Beyond Justice by Agnes Heller (1987)
6. THE GOOD LIFE (excerpt)

Beyond Justice

Goodness is beyond justice. However, since justice always has a moral component, the goodness of a person involves the virtue of justice and the exercise of this virtue. The development of endowments into talents (except for the development of moral endowments) has nothing to do with justice – at least, not in my model of an incomplete ethico-political justice. The same holds true of personal attachments. This restriction, ‘at least, not in my model of an incomplete ethico-political justice’, is important. In pre-modern societies, both the development of endowments into talents and personal attachments were socially regulated and thus imputed to members of different clusters by the norms and rules of superordination and subordination. Accordingly, both these things had something to do with (formal) justice, though to a different degree. Our modern sense of justice suggests that this should not be so, and modern men and women, in the main, agree with the devalidating judgement ‘The application of clusteral socio-political norms to personal attachments and to the development of endowments into talents is unjust.’ Put plainly, this means that being attached to one person rather than to another, or developing one endowment rather than another, should be regarded as a completely personal and individual matter. Acts, decisions, attitudes, if not regulated by socio-political norms, are not matters of justice.

The paramount reality of modernity, depicted in the ‘triad’ model, is characterized by the increase in, and expansion of, social deregulation of the development of endowments into talents and of personal attachments (of emotional intensity). However, social deregulation does not bring with it the slackening of social constraints, or, if it does, the latter is not in proportion to the former. In discussing ‘distributive justice’ I have already pointed out that, if ‘equal opportunity’ were the case (as It is not), the paramount reality would still place pressure on our options as far as the development of endowments into talents is concerned. This pressure is not normative but pragmatic-instrumental. None the less, it is pressure, and heavy pressure at that. The same holds true of personal attachments, with one modification: here, social pressure, although also of a pragmatic-instrumental nature, takes on a pseudo-normative character. There are ‘fashionable’ personal attachments and ‘unfashionable’ ones, and the pressure to keep pace with ‘fashion’ (which of course is changing all the time) is fairly powerful. Owing to this increasing deregulation, the choice, in both cases, is considered merely personal, but it is not considerably more personal than it used to be, only somewhat more so. Nevertheless, because of social deregulation, all maladjustments, mishaps, discontentment and failures ensuing from the choice of talents and attachments are imputed to individual persons. The ideology of our paramount reality suggests that our own life is our own making, and that consequently our disasters are also of our own making, or, alternatively, of the making of other persons. If we realize that the endowments we have developed into talents were not our best, that our emotions were or are invested in the wrong person and in the wrong way, we usually blame individual choices, either our own or those of other persons, and we vacillate between self-reproach and reproaching those others. The more we are aware of social constraints, and the more we are resolved not to comply with them, the more the development of our endowments into talents, and the choice of our personal attachments, can be genuinely personal and individual. We then have a better chance of avoiding despair, neurosis and crises of personality, and also a better chance of attaining the good life.

I have enumerated the three major facets of the good life: being an honest person, developing certain endowments into talents (the best ones were are aware of) and forming strong personal attachments. I have emphasized the individual and personal character of our choices in the realm beyond justice. This calls for further clarification.

The emphasis on the personal character of the choice does not contradict the theoretical axiom of the intersubjective constitution of the world. We can only choose between those options, values and action patterns which in fact exist, which are socially ‘given’, though it is possible to modify them by making our choices. Every single person can make the existential choice (choosing the choice between good and evil), because, since honest people do exist today, the distinction between good and evil still remains. We can only be aware of those endowments the development of which into talents is already apparent on the cognitive or practical horizon of at least one single form of life with which we are familiar.

In discussing justice, I have mentioned the ‘Cartesian moment’. If we go beyond justice, the ‘Cartesian moment’ is not a theoretical attitude (that of general doubt), but an act of volition: it is the moment of the fundamental intentional act. There is not just one fundamental intentional act in a life; rather, there are several such acts, although the number is small. If we choose to develop a certain endowment into a talent, and later revoke this particular choice by making another choice, we have performed two fundamental acts, but, if we do this too frequently, our acts will no longer be fundamental, and the moment of the act will not be ‘Cartesian’. In respect of personal attachments, it is not the choice of one or another subject-object of our attachment which is referred to as the ‘Cartesian moment’. Sometimes we do not even choose in the proper meaning of the word, but are simply ‘carried away’. The Cartesian moment (the fundamental intentional act) is the choice of the character of the personal relationships in which we invest. Such a Cartesian moment cannot be repeated too many times either. The paradigms of the intersubjective constitution of the world must not degrade the individual person to the realm of mere epiphenomena, and, if there is no Cartesian moment left, the person is indeed in the realm of mere epiphenomena.

