Beliefs, Rationalistic Propositions, Justice

To free justice from the arbitrariness of the former requires the latter.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

In another article that I published recently here in Medium I wrote about the fundamental differences between beliefs and rationalistic propositions, and especially how those differences determine the grounds for accepting or rejecting the one kind of knowledge or the other. Here I’ll tackle the implications of those differences for justice.

Knowing what justice must be is, after all, an instance of knowledge. Beliefs and rationalistic propositions are the two forms of knowledge available for that purpose.

[Technically, beliefs are only one form that ‘extra-rational’ knowledge can take. Intuitions (that are accepted without further evaluation) and any assertion of any a priori anything are other forms of it. The process by which all such knowledge gets formulated does not involve the rational faculty (in any way of which we can be aware). All such claims of knowledge have the same characteristics, when it comes to people accepting such knowledge, that beliefs have: i.e., a ‘leap of faith’, not rational evaluation of what is purported to be valid knowledge. Here the goal is to make a convincing case for an ethic does not involve any form of extra-rational knowledge.]]

What is justice?

That question is surely as old as humanity. Most generically, justice is people interacting with one another in accordance with the ethic of justice (whether knowingly or not). Interactions among people are the concern of justice.

What is the ethic of justice?

An ethic is a rule for governing people’s conduct in our interactions with one another. It can be any rule. We think of an ethic as a rule for engendering ‘good’ behavior, but technically it is any such rule whatsoever. [A morality, as a code of conduct stemming from one or more moral precepts, can include actions that don’t involve other people and even thoughts and feelings; ‘ethics’ would be the part of any morality that deals with interactions among people.]

Every society of human beings that has ever existed has had an organizing ethic — however large or small, complex or simple, technologically advanced or not a society has been. That ethic determines the structure and functioning of the political process and the economy (both of which every human society that has ever existed has had). An organizing ethic also has implications for how people are expected to treat one another, but of course an ethic governing the political process will ultimately determine who can be involved in making the laws, what constraints might (or might not) exist concerning the making of laws, and how the laws will be enforced — however formal or informal that process of regulating behavior might be.

It is not that an organizing ethic is necessary. The issue is that, for human beings coexisting in an organized society, such an ethic is a fact of existence.

The ethic of justice is a particular case of an organizing ethic. It is an ethic that can be truly said to be universally valid for human beings.

It is worth briefly emphasizing that a lack of conscious knowledge of a truly universal ethic does not preclude acting in accordance with it. We’ll see that the ethic derived herein boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions that are commonly associated with distinguishing just from unjust conduct: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.). Who would argue that acting unjustly is anything else?

Conceptually, unjust conduct is arbitrariness in actions that involve other people. That means acting without regard for other people, without taking them and their interests into account. John Locke asserted that much the second of his his Two Treatises of Government in 1689 (in which he stated that injustice is people being “subject to the arbitrary will” of others), but its validity will be reinforced herein. The antidote for such arbitrariness is simple: take other people and their interests into account.

Arbitrariness in the formulation of an ethic is also an issue. By simply asserting what injustice is, Locke was being arbitrary in that way. That such arbitrariness is unjust does follow from a belief in human equality, which Locke asserted in his first Treatise. The problem for justice is that beliefs (and all forms of extra-rational knowledge) are themselves sources of arbitrariness. That kind of arbitrariness and its antidote — universality — are the subject of this article.

Heretofore, every attempt at formulating justice, much less identifying the ethic of justice, has involved beliefs (or some other form of extra-rational knowledge). That takes us back to that aforementioned essay of mine: from the point of view of any other person, all beliefs held by all people are completely arbitrary. For arbitrariness to exist in the formulation of the organizing ethic of any society is to introduce injustice into the functional core of the community.

