From Locke to Real Justice
The intellectual sojourn that got me to where I am began in the autumn of 1982. Armed with a B.S. in political science and three undergraduate courses in economics, and having seriously considered but finally rejected Marxism (in large part because I could not accept his rejection of the reality of justice — or its lack), I asked myself what a really just economy could be. I thought of using democracy as a template. [I eventually earned an M.A. in economics: political economy (1988).]
At the time I honestly thought there was some agreed-upon ethic of justice somewhere, at least within ’Western’/‘Liberal’/’Modern’ culture, that established the justness of democracy. When I learned that no universal ethic of justice existed, even within that limited realm, I wedded myself (as it turned out — kind of a common-law thing) to seeking one.
I eventually learned that to be free of arbitrariness it would have to be a necessarily universal ethic. Enter postmodernism, which eventually taught me that the goal had to be a tad more open than that for the ball to get through it. Even so, while my studies have also taught me that Locke’s approach to justice wasn’t entirely right about, well, anything, he was ‘right enough’ about the place of arbitrariness in injustice.
Locke — John Locke — is the author of Liberalism. He literally wrote the book on it, Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689.
I capitalize “Liberalism” when referring to the meta-ideology that has spawned political ideologies ranging from libertarianism to conservatism to liberalism to (non-Marxist) socialism. It is based on equality and liberty as the ‘twin pillars’ of justice. To some extent those political ideologies emphasize one or the other, but to fall within the Liberal spectrum any political ideology must include both.
Locke started with the assertion that in human relations arbitrariness is injustice. I took the opposite approach, starting with what the ethic of justice must be, and arrived at the same place.
Along the way I developed a comprehensive epistemological construct (something anyone claiming to have knowledge of ‘what justice is’ must surely have, and have explicitly, whether borrowed or new). What is most pertinent for justice in it is the distinction between beliefs as a form of “extra-rational knowledge” — but knowledge — and “observational rationalistic knowledge.” [Ex.: when I say I believe in God (and I do), I’m saying I have knowledge of the existence of God.]
Heretofore, all approaches to justice have involved beliefs, either religious/theological or secular/ideological. The ethic at which I arrived follows instead from observations within material existence.
As I am using the term, beliefs refer to a reality that cannot be validated or invalidated within material existence. Every belief is absolutely valid for any person who accepts it for as long as that person continues to hold it; no belief has any validity whatsoever for any human being who rejects it. To have a belief is to verify it; to reject a belief is to refute it. ‘A priori’, ‘transcendental’, etc. always belie beliefs.
As a consequence of the form of knowledge that beliefs exhibit, all beliefs of all people are completely arbitrary from the perspective of any other person. That in turn has consequences for societal justice.
To use any idea of justice based on any belief(s) as the organizing principle of a society of people with disparate beliefs related to justice entrenches arbitrariness at the core of society. It requires that the belief(s) of some be imposed on others. We are learning that the differences in beliefs between conservatism and liberalism can be enough to rend society.
From the quill (literally) of Locke, in Liberalism justice is based on believing in equality and liberty as an a priori Right. In addition to the arbitrariness in beliefs, as an organizing principle for society that raises the ‘reflexivity problem’: no idea of justice based on those beliefs could be imposed on others without violating that very idea of justice.
There is a further problem with using equality and a Right to liberty for governing the governance of a just society. Neither of them is an ethic, a rule for governing human conduct.
Since liberty is doing whatever one wants (and can), it is in fact the opposite of an ethic — though it could be considered a moral precept (as moralities are rules of conduct based on beliefs). It can be curbed for the sake of justice, but that makes those curbs, or the sources of those curbs, the locus of justice, not liberty.
Equality is in itself no more of an ethic than liberty is. Since, in itself, it makes no reference whatever to human conduct, it can’t even be a moral precept.
Equality does, however, imply an ethic: mutual respect. Mutual respect is the opposite of arbitrariness in human relations.
It is that ethic that has redeemed Liberal justice, informing democracy and limiting liberty to ‘an equal liberty for all others’, ‘the persons and property of all others’, etc. In limiting it thusly, mutual respect maximizes the liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously. Within Liberalism, though, mutual respect is still based on a belief.
As noted above, the ethic at which I arrived does not involve any beliefs, but follows — immediately — from observations within material existence: humans are social beings (we live together in groups we call societies) and we have no choice but to effect choices (choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition) — which makes choosing for oneself integral to being human, which holds even if as individuals our choices are somehow predetermined (which takes issues related to ‘free will’ out of the equation). The inference for conduct that follows from those observations is: mutual respect in effecting choices. [Warren J. Samuels all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices in “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” in Perspectives of Property, Gene Wunderlich and W.L. Gibson, eds. (1972).]
Though some form of equality is implied therein, a requirement of respect follows immediately from those observations, without referencing ‘equality’. For someone imbued from birth with Liberal culture, the possibility of ‘confirmation bias’ does rear its ugly head. Yet, observation within material existence is the strongest barrier we have against a self-induced intellectual mirage.
To “respect” others is to take into account people who are involved when effecting any choice. It is to respect their capacity to choose for themselves whether/how/to what extent to be involved in the process whenever any choice is being effected. In short, it is to recognize them as fellow human beings within material existence. To choose not to take people into account is to assert by one’s actions some relative status regarding oneself and them that cannot be validated within material existence. People must do one or the other. Intentionality is an issue, but the onus is on people to be aware of others.
