Justice occupies a special place in the pantheon of virtues. For the ancients, it was often conceived as the master virtue, the one that orders all the others. For Plato, justice had exactly this overarching status. A just individual, he tells us in The Republic, is one in whom the three parts of the soul—reason, spirit, appetite—and the three virtues associated with them—wisdom, courage, moderation—stand in the right relation to one another. Justice in the city is precisely analogous. In the just city, each class exercises its own distinctive virtue by performing the task suitable for its nature, and none interferes with the others. The wise and rational part does the ruling, the brave and spirited part does the soldiering, and the rest, those lacking special spirit or intelligence but capable of moderation, do the farming and the manual labouring. Justice is the harmonious balance among these constituent elements.footnote1

Most modern philosophers have rejected the specifics of Plato’s view. Almost no one today believes that the just city is one that is rigidly stratified with a permanent ruling class, a permanent military class and a permanent working class, whose lives differ from one another in major respects. Yet many philosophers have retained Plato’s idea that justice is not simply one virtue among others, but enjoys a special status as the master or meta virtue. A version of this conception informed John Rawls’s celebrated book, A Theory of Justice, in which he claimed that ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought’.footnote2 By this he did not mean that justice is the highest virtue, but rather that it is the fundamental one, the one that secures the basis for developing all of the rest. In principle, social arrangements can display any number of virtues—for example, they might be efficient, orderly, harmonious, caring or ennobling. But the realization of those possibilities depends on a prior, enabling condition, namely, that the social arrangements in question be just. Thus, justice is the first virtue in the following sense: it is only by overcoming institutionalized injustice that we can create the ground on which other virtues, both societal and individual, can flourish.

If Rawls is right on this point, as I think he is, then when evaluating social arrangements, the first question we should ask is: are they just? To answer, we might build on another of his insights: ‘the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society’. This statement orients our attention from the great variety of immediately accessible features of social life to the deep grammar underlying them, to the institutionalized ground rules which set the basic terms of social interaction. It is only when they are justly ordered that other, more directly experienced aspects of life can also be just. Certainly, Rawls’s specific views of justicelike those of Plato—are problematic: the idea that justice can be judged exclusively in distributive terms is too restrictive, as is the construction device of the ‘original position’. But for the purposes of this essay, I will endorse his idea that the focus of reflection on justice should be the basic structure of society. To explore this approach, and convey its power, I will examine Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go.footnote3

The story follows three friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, who inhabit a peculiar social order. When we first meet them, they are children living at what appears to be a privileged English boarding school called Hailsham. As the novel unfolds, however, we discover that the children are actually clones. They have been created to provide vital organs for non-clones, whom I shall refer to as ‘originals’. In the second part of the novel, the protagonists have left Hailsham and are living at the Cottages, a forlorn transitional residence, where they await ‘training’. Now adolescents, they are preparing to begin their life’s work of ‘donation’, which will culminate after a maximum of four surgeries in ‘completion’. In the third part, the protagonists are young adults. Tommy and Ruth have become ‘donors’, while Kathy has become a ‘carer’, a clone who tends to others recovering from organ-removal surgery. After Tommy and Ruth ‘complete’, Kathy feels she cannot continue in her role. The book ends as she prepares to submit to ‘donation’ herself.

Never Let Me Go is a powerful work, which left me overcome with sadness when I first read it. Actually, that is an understatement—by the time I reached the end of the book I was sobbing uncontrollably. Some reviewers have interpreted it as a work of dystopian science fiction about the perils of genetic engineering; others have read it as a Bildungsroman in which young people with outsized hopes and little understanding of what is truly important in life acquire the wisdom to value relationships and accept the world as it is. Neither interpretation is wholly wrong, in my view; each captures a strand of the work. But both miss what I take to be the book’s vital core. As I read it, Never Let Me Go is a meditation on justice—a searing vision of an unjust world and of the profound suffering inflicted on its inhabitants.