While any person can certainly believe that people should take other people into account (and anyone who believes in human equality must accept that dictum), the only thing anyone can say about the actual process of accepting any belief, to include that one, is that it is an absolutely, purely, ‘hermetically sealed,’ subjective thing. The actual process of accepting a belief cannot be known to the person in whom that process transpires, much less be known to anyone else — or be explicable to the believer, much less anyone else. [For the record, this author does have beliefs, including ‘believing in’ God (i.e., being certain that a Spirit Being created the Universe and all that is in it— including human beings, with our rational faculty.)]

In short, beliefs are extra-rational. They refer to a reality that is separate from material existence and their formulation/acceptance does not knowingly involve a person’s rational capacity. Accepting a belief as valid cannot be a rational act.

Not only do beliefs refer to a separate reality [Carlos Castaneda], but there is no way for any other person to verify the reality to which any professed belief refers. A person can accept it as valid — adopt the belief for oneself, even (to adopt it is to assert its validity for oneself)—but it is not possible for anyone to share, with material certainty, the actual reality to which any other person professing the same belief refers.

It is worth emphasizing that the nature of beliefs does not invalidate beliefs as a form of knowledge. It does make that form of knowledge radically subjective and, from the point of view of all other people, arbitrary.

Hence, beliefs cannot be the source of the ethic of justice. No matter how many people share a belief, all beliefs are still inherently arbitrary from the perspective of all other people — even those who profess the same belief.

So, for an ethic to be the ethic of justice it cannot be subjective in the way that any belief (or other form of extra-rational knowledge) necessarily is. That suggests that the opposite of subjectivity — objectivity — might be the place to look for the ethic of justice.

Only, objectivity is not available for discerning the ethic of justice, either. That’s because, as postmodernists have stressed, for a human being there can be no such thing as objectivity as a state of mind in which no extraneous subjective influence is operative. It is simply impossible for us to escape such influences, from our beliefs to sheer egoism and other psychological affects (including insecurity, jealousy, and envy as well as prejudices and biases — either for or against), even a person’s ‘mood’ at the time particular input is received by that person, and even psychological effects — positive or negative — triggered by the physical characteristics of any person who might be the source of any input.

Knowledge is sufficiently verified information. Information/knowledge regarding material existence — becoming cognizant of information received from the senses or other sources (i.e., perceiving/recognizing/realizing), much less evaluating it — necessarily involves the rational faculty.

Yet, even that process cannot escape subjectivity. As, again, postmodernists have emphasized, whether any bit of proffered information is sufficiently verified to be counted as knowledge is something every individual has the capacity to decide for oneself. That brings all possible subjective influences right back into the process.

Though it is impossible for human beings to escape the effects of subjectivity, however, even in our attempts at understanding material existence — as an individual, much less any mutual understanding of any of it among people — that realm of reality does present an opportunity for knowable commonality that the subjective realm of beliefs does not. Within material existence we can have experiences of that existence that we can know for ourselves other people are having. That conscious — rationalistic — sharing of experiences of material reality provides a commonality that can potentially be universal: every human being can verify having the experience same for oneself and perceiving that all other people are having that same experience.

One problem, as already suggested, is that no person can know what any other person is experiencing. People can, however, communicate. It is possible for us to come to a sufficient understanding regarding shared experiences of material existence. Communication, in particular language as its vehicle, has itself been a huge issue within the development of ‘Western’ philosophy since the 1920’s, but that issue arose in response to recognizing the difficulties that communicating about — much less reaching final answers regarding — extra-rational knowledge has posed for philosophy (though communicating about material existence does pose its own set of difficulties).

So in an ethic following from a universal experience of material existence, the arbitrariness associated with any form of extra-rational knowledge is thereby obviated. There is a common point of reference — the experience within material existence from which the ethic follows — that everyone can verify as being the same for all: everyone has first-hand knowledge of the commonly shared experience; nobody has to take anybody’s word for anything; there is no possibility that the experience from which the ethic follows was different for one person or another.

The question becomes whether there is any experience of material existence that is universally shared by all human beings that carries within it the impetus for an ethic. If it does, such an ethic is universal. A universal ethic is the ethic of justice.

