Circles and Lines in the Spheres of Justice

Geometrical metaphors to explain the liberal and communitarian paradigms and to advance some proposals for a dimensional shift in the relationship between the individuals and the communities.

“If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back.”[1]
Liberalism is the row: a line has the aspiration of going to infinity as it is made up of an infinite number of isolated points, but those can see only the other points closer to them.
Communitarism is the circle: even if the line delimiting it is extremely long, it will always identify a precise surface and its points will be in contact with a multitude of other points, but separated from what is outside.

It is not by chance that geometry developed in almost all early cultures together with the organisation of the collective life. Hierocles, for example, represented the Greek society as a series of concentric circles starting from the self, the family, the city dwellers, the country man and finally the world. In fact, in ancient ethics the agent was inextricably linked to the community, and the common goal was the achievement of the good life for the human flourishing, thanks to the cultivation of virtues through the participation to social life.
With the age of empires that deprived the citizens of the possibility to take actively part in the life of the city, the circle imploded. In search of a new equilibrium, the centre gained more and more importance with the moral revolution brought by Christianity which substituted the self in a public horizontal relationship with the community with the individual in a private vertical relationship with God. This paved the way to modern morality, generally characterised by the research of abstract, universal principles for the right thing to do, for what we, as singular individuals, owe to each other.

The first roots of this independent self can be found in Locke’s philosophy, but the real turning point is represented by Kant’s transcendental moralism. His view deeply inspired modern liberal political thought, from egalitarian liberalism to conservative libertarianism, which can be considered deontological forms based on the primacy of the right over the good. Such idea of neutral justice is possible only by interpreting the society as a set of free and independent moral agents, whose choices are not influenced by any particular cultural view or moral ties, and are responsible only for what they decide to do. In fact, according to this form of moral individualism, to be free is to be subject exclusively to obligations voluntarily agreed as some act of consent, not because of a social obligation. Obligations can arise only as natural duties ought to human beings or as voluntary duties incurred by agreement and each philosopher elaborated differently on that.

The first category of obligations is represented, par excellence, by Kant autonomous will, and Rawls further developed and extended it to the second category in the theory of the hypothetical social contract. According to contractarians, it is possible to identify the principles of justice, by making a thought experiment behind a veil of ignorance, which ensures that individuals are detached from particular interests or cultural values.

Similarly, also for right libertarians all human beings are born free, with natural rights, and can’t be forced to do anything without consent. Nevertheless, as individual freedom is the supreme value, the moral worth of the ends pursued, and the quality of the common life lie beyond the domain of justice.

Furthermore, although consequentialists derive rights from different conceptions of the good (in particular utilitarians from the maximisation of utility), also for them the sum of individual pleasure leaves no space to communitarian values and justice is not a matter of principle, but of mere computations that flatten all human goods in a uniform measure of value, ignoring the qualitative differences among them.

According to the communitarians, this conception is extremely controversial and dangerous, because it shapes an unencumbered and abstract self, detached from the social group of belonging. On the contrary, for them the personal identity depends deeply on communal ties and values, considering Aristotle’s conception of men as social animals or McIntyre’s one as “storytellers”, strongly influenced by the larger life stories and narratives of which our life is part. Thus, theories celebrating individual liberty and universal rights offer an inadequate account on how to practically live in the society, neglecting particularistic cultural and moral aspects which play a relevant role, and existing special obligations of solidarity and membership.
In order to overcome those limits, Sandel in Liberalism and the Limits of Justiceproposes to adopt a “deontology with a human face”, namely without transcendental idealism as the notion of the right is relative to the good and the principles of justice derive their force from the values shared by a specific community. In fact, as Walzer points out, justice in its different spheres is a human construction that can be done in many different ways and is, therefore, important to reason and discuss together about the meaning of the good life. In order to make it possible, communitarians suggest many solutions, promoting a politics of the common good and of moral engagement to strengthen citizenship, for example through education in public schools and social participation thanks to the “infrastructures of civic life”.

Undoubtfully, those circles crossed by infrastructures that connects also the disjoint points appear more realistic and attractive than the linear models. Nevertheless, those artificial links are weaker than real personal relationships which were at the basis of ancient communities and, in contemporary big human aggregates, they give origin to Anderson’s “imagined communities” where the members have just the impression of being part of a united group of unknown people, with different interpretations of the alleged common values.
The logic consequence suggested by cosmopolitans is to acknowledge it and to make a step further, overcoming the pointless division, potential source of dangerous forms of nationalism and conflict, extending the feeling of belonging to the global community. But what happens to a circle if its radius goes to infinity? It can be approximated to a line and requires smoothening diversity in some universalistic framework.

An alternative to avoid both universalism and particularism is to recognise the enormous potential of diversity. The circles, even the ones characterised by greater unity, are not homogeneous, and it is unfair to homologate all its points, discriminating, excluding or forcing the different ones to escape. To explicate what happens to the individual who do not feel part of the community, Jüngerused the image of the man escaping from the city into the forest, but this is a lose-lose situation. What is desirable is that, as Camus suggested, such individual would bring the forest into the city.

In fact, there are similarities also with other circles and lines, or, in case of enormous differences, it is always possible to learn something or to reciprocally enrich with the exchange. Accepting and valuating internal and external pluralism is a good third way to conciliate the selves and the communities, the various conceptions of the right and the good, allowing the encounter to shape compatible shared principles of justice and ideas of the good life, in an open, flexible and not exclusive framework.
Multicultural ethics and multicultural multilegalism are not puns: when many circles are summed or rotate around lines, it is possible to create complete spheres shifting to a further dimension where the one-dimensional individuals and the two-dimensional communities are reconnected and positively interact.

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[1]Kundera, M., Heim, M. H., & Roth, P. (1981). The book of laughter and forgetting (p. 61). New York: Penguin Books.

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