they would wish to be treated, if their desires are not inordinate). Does that require assigning moral responsibility and blame? Not as far as I can tell.