Reply to Sam Young

rationally defending mutual respect in effecting choices as being what justice must be

Stephen Yearwood
14 min readMay 9, 2024
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Young is a very intelligent, erudite political scientist who publishes articles concerning politics, including its broadest and deepest senses, here in Medium. I brought to his attention an approach to justice I have developed — as I have many people who publish such articles. As it seems all of them have done, he rejected it, or at least made it clear that he does not embrace it. This rejoinder to Young can serve as a general defense of this account of justice in rational, philosophical terms.

I will say this for Young: he gave serious, intelligent, erudite responses to several of my articles on this approach to justice. He is the first person to offer a response that is substantive enough to warrant such a substantial rebuttal. His ‘critique’, though, boils down to no more than this: other people have other ideas about these matters. That, I have to say, is not new information for me.

The point is that this idea on these matters is conceptually superior to any other. Yet, as far as I am aware not even one, single person has embraced this approach to justice, at least to the point of advocating for it. I certainly do not take that as a personal insult. As I have written more than once: in my seventies now, I’ve had a life; this is purely about offering to the world a better approach to governing relations among people.

There is, however, an issue of intellectual integrity. I have no doubt Young does take seriously that issue — along with, I presume, all of those others. I do understand that the initial response of every human being (including myself) to having a position one holds challenged is to defend the position. Intellectual integrity means giving serious consideration to such challenges to the point that one’s original position might be abandoned for that new one. As John Maynard Keynes is said to have said when ‘accused’ of changing a position of his: “When I receive new information I change my mind. What do you do?”

I’ll get back to Young, but first here are the three big ‘takeaways’ from this ethic concerning governance itself:

  1. This ethic of justice is a requirement to respect, when effecting any choice, the capacity of all people to choose for themselves, beginning with their choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected. It boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions concerning our actions that involve any other people in effecting any choice — whether for oneself or on behalf of any other person, or organization, or group, or cause: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.). (Of those, “harming” does in particular call for further attention, but that need not detain us here.) Anyone who refrains from any such actions in effecting any choice is being just enough.
  2. This ethic requires a democratic political process: freedom of political speech for all members of the community and a democratic distribution of all other political rights, meaning they are available to all members of the community but for universal restrictions, universally applied. [It has already been learned that the only unquestionably universal restriction is age (as a proxy for maturity, etc.): property, ‘race’, gender, and (notably for present purposes) creed — beliefs — have all been discarded as discriminators because their unjustness, in that they applied only to particular individuals, was realized.]
  3. This ethic requires a democratically distributed income because money is to the economy as political rights are to the political process. As a trained economist (M.A.) I have developed an approach to such an income that would absolutely, positively eliminate unemployment and poverty at any level of total output, systemically increase sustainability, and even provide the possibility for eliminating taxes/public debt for funding government.

Here’s my question, for Young and all those who have become aware of this account of justice but ignore it or seek some intellectual grounds on which to reject it: What is so inadequate about this approach to justice? Should people be allowed to kill, harm, coerce, steal, or manipulate in getting what they want? Is democracy a bad thing? Would a democratically distributed income a bad thing? Is there some other approach to justly governing relations among human beings that has a more cogent derivation, or would produce more good for humanity (in the perspective of those who reject this ethic), or would produce as much good (ditto) but with more certainty?

As the author of this approach to justice I am still waiting for a real answer to any of those questions from anyone who has rejected this ethic, whether through ignore-ance or more explicitly. While many have rejected it, no one has refuted it (with Young not being the only one to note that other people have other ideas on the subject of justice, much less governance).

Going deeper:

This ‘ethic of justice’ (i.e., ethic for governing the governance of society) follows from an observation within (perceived) material existence: human beings have no choice but to effect choices, i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition [which I got from Warren J. Samuels]. The importance of that observation as a starting point for arriving at what justice must be cannot be overstated. It will be continually referenced in what follows (in contexts that will vary in what might be excruciatingly subtle ways).

That gives us a starting point within material existence for an ethic of justice, as opposed to all other ideas as to how relations among people should be governed that have ever been proffered. All those have started from some personally held, immaterial truth. Any such truth is inerrantly true, but only for those who happen to hold it to be true. For all others it can — legitimately—be rejected as a truth for any reason or no reason at all. That human beings have no choice but to effect choices is, on the other hand, an experience of material existence. The truth of it cannot legitimately be rejected unless it can be falsified within the context of that existence. That simply can’t be done: all people are constrained in various ways and to varying extents concerning the choices we can effect, but all people’s experience of life within material existence informs them that human beings have no choice but to effect choices. It is a simple fact of material existence (as we humans perceive it).

That observation transforms into an ethic of justice because, as social beings living together in groups, governance is an unavoidable aspect of our material existence. Generically, governance is concerned with how individuals in society are required to treat one another as well as the structure and sanctioned functioning of the political process (the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole) and the economy (the process of producing/acquiring goods/services — which is nothing but choices being effected). Both of those processes are an unavoidable aspect of the existence of a formally organized human society; becoming formally organized is itself a political act, and human beings cannot exist without producing/acquiring goods/services. Within the domain of justice — actions undertaken to effect a choice — people must be governed by the ‘minimum condition of justice’ of this ethic (though they can always ‘do better’). Outside the domain of justice only personal morality can exist as a form of self-governance.

