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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Impartiality in Context
O’Neill

(New York: State University Press of New York, 1997)
288pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 0-7914-3387-0.
Pb.: $18.95; ISBN 0-7914-3388-9.


In this book Shane O'Neill argues that a theory of justice for a modern pluralist world must address two dimensions of pluralism. It must respond to the fact of a plurality of conceptions of the good. And it must also recognise the existence of a plurality of states, each of which is a historically unique, culturally specific, social and political culture. Contemporary theorists, of justice, tend to focus on one or other, but not both, these dimensions of pluralism. Liberals, notably, John Rawls, defend justice as an impartial point of view that respects different conceptions of the good, while communitarians, especially Michael Walzer, favour a context-sensitive account that neglects the impartial point of view.

O'Neill argues that Habermas's discourse ethics overcomes the limits of both these approaches, by providing a framework that grounds impartiality in particular contexts. O'Neill's perspective gives him a fresh vantage point for presenting and criticising Rawls and Walzer. His defence of Habermas is carried through both theoretical discussion and an application of the theory to the case of Northern Ireland.

This book is an impressive treatment of a topic of high social and political importance. There is a large contemporary literature on justice, but O'Neill's book is unrivalled as a lucid and critical introduction to the key issues. There are valuable discussions of liberalism and the communitarian critique of liberalism, feminist perspectives on justice, hermeneutics, and the theory of communicative action.

The central focus of the book is the fact that justice considered as the impartial concern for all has to operate in a world in which many individuals are fundamentally identified with certain kinds of communities. For them an essential part of their self-expression would be thwarted if they cannot take part in the cultural self-definition and development of their primary community. In the world in which we now find ourselves the correspondence between cultural or national pluralism and the boundaries of the state are rough or non-existent. In the case of a divided society such as Northern Ireland, this can lead to violent conflict as we have seen in the past 30 years.

Habermas's discourse ethics, according to O'Neill offers a procedural test for substantive principles of justice within concrete contexts. The idea of discourse ethics is that if we wish to come to a rational agreement with one another about the justice of certain arrangements, then our argumentation must observe certain constraints. These are universally valid rules of discourse - such as that no one capable of speech and action be excluded, that any assertion can be made or questioned, that the exercise of these right be free from coercion. While these rules are formal. they do in fact have some bite in a divided society like Northern Ireland. At the very least they provide a ground for rejecting arrangements that are imposed by force without consultation or agreement with the disputing parties. They also provide a framework for the ethical discourses about identity that disputants should engage if they are to arrive at mutually acceptable arrangements for recognition of several identities in one political context.

The chapter on Northern Ireland looks at the conflict in Habermasian terms. In applying the moral theory to questions of national identity, Habermas's idea is that, in multi-national and multi-cultural contexts, the universalist value orientation of democracy is lifted out of the frame of the nation and is allowed to moderate the self-assertions of the various identities encompassed by the state. O'Neill argues that the British state cannot act as a neutral arbiter between the conflicting parties in the dispute as liberal unionists hold, because their view presupposes that the real source conflict--whether Northern Ireland should be British or not--is not an issue at all. This view is condemned by discourse ethics, according to O'Neill, because it flouts a basic tenet that any norm can be called into question. Unionists 'have failed to provide nationalists with a moral justification of the border' , and 'have had to rely on coercion to uphold their unequal status' (p.194).

Since O'Neill wrote, the Good Friday Agreement has gone some considerable distance to meeting the normative requirements O'Neill has laid down. But I doubt that a normative case for the injustice of the border can be made that does not presuppose the kind of nationalist claim to self-expression in a state of one's own that Habermas rejects. The claim for full political expression of identity has led to intractable disputes over borders everywhere and different degrees and kinds of self-determination are now being explored as ways of accommodating minorities within existing borders.

The overall argument is courageous and written with engagement and verve. Students and scholars will find this a very stimulating book.


Attracta Ingram, University College Dublin



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