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The Elements of Justice Paperback – 12 Aug 2010

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4.6 out of 5 stars 3 reviews from Amazon.com

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"...(W)hat makes Elements of Justice so rich and compelling is that Schmidtz does not follow the dominant pattern of philosophical argumentation..."
Adam Kadlac, The Hedgehog Review

Book Description

What is justice? Questions of justice are questions about what people are due, but what that means in practice depends on context. Thus, the formal question of what people are due is answered by principles of desert, reciprocity, equality, or need.

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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars 3 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A new classic 12 Nov. 2016
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Schmidtz has the rare ability to be tremendously original and absolutely clear. I recommend this book to anyone that intends to have a fresh and suggestive view on theories of justice. This book is a classic waiting to be discovered.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Road Map, Not a Theory. 18 Jun. 2011
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Many theories of justice are monistic: they suggest that justice boils down to rules x, y, and z, where x, y, and z do not ever conflict, offer clear answers to each moral dilemma when used properly, and do not depend on context. In "Elements of Justice" Schmidtz lays out what he calls a "contextual functionalist" view of the elements of justice - a pluralistic conception that suggests "justice' is made up of four elements that cannot be reduced to any formula. Desert, reciprocity, equality, and need are each part of justice, but depending on the situation, one (or two) of these four may be more important than others. For instance:

What do we owe to children? What they need.
What do we owe to spouses and friends? Reciprocation.
What do we owe to citizens? Equality under the law.
What do we owe to employees? What they deserve.

The book is in six sections. The first goes over why Schmidtz sees this as essentially a pluralistic view of justice that is more akin to a map than a theory (a map is an imperfect guide; a theory is a detailed argument). Section two goes over the concept of desert and what is entailed. Schmidtz points out that desert cannot only be a reward but also in anticipation of what one will do. John can deserve his promotion by doing a good job, but Jane might deserve to be hired based on what we think she will do when she gets the job. The third section is devoted to the idea of reciprocity and how justice often (but not always) demands that we give in proportion to what we receive, paying back or paying forward. The fourth section goes over the idea of equality, noting in particular that attempts at equality of x will always result in inequalities somewhere else.

Lastly, we get into the idea of need. Here are where Schmidtz's views are probably the most controversial, as he joins with many critics of the 'justice as concerned with equal distribution of shares' approach. To Schmidtz, equality should be less about equality of stuff, and more about equality of chances to secure well-being. So, many theorists imagine that if we are in an orchard where there are two apples, justice demands that we each get one apple. But that assumes that we both got the orchard at the same time, and neither of us owned the tree with those apples on it. It seldom works that way. If you got to the orchard first and worked hard to plant and grow apple trees, and i get there later, is the egalitarian intuition that I deserve half still so obvious? No. Well, the real world functions more like the latter than the former situation, and justice needs to function with the latter problems more than the former. To Schmidtz, the idea of property rights and allowing free trade gives everyone more of a chance that simply shifting around bundles of goods from those who have more to those who have less. (And for those doubting that property rights give good opportunity for the "have less's" to rise and the "have more's" to fall, Schmidtz gets into a very good statistic-heavy chapter showing that market-based societies have much more class fluidity than highly distributive ones.)

The final section will also be a bit controversial, and as one whose never read Schmidtz before, I'm not sure I was expecting it. He discusses the Rawls/Nozick debate as the seminal debate in 20th century justice, and that part is far from controversial or new. But he, if I understand him correctly, considers himself somewhat on the side of Ralws, arguing that Rawls has largely been misunderstood as advocating for redistributive justice. No Schmidtz says. Rawls (a) puts primacy of place on negative liberty consistent with like negative liberty for others, and (b) suggests that inequality is to be permitted if the inequality benefits the worst off (by whom he means 'working poor'). Schmidtz (if I understand him right) is s saying that both of those conditions are satisfied best in a market society. That negative liberty is given pride of place there is obvious, but think about the difference principle: one of the assets of capitalism is that in order to get rich, one has to produce positive externalities for others by serving them what they want to pay for. And, again, since Schmidtz sees equality of opportunity and chance as more beneficial than equality of shares, it seems likely that a system of markets and property rights really satisfy the difference principle as well, and maybe better, than a distributive system that takes shares from the well off and gives them to those least well off. (Whether Rawls would have agreed with that is definitely debatable and a conclusion like this will surely piss off some Rawls fans.)

Overall, Schmidtz's conception of justice is very contextualistic and, I would say, showing hints of rule-utilitarianism. When we are dealing with tough moral cases, one of the things Schmidtz seems to want us to think about is, "What kind of action, if followed universally, would make everyone living together run most smoothly." For instance, imagine the situation where a train is coming at five people and you have the power to switch it to another track where it will only run one person over. Now, imagine that you work at a hospital where five people are to die for lack of organs, and you have the ability to save them by taking an innocent bystander, using her organs to save the five. Same problem, but different intuitions. Schmidtz explains it this way: we want to save the five on the tracks, but can't bring ourselves to save the five in the hospital, because, in the latter case, it involves treating a human being as if they did not have autonomy and rights (where in the former case, the person is already on the train track). We could save the five in the hospital by violating the bystander's autonomy, but that would mean living in a world where everyone is aware that they could be the next bystander. Schmidtz defends property rights in the same way: if we live in a world where we know that what is ours is our and what is hers is hers, it is a lot safer for all of us than living in a world where social utility is constantly maximized and no one can be sure whether they will come out on the losing end. Etc.

Anyhow, this is an interesting book with an interesting pluralistic view of justice. Anyone looking for a hard-argued theory of justice will not get it here. Like Walzer's Spheres Of Justice: A Defense Of Pluralism And Equality or Kekes's The Morality of Pluralism, this conception is pluralistic and thus, always somewhat incomplete (as a theory, that is, because it is contextual). It is also, indirectly, an interesting defense of markets as a more just system than highly egalitarian systems.
15 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Defining a bit of the undefinable 2 May 2006
By John Matlock - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This week the state in which I live, Nevada, executed someone. Was he guilty? Probably, he was found guilty in a trial and then confessed. After some twelve yers on death row he quit appealing and asked to be executed. The comment of the children of the lady he killed were reported by the news as being thankful that justice had been served and closure brought to the situation. Today in the paper there are several articles wanting other people on death row to be executed.

Is this justice? Is it justice if the people executed are largely poor, minority and male? Or do the poor, minority males commit more crimes?

These and many other points about justice do not have easy answers. This little book attempts to present a theory of justice that covers these and many other points. In defining justice he discusses deserving, reciprocity, equality, and the philosophy of what has defined justice down through the years.

Excellently written, this is a book that makes you think.
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