Justice: A matter of conviction or interpretation?
Kerr, Christopher David
Justice is a concept that, when fulfilled, has the power to make us cry with happiness and, when transgressed, to sob with sadness. This dissertation is an attempt to understand whether justice is the subject for personal theories grounded in conviction or collective theories of societies and humanity grounded in interpretation. The answer, it argues, is both. To do so, the dissertation first elucidates Ronald Dworkin's interpretive theory of constructive interpretation and examines the ways in which it is similar to, and different from, hermeneutic theories of understanding. The dissertation then examines how Dworkin applies constructive interpretation to the concept of "justice." While he acknowledges justice is an institution or theory we interpret like law, Dworkin abandons the constructive interpretation of society’s theory of justice in favour of developing a personal theory. Despite Dworkin’s fears to the contrary, the dissertation highlights the presence of universally shared implicit meanings from which it is possible to interpret a theory of justice that is immune from the threat of both relativism and subjectivism. To elucidate this point, the dissertation hermeneutically reconstructs Dworkin's theory of constructive interpretation so as to articulate an interpretive theory better equipped to understand what justice means for people collectively. It then employs this reconstructed theory, which I call conversational interpretation, to interpret humanity’s theory of justice. It shows how the hermeneutically conscious interpretation that results will reflect what justice means, not just for society, but also for humanity. Drawing on Michael Walzer's theory of thick and thin morality, the dissertation then shows how conversational interpretation can illuminate the existence of both minimal and maximal collective theories of justice. It explains that, as the minimal understanding of humanity’s theory of justice is universally held, it is neither subjective nor relative: it can provide the basis for substantive external criticism of other peoples' and other societies' understandings of justice. Although the maximal understanding of a society’s theories of justice is relative, the dissertation explains how it can nevertheless provide the basis for extensive criticism within a society. Finally, the dissertation argues that, while constructive criticism is necessary at times, it is deeply personal and should, therefore, be a critical tool of last resort. Conversational interpretation provides several, more reflective, ways to criticise others’ views about justice.
Advisor: Spencer, Vicki
Degree Name: Master of Arts
Degree Discipline: Politics
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Dworkin; justice; interpretation; hermeneutics; conviction; Gadamer; law; politics; philosophy
Research Type: Thesis