Most contemporary books on justice offer intricately worked out accounts of how a society should be organized. Robert Solomon, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, rejects this way of looking at justice, found most notably in the treatises of John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Instead, discussion of justice should start with personal emotions.
As an example, Solomon asks why people emphasize to an inordinate degree making money. People in the United States want to amass more and more money, even though they have no reason to do so. Solomon argues that this phenomenon wrongly makes philosophers think that people are selfish by nature. To the contrary, he suggests, greed comes about through distorted social conditioning. People are not primarily selfish and competitive; they are social beings who care about each other. Solomon supports his contention through examples drawn from ordinary life and from evolutionary theory. He gives a very clear account of the role of reciprocal altruism in biological theory.
Solomon devotes most of his book to a description of particular emotions. Compassion he ranks as probably most essential to justice: It is because of feelings for others that we respond to cases of social need, not because we apply theories that are supposed to be derived by pure reason. Other emotions that Solomon defends include vengeance and sentimentality. Justice is not a purely personal matter, however; it depends also on people thinking of themselves as “in it together,” sharers in a common tradition.
Solomon does not neglect the topics considered in mainstream discussions of justice. He maintains that there is no fixed criterion for social justice. Instead, a number of competing standards, such as need, achievement, and equality, should be assessed as problems come up, not by fixed formula. The author appears to be more sympathetic to capitalism than are many contemporary political philosophers, but he does not recommend any particular economic system. Instead, he cautions against ranking economic prosperity too highly. Whatever the social system people decide to establish, everyone should think that he or she can make a difference.
Solomon’s unusual approach to justice will interest many readers who find philosophy dry and irrelevant to the real world. The book is written in an accessible style, and Solomon has the ability to explain difficult ideas simply.