Ethical Realism

April 27, 2011

Three Theories of Justice Part 2

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 11:03 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I have discussed three theories of justice: Mill’s Utilitarianism, Rawls’s Justice as Fairness, and Nozick’s libertarianism. If you don’t know what those are, you might want to read “Three Theories of Justice” before reading this. I will now discuss how we can apply these theories of justice in various contexts. I want to help us better understand what distinguishes these theories and how they can be used to make ethical judgments. To do so, I will discuss our rights and give examples of applying each theory of justice in various contexts.

Mill’s utilitarian theory of justice

Mill thinks that we should have rights, laws, and government intervention when doing so will best maximize the good, which he finds to be happiness, and minimize evils in the form of suffering. We often say that utilitarianism asks us to “maximize happiness” for short, and it’s implied that suffering is incompatible and destructive to happiness. He thinks something’s just if it doesn’t violate any rights, and there are ideal rights that would maximize happiness the best. His utilitarian theory of justice doesn’t tell us what the ideal rights are.

How can we apply Mill’s utilitarian theory of justice to our lives? First, we need to figure out what rights will probably lead to greater happiness. Second, we have to figure out whether those rights are being violated in a given situation.

What rights will likely lead to greater happiness?

One proposed list of rights that seem like they could be justified through Mill’s utilitarianism are those listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let’s consider three of those rights:

1. Right to property – “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property” (Article 17). People ought to have a right to property for at least four reasons. One, because we have various needs and property is very helpful to fulfill those needs. We need food and shelter, and we can become ill or die when people take our food and shelter from us. Two, we make plans throughout the day and concerning our future (e.g. retirement) and property rights are needed to have the stability required for these plans. Three, it often makes people upset when they are robbed, even when only luxuries are stolen. Four, the right to make a profit off of one’s labor can be an incentive to work hard and be productive, which can help create greater prosperity for society at large.

2. Right to social welfare – “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to the necessities of life requires the redistribution of wealth, but it can help many people who need help the most and thus increases happiness (the grater good) despite the fact that it can harm certain people. The greater happiness given to the poor can justify sacrificing some welfare of everyone else. As I said before, utilitarianism can justify greater income equality, and redistributing wealth can lead to greater income equality.1

One could object that the right to social welfare violates property rights, but it is quite possible for people’s rights to conflict. Sometimes we think one right can override another. Utilitarians can justify when one right overrides another if we know that greater happiness will result from the violation. For example, I can attack someone in self-defense to protect myself, even though we have a right against being harmed. My own well being might justify the act of harming another when that other person is a danger to me.

It’s also possible for moral concerns to require us to violate people’s rights in utilitarianism. Perhaps we don’t have a right to social welfare, but the need for redistribution of wealth could still be a moral priority that overrides property rights in some contexts. The alternatives to coerced redistribution of wealth could be greater crime rates—the poor might have no better rational option than to steal from the rich—or even revolution when the poor think their current state is totally unacceptable.

Mill doesn’t make it entirely clear when we have an “obligation” to help other people, but redistribution of wealth certainly seems to imply that we can have such obligations because people can be punished if they refuse to pay their taxes and so forth.

3. Right to education – “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” (Article 26). Widespread education can help society in many ways, but I will just discuss a couple. First, it can help people know how to be better productive and attain higher positions in society. Increased education not only improves opportunity, but it can help motivate people to be productive knowing that they have an opportunity to improve their lives by attaining better positions. Two, without a right to education many people could be stuck being poor without much of a chance at attaining a better position in society, and that could destroy their motivation to be productive. The poor could even be