Ricoeur on Justice

Among Paul Ricoeur’s last publications were two small volumes of lectures on justice, The Just and Reflections on the Just. These apply the ethics he had formulated in Oneself As Another (see also Solicitude; Ricoeurian Ethics). As in Oneself As Another, he combines Aristotelian and Kantian elements (see also Aristotle and Kant).

Ricoeur notes that Plato and Aristotle often mentioned “the unjust and the just” in that order, and suggests that the initial impulse for justice is a sense of indignation against things like unequal shares, broken promises, and excessive retributions.

He identifies justice fundamentally with equity or fairness, as mediated through institutions and Kantian obligation by universals. In contrast with the I-Thou of friendship, it involves relations of distance with others conceived in the third person. “The other for friendship is the ‘you’; the other for justice is ‘anyone’…. In fact, we have already encountered this ‘anyone’ in those exemplary situations in which our youthful indignation lashes out against injustice: unequal shares, failure to keep one’s word as given, unfair retributions — all institutional circumstances, in the broadest sense of the term, where justice presents itself as a just distribution” (The Just, p. xiii). “An important equation, whereby the just begins to be distinguished from the unjust, presents itself here: the equation between justice and impartiality” (p. xi). It is “under the condition of impartiality that indignation can free itself of the desire for vengeance” (p. xvii; emphasis in original).

He will consider the interaction of two axes: a “horizontal” one of the “dialogical constitution of the self” (p. xii), and a “vertical” one with three levels — an initial Aristotelian one concerned with ends and the good life; an intermediate Kantian one concerned with formal elaborations of procedural justice and universality; and a final one concerned with Aristotelian practical wisdom that also draws on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He suggests that the Critique of Judgment has more to tell us about justice than the Critique of Practical Reason. Procedural justice, Kantian universality, and deontological obligation here do not supersede or conflict with Aristotelian practical judgment about concrete particulars, but rather mediate its relations to ends. This seems like a very nice way of expressing a harmonization of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics.

Relating justice to Aristotelian ends, Ricoeur wants to defend “the primacy of the teleological approach in the determination of the idea of the just” (p.xvi). “Justice… is an integral part of the wish to live well” (p. xv). “It begins as a wish before it becomes an imperative” (ibid).

According to Ricoeur, the very import of the claim to universality ensures that procedural justice cannot entirely separate itself from a substantive idea of the good in terms of ends. Provisionally adopting John Rawls’ abstraction of equitable distribution of goods as including procedural considerations, he argues that overall equity cannot be realized without “taking into account the real heterogeneity of the goods to be distributed. In other words, the deontological level, rightly taken as the privileged level of reference for the idea of the just, cannot make itself autonomous to the point of constituting the exclusive level of reference” (p. xix; emphasis in original). Ricoeur accepts Rawls’ claim that a pure theory of procedural justice can be developed autonomously, but argues that its real-world applications still require Aristotelian practical judgment.

All people, Ricoeur suggests, have a kind of “power over” others, as a result of the capacity to act. This “offers the permanent occasion for violence in all its forms…. What do we get indignant about, in the case of shares, exchanges, retributions, if not the wrong that human beings inflict upon one another on the occasion of the power-over one will exercises in the encounter with another will?” (p. xvii; emphasis in original). The kind of impartiality that frees indignation from the desire for vengeance, Ricoeur suggests, is embodied in the idea of universally valid law and deontological obligation to avoid harming others.

Ricoeur says actually the most serious issue about justice has to do with what he calls the “tragic dimension of action. It is at this stage that the moral conscience, as an inner forum, one’s heart of hearts, is summoned to make unique decisions, taken in a climate of incertitude and of serious conflicts” (p. xxi; emphasis in original).

The ultimate need for open-ended Aristotelian practical wisdom above and beyond the best discipline of the abstract application of rules, Ricoeur says, is a kind of correlate of the irreducibility of a consideration of ends. This will be the most important thing in the practice of jurisprudence. (Leibniz also suggested something like this with his idea of justice as “wise charity”.) Ricoeur relates such practical wisdom to Aristotle’s notion of (non-sophistical) rhetoric as speaking well in the sense of saying things that are persuasive because rightly said; to hermeneutics; and to poetics. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Justice’s “privileged moment” of mediation through formal universality, while neither self-sufficient nor ultimately decisive, is nonetheless essential to the process. The same kind of mediation appears in Ricoeur’s works in numerous contexts. Freedom is mediated by necessity; our understanding of the self is mediated by a “long detour” through cultural objectifications; open-ended interpretation is mediated by disciplined explanation. Similarly, here an ultimately open-ended approach to justice that begins and ends with Aristotle is enriched and made more rigorous by the additional mediation of Kantian universality.

These examples help clarify the main sense of Ricoeurian (and Hegelian) “mediation”, which is very different from the sort of theologically perfect, transparent mediation invoked, e.g., by Aquinas. Ricoeurian and Hegelian mediation are always bumpy, and the last word is never said.