The Ethic of Justice

Stephen Yearwood
5 min readJun 5, 2022


the rule for governing all interactions among human beings

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

The concern of justice is our interactions with one another as human beings. “Interactions” means actions that involve at least one other person in any way, including having direct or indirect effects on them.

Heretofore justice has been thought of as being part of morality. Morality also governs actions that don’t involve other people as well as thoughts, feelings, etc. and how we treat other creatures, the planet as an ecosystem, etc.

There are different moralities. There is only one ethic of justice. Most readers will see that it does not contradict the ethics of the morality by which they (seek to) live.

An ethic is a rule for governing human conduct in our interactions with other people. The ethic of justice is the rule for governing the conduct of all people in all of our interactions with one another.

Since they are immaterial things, any morality could be universal, but no morality ever has been. That’s because moralities are based on beliefs. Any belief could be held by all human beings, but none ever has been. As a result, even though moralities might have ethical rules in common, no morality can produce the ethic of justice: an ethic that is necessarily applicable to all people.

The ethic of justice follows from an observation within material existence, not any belief. That observation is that we humans have no choice but to effect choices: to choose among perceived alternatives and to take action to bring that choice to fruition. If we are awake, we are in the process of effecting at least one choice. Those choices can range from life-altering (marriage, children, career, etc.) to trivial (what to wear, what to do for entertainment, etc.).

I got that from Warren J. Samuels*, who all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices. Anyone can verify its validity. No human being has ever lacked the capacity to choose (however limited any person’s ability to effect any choice might have ever been).

That makes choosing integral to being human: to be human is to be required to make choices. It dawned on me that respecting one another’s capacity choose must therefore be integral to our interactions with one another as human beings, to be required of us in our interactions: since our capacity to choose is definitive of being human, to deny (to include simply ignoring) anyone else’s capacity to choose is to assert that the other being involved is not really (fully) human.

Actually, we cannot interact with any other person in any way unless we are effecting some choice. So the ethic of justice is this: mutual respect in effecting choices. What does conducting ourselves in accordance with that ethic entail?

First, we must consider what effecting choices entails. It involves taking action. When we take actions we can involve other people. They might be involved as participants, as when we recruit friends or family to help us with some task or project. They can also be involved due to the effects our actions pursuant to effecting some choice might have on them, like the time my cousin and I almost burned down the family farm by choosing to play with matches.

To respect the capacity of other people to choose when effecting choices means allowing them to choose for themselves whether/how/to what extent to be involved in any way whenever any choice is being effected. That is the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice: it tells us what we must do to act justly. The more we take into account the effects of our actions on other people — including our ‘speech acts’ — the more just we are being. Anyone can see that there is no limit to how justly a person might act.

The opposite of that is to fail to respect the capacity of anyone else to choose. When we do that we are either co-opting other people or otherwise preempting (to include simply ignoring) their capacity to choose. (Co-opting is a form a of preempting, but preempting includes more than co-opting.)

“Co-opting” means that we are getting them to participate in the actual process of effecting some choice in some way without all the relevant information or without their freely given consent. Robbing someone at gunpoint would be an example of such conduct. So would telling a lie to get someone participate.

We might also involve other people when we effect a choice, especially by affecting them in some way, even if they do not actually participate in the process of effecting it. When we do that we are preempting their capacity to choose: we are giving them no choice but to be affected by our actions.

Refraining from such actions is the minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice: that which we must refrain from doing to keep from acting unjustly. It comes down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (lying, cheating, withholding pertinent information, etc.). Anyone who is refraining from taking any such actions in effecting any choice is being just enough.

Most of those prohibitions are straightforward. It is generally easy to tell whether we are killing, coercing, or stealing to get what we want. That leaves harming and manipulating.

I don’t imagine that anyone reading this is likely to have any problem with a prohibition against doing harm to other people. One difficulty that can arise is discerning the different forms that harm can take. It can also be difficult to distinguish between harming another person or merely thwarting someone else’s desires (whatever any person’s reaction might be) in the course of seeking our own valid desires. The distinction between harming and thwarting is sure to arise in the course of fulfilling our obligations to those people for whom we are responsible: foremost, our children, but anyone in our care or supervision. Of course, the obverse is equally valid: just because any of our wants is thwarted does not mean an injustice is necessarily being done.

With manipulation, the problem tends to be more within ourselves. Manipulation is in some sense the least bad ‘bad act’, but it is perhaps the most infuriating. Most of us would almost rather be shot than be manipulated. It can also be the most difficult conduct to apprehend. To fail to see manipulation is easy. Even worse, while it can be hard to see when we are being manipulated, it can be even more difficult to see when we are the ones being manipulative.

This ethic an also be readily applied to the governance of society. Such a society would have the maximum liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously, a democratic political process such as exists in Liberal nations, and the economic system that exists in most nations, but with no (involuntary) unemployment or poverty, the opportunity to eliminate taxes/public debt for funding all government, and more sustainability.


Further reading: “Beyond Liberalism” (here in Medium, but not behind the paywall — with links for yet more reading for those who cannot get too much)

*in “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” in Perspectives of Property, edited by Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson (1972) [“Welfare economics,” as is often unfortunately the case in economics as a subject of study, “welfare” does not mean what we commonly think it does. It refers to ‘externalities’, i.e., in general, unintended consequences — or at least consequences that are not taken into account by the entity generating them.



Stephen Yearwood

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