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Good intentions are not rewarded with good results in this scholarly look at fundamental political values. It seems that the more one thinks about democracy and justice the less compatible they become. In the popular mind they are automatically linked, yet academics point out that justice usually implies a fixed standard and democracy an inescapably contextual majoritarian principle. Rather than dismissing popular opinion as an unreflective association of democracy with all good things, however, Shapiro maintains that “we should rise to the challenge implicit in the popular identification” and produce an account of justice that places democracy at the center of social relations. In doing so, he focuses on the distribution of authority rather than goods, assessing the world in terms of power relationships and decision-making rather than outcomes. Shapiro takes us through the life cycle, considering first the position of children and parents, then relations among adults in marriage and the workplace, and finally responsibilities toward the elderly and euthanasia. The goal is to provide “concrete recommendations” advancing the cause of democratic justice “in contemporary political controversy.” Unfortunately, while the discussion is well grounded within the scholarly literature, as political analysis it illustrates how ambiguity can result from immersion in context no less than philosophical abstraction. For example, it may be true that determining whose interests should be included in questions of governance “varies with time and circumstance” and that in setting decision rules “many choices are dictated by peculiarities of context,” but this level of sensitivity to different conditions makes it difficult to pin down the actual content of any principles that may be present. Shapiro’s recurring vagueness may be unavoidable when trying to reconcile the tensions between justice and democracy, but it nevertheless leaves the reader unsatisfied. Intellectually stimulating but politically disappointing, precisely the opposite of the author’s stated intentions.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-300-07825-0
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2000