Justice is not simply what most people believe it is. Looking back on history, from Ancient Athens even until the 20th-century, we now see that most people held seriously mistaken beliefs about justice: it was at times widely accepted as just that women should be denied the vote and excluded from the workplace, that slaves were bought and sold, or that the poor and so-called “idle” would starve or were forced into the workhouse. Today’s widely-accepted beliefs about justice may come to be seen as equally mistaken. So, we cannot find out what justice is – how the world ought to be – simply by surveying people’s beliefs. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume generalized this point; “Hume’s Law” tells us that you cannot derive an “ought” (a normative claim about what you should do, or about what would be best or just) only from an “is” (an empirical claim about how things actually are, e.g. about what people actually believe). Normative theory cannot be built wholly from empirical bricks.

Philosophers thinking about justice have mainly focused on “ideal theory”, a conception of a perfectly just society. This kind of theory has little need for empirical information. Philosophers have developed very interesting and plausible ideal theories about how to distribute limited resources, or recognize each other as equals, or ensure that political power is fairly shared, in the just society.

But we don’t live in the just society, nor will we ever make it there. So what does ideal theory tell us to do here and now? Suppose, for example, that in a just society we would all give to charity to help the least fortunate. In the real world, not everyone does their fair share of charitable giving. In consequence, some people starve, or die from curable diseases. Generally, people do not and will never comply with all their duties of justice. So how should we arrange institutions in a just way, knowing this? Given the manifold injustices in our society, how should we try to reduce the injustices and work towards a more just society? And what about the empirical complexities of the real world often overlooked by ideal theory: that it contains groups who have suffered a history of discrimination; or that it contains a wide variety of human beings with different abilities, attachments and responsibilities; or that it contains an intricate set of existing social and political institutions with their various roles and various imperfections, for example. What should be done here and now? We find that ideal theory is not designed to answer these questions, and cannot do so.

A “European” theory of justice, we believe, needs to be a “non-ideal theory”, taking into account empirical information of all the above kinds. We advocate an approach we call hybrid empirical-normative argumentation, or real-world political philosophy. Instead of starting from an ideal conception of the just society, we recommend a bottom-up approach, starting from manifest injustices as they exist in Europe, though informed also by ideal theorising about justice. We find this means that an all-encompassing, unitary “European theory of justice and fairness” is not feasible. What we recommend, rather, is the development of some pieces of theory that help us understand, evaluate and respond to some of the particular problems of justice and fairness that face Europe here and now.


By Bert van den Brink, Simon Rippon, Tom Theuns and Miklós Zala
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D2.2
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications