A. Chapter Summary and Goals
Political and social philosophy is the study of people in societies with particular attention to the abstract claims they have on each other in the form of "rights," "duties," and "privileges," and their demands for "justice," "equality," and "freedom."
The key to a successful society is cooperation. If people do not cooperate, the success of society requires that some authority have the power to bring individual interests into line with the public interest. This authority is generally called the state. The state must also protect individual rights.
Our concept of the state and the extent of its power and authority depends very much on our conception of human nature and of people's willingness to cooperate without being forced to do so. At one extreme are authoritarians, who place such strong emphasis on the smooth workings of society that they are willing to sacrifice most individual rights and interests. At the other extreme are anarchists, who have so much confidence in individual cooperation and so little confidence in the state that they argue that the state should be eliminated altogether. But the central problem is the same for both, and for all those people in between these extreme positions: the problem of a balance between the public interest and the need for cooperation on the one hand and individual rights and interests on the other - the problem of justice.
- To understand the evolution of social contract theory
- Explain the concepts of property and entitlement
- Understand the concept of rights, and define different categories of rights
- Describe several famous defenses of civil rights
- Explain both Western and Chinese characterizations of the nature of man in society
B. Section Summaries
9.1 The Problem of Justice
- Understand the fundamental elements of a theory of justice.
- Explain why Plato and Aristotle believe slavery is justified.
- Detail the theories of justice offered by Mill and Hume.
- Explain the difference between Hobbes and Rousseau in their accounts of the state of nature and the role of the social contract.
- Understand Nozick's response to Rawl's idea of "justice as fairness."
- Explain why feminists might want to revise the terms of our discussion of justice.
The oldest sense of the word justice is what philosophers call retributive justice, or simply, "getting even." Retribution for a crime is making the criminal suffer or pay an amount appropriate to the severity of the crime. In ancient traditions, the key phrase was, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
But justice is more than merely "getting even" for crimes and offenses. It concerns the running of a society as a whole in day-to-day civil matters as well as the more dramatic criminal concerns. It includes things like the distribution of wealth in our society, the distribution of privileges and power, enjoyment of society's cultural gifts, and questions of status. Concerns of justice prompt us to ask questions such as: Given the relative scarcity of wealth in our society, how should it be distributed? Who among our population will be permitted to vote? Should everyone receive the same education? Should there be social classes?
- Two Ancient Theories of Justice: Plato and Aristotle
The first great theories of justice to try to analyze the nature of justice itself were those of Plato and Aristotle. In The Republic, Plato argues that justice in the state is precisely the same as justice in the individual, that is, a harmony between the various parts for the good of the whole. In other words, cooperation among all for the sake of a successful society is the key to justice. But this means that the concerns of the individual may take a clearly secondary role to the interests of society. In ancient Greece, this may have been only rarely true for the wealthy and powerful, but for the majority of people - especially the slaves - this secondary role was the norm. Because their docile submission was seen as necessary to the overall success of society, their individual interests and rights were extremely minimal. In Plato's universe, everyone has his or her "place," and justice means that they act and are treated accordingly. [see reading in text]
Plato's rigidly hierarchy of social classes and insistence on the inequality of people offends our sense of egalitarianism (the view that all men and women are equal just by virtue of their being human). But it is important to see that equality is a position that must be argued and is not a belief that has always been accepted by everyone.
In his Politics, Aristotle gives an unabashed defense of slavery, not only on the grounds that slaves are efficient and good for society as a whole, but because those who are slaves are "naturally" meant to be slaves and would be unhappy and unable to cope if they were granted freedom and made citizens. For Aristotle as for Plato, different people have different roles, and to treat unequals equally is as unjust as it is to treat equals unequally.
