Just as in engineering, in political philosophy it is advisable not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ but to build upon existing insights. That is why the first step of theorizing an empirically informed theory of justice in Europe was looking at the heritage of philosophical theorizing about justice in the context of contemporary debates.

A ‘philosophical’ approach to justice is one that takes normative questions – moral or political questions about how the world should be – seriously. Normative questions cannot be answered simply by collecting empirical evidence. They need to be approached with methods different from those typical of natural and social scientific research. In the report, we outline three main methods philosophers use. The method of reflective equilibrium has us go back and forth between first, our different intuitions about justice in particular cases, and second, our judgements about more general principles of justice and other matters, aligning these to try to improve the coherence of the full set of judgements. The method of rational reconstruction claims that the possibility of our social interactions necessarily presupposes some minimal normative claims, and seeks to expose these. Interpretative methods, on the other hand, refer to attempts to understand the ‘moral logic’ of various cultural and historical moral traditions and practices; such approaches to understanding justice prioritize particularist or ‘communitarian’ understandings of justice over abstract universalist theorizing.

After addressing methods, we explain core questions of justice that have occupied philosophers and outline the major competing answers: What are the grounds of justice? (i.e., how do claims of justice arise); What is the shape of justice? (i.e., what are the main concerns of justice, and what pattern would a just way of resolving them take); What is the site of justice? (i.e., is justice a feature of political institutions, personal character and actions, or social relations?); What is the scope of justice? (i.e., who has claims of justice on whom, and are there distinctive claims of global or local justice?); Should we engage in ideal or non-ideal theorizing about justice? (i.e., do we need a theory of justice that abstracts from the particularities and complexities of reality, and sets out a model of perfection, or would we better focus on the realities of what we already see and focus on how to address current injustices).

In outlining these issues we provide an introduction to (re)distributive, recognitive and representation-based approaches to justice. We also reflect on the relevance of personal and group identity, citizenship, and social relations to claims of justice, and consider the place of vulnerability in theorizing justice.

We finally turn to the question of justice in Europe, and note an initial difficulty: philosophical theorizing about justice has almost uniformly approached justice as either a global or a national domestic matter. So an association of states such as the EU raises novel issues. We nonetheless explore ways that different philosophical views can ground alternative ways of thinking about justice in Europe. In particular, we suggest that there are good prospects for a European theory of justice that puts the agency of citizens of a shared political system at its centre.


By Simon Rippon, Tom Theuns, Sem de Maagt, Miklos Zala, and Bert van den Brink
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D2.1
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications