The refutation of utilitarianism, and its replacement by some new and comprehensive alternative, has become one of the major Anglo-American growth industries. The problem of how to live with a liberal and mildly interventionist state if we no longer accept the premisses upon which such a state was originally founded has rightly exercised philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic, though it is striking how difficult it has proved for them fully to disentangle themselves from the old ways of thinking. Bruce Ackerman's Social Justice in the Liberal State is the latest work to consider these matters. It is distinguished by two features: one is its unusual heuristic device of what he calls 'dialogic' method, and the other is the seriousness with which it takes the familiar call for a plurality of political and moral visions - 'conceptions of the good', in Ackerman's terminology. His argument starts from a simple question: 'what would our social world look like if no one ever suppressed another's question of legitimacy, where every questioner met with a conscientious attempt at an answer?' To answer this question, he imagines a set of dialogues consisting of claims for special treatment in some area of social life by one agent countered with scepticism from another, and supposes that any dialogue which ends in silence on the part of one participant represents a defeat for his claim and (in an ideal world) his failure to make it good in terms of the real conditions of social life.
LRB 16 July 1981 | PDF Download