Topic: Philosophy and Justice
Philosophy and Justice: What is a Just Society
Compare/contrast two social philosophies. For instance, you might explain Plato, Aristotle, utilitarianism, Marx, Rawls, race theory, and/or a feminist approach. Try and select two distinct approaches. Remember to explain the theories you reference with supporting citations to the textbook and online lectures before contrasting them, utilizing correct APA format. You may want to use examples to illustrate your understanding of key ideas in each theory. Use this APA Citation Helper as a convenient reference for properly citing resources.
Explain how justice is understood in the two theories you contrasted.
Illustrate your understanding of how social justice is conceived in each with a concrete example of an injustice, i.e. a practice or reality that fails to achieve the vision of justice in the theory you chose.
Please follow the Grading Criteria below thank you
Explained two social philosophies with supporting citations to the textbook and online lectures.
Contrasted the two social philosophies
Discussed how justice is understood in each theory by analyzing a contemporary example of injustice.
Conformed to correct APA citation format and page length (3 pages).
What are Human Rights?
Political philosophy is largely concerned with the relationship between the individual and the government, i.e. what many philosophers refer to as the “state.” It is helpful here to recall our discussion of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Doing political philosophy requires that we examine our assumptions about the purpose of government and laws as well as our presuppositions about human nature.
In a sense, we could say that political philosophy is about fostering the human good. As we see in Plato’s Republic, the just state can be understood both as fostering the ideal conditions for personal flourishing and as a macrocosm for the struggles and challenges of living an examined life. When considering political philosophies, one way to analyze them is in their approach to human rights. Human rights can be broken down into negative rights and positive rights. Here, negative and positive do not imply bad or good but are based on the type of claim that an assertion of a right makes.
A negative right cannot be prohibited or compelled by another person. Freedom of speech is an example. No one can prohibit you from speaking your mind nor compel you to say something you do not want to. Choosing to buy a gallon of milk is another example. No one is forcing you to buy the milk nor saying you cannot buy the milk. As long as you have what is expected in trade for the milk (such as money), you can get it.
Negative rights are sometimes referred to as liberty rights. The founders of the US system of government viewed human rights in terms of “unalienable rights” associated with individual liberty and rooted in the traditions of natural law. The role of the government is simply to protect these liberty rights—to insure that governments and individuals do not infringe upon these fundamental rights. Under such a system, individuals are expected to flourish or fail based on their own merits. People may choose to help those who are not flourishing but are not compelled to do so. For instance, education is not a negative right, and not everyone can afford higher education. However, people with some disposable income can choose to donate money to scholarship funds and other charities in order to help those with fewer economic resources get a quality education.
Positive rights are those requiring an obligation or entitlement. For example, if you are arrested you have the right to an attorney and if you cannot afford it, one will be provided. In this case you are entitled to an attorney and the state is obliged to provide one if you cannot afford it. The idea of social and economic rights is an example of positive rights that have emerged more recently.
In contrast to negative rights, which are seen as already possessed by an individual and are simply in need of protection, positive rights are provided by the state. For example, the belief that people are entitled to certain resources, such as food, shelter, education, and healthcare, is consistent with a belief in positive rights. Under this view, the government exists in part to level the playing field by ensuring that all citizens have access to basic resources. For instance, one might argue that if all young people have equal access to healthcare, food, clean water, adequate shelter, green spaces, and a quality education, they are better equipped to be successful and contributing members of society as adults.
Who Should Rule, and How?
Hobbes, Locke, and Rawls all envision some version of the “social contract,” in which humans imagine themselves as in a state of nature starting a society from scratch, and believe that we are inherently equal. The idea that we have inherent qualities that dictate the kinds of rights we should have within a political structure is consistent with natural law theory. On the other hand, despite the differences in their views, Plato and Aristotle seem to think that we are political beings and have different abilities by our very nature. None of these theories necessarily require social, economic, gender, and race hierarchies, however. Many of us have strong political convictions and firm ideas about how society should be structured, so it is important to recognize the difference between ideology and philosophy in the context of our discussion this week.
In the social contract view, rights are inherently negative, in that laws and government are in place in order to insure that I am able to seek and preserve property without being unduly threatened by others. It also prevents me from infringing upon the rights of others to do the same. Of course, we do not live in a country with laws and policies that only protect negative rights, in that we have all kinds of programs (welfare, public education, and Medicare, for example) that try and level the playing field while also fostering economic and personal flourishing for the community as a whole. However, these positive rights might be contemplated by Rawls insofar as he is concerned with fairness. Furthermore, as we will see when we discuss some critiques of natural law, the belief in fundamental equality does not always translate into a clear view of specific programs and structures that will foster equality.