The idea that equals must be treated as equals is the foundation of our sense of justice just as much as theirs. The difference is that we are taught to believe that everybody is an equal. Similarly, the theory of distributive justice - the fair distribution of wealth and goods among the members of a society - comes originally from Aristotle's idea that individuals are due certain rewards for their labor. Furthermore, despite his elitism, Aristotle saw quite clearly that the poorer and less powerful members of a society were those most in need of the protection that a just society provides. It was also Aristotle who made the crucial distinction between that restricted concern for justice that rights certain wrongs (in crimes and bad business deals) and the general concern of justice for a well-balanced society. [see reading in text]
- Two Modern Theories of Justice: Hume and Mill on Utility and Rights
The premise of most modern theories of justice has been the equality of everyone with everyone else. This view rules out slavery on principle, whatever the benefits to society as a whole and whatever the alleged benefits to the slaves. But this egalitarian principle has its problems too. It is obvious that, as a matter of fact, all people are not equally endowed with intelligence or talent, good looks or abilities. Is it therefore to the good of all that everyone should be treated equally? Does it make sense, for example, to treat the opinions of an ignorant person whose only knowledge of current events comes from fifteen minutes of television news a day in the way that we treat the opinions of a skilled political veteran? The ballots we vote on make no such distinction.
Thomas Hobbes developed a theory that began with equality as a "natural fact" and took justice to be that which "assured peace and security to all" enforced by the government. There is no justice in "the state of nature," Hobbes argued; justice like law comes into existence only with a society, through a "social compact" in which everyone agrees to abide by certain rules and to cooperate rather than compete - all for their mutual benefit.
John Locke and David Hume argued a similar theory of justice; again, equality was the premise, and mutual agreement the basis of government authority. For both Locke and Hume, the ultimate criterion of justice was utility, the public interest, and therefore the satisfaction of the interests of at least most of the citizens.
Hume exemplifies this modern view - that justice is to be characterized not just in terms of the structure of the overall society and everyone's "place" in it, but by the interests and well-being of each and every individual. But Hume also insists that there is a need to distinguish between the utility of a single act and the utility of an overall system; that although a specific act of justice might go against the public interest, the system of justice itself will be in the public interest. This means that a single unjust act is to be challenged not as an isolated occurrence but as an example of a general set of rules and practices. [see reading in text]
John Stuart Mill develops a similar account of justice as utility, incorporating rights into his discussion. [see reading in text]
The problem with the utilitarian theory of justice is identical to the problem we saw with the utilitarian theory of morals. Could there not be a case in which the public interest and general utility would be served only at the clearly unjust expense of a single unfortunate individual. Suppose the most efficient way to solve a series of ongoing crimes was to torture a suspect and hold him without evidence. Here public interest and justice are clearly at odds. Although we may we agree that justice ought to serve the public interest and every individual's interest as well, the utilitarian view is always in an awkward position when it must choose to serve the public interest at the intolerable expense and injustice of a small number of individuals.
- The Social Contract
The social contract is an agreement among people to share certain interests and make certain compromises for the good of them all. Americans are among the few people in the world whose state was actually formed explicitly by such a contract, namely, our Constitution. But the actual existence of such a piece of paper is not necessary to a discussion about a social contract. Simply to live in a society is to have agreed, at least implicitly, to such an agreement.
Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau give us two different pictures of the social contract. Both begin by considering man in "the state of nature," without laws and without society, before men and women came together to form the social contract.
But Hobbes bases his conception of the social contract on a theory of human nature according to which natural man is a selfish beast, fighting for his own interests against everyone else. Human life in the state of nature for Hobbes is "a war of all against all" and a person's life is "nasty, brutish, and short." He considers himself to be a political and social realist, like Machiavelli before him, and the social contract he describes is mainly an agreement of equally selfish persons not to commit murder. [see reading in text]
Although the problem of equality usually pays attention to the great differences between people, Hobbes believes that people are basically equal in nature: almost everyone is strong and smart enough, he thinks, to kill or inflict grievous injury on others. Accordingly, the basis of the social contract is our mutual protection. Everyone agrees not to kill other people and in return is guaranteed he or she won't be killed.
Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that people were "naturally good," and it was only the corruptions of society that made them selfish and destructive. The function of the social contract, therefore, is to allow people to develop the "natural goodness" that they had in the absence of any state at all. This is not to say that Rousseau wanted to go back to the state of nature: he recognized that this was impossible. Rousseau's ambition was rather to revise our conception of the state, and the laws that it lives by.
Rousseau inherits the main thesis of his revision of the state from Locke: The state has legitimate power only so long as it serves the people it governs. The revolutionary corollary - and Rousseau helped provide the intellectual groundwork for the French and American Revolutions - is that when a state ceases to serve its citizens, the citizens have a right to overthrow that government. This was a radical claim, and it made even Rousseau uncomfortable. He called revolution "the most horrible alternative," to be avoided if more moderate means could achieve the same end.
Rousseau argued that competition and the artificiality of our lust for private property are largely responsible for the corruption of man in society, and he even included marriage and romantic love as forms of this "lust for private property." Private property and other conventions of society confine and deform us. Accordingly, in order to flourish, man must regain his freedom within society. But to be free, for Rousseau, is precisely to want to do what is good for the society. In fact Rousseau even says that a person who does not act for the good of society may have to "be forced to be free." This puts Rousseau in a paradoxical position: on the one hand he champions individual freedom and rights; but on the other hand he lays stress on the state as an entity in itself and the subservience of the individual to the state.
This paradox is not easily resolved, but we can at least explain how it comes about. Rousseau believes that the state is subject to and receives its legitimacy from the people it governs. But that does not mean that individual people need have any real power in determining the form or functions of government. Rousseau is not a democrat. What he says instead is that the state is subject to what he calls the general will, which is not simply a collection of individuals but something more. Here is the source of the paradox: Legitimacy is given to the state by the general will, not by every individual person. The person who does not agree with the general will, therefore, may find himself or herself forced into compliance with the state. [see reading in text]
Rousseau rejects all might-makes-right theories and insists that legitimacy must always be a matter of the consent of the governed. Unlike Hobbes, for Rousseau the social contract is not an instrument of mutual protection but a means of improving people and bringing out what is best in them.
The most famous example of social contract theory at work is in our own Declaration of Independence. In that document, social contract theory combined with a theory of "natural" rights provided an epoch-making announcement of the right of a people to overthrow an established government. [see reading in text]
- Two Contemporary Theories of Justice: Rawls and Nozick
John Rawls argues for a view of justice that places the rights of the individual over the utility of any group of individuals or state. Rawls defends two principles in order of priority. The first (and more fundamental) principle asserts that we all have basic rights and equal rights, in particular with reference to our personal freedom. The second principle (which assumes the first) asserts that although we cannot expect everyone in society to enjoy equal wealth, equal health, and equal opportunities, we can and should insist that all inequalities are to every individual's advantage. [see reading in text]
Rawls justifies the rationality and necessity of these principles by imagining an "original position" ? like Hobbes' state of nature - in which all of us are "unencumbered" by any of our particular traits or interests. In such a situation, Rawls asks, what would be rational for us to choose by way of the principles according to which society should be run? If I don't know what advantages I will have or need in the future society, Rawls argues, I will choose those principles that will insure a fair and equal distribution to all members of that future society. Thus Rawls conceives of "justice as fairness." It's a bit like the childhood example of cutting one piece of cake into two slices: you give one child the knife and let the other child choose which piece he or she gets. The child who cuts the cake will be certain to cut it as equally as possible, so that he or she gets as large a piece as the child who is choosing. [see reading in text]
Like Hume, Rawls ties the concept of justice to the concept of equality. But is equality the primary concern of justice? Suppose the state collected all material goods and then redistributed equal shares to every citizen. Most of us, including Rawls, find this suggestion intolerable, because redistributing wealth in this way would violate the right we have to our possessions. Thus many philosophers have become increasingly aware of another kind of right that is not adequately treated by theories like Rawls' that involve the redistribution of property and other social benefits. This other kind of right, known as entitlement, gives rise to the theory of justice popularly known as libertarianism.
