Three University professors and a visiting fellow elucidated the various definitions of social justice in a panel last night in Dodds Auditorium, sharing their visions for a more just future society.
The event was the first of six in this October's Civic Awareness and Action Series. Wilson School professor Stan Katz moderated the panel, which featured economics professor Elizabeth Bogan, visiting philosophy professor James Mahon, visiting Wilson School professor Nannerl Keohane and Wilson School professor Gary Bass. Panelists introduced the audience to the definitions of societal justice in the context of their respective disciplines.
Bogan began the discussion by posing the question, "How [does one] recognize a just society?" She described the importance of freedom of action, freedom to develop to potential, entitlement to compensation for wrongs and advancement based on merit. To achieve such goals, Bogan emphasized the importance of government-promoted efficiency and economic growth. "A growing economy allows some to gain without others losing out," she said.
Keohane spoke next, highlighting the implications that a social setting has on justice.
"Justice is a virtue that only makes sense in society," Keohane said. She noted that justice requires a group and a social context to make sense.
Like Bogan, Keohane added that most discussions of justice address the distribution of social goods, such as wealth, power, punishment and education. She called for a balance between merit and rewards, defining a just society as "a world you'd want to live in and raises your kids in."
Mahon — who sat in for philosophy professor Peter Singer, who was originally scheduled to sit on the panel — used a chalkboard to visually explain the moral spectrum of actions. He enumerated five categories: wrong, bad, neutral, good and obligatory.
Justice concerns what is obligatory and the aversion of what's wrong," he said. It is defined "in terms of what I do to and for others and what I refrain from doing to and for others."
"A just society fulfills the imperfect duty of pursuing the happiness of others," Mahon concluded.
Bass rounded out the panel by discussing justice in terms of the international society. He explained that defining a just society in the global context is much more difficult because of "radically different perceptions of good" among different societies and cultural groups.
"[T]he domain of human rights will always be contested," Bass said.
Instead of detailing some sort of internationally accepted standard, he urged people to focus on the very worst cruelties and the agreed-upon most pressing problems, such as the genocide in Darfur and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"Each professor brought a different perspective to the idea of justice but the sum of their remarks was very intriguing," Sara Evans '08 said after the panel. "You could form a picture of society that looks out for those who are less fortunate and is aware of its obligation to others."
The event was sponsored by the PACE Society and coordinated by the Civic Awareness and Action Committee.
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