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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Rational disagreement about social justice Preinsperger, Kurt


Numerous conflicting theories about the just distribution of goods in society have emerged in response to John Rawls’ 1971 treatise A Theory of Justice. Given that informed persons continue to disagee strongly about the demands of social justice, progress may come from better understanding the underlying reasons for disagreement about justice among philosophically informed people of moral goodwill. In this dissertation I explore the idea, suggested by Larmore, Pogge, Ackerman and others, that some of the disagreement about justice among informed people of goodwill is “rational” disagreement. I identify, in the literature on social justice, recurrent conceptual, normative and empirical issues which we have reason to consider currently (or conceivably forever) irresolvable, at the first-order level of moral reasoning, by any information, arguments or methods accessible to us. But claims concerning the possibility of rational disagreement about justice only differ non-trivially from skepticism about justice if plausible limits can be set to the scope of this disagreement. To characterize such limits, I seek to establish the following two wide-reflective-equilibrium-based presumptions. (1) A consequentialist metaethical framework is our most credible approach to moral justification (where the form of consequentialism defended is constructivist, non-foundational, value-pluralistic, and includes distribution sensitivity among its ultimate values). (2) In moderately well-off, pluralistic societies, only those conceptions of justice fall within the scope of rational disagreement which propose broadly egalitarian-liberal, “directly responsive” principles (i.e. principles applicable to individual or group shares and not merely to basic social structure). Some likely candidates for the status of rational disagreements about social justice are discussed: the criteria definition and inclusion problems; various balancing problems related to attempts to increase the comprehensiveness of principles (the priority problem, the aggregation-distribution problem and commensuration problems); the domain demarcation problem; and problems of imprecision associated with justifying claims about justice within a consequentialist framework. An improved understanding of major sources of rational disagreement about social justice, as presented in this dissertation, helps define the normative weight of appeals to justice. This in turn clarifies the need to resolve many issues of social distribution otherwise than by relying on invocations of justice.

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