Postmodernism and Real Justice

Stephen Yearwood
25 min readAug 27, 2021


a universal ethic that even a postmodernist can endorse

Photo by eskay lim on Unsplash

Postmodernism evolved out of post-structuralism, which formed out of the failure of structuralism to achieve the goal that its proponents set for it. Structuralism exemplified the epitome of the Modern perspective. It was the attempt within anthropology to identify universals that existed across all human cultures, most importantly, to include moral/ethical values. Such values would not merely be values that some people proclaimed to be universal, but would be empirically proven to be universal. The implications for humanity would be huge.

Alas and alack, no such values were found. For some anthropologists that was every bit as significant in its implications for humanity. They became ‘post-structuralists’.

In a broader intellectual process of exploring and refining those implications combined with other cultural influences, post-structuralism morphed into Postmodernism. Still, the intellectual core of Postmodernism is the absence of ‘universals’, referring in particular to values among human beings, but extending into human culture more generally. My purpose here is to relate a universal ethic of justice that no postmodernist can reject intellectually.

Jacques Derrida was the foremost postmodernist in ‘de-legitimating’ universals. He used the word “deconstruction” to explain his process. He was drilling, digging, and picking for the unacknowledged mere assertions in texts, especially texts touting some universal value(s) authored by people who claimed to be accounting for every significant assertion made therein.

Derrida and other postmodernists have established, to my satisfaction, that there can be no such thing as ‘objective’ knowledge (at least, for me, in the sense that there can be no such thing as any mental process in which extraneous subjective influences have no effect). As a result, such notions as ‘foundational truths’, ‘first principles’, etc., are now of historical interest only.

That has led to the recognition that every single human being has the power to decide for oneself what one will accept as truth and knowledge. Within Postmodernism, that is the ultimate in human ‘emancipation’. For me, it is in some ways a horrifying reality, but a reality I must accept, all the same.

The mention of “power” brings us to the other of the two most important postmodernists, Michel Foucault. He focused on the role of power, which he found to be ubiquitous in human relationships. Every encounter involving human beings includes in some way some relationship(s) of power among them. Every formally organized — institutionalized — process involves relations of power, internally and between it and the rest of the world.

In the absence of any such thing as objective knowledge, even science is a ‘regime of power’. It isn’t just that science as an institutionalized process necessarily contains “contests of power” internally, but that (in the absence of the possibility of objective knowledge) the findings of science make it a regime of power vis a vis the rest of humanity.

I agree. After all, ‘knowledge is power’. (I accept, though, the proposition that science as an institution is focused on the validity of its findings, not a ‘power trip’ between it and the rest of the world).

In the event, Postmodernism has identified one universal in human culture, after all: power. Before I had hardly even heard of Postmodernism I had read “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” by Warren J. Samuels [his contribution to Perspectives of Property, edited by Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson (1972)]. In it he all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices (i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition).

It occurred to me that human beings have no choice but to effect choices: it is a ubiquitous, unavoidable condition of being human. Having read in and about Postmodernism, I see Samuels’s conception of social power as one aspect of the human universal that power is. [Reading Stephen K. White’s Political Theory and Postmodernism confirmed for me my the sufficiency of my understanding of Postmodernism, particularly as related to the problem of the governance of society — just as (finally) understanding Reason and Justice by Richard Dien Winfield confirmed for me the sufficiency of my brain for taking on these matters in the first place: reading that book until I did understand it completed the training of my brain.]

Here is another universal: society itself. We humans are social beings; we live together in organized groups. The vanishingly small number of people who have lived otherwise in comparison to the number who have lived in societies makes no impact on that statement. Even among them, those who chose to do so acquired within society what they needed to survive outside it.

Here are two more universals: no human society has ever existed without a political process and no human society has ever existed without an economy. The former is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole; every society of human beings is as bound to effect choices as every individual human being is. The economy is the process of producing/acquiring goods and services; every human being must produce for oneself or acquire otherwise the goods and services necessary for survival, at a minimum.

Both of those processes are all about power and relations of power. Since the political process is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole, it follows that every member of the society is affected by those choices. Since no human being living in any society is materially self-sufficient, all people must participate in the economy of the society of which they are members. So those processes are universal among societies and all members of every society have no choice but to be involved, one way or another, with both of them.