Society and the Virtuous Life
One approach to social justice involves the idea that society should be based on virtue. Based on what we’ve learned thus far, it should come as no surprise that Plato and Aristotle were early proponents of this view. However, nearly a century before Plato, the Chinese philosopher Confucius set forth a theory of the ideal society based upon key virtues such as benevolence and respect. This makes Confucius an ethical humanist, in that he believed that human intelligence can and should be aimed at promoting the general welfare. Confucius set forth his version of humanism in the form of specific sayings collected by his students.
Like Confucius, Plato’s version of the ideal society was partly a response to the social and political conditions of his time. Plato lived in what might be understood as a limited democracy, insofar as while Greek men were allowed to participate equally in political life, women, slaves, and non-Greeks were excluded. Plato was concerned about the “tyranny of the majority,” i.e. the tendency of people to become swayed by irrational arguments, fear, and the like, such as the fear and mob mentality that led to the conviction and execution of his friend and teacher Socrates.
Instead, Plato proposed a society that allowed people equal opportunity to develop their unique talents. The education and governance of these people would be left to those whose philosophical natures were best suited to this task. Plato’s thoughts on the political are often attributed to Socrates’s story of the perfectly just society in The Republic. In this dialogue, Socrates seems to emphasize the uniqueness of individuals while also advocating for equal access to basic needs and opportunities.
Despite his carefully crafted account of how everyone will be educated in common in order to insure that everyone has equal opportunity to demonstrate a philosophical nature, Socrates and his interlocutor Glaucon worry that there will be no one wise enough to determine who should rule, and also wonder whether the guardians will not eventually fall pray to the same corruption that ordinary rulers do. He also worries that those with a philosophical nature are often reluctant to rule. He may have had a personal anecdote in mind here, considering that Socrates, despite his popularity and his famed courage in battle, never attempted to achieve an official leadership position in Athens. It is interesting to note, though, that Socrates’s account states that women were equally as likely as men to develop such philosophical natures, and therefore, he is often thought of as one of the first philosophers to be concerned with gender equality.
Ultimately, Socrates’s “perfect” polis (i.e, city/state) is demonstrated to be perfect in name only. This is because Socrates and Glaucon cannot come up with a definitive plan for identifying the individuals with the philosophical nature that would make them good rulers. Still, Socrates does not despair; as it turns out in Book X, the polis is an image of the justice we should foster in our own souls. Given that, the story of the perfect polis in The Republic is more of an opportunity to reflect upon justice than a programmatic approach to achieving a just state. In other words, The Republic is an invitation to do philosophy, that is, to reflect upon our own assumptions about the rights of the individual, the nature of justice, and the purpose of the state, rather than an attempt to persuade us to have the same political beliefs we see expressed in the dialogue.
Aristotle also recognized that human beings are political animals by nature. He suggested that political life should reflect the fact that humans have unique talents and, therefore, should not be treated exactly the same by the state. He did, however, believe that the political should be based on certain principles that are inherent in nature, both human nature and the nature of the universe. The belief in inherent laws that can be discerned through reason is known as natural law.
Early Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas took this idea of natural law one step further and asserted that these laws discerned by reason were not simply inherent in nature; rather, they were put into place by God. In other words, natural law is based upon divine law. Human-made laws should be modeled as closely as possible on divine and natural law.
This is significant, because Aquinas argues that some human laws might be in tension with divine or natural law. When/if this occurs, we have a right—a duty, even—to disobey the human laws. For example, if God made all human beings equally deserving of basic rights, this can be understood as a divine law that informs the properties of nature. In other words, we are equal by nature because God made us that way in accordance with divine law. Any human law that violates this natural equality (slavery, for example, or disenfranchisement of women and people of color) can and should be disobeyed under this approach. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” eloquently captures this kind of civil disobedience.
Social Contract Theory
Of course, not all natural law theorists believe that natural law is based upon divine law. Centuries after Plato constructed his notion of a just society, some British philosophers shared several key beliefs about the nature of human society. While they differed on many different things, these philosophers all believed that human beings were fundamentally equal. The other key belief shared by these philosophers was that humans were all either explicitly or implicitly involved in a “social contract,” i.e. an agreement among members of society to abide by a certain shared code of behavior in exchange for certain protections and privileges afforded by living in human society.
More simply, a social contract allows people to live freely and without fear of other members of society as long as they follow the basic guidelines of the society. Not all social contract theorists believe that people actually sat down and made such an agreement or that humans ever existed outside of society. Instead, the social contract is simply the idea that we willingly enter into social and political relationships with one another and tacitly agree to give up some rights and freedoms in return for the protection afforded by organized society.