Justice is ontological. It is present when people are acting (including speech acts) in accordance with the ethic of justice: hence the need for mutual respect for justice to exist.
With the ethic of justice limited to the very large but finite domain of interactions (direct or indirect) among human beings in effecting choices, that locates the referents of that ethic within material existence, just as its following from observations within material existence places its determiners there. With both its determiners and its referents confined to material existence — the ‘real world’ — I therefore call this approach to justice “real justice.”
Real justice does involve the issue of interpersonal acceptance of a shared material reality, but it does not involve ‘objective truth’. Postmodernists, in particular Jacques Derrida, have established to my satisfaction that subjective objectivity, as a state of mind in which no extraneous subjective influence could be operative, is a human impossibility.
That does not preclude mutual understanding of a shared material reality. This ethic would apply to everyone who would recognize the validity of the observations from which it follows.
Without societal existence human existence is indeterminate. A just society must entail a shared reality that informs its organizing principle. The only reality that can inform an organizing principle for a society of human beings without any imposing their reality on others in the process (absent perfectly consonant pertinent beliefs) is the reality we share in the common material existence we share as human beings.
Even so, human beings are entitled to our unique realities (from Michel Foucault). We are not entitled, however, to have others, much less society as a whole, share our individuated realities.
In a society with mutual respect in effecting choices as its organizing principle, those who did not share the reality that informs that ethic, did not recognize the validity of the observations that inform it, would be free to do so. As long as they were benign, there would be no problem. Foucault’s position taken to its furthest possible extent aside, should anyone’s acting from within his or her individual reality result in harm or a manifest threat of harm to any other, it would be societal insanity to tolerate such behavior — though real justice most certainly requires that the humanity of all individuals always be respected. For a society in which governance was governed by the ethic of real justice, that ethic would apply even to beings displaying the capacity to deny its reality for themselves.
Real justice has a definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice — which is the ethic itself — and a minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice that draws the line between acts that are ‘just enough’ and unjust acts: no co-opting any other person in the process of effecting any choice. Everyone’s participation, as ends or means, in any process of effecting a choice must be sufficiently informed and voluntary. That boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions (to be most broadly construed): no killing, harming, coercing, lying, cheating, or stealing in effecting any choice.
Again, intentionality can be an issue. Life for humans being what it is, every community must have a legal system of some kind, some means of assessing blameworthiness and meting out punishment, if indicated, related to specific interactions. Real justice does require legal due process.
As an organizing principle for society, its standard for governing governance, the application of mutual respect in effecting choices to interpersonal interactions and the political process (the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole) would generate nothing new. Applied to interpersonal interactions, it would maximize liberty as a practical matter. It would conceptually reinforce democracy.
I have found that real justice yields three conditions of justice for the economy: freedom, the existence of a “democratically distributed income,” and the absence of exploitation. The economy will be more just the more of those conditions that are met. The economy we have fulfills (let’s say) the first of them.
I developed an institutional model of a revolutionary monetary system to effect a democratically distributed income. It turned out that it would transform the macro-socioeconomic functioning of the economy we have. It would provide the means to eliminate (involuntary) unemployment and poverty (at no cost to anyone and without redistributing anything), with no need for taxes (of any kind) or public debt (at any level of government), but would increase sustainability (because total output would be governed by demographics), yet with no hidden pill for society to swallow (e.g., there would still be no limit on income or property or wealth). Any restructuring of an economic system will inevitably cause some individuals losses, such as in this case those who have depended on the existence of tax codes for their incomes, but there is no hidden cost for society as a whole. The democratic income would be paid to retirees and adults too incapacitated to work (with the option to pay it to at least one parent or legal guardian in a household with at least one dependent child in residence) and minimum-pay employees (hourly or salaried); employers would use benefits to compete for minimum-pay employees.
The democratically distributed income could be expanded to eliminate exploitation. Revenue received by government or any business would be only for it as an entity. None of its revenue would go to anyone employed in it in the form of money, from janitor to CEO to President. Variable benefits without limit could accrue to different positions for a person to enjoy while employed in that position, so long as they were ‘in kind’, not monetary — insurance, education, house (or apartment) to use, car (with or without driver) to use, etc. All employees would be paid the democratic income, including those employed in proprietorships. Proprietors could receive two incomes, one for ownership and one as employee; where there were multiple owners of an enterprise, the owners’ income could be divided among them.
Having observations within material existence as the starting point for arriving at an ethic of justice does allow for the possibility of other candidates for ‘knowing what justice is’ based on other observations. As those alternatives would also be in the form of observational rationalistic knowledge, as opposed to beliefs, the process of choosing among the candidates would at least offer edifying debate and not be a mere “contest of power” (from Foucault), which conflict based on beliefs can only be.
…for those whose curiosity outruns their skepticism (or overcomes their cynicism): various essays published on Medium, including “Extending Democracy to Our Capitalist Economy to Transform Our Society,” “A Cure for the Ills of Capitalism,” and “People for Tolerance, Unite!” as well as my Web site, www.ajustsolution.com, which also has links to other essays in other places