That human beings have no choice but to effect choices makes choosing integral to being human. To respect the capacity of other people to choose for themselves is to recognize them as fellow human beings. To act otherwise is to make some claim about the other being(s) involved that cannot be sustained within material existence. It is to assert by one’s actions some ‘truth’ that lies outside of material existence: to act that way is to make a claim that any other beings involved are not really (or fully) human or that there is some inherent hierarchy involved, some kind of status of intrinsic superiority/inferiority. No claim of any such kind can be validated within material existence.

Yet, justice isn’t a matter of ‘equality’. All that matters for this account of justice is that the beings involved are humans.

Even if, ultimately, our choices are in some way preordained (which, so far, can’t be definitively proven materially), this ethic is still viable because it is concerned with actions undertaken in effecting choices. To take any action of any kind is itself a choice being effected, whether as an end in itself or in the furtherance of some larger goal. People can act without affecting any other person(s), but no one can affect any other person without undertaking an action of some kind.

Even if those actions are preordained, there is still no justification for anyone to suffer death, coercion, etc. at the hands anyone effecting any (perceived) choice (which preserves this approach to justice from all matters related to a ‘will’, and especially whether it would be free or not). The focus of this ethic has nothing to do with the motivations/intentions of the actor. Its concern is other people who become involved when people undertake actions to effect a choice: at bottom, whether their involvement was sufficiently informed and voluntary (i.e., not the result of coercion or manipulation). Motivations, intentions, etc. can legitimately enter into laws and their enforcement in a just society (especially in determining punishment), but in that regard the function of an ethic for governing the governance of society is to establish a standard on which laws and their enforcement can be based.

To be clear, an ethic is any rule for governing relations among human beings. ‘Everyone is free to do whatever one wants’ and ‘rule by the most ruthless’ are ethics that could be applied to society. As far as I am aware, the former ethic has never been tried as an organizing(?) principle for a geopolitical society. The latter is effectively the ethic that has governed society in most places most of the time for as long as civilization has been in existence.

Young claimed that for people to accept/endorse/advocate for this ethic of respect for people’s capacity to choose depends on a preference for justice over injustice. So (and though I acknowledge that this is an intellectually cheap point to make), when was the last time anyone touted any form of governance on the basis that it was unjust? Nazis claimed Nazism to be a just ideology because the ‘superior’ should rule over the ‘inferior’ (in whatever way the superior feel to be appropriate). It is not the only ideology (or theology) for which such a claim has been made. In another vein, Karl Marx and his followers have insisted that ‘justice’ is irrelevant because it isn’t a real thing (despite how much ‘exploitation’ is loaded with ethical portent). Even that, however, is a far cry from praising the injustice of any proposed form of governance.

Less colloquially, only an ethic located within material existence has an undeniable commonality for human beings. Anyone who would claim any other starting point for an account of justice or make a claim for justness for any other ethic (keeping in mind what an ethic most generically is) or even advocate for another approach to governing governance without any reference to ‘justice’ is relying on some personally held truth, not a commonly shared experience of life. Even an ethic based on an interpretation of ‘human nature’, as someone touting “rule by the most ruthless” might well do, will inevitably lack the commonality of this ethic: there are many different interpretations available, and for any to have the commonality of the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices it must hold true for every person in all instances. It is that undeniable commonality that makes this ethic of justice uniquely valid for fulfilling the unavoidable task of governing human governance.

So why are people like Sam Young unwilling to endorse this ethic, even though if they were the least bit self-critical regarding what they have written regarding it they would have to see that they have not even attempted to refute it? To say one has doubts about it is not a refutation. Yet, neither Young nor anyone else who has rejected it has sought any clarification regarding it. Apparently, they do equate voicing doubts with intellectually refuting it.

For instance, Young used the story of the Garden of Eden to question this ethic. The concern of this ethic of justice is way narrower than that. That was a dispute between Eve and Adam on the one side and God on the other, not a matter limited to human beings. It could not be more obvious that to bring God in any form into the discussion is to take it outside the realm of material existence, where this account of justice in its entirety resides. Indeed, that it is wholly and completely contained within material existence legitimately de-legitimates going outside material existence (to beliefs of any kind, secular or sacral) to find grounds to reject it or any of its implications for humanity. The only way to refute it is to falsify the observation from which it follows or to find a fatal flaw in the reasoning from that observation to the ethic. Even mistakes regarding implications of the ethic would not render the ethic itself invalid.

