Justice Can’t Just Be What You Want It to Be

but it is what you probably think it is

Stephen Yearwood
10 min readAug 4


Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

As I have written before, I am convinced that justice is necessary for the mental well-being of human beings. We need justice not only for “Happiness” in the sense of Thomas Jefferson and them in the Declaration of Independence, but to keep sane. Experiencing ongoing injustice eats away at our ability to cope with life. The ill-effects of ongoing injustice can follow from direct relationships we have with other people that are rife with it as well as injustice in the broader social environment that we inhabit — the society in which we reside: primarily, the structure and functioning of the political process (the functional core of which is the offices of government) and the economy.

So for as long as humans have trod upon this planet we have thought about justice. What is it? How do we achieve it?

Everyone knows that justice has to be something universal. It can’t be one thing for this person (or group) and be something else for another. Yet, individuals tend to think that whatever one thinks (or, more likely, ‘feels’) that justice must be is what justice must be — or at least that no other idea of what justice must be is any better.

In a sense, everyone (or almost everyone) is right. That’s because almost all of us know at some level that justice is people taking into account other people and their interests as we live our separate lives together in this world. Look at every historically significant account of justice — and I can assure the reader that I have (and then some) — and it always boils down to people respecting one another in a broad sense. Even for libertarians, who are most dedicated to people being able to do as they please, ‘liberty ends at the persons and property of other people’: people are required to respect the persons and property of all other people.

Most people do not have the time or the inclination to put a great deal more effort than that into thinking about justice. For whatever reason, as I was turning 30 years old I pretty much became obsessed with it. I got onto thinking about it — and reading about it and studying it, soon in graduate school then beyond it — more or less to the exclusion of anything else. At 70, I am still seeking to share with this world what I have learned.*

I was reading what Immanuel Kant had written when I realized that justice is mutual respect. He has a particular take on mutual respect in his philosophy, but I realized that it was too personally oriented to be the final answer to the question. For him, knowledge of ‘what justice is’ follows from being able to access, and rationally process, impressions from what he called the “noumenal realm, the realm of the immaterial. Kant dubbed those impressions “intuitions.” The thing is, to say that justice is learned from accessing the “noumenal realm” is in the end no different from saying that it is learned by accessing the Kingdom of God.

To be universal, justice must be common knowledge. It is not enough, though, to say that everyone knows what justice is, that justice is what everyone knows it to be. There has to be something to which that knowledge is attached. It has to follow from something. It can’t just be something unto itself, unconnected to any other knowledge of any kind, without reference to anything else. That is the stuff of Kant’s “intuitions.”

So really, the quest for knowing what justice is has been the quest for that from which justice follows. Besides Kant’s noumenal realm and various conceptions of God or other spiritualities, people have sought ‘first principles’ in various forms, the ‘essence’ of the ‘good life’ (the ancient Greeks), some universal ‘driving force’ common to all people (i.e., ‘human nature’), the ‘natural law’ (to include ‘Natural Rights’), assertions of human equality (secular and sacral), the working of the dialectic (G. W. F. Hegel), etc.

So all of those would-be sources of justice have always boiled down some proffered immaterial truth that anyone can either accept or reject with unassailable validity, either way. Since they are immaterial, all people could accept any of them — any such truth could be universal — but not one of them is necessarily valid for all people. Since they are not necessarily valid, they can also be validly rejected by anyone.

The only knowledge we can possibly necessarily share in common as human beings is knowledge of our experience of life in the material world that we inhabit. Even then, not all experience of every human being is universal: we don’t all share all of the same experiences. Beyond that, what we do experience in common can be perceived very differently by different people. Beyond even that, people’s interpretations of the significance of an experience is a personal matter.

Still, there are things in material life that are undeniably universal. We all experience the warmth of the sun. We all experience thirst and hunger.

We all have no choice but to effect choices (i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition). No human being who is conscious, awake, and anything this side of being completely physically incapacitated can avoid effecting choices. Those choices can range from the utterly trivial to the totally life-altering, but we are always, at all times and in all places, choice-effecting beings. We are all always doing something while we also always have options. Some options are more easily pivoted from than others for many different kinds of reasons (such as obligations we have undertaken), but we are always ultimately choosing to be doing whatever we are doing rather than something else, in the moment and in life more generally.

That was, for me, an example of a perfectly obvious truth that I had never thought about until another person made me aware of it. For me that came from reading “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power,” by Warren J. Samuels (in Perspectives of Property: 1972). [Some people might see the word “Welfare” and assume that this is all really just more of the same from ‘the liberals’, but ‘welfare economics’ refers to taking into account ‘externalities’: mostly, costs involved with the production of goods and services that lie beyond labor, capital, and other technical inputs.]

Samuels was mostly concerned with providing an analysis of how choices get effected. To that end, he came up with the idea of “opportunity sets.” Those are the ad hoc combinations of the resources we have at our disposal that we employ to effect one choice or another. He saw the ability to effect choices as the expression of “social power.” He called those resources “sources of social power.”

There is an element of the ethical in Samuels’s analysis: competitions to effect the same choice, such as getting a particular job, should only be decided by relevant sources of social power. That suggests the connection he makes between the “externalities” of welfare economics and his analysis of effecting choices. In economics those externalities are costs, such as pollution, that are unaccounted for by producers yet very real; for producers of goods and services to neglect them corrupts the ethical functioning of the market economy: it warps the supposedly ethically valid process of profits being based on all costs. (Yes, if those costs were taken into account prices would be higher — but the economy would be more honest, more ethically valid.) The process of effecting choices is corrupted by externalities as irrelevant factors influencing the outcomes of competitions for effecting choices. ‘Race’ and gender are such factors. Regarding the latter, physical things like strength, which males usually have more of, can be legitimate factors, but it is those specific factors that can be legitimately relevant, not maleness itself.

Samuels, though, did not pursue the broader implications of his analysis for justice. For that, what is of the utmost importance is that we have no choice but to effect choices. That makes choosing integral to being human.

Since choosing for ourselves is integral to being human, we must respect each other’s capacity to choose in the process of effecting any choice — beginning with their choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved in the process. To act that way is to recognize one another as fellow human beings. To act otherwise is assert by one’s actions some claim that cannot be demonstrated within material existence, in some way questioning the (‘real’ or ‘full’) humanness of the other being(s) involved, etc.

That looks a lot like an assertion of equality, but it comes before any claim of equality. All that matters for justice is that the other being is a human.

It is true that it does invalidate any claim of inequality, any idea that any persons(s) are inherently superior or inferior to any other(s). Any such claim could only be a reference to a personal, immaterial truth.

If, as has always been the case up till now, the claimed source of justice were an immaterial truth, then the validity or invalidity of rival claims to the truth concerning justice could not be judged within material existence. If one person says justice follows from people being equal, another person could claim just as well that there are natural hierarchies among human beings (based on race, gender, even national origin or some other factor), and that justice requires abiding by the implications of the existence of those hierarchies. As noted above, anyone could with absolute validity accept or reject either claim.

Here, though, justice follows from knowledge of the human experience of material existence that is common to all people: we all experience that we all have no choice but to effect choices. That is what philosophers refer to as the determiner of justice. So here — and only here — the determiner of justice is located within material existence.

In this account of justice what philosophers refer to as the referents of justice are also contained within material existence. Those are the actions people take to bring a choice to fruition that involve other people in any way, shape, or form. It is those actions that are the concern of justice. (Judging motivations, intentions, etc. is the stuff of morality.)

So, in ‘real justice’, as I have come to call this account of justice, all of the factors pertinent to justice reside within the confines of material existence. That legitimately de-legitimates going outside material existence, to any immaterial truth, to seek to invalidate this account of justice or to deny its applicability to any human being — to include oneself.

Still, to say that justice is taking other people into account by respecting their capacity to choose whenever any choice is being effected is a tad unwieldy. When we consider a bit further, though, we realize that respecting others’ capacity to choose for themselves means that we must refrain from co-opting or (otherwise) preempting their capacity to choose. It we are doing neither of those things, then we are refraining form impinging on their capacity to choose for themselves. Any form of those behaviors can be summed up in a few specific forms of action.

To co-opt someone’s capacity to choose means to get them to act in the way you want them to act without freely choosing to act that way. It can be the result of force or the threat of it, or it can be the result of manipulation, such as lying or withholding pertinent information.

Co-option is obviously a form of preemption, of rendering a person’s capacity to choose moot, making it irrelevant. We can preempt people’s capacity to choose in other ways by simply ignoring them, refusing to take their interests into account. Stealing is an example of such conduct. So is killing.

So for the sake of justice we can summarize the forms that co-option and (other) preemption of the capacity of people to choose for themselves with a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating when effecting any choice. It must be said that those are depictions of unjust conduct; when in doubt, they must be interpreted more broadly, not less. That said, anyone who is not engaging in any such conduct in effecting any choice is being just enough.

All of those prohibitions refer in one way or another to “harming” other people. Harm can be psychological as well as material. It can be the result of ‘speech acts’. In any society, defining and punishing harm is the legitimate purpose of its system of criminal and civil justice (including law-making in that).

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that those prohibitions apply to actions undertaken on behalf of any choice, whether for oneself, or any other person or organization (private or public) or cause. It is never O.K. to violate the minimum condition of justice.

At the same time, we must be prepared to accept all outcomes following from justice, whether they accord with our moral sense or not. Otherwise, we are not being just; we are putting our beliefs above justice. If anyone is allowed to put any belief above justice, then all must be allowed to put any other beliefs above justice. We are back to the endless conflict that beliefs have always engendered. For civilization to move forward we have to accept real justice and its implications for society, even without knowing what those are. Keep in mind though, we do that knowing what justice really is.

I did. I learned that those implications are astonishingly, invariably good, with no hidden costs or trade-offs — precisely what justice would be supposed to accomplish. A society governed by real justice would have the maximum liberty that coexisting individuals can share simultaneously, a democratic political process, and the economic system that currently exists in every nation on the planet, but with way better outcomes for society.


*The content I supply to Medium is far from my only such attempt. I write here because it is a place where I can be sure that what I write about justice will enter the public domain. It is not subject to arbitrary judgments of people in positions of power. This way, I can rest assured that my hard-won knowledge will not perish when I do.


Further reading (here in Medium, but not behind the paywall):

applying real justice to the governance of society: “Beyond Liberalism

more about the ubiquity of mutual respect as an ethic for individuals: “From ‘The Golden Rule’ to ‘Real Justice’



Stephen Yearwood

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