Reading Notes on Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is one of those books that you see cited everywhere. The reason being is that it calls into question the notion that there is one common rationality and conception of justice that unites us all and that if we could just acknowledge that we could get on with doing what we all *should* know what is rational and just.

Not so fast, says Alasdair MacIntyre. When we ask the question “what should I do?” We’re engaging in practical reasoning. Our practical reasoning doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is shaped by our vision of what is right or just. But our understanding of justice doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. Justice is shaped culture in which we are reared with its myth and metanarratives that frame our discussions about what is rational and right. If you ask “what should I do?” you will get a very different answer depending on if you’re a 4th century Athenian, a 21st century American, or a 14th century monk.

The Greek understanding of practical reason and justice was shaped by the Homeric epics. The right thing to do was to act according to what is fitting according to one’s station in life. A slave should serve and a hero should be brave. Everything was about playing your part and not stepping out of line. The Greek notion of justice or diké has less to do with equity than it does with fitted-ness. To do what is right is to do what is demanded of you according to your station in life as determined by fate, birth, or the gods. It was within this framework that later philosophical reflection took place in the persons of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle about what exactly fitted-ness was given each situation and who exactly determined one’s place in life. The question isn’t so much “what should I do” but doing what you already know that you should.

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