The Historical Dimension of Justice

  • George Sher


Bertrand Russell once asked how we could tell that the world had not been created five minutes ago with all its historical “evidence” and all our apparent memories intact. The customary answer to Russell’s question is that we are indeed unable to know this, but that here, as elsewhere, our inability to defeat the skeptic has no practical significance. However, from the moral point of view, the truth of Russell’s hypothesis would make a great difference indeed. If there were no past, then our prisons would be filled with individuals who had not committed crimes and so did not deserve to be treated differently from the rest of humanity; persons with property would not be able to trace their claims to possessions to any legitimate acts of acquisition; and all claims to compensation for past wrongs would be dissolved in a single stroke. The resulting moral universe would perhaps have an attractive simplicity; but it would emphatically not be ours. Morally speaking, the past matters.


Moral Judgment Past Behavior Moral Evaluation Moral Concept Historical Dimension 
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  1. 1.
    Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, text and critical essays edited by Robert Paul Wolff, translated by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969 ), pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck,” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 25. My discussion in this section has been influenced by Nagel’s essay at a number of points.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia ( New York: Basic Books, 1974 ), p. 228.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    This device is presented, and its neutrality argued for, in John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971). However, for serious objections to its neutrality, see Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 198–204 and passim.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishing 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • George Sher

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