Beyond Liberalism: To Advance Our Understanding of What Justice Is

Stephen Yearwood
10 min readJul 9, 2021

to save liberty, democracy, and the rule of law from arbitrariness

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

John Locke identified arbitrariness with injustice. He famously defined injustice as anyone “being subject to the arbitrary will” of anyone else [in the second of his Two Treatises of Government (1689)].

“Arbitrary” is a word with more than one connotation. It can be a synonym for ‘random’, as in the outcome of a roll of the dice. Intellectually, it can mean a claim, etc. that lacks sufficient evidence or reason’ In interactions involving human beings, which is the concern of justice, it means not (sufficiently) taking into account other people involved in the interaction (whether directly or indirectly, i.e., because they are affected by it): their physical beings, their subjective (emotional/psychological) selves, and their legitimate interests, to include their freedom and their property.

For Locke, identifying arbitrariness with injustice was merely an assertion: one of those ‘self-evident truths’ upon which people once felt free to base ideas of justice. Here I’ll seek to show why arbitrariness really is the necessary condition of injustice. Then we can see clearly what overcoming arbitrariness requires. That can tell us how to advance our understanding of justice.

Liberalism is essentially the product of Locke’s philosophy concerning justice. It was the first formally formulated ideology (though “ideology” came into usage after Locke’s time). Capitalized, that word refers to the meta-ideology that has spawned the political ideologies of libertarianism, conservatism, (political) liberalism, and democratic (non-Marxist) socialism.

I do think that Liberalism is the best humanity has done (till now) in seeking to understand justice. I am convinced that at this point we simply have no choice but to advance that understanding further if we want to save liberty, democracy, and the rule of law from the forces of injustice: arbitrariness.

Let’s start by stipulating that a just society is one in which governance itself is governed by an ethic that can be justly applied: the ethic of justice. An ethic is a rule to govern conduct of human beings. “Governance” refers to passively governing interactions among individuals (via a societally recognized ethic by which people can govern their own actions) as well as determining the structure and functioning of the political process (which includes the criminal/civil justice system) and the economy. A justly applicable ethic of justice is one that is void of arbitrariness. [Every formally organized society of human beings will necessarily have a political process and an economy.]

Heretofore, there have been three sources for proffered ethics of justice: theologies, ideologies, and the assertions of individuals. Karl Marx (among others) insisted that all claims about societal justice boiled down to the last of those: not to mention the assertions of people who were themselves in positions of power, religious leaders and philosophers had always happily provided justifications for those in power, to reap for themselves the rewards that would accrue for such efforts. I disagree. I would say that both theologies and ideologies have provided ‘sincere’ attempts at formulating ethics of justice that have at times ‘spoken truth to power’.

The problem with such efforts brings us back to our central problem: arbitrariness. That’s because all theologies and ideologies, whatever else might be said about any of them, are based on beliefs. Theologies are based on sacral beliefs; ideologies are based on secular beliefs.

Consider Liberalism. It is based on believing in equality and liberty as the ‘twin pillars of justice’ for a just society. (For Locke and other Liberals those values were/are influenced by sacral beliefs, but any atheist can believe in equality and the existence of “Natural Rights” as completely as Locke did, and over time Liberalism has become increasingly secular.)

One problem with Liberalism is that there is no ethic of any kind there. Justice is present when people are abiding by the ethic of justice in their interactions involving one another, and the political process and economy are structured and functioning in accordance with it. Liberty (as we commonly think of it) is the antithesis of an ethic: it is doing whatever someone wants to do. Equality in itself is not a rule of any kind. (Even so, the latter is taken within Liberalism to govern the political process: democracy; determining the proper places of those two values in the economy has always been a major source of conflict within Liberalism and Liberal societies.)

If arbitrariness is injustice — and it is — then the most fundamental problem within Liberalism is that it is based on beliefs: believing in equality and liberty as the foundation of justice for society. Beliefs are assertions of truths that are not amenable to being validated (or invalidated) within material existence.

Beliefs are non-rational. That’s because their sources are neither material nor logical: no believer can explain to anyone else in rational terms why one holds this belief or rejects that one. To have any belief, sacral or secular, is to have made a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” That does not invalidate any belief, but it does make all beliefs, from the point of view of any other person, completely arbitrary: lacking sufficient evidence or reason.

We can reason logically from our beliefs. That is what theologies and ideologies are: bodies of systematic reasoning based on beliefs. Still, the beliefs that are the foundations of all theologies and ideologies are non-rational. All theologies and ideologies are therefore in the end (or, at their beginning) non-rational however logically coherent they might be. That puts arbitrariness at the core of Liberal society — and any other society in which governance is governed by any ethic(s) based on any belief(s).

We arrive at the conclusion that there is some necessary connection between material existence, rationality, and justice. That connection is commonality.

Arbitrariness, as it applies to a proffered ethic of justice, is the manifestation of a lack of commonality. That is why arbitrariness is the necessary condition of injustice for any society of human beings; and that is why societies looking to any theology or ideology for an ethic of justice can never actually achieve justice (though Liberalism did come close).

What we need, then, is an ethic of justice that comes, not from any belief, but from within material existence. Only an such ethic can be imbued with the commonality that justice requires: as human beings we experience in common material existence as we live our separate lives together in this world; our rational faculty is the capacity common to all human beings for processing the inputs we receive from the material world (including communications from other human beings). [Appealing to common ‘intersubjective’ experiences of material existence introduces a whole other philosophical question, but here the appeal is to each person’s own experiences, as the next paragraph shows; the postmodernist perspective is addressed in “Postmodernism and Real Justice” (in Medium.]

The mere fact that the ‘determiner’ of such an ethic would be contained within material existence would make it non-arbitrary: any person could verify its existence for oneself. To serve as the determiner of the ethic of justice however, to exhibit the degree of commonality that the ethic of justice must require, that determiner must be not only verifiable, but also universally verified: something that all human beings can know for themselves that they have experienced for themselves.

I have discovered such an ethic. It follows from the observation that all human beings experience within material existence the process of effecting choices (i.e., choosing among perceived alternatives and taking action to bring that choice to fruition) [which I got from Warren J. Samuels].

No human being has any choice but to effect choices. Most of human life involves effecting choices, from the trivial to those that shape our entire lives thenceforth. Most importantly, we can only affect other people by effecting a choice, both in the process of effecting it and by virtue of the outcomes associated with a particular choice. (‘Pure’ accidents are the exception, but their existence does not change the fact we can have effects on one another when effecting choices.)

So effecting choices is integral to being human. That makes it necessary for us, as fellow humans, to respect one another’s capacity to choose, beginning with choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved in the process whenever any choice is being effected.

So the ethic of justice is mutual respect in effecting choices. (Technically, mutual respect is the ethic of justice and actions involving other people in the effecting any choice form the domain of justice, the part of life to which the ethic of justice applies.) We’re talking about mutual respect of the most basic kind: taking one another into account as we effect choices while living our separate lives together in this world. [I call that ethic and its implications for humanity “real justice” (for obvious reasons).]

To act otherwise is to fail to recognize someone as a fellow human. It is to assert by one’s actions some relative status [actually, (fully) human/not (fully) human] that cannot be verified within material existence. Such an assertion can only be a manifestation of a belief (or feeling or some other non-rational, non-material construction). Since both the determiner of real justice (effecting choices) and the referents of real justice (actions — including speech acts — that involve other human beings in the process of effecting any choice) are contained within material existence, going ‘outside’ of material existence (to beliefs, etc.) to try to justify violating the ethic of real justice is legitimately de-legitimated.

A requirement of mutual respect does also follow from a belief in equality. [I’ve written about that in “Equality Is All We Need” in Medium.] Since that ethic is validated by real justice, accepting mutual respect as the ethic of justice on the basis of believing in equality is perfectly legitimate.

Locke believed in equality. For him it served as a kind of precondition for a just society. For that reason alone, he could have seen that the ethic of justice is mutual respect. [It was the subject of the first of his Two Treatises; for him, people are equally entitled to the “Natural Rights” of (according to Locke) life, liberty, and property because of people’s fundamental moral equality.]

Yet, Locke equated justice with liberty. It’s easy to see why: since justice is the opposite of injustice and liberty is the opposite of being subject to the arbitrary will(s) of any other person(s), Locke had liberty as the predicate of justice: justice is liberty.

If injustice is being subject to the arbitrary will(s) of any other person(s), however, the most immediate inference for justice is that everyone must refrain from subjecting any other person(s) to one’s own arbitrary will: mutual respect. Again, Locke was oh, so close to understanding that for humanity mutual respect is the ethic of justice, but he was looking in the wrong direction.

So the ethic of justice is mutual respect (of a basic kind: taking one another into account) in the process of effecting choices. There is no ‘moral relativism’ here: mutual respect in effecting choices boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (lying, cheating, tricking, etc.) to get what we want. To refrain from indulging in any of those actions to get what we want is all it takes to be ‘just enough’, to take other people into account sufficiently.

Real justice does not revoke individualism. It does represent a reinterpretation of it, though. [“Rethinking Individualism” in Medium]

No society of human beings will ever be perfectly just. For one thing, whether an injustice has occurred or not will often be a judgement call. Moreover, people certainly have the capacity to violate intentionally any ethic, whether acting for themselves or, even more, on behalf of some organization or other group. Also, however justly structured the political process and the economy might be, people are involved in their functioning; those processes are all about power, and for many people, as my good friend my doctor loves to say, power is the ultimate drug of choice: they only want more of it, all the time. Yet, to achieve the most just society possible we must have the best possible understanding of it.

A society governed by mutual respect in effecting choices would have the maximum liberty that co-existing human beings can share simultaneously. Liberty, it turns out, is the product of justice, not its predicate, or source, or foundation, etc.

Such a society would have a democratic political process. The political process is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole. A democratic political process takes all citizens into account, via freedom of (political) speech and a just — ‘democratic’ — non-arbitrary distribution of political rights (the rights to vote, run for office, petition the government, and peaceably assemble, to include ad hoc gatherings and creating ongoing organizations).

Finally, I have learned how mutual respect applies to the economy. There are three conditions of justice for the economy: freedom to choose how to participate in it, the existence of a ‘democratically distributed income’ (DDI), and the absence of exploitation. An economy that meets none of those conditions of justice is totally unjust. An economy can be more or less just: the more of those conditions that are met in a society, the more just its economy will be.

A DDI can be applied to the existing economy — any existing economy — with astonishing results for society: the economy would become fully self-regulating, with no unemployment (at no cost to anyone), no poverty (without having to redistribute anything), no taxes (of any kind), and no public debt (at any level of government) — but increased sustainability (even without additional regulations or any changes in behavior). To be clear, there would still be no limit imposed on income/wealth. [That is explicated in “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society; sustainability is specifically addressed in ”Overcoming Sustainability’s Single Biggest Obstacle” both in Medium.]

To eliminate exploitation, all that is required is to expand the DDI. All of those outcomes would still accrue — with sustainability all but assured and economic stability even further enhanced — with still no limit imposed on income/wealth. [“A Fully Just Economy” in Medium]

So Locke — and Liberalism — had it right: arbitrariness really is the necessary condition of injustice. To overcome arbitrariness and achieve actual justice, however, the ethic of justice must be mutual respect (in effecting choices).



Stephen Yearwood

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