I apologize in advance for writing about a topic that is at least closely related to, if not the same as Nate’s. But it is his fault. He made me start thinking about the question of freedom and its relation to justice.
Consider these two quotations from 20th century thinkers whom I respect greatly:
For the sophists, justice is only the conventions of the weak which protect the interests of the latter. For the sophists, ethical principles are no longer valid in themselves but only as a form of our mutual “keeping an eye” on one another. The “just” is that by means of which one person can assert himself against another with help from everyone else and, as such, it is adhered to only out of mutual distrust and fear. . . . All the many variations of the sophists’ theory of justice are alike in providing a “foundation” for justice. And whether the sophists conceive of themselves as conservative or revolutionary, indeed even when the sophists think that they are giving a foundation to the authority of civil law, in principle they have already perverted the sense of justice. As judges of justice they fail to acknowledge it even if they “acquit” it. Thus Callicles’ and Thrasymachus’ declaration that might makes right only serves to disclose the mentality which prevails in all sophism: No one does what is right voluntarily. (“Plato and the Poets” 50)
Immanuel Levinas: “Justice consists in recognizing in the Other my master” (Totality and Infinity 72).
At first glance that seems to disagree with Gadamer. Justice requires that I be ruled by the other person, so I do not act according to my will, i.e., freely, when I act justly. Yet Levinas laments the sophistic understanding of justice which he describes in this way:
[In modern political theory], only the limitation [of freedom] is tragic and shocking. Freedom is called in question only inasmuch as it somehow finds itself imposed upon itself: if I could have freely chosen my own existence everything would be justified. The failure of my spontaneity, as yet bereft of reason, awakens reason and theory [. . .]. From failure alone would come the necessity of curbing violence and introducing order into human relations. Political theory derives justice from the undiscussed value of spontaneity; its problem is to ensure, by way of knowledge of the world, the most complete exercise of spontaneity by reconciling my freedom with the freedom of others [which it does by creating constraints on our freedom]. (83; translation revised)
For Levinas, this conception of justice is tragic because it does not allow for a mastery by the other person that is not a limit on my freedom, but its foundation. (See 197.)
So, both Gadamer and Levinas argue that justice cannot be the product merely of limitations on my freedom. As Levinas says, “Justice summons me to go beyond the straight line of justice, and henceforth nothing marks the end of this mark; behind the straight line of the law the Promised Land [literally “the land of goodness”] extends infinite and unexplored” (245, translation revised).
Are they right? If so, what kind of positive political program can we argue for: can we have a political system that relies on anything more than the sophists’ idea that “no one does what is right voluntarily”? How can justice go beyond the straight line of the law and enter into the Promised Land? Gadamer the Christian and Levinas the Jew agree (at least on this). How does a Mormon—a Christian and a claimant to the blessings of Israel—understand justice?