An "entitlement theory," such as that first developed by John Locke, puts the right to private property first and foremost, and couples it with a deep scepticism as to the wisdom and fairness of government. Locke argued that what gave a person the right to a piece of property was the fact that he had "mixed his labor with it," in other words, worked with it and improved it (Locke was thinking mainly of land). In today's terms, we would say that a person has the basic right to keep what he or she earns. Robert Nozick offers a refined version of Locke's entitlement theory, arguing that any attempt to enforce the redistribution of wealth according to some schema or "pattern" (such as the schema of redistribution suggested by Rawls) necessarily violates the rights of the individual. [see reading in text]
- Justice or Care: A Feminist Perspective
Feminists have raised the question of whether the long debate on justice has been biased and misled by the fact that it has been conducted exclusively in a "male voice." Perhaps such notions as "reason," "impartiality," and "equality" are deeply masculine, and necessarily exclude feminine ideas and concerns about the good of society. [see reading in text]
9.2 Individual Rights and Freedom
- Understand the difference between negative and positive freedoms and rights.
- Define and explain the different categories of rights.
- Explain Locke's understanding of the right to private property.
- Appreciate the relationship between rights and obligations.
A right is a kind of demand, the demand that one is owed something by society and the state, usually a certain sort of consideration or treatment. Because governments often compromise individual rights, any discussion of the state must include some special concern for the status of basic freedoms and unalienable rights, such as freedom to speak one's political opinions without harassment, freedom to worship without being penalized, freedom to defend oneself against attack, and the freedom to pursue one's own interests. Our best-known list of such freedoms and rights in the American Bill of Rights, appended to the main body of the Constitution as a kind of contractual guarantee of personal rights.
One of the most important basic rights is the presumed right to own private property. John Locke listed three basic rights that would become the main ingredients of both the American Declaration of Independence and a political philosophy called liberalism: "life, liberty, and the right to own private property." For Locke, private property is the bulwark of freedom and the basis of other human rights. One's own body is private property in the most basic sense; no one else has the authority to violate it or use it without permission. But then Locke adds that the right to own property that one has helped cultivate with his or her body is also basic to freedom and human dignity. [see reading in text]
Discussions of rights should never be set apart from discussions or political duties and obligations. One way of developing this idea of an exchange of rights and obligations has been to distinguish two different senses of "freedom": a negative freedom from interference and a positive freedom to realize one's own potential and find one's place in society. Freedom from interference may be necessary for a person to enjoy life and contribute to the welfare of those around him or her, but a person also needs positive goods - health and education, for example. Thus freedom takes on a double meaning, freedom from interference but freedom to participate in society too. Since positive freedom also includes a person's being able to take on responsibilities, some philosophers have pointed out a paradox in the idea of being "free to perform obligations."
We should also distinguish different kinds of rights: there are both "negative" and "positive" rights as well as freedoms. One has a right not to be interfered with, and one has rights to certain goods that society can provide. There are also civil rights, rights that are guaranteed in a particular state or government. One example is the right to equal treatment despite differences in skin color or sex or religion, as required by various state and federal laws. Some of these rights clearly have a moral basis, and for that reason they are often generalized to other societies as well. When they are generalized in this way, they become moral rights or human rights, extending to all people in any society, regardless of the laws and customs of their society. Human rights - like the basic human rights against torture and pointless murder - are those that transcend social and national boundaries. They demand that people deserve certain treatment just because they are human.
Although we have seen that the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill may tend to compromise the rights of the individual in pursuit of the greater good of the state, in fact Mill defends the rights of individuals and minorities against the tyranny of democratic majorities. He sees that liberty can be endangered in a democracy just as it can be in an authoritarian state. Mill offers a "very simple principle," that individual liberty is to be considered inviolable except when other people are threatened with harm. [see reading in text]
Mill's main concern is the extent to which government and public interest have authority over individuals and individual actions. If an action harms other people or presents a public menace, then government does have the authority to prevent it or punish a person for doing it. But if an action is not harmful to others, the government has no such authority. The public interest is authoritative to "a limit," but that limit must not be extended to create a "tyranny of the majority."
