Let’s talk about justice. The first thing you have to know about justice is that it is a very old concept which has changed a lot over the course of the last two and a half thousand years. I think the best thing to do early on when thinking of justice is to ask yourself what you think it is? Once you start reading it’s easy to be persuaded by the multitude of arguments. Take your time as this is not simple.
Does it mean the right way to live so that no wrongs are done? Does it mean the process by which we correct wrongs after they are done? Does it mean the method by which we balance the natural inequalities that exist from birth? Or to take another line of thought all together, does it mean to live the way God made us? Or to respect the laws of nature and to let survival of the fittest run its course? At some time during history these notions of justice have all been popular.
Justice is a concept that is hard to swallow and even then leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, but you must partake. It’s bitter because all of us make a list of the 10,000 things we want to do to make ourselves happy, and then justice stops us from doing half of them. But without it, the society we live in has no way of reconciling the differences between its citizens. Without it, citizens will never live together in harmony and so none of us will be happy (except those that like to live alone in a cave eating dirt).
Within the concept of justice, lies the sub-concept of social justice, sometimes called distributive justice. Social justice is a very dirty word to some people right now. But no matter what your political leaning, one must accept that a society needs a way of determining fairness. It is inevitable that a government or social institution will have less money that it needs to spend on everything it wants to fix. How should that institution determine who gets the money first? When exercising liberty, one often must decide who to harm when determining how best to minimise the total harm done. One cannot determine this answer with authority without tackling social justice. And in the negotiation of the subject we have at hand, a man must partake in the discussion. A freeman cannot resort to childish name calling when faced with a discussion on social justice, he must understand and have an argument founded in knowledge and reason.
Justice: A thought experiment
Before we start with the great works by great men, let us consider ourselves first. What are our own theories of social justice? Consider a castaway all alone on the deserted island. Does he even care about justice? If he were me, I believe that I would have acted unjustly by leaving my family alone and undefended thereby breaking promises that I had entered into prior to getting myself marooned. I might feel that there had been some cosmic or natural injustice done to me by the Gods in stranding me alone. But besides those considerations, I really don’t think I’d care about justice at all, even if I knew my little island was inside Australian waters and therefore I was still, technically, bound by Australian law. I think if no one else was watching me, or if those that were watching were powerless to do anything, justice would be nothing to me. Morality might, but justice wouldn’t. I don’t find it easy to believe in natural justice, or karma. But the laws and rules men make do claim my attention, especially when they are backed up by the actual threat of force.
Now let’s assume that a second castaway swims ashore and we must share the island’s scarce resources. Clearly this is a stressful situation as now two people are competing for resources. To make matters worse, a new threat has been introduced, the threat of murder. But if we are both sophisticated enough to see it, a new opportunity has arisen too. If we were to co-operate, the task of surviving might be made that much easier. To make it work we’d have to agree to a certain set of rules about what was the best way to share the island. For me this is a simple but effective beginning point for justice. What happens when one of us breaks the rules? Now that’s more interesting.
I think I’d believe that the initial rules that we made would be designed to distribute resources equally. But what if a castaway was diabetic? Should they share the islands resources equally still or should allowances be made for the diabetic’s needs? If I think a little harder I might believe that once the two castaways lived together for some time they might acknowledge that there were certain tasks that must be performed that were hard, risky or unpleasant. One of the castaways might volunteer to undertake the hard, risky and unpleasant task on the condition that he received a greater proportion of the island’s resources in doing so. Both castaways might find this scenario just. The first feels justly dealt with as he doesn’t have to do an unpleasant task he doesn’t want to, the second because he received the extra benefit he desired as the result of performing the unpleasant task. I wonder what happens after a long time and the second becomes considerably richer than the first? Will the first castaway eventually forget that the second castaway earned his additional wealth? And if at some point he does, is it just for the second cast away to ‘remind him’? What if a chance tidal wave washes away only the first castaway’s coconuts leaving him with nothing? Should they share the remaining coconuts in second castaway’s pile?
I believe at this early stage of our discussion that social justice only matters when there are two or more people in the society. I believe that social justice would arise as an issue upon the introduction of a second person into the society but only then as a tool for enforcing the rules that must be followed to ensure society worked. Perhaps social justice is a precondition before men will come together to form a society. I believe that those initial rules would be designed to create equality but that they would soon adapt to offer increased wealth to compensate for increased hardship undertaken to perform a difficult, but necessary task. However, if the ‘reward for work’ model went on for too long with only one person willing to work, I believe the other person might forget the agreement and give into envy. It does seem that constantly reminding everyone of their role in society would form part of social justice. Identifying inequalities and addressing shortfalls in the contribution to society might actually form part of a working system of social justice.
