Is Justice a Fixed Point?

The forthcoming article “Is Justice a Fixed Point?” by Alexander Schaefer is summarized by the author below. 

Values change. Despite being a truism, this claim remains surprisingly difficult to square with our most famous theories of justice. Political theorists from Plato to Rawls have sought to uncover and present eternal and immutable principles of justice. Yet, if values are an important factor in determining a conception of justice, and if these values evolve over time, then the correct conception of justice may be a moving target. In other words, the set of principles that best coheres with our considered value judgments may be fleeting and ephemeral, precisely because those value judgements themselves are fleeting and ephemeral. 

Political theorists have typically responded to this observation by attempting to show that their favored conception of justice would be stable. Rawls, for example, devotes a third of his lengthy treatise, A Theory of Justice, to precisely this task. Drawing on results from the mathematical analysis of dynamical systems, I argue that this concern with stability actually misses an important step. Before demonstrating that some equilibrium state is stable, one must first demonstrate that we are dealing with a system that will actually equilibrate. In short, one cannot have a stable equilibrium if one does not even have an equilibrium.  

Demonstrating that real social systems will equilibrate is difficult, if not impossible. In fact, complexity theorists often present social systems as paradigmatic examples of non-equilibrating systems. Does our system of shared norms and political values fall among these non-equilibrating systems?  

In this paper, I provide several stylized examples of social-moral systems that fail to exhibit any equilibrium states at all. The plausibility of these model systems passes the burden of proof to the static theorist: in order to convincingly discuss a stable conception of justice, the theorist must first offer some evidence that a social system can support a conception of justice as an equilibrium.  

There is, however, a more promising approach. Rather than seeking to demonstrate the existence of equilibrium states, political theorists should develop dynamic theories that do not assume equilibrium. The key to dynamic theorizing, I argue, is to focus on general, process desiderata, rather than the instantiation of particular political values. In dynamic theorizing, the concept of robustness, naturally replaces that of stability. This promising new approach requires us to redirect our attention from the snapshot to the process.  

About the Author: Alexander Schaefer is PhD Student, Department of Philosophy at University of Arizona. His research “Is Justice a Fixed Point?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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