We live in a society

Who doesn’t care about justice? No society can work without justice, yet every society seems to constantly grapple with it.

Who doesn’t want justice?
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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?

13 thoughts on “We live in a society

  1. Interesting ideas presented here; thank you for this post.
    Societies/systems where empathy and altruism are revered and rewarded, more than acquisition and greed, would be a good starting point.
    After 30+ years working in the legal system in the US, though, I’m pessimistic when it comes to human nature. As upset and furious as I am at what I’m witnessing in my own country these days, none of it surprises me. We’ve seen it all before. I try to focus on my own behaviors and economic/ecological/political footprint, hoping that maybe I’m leading by example while doing as little damage as possible and that your generation will do far better than my own.


    1. Is it human nature that is expressed in the legal system, or does the legal system imprint itself on the nature of those it touches? Would love to hear your opinion, as someone with real experience in the matter.

      Glad to hear that you are leading by example. It makes a difference, even when most people who are influenced by your good example never tell you about it.


  2. Would you enter this society at any level? Heck if I could upgrade my level 5 times over, I would; because justice only seems to serve those with silky well lined pockets.
    Justice works well when it isn’t against you.

    Liked by 1 person

            1. Reflecting on why you want or don’t want certain things can help with that. Not being frugal for the sake of being frugal, but making decisions so that they are true to who you are. This tends to also create a frugal lifestyle, but one that actually respects you as a person.

              Also, space. Space is the key ingredient, because if there is no space in your day, then how can you think about things? Where can those small realisations that lead to constructive change emerge from? Since space is so important, committing to something simple – for example having a cup of coffee in peace and without distractions every morning – can be very impactful.

              Liked by 2 people

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