Since honesty Is the overarching element of the good life, the existential choice is the ultimate root of all Cartesian moments, of all fundamental choices. Fundamental choices are not determined by the existential choice (if this were so, they would not be fundamental, and the ‘Cartesian moment ‘ would be a fake). The notion ‘root’ involves both a limitation and a motivation. Choosing oneself as an honest person means not choosing sets of maxims in the knowledge that to act according to these sets of maxims will involve doing harm to others, just as it means not choosing to develop into talents those endowments the exercise of which will harm others for reasons of principle, and not forming social attachments of the type where the other party will be wronged for reasons of principle. Choosing ourselves as honest persons can motivate us to choose sets of norms which enjoin us to help others and to alleviate their suffering, to choose to develop into talents those endowments that are needed most by others, and which result in the greatest good, and to choose personal attachments based on generous goodness. The existential choice of every honest person delimits all fundamental choices in these ways. But not every honest person makes existential choices that motivate all the fundamental choices in the ways just described. If the existential choice of honesty motivates us simultaneously in all our fundamental choices, we are righteous to a higher degree: ours is then a supererogatory and transcultural righteousness.


The good life is beyond justice. This is a basic tenet of the incomplete ethico-political concept of justice that I have argued for in this book. My ethico-political concept of justice follows in the footsteps of one tendency of the Enlightenment. It reflects on the specific human condition of modernity whilst being aware of the possibilities and limits of the human condition in general. It normatively founded upon the generalization of the ‘golden rule’, upon the universal maxim of dynamic justice, and upon the universal values of life and freedom. The normative foundation of the theory is the normative foundation of the best possible sociopolitical world, of a pluralistic cultural universe in which each culture is tied to every other culture by the bonds of symmetric reciprocity. The best possible socio-political world, where sociopolitical norms and rules (laws) are set by just procedure (value discourse), was said to be the condition of the good life of all. But the good life itself is beyond justice.

In the framework of my incomplete ethico-political concept of justice, the ‘good lives’ must be viewed in the plural. Different ways of life can be good, and can be equally good. Yet a lifestyle good for one person may not be good for another person. The authentic plurality of ways of life is the condition under which the life of each and every person can be good. In the best possible socio-political world, the good life depends exclusively on the existential choice and the fundamental choices of the individual. But, even if everyone’s good life is unique, even if the good life depends on the existential choice and the fundamental choice, it is not a ‘solitary enterprise’, and cannot be. All three elements of the good life are rooted in ‘togetherness’. The existential choice and the choice of types of personal attachments are the choices of the human bond. We cannot develop our endowments into talents except through cooperation with others. Choosing ourselves means to choose the human bond and human co-operation; it is the choice of others. By choosing a form of the good life, we choose a form of togetherness. And the form of togetherness we practise lives in the concrete norms, in the customs, in the forms of intercourse of a community, a society, a group. The good life is always shared. The choice of a way of life is a choice of a human community with which we share our lives. Although the good life of each and every person is unique, it is simultaneously shared by the members of a community, a group, a society. However, in the model of the incomplete ethico-political concept of justice, all these shared ways of life are again unique: they cannot be ranked and compared. They are equally good, in so far as they can equally provide the good life for their members. And, again, something is shared by all ways of life. groups, societies and communities – namely, the readiness to participate in value discourse. That is why the goodness of every person includes the virtue of justice and the exercise of this virtue in the public sphere, in the pursuit of public happiness. And that the good person can also go beyond justice in the public sphere in all ways of life does not overrule the injunction that the good person must be just.

Owing to the abstract nature of the model of an incomplete ethico-political concept of justice, we cannot give a general answer to the question of the extent to which ‘honesty’ goes beyond justice. This depends very much on the particular way of life of the honest person. Active and generous goodness is always beyond justice. Empathy, sympathy, magnanimity, forgiveness, the readiness to help, to console, to give advice – all these are virtuous attitudes and acts beyond justice. However, as mentioned, in a best possible socio-political world a person who is ‘only’ a good citizen can be a good (honest) person as well. Such a person will not go beyond justice in his or her goodness. Such a person will never commit injustice, but might suffer injustice, something which can always happen even in the best possible socio-political world (though, by definition, not as a rule).

Denizens of our present world, we come to the conclusion that it is not possible to be honest without sometimes going beyond justice. A person who suffers slander in order not to betray the confidence of a friend goes beyond justice. A person who does not turn his back upon the unjustly persecuted person who seeks shelter, but risks freedom, risks life, to help this person, goes beyond justice. A person who speaks his mind and knows that doing so jeopardises job or social position goes beyond justice. A person who gives good advice in a family dispute and risks being hated by all parties concerned goes beyond justice.

