Who doesn’t care about justice? No society can work without justice, yet every society seems to constantly grapple with it.
Do you live in a just society? To find out, you could look at a whole bunch of data. Per capita GDP, the Gini coefficient, the system of governance (both official and de facto), investments of the public and private sectors… it’s a long list. Whatever you choose, though, prepare to immediately get challenged on why you chose certain data over others and be subsequently written off as biased in one way or the other.
Maybe I’m a bit jaded about this. But maybe raw data is just not the right approach. Who decides about justice in a society? Ultimately, it’s the people who make up that society. Should you just ask yourself and others what they think about how fair their society is, then? I’m not so sure, because people in any society are likely biased by whatever their personal position in that society happens to be.
Let’s try that one more time. Philosopher John Rawls, in his 1985 essay “Justice as Fairness”, suggests that if you want to find out if your society is just, all you need to do is ask yourself this one question: Would you be willing to enter your society at any level? If your answer is no, then your society may not be all that just.
If we assume most people’s answers are mostly no with various degrees of firmness, perhaps we can take this a step further (as indeed Rawls did) and ask: Which society would you be willing to enter at any level?
Rawls, in his 2001 book “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement” (here is an affiliate link to the book on Amazon), concludes that only the systems of property-owning democracy and liberal socialism could count as just societies. Laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism and state socialism fail to make the cut according to him.
He bases this on his two principles of justice that both need to be met for a society to qualify as just:
(a) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; and
(b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
These principles do well by creating equal opportunities, but (b) goes further by also ensuring that inequalities that do exist result from merit rather than privilege. If everyone has equally fair access to every level of society, the individual with the most merit will make it; if the least advantaged get the greatest benefits it is much harder for individuals to attach themselves to a high position in society for a long time, save by exceptional merit.
However, I think the principles are missing a third that also covers justice for whatever it is affected by a society. For example, even a society that satisfies both (a) and (b) for its immediate members could produce negative externalities to an extent that unjustly impacts other societies, or the natural world.
Now, I honestly can’t think of any existing society that I would be willing to enter at any level, especially if we include that third principle of justice. I’m pretty sure that any just society would need to be based on regenerative systems, though. Because only regenerative systems will take care of those negative externalities.
If you have suggestions for a society that you would be willing to enter at any level, whether with or without that third prindciple, I’d love to hear it. Maybe, if enough people think about this, we can arrive at one that actually works?