Thursday, August 07, 2014

Love and Justice: Opposites or Otherwise?

By Dean Dettloff

Paul Ricoeur
In an essay simply entitled “Love and Justice,” Paul Ricoeur attempts to articulate how these two concepts relate. To sort this out, Ricoeur turns to the method of dialectics, by which he means “on the one hand, the acknowledgment of the initial disproportionality between our two terms and, on the other hand, the search for practical mediations between them—mediations, let us quickly say, that are always fragile and provisory” (315). In other words, Ricoeur notes that love and justice are not the same thing, and are even located at opposite ends of a spectrum, yet there are ways of seeing how and when they intertwine and cooperate. When these two intersect, they always do so temporarily, for they are still fundamentally different. It’s an impressive attempt to deal with two central ideas in Western thought. Is dialectics, however, the best relationship we can come up with?
Let’s begin by rehearsing what Ricoeur has to say about love. Love, he contends, has three main aspects: praise, commandment, and feeling. These three aspects constitute a “discourse” of love, a web and way of thinking and being. Illustrating these aspects leads Ricoeur to consider their appearance in various biblical texts, especially the Psalms and Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. In all these aspects, love is based on a particular relationship—one praises this or that, one commands someone or is commanded, one feels something about something. Love takes place in intimate spaces.

Where love was illuminated by the biblical text, Ricoeur’s consideration of justice turns to the philosophical tradition. “[The] distinctive features [of justice],” writes Ricoeur, “result from the almost complete identification of justice with distributive justice. This has been the case from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics right up to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice…” (322). Considering justice both in terms of social institutions (like law courts) and the conditions we use in order to call such institutions “just,” that is, to predicate “just” to an institution, Ricoeur suggests the discourse of justice arises in the midst of conflict. When a gap appears between two parties, either interpersonally or materially (as in economic inequality), one turns to the logic of justice, which brings up reasons and arguments in order to close the gap. On Ricoeur’s reading, distributive justice reaches its conclusion when things are equitably distributed regardless of particular cases. “Disinterest” is imperative, as “interest” would contaminate the pristine equilibrium of justice with external, contingent criteria for distribution. Justice is, at bottom, an exercise in universals.

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium
The discourse of justice, however, marked by its turn to argument and universals, is not only different from but even opposed to the discourse of love. Turning to Ricoeur, “In fact, love does not argue if we take the hymn from 1 Corinthians 13 as our model. Justice does argue. And it does so in a quite specific way, by confronting reasons for and against some position, which are taken as plausible, capable of being communicated, and worth discussing by all parties involved” (321). Justice, as we noted above, is primarily disinterested, while love is intentionally interested. Justice attempts to distribute to each person equally via attempts to universalize actions and results, while love attempts to interact with each person specifically via praise, fidelity to promises (commandment), and feeling. Ricoeur suggests another intriguing point of difference between justice and love: abstraction and concretion. Justice deals in abstract principles to which it applies blindly to all parties involved. Love, on the other hand, deals in concrete situations and persons.

Here lies the importance of Ricoeur’s “dialectical” method; we have seen how he sorts out the differences between love and justice, but now we catch a glimpse of the ways in which these two opposites are “practically mediated.” The two forms of discourse are opposites, in philosophical terms they are an “antinomy,” yet they are also in tension, that is, their opposition does not keep them totally apart. They exist in a dynamic relationship with one another. Justice, for example, requires love in order to finally enact justice, for it takes intentional care for a particular situation to motivate seeking abstract principles for resolving a problem in that situation.

As with any good dialectical method, however, this notion of love concretizing justice is also true in reverse. “The tension we have discerned in place of our initial antinomy [the opposition of love and justice] is not equivalent to the suppression of the contrast between our two logics,” by which Ricoeur means the dynamic relationship of occasional cooperation between love and justice does not eliminate their important differences. “Nevertheless,” he continues, “it does make justice the necessary medium of love; precisely because love is hypermoral, it enters the practical and ethical sphere only under the aegis of justice… In one sense, the commandment to love, as hyperethical, is a way of suspending the ethical, which is reoriented only at the price of a reprise and rectification of the rule of justice that runs counter to its utilitarian tendency” (329). Morality falls under the auspices of justice, for the ultimate goal of morality is to find universal ethics that are true for all persons at all times. Love is not ultimately moral, as one can see in a variety of cases in which love in fact causes someone to do something immoral. Morality is an attempt to codify the relationships of love, and thus belongs to justice, situated in an argumentative and disciplined mood of universality.

