'To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize – income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honours'.
Michael J Sandel
The quote above from Michael Sandel's book 'Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?' defines justice in terms of how to distribute the things we prize. Sandel suggests that there are three principal approaches to this:
1. Welfare 2. Liberty 3. Virtue
Where the focus is on welfare, the concern is to meet people's material needs (food, shelter, clothing, health care etc.) and to maximise well-being. Where the focus is on liberty, the concern is to maximize peoples freedom to do as they wish. Where the focus is on virtue, the aim is allow people to lead a 'good life'.
Perhaps the best known theory on how to maximize welfare is the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who believed that the aim of society should be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. One weakness of Bentham's theory is its failure to come up with any convincing common measure of happiness. Another is that it opens the way for the tyranny of the majority, where the happiness of the majority is achieved at the expense of a minority. Because of this, John Stuart Mill's believed that utilitarianism needed to be radically modified so that political arrangements satisfy the 'liberty principle' (also known as the 'harm principle'). According to this the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
In the 19th century the idea of a welfare based redistributive society was carried to its extreme by Karl Marx with his principle: 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'. A more modern welfare based approach is John Rawls' Theory of Justice. In this work Rawls conducts a thought experiment where he asks what principles of social justice would be established by reasonable people if they had to draw them up with no knowledge of where in society they would be placed (e.g. where they are ignorant of the skills, intelligence and social position they will have). This is what Rawls calls his 'veil of ignorance'. His conclusions are that people would decide that:
Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others
a) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
- b) Offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
The 'difference principle' essentially means that social and economic inequalities are only to be permitted when the least well off benefit from them the most. For example, if paying managers more leads to an overall increase in wealth that most benefits the least advantaged, then such a disparity could be justified.
A problem with any society based on Rawls' principles is how it is determined whether a particular inequality will serve the interests of the most disadvantaged. Rawls wishes decisions to be made by judges rather than an elected assembly. One can understand why this is. An elected assembly might favour changes that benefit the many rather than the most disadvantaged. However, because of this he as been accused of 'legalism'' (excessive legal control over activities) because he wants to preserve rights through a constitution that effectively removes many matters from political debate.
The approach used by Rawls stops anyone benefiting from the natural lottery (intelligence, skills, good looks etc.) and ensures that society is organised so that the interests of those at the bottom of society are prioritised. It has therefore found support from those who favour an egalitarian form of society. However, it is arguable whether reasonable people would necessarily arrive at the conclusion he claims. For example, people might prefer an approach where there was a certain minimum level of welfare (food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare etc.) for everyone, but then opt for a society in which the total amount of wealth is maximised, even if this does not most benefit those at the bottom.
There are several rationales for the above alternative conclusion. Firstly, people may take the view that the chance of a smaller slice of a big pie is better than a big slice of a smaller pie. Secondly that the level of interference that Rawls' solution implies is too great. Finally, while people may agree to a safety net to protect those who cannot provide for themselves, there may be the feeling that those who make bad choices should have to live with the consequences of them.
This last point highlights a general criticism of welfare based approaches to the allocation of the things we value - the argument that the redistribution of wealth diminishes the incentive for initiative, hard work and enterprise. This goes hand in hand with the concern that welfare-based societies can become unfair, taking from those who work hard and giving to those who don't.
There are other criticisms of Rawls, for example that he accepts the need for incentives to induce people to work for the common good (e.g. a bonus paid to a manager for inproved performance) , but that in a truly just society such incentives would not be necessary. It is perhaps worth noting that in later life Rawls himself appears to have backed away from his theory of justice.
In contrast to welfare based societies, where things are regulated to ensure everyone’s well-being , libertarians emphasise the right of people to live as they wish and to do what they please with the minimum of interference from the state. They take the view that we own ourselves, which means that we own our labour and have the right to the fruits of it. For them taxation is a form of forced labour (you are made to work for the benefit of someone else).
In general 'laissez faire' libertarians oppose all forms of paternalism, moral legislation and income redistribution. The role of the state is merely to enforce law and order, and to provide protection from external threats. They seek to avoid creating any collective obligations on people by arguing that all services (education, health etc.) should be paid for.
Libertarianism is a rights-based approach and as with all rights-based positions it suffers from the following criticisms:
- Human rights are not derived from a clearly stated sets of principles, but are statements of a moral consensus. As such, they derive their authority solely from this consensus, and the laws and treaties that flow from it.
- Because rights are not derived from a set of principles when they conflict there is no clear way to resolve which should take precedence. Does your right to the benefits of the fruit of your labour override my right to life?
- Because rights conflict it is a fiction that all rights can be inalienable fundamental rights which a person is inherently entitled to. In practice, through its legal and justice system, society has to arbitrate between rights.
Another problem for the libertarians is the question of what are the fruits of your labour, as opposed to the fruits of shared physical, intellectual and human resources. For example, if you benefits from a scientific discovery about the advantages of crop rotation it is arguable that such benefits come not from your own labour, but from the society in which the discovery was made. In other words you owe a debt to society which society is entitled to ask you to repay.
