Code: TP-28

 

JUST STATES?

A Pragmatist Argument for Broadening the Scope of Concern

in Social and Political Philosophy:  A Paper for Presenatation

 

Abstract

            Traditionally, social and political philosophers have devoted themselves to providing legitimization for the power of nation states accompanied by recommendations for creating a just state.  I would argue that by framing philosophical questions concerning the power of institutions in this way, philosophers have inadvertently overlooked far too much of our social and political reality.  Rather than limiting inquiry to questions concerning legitimization of the state, philosophers ought to broaden the scope of concern to include the moral justification of all institutions.  In this way, the task of social and political philosophy might better include feminist and race theorists’ critiques of the family, social categories of race, and other cultural institutions whose power is entrenched beyond the state.  But perhaps even more importantly, philosophers might better learn to ask how just institutions can be created, whether these institutions are economic, personal, humanitarian, or governmental.  Instead of simply asking how we might construct a state, global or otherwise, that can punish injustice after transgressions have occurred, we could work towards discovering ways  proactively to prevent injustice.  This may be achieved in part by requiring institutions, governmental or otherwise, to include strategies for avoiding injustice in their institutional structure.  Thus, rather than placing all of our hopes for a just world on the backs of those who seek to advance a world government, the efforts of those who seek justice might be practically realized on multiple fronts, depending upon where progress is most likely to be made.

 

 

            Traditionally, social and political philosophers have devoted themselves to providing legitimization for the power of nation states accompanied by recommendations for creating a just state.  I would argue that by framing philosophical questions concerning the power of institutions in this way, philosophers have inadvertently overlooked far too much of our social and political reality.  Rather than limiting inquiry to questions concerning legitimization of the state, philosophers ought to broaden the scope of concern to include the moral justification of all institutions.  In this way, the task of social and political philosophy might better include feminist and multiculturalist critiques of the family, social categories of race, and other cultural institutions whose power is entrenched beyond the state.  But perhaps even more importantly, philosophers might better learn to ask how just institutions can be created, whether these institutions are economic, personal, humanitarian, or governmental.  Instead of simply asking how we might construct a state that can punish injustice after transgressions have occurred, we could work towards discovering ways creatively and proactively to prevent injustice.  This might be achieved in part by requiring institutions, governmental or otherwise, to include strategies for avoiding injustice in their institutional structure.  Thus, rather than placing all of our hopes for a better world on the backs of those who seek to advance a world government, the efforts of those who seek justice might be realized on multiple fronts, depending upon where progress is most likely to be made.

I.  MAKING THE CASE FOR A BROADER VIEW

            Historically, philosophers, as ancient as Plato and as recent as Rawls, have devoted substantial attention to the requirements of a just state.  In the Republic, Plato makes the case for reworking social institutions ranging from marriage to child rearing in the name of creating a perfectly just state (Plato, 1981).  By reconstructing familial identities, Plato believed that we could all learn to identify with the collective best interest of the polis rather than with narrow conceptions of our own self interests.  With a well-ordered state, justice might be achieved on a large scale.  At the same time, justice in the soul might better function once adequate support for the development of a sense of justice in children was provided through the philosopher kings’ state run education and child rearing.  Plato’s concern with justice did extend to a partial redefinition of the roles of women so that they might better serve the state by developing their potential.  Plato, however, also did not recognize any injustice in referring to women and children as property nor did he address the injustice of holding slaves.[1]  Plato did little to address the ways in which business institutions were run or the injustice of a populace so greedy that it needed to invade other nations to support itself.  I would argue that, in part, these oversights occur because Plato is primarily concerned with justice in the state and within the individual soul.  Plato presupposes that justice is primarily created and achieved either in the soul or in the state.  As a result of this false dichotomy, injustices rooted in social realities not directly controlled by the state--gender norms, class bias, or even the institutional frameworks of trade--are not subject to the same sort of in depth analysis and critique.[2]  Although, Plato may have been right to suggest that a better-educated and well-formed populace would be more inclined towards justice, he overlooks the many ways in which institutions outside of the state may or may not embody justice.  In fact, insofar as he addresses these concerns, suggesting that women should be allowed the opportunity to make use of their talents, it is because his notion of the just state cannot be maintained without the dismantling of other social institutions such as the family.[3]  Throughout, the focus is upon the development of a just state rather than upon developing just institutions per se.

