Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Book Reviews

Theorizing Justice

A review of David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice

Adam Kadlac

Pictoral map of Quanah, Texas (1890). Via Wikimedia Commons.

One gets the sense early in Elements of Justice that David Schmidtz does not mind cutting against the grain. Part of this sense no doubt owes to the exploratory structure of the book. Rather than hammer home one overarching thesis in its two-hundred-plus pages, Elements of Justice instead picks and pokes its way through the conceptual terrain of justice as Schmidtz meditates on the focused theses that head each of the book’s thirtyfive brief chapters.

In fact, what makes Elements of Justice so rich and compelling is that Schmidtz does not follow the dominant pattern of philosophical argumentation. He does not display the typical philosophical dissatisfaction with loose ends or unanswered questions. Rather, for Schmidtz, “theories are maps, not attempts to specify necessary and sufficient conditions” (21). He argues that our theorizing begins

with a terrain (a subject matter), and with questions about that terrain. Our questions spur us to build theories—maps of the terrain—that articulate and systematize our answers. To know how to reach Detroit, we need one kind of map. To know how to be a good person, we need another map. Note: Maps do not tell us where we want to go. Our questions predate our theorizing, and constitute our reasons to theorize in the first place. (21)

On this view, theories are not supposed to provide hard and fast rules for determining whether a judgment in a particular domain is warranted. Rather, Schmidtz thinks that theories show us the lay of the land and provide helpful guidance in our attempts to make our way in the world. We already know where we want to go. Theories just show us possible ways of getting there.

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