A Social Contract: The United States Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is an excellent example of a document influenced by natural law and social contract theory.
One of the ways in which these social contract philosophers distinguish themselves is in terms of what they believe that human beings would be like “in a state of nature,” or outside the bounds of society. Thomas Hobbes was known for his belief that life in such a state of nature would be hard and short, because humans without the constraint of society would be brutish and savage.
Hobbes’ main political philosophy text is called Leviathan, after the traditional name for a giant sea monster. Like the giant leviathan, Hobbes believed that the state of government formed by the social contract needed to be large, impossible to ignore, and somewhat threatening. Nothing short of this would be sufficient to reign in the natural savage human tendencies that would otherwise tear the society apart.
In Hobbes’s view, the society that resulted from the social contract was unstable and always at the mercy of human impulse; he believed members of the society ought to be ready at any time to defend themselves and their property.
Beyond Natural Law—Rawls
Locke’s Second Treatise reveals many of the assumptions we make about what should constitute political power. Locke thus encourages us to wonder whether our common-sense notion of the political is one that should be questioned, challenged, even resisted. As we have seen, one of Locke’s primary points of focus is on private property, and it is worth noting that his emphasis on enabling people to own the land they improve and transform makes sense in the context of colonialism and western expansion, insofar as there was a great deal of raw property to be developed. One question we might ask is whether advances in technology that allow the overuse of land and the creation/accumulation of an excess stockpile of goods challenge Locke’s idea that developing raw materials is always beneficial for society.
Locke believed how societies used their resources was an indication of their success. For instance, he believed that Native Americans were living in a substandard fashion by not using all of the resources at their disposal. There might also be some problems with using reason as the basis for political rights. For instance, we might cite serial killers, Holocaust leaders, and others who knowingly and systematically employed reason towards the most dastardly of ends.
It is important to note that the social contract philosophers had some critics in their own time as well. David Hume, for example, had serious questions about the notion of humans being in a state of nature. He asked anyone to give him a real example of humans living in a state of nature and then deciding to form a society based on a social contract. He contended that no such event has ever occurred. Instead, he suggested that human society formed as an organic, developing entity over long periods.
Even in cases when new countries are explicitly formed with philosophical principles, Hume held that there was already an existing social structure that was not the result of a simple intellectual agreement. Hume’s critiques were generally persuasive to his 18th-century audience, and his view continues to be quite influential. However, a more recent political philosopher, John Rawls, agreed with Hume that humans never lived in a state of nature, but disagreed that this concept had no bearing on social philosophy.
Rawls’ idea of justice was intimately bound up in the concept of fairness. To determine if a society was fair, Rawls proposed a conceptual tool he called “the veil of ignorance.” To use this tool, imagine that you were creating a new society, but one in which you would have no idea about your social position. This means you don’t know your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your socio-economic status, your talents, your I.Q., or any other factor that may be to your benefit or detriment in your actual society. From behind this “veil of ignorance,” Rawls thought, we could then imagine social principles that would ensure fairness and equality for everyone, rather than espousing principles that benefit only particular members of society.
For example, if you had no way of knowing whether you would be an American attorney, a migrant worker in American agriculture, or a service-industry employee, you would be more likely to choose principles that promote fair trade and humane treatment for all workers. Social contract theories are generally consistent with the idea that the goal of a just society is to promote individual freedom. The major critique of this idea comes from socialism, or the idea that social justice should be more focused on the good of the community as a whole, as we will see shortly.
Gender; Sex; and Sexuality
The term “feminism” is generally traced back to the late 19th century, beginning in France and rapidly adopted throughout Europe and North America. The term initially referred to the social and political movements to secure the right to vote and other forms of social and political equality. It has become common parlance to refer to these early feminist movements and ideas as liberal feminism.
Philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft and suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were concerned with challenging essentialist ideas about women. Remember the avocado and artichoke from Week 2? Well, essentialism is a version of the avocado self, and gender essentialism assumes that women’s essential or fixed nature is determined by their biological function and serves as justification for their subordinate position in society.
Because they are focused on overcoming the basic oppression of women and emphasize the essential sameness of all people regardless of sex, liberal feminists fail to critique the basic assumptions of the avocado idea of the self. Critics of liberal feminism acknowledge the importance of political, legal, economic, and educational equality, but also recognize that liberal feminism erases sexual difference altogether. Simone de Beauvoir is an important critic of liberal feminism, and her book The Second Sex is arguably the most important feminist treatise of the twentieth century. Beauvoir famously introduced a distinction between sex and gender when she claimed that despite biological differences between the sexes, there is no difference so marked as to legitimate gender hierarchies.
