Justice: It’s Exactly What Everybody Already Knows It To Be

though there are technicalities of which everyone might not be aware

Photo by Edz Norton on Unsplash

The concern of justice is how we humans treat one another. In that sense, justice is a portion of the broader concerns of morality: how we should live our lives. Justice concerns both our direct interactions with one another and indirect interactions that involve the political process and the economy.

Moralities vary, but our idea of what justice must be — how we should treat one another — is, I am convinced, universal. That’s because we all understand, whether we have ever really thought about it or not, that as fellow human beings we share one thing in common: we humans have no choice but to effect choices*. If the reader will continue reading for just a minute or two, that perhaps puzzling starting point will be clarified.

That is to say, we choose among the alternatives that we perceive we have available to us and we take action to bring that choice to fruition. If we are alive and awake, we are effecting a choice. Choices can range from the most trivial, such as what to eat or wear at a particular time, to the kinds of choices that set the course of a person’s life. (The latter can seem minor at the time, yet turn out to be of the most major consequence, such as barely wanting to go on a first date with the person someone eventually marries.)

Since we live among other human beings, effecting a choice will very often involve other people. They might be involved in the actual process of effecting the choice, such as choosing with one or more other people somewhere to eat or to do some other thing together. People can be directly involved without wanting to be when a choice is being effected, such as when someone chooses to get drunk and drive and crashes into another person’s vehicle — or worse. People can also be involved indirectly, as a byproduct of a choice that is effected, such as when you leave your job for another one (or retire) and whoever replaces you gets a position that person wanted.

To close the loop: we cannot affect other people in any way unless we are effecting a choice of some kind. So justice can only be an issue when we are effecting choices.

In effecting choices the effects we can have on other people can be good or bad. Justice requires that we refrain from causing harm to others when we effect any choice. Beyond that, we must respect the capacity of other people to choose for themselves whether and how and to what extent to be involved whenever we are effecting any choice. In short, it is unjust to ‘use’ other people in the process of effecting a choice: we cannot involve them without their knowledge of what’s going on and their voluntary consent.

It all boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.) in effecting any choice. Those are the behaviors that are absolutely prohibited by justice. Anyone who is refraining from engaging in any of those prohibited behaviors when effecting any choice is being just enough.

Who among us would say that, in our direct interactions with one another, justice is anything else?

Acting perfectly justly would require being aware of all of the ramifications of all of our actions relating to all other people in the process of effecting all choices and acting to bring every choice to fruition without violating any of those absolute prohibitions. Of course, no mere mortal human being has ever lived a perfectly just life, and no one ever will. The point is, we all know whether we are trying to act justly or not.

In any society, some injustices will be illegal, but others may not be. There will be instances when injustices are committed unintentionally. There will be instances in which it is debatable whether an injustice has occurred at all. For any society, sorting out all of those kinds of issues is the reason for having a system of criminal and civil justice.

Even though I have explicated what justice is, I know that every human being already knows what justice is. Most people try to live their lives accordingly.

There are, though, further technicalities that are worth considering. Those technicalities further clarify how justice applies to individual human beings and society as a whole, i.e., the economy and the political process.

For instance, while justice covers a lot of human existence, there is a limit to its reach. It does not extend to animals or the physical environment generally, except as actions concerning those might affect people.

Where the domain of justice ends, morality takes over to govern our actions. Moralities, whatever their source, are bigger than justice; they pertain to more than just effecting choices. They can also require more of us than justice does in our interactions with other people. Still, moralities most certainly do accord with that intuitive knowledge of what justice is. They can reinforce that intuitive sense of justice we all share when it comes to our interactions with one another when we are effecting choices. To have a just society, should an individual’s personal morality stop short of the requirements of justice in effecting choices (if such a thing is possible), justice must take precedence.

It is also possible to effect a choice without involving, directly or indirectly, another human being. Choosing what to eat when alone at home is one example.

Before effecting that choice, a person has had to participate in the economy. The economy is neither more nor less than the process of producing and acquiring goods and services.

The economy is therefore nothing but people effecting choices (whether for themselves or on behalf of some other entity, such as a person’s employer). Since the economy is all about effecting choices, all acts within the economy are subject to the requirements of justice. Nothing about the process of producing and acquiring goods and services is outside the realm of justice; every action of any human being pursuant to any such activity is either just or unjust. To paraphrase a great old song, the fundamental rules always apply.

Can the economic system itself be just or unjust?

That requires first of all being clear about what the economic system is. Since the economy is the process of producing and acquiring goods and services, the economic system is the set of institutions within which that process takes place. Those institutions include organizations, such the banking system, as well as ‘the rules of the game’. Also included is money.

Money is the most important single institution in the existing economic system of any nation on the planet. Every nation, however large or small, globally important or not, has its own money, its own currency.

Its money is the means by which the economy of the nation functions. It is possible in every nation to conduct transactions, among consenting parties, without using the nation’s currency, such as barter or even some other currency, but to participate regularly in the economy of any nation requires the use of its currency.

The integral importance of money extends to people. No person in any nation can meaningfully participate in the economy of that nation without money.

Money is essential for people to acquire the goods and services needed to live (much less have any more than that). Those economic choices are the most basic choices human beings must effect. To effect them requires money — other than handouts from private charity, but any idea of requiring people to rely on private charity to survive is beneath any concept of justice.

That is a form of what has been, forever, the argument for using government to achieve a ‘more just’ redistribution of money. More recently, the idea of using taxes to generate a ‘universal basic income’ (UBI) has gained some attention. Justice requires something better than that.

Currently, in every nation, for people who are not rich enough to live on their investments the only sources of a regular, ongoing supply of money — an income — are either employment or some publicly funded program, one provided via taxes or borrowing that is sustained by taxes. Concerning justice, one problem is that the amount of money people can regularly receive is therefore determined, not by the amount needed, but by what employers or society have decided, by whatever means, they ‘can afford’.

For people with jobs (or a retirement income) that pay enough, that is fine. For all other people, those who do not have a sufficient income, that is an abomination. For any society that claims to seek justice, that is an abject failure.

Taxes and redistribution inevitably involve all kinds of issues related to justice. There is a better, far simpler, more just way.

A guaranteed — bulletproof, actually — sufficient income can be made available to every citizen of any nation on the planet, involving no taxes (or public debt), at no cost to anyone, and without redistributing a single piece of the smallest denomination of any nation’s currency. That could be achieved immediately, anywhere, with a single legislative Act.

So justice requires that everyone have a sufficient income. Still, the particular structure and sanctioned functioning of the economy is a choice to be effected for the community as whole.

That brings us to the political process. The political process is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole — from the smallest village to the largest nation-state. It is not something imposed on a community, but is organic to having one. The existence of a political process is integral to the existence of any community of any kind.

Like people, communities have no choice but to effect choices. All members of a community are subject to being affected by those choices.

A democratic political process is therefore the only just form that the political process can take. Only a democratic political process allows all of the members of the community to participate in the process of effecting those choices.

Like the economy, the political process takes place within a system composed of institutions. In a society with a just, i.e., democratic political process those institutions include as rights and freedoms all of the various forms that participation in the political process can take: every citizen can participate in that process via freedom of political speech; via the rights to petition the government and to assemble (peaceably), the citizenry can bring more immediate pressure on the government on behalf of one choice or another. Two political rights, the right to vote and the right to run for office, can be justly restricted, but only by age. Age is a just restriction because there is a good reason for it (as a proxy for sufficient maturity) and because it is universally applicable (unlike, say, gender or ‘race’ — i.e., color of skin — or national origin or creed).

Like the economy, all actions of all people in the political process are subject to the requirements of justice. Any result obtained in a democratic political process is a just result so long as it was not obtained due to unjust actions — that really did occur — and must therefore be respected by all citizens. It does not mean anyone is being coerced; it only means some people’s preferred outcome has been thwarted. It is no different from individuals competing for the same job with only one being able to obtain it (provided, again, nothing unjust has determined the outcome). It doesn’t preclude trying again to achieve the desired end.

To reiterate: having one’s desired political outcome thwarted and being coerced are not the same thing. Even so, there are outcomes in the political process that do affect how people can (legally) live their lives. To minimize to the greatest extent possible the extent to which some people (even a majority) are determining how all people in a community might choose to live their own separate lives, laws governing the actions of people should be restricted to prohibiting conduct that causes obvious, knowable harm to other people (though such harm might be, as well as material, of a psychological nature, such as stalking, threatening, etc.). That maximizes liberty.

So we see that effecting choices is, indeed, a huge yet limited part of human life. As everyone already knows, within that domain people are required by justice to take one another into account as we live our separate lives together this world. That requirement extends to the actions of individuals in the economy and the political process. It also applies to the structure and sanctioned functioning of their associated institutional systems. A just society will have the maximum liberty that co-existing human beings can share simultaneously, a democratic political process, and an economy in which every citizen can be guaranteed to have a sufficient income — preferably, without involving taxation or public debt, at no cost to anyone, and without having to redistribute anything.

Any nation that is lacking justice in any of those areas needs for its citizens to demand more justice. In the end, every nation on the planet is a direct democracy — though acting accordingly definitely takes more courage in some nations than others. Still, if enough of the citizens of any nation demand, by peaceably assembling with sufficient persistence, a specific action for the government to take, it will be done. Being cognizant of the technicalities of justice can help people formulate the specific changes needed to make theirs a more just nation.

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*Warren J. Samuels all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices in “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” in Perspectives of Property, edited by Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson (1972).