Impartiality in Context

Grounding Justice in a Pluralist World

By Shane O'Neill

Subjects: Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Social and Political Thought
Paperback : 9780791433881, 288 pages, July 1997
Hardcover : 9780791433874, 288 pages, July 1997

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Table of contents



Part I. John Rawls's Impartialism

1. The Isolation of the Political

Social Justice and Impartiality

Political Constructivism and the Idea of an Overlapping Consensus

Justice as Political and the Charge of Atomism

Neutrality and Its Limits

Citizenship and the Public Sphere

2. The Feminist Challenge

The Original Position and the Danger of Marginalization

Justice in the Family

Gender Blindness in Rawls's Theory

Justice, Care, and Solidarity

Impartiality and Difference

Part II. Michael Walzer's Contextualism

3. Hermeneutics and Justice

Complex Equality

Justice without Procedures

Interpretation and Connected Criticism

Rival Interpretations

The Dialogue of Justice

4. The Limits of Walzer's Immanent Critique

Social Power, Moral Universalism, and the Impartialist Project

Immanent Critique and Ideology

Hermeneutics and Critical Theory

Extending the Universalist Moral Code

Avoiding Partiality

Part III. Jürgen Habermas's Discourse Ethics

5. The Priority of Communicative Action

The Theoretical Roots of Discourse Ethics

Philosophy and Rational Reconstruction

Communicative and Strategic Action

Illocutions, Perlocutions, and Communicative Action's Priority

The Reproduction of the Lifeworld and Critical Social Theory

6. Discourse and Impartiality

Discourse as Reflective Communicative Action

Idealization and Rationality

Arguing against Scepticism

The Advantages of Dialogical Impartiality

Part IV. Impartiality in Context

7. Morality and Ethical Life

Habermas and the Contextualist Challenge

The Scope of the Moral Domain

Hermeneutics and Discourse

Ethical Discourse and Cultural Differences

An Impartialist Politics of Recognition

8. The Case of Northern Ireland

Justice and Pluralism in Northern Ireland

Toward a Constitutional Patriotism

Discursive Legitimation and Northern Ireland's Constitution





Assesses critically the work of Rawls, Walzer, and Habermas and presents a theory of justice that responds to two senses of pluralism.


In this book, Shane O'Neill argues that the theory of justice must take seriously two dimensions of pluralism in the modern world. While it must acknowledge the plurality of individual conceptions of the good that is characteristic of every modern society, it must also reckon with the plurality of historically unique, culturally specific, political societies.

O'Neill offers a distinctive perspective on an extremely significant current debate about universalism and particularism in political philosophy. Justice, he maintains, must be understood both in terms of an impartial point of view that respects differing conceptions of the good and in relation to the particular contexts in which disputes about norms and principles arise. Liberals, most notably John Rawls, have tended to privilege the former aspect of justice, while communitarians, especially Michael Walzer, have stressed the latter. O'Neill shows how Habermas's discourse ethics can overcome the limitations of these alternatives by providing theoretical tools that allow us to ground impartiality in particular contexts. This position is developed through an exploration of the complementary roles of moral and ethical discourses and an application of the theory to the political conflict in Northern Ireland.

This careful and detailed philosophical argument offers a valuable critical introduction to a range of important topics, including the communitarian critique of liberalism, feminist perspectives on justice, the interpretive turn in political philosophy, the theory of communicative action, the dynamics of a discursive democracy, and the politics of recognition.

Shane O'Neill teaches in the Department of Politics, Queen's University of Belfast, Northern Ireland.


"Shane O'Neill's book is an interesting analysis of Rawls's and Walzer's theories of justice and Habermas's discourse ethics. Its major contribution is to defend the superiority of Habermas's approach against those of Rawls and Walzer and to bring the feminist literature into the discussion of the connections between these three theorists." — Georgia Warnke, University of California, Riverside

"O'Neill's book breaks new ground. The overall structure of the argument is very attractive and convincing: moving between Rawls's monological impartialism and Walzer's dialogical contextualism to open a space for Habermas's discourse ethics. I honestly couldn't put it down." — William Rehg, Saint Louis University