Justice is juxtaposed against power. All formulations of it that have ever been rendered have referred to delineations of power, constraints on power, grants to employ power in this or that form (i.e., ‘rights’), etc. Most generally, since the domain of justice is interactions among human beings, justice is concerned with regulating relationships of power in those interactions.

Warren J. Samuels all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices. It is the capacity people have to choose among perceived alternatives and to take action to bring that choice to fruition. We employ whatever resources anyone has at one’s disposal that will help in effecting a given choice. Given our social nature as human beings, that process takes place within the context of the social circumstances in which a person finds oneself — to include other people as well as the structure and functioning of the society in which a person is located. Those “social circumstances” do in turn affect in myriad ways the resources that individuals will have at their disposal. [“Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” in Perspectives of Property, edited by Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson (1972)]

Regarding justice, what is most important is that we humans have no choice but to effect choices — large or small, trivial or momentous. It is what we do, every waking hour of our lives. Usually, given our social nature as human beings, effecting a choice will involve at least one other person, either in the process of effecting the choice — actually participating in that process — or being affected in some way by the choice itself or the process of effecting it. [Samuels was concerned with the process of effecting choices in itself, including its social context, but he did not go so far as to consider effecting choices in the context of expressing an ethic.]

So effecting choices is universally something human beings cannot help but experience, and effecting choices can affect other people. Indeed, no human being can have any effect on any other human being unless some choice of some kind is being effected.

So effecting choices looks to me like a likely place to find a truly universal ethic. What is that ethic, and what is the specific source of it?

Clearly, the ethic is that we must, at a minimum, respect each other’s capacity to choose. Choosing is integral to being human. To respect each other’s capacity to choose is to recognize one another as fellow human beings. To act otherwise is to assert by one’s actions some status among the beings involved that cannot be validated within material existence — some sort of belief (or other form of extra-rational knowledge). There lies arbitrariness.

It is important that actions, including ‘speech acts’, are the only concern of this ethic of justice. Our actions convey (betray?) subjective influences, but concerning “real justice” (as I have come to call this ethic and its implications for humanity), only actions count, not those influences (though subjective influences as well as material circumstances can possibly mitigate or exacerbate unjust acts — but that is a subtopic that can be a matter of debate within the context of justice).

Actions, including speech acts, take place within material existence. They are part of material reality.

That the concern of real justice is actions limits to material existence both the determiner and the referents of this ethic (the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices and actions taken in furtherance of effecting a choice, respectively). Going outside material existence to deny the applicability of this ethic — via beliefs or any other form of extra-rational knowledge — is thereby legitimately de-legitimated.

Whereas Locke simply asserted that acting arbitrarily is injustice, this account of justice demonstrates why Locke’s assertion turned out to be valid: the determiner and referents of justice are universally verifiable within the commonality of material existence. Neither is the product of any claim(s) issuing from a reality that is unavailable to other people.

It is important that this ethic does not depend on a belief in equality. Our mere existence as fellow human beings is the source of this ethic. (Why did anyone ever think a claim of ‘equality’ was necessary, anyway?) This ethic is a purely rationalistic proposition within the context of material existence. The mere existence of a fellow human being is all that is necessary to effect this ethic, for the simple reason that any further attribution that would justify acting otherwise must involve extra-rational knowledge, hence arbitrariness.

What does it mean to respect the capacity of other people to choose?

At a minimum, it means refraining from co-opting or otherwise preempting the capacity to choose that other people have. It means allowing other people to choose whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected: i.e., their involvement must be sufficiently informed and voluntary. At bottom, respecting other people’s capacity to choose when effecting any choice engenders the handful of absolute prohibitions that were noted above: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.).

That is the minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice. It draws the line that separates acting unjustly from acting justly enough. Taking others and their interests into account is the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice. There is no limit on how justly a person might act.

Of course, no one can act perfectly justly all the time, especially in sufficiently taking into account all people who might be involved in any way whenever any choice is being effected. Beyond infractions that people can deal with on their own, sorting out instances of injustice and the appropriate measures to be taken is the purpose of a society’s system of criminal and civil justice.