Since every human society is a formally organized group, it is the case that every society has some underlying organizing principle, whether it is explicitly recognized as such or not. For every non-civilized human society that has ever existed that organizing principle has effectively been ‘one for all and all for one’. In his conception of communism, Karl Marx effectively had that as the eventual organizing principle for all of civilization. For most of civilization throughout its history the organizing principle has been ‘rule by the most ruthless’. That appears to be the ‘default value’: in the absence of any other organizing principle that will be the one to which civilization reverts.

“Ruthless” evokes coercion. One question that arises is whether there can be such a thing as an organizing principle that rejects coercion, the applicability of which can be established without necessitating coercion in that process.

While I have accepted many of the findings of Postmodernism, I do not think it has been correct in all things. Most important, to my mind, has been a failure to distinguish between beliefs and rationalistic knowledge.

I think that is illustrated by postmodernists’ critique of the “Enlightenment Project’, as they are prone to designate, using the term favored by its participants, the intellectual process that gave the final form to the Modern cultural era. I would say that, most specifically, the ‘Enlightenment’ was the attempt to apply ‘objective knowledge’ as it was seen to exist in science to the problem of identifying a legitimate, i.e. noncoercive, organizing principle for the governance of society.

It was thought back then that science did produce objective knowledge. Since it was objective, it was necessarily universally valid for all human beings. Being necessarily universally valid, it was non-coercively valid for all people.

Such knowledge was also secular. Though a deistic perspective in one form or another could still be found among Enlightenment thinkers, as a group they demonstrated, consciously or not, a commitment to a transitive relationship: secular = objective = necessarily universally valid. Intellectual output that conforms with that relationship can also conform with sacral beliefs, but for modernists in general the legitimacy of that output has been rooted in its secularity. That is what makes ‘objectively true’ and thus ‘necessarily universal’ possible for them.

Postmodernists attacked that relationship in its center. For them, the impossibility of objectivity obviates the possibility of universality.

They have carried that attack to rationality itself. That’s because of the relationship that exists, for them, between objective knowledge and ‘the rational’: as a group, postmodernists freely substitute ‘the rational’ and ‘objectivity’ in that transitive relationship; it applies to one as well as the other. To invalidate or delegitimize one as an approach to an organizing principle for society is therefore to invalidate or delegitimize the other.

As postmodernists see it, objectification of people proceeded apace with the rationalization of society and has unleashed the brutal exploitation human beings, not to mention Mother Earth. I agree with that conclusion regarding objectification and exploitation. I do take issue with the attack on rationality.

As far as I am aware, postmodernists have forgone critiquing the first part of the aforementioned transitive relationship. ‘Universal’ aside, they have thereby left ‘the secular’ in an arbitrarily privileged position regarding the governance of society.

As I see it, the great mistake of the ‘Enlightenment’ was to equate secularity in itself with both objectivity and universality. Science is secular because it is concerned with material existence as it physically exists. Most importantly, science eschews all belief. In seeking to apply the intellectual implications of scientific achievement to the governance of the governance of society, ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers failed to grasp that; postmodernist thinkers have joined them by failing to distinguish between beliefs and rational knowledge.

In the world today, in large part due to the influence of Postmodernism, the line between rationally derived knowledge and beliefs has become blurred to the point of indistinguishability. It still exists.

Beliefs are assertions of knowledge that are not amenable to being validated or invalidated, or evaluated in any way within material existence. Rationally derived knowledge has material existence (including as a subject of study human beings, to include our subjective aspect) as its source and its subject and is amenable to being evaluated, to include being validated or invalidated, within material existence — though settling a debate can be another matter.

Some rationalistic knowledge is validated to the point of being settled. Much of it is at this point in time open to debate. Some of it might very well be open to debate forever. Even so, to be rationalistic all arguments pertaining to such knowledge have to refer to some aspect of material existence (including in that as a topic of study the subjective aspect of human beings).

For humans, our rational faculty is our means for dealing with the practical matters attending to material existence. Material existence comes with material consequences. The only way to deal with those consequences is to examine that existence and figure out appropriate responses to it. Our rational faculty is the tool in our kit that allows us to do that. (Even people who believe, as this author does, that God created the Universe and all that is in it, including humans with our rational faculty, must recognize that faculty for what it is and its given place in human existence.)

In equating ‘secular’ with ‘universal’ in their quest for a universal organizing principle for society, Enlightenment thinkers invented ideology. In that, they were seeking to replace theology. It had been found that theology tended to be more of a source of cultural conflict than a means of resolving it. Unfortunately, ideology has turned out to be at least as prone to generating cultural conflict as theology has ever been.

Both theologies and ideologies are based on beliefs. The former are based on sacral beliefs, the latter on secular beliefs, such as, within Liberalism, a belief in equality the existence of a priori ‘Rights’. Fascism includes a belief that some inherently superior group exists; Marxism implies a belief in equality (which makes Marx a failed materialist who was a radical equalitarian).

Any belief can potentially be universally accepted, but no belief ever has been. Anyone can always assert a contrary belief to any belief — including the belief that coercion should be avoided because is immoral. Since there is no way within material existence to evaluate conflicting beliefs, much less validate or invalidate any belief, there is no way to choose in a non-arbitrary way from among them. So secularity by itself is as incapable as the sacral had been of resolving the issue of finding a legitimate organizing principle for society.

Critical Theory, which shares a loose intellectual bond with postmodernism, has sought to critique ideology in itself as an approach to a legitimate organizing principle for society. Its two most important figures, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, saw that all ideology tended towards totalitarianism. For them, the goal of Critical Theory was to understand why that was so, in order to fix that flaw in ideology.

Critical Theorists, too, have failed to see that the problem is beliefs. The nature of beliefs is such that they generate conflicts that can only be finally resolved by the total victory of one side over the other. That is why ideologies tend toward totalitarianism.

[Differences in beliefs can be subordinated to a large enough common threat, such as differences in Liberal societies concerning the place of equality and liberty — and for that matter, theology — in the governance of society in the time when the U.S.S.R. represented an existential threat to Liberal society altogether. Also, due to outright exhaustion, respites in conflict generated by differing beliefs can intervene — and can last quite a long time; very rarely, if all sides conclude their survival doesn’t require annihilating the other side(s), a respite can even become permanent — so long as that condition continues to exist in the eyes of enough people on all sides.]

The problem of governance, which follows from our nature as social beings, is with us yet. Theology and ideology have been used to seek a legitimate organizing principle to govern the governance of society. It simply is not possible for any organizing principle based on belief to be legitimate in the sense that it would not involve coercion of any kind in establishing its applicability for that purpose. Only if a belief were not only universally accepted, but also uniformly interpreted in its implications for all people by all people could any belief accomplish that. Even then, there would still be a taint of arbitrariness (taken up below). That leaves our rational faculty as the only means available to provide a legitimate organizing principle for society. After all, as Jean-Francois Lyotard put it (in The Postmodern Condition), “justice is not an outmoded value.”

In the quest to achieve applicability for an organizing principle without the coerciveness that employing beliefs to that end must entail, there is another lesson to accept from the Postmodern perspective: the problem of intersubjective knowledge. Postmodernism has established (to my satisfaction) that no human can know how any other being, which that person perceives to be a fellow human, perceives and experiences material existence. I cannot know for myself what you perceive or how you experience material existence in the process of encountering it as ‘you’.

Fortunately, we do have communication available to us. It is an eternally imperfect medium for exchanging information among beings that perceive one another to be fellow humans. It is all but impossible for me to adequately express to any other being, even one with whom I share a common language — for that matter, to formulate with absolute perfection in my own mind — all of my own sensible perceptions, much less any extrapolations from them, much less any wholly abstract projections that I might make that pertain to material existence (such as intuitions and epiphanies that are related to my own further understanding of material existence — which, to be valid, must be validated by observation). [The turn towards identifying language as the central problem in philosophy (Ludwig Wittgenstein, et al.), in the sense of philosophy as an attempt to arrive at debate-settling solutions to non-physical problems, contributed the emergence of the Postmodern perspective.]

Perhaps therein lies some of the appeal of beliefs. Beliefs are knowledge, the origination of which is divorced from material existence. They certainly can have implications for material existence (though they must be accepted as beliefs for any such implications to be valid), but their coherence as beliefs does not depend on accurately processing and communicating information related to material existence. They can be shared all the more easily for that: the implications of any belief are understood, due to their extra-material, even extra-rational nature, to be open to interpretation (though interpretations can get hardened into doctrines that adherents are required to accept to gain membership in an organized group of fellow believers — keeping in mind that those beliefs can be secular/ideological as well as sacral/theological).

So… while I cannot know for myself how any other being I perceive to be a fellow human experiences material existence, we can share through communication, however imperfectly, our experiences of it. In doing so, we find commonalities.

Those commonalities can be universal. We cannot know that they are universal, but we can extrapolate from commonalities we have verified in our experience of material existence the implications of those commonalities for all human beings if they are in fact universal. Thus, the possibility exists for deriving an organizing principle to govern the governance of society, the applicability of which would not of itself involve coercion. Such a principle would be one that every human being verified for him- or herself to be valid within his or her experience of material existence.

Again, any belief is potentially universal. Accepting a belief is, however, (from the point of any other person) an extra-rational, purely arbitrary act.

Two or more people verifying an observation within material existence is an act that is rational and non-arbitrary. It exists as an independently experienced, shared commonality, not a unilateral assertion that can only be accepted as an act of faith.

To reiterate: every society of human beings has an organizing principle. The question is whether a legitimate, i.e., noncoercive, i.e., sufficiently universal principle in its applicability is possible. Foucault recognized the universal of power in human relationships. Samuels examined how potential power of individuals is converted to the attainment of perceived needs and wants. I have taken it upon myself to examine the possible consequences for humanity if it is indeed the case that no person — or society — has any choice but to effect choices.

Anyone who accepts that starting point as valid, based on that person’s own experience of material existence, must accept the validity of an ethic, a rule to govern conduct, that would follow from that observation unless some fatal flaw were found in the derivation of that ethic from that observation. Such an ethic could thereby serve as the legitimate organizing principle for a society.

Does that arbitrarily privilege logical over nonlogical communication? Given my experience of the role of communication among human beings within material existence and the role of rules of logic in effective communication, in order to be understood, which must preceded any evaluation of any claim any human being might make to any other human being, I would maintain that it does not. Once again, I cannot make any definitive, universally valid, ‘settling’ claim to any question pertaining to material existence, but I can testify that my response to that question is consistent with my own experience of it.

The rules of logic are not a priori or in any other way arbitrary, but were developed by human beings experiencing material existence together and attempting to communicate effectively for the sake of physical survival. Some were undoubtedly provided by the physical environment itself: ‘if this, then that’ and the intrinsically absurd unreality of ‘self-contradiction’ are examples of such rules that the physical environment itself can provide.

So this proposed organizing principle for society comes down to people who accept the validity of the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices accepting the validity of the derivation of the ethic that I have discerned follows from it. Before relating that ethic to the blessedly patient reader, there is one final aspect of the Postmodern perspective for which we must first account.

In addition to the absence of ‘universals’, another important assertion within Postmodernism is a concern for the ‘other’. That “other” refers to all that was left out of the intellectual process that has defined Modernity. It refers in part to a respect for the place of the non-rational in the experience of being human: spirituality (at least, outside institutionalized, therefore rationalized religions) and emotions (giving Postmodernism a Romantic aspect) as well as other non-material, ineffable, inexpressible modes of experience that can act upon us as human beings — which only poetry can even attempt to convey.

Included in Postmodernism’s critique of the Enlightenment Project’s attempt to arrive at a legitimate organizing principle for society is the ego-centered nature of the latter’s output. The notion of ‘Rights’ is imbued with it: my life, my liberty, my happiness, my property. Equality also exists as an Enlightenment value, but its primary role is to provide every ego an equal claim of entitlement to its wants and desires. It devolves into a begrudging granting of equality to others, as opposed to starting with a recognition of it.

The ethic of justice that follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices is mutual respect in effecting choices. That refers to mutual respect of a basic kind: taking one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world (though it boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions on conduct involving all other human beings in effecting any choice). The most immediate point, regarding the Postmodern perspective, is that mutual respect is intrinsically other-centered.

A requirement of mutual respect also follows from a belief in equality, but in Modern culture that has had no chance against the egocentric notion of Rights, in particular a Right to liberty. Yet, even mutual respect, if following from a belief in equality, cannot be a legitimate organizing principle for society. Only a requirement of mutual respect following from a universally verified observation within material existence can achieve that. It still would not be a necessarily universal ethic, but it would be factually universal.

Even so, any being might deny the validity of the observation from which that ethic of mutual respect follows. In doing so, however, that being would reveal him- or herself as human. As a human residing in a human society, that being would be entitled to the protections of that ethic. As for constraints, like all people in every society actions are governed as a practical matter by the laws of the community and their enforcement, and anyone denying that ethic would be as subject to those laws as anyone else — as well as being entitled to all protective rights due any person within a given legal system. To eschew, in interactions with other human beings that did not rise to the level of acts invoking the system of criminal or civil justice, the requirements of that ethic would be to invite social ostracism.

Beliefs have formed the heart of human culture for as long as we have walked on Earth. The Postmodern perspective has emphasized how they and other non-material, even non-rational abstract products of human being are entitled to respect. On the other hand, any implications of any of them for human being are only valid for those who accept their validity. To interject those implications into the governance of society is to imbue it with coercion.

The same, it turns out, is true of implications following from any rationalistic knowledge. Unless people accept for themselves the validity of such knowledge, to use it as the organizing principle to govern the governance of society would be coercive.

Moreover, a society, as an association of human beings, has no choice but to effect choices for itself as a whole. Those choices will inevitably involve coercive action: any action taken for the community as a whole — starting with its inception as a community — that is not universally favored by the members of the community will involve coercion in some form, to some extent.

That reinforces the need for the organizing principle for society to be one that’s applicability is itself noncoercive — if coercion is not legitimate. We must finally answer the ultimate question: why might coercion be illegitimate?

According to Immanuel Kant, the only legitimate constraint on conduct for any human being would be one that person accepted for oneself. Otherwise, that constraint would be being imposed on that person, which implies coercion in some form. So the absence of coercion is a condition of mutually recognized humanness: to impose constraints on other people arbitrarily is to deny them their full status as fellow humans.

“Arbitrarily” conjures up the philosophy of John Locke. He asserted that arbitrariness in human relations, i.e., disregarding the persons and interests of other people, is injustice. He further surmised that the absence of such arbitrariness is liberty, making it the predicate of justice and the organizing principle for society. ‘Proving’ Locke to be right in the essentials was the central (if not explicitly acknowledged) aim of Kant’s project. Kant, however, with his assertion of the existence of a “noumenal” realm of existence that was separate from material existence (for Kant, the “phenomenal” realm) yet capable of influencing human beings existing within it, slipped into the domain of beliefs. Beliefs are intrinsically intellectually arbitrary, i.e., lacking sufficient evidence or sufficiently sound logic.

In my experience most people think coercion should be banned in applying an organizing principle to society because it is evil, wrong, unjust, bad, etc. All of those are value judgements, based on morality, based on belief. For both Locke and Kant, their derivations of ethics were fatally dependent on beliefs.

Not only Locke and Kant, but all philosophers, ever, have been convinced that justice is an aspect of morality (which is always a matter of belief). As David Hume famously asserted, ‘ought’, i.e., moral duty, cannot be derived from ‘is’. Yet, as long as ‘oughts’ are tied to beliefs they cannot be be free of the taint of coercion, including oughts in the organizing principle of society.

If both the determiners and the referents of an ought are contained within material existence it is absolved of intellectual arbitrariness: one can reject it, but one cannot say it is arbitrary. For that matter, to reject it without rationally refuting either its material source or the reasoning that leads to the ethic from that observational source is to be intellectually arbitrary.

If an ethic as an organizing principle for society is not intellectually arbitrary, it has passed one hurdle towards being noncoercive. The other hurdle applies only to its application (including the process of a society’s formation). That is a matter of the functioning of a society, not a reference to the organizing principle itself. That functioning can be noncoercive if it proceeds in a manner that is consistent with an organizing principle that is in its inception noncoercive, as I’ll now try to demonstrate.

I call this approach to an ethic to serve as a legitimate organizing principle for society, with its implications for individuals, the political process, and the economy, ‘real justice’. That’s because of the embeddedness of the ethic of real justice, mutual respect in effecting choices, in the ‘real world’: both its determiner (the observation that human beings — and societies — have no choice but to effect choices) and its referents (actions of human beings in effecting any choice that involve other human beings) are located within material existence. The applicability of such an ethic for anyone who accepts the validity of that observation and the derivation of that ethic from it is undeniable. It constrains that person vis a vis any other being who presents as a fellow human when effecting any choice within material existence.

Given all that has been considered to this point in this essay, even this ‘ought from is’ can be rejected. Since, however, both the determiners and the referents of this ethic as an organizing principle are contained within material existence, that legitimately delegitimates going ‘outside’ that existence, to beliefs and other non-rational abstractions, to delegitimate it.

Real justice reinforces Locke’s assertion that arbitrariness in human relations is injustice and Kant’s finding that coercion is injustice, as well as his famous “categorical imperative.” Justice, it turns out, is all about people recognizing one another as fellow humans. Both arbitrariness in human relations and coercion by itself refer to a failure to take other people into account sufficiently to recognize fully their humanness; Kant’s imperative refers to a requirement to do just that. Locke should have realized that if injustice is being “subject to the arbitrary will” of another person, then the most immediate implication for justice is that everyone must refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will: mutual respect. In the aforementioned Reason and Justice, Winfield explicates in unambiguous terms the place of mutual respect in G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy concerning ethics, with “mutual respect among willing agents” (meaning ‘agents with wills’) as the “minimal condition of right.”

Real justice does limit justice to the domain of effecting choices. It thereby makes actions of people involving other people its own category of ethics, separate from and independent of any morality. The ethical requirements of real justice certainly can accord with the ethics of any moral code, but that is neither here nor there. Outside the vast but finite domain governed by real justice, belief-based morality would be the only ethical guide available.

A requirement for people to take into account one another’s persons and interests in effecting choices can be deemed to be the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice. It says what we must do to act justly.

There is no upper limit to how justly a person can act. We can all act more or less justly.

Real justice does require a minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice to separate acting justly from acting unjustly, to denote conduct that must be avoided in order to keep from acting unjustly. If human beings have no choice but to effect choices, choosing is integral to being human. At a minimum, then, respecting other people’s capacity to choose starts with respecting their capacity to choose whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected: their involvement in any way, shape, or form whenever any choice is being effected must be sufficiently informed and voluntary. Otherwise, their capacity to choose is being co-opted or otherwise preempted.

That condition of justice boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions on actions involving other people whenever any choice is being effected: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, tricking, etc.). To engage in any such behavior is to co-opt or otherwise preempt another person’s capacity to choose. As long as anyone is avoiding any such actions in effecting any choice, that person is being ‘just enough’.

It cannot be stressed too much that acting on behalf of some other entity in no wise absolves any person who might transgress any of those prohibitions. ‘Businesses’ don’t choose to dump toxic wastes into the water or trade safety for higher profits; people effect those choices. ‘Governments’ don’t incarcerate, torture, and kill people for peaceably assembling or using their words to criticize the government; people choose to do those things. ‘Political campaigns’ don’t lie or cheat; people do.

Altogether, a society governed by mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that co-existing human beings can share simultaneously. Liberty, it turns out, is the product of meeting the conditions of justice, specifically but not limited to refraining from coercion and manipulation in effecting choices. The more of the conditions of justice that are met, the more fully the members of a society will enjoy simultaneous liberty.

Being aware of everyone involved whenever any choice is being effected, much less taking their interests into account, is a tall order. Moreover, whether any of those prohibitions has been violated, much less the extent of the injustice done that person if that is the case, can be a matter of debate. Resolving such problems related to achieving justice in society is the purpose of having a system of criminal and civil justice.

A system of criminal and civil justice is one set of choices that that must be effected by any society. Mutual respect provides two conditions of justice for the political process: freedom of political speech and a ‘democratic’ distribution of political rights.

The first of those conditions of justice would seem to be straightforward enough. Political speech refers to speech related to effecting some choice for the community as a whole. Freedom of political speech allows for the participation of every member of the society — every citizen of the community— in the political process.

