After Virtue (15)

Liberal writers such as Ronald Dworkin invite us to see the Supreme Court’s function as that of invoking a set of consistent principles, most and perhaps all of them of moral import, in the light of which particular laws and particular decisions are to be evaluated. Those who hold such a view are bound to consider certain decisions of the Supreme Court inadequate in the light of these supposed principles. The type of decision I have in mind is exemplified by the Bakke case, where two, at first sight, strongly incompatible, views were held by members of the court, and Mr. Justice Powell who wrote the decision was the one judge to hold both views. But, if my argument is correct, one function of the Supreme Court must be to keep the peace between rival social groups adhering to rival and incompatible principles of justice by displaying a fairness which consists in even-handedness in its adjudications. So the Supreme Court in Bakke both forbade precise ethnic quotas for admission to colleges and universities, but allows discrimination in favor of previously deprived minority groups. Try to conjure up a set of consistent principles behind such a decision and ingenuity may or may not allow you to find the court not guilty of formal inconsistency. But even to make such an attempt is to miss the point. The Supreme Court in Bakke, as on occasion in other cases, played the role of a peacemaking or truce-keeping body by negotiating its way through an impasse of conflict, not by invoking our shared moral first principles. For our society as a whole has none.

–Alasdair MacIntyre, 1984

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *