Mutual Respect: The Only Ethic for Justly Governing Society

Stephen Yearwood
13 min readOct 27, 2020

i.e., a non-coercive ethic of justice

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

[I published this essay because very recently the final piece of this puzzle finally clicked into place (as noted at an appropriate place in the essay). This is ‘the real nitty-gritty’, brothers and sisters. It cannot be made easythough in the end it is, I think, surprisingly simple. It is, by Medium standards, a rather longread,” but it cannot answer every possible question related to justly governing society. Yet, anyone who really tries can construe the answer to any question on that subject from this essay.]

I make the case herein that the ethic of justice must be mutual respect of a basic kind: ‘taking one another into account’. There is respect that can only be earned, but justice resides in the respect every human being is due merely by being a fellow human. I have worked out the implications for mutual respect as the ethic of justice for individuals, the political process (defined as the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole), and the economy (defined as the process of producing and acquiring goods and services).

For starters, mutual respect is intuitively satisfying as an ethic to govern the governance of society, to serve as its organizing principle. What motive could exist for arguing against it?

I became convinced that the ethic of justice must be mutual respect while reading Immanuel Kant, but it occurred to me subsequently that a requirement of mutual respect follows from a belief in a moral equality among all human beings, whatever its source (i.e., secular/ideological or sacral/theological). That ensconces mutual respect, though it has rarely been explicitly recognized, in the output of every Liberal thinker since John Locke (to include in that category the ‘discourse ethics’ of, e.g., Jürgen Habermas and Bruce Ackerman).

Unfortunately, Locke had already mistakenly posited liberty to be the predicate of justice, and almost all Liberal thinkers since him, from Kant to John Rawls (not to mention Robert Nozick, who basically restated Locke as an answer to Rawls) have conformed with that position. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau and G. W. F. Hegel worked some idea of ‘true’ liberty into their more socially oriented constructs, and in On Liberty John Stuart Mill bent utilitarianism towards that Liberal monolith.

One can only wonder how much better this world would be today if, having equated injustice with “being subject to the arbitrary will” of another person, Locke had realized that justice requires, most immediately, that everyone refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will. That is mutual respect. [I am unaware of any other person’s having perceived Locke’s argument in that way.]

A society governed by mutual respect, I have surmised, would have the maximum liberty that coexisting individuals can share simultaneously. Liberty would be maximized as a practical matter, rather being imposed on society as a combination of a dogma (i.e., as a belief in Liberty as a “Natural Right”) and a fantastic conception of hyper-individualism constructed so as to make a case for liberty as the predicate of justice (i.e., Locke’s “State of Nature,” in which he has humans living as isolated individuals rather than living together in groups as the naturally social beings we so obviously are).

A society governed by mutual respect would also have a democratic political process. Given that democracy is identified with equality, it is not surprising that mutual respect already governs that form of the political process. Mutual respect requires that all citizens be taken into account in that process; a political process in which all citizens are taken into account, via freedom of political speech and a just — non-arbitrary — distribution of political rights, is a democratic political process.

The revolutionary (though not radical) nature of the economic portion of my program compels me to go into some detail about it. I start with the proposition that money is to the economy as political rights are to the political process. The “democratic distributive principle” would therefore be applied to money via a “democratically distributed income.”

One way to do that, I realized, would be to have the money for that income be created as needed, with the total of it contributing (as currency) to the money supply of the economy. That would make the money for that income essentially as free as rights are and allow it to be as widely available. (The DDI would not be paid to all citizens, but would be available for any number of — adult — citizens via non-arbitrary requirements for eligibility.)

That same process of creating money could be used to fund government — all government, from central to local — at the current per capita rate of total government spending, forever. That would provide the means to eliminate taxation/public debt for that purpose. (Whether incurring public debt or imposing taxes could still be allowed, and if so under what circumstances, would be matters to be decided in the political process.)

With those two streams of money in place the means would exist to eliminate unemployment (at no cost to anyone) and poverty (without having to redistribute anything; the amount of the DDI could be based on the current median income — so in the U.S. of today, say, $15/hr.; $600/wk.). The economy’s performance over any period of time could not have any effect on that flow of money into it in the following period, as an immediate means to personal and public ends. That would eliminate any possibility of an economic contraction. At the same time, total output would be governed, passively but effectively, by demographics, greatly enhancing environmental sustainability. To be clear, there would still be no limit on income/wealth.

There are no hidden costs. To prevent inflation some money would (eventually) have to be returned to its point of origin (either the existing central bank or a newly created Monetary Agency), but people and businesses would be allowed to retain pools of money (based on income) and there would be no need to collect any money from any person or business before it could be used for purchases or investment (to include speculation in, e.g., stocks and start-ups.). For all intents and purposes, no individual would ever surrender any money; only businesses would ever have money collected from them — after all monetary obligations had been met, including the total compensation of all employees, the appropriate amount of money from profits remitted to an account in a bank, and all chosen investments funded. (Inevitably, with all that money circulating among businesses, some would be subject to collection when the time for collection, the end of a quarter, came; unlike ‘musical chairs’, that time would be known.)

The amount of money created would be solely determined, as noted, by demographics and the amount of money returned to its point of origin would depend solely on the functioning of the economy as the sum of the actions of all entities comprising it. So the supply of money (as currency) would be self-regulating. That would in turn make the economy self-regulating — taking the arbitrariness of fiscal and monetary policies for ‘managing’ the economy, which must of necessity generate winners and losers, out of its functioning as a system.

[The foregoing is the briefest of summaries of the economic paradigm suggested by a DDI. I realize that many more questions are raised, but all of them have been answered. At bottom, in economic terms this is ‘only’ a different way of supplying the existing economy — any existing economy — with money (as currency — and as a fully exogenous variable). The rest of the structure and functioning of the economy would remain the same — which is why I insist that this paradigm is not “radical.”]

As an economic proposal that monetary paradigm can stand on its own, without any reference to justice. The DDI could as well be called something more neutral, like the “allotted income.”

Regarding justice, there is a problem. To this point I have posited an advance in Liberal justice that would provide a blueprint for taking Liberal society to a better place than civilization has ever been. To believe in the moral equality of all human beings is, however, a belief.

Beliefs are assertions of absolute truth, the validity of which is unamenable to being evaluated within material existence. From the perspective of every human being all beliefs of all other people are (therefore) purely arbitrary. Since it is correct to equate arbitrariness in human relations with injustice (below), to have beliefs as the organizing principles of society is thereby to introduce injustice into its totality.

As I understand it, ‘foundationalism’ forms the point of intersection between postmodernism and Critical Theory. The former has sought to debunk the possibility of any legitimate (non-coercive) immaterial foundation for a just society whereas the latter has sought a way to redeem ideology by finding what has caused its ‘totalizing’ tendency. The former has failed to realize that within modernity all such foundations have been in the form of secular beliefs, which beget ideologies, whereas the latter has failed to recognize that ideology’s tendency towards totalitarianism is the result of its foundation in beliefs — particularly, beliefs that are secular, which, being (mistakenly) associated with rationality, can thereby be infused with a redoubling of infallibility. [I consider Karl Marx to be a failed materialist who was in actuality a radical equalitarian.]

Fortunately, a requirement of mutual respect follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices, i.e. choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition. [I got that from Warren J. Samuels, who all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices in “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power,” Perspectives of Property, Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson, eds. (1972).] Justice becomes its own ethical category, its genesis divorced from any and all moral systems.

In short, I claim to have discovered an “ought from is” (as David Hume put it). It follows from that observation that choosing is integral to being human. It follows from that point that recognizing one another as fellow human beings requires respecting one another’s capacity to make choices — beginning with choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved in any way whenever any choice is being effected. Thus, the ethic of ‘real justice’ (as I have come to call it) is, most briefly, mutual respect in effecting choices. To violate that ethic is to act arbitrarily, i.e., not taking into account people who are involved, in any way, in the effecting of that choice. [The existence of unavoidable hierarchies, such as family, work, etc., is easily taken into account.]

In real justice, then, the domain of justice is actions (which can include speech acts) involving other human beings in the process of effecting choices. That both the determiners and the referents of that ethic are located within material existence legitimately de-legitimates superseding that existence (by reference to beliefs, feelings, self-interest, etc.) to justify violating it within its domain. Outside that domain personal morality must govern people’s actions (subject also to the laws of the community, of course, which would be legitimate to the extent that they were enacted and enforced in a process consistent with that ethic).

Real justice thereby provides a definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice and a minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice. The former is mutual respect in the general sense of taking other people into account whenever any choice is being effected; the latter, following from the specific requirement to respect others’ capacity to choose for themselves, boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions regarding actions involving other people in the process of effecting any choice: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (lying, cheating, misrepresenting, withholding pertinent information, etc.): no ‘moral relativism’ here. Those conditions of justice apply to all actions of all individuals, whether acting for themselves or as agents for any other entity, private or public, whenever any choice is being effected.

Real justice also yields (the two aforementioned) conditions of justice for the political process. Since the political process is concerned with effecting choices for the community as a whole, its conditions of justice are both necessary: no society can violate or abrogate either of them and be a just society.

A just political process is thus integral to having a just society in a way that a just economy is not. One of the choices to be effected for any society is to determine what kind of economic system it will have. A society with a just political process can have any economic system chosen within that process (as long as the justness of that process is not violated in the process of effecting that choice).

Real justice does nonetheless yield three conditions of justice for the economy as a societal process, i.e., beyond the actions of people in effecting choices in the process of producing and acquiring goods and services. The more of the conditions of justice for the economy as a social process are met, the more just that process will be. Those conditions of justice are freedom for individuals to decide how and to what extent to participate in the economy, the presence of a democratically distributed income, and the absence of economic exploitation (which could be accomplished by expanding the DDI — with still no limit set on income/wealth, so long as those are achieved without exploitation).

Yet, even as an ‘ought from is’ the ethic of real justice cannot lay claim to the universality required for justice — cannot be a necessarily universal ethic. The postmodern critique of the ‘Modern’ intellectual project has exposed all knowledge, even knowledge as observation within material existence, to be a matter of personal inclination. The only intersubjectively valid knowledge that can exist, from beliefs to observation within material existence, is knowledge that individuals have separately chosen to accept as valid for themselves.

I had previously constructed a response for real justice to that resultant problem of universality to the effect that observation within material existence is the only practically possible universal knowledge. I have (recently) realized, however, that the ethic of real justice does not need to be universal.

Both moderns and postmodernists have acknowledged, in their different ways, that universality is necessary to mitigate arbitrariness. The ethic of mutual respect in effecting choices does not need to be universal because it is not arbitrary within the context of material existence.

All beliefs of all people are arbitrary from the point of view of all people who do not share that belief because of the extra-rational nature of beliefs: they cannot be explained, much less validated or invalidated, using the rational faculty. Yet, our rational faculty is all we humans have to proffer explanations to one another and to determine the validity/invalidity of those intersubjectively proposed explanations. So all beliefs, be they sacral or secular, can only be taken as valid ‘on faith’.

Extra-rational does not mean irrational; it simply means beyond the capacity of our rational faculty as human beings. Still, being extra-rational does make beliefs arbitrary, not only from the perspectives of other people, but from the perspective of material existence itself: there is nothing of material existence in itself to compel accepting as valid any belief (though it can impel spiritual wonder).

Observation perceived within material existence is not arbitrary within that existence. Indeed, such observations are, as such, intrinsic to that existence. Moreover, such observations are points of reference that are external to all human beings. As observations they can be shared using the rational faculty and the physical senses. Trust can be required, as in trusting the word of someone who is known to oneself or even ‘trusting the experts’, but that is not the same thing as faith in a belief; it is information that can be possibly rationally evaluated.

Thus, an ethic following from observation within material existence does not have to be universal. It is non-arbitrary within that perspective as long as its determiners and its referents are both confined to material existence. So, within the context of material existence (within which any society does necessarily exist), people who as a group choose to make the ethic of real justice, following from that separately validated observation, the organizational foundation of their society cannot be acting arbitrarily — as long as the ethic of real justice is not violated in that process. [The implications of the contingent nature of such knowledge for an ethic of justice are obviated by the personal nature of all knowledge.]

[Para. added November 2, 2020] While individuals can reject the validity of the observation from which the ethic of real justice follows or the chain of rational reasoning that leads to the ethic, to act rationally that person must refute what is proffered: offer contrary material evidence regarding the observation and/or expose the chain of reasoning to lack rational coherency. To reject the ethic of real justice — explicitly or implicitly, by ignoring it — without refuting it is arbitrary within the context of material existence.

At the same time, the observation in question for the ethic of real justice can be potentially universally validated. It is verifiable by any human being; no one has to ‘take anyone’s word’ for anything about it.

Meanwhile, if any being did utter a claim rejecting the validity of the observation from which the ethic of real justice follows, from the perspective of people who accepted real justice for the governance of the governance of society that being would thereby be demonstrating humanness. As a fellow human being that person would therefore still be afforded the full panoply of the protections of that ethic. Like all other people, that person would be legitimately subject to the laws of that society.

Finally, its material validity validates accepting mutual respect as the ethic of justice based on a belief in equality. It doesn’t matter whether that belief is secular/ideological or sacral/theological.

[Also added November 2] Regarding the latter, for people like myself who believe in a God that created all of material existence including human beings, that existence and our rational capacity are directly from God. That makes the ethic of real justice more directly from God than any morality following from any theology can be. The latter necessarily requires putting faith in human beings at some point in the process, as conduits connected to God (or at least Holiness) or authors of narratives about such conduits, but the former does not.

[The rest added November 7] As a Believer, I know that love is greater than justice. It subsumes all else in human relations. Real justice can perhaps be thought of as the minimum condition of righteousness — though, whereas justice requires mutuality, as the minimum condition of righteousness it would be unilateral: a righteous person would respect others whether that respect was reciprocated or not.

Regardless, real justice does not require any act of faith at any point. Real justice is the realization of the ethic of justice that is intrinsically present for human beings in God’s Creation.

The last we hear of Cain in Genesis is that he “built the world’s first city.” Is the Bible telling us there that civilization is what you get with people separated from God? It (not ‘modernity’ or even rationality) brought into the world the “diremptions” (from Habermas) within human society that the Enlightenment (via ‘reason’) and then postmodernism/Critical Theory have sought to overcome (according to H., with a return to “myth”).

Mutual respect as the ethic of justice can redeem civilization. As a non-arbitrary ethic (when limited to actions involving other human beings in the process of effecting choices) that is available to all human beings, it can bring the ”social integration” (H.) that non-civilized societies have experienced microcosmically to all of humanity — which was, it so happens, the endpoint of Marx’s project. Locke was wrong for the right reasons and Marx was right for the wrong reasons (?).



Stephen Yearwood

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