Does a just society seek to promote the virtue of its citizens? Or should law be neutral toward competing conceptions of virtue, so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?
According to the textbook account, this question divides ancient and modern political thought. In one important respect, the textbook is right. Aristotle teaches that justice means giving people what they deserve. And in order to determine who deserves what, we have to determine what virtues are worthy of honor and reward. Aristotle maintains that we can’t figure out what a justice constitution is without first reflecting on the most desirable way of life. For him, law can’t be neutral on questions of the good life.
By contrast, modern philosophers—from Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century to John Rawls in the twentieth century—argue that the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue or, or of the best way to live. Instead, a just society respects each person’s freedom to choose his or her own conception of the good life. So you might say that ancient theories of justice start with virtue, while modern theories start with freedom. . . . But it’s worth noticing at the outset that this contrast can mislead.
For if we turn our gaze to the arguments about justice that animate contemporary politics—not among philosophers but among ordinary men and women—we find a more complicated picture. It’s true that most of our arguments are about promoting prosperity and respecting individual freedom, at least on the surface. But underlying these arguments, and sometimes contending with them, we can often glimpse another set of convictions—about what virtues are worthy of honor and reward, and what way of life a good society should promote. Devoted though we are to prosperity and freedom, we can’t quite shake off the judgmental strand of justice. The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep. Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live." 9-10
Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 9-10.