That system is, as mentioned above, part of a society’s political process. The political process is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole. An economy is the process of producing and acquiring goods and services. Determining what the structure and functioning of the economy is to be is one of the political choices any society must make.

A society governed by the ethic of justice would have the maximum liberty that co-existing human beings can share simultaneously. It would have a democratic political process. It would have a market-based economy, but with a “democratically distributed income” (which could be accomplished without using taxes, redistributing anything, or imposing any limit on income/wealth, and with far better outcomes for society than is presently experienced in any nation with such an economy — or in any other nation, for that matter). [If curious about that economic paradigm: “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society” (here in Medium).]

In a nutshell, then, the ethic of justice is ‘mutual respect in effecting choices’. For justice to be present such respect must be mutual, though each individual must take it upon oneself to uphold that ethic.

That more general statement of the ethic does indicate that justice is not strictly a dichotomy, that there is no limit on how respectful of others any person might be when effecting any choice. Only at the minimal necessary level of respect does justice/injustice become an either/or proposition. Beyond that minimum, the ethic of justice is an unlimited source of, well, goodness in interactions among coexisting human beings living our separate lives together in this world.


In his second Treatise Locke went from his definition of injustice to the conclusion that, since justice is the opposite of injustice and the opposite of being subject to the arbitrary will of any other person is liberty, liberty is the predicate of justice: justice is liberty. Since he had made a case for human equality in his first Treatise, a limit on liberty was at hand: one person’s liberty ends at the person and interests (primarily, for Locke, property) of any other person. [He also included liberty among the “Natural Rights” of human beings, but such an assertion is clearly extra-rational — and was derived from a “State of Nature” with human beings existing as isolated individuals, which has never been the case for human beings as a species.]

With that constraint from equality in place, there is little conceptual difference between Locke’s account of justice and real justice. The former, however, with its focus on liberty for oneself, promotes self-centeredness, whereas the latter maximizes liberty for all people by focusing on the limits that the existence of other persons and their interests present for one’s own actions (in effecting choices). Looking at the world today and thinking about how different it would be if taking others into account had been emphasized all this time rather than self-centeredness, differences in the practical effects of these two approaches to justice are hugely significant.

Philosophically, the problem for Locke’s account of justice is twofold. One is, of course, that ‘human equality’ is a belief. The problem on the other side of the fold, which problem is intrinsic to Locke’s own account of justice, is that for him equality forms the constraint on liberty.

Liberty as a right (or Right), is a grant to exercise power. Since for Locke equality constrains liberty — in itself, the unfettered exercise of power — that makes equality, not liberty, the source of justice in his account of it. As such, Locke could have realized that what follows most immediately from his definition of injustice is not a self-centered conception of liberty, but rather that justice requires for everyone to refrain from subjecting anyone else to one’s own arbitrary will. That is a straightforward rendering of mutual respect that easily depicts how liberty gets maximized thereby. [That would still have justice following from a belief in equality, but there is no practical difference whether mutual respect as the organizing ethic of a society follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices or from that belief — though conceptually that difference makes all the difference.]

Locke’s (flawed) exposition of 1689 did become the conceptual foundation of the meta-ideology of Liberalism. That meta-ideology has given rise to the narrower political ideologies of libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, and democratic (non-Marxist) socialism within it. [Of late, some people who call themselves ‘conservatives’ seem to be abandoning Liberalism, but that is another matter entirely.]

Whatever the conceptual shortcomings of Locke’s philosophizing and the practical limitations of the implications for society of the meta-ideology it promulgated (leaving unsolved all this time the problems of unemployment and poverty — and, of more recent origin, environmental sustainability) all of that did represent an advance in the understanding of justice. Real justice is an advance “Beyond Liberalism” (also here in Medium). Should anyone still be reading this and be interested, that essay emphasizes that point, with links to yet more essays that convey more information about real justice. Whether that information might count as ‘knowledge’ for anyone other than the author of it is only for the individual to say.



unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice