A PASSION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE

Emotions and the Origins

Of the Social Contract

By Robert C. Solomon

Addison-Wesley. 328 pp. $22.95

EVER SINCE the first Solomon, questions of justice have constituted the core of Judeo-Christian ethics. Now a new Solomon, this one the Quincy Lee Centennial Professor at the University of Texas, takes his turn.

Among professional philosophers, who have exercised something of a monopoly over these questions since Immanuel Kant, justice is generally understood to be impersonal, abstract and universal. Since everyone is equal, justice must logically be impersonal, Kant argued; it would be wrong for a surgeon to operate on his dying daughter if there were a stranger in line before her, for then he would not be accepting that his duties to a stranger are equal to those of his own family. Similarly, justice is understood to be a quality of the head, not the heart, appealing to our abstract cognitive capacities, not to our emotions. Finally, the quest for justice is a quest for universal principles; we cannot allow contingent circumstances -- "mere" matters of time and place -- to alter our understanding of what we have to do.

Understandings of justice based on premises like these call for people to act as epic heroes, gritting their teeth in the face of personal feelings in the way Ulysses tied himself to the mast to avoid the lure of the Sirens. But are we heroes? Solomon thinks not and wishes therefore to remind us that justice is primarily an emotion -- a natural instinct, like the feeling for revenge. It is hard-wired into our biological structure. "We are," he writes, "bound by our biology, our culture, our circumstances, and our characters." Since a Kantian insistence on universal and impersonal imperatives is against our very nature, it is bound to fail us when we think about the dilemmas of being a just person in an unjust word.

Solomon's book is an effort to take a somewhat obscure debate among moral philosophers and to popularize one side of that debate for a general audience. For, as he himself ackknowledges, not all contemporary philosophers are Kantian. (Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, Elizabeth Wolgst and Nel Noddings are among the exceptions). The question is therefore not whether he has the "right" position -- I agree with his perspective on the impossibility and undesirability of abstract approaches to justice -- but whether his effort to make a popular case for the view we share is successful.

It is, alas, a failure. Academic philosophers pursue their business in well understood ways. They seek some foundation -- an "Archimedean point" -- which itself cannot be explained away. Upon this uncontested ground, they build, step-by-step, a logical structure, dismissing along the way all possible objections. The result is supposed to be an air-tight case, the philosopher's equivalent to hard science. Only in such a way, it is argued, can we rise beyond opinion and establish truth. Solomon, rightly, will have none of this. There is, in his view, a direct relationship between the impossible conclusions drawn by academic philosophy and the baroque methodology it uses to reach those conclusions.

But in rejecting academic methods, Solomon seems content with the notion that merely saying something makes it true. It may be to him, but readers require more. Logic and reasoned argumentation are not all bad. Suppose, for example, we want to figure out what justice requires of us when dealing with the homeless. Solomon argues that many people unsympathetic to the homeless have allowed their belief about them to interfere with their "natural" sympathy toward them. But if detesting and fearing the homeless is not an approach to justice based upon the emotions, nothing is. Since to most people sympathy toward the homeless would constitute a classic case in which we ought to suppress our instincts for the sake of abstract conceptions of brotherhood, Solomon should at least make an argument for his contrary point of view. Whenever a thinker turns to "nature" for an answer, he has run out of arguments.

Because of his contempt for academic thinking, A Passion for Justice reads as if it were an outline to a book rather than the final product, a series of notes an author makes to himself about what he intends to write before he actually writes it. It is filled with intemperate language and unsupported claims. It encourages the passions by arousing feelings of anger -- at least within this one reader who wanted to be convinced. The point of view that Solomon is defending is too valuable to be left to his slipshod way of defending it.

There is every reason to believe that Americans will increasingly be required to possess a passion for justice as they are called upon to worry, not only about the homeless, but also about AIDS, poverty, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia and other modern moral dilemmas. They will be better served if, in thinking about what to do and how to live, Americans rely on their feelings as well as their thoughts. Despite the publication of Solomon's book, the tightly argued rationale that could provide a philosophical justification for their so doing is still missing.

Alan Wolfe is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology and Political Science and dean of the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research.