Lecture 37: Survey of theories of justice Essential elements of a just society

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Lecture 37: Survey of theories of justice
Essential elements of a just society:

cooperation (system)

peace, security (absence of fear)

laws (outlining rights, obligations; exercising protections; enforcing rights/obligations)


equality, liberty – respect, liberty

not tyrannical (or arbitrary); fair

punitive system

processes of legitimation (elections, freedom of information/press, etc.)
Do we live in a just society?
Key to a successful society is cooperation.
The state has two main functions:

  1. to protect the public interest (legislation and enforcement)

  2. to protect individual rights/interests

More generally, we might say that its function is to protect justice. But how?
Authoritarianism ----------------------------------------------- Anarchy
socialism democracy libertarians,

e.g., NRA

A survey of approaches to the just society:

  • a conception of human nature

  • willingness of individuals to cooperate

  • legitimate role of the state

  • parameters of justified action

Problem of justice: the balance between the public interest and the need for cooperation, on the one hand, and individual rights and interests on the other.
What roles does justice play?

  • distributive

  • retributive

  • adjudicative

  • rectificatory

  • “form of concern”

The principles of right, and so of justice, put limits on which satisfactions have value; they impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one’s good.”

Ancient Theories of Justice:

1. Plato:

justice = harmonization of parts for the good of the whole

key to justice: cooperation among all for the sake of a successful society

justice + temperance, courage, wisdom,

But what about equality?!!

egalitarianism: the view that all men and women are equal just by virtue of their being human

2. Aristotle:

two conceptions of justice: what is lawful and what is fair

the just was “the proportional; the unjust… what violates the proportion” applies to the distribution of goods and the relations between persons

the role of the judge is to restore proportion, that is, to restore the intermediate (the mean) between extremes, and thus to restore equality

Modern Theories of Justice: Utility

3. Hume

equality as the first premise; mutual agreement as the basis of government authority (consent)

criterion of justice is utility
Justice takes its rise from human conventions... and these are intended as a remedy to some inconveniences, which proceed from the concurrence of certain qualities of the human mind with the situation of external objects. The qualities of the mind are selfishness and limited generosity; and the situation of external objects is their easy change, join’d to their scarcity in comparison of the wants and desires of men... Encrease to a sufficient degree the benevolence of men, or the bounty of nature, and you render justice useless, by supplying its place with much nobler virtues, and more favourable blessings.” (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature)
4. Mill

utilitarian: What is good and desirable is what is best for the greatest number of people; only utility, he argued, gives the abstract concept of justice any concrete basis in human life.

impartiality required by justice

conception of rights is also influential:

right = “valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law or by that of education and opinion”

= “to have a right, then, is… to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of”

problem with utilitarian theories:

public interest vs. individual’s interests

Social contract theories:
Social contract = agreement among people to share certain interests and make certain compromises for the good of them all = “consent of the governed” theory

5. Hobbes

pessimistic view of human beings: naturally selfish

postulates a hypothetical “state of nature”:

  • we are all equal with respect to abilities, talents, and power

  • human beings are motivated only by self-interest

  • there are no laws and no society

  • human life is a “war of all against all”

justice = social contract in which everyone agrees to abide by certain rules and to cooperate rather than compete
6. Rousseau

optimistic view of human beings: naturally good

also postulates a state of nature:

social contract allows us to develop our natural goodness

state is subject to the “general will”

E.g., The Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson)

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers form the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will indicate that Governments should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shown, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpation, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.”

Contemporary Theories of Justice: Rights-based theories

Two kinds of rights:

  1. negative: a right not to be interfered with

  2. positive: a right to certain goods that society can provide


civil rights (rights guaranteed in a particular state)

human rights (universal, regardless of state affiliation).

7. Nozick

libertarianism: a theory of entitlement

rights as entitlements

justice tied to liberty and property rights

proposes a minimal state: “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts… any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights to not be forced to do certain things”

implications: “the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection”

Does this accord with how you conceive a just society?
8. Rawls
Justice is the first virtue of all social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory, however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”
justice = balance of equality and liberty

the principles of justice:

  1. each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all; [principle of equal liberty]

  2. social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. [difference principle]

A just social system defines the scope within which individuals must develop their aims, and it provides a framework of rights and opportunities and the means of satisfaction within and by the use of which these ends may be equitably pursued. The priority of justice is accounted for, in part, by holding that the interests requiring the violation of justice have no value. Having no merit in the first place, they cannot override its claims.”

maximin strategy to social justice: maximize the welfare of those minimally advantaged

justice as reciprocity: theory of justice “requires that a practice be such that all members who fall under it could and would accept it and be bound by it”

Where do these principles come from? How are they justified?
Original position (like “state of nature”)

“veil of ignorance”

justice as fairness

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