The Ambiguity of Justice: Paul Ricoeur on Universalism and Evil

Geoffrey Dierckxsens


In this article I will examine Ricœur’s idea of the universal in his understanding of justice. Scholars recently discussed the extent to which Ricœur understands universal moral norms and universal rules of justice in his anthropology of human action (e.g., J. Michel, Paul Ricœur: une philosophie de l’agir humain, Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2006), and argue that Ricœur stresses too much the idea of universal moral norms with regard to cultural and moral diversity (e.g., G. H. Taylor, “Ricoeur versus Ricoeur? Between the Universal and the Contextual,” From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political Significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking, Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (eds.), (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). G. H. Taylor, “Reenvisioning Justice,” Lo Squarda 12 (2013): 65-80). In this article I will take part in the debate about universalism and approach Ricœur’s idea of the universal from a different angle, in placing it in light of his idea of evil. The point I will aim to make in this article is that Ricœur’s idea of the relation between justice and evil demonstrates what I understand as the ambiguity of justice, which highlights the difficulty of defining universal rules of justice. I will argue that this ambiguity is the following: justice aims at the establishment of social peace and in that sense it is the necessary remedy against human evil, but justice also implies power, and possibly violence, over others in that it relates to violent feelings of vengeance, to institutional mechanism of authority, and to a struggle of values. Yet if rules of justice relate to evil in the sense of power over others, so I argue, then it is problematic to define absolute criteria for rules of justice, i.e., for rules for social peace: because justice relates to particular values, which means that the risk of violence is inherent to institutional rules of justice, there is no ultimate universal set of such rules. This article therefore questions Ricœur’s understanding of universal rules of justice in Oneself as Another. Yet, I will also draw on a series of other texts of Ricœur on justice (i.a., The Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, The Just and Reflections on the Just), and argue that Ricœur’s idea of justice allows understanding how we find common sensibilities about justice through dialogue, a sensibility for the other, and narratives as a way of critique of existing moral norms and rules of justice.


justice; evil; universal; universalism; norms

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Copyright (c) 2016 Geoffrey Dierckxsens

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