Do the Right Thing

As Jean-Paul Sartre said, there are no valid excuses for failing in that duty all humans owe our existence as the privileged beings we are.

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

Part of that “privilege” is, for better or worse, wrestling with right and wrong. For sure, there is more than one “right thing” to do. Just as certainly, though, for people living together in a geopolitical society there is no more important ‘right thing to do’ than to promote justice.

Promoting justice means acting justly while encouraging other people to act justly and advocating for a just political process and economy. That is as far as justice reaches. Doing right in any other form is determined by moralities, based on a person’s beliefs, that go beyond the concerns of justice (such as actions that don’t involve other people, the treatment of animals, and even thoughts and feelings).

Moralities and beliefs definitely inform people’s participation in the political process — and the economy, for that matter — but to have a just society justice must come first. After all, to have a just society justice must determine the structure and (sanctioned) functioning of the political process as well as the economy.

According to the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus talked about justice as much as he talked about people loving one another. A just form of government, much less a just economy, were not among the topics he included in his teachings—perhaps because in a world in which people acted with love towards one another a government would not be necessary and an economy (as relations of reciprocal exchange) simply would not exist. Based on what he did say, he would not object to any part of justice as it is promoted herein.

Justice is as necessary for human beings as feeling loved is. For that matter, as adults the absence of justice affects us far more than the absence of feeling loved does. No human being who is experiencing injustice can be content, even someone who is not consciously aware of the injustice: though it is present, it has not been formally recognized. A society that has an unjust political process or an unjust economy generates such an ongoing source of discontent — again, whether or not the injustice of it has been explicitly identified. We feel the presence of injustice whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

As we’ll see, a just society will have the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously, a democratic political process, and a market-based economy—but with way better outcomes for all individuals than any existing economy produces for any nation (except, it must be admitted, those who have made a living from the existence of taxes/public debt). [Of course, as long as taxes/public debt do exist, there is nothing at all wrong with making a living based on their existence.]

What is justice?

Justice is mutual respect. There are lots of ways to arrive at that conclusion. It definitely follows from a belief in equality, whether that belief is sacral or secular in its origin for one person or another. Mutual respect is therefore well within the meta-ideology of Liberalism and all of the narrower political ideologies it has spawned (libertarianism, conservatism, political liberalism, and democratic — non-Marxist — socialism). It is explicit in the philosophies of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel, among others, as well as being present in the supposedly ‘objective’ ethic of utilitarianism (because all people are included in the calculus of maximizing the ‘good’). It is an ethic any postmodernist can endorse. For justice to be present in interactions among people all concerned must be acting justly — respecting one another — but all any individual can do in one’s interactions with others, other than encouraging all people to act justly, is to act justly.

There is respect that must be earned, but there is also respect that every human being is due merely by being human. Even a claim of ‘equality’ is not in any way necessary: the mere existence of a being who is a fellow human is all that is needed to require such respect. To act otherwise (including ‘speech acts’) is to assert by one’s actions a claim of innate superiority/inferiority of some kind regarding oneself and that being.

It must be allowed that such a claim is perfectly valid for the person making it. Any such claim is, however, in no wise anything any other person or society as a whole must accept as valid — even if other people make the same claim, and no matter how vociferously: no such claim can be demonstrated to all human beings to have any basis in material reality (the only realm of possible experience in which all humans can knowingly share the same experiences and thereby share a universally confirmable truth). Back in the day, even the European explorers recognized all other humans as distinct from any other living entities, no matter how ‘inferior’ they might have regarded them to be.

What does that basic form of respect entail?

Respecting one another in that way means taking one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world. It is commonly accepted that in a just society the liberty of any person ends at the person and property of any other person. To abide by those limitations on liberty is to engage in the basic form of respect every human being is due.

It is obvious why another person’s person — a person’s physical being — is a legitimate limit on liberty. It is worth asking why property is a legitimate limit on liberty.

After all, justice is the goal of a just society, not property. If maximizing justice entails maximizing liberty, how does my property limiting your liberty contribute to justice?

Property is a legitimate limit on liberty because any person’s property is an integral part of that person’s life. It is as much a part of that person’s life as that person’s physical being itself is.