9.3 Fighting for Rights and Justice
- Understand the arguments made for civil rights by Douglass, Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Mandela.
Although the laws permitting slavery were eliminated with the American Civil War, the segregation of the races and consequent violations of individual rights and justice continue on to this day. In such circumstances, whether the problem is not living up to noble principles and precepts, or living under bad laws, or living in a country whose very foundation violates human rights and justice, there is the painful necessity of fighting for our basic human values.
Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth century abolitionist who was himself a former slave, argues in defense of a friend's decision to buy his own freedom (and that means, to obey the laws treating slaves as property) rather than to violate the law and run away. [see reading in text]
Henry David Thoreau did not agree with Douglass. In his famous essay "Civil Disobedience" he defended his decision not to pay his taxes. He claimed that for a person to obey the laws of a government which behaved unjustly was the same as his or her behaving unjustly. Thoreau absolved himself of any obligations toward his country other than to "do what he believed right." [see reading in text]
A little more than a hundred years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., used similar reasoning in his decision to participate in the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. King was famous for his advocacy of nonviolent protest; nonetheless, King did believe in protest. In fact, he claims that disobeying the law was his moral - and Christian - obligation. [see reading in text]
Malcolm X, a contemporary of King, believed in taking a more aggressive stand against unjust government. Malcolm X's famous phrase "by any means necessary" indicated his rejection of Thoreau's and King's nonviolence and "civility" of disobedience. Rather, Malcolm X argued, building on Thomas Hobbes, that those mistreated by an unjust government have the right and the obligation to violate the laws of that government.
[see reading in text]
Finally, we have Nelson Mandela's heroic defiance of apartheid, made in the context of a trial for his life. [see reading in text]
9.4 On the Origins of Good and Evil
- Understand the opposed views of human nature advanced by Mencius and Hsun Tsu.
At the bottom of the ongoing debates about justice, a deeper debate about human nature is always just under the surface. Hobbes' view of man in the state of nature was that humankind is essentially flawed, even evil. The state on his account must therefore incorporate strong governmental and cultural sanctions. For Rousseau, on the other hand, who has a more benign view of human nature, the sanctions of the state should be more modest, perhaps even minimal.
In the philosophies of ancient China, Mencius, a disciple of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius, argued that humanity is basically benevolent, that every person has within a sense of compassion for others. Against this view, there is the later philosopher Hsun Tsu, who argues that people are naturally selfish and cultivation is necessary to correct their evil dispositions. [see reading in text]
C. Essay and Discussion Questions
- Does a utilitarian description of the state necessarily compromise the rights of the individual? Mill doesn't think so. How might rights be used to protect the individual from the "tyranny of the majority?" How could a utilitarian defend a robust conception of individual rights?
- Recall John Rawls' two principles of justice. Give a short argument detailing how those two principles might be derived from his "original position." Rawls insists that, for the derivation to work, individuals must be self-interested and rational. Explain why this is so.
- Hobbes insists that humankind is naturally evil. Rousseau, on the other hand, believes in the natural goodness of humanity. What do you think? If humankind is naturally good, how does evil ever enter the picture?
- Write your own "State of Nature" story. When and why does justice emerge? Does your society look like our own? If so, why? If not, what improvements have you made?
- Explain the "free rider" problem. Then, make a defense of being a free rider. In a corrupt society, should people be allowed or even encouraged to exploit the system? Is there any system in which being a free rider makes sense? Or is it always ultimately irrational? What would Hobbes say?
D. Topical Links, Web Links and Activities
- A comprehensive history of the civil rights movement
- A discussion of libertarian ideas and public policies
- Learn Chinese with Confucius
- Plato, Woody Allen and justice
- A useful introduction to Kant and Rawls on justice
E. Suggestions for Further Reading