Related Ideas

Review these ideas and then go back to the main thread.

It is interesting to ask what kinds of things we might look for in a moral theory. First of all, we might distinguish between the analytical and the normative elements within a theory. The analytical elements will include analyses of key concepts such as 'good,' 'right,' 'ought,' 'bad,' 'wrong,' and 'ought not.' There will also be clarifications of the logical relationships between these concepts. Does 'right' imply 'good?' Does the right derive from the good? Does 'wrong' imply 'ought not' or 'must not'? and many other questions may be considered. The analytical elements may also include claims about the foundations of morality. It will tell us whether the author believes moral principles and judgments to be rooted in a metaphysical, theological, or conceptual basis. It may indicate how morals are related to science and to our knowledge of human nature. The normative elements will include arguments to establish that certain virtues ought to be cultivated, certain rights ought to be defended, or certain goods ought to be pursued.

Loren Lomasky remarks that "An adequate theory of morality will have a place for well-entrenched moral intuitions, principles of conduct, an account of the good, reflections on moral experience, epistemological and metaphysical foundations, scientific hypotheses, logical links binding these various strands -- and no doubt a good deal more." [See Lomasky, p. 12.]

Criticism of a theory such as that of John Rawls can dig into any of these elements and look for vagueness of meaning, inconsistencies, counterintuitive moral implications (i.e., counter-examples), factual errors, gratuitous assumptions, implausible claims about the consequences of certain policies or institutions, incompatibility with ideas about human nature, and other difficulties.

When considering any theory of justice -- or when developing your own -- it is also useful to realize that any theory of justice is part of a larger moral theory. Historically, these larger theories have been organized around different moral 'centers,' so to speak. A theory may be centered around individual rights, an idea of the human good,  a set of human virtues, or a theological goal such as individual salvation.

Every theory has an epistemological basis. It may be based on pure reason, theology, scientific methods, human intuition, historical tradition --  or perhaps something else? But it is based on something that makes it authoritative and binding.

For some theories, justice is primary, but not for all. If justice is primary, then other moral considerations, such as creating goodness or happiness, must give way to justice. In other theories some idea of the good is primary, and justice is derived from that idea and secondary to it.

It is important for each of us to understand what our larger theory is, what kind of theory it is, what sort of epistemological basis it has, and how our theory of justice fits into it.