The Jurisdiction of Justice: Two Conceptions of Political Morality

19 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2003

See all articles by Larry Alexander

Larry Alexander

University of San Diego School of Law


My topic in this essay is a major fault line within normative theory. More precisely, it is a major fault line within that part of a normative theory that deals with the content of our moral obligations to others. When I refer to moral obligations here, I am referring to those acts that morality demands of us such that it permits force or its threat to be employed to secure those acts. Moral obligations as I use the term are thus candidates for legal enforcement.

I argue that much of what is debated within liberal political/moral theory can be usefully illuminated by dividing liberal conceptions of justice into two major camps. In one camp are those conceptions that are thoroughgoingly impartialist. That is, their impartialism applies to any good over which people might make competing claims. I shall refer to this group of conceptions as Unrestricted Impartialism, or UI.

Opposed to this camp of liberal conceptions of justice is that group of conceptions that limits impartialism to some goods but puts other goods beyond the writ of justice (enforceable morality). I shall call this group of conceptions Restricted Impartialism, or RI.

In this essay, my aim is to paint these two conceptions and their strengths and weaknesses using a very broad brush. In philosophy, the devil is more frequently than not in the details, and broad brush strokes generally obfuscate more than illuminate. Moreover, my metier tends to be fine analytical points and not big picture tableaux. Nonetheless, not only do space limitations preclude in-depth analyses of the conceptions I discuss, but my message is a wholesale rather than retail one, namely, that there is a single and major gulf dividing liberal conceptions of justice into these two distinct camps. Analytical fine points about these conceptions are beside the point.

Keywords: normative theory, moral obligations, legal philosophy

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Lawrence, The Jurisdiction of Justice: Two Conceptions of Political Morality. San Diego Law Review, 2004. Available at SSRN: or

Lawrence Alexander (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-2317 (Phone)
619-260-4728 (Fax)

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