Young posed ‘people getting what they deserve’ as an alternative account of justice. Again, the existence of an alternative does not invalidate in any way this account of justice. Moreover, that is an old idea in the philosophy of ethics. If it were particularly compelling, wouldn’t it be at least more or less universally accepted by now? More importantly, is it more or less intellectually rigorous than mutual respect in effecting choices it? It is less rigorous: “deserve” is in the end as profoundly subjective as ‘beauty’ is. John Rawls [A Theory of Justice, 1971] considered and rejected that approach to justice on his way to identifying “legitimate expectations” as the, well, legitimate ethical standard for outcomes in society. (Those “expectations” are the result of the society in which one lives, and the justness of it is the issue; to be fair to Rawls, he was discussing just outcomes in the context of Liberalism, which he overtly identified as his starting point). [Rawls’s book and the academic debate it generated concerning ‘distributive justice’ was the subject of the Review of the Literature in my Master’s Thesis (1988): Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University).]

To be fair to Young, he was mostly objecting to my suggestion that mutual respect is entailed in pretty much every approach to justice ever proffered. Firstly, though, whether that generalization is true or not has nothing to do with the validity of this ethic in itself as an approach to justice. Secondly, I do stand by that suggestion, even so. For instance, people getting what they deserve and mutual respect in effecting choices are not the same thing, but anyone who would read the linked article at the end of this diatribe (to which Young did leave a Reply) would see an explicit connection between Samuels’s analysis of effecting choices and “people getting what they deserve.” Samuels actually provides a rigorous understanding of how people can/can’t ‘deserve’ what they get. There is an element of people being respected present in it even before ‘mutual respect’ was overtly added to the ethical equation (by yours truly). Adding to Samuels’s analysis of effecting choices ‘respect for the capacity of all people to choose’, following from the observation that people have no choice but to effect choices, strengthens an ethical force that is already present in that analysis (while taking the ethic to the broader concerns of governance).

I am not a fan of Robert Nozick. His book [Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)] was a response to Rawls’s Theory. To my mind, he mostly reiterated ad nauseum what John Locke had written about justice c. three centuries earlier — whose work was clearly out of date fifty years ago. Still, one point Nozick made that I do endorse is that any “end-state” approach to justice will necessarily be arbitrary because it will bring arbitrary values into it. (Locke famously defined arbitrariness in human relations as injustice; to my mind it was the one thing he got completely right.) ‘Just desserts’ is an example of an “end-state” approach to justice. (Nozick claimed Rawls’s “difference principle” for determining just distributive outcomes can’t avoid being another.)

At the time I read Nozick, it occurred to me that an arbitrary value must also underlie any attempt to claim justice for any process, as opposed to an end-state. Nozick claimed that ‘liberty’ is not an arbitrary value, so liberty as an organizing principle results in a process that is not arbitrary. But of course ‘liberty’ as the organizing principle for a society is as arbitrary as ‘equality’ is. Moreover, it is actually the opposite of an ethic: as both Locke and Nozick explicitly recognize, it is “in need of some restraint” (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, “Sympathy for the Devil”). So at best that approach to a just society ends up locating arbitrariness in the value used to constrain liberty. Locke ultimately depended on ‘equality’ for that, and so did Nozick.

I eventually realized that mutual respect in effecting choices is an ethical process that is not arbitrary. Any value (including ‘liberty’) that is based on a personal, immaterial truth will necessarily be arbitrary from the point of view of any other person. Mutual respect in effecting choices is not arbitrary because it follows, not from a personal, immaterial truth, but — yet again—from an experience of life as it is lived within material existence that all human beings share — and all know they all share. To reject it is an act of arbitrariness (unless it were to be successfully — rationally — refuted).

It does so happen that the maximum liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously would be a byproduct of a society governed by this ethic. In the end, however, the validity of this approach to justly governing the governance of society is utterly independent of any other thoughts on the subject — which is why I spend precious little time ‘comparing and contrasting’ in relating this approach to justice in articles I write about it.

Still, it would produce a society very similar to a Liberal society. That is due to two factors: Liberalism has been the only ideology to seek to understand what justice is and then apply that to the governance of society, and it holds equality and liberty to be the ‘twin pillars’ of justice. ‘Equality’ calls for mutual respect, and mutual respect in effecting choices would maximize liberty. Hence, the aforementioned similarity. These days, the limits of Liberalism [re. Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982)], both practical and conceptual, are being exposed, exacerbating the need for an ethic of justice to take its place. This ethic is an advance beyond Liberalism, but its validity in no way depends upon Liberalism — or any other thoughts on the subject of justice or any other approach to governance. Nor, as noted above, can this ethic be invalidated by any other thoughts on the subject of justice or governance in any other form. That conceptual independence follows from the completeness of its position in material existence: its determinant (the observation that people have no choice but to effect choices) and its referents, i.e., that to which it applies (actions undertaken to effect a choice that involve at least one other person in any way).

Again, I just can’t understand any resistance to this ethic of justice. Any question regarding it and its implications for human beings that might arise in anyone’s mind could be answered by anyone who had read even this much about it, given a few moments of thought. Anyone honoring it with serious consideration it will realize the impelling force of it. Finally, why on Earth would anyone who cares about justice want to reject it as a means to the end of the just governance of society?

if interested in more about this ethic: “Alright, Already” (here in Medium, but not behind the paywall)

historical context: “An Idea That’s Time Has Come?” (also here in Medium but not behind the paywall)



Stephen Yearwood

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