Both love and justice are necessary, argues Ricoeur, for a healthy equilibrium. As a result, both theology, as a discourse related to love, and philosophy, as a discourse related to justice, are necessary. It’s an intriguing way of making both disciplines relevant, and the correlation makes sense given the biblical roots of love and philosophical roots of justice. But is a dialectical relationship of opposites the best way of thinking about love and justice? Does Ricoeur stack the deck in order to let theology and philosophy come out on equal footing?

Plato (left), Aristotle (right)
When discussing love, Ricoeur employs a particular hymn from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians. Strangely, however, for his vision of justice he goes to the Western philosophical tradition. These choices seem arbitrary; one could surely have gone to Plato’s erotic dialogues to examine love, for example, and to the biblical prophets to examine justice. This initial decision controls the conversation and forms the problem in such a way that dialectic seems to be the only possible choice, especially since the decision rests on two traditions that are regularly at odds (Western philosophy and Christian religion). We are given no reason to choose one tradition over the other as we sort out the relationship between love and justice, and, indeed, we are never given a reason to even include both traditions, as opposed to limiting ourselves to just one, in our search. In the end, Ricoeur says these two domains require the other to establish an equilibrium. Biblically speaking, however, the matter seems more complicated. What are we to make, for example, of John’s dictum that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)? Is God also dialectically justice?

An alternative model that I propose is one of derivation. Ricoeur assumes love and justice are equally opposing forces, occasionally cooperating but only provisionally, for they are doomed to go off in separate directions once again. The biblical tradition, however, treats love not as a concept in a competitive ecosystem of concepts but as the ultimate source of all things, including justice. I would hesitantly suggest that justice must flow from love, which has priority in a non-dialectical fashion, and not the other way around. Thus justice proceeds from love, perhaps even as a manifestation of love (and therefore answerable to not only the “hypermorality” of love noted by Ricoeur but also the fact that it is derivative of an originary love). Giving one of these two concepts a precedence makes a huge difference.

Further, I would argue that if we take our cues from the philosophical tradition on issues of justice, we will quickly run into significant problems with biblical love. This point is well expressed by Søren Kierkegaard, who accepts the notion of justice as fair distribution and attempts to relate it to love. On his view, however, love completely overturns justice, because it cannot handle the radical new economy that love announces—they are not dialectically opposed but, in typical Kierkegaardian fashion, participate in an “either/or” relationship. Consider the following:
Justice is identified by its giving each his own, just as it also in turn claims its own. This means that justice pleads the cause of its own, divides and assigns, determines what each can lawfully call his own, judges and punishes if anyone refuses to make any distinction between mine and yours….—But sometimes a change intrudes, a revolution, a war, an earthquake, or some such terrible misfortune, and everything is confused. Justice tries in vain to secure for each person his own; it cannot maintain the distinction between mine and yours; in the confusion it cannot keep the balance and therefore throws away the scales—it despairs! 
Love is a revolution, the most profound of all, but the most blessed. So, then, with love there is confusion; in this blissful confusion there is for the lovers no distinction between mine and yours. Wonderful! There are a you and an I, and there is no mine and yours!... The more profound the revolution, the more justice shudders; the more profound the revolution, the more perfect is the love.
(Works of Love, 265-266) 
There are perhaps other ways of considering justice that side-step the parodic sentence Kierkegaard doles out here. The assumption that justice is derivative of love is one such way. If we wish to have a position that entails both a radical view of love and the voice of justice, however, dialectical thinking does not appear to provide an answer. This is especially true if we limit ourselves solely to the philosophical tradition for an understanding of justice, as Kierkegaard shows. While my proposal is hardly the only possible alternative, it presents one path forward, the unabashed privileging of love and subordination of justice. In the case of love and justice, we are dealing not with opposites attracting and repelling, but with a deep, primordial, originary condition of love capable of giving birth, to being a mother, to such necessary and at times rebellious children as justice.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, focusing particularly on Russian existentialism and Critical Theory.

First image is in the public domain and is used from; Second image is by Emmanuel Huybrechts, from,_Bruges,_Belgium_%286204837462%29.jpg; Third image used is in the public domain and is taken from Raphael's The School of Athens, from

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