One could say that, if some form of injustice is done to another, and we outweigh it by offering our hand to the victim, we do not go beyond justice, but rather restore justice. One could say that this is precisely what an honest person does, whereas a righteous person of the same ilk (up to the level of being a transculturally good person) does something above and beyond this. Those who are ‘more righteous’ (up to the level of being a transculturally good person) are ,supererogatory’ in their goodness, precisely because active goodness involves more than ‘rectifying injustice’. This statement is approximately correct. On the other hand, the honest person does more than ‘rectify injustice’. This person can be guided by transclusteral moral norms (as in example 1). She or he can also resort to transclusteral moral norms and thereby devalidate existing sociopolitical rules. This is the case in our second example. Very often, a form of persecution may not be unjust in terms of the law of the relevant country (as with the ‘legal’ persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany), but is unjust from the perspective of the moral and (alternative) social norms to which the person is committed. In a way, ‘rectifying injustice’ (in the second example) is unjust in terms of the formal concept of justice (the maxim of justice). Sometimes the honest person can rectify injustices which occur through the incorrect application of valid social and political rules. This can be, although it is not necessarily, the case in our fourth example. Yet, if it is the case, the honest person does not go beyond justice. At all events, we cannot be honest today unless we occasionally go beyond justice.

However, ‘going beyond justice’ is not simply a matter of single acts or choices. The exercise of goodness becomes character. The characters of honest persons are different in kind, since the self which is homogenized is unique. But all honest persons have an ,aura’ of their own. This aura calls for trust. It calls for trust in all facets of life regulated by the norms the honest person has chosen. The just person can also be trusted, but on a narrower basis. We know that she or he will apply the valid socio-political norms and rules properly. It is the ‘aura’ of the honest person, his or her character, which takes this person beyond justice.

The idea that the honest person is beyond justice had to be argued for, even though this could only be done briefly. No similar argument is necessary in order to prove that the development of our endowments into talents and the emotional intensity of our personal attachments cannot be referred to in terms of justice. Since both the development of our endowments into talents and our forming of personal attachments are already socially deregulated, at least in the modern Western world, we take these truths as self-evident. Social constraints, though still strong, are not rules. We no longer make the evaluative statement that the development of one endowment is just or more just compared with the development of another endowment, and we accept as a ‘matter of course’ that there is no justice in love.

Honesty (goodness, righteousness) is beyond justice. But ‘beyond’ has the connotation of ‘higher’, and not only of ‘being different’. The development of our endowments into talents, and the character of our personal attachments, have nothing to do with justice. ‘Nothing to do’ has the connotation of ‘being different’, not that of ‘higher’.

The good life has three constituents: honesty, the development of our best endowments into talents, and the strength of our personal attachments; and of these three honesty (goodness) is the overarching element. Taking all three together, the good life, as an undivided and indivisible whole, is beyond justice.

Equal life chances for all, equal freedom for all, the regulative idea of the best possible socio-political world, can also be conceived of as a goal. Yet this goal is still a means. The goal of the best possible socio-political world is worthy of pursuit because it is the condition of the possibility of the good life for all. The only goal which is not also a means is the good life for all. The goal of justice is beyond justice.

And, indeed, this has always been so. Whenever people have raised their voice against particular injustices and have made a claim for justice, they have simultaneously made a claim for a better life for some. They have based this claim on a moral right (the observance of interclusteral moral norms), and have resorted to a particular interpretation of the values of freedom and life. Freedom and life carry, in any interpretation, not only the connotation ‘for whom’, but also the connotation ‘for what’.

True enough, definitions of the ‘good life’ vary. Nevertheless, they all involve, though with different content and different orchestration, the three constituents of the good life enumerated above. Thus, by discussing these three constituents, I have not invented or said anything novel. The only thing I have done is to offer an answer to the question of how an honest person is possible today, and reaffirm the deregulation of the two other facets of the good life. In so doing I have simply redefined the good life as the adequate goal of a universally just procedure. The good life so defined is the goal of a just procedure: it is beyond just procedure.

The universalization of a just procedure has been posited in universal (ultimate) Time One. Time One is here In any Time One. But the universal (ultimate) Time One is still in the future. The bearer of the future is determined: it cannot be other than humankind. The locality of the future is also determined: the earth must be its centre. But the time of the future – this remains undetermined. In a practical sense, it is the infinite. an infinite which cannot be grasped in terms of ‘infinite progression’. Our own culture may be doomed. We accept this possibility too in the ‘bargain’ we strike with life. Every particular Time One may go down with us. So may the dynamic concept of justice. So may rationality of intellect.

Granted all of this. the incomplete ethico-political concept of justice stands by the promise of the Enlightenment, which has not failed, although it can fall. There are only two alternatives to this stand: the prophecy of Doomsday, and the prophecy of Salvation, and both are frivolous. Frivolity and philosophy do not mix. Perhaps it is old-fashioned to make a case for the honest person. But at least no wrong is committed in doing so.