I don’t think social justice would be so important if society was either totally devoid of any useful resources, or if society had seemingly infinite resources. But, if there was only just enough resources for two people to live and no more, social justice would seem very important. I would, under these circumstances, become extremely concerned with getting my share of the wealth.
It seems to me that for social justice to work it requires some concept of private property (what physical things are mine), some concept of harm (what rights are mine) and some concept of reward for effort (what merit is mine).
One of the immediate things that comes to mind when we consider following a set of rules about how best to live together is what happens if I follow the rules and everyone else doesn’t. Surely this would lead to me voluntarily disadvantaging myself. There does seem to be something terribly wrong with suffering a disservice because I acted in accordance with an agreement that was suppose to serve me. It is one thing to lose a fair fight, but entirely another to know I could have broken the rules too, but didn’t and now I suffer.
There are two books on ethics by Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Eudemian Ethics. The latter was written early in Aristotle’s life and is not believed to be his own independent thoughts as it was written during a time when he was heavily influenced by Plato. Eudemia was a pupil and Nicomachus was Aristotle’s son. The other book by Aristotle that contains his view on justice is The Politics. Specifically book 3, chapters 9 to 12. Aristotle puts a very high value on justice.
The Nicomachean Ethics is a book that every man should own and read. It is by Aristotle, who is considered to be the greatest philosopher that ever lived. This work is divided into many parts and justice is dealt with in part 5. He, in turn, divides justice into many parts.
And here is the interest thing, Aristotle did not write any of the famous books we all know of! They were all compiled by his pupils but based on his lectures. I once asked the question in philosophy class “How do we know that Aristotle said any of this at all”. The answer was “because his lectures were so famous that great people came from all around to listen and when they went home, they wrote it down. Now when archaeologist dig up temples and palaces, we find written confirmation of what Aristotle lectured on in every scroll and tablet we come across, that far reaching was his teachings”.
Aristotle’s theory of justice is something like ‘men should get what they deserve’.
The Leviathan is a seminal work by Thomas Hobbes that includes a theory of justice. If you choose to read it you may find that is not all that life changing and indeed, tells you things that you have long since taken for granted. I mentioned John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government in the writing on freedom. Hobbes and Locke go well together. As you read them, understand that they are both saying a similar sort of thing, just in very different socio-political climates. To Hobbes, everything is fear and suffering and without a good king, war would consume us all in pain and death. To Locke, people are generally good and the king is there to ensure our property rights remain. Hobbes was published in 1651 (during a civil war), Locke in 1680. Europe had advanced out of the dark ages to much in those 29 years that these two men harbored such different view on basically the same thing, social contract theory.
What you must understand is that before Leviathan we all thought we were a product of God’s grand design and that the reason we wanted X, Y and Z was because god wanted us to want X, Y and Z. This fact does make social injustice a little sacrilegious. Hobbes believed that we want X, Y and Z in the same way an animal might, because of pure animalistic desire. In Hobbes’ opinion, all men were at some stage in history all alone in a cave defending the meager possessions from everyone and anyone. Men living in these conditions were always hungry, scared, brutal and lived very short lives and there is no justice here. At some stage men, out of pure necessity, got together to make a social contract that resulted in a society being formed. Society was a choice that we wanted to make but didn’t have to. At the time, this idea was revolutionary.
If you had to put Hobbes’ theory of justice into a single sentence is would go something like “giving every man his own”, which would translate into ‘give men what they’ve earned’. It would include concepts like; don’t hurt people, don’t break contracts or covenants, don’t dodge taxes etc. What it is not is things like everyone should be equal, all things should be as god made them, or help people that have nothing etc.
Lets now come to Utilitarianism by Mill and Bentham. To say there is a single text on Utilitarianism is wrong. The Utilitarians were a group of people that wrote a collection of essays and contributions to the philosophy, and very nearly the religion, of Utilitarianism. But for our purposes here, Utilitarianism by J.S. Mill will do. It was originally published as a series of essays in a magazine but eventually it made its way into a book in 1863. Chapter 5 focuses on justice.
Leap forward to 1971 and John Rawls published what was considered, and still is, the most important philosophical work of the 20th century. The book is called A Theory of Justice and it is about the same size as The Wealth of Nations. Hardly anyone has read it (I confess I haven’t) because of its size and boredom factor. But given that it is so modern, it is not hard to learn about it from textbooks and even online.
Finally, you can’t mention Rawls without mentioning Robert Nozick. His book Anarchy, State and Utopia was written in response to A Theory of Justice. There were many responses but Nozick’s best juxtaposes Rawls work.
I acknowledge here that I have omitted Kant’s works. Why? They are too hard. One must read Critic of Pure Reason first and that book is astronomically difficult to make sense of. Try it if you like but you’ll find the Oxford English Dictionary easier to finish.