Political ‘rights’ are the recognition of the forms that further participation in the political process can take. Being abstractions, they are in the first instance available to all citizens. Any restrictions on participation must be non-arbitrary. The first test of arbitrariness is universality: if a restriction cannot be applied to every citizen, it is inherently arbitrary and therefor unjust. So restrictions based on gender, ‘race’ (color of skin, etc.), etc. are out. (A creed could be universal, but we’ve covered that.) Age, as a proxy for maturity, is a legitimate restriction (though appropriate ages for various rights can be debated). A non-arbitrary ‘distribution’ of political rights can be called a ‘democratic’ distribution.

With those two conditions of justice in place, every citizen is taken into account in the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole. Moreover, the observation that all members of a society are affected by choices effected for the community as whole further reinforces a requirement for allowing universal participation of members of the community in the political process. It turns out that democracy has always been governed by mutual respect (as its traditional foundation of ‘equality’ would suggest it should be).

In organizing itself, a community does not yet have political institutions — a political system (of which government itself is its functional core). As conditions of justice, freedom of political speech and the minimum condition of justice are pre-existing — but not a priori — rules governing the process of establishing a political system, which might or might not entail a written constitution.

One choice to be effected for the community as a whole as a society is to determine the form and sanctioned functioning of its economy. Mutual respect provides three conditions of justice for the economy: freedom for people to choose how/to what extent to participate in the economy; a democratically distributed income; and the absence of exploitation. The relationship of the first and last of those to the minimum condition of real justice would not seem to require any elucidation.

As for the requirement of a democratically distributed income, money is to the economy as political rights are to the political process. Recall that those rights are forms of participation in the political process: as ‘rights’ they are abstractions, but in practice they are acts taken within material existence. They are in that way as material as money is. Money is explicitly necessary for any (adult) member of any society with a legal tender (which has been every society in the history of civilization). Without legal tender citizens cannot pay their taxes; more generally, money is a material necessity for participation in any monetary economy (one in which money is the institutionally established primary means for acquiring goods and services), which no (adult) member of any society has any choice but to do. In Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, Bray Hammond touches on that very issue as it arose in the early years of the U.S.: how could taxes be required to be paid with legal tender (i.e., gold or silver) when there was obviously an insufficient supply of legal tender in the young nation to serve that purpose? That question can be readily extended to all members of society having a sufficient supply of money as the means of acquiring a sufficiency of material well-being. That is what a democratically distributed income would accomplish (which could be accomplished without using taxes for that purpose, via a process that can be thought of as being like a permanent ‘quantitative easing’ [in Medium] — though, unlike QE, there would be an absolute limit on how much money could be created over any period of time).

The more of those three conditions of justice for the economy that are met, the more just the economy will be. Meeting any of those cannot justly compromise any other one. [The what’s and how’s of meeting the first two conditions are related in “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society;” meeting all three is addressed in “A Fully Just Economy” (both in Medium).]

While to this point in this essay the conditions of justice have been limited to individuals in their interactions with one another in effecting choices, whether directly or in the structure and functioning of the political process and the economy, it can be noted that mutual respect as the ethic of justice even applies to nations in their interactions with one another. ‘International relations’ refers to groups of human beings effecting choices and affecting other groups of people in that process. It can be further noted that a democratically distributed income could be established that would include every nation on the planet — without compromising the sovereignty of any nation.

In the end, we mustn’t let all this hyper-abstract analysis obscure the simple truth: mutual respect in effecting choices is a universal ethic to govern the governance of society, for guiding the self-governance of its members and determining the structure and sanctioned functioning of its political process and its economy. Who would deny that choosing is integral to being human? Who can justify co-opting or otherwise preempting the capacity of other people to choose (by acts such as killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating) in effecting choices? That can’t be done without leaving the bounds of material existence, thereby entering the realm of the rationally unknowable, where any claim is as valid as any other. Yet, in being other-centered while acknowledging further contributions of the Postmodern perspective to our understanding of human being, this is an ethic as an organizing principle for society that a postmodernist can not only accept begrudgingly, but could heartily endorse.



Stephen Yearwood

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