            A similar criticism might also be addressed towards social contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke.  With a keen focus upon the state as the primary means of achieving justice, the possibility of reformulating other institutions to embody justice more fully is overlooked.  In a state of nature, why don’t women rise up against the men who oppress them to form institutions that better protect them?  In Hobbes, the question does not even surface.  Although Hobbes begins with a state of nature in which matrimony can not be enforced, Hobbes still concludes that women will consent to subjection to men through a marriage contract (Hobbes, 1985).  Pateman has hypothesized that women might well refuse to marry or to have children if they saw that it would lead to their domination by men.[4]  And yet, this crucial question of how the family is just or unjust as a social institution is overlooked.  Similarly, and most notably in Locke, questions concerning the institution of property inheritance and business are taken as largely given (Locke, 1963).  Why didn’t social contract theorists also examine how it is that non-governmental institutions can come into existence and function in a more or less just fashion?

            One might be tempted to wonder whether or not these questions of just non-governmental social institutions are not recognized simply due to the social context in which these philosophers wrote.  Presumably, contemporary philosophers would not be subject to this sort of theoretical blindness having been sensitized to questions of class by Marx, to feminist critiques in the wake of the women’s movement, and to issues of race after anti-slavery and civil rights struggles.  On this view, it is not obsession with the state as the sole means of manifesting justice that has caused philosophers to overlook the possibility of creating just institutions outside of the nation state.   Rather, it is because the social reality of one’s time have dictated the sorts of phenomena that can be recognized and identified. 

            In reply to this sort of objection, I would note that contemporary social and political theorists are often subject to the same sorts of problems.  Although contemporary philosophers are more likely to be sensitive to issues of race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, the awareness of how justice must be achieved with respect to nongovernmental institutions is often achieved in a piecemeal fashion.  These concerns are still at the periphery of the theorist’s purview, especially insofar as the state is powerless to thwart them.  John Rawls, although a brilliant social and political philosopher, is a case in point.  Rawls does much to explain how a sense of justice cannot be maintained unless those subject to state institutions can maintain a relatively stable sense of what justice entails.  A state that is felt to be unjust in its very structure will not prove feasible in the long run.  From the original position, Rawls argues that we will not allow the most well off to gain more at the expense of the least well off since the accidents of wealth and birth can hardly be justly maintained when others suffer to an unreasonable degree  (Rawls, 1971). 

Shortly after Rawls’ Theory of Justice was published, many critics pointed out the ways in which the veil of ignorance in the original position could not be maintained since Rawls’ assumption that household heads would speak for each family unit itself presupposed a potential gender bias.  Although Rawls later recognized a need to better account for issues concerning justice and gender, race, or other social institutions thought to be unjust, the basic assumption of A Theory of Justice was that justice was primarily to be a feature of the state.[5]  Why didn’t he ask whether or not our business institutions could be minimally just rather than assuming that it would be the job of the state to redistribute wealth already distributed in an unjust fashion by business institutions?  Why not ask how our expectations concerning the family might be re-envisioned rather than presupposing an unproblematic view of how power is distributed to heads of families?  Why not ask what justice would look like in an international organization, rather than simply accepting that justice would be made manifest primarily within a single nation state? 

            Obviously, no one person can cover every aspect of what a just society entails.  Space and time constraints alone would rule against it.  But, I believe that these and other examples too numerous to list illustrate that philosophers, by and large, have simply assumed that justice is a question to be framed almost exclusively in terms of the state and its power to create a more just world.  Questions of whether institutions not directly under state control may become more just fall out of focus as a result.  As pragmatist ethicist are quick to note, the ways in which questions are framed can do much towards determining the sorts of answers one can expect to achieve.  With state enforced justice as the only end-in-view, we cannot be surprised that recommended reforms are limited to the state.  The state can integrate schools, enforce equal opportunity hiring laws, give people of color or women the right to vote, and offer punitive damages through the courts when laws written to protect legal rights are violated.  All of these measures are clearly an important part of the struggle for a more just world.  But, we ought not to assume that justice may only be achieved via the state and its powers. 

            Feminists who have insisted that the personal is political are in part seeking to remediate the oversights caused by an overly exclusive focus upon the power of the state to enforce justice.  The critique ought not end there, however.  Moral agents should seek justice in all institutions if they hope to live in a just world.  Our business dealings, investments, and purchases in a global economy extend beyond the power of any one state’s ability to enforce justice.  Although I agree with Peter Singer and other ethicists who have argued that we do need stronger international governing bodies to better deal with these problems, I also believe that sufficiently strong and well formed international governing bodies are still a long way in coming and, given the current political trends towards United States unilateralism, unlikely to be sufficiently strengthened any time soon.[6]              Thus, in order to achieve a more just world, we need to implement multiple strategies for developing just institutions in a variety of forms.

 

THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BROADER VIEW

            By readjusting the scope of concern when it comes to creating just institutions, we can not only reframe debates about justice to be more inclusive of feminist and multiculturalist critiques, but also begin to bring other questions of justice to bear.  Do we have obligations of justice to animals, the environment, or future persons?  Since the majority of our actions with direct affects upon animals, the environment, or future persons are not subject to governmental oversight, this question is glossed over by many theorists.  Some would argue that only human beings can properly be owed obligations of justice given the theoretical commitments of many social contract theorists, but our obligations to future generations could not be so easily ruled out.  At the very least, the question is worth considering in depth as a crucial part of any comprehensive social and political philosophy.

            Resetting the scope of concern with respect to creating just institutions might also prove especially beneficial in creating just institutions beyond the single nation state.  Institutions of international governance might come into view more clearly as a viable option for creating a more just world once we realize and seek to overcome the assumption that the single nation state is always the best or sole means of achieving justice.  Perhaps one of the most important benefits of recognizing that justice might also be attained by other institutions is the realization that we can begin to create more just business institutions and non-governmental institutions that fight for justice.  In a world where international governance is neither prepared nor properly configured to meet out justice to immensely powerful transnational corporations, moral agents must work with whatever tools they have.  Governmental intervention by nation states is surely one option, but as organizers from unions to the Rainforest Action Network have already realized, appealing directly to a sense of corporate decency and fear of moral reprobation can also be an important tool in achieving justice.  Consumer boycotts and publicity campaigns to sway investors by appealing to their conscience can punish and motivate institutions that engage in unjust practices.  At present, we live in a world where the executive branch of our administration refuses to enforce environmental protection laws and companies can move their operations around the globe to avoid interaction with a government strong enough to prevent it from engaging in coercive and unjust labor practices.  In this context, people of moral conscience need not simply give up.  Strategically planned measures to increase corporate accountability can still be implemented through media campaigns, boycotts, and strikes.  While I by no means wish to suggest that the state should be excused from working towards justice, I would also be careful to recognize that the state is not the only means of effecting change towards a more just world.  In a world where an increasingly global economy is accompanied by terrorist uncertainties, the role of the nation state is very much under debate and uncertain.  But, we need not presuppose that only the single nation state is capable of rising to the task.  If our governments will not rise to the occasion, our churches, ethically minded but competitive businesses, and nongovernmental organizations of various stripes can still provide a means of working towards justice.  Did the government of its own accord end slavery or segregation?  The answer quite simply is no.  Justice was only achieved when churches and communities demanded it, although using government as a means towards achieving justice certainly played a crucial role in ending slavery and racism.

            Taking a broader view of the sorts of institutions capable of being just might also help in the development of proactive rather than merely reactive attempts to create institutional reform.  Currently business is often designed primarily to increase profits regardless of whether or not its business is conducted in a minimally just fashion.  At best, we might hope that the government would levy fines to punish this sort of behavior.  But, when the profits are significant, it is likely that fines alone will do little to discourage a behavioral strategy built into the business institution’s design.  If we allow ourselves to see all institutions as responsible for operating within the confines of justice, then we might demand reform of business practice as such.  Moral agents may have power not just as citizens, but as workers, managers, investors, consumers, and potential members of watchdog groups.  Rather than simply punishing wrong behavior after the fact, we can also work to reward companies that respond to moral censure and not rely solely upon government fines which may or may not ever be paid depending upon one’s political clout.  If a company finds ways to restructure so that it can both develop a collective awareness of how its activities may affect others unjustly and respond appropriately when moral censure is levied, then even a business can become minimally just.  We expect individual moral agents to internalize the demands of justice and to respond to deserved moral censure even when no laws are broken.  Once we recognize that nongovernmental institutions can also find ways to be responsive under similar conditions, we might begin to create and expect business institutions that are less likely to face fines in the first place.  Just as Plato argued that well formed individual moral agents would need less state oversight, so too well formed institutions might also require less maintenance on the part of the state to ensure that justice is served.  Creative business men and women have already begun to find ways to develop more just ways of doing business.  Equal Exchange, for instance, refuses to exploit its coffee growers and works to lessen its impact on the environment.  By listening to workers and giving the concerns of justice weight alongside concerns with respect to profit, goods can get to consumers without involving them in exploitation and injustice as a result.  Nor is this company alone.  Visionary morally minded business pioneers constantly seek to find ways to create business institutions less at odds with the demands of justice.  Their task is daunting and their efforts are not the norm, but neither for all that should we assume that the sheer possibility of creating institutions outside of government that are capable of justice is impossible or not worth considering.

