How Much Stability is too Much? The Case of Contextualist Theories of Distributive Justice
One of the guiding aims in recent developments in normative political theory has been to show that distributive justice is a feasible ideal. Central in these discussions of feasibility is the notion of political stability. That is the idea that a theory of justice to be stable should be able to motivate rational persons effectively so that they affirm and support these institutions and the conception of justice that informs them. Contemporary political theory has been often criticized for aiming to justify abstract normative principles that hardly ever relate directly to the practical problems that politicians, citizens and activists face in their everyday lives. Some of the most important forms of these criticisms have come under the name of Contextualism. In this paper I want to set out some reasons why political stability should not play the central role that Contextualists assign to it in our thinking about distributive justice. First I contrast the Contextualist understanding of Reflective Equilibrium to that John Rawls’s and argue that Contextualists appeal to Rawls’s method is unfounded. Then, I show that ‘what people think’ should not only be in reflective equilibrium with our theory but also be subject to an additional test of impartiality for stability for the right reasons to be maintained. Next, I contest what I consider to be the most appealing form of the Contextualist charge; that is that distributive justice should conform to the moral beliefs and democratic preferences of those who live under them if it is to be politically stable. I find the argument sound but I contest whereas it has the polemical force often attributed to it. Finally, I relate this discussion to what I consider to be a curtailed account of the circumstances pertinent to stability. I argue that political stability should be a concern for any theorist striving to put forward a feasible theory of distributive justice but that any such endeavour should make explicit that it relies on evidence whose content at least does not have any normative justificatory force.