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For centuries discussions of justice and ethics were closely linked in European thought and culture, but they have now diverged in marked, interesting and unsettling ways. European traditions had seen them as contributing distinct but parallel answers to the classic question ‘what ought we to do?’1Duties of justice were widely seen as requirements both on individuals and on institutions that could, and in many cases should, be backed by legal sanctions, and could in some cases also define counterpart rights. Ethical duties were widely seen as requirements on individuals and certain institutions that did not need to be, and indeed on many views should not be, backed by legal sanctions and did not define counterpart rights. Yet by the start of the twenty-first century claims that justice and ethics were complementary and linked domains of duty – although still deeply embedded in European languages and culture – were often questioned, ignored or even explicitly rejected.
I have a very particular reason to be grateful to Stewart Sutherland, our late President, which is connected to some of the themes of this lecture, so want to begin by recalling a long conversation I had with him on these topics.
Kant’s practical philosophy, Rawls’s theory of justice and contemporary human rights thinking are landmarks in liberal discussions of justice. Each forms part of a powerful tradition of political thought, and although their substantive accounts of justice diverge at many points, they also overlap in substantial ways. This article focuses not on their substantive claims about justice, or about other ethical standards, but on their differing views of the questions to be addressed, on their proposed justifications for standards of justice, and on a limited range of questions about interpreting and institutionalizing those standards.