It is irrelevant whether any property is necessary or not, or useful or not, or has value (monetary or sentimental) or not, or whether or not any other recognizable justification exists for any piece of property that a person owns. Even if a person’s property was illegitimately acquired, it is still unjust for any other individual person(s) to harm or take it. A person’s property is integral to that person’s life, and that is all anybody has to know. For that reason we must limit our own liberty by respecting the property of all other people.

So people’s property is an integral interest in people’s lives, and for that reason it is a legitimate limit on liberty. A question arises: are there any other such interests? There are three more such interests that all people have.

One such interest that is already universally recognized is a person’s reputation. That is why the liberty to commit malicious slander/libel is limited to the point of being illegal. Indeed, to assassinate another person’s character is every bit as vile an act as physical murder is.

It is also known to all people that physical health is an integral interest that all people have. To put the physical health of others at risk is unjust. Taking measures to protect the health of people against known threats to it is a legitimate limit on liberty. [That refers to far more that the current pandemic, but in that case a societal mandate to take a vaccine that, it must be allowed, could yet turn out to have unexpected longer-term negative effects, is not a just option — but a mandate for wearing a mask in the public space (i.e., outside people’s residences) is.]

We all know also that a person’s mental/psychological/emotional well-being is another integral interest that all people have. To harm the well-being of that kind of any other person is unjust. To be required to refrain from committing such harm is a legitimate limit on liberty.

So, beyond our physical beings, those are the integral interests that people have: our property, our reputation, our physical well-being, and our mental/psychological/emotional well-being. All are an integral part of people’s lives. All are legitimate limits on liberty. To violate any of them is to act unjustly. To maximize justice we, the people, must do our part as individuals by recognizing the legitimate limits on liberty and abiding by those limits whether any particular act related to any of them has been made illegal or not.

It’s called personal responsibility: self-government. To promote justice on the personal level — involving direct interactions with other people — we must be aware of the effects we might have on their persons and interests and to avoid doing harm to them by injuring/taking from them that which is integral to their lives as human beings. It all boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, coercing, harming, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.) in our interactions with other people.

Mutual respect also applies to society as a whole, in the political process (the process of deciding what the community as a whole should undertake to accomplish and how to go about it) and the economy (the process of producing and acquiring goods and services).

For the political process to be just, all citizens must be taken into account in the structure and functioning of that process: the political process must be democratic. That is, freedom of political speech must exist for all citizens and any restrictions on any other form of participation in the political process (voting, running for office, petitioning the government, and peaceable assembly) cannot be arbitrary: they must be universally applicable and universally applied (such as age). [We commonly think of those forms of possible participation in the political process as political rights: rights are grants to exercise power, in this case the forms that political power for individual citizens can take.]

For the economy to be just there must be freedom for people to decide how and to what extent to participate in it: it must be market-based. Beyond that, money is to the economy as those rights of participation are to the political process: necessary for participating in it. In the market-based economy we satisfy even our most basic, necessary — integral — material needs that all people have by making purchases. So, for a nation with a market-based economy to be just every (adult) citizen must have access to an income that is sufficient to meet those needs.

[There is a way to implement such an income within any nation’s existing economic system — with a single legislative Act — that would not involve taxes/public debt. For that matter, all government (from central to local) could be funded at the existing level of total government spending without any taxes/public debt. At the same time, unemployment and poverty would be eliminated and sustainability would be increased — all accomplished without imposing any cost on employers, without redistributing anything, without imposing any limit on income/wealth, without additional regulations, and without requiring people to act any particular way — other than to be willing to work (if able and not yet of retirement age) to be paid that income: indolence wouldn’t be a crime, but there would be no public charity and, one would think, scant private charity for people able but unwilling to work. We can call that the “allotted income” or, as any (adult) citizen could become eligible for it, a “democratically distributed” income.*]

So a society governed by mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously, a democratic political process, and the market-based economy with which we are all familiar (but with way better outcomes for society).

Do the right thing: promote justice as mutual respect — by treating other all people accordingly (which most people already do almost all the time anyway), by encouraging others to act justly, and by insistently advocating on behalf of a democratic political process and the institution of a democratically distributed income in a market-based economy.

There is no valid excuse for eschewing that most integral human duty.


*More about the economic paradigm: “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stephen Yearwood

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