Liberalism before Justice



Abstract: The ideal theory debate rests on two conflicting claims: that justice is “the first virtue of social systems” (justice first), and that a just society is one in which “everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice” (universal consent). Justice first holds that questions about the meaning of justice — and thus about what an ideally just society would look like — must be settled before we can effectively pursue justice. However, universal consent entails a project of justification that can only take place over time. I propose that we avoid this impasse by treating freedom rather than justice as the “first virtue” of a liberal society. Liberal freedom has two distinct and complementary dimensions, which give rise to two distinct and complementary moral aims: on the one hand, to create the social conditions that make responsible agency possible (republican freedom), and on the other hand to carve out a social space within which the demands of responsible agency are relaxed or absent (market freedom). Striking the appropriate balance between these two dimensions of liberal freedom is irreducibly a matter of judgment. A freedom-centered liberalism therefore requires that we treat justice as the endpoint rather than the starting point of political action, thus severing the link between legitimacy and consent.