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Justice as Literature

October 2, 2009

Amartya Sen’s new book on justice, writ as large as possible, looks like the latest major work in the philosophical canon, and this book review gives a nice little summation of the storied history of philosophy up until that point, including shout-outs to some personal favorites like Robert Nozick and Robert Solomon.

Back in Homeric times, life was simpler. Justice largely meant personal vengeance. Complications began when Plato famously pinned on Thrasymachus the view that justice is simply the will of the stronger, and on Glaucon and Callicles the idea that justice is conventional. Plato argued, through his familiar Socratic ventriloquy, that justice is divine, an ideal to which human justice can only haltingly aspire. Aristotle then introduced a formal criterion of justice that still wins the greatest agreement, perhaps because it’s merely formal: Treat equals equally and unequals unequally.

From then on, follow the history of philosophers’ sentences that begin “Justice is … ” on and you hit so many diverse endings you wonder whether anyone, including the lady in the blindfold, knows what justice is.

Even if you don’t care about the book, or even the topic, read the article.  It’s enlightening.

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