The idea that we might have obligations to society sits very uncomfortably with libertarianism. However, most people choose to live in social groups because they offer support, companionship and the opportunity for mutual aid, and because cooperation and specialisation offer significant economic advantages. It is arguable that the price of sharing in these benefits is that you abide by the decisions of the social group on they should be divided up.
One area where libertarians don't all agree is whether, for the sake of fairness, action should be taken to create a level playing-field by compensating for economic and social disadvantages. It is one thing to say that you have the rights to the fruits of you labour, another that you have the right to enjoy privileges earned by others. This links in to the question of whether people should be allowed to inherit wealth and privileges. Those most attached to property rights are likely to say yes, those most concerned with fairness may say no. Similar issues arise when you consider the fact that our consumption of energy and natural resources appears to exceed the planet capability to sustain it. This invites such question as whether people should be free to have as large a carbon footprint as they can afford, or if in the interests of equity there should be individual carbon allowances.
It should be noted that Libertarians do not reject the value of compassion and charity, only the idea that it should be given freely by individuals rather than exercised by the state. However, such a view has its own element of unfairness, in that it accepts that the burden for caring for those in distress will not be evenly distributed.
The third approach to how we should distribute things is a virtue based approach. As Sandel says: 'Modern theories of justice try to separate questions of fairness and rights from arguments about honour, virtue and moral desert. They seek principles of justice that are neutral among ends, and enable people to choose and pursue their ends for themselves'. However, for Aristotle, justice is teleological, in that its purpose is to bring about a good state of affairs. In particular, for him a just society is one that cultivates virtue, enables human beings to realize their highest nature, and so to live the good life.
The idea that society should have as its aims the cultivation of virtue is very unfashionable amongst Western liberals, for it is generally associated with authoritarian and intolerant regimes This is because of the tendency in virtue-based societies to impose the prevailing view of the good life on those who do not share it (think of the early puritan colonies of the USA or the modern state of Iran). However, even those who favour a tolerant and none-judgemental culture may prefer to live in a society where certain standards of behaviour and codes of conduct are cultivated and respected. It is hard to think of any society that has not sought to promote certain virtues and values amongst its citizens.
Besides the theory based methods outlined above it is possible to adopt an empirical approach to how best to organise the distribution of wealth within society. The method here is to arrive at a measure of the 'well-being' within society and then try to establish what are the common factors amongst societies that score most highly on this. This is the approach adopted by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level. Wilkinson's and Picket's findings are that in rich countries (e.g. those in north America, Europe, Australasia plus Japan) the smaller the gap between rich and poor the happier, healthier, and more successful the population is. It does not seem to matter whether low income inequality is achieved by taxation (e.g. Scandinavia) or by cultural influences (e.g. Japan).
Wilkinson and Pickett use as their measure of well-being an index of factors for which comparable international data is available. These factors include: life expectancy, maths and literacy, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teen age births, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness and social mobility. It is worth noting that as with Bentham's proposal to maximise happiness, societies that maximise well-being may not necessarily protect individual rights. For example Japan, which by income is one of the most equal societies, has a rather dubious record when it comes to the treatment of guest workers.
All the foregoing is based on a distributive view of justice – justice is how what we prize gets distributed. This view has been criticized on the grounds that it focuses on outcomes rather than processes. An alternative view is that if people have equal opportunities, and equal access to advantages, this is justice.
In conclusion it appears that to establish what a just society is, it is necessary to grapple with a complex set of interlocking issue including:
- What rights and liberties should people have.
- How do we maximise the availability of those things which people need and prize.
- How do we distribute these things.
- To what extent should we be concerned with being fair and acting benevolently, as opposed to valuing people according to what they contribute to society.
- Should a just society seek to shape people, both in their own interests and in the interests of society at large.
At present there seems to be no theory of justice that deals with all these issues in a way that will satisfy everyone. This has led to doubts about the very possibility of constructing such a theory, a position taken by John Gray in his essay, Modus Vivendi.
'Today, most liberal thinkers affirm that justice is the supreme virtue of social institutions; but some declare that it demands equal distribution of social goods, others that it requires respect for the supposed fact that each of us owns his or her natural endowments, yet others that it involves matching resources with basic needs or merits – and still others that it has nothing to do with distribution at all. Such differences are to be expected. They mirror differences in moral outlook in the wider society. What is surprising is that they are not seen as an objection to the enterprise that most contemporary liberal thinkers have in common – the attempt to construct a theory of justice.'
However, if it is not possible to construct a comprehensive theory of justice that will satisfy everyone, this does not mean that we should not seek to define what we mean by a just society, for without this it seems we will lack any vision of how we should change society for the better. Rather, it means that we must be clear from the outset about what our assumptions and priorities are, and understand that our conclusions will only be accepted by those who share them.