Beauvoir entered into the project of writing a book on woman not as a feminist per se, but rather as a philosopher, and an existential one at that. Her idea was to write a book in response to the backlash against her partner and fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre by writing a semi-autobiographical justification of the existential ideas laid out in Being and Nothingness. But she found that doing so required her first to recognize herself as a woman; thus, she decided to write a book on woman.
The central claim of The Second Sex is that biology is not enough on its own to make someone a woman. Furthermore, all human characteristics are dependant upon situation. Beauvoir is not making any universal claims about sex or gender; rather, she is making the phenomenological assertion that we do distinguish two sexes, and that these distinctions influence all aspects of our daily lives.
For Beauvoir, sexual difference is a biological fact, not a feature that is impacted by human culture and history. However, the factual reality of biological sex is not in and of itself significant enough to determine the essence in human beings. The problem with “equality in difference” is that it still maintains the opposition of the one and the two, hence the standard is still male. Furthermore, while biology is not destiny, if one is treated as inferior one will in fact become so.
Thus, The Second Sex is thought by many to have put the final nail in the coffin of gender essentialism, and Beauvoir is credited with introducing the sex/gender distinction when she argued that female biology in no way determined socio-cultural differences. As we have seen, this means that we have to inquire into the different historical, cultural, and social factors that have contributed to the practical and theoretical oppression of women. While Beauvoir does make some general comments about the status of women, she always falls back against the existential principle that “existence precedes essence”; therefore, while her attempts to speak for all women might fall short, there is nothing in her philosophy of difference that excludes the possibility of women experiencing their oppression in a multitude of ways, or not at all. Feminists who recognize sexual difference argue that recognizing differences between women, and between women and men, is not necessarily oppressive; it is only when differences are understood as hierarchical that they become tools of social and political oppression.
Consider, for example, the way in which bodies (particularly those of women) are defined and categorized according to reproductive capabilities. The capacity to become pregnant and bear children is not necessarily possessed by all women; infertile or post-menopausal women, for example, are considered to be biologically sexed as female and, yet, the general consensus is still that biological sex is defined according to reproductive capacity. Gender norms (that is to say, contemporary ideas about what it means to grow up properly as one’s biological sex, which is equated in this context with gender) enforce, reinscribe, and are sustained by what some feminist and queer theorists refer to as “compulsory heterosexuality,” or the idea that heterosexuality is the only proper or normal expression of sexual desire.
Race and Ethnicity
The vast majority of Americans are descended from people who immigrated after the founding of the United States. Thus, it is fair to say that ethnic history is American history. Despite this, we tend to group all Caucasian people into a single group of “white” Americans, and similarly erase the very different experiences and histories of people of color. The very idea that all whites comprise a single race is in fact a recent concept, in that whiteness as a unifying concept was enacted to resolve class conflicts between land-owning, mostly British Americans and Irish immigrants. While racial difference has historically been used as a tool of racist institutions such as slavery, class also plays a role.
It is worth noting that the Human Genome Project proved human beings are fundamentally the same at the level of our genes. While there are subtle biological differences between the races, the vast genetic similarity of human beings suggests that race is at least as much of a social category as a biological one.
We live in a country with a complicated history of racial oppression and human rights. The contrasting approaches to race-based oppression in the 19th century can be seen in dialogues between Martin Delany and Fredrick Douglass. Delany argued that the racist beliefs about natural racial differences that were used as a justification for slavery were too deeply engrained in American culture to be overcome through mere persuasion or political protest, and advocated for a separatist position. Douglass, on the other hand, believed assimilation was a more pragmatic and appealing solution, evoking Locke’s account of natural rights and the Declaration of Independence as the basis for his position. This dialogue continued well past the dissolution of slavery as a legal institution, as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. occupied similar opposing positions.
Of course, racism does not only occur in the context of slavery, as we see in the farmworker’s movement spearheaded by figures like César Chávez. Chávez took an approach of peaceful resistance similar to that of Martin Luther King, Jr. This movement also illustrates the reality of intersectionality, in that ethnicity and socio-economic class were both used as sites of oppression. Both separatism and assimilation recognize that racism is not merely a matter of personal, or even communal, prejudice but, rather, a system of oppression that is sustained and maintained both by individuals and by institutions. Thus, any attempt to confront racism in one’s own mind must also involve active systematic change and thinking through the seeming neutrality of the various privileges we may enjoy.