Recent history is full of episodes of egregious, widespread and often systematic wrongdoing: genocide, torture, and mass killing. Cambodia, South Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala are a few of the places where violence has occurred. Histories of violence and injustice leave marks of damage, despair, and pain. The central question Daniel Philpott considers in his book Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation is: “What does justice consist of in the wake of its massive despoliation?” The answer, Philpott argues, is political reconciliation.

At first glance, this answer seems odd. Intense debates among scholars and within communities transitioning from conflict or repression to democracy often pit justice against reconciliation. Some within these debates argue that criminal trials may achieve justice but threaten reconciliation. Others argue that communities may choose to pursue reconciliation rather than justice as a second-best strategy justified in light of pragmatic and moral constraints.  For many the pursuit of justice and reconciliation are complementary but not identical; they argue that the justice of punishment may be pursued alongside efforts at truth-telling which promote reconciliation. All of these positions take reconciliation and justice to be distinct; what is at issue is the relationship between these two values and the implications of that relationship for the moral justifiability of various kinds of responses to injustice, such as criminal trials, truth commissions, reparations, and memorials.

Philpott departs from these views by essentially collapsing the distinction between these two ideas: justice is reconciliation. Philpott’s analysis is powerful. It is the product of meticulous research on philosophical theories and religious understandings of central moral concepts that structure political life. Philpott also considers and responds to almost every major objection that could be raised at each stage of his argument. As a result, a view that initially seems odd becomes plausible, indeed compelling. Anyone interested in the question of how communities should deal with past wrongs must take Philpott’s account of justice as political reconciliation into consideration. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the nature of justice in the aftermath of wrongdoing and the nature of political reconciliation. And yet I am hesitant to endorse Philpott’s conclusions. Below I first describe Philpott’s account of justice as reconciliation and then discuss two reasons for my hesitation.

Political reconciliation, Philpott begins, refers to the process of restoring right relationships. This process is political when it focuses on individuals relating to one another in their role as citizens. Restoration is needed in political relationships, according to Philpott, when systematic violations of human rights occur; such violations constitute injustices and breaches of the standards of right relationships. The human rights that are mutually respected in right relationships are codified in international law, and reflected in the laws and constitutions of states as well as the actions of those who act in the state’s name. Violations wound individuals and relationships. Primary wounds include the violation itself, which constitutes a form of disrespect; harm to persons; ignorance of the cause of the injustice; failure to acknowledge the suffering injustices bring; the standing victory of the wrongdoer whose action constitutes a denial of the rights claim of the victim; and harm to the wrongdoer. Secondary wounds, Philpott argues, arise from primary wounds. Such wounds often cause memories of violence and suffering and loss, which lead to negative emotions such as humiliation and hatred. Such emotions can prompt judgments among victims about the appropriate vengeful actions to take, and actions that are based on these judgments, such as massacre and aggression. Thus, the cycle of violence persists.

In Philpott’s view, processes of restoration rectify these wounds. Primary restorations directly repair individuals and relationships and are, in virtue of this, intrinsically just. Secondary restorations, transformations in emotions and judgments which lead to altered action, include trust and a sense of the legitimacy of a new regime. Though not the primary aim of processes of reconciliation, these secondary restorations can be a consequence of them. Philpott considers six restorative practices: building just institutions and relations between states; acknowledgement (e.g., by truth commissions or through memorials); reparations; punishment; forgiveness; and apology.

Why think of this account of reconciliation as an account of justice? Philpott suggests that one important reason for making this move stems from the substantive argument given for viewing reconciliation in this way. A second important reason is that his view articulates a conception of justice already present in secular and religious traditions. Thus, this view can be the subject of an overlapping consensus among those who hold fundamentally different comprehensive conceptions of the good. To demonstrate this claim, Philpott considers Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the restorative justice movement, showing how the way that justice is conceptualized in these traditions resonates with the conception of justice articulated above. In each case, justice is conceptualized in terms of right conduct given a certain relationship and right responses to wrong conduct, where right responses are such that they restore the relationship that wrongdoing upset.

There is reason to be skeptical about the degree to which the conception of justice as reconciliation that Philpott advances really can become the subject of an overlapping consensus. I want to note in passing that it is far from obvious that this conception can be rooted in non-Abrahamic faith traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism). However, I want here to focus on secularists and whether we should think that they will be part of the overlapping consensus too. Philpott’s conception of justice in the aftermath of wrongdoing differs in important ways from the common conceptions of justice among, for example, Western liberal humanists. Philpott himself notes how strange the idea of reconciliation as justice will seem to many liberals “for whom justice means individual rights, a just distribution of wealth, just punishment, and other matters of desert, entitlement, and rights” (4). The justice of reconciliation is not primarily the justice of desert (as in retributive justice or what Philpott calls balance retributivism) or justice as fairness (as in Rawls’s theory of distributive justice). The justice of political reconciliation prioritizes the repairing of relationships and evaluates the justice of an action on the basis of what will achieve the repair that injustice creates; it is not fundamentally about responding to individuals and their actions in a manner that is in some sense fitting or due. Indeed, rather than resonating with the justice of retributivism and distributive justice articulated and defended by secularists and prevalent within liberal democratic communities, part of Philpott’s task is to problematize and challenge these notions. Of course all traditions, including secular liberal traditions, have their critics. Restorative justice is a secular movement, and it is to this understanding of justice that Philpott appeals when demonstrating that justice as reconciliation can become the subject of an overlapping consensus that includes secularists. However, restorative justice remains a somewhat minority view, and thus only a minority of secularists are likely to be included in the consensus Philpott envisions.

Demonstrating that the conception of justice as reconciliation can become the subject of an overlapping consensus is only the second of the justificatory tasks. It is also important, Philpott writes, to provide substantive reasons for thinking that his view is correct. I urge caution on this front as well. My main concern is that this framework has limited resources for identifying and articulating the hard choices and moral dilemmas that communities face in grappling with past injustice in the midst of rebuilding just institutions. It is important to recognize just how comprehensive the justice of reconciliation is. It includes mercy (“the cardinal virtue of reconciliation is mercy,” 62), it includes peace (“peace is the state that corresponds to being reconciled,” 63), and it includes the reconstruction of just institutions (this is one of the six practices that repair relations). All morally important aims and goals for communities grappling with past wrongdoing in the midst of transitioning to peace and democracy seem to be incorporated into this theoretical framework.

In a sense, then, almost anything a community does could qualify as just. Efforts to rebuild socially just institutions, the prosecution and punishment of wrongdoers, the offering of apology and the fostering of forgiveness: each constitutes a kind of reparative process aimed at rectifying some of the primary wounds injustice leaves behind. Given this, in a sense there are no hard choices; only choices about which dimension of justice will be a priority. Moreover, the dilemmas that practitioners responding to and theorists thinking about wrongdoing in the midst of a transition discuss seem to be illusory. That is, there does not seem to be conceptual space for allowing that the pursuit of one goal (such as punishment) may put other goals in jeopardy (such as restoring the rule of law); on Philpott’s view each attends to different needs of the same goal, that is, justice. The neatness of the theory makes me uneasy about the relevance and accuracy of its guidance for practitioners and members of transitional communities, in that instead of accounting for and providing guidance about their dilemmas, it may tend to make those dilemmas disappear.