Monday, January 9, 2012

David Hume was born three hundred years ago, in 1711. The world has changed radically since his time, and yet many of his ideas and admonitions remain deeply relevant, though rather neglected, in the contemporary world. These Humean insights include the central role of information and knowledge for adequate ethical scrutiny, and the importance of reasoning without disowning the pertinence of powerful sentiments. They also include such practical concerns as our responsibilities to those who are located far away from us elsewhere on the globe, or in the future.

As it happens, contemporary theories of justice have largely followed the Hobbesian route rather than the Humean one. They have tended to limit their considerations of justice within the boundaries of a particular state. In an important essay in 2005 called “The Problem of Global Justice,” Thomas Nagel explained that “if Hobbes is right, the idea of global justice without a world government is a chimera.” The most influential modern theory of justice, namely John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness,” presented in his epoch-making book A Theory of Justice, concentrates on the identification of appropriate “principles of justice” that fix the “basic institutional structure” of a society, in the form of a cluster of ideal institutions for a sovereign state. This confines the principles of justice to the members of a particular sovereign state. It is worth noting that in a later work, The Law of Peoples, Rawls invokes a kind of “supplement” to this one-country pursuit of the demands of justice—but in dealing with people elsewhere, Rawls’s focus is not on justice, but on the basic demands of civilized and humane behavior across the borders.

Amartya Sen on Hume, the rest here.  (HT MR)

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