            Finally, by expanding the range of creative options for realizing justice beyond state power, we might also begin to address the ways in which all institutions affect the likelihood that individuals will be motivated towards justice.  Even if we have a state that punishes injustice, if the majority of individuals participate in other institutions that are at base unjust, we ought not be surprised that the state must busy itself with meeting out punishment so often and with so little expectation of real deterrence.  Crimes by the corporate elite have grown ever bolder.  Even as we seek to promote a sense of justice with a penal system, however flawed, if we also create immensely powerful business institutions working at odds with the demands of justice, we are likely to foster vice rather than virtue in the development of moral character.  To create the conditions that will make a more just world possible, we must strive for justice in all of our institutions.  Perhaps that is why pragmatists like Dewey and the women of Hull House were so concerned with education.  It is not only the state that can affect justice, but our educators as well.  All of the institutions in which we participate have a formative affect upon our judgments and upon our sense of what is just and/or desirable.  If we only seek justice in the state and not in our educational institutions, economic institutions, and international institutions of all kinds, we cannot ultimately create a just world. 

            Some might reject this critique of social and  political philosophy by noting how much social and political philosophy has grown ever closer to applied ethics.[7]  But, even applied ethics tends to direct its attention to what individuals can do acting in relative isolation, for example, in terms of giving money to charity.  Or, like Singer, applied ethicists suggest ways in which international government can be adjusted to better monitor business.  What I propose is that we also pay adequate attention to our collective moral duty to create justice in all of our institutions.  This obligation belongs to the individual, but it belongs to individuals as current and potential members of collectives.  One person likely could not have done much to prevent the Enron debacle.  One person probably could not have done much to stop Boise Cascade from destroying the forests of indigenous peoples around the world.  But collectives working together could have prevented these problems, Enron and Boise Cascade to name just two.  In a world of over six billion people, it may well be time for a moral wake up call.  Moral obligations to justice apply not just to individuals and states, but to every collective capable of making an intentional decision. 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hobbes, Thomas.  1985.  Leviathan  Edited by C. B. Macpherson.  (London:  Penguin

Books).

Lange, Linda.  2003.  "The Function of Equal Education in Plato’s Republic" as reprinted

in Social & Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and

Multicultural Perspectives  Edited by James P. Sterba.  3rd edition.  (New York: 

Wadsworth Publishing Company), pp. 33-40.

Locke, John.  1963.  Two Treatises of Government Edited by P. Laslett.  (Mentor Books).

Matravers, Derek and Jon Pike.  2003.  Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy

An Anthology  (London: The Open University).

Pateman, Carole.  1988.  The Sexual Contract  (Oxford: Polity Press)

Plato.  1974.  Republic Translated by G. M. A. Grube.  (Indianapolis:  Hackett

Publishing Company).

Rawls, John.  1971.  A Theory of Justice.  (Cambridge, Mass.:  Belknap Press of Harvard

University).

           

 



[1] I recognize that given Plato’s definition of justice which loosely has to do with the various parts of society each doing as they ought and ultimately obeying the philosopher kings, Plato might have consistently maintained that it simply is not unjust to hold slaves or to view women and children as property.  The Republic is by no means especially egalitarian, a point raised by Lynda Lange.  That said, I would note that, according to Plato, justice in the state ought to mirror justice in the soul.  Thus, insofar as men are irrational in believing that women can contribute to the collective good just as effectively as men and insofar as slavery is a function of the irrational belief that some persons lack even the potential to contribute more than brute labor, Plato still cannot reasonably maintain that these practices are just.  Even if it is a harmonious state that determines justice, a well functioning and wise state cannot be best maintained with such practices in place.  Thus, if he were consistent and well informed, Plato also should have recognized these practices as unjust. 

[2] Dewey noted similar problems in Plato, especially with respect to the failure to see how labor was defined as purely physical and mind as purely spiritual and ideal.

[3] I owe this insight to Lange, 2003.

[4] This is a point examined at length by Carole Pateman in The Sexual Contract.

[5] Rawls notes that justice must be developed primarily in what he considers to be the most fundamental institutions of society: "the just constitution and the main parts of the legal order" (Theory of Justice, 527).  He does mention business as an example of private society and discusses the family in the context of moral psychology, but does little to address questions concerning whether or not these institutions must also embody justice.

[6] See William Aiken and Hugh La Follette, eds. World Hunger and Moral Obligation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1977) or Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002).  My position the appropriate scope of concern for social and political philosophy is probably more closely aligned with that of Onora O’Neill, Faces of Hunger (London, Allen & Unwin, 1986).

[7] Derek Matravers and Jon Pike, for instance, note that applied ethics and social and political theory have grown ever closer in recent times (2003).