English-Speaking Justice


104 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 0-88784-622-X
DDC 320.51




Reviewed by Peter Babiak

Peter Babiak teaches English at the University of British Columbia.


The most compelling idea in this four-part book on justice is Grant’s
dedication to Alex Colville and Dennis Lee, “two artists who have
taught me about justice.” To enlist art in the service of a meditation
on the meaning of justice runs counter to our perception of philosophy
and art as distinct fields, but it warrants Robin Lathangue’s
introductory description of this book as “private experience carried
out in public.”

The first essay is on the English-speaking world’s “sustaining
faith” in liberalism. Even as liberalism continues to conjure the
image of individuals freely contracting to set their public affairs,
there has been a “retreat from the public realm”—Grant’s example
is “the insistence on sexual life as the chief palliative of our
existence.” His emphasis on bodily imagery is strategic, though it is
not immediately evident why a “Christian political philosopher”
would invoke these terms.

The next two essays engage with theoretical and historical issues in
liberalism. Grant first evaluates the limitations of the “calculating
individualism” in the work of John Rawls, then turns his attention to
“the absence of philosophy” in anglo-American political history. In
both cases—and this is his art at work—he is trying “to hear what
is being spoken” about people in liberalism.

The final essay is Grant’s famous response to the infamous ruling on
abortion by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. The decision that
antiabortion laws infringe upon the rights of women to control their
bodies exemplifies liberalism in its pure contractual form: it makes
“right prior to good” and is delivered under the belief that the
state is neutral in matters of morality. It also affirms a half-baked
Nietzschean doctrine in which God—justice, morality, the public
good—is subordinated to “technology,” that is, to our ability to
impose our will “on an accidental world.” By the grace of technology
we can today ask what for Grant is an inauspicious question: why should
the liberation of women be limited by restraints on abortion when we
know that a fetus is “the product of necessity and chance?” The
closing argument that a “terrifying darkness” has fallen upon us
because we no longer know “whether anything is good” is impressively
politically incorrect. But then Grant’s legacy is a philosophical
style of remarkable purity. That purity, moreover, contains a moral
impulse that most thoughtful people would find difficult to ignore.


Grant, George., “English-Speaking Justice,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/3155.