Our most profound values and ideals defy easy description, especially the closer you scrutinize them. Maybe this has something to do with the limitations of language; words can only go so far in conveying meaning. But maybe it’s also related to the nature of values and ideals; the most noble ones are meant to be expansive in meaning, but also principled enough to guide action. But we’ve all had the experience before. Someone asks us to define “truth,” and we wince. We offer a definition, but that definition might be too limiting, or too broad. We’re not practiced in defining and classifying the obvious. And this is true for seemingly simple questions, like “what is will” or “what is thought.” Each day another book comes out, trying to provide a coherent account of ideas we use everyday.
But let’s say we reach a consensus about the meaning of concepts like fairness, justice, and democracy. This consensus would only do the work of satisfying an intellectual enquiry, which could help up us engage with the issues represented by the concepts. But what happens when we put these concepts into practice? That is, what happens when we interact with them, socialize with them, and interpret their meaning through the veil of experience? Well, then a host of new challenges emerge. It doesn’t matter if we all agree on what fairness means, because any possible consensus will never predict what we actually accept as fair. That’s because fairness can never be decontextualized from background experience; i.e., our interests, desires, and needs. Fairness will always be contingent on circumstances, even as fairness directs moral action in ways that we can all commonly recognize.
What seems quite singular, then, is actually quite variable. Take democracy. What’s democracy? That depends on which meaning you need. Democracy refers to a system of governance that vests power in the people, and creates mechanisms to participate in political life; voting, elected representatives, equal protection. But Democracy also designates universal principles– freedom, liberty, and equality–that government is supposed to protect. Democracy also refers to a certain kind of social organization, one characterized by community, free association, and solidarity. Such an organization may or may not include a formal declaration of rights, or ceremonies that codify shared understandings. We can see democracy, then, as both a social tendency and a political framework. And a source of human rights. This doesn’t help matters.
Further complications arise when we approach the seemingly simple idea of justice. What’s justice? Like democracy, it depends what you’re looking for. Justice can refer to the rules and laws that govern social and political life. Justice can describe a standard of fairness, or the activity of mitigating suffering. Justice can allude to a system that distributes rewards and punishments equitably. Justice can simply refer to virtue, or some abstract notion of the “good.”
But let’s say we successfully incorporate all these definitional strands into one conceptual framework. Is the matter then resolved? Not really, because the meaning of justice assumes millions of new forms when we put the idea into practice; here, justice is the byproduct of judgment and interpretation, faculties that derive meaning, even in small ways, from preconceptions, intuitions, and prejudices. And justice, like fairness, is contingent; it is based on the ordering human affairs with rules and laws which themselves can be interpreted in culturally, religiously, and philosophically specific ways.
What, then, do we need to know in order to meaningfully and productively use ideas and concepts with such variable meanings and applications? Well, the first thing we need to accept is that concepts like fairness, democracy, and justice work best as development models. A framework is not a specific political or social recommendation; it is instead a system that supports the construction of understanding, but within certain boundaries. All of us may recognize the framework of fairness, democracy, and justice within a society, without agreeing on the final form these concepts assume in daily life. This basic understanding moves us in a positive direction; having agreed on a general democratic framework, we can now work out our differences using dialogue, engagement, and persistent questioning; i.e., we can refine our understandings, even if we never reach the same precise conclusions. We universalize principles, and then attempt to construct a moral account of behavior based on scattered data.
That’s really what a framework is for; guiding exploration, and providing a foundational base for productive inquiries into meaning. When we build frameworks together, we create the conditions that allow us to develop a deeper understanding of self and society. When we interrogate the meaning of the principles that govern our frameworks, we undertake the vital task encountering and re-encountering the seemingly obvious. This process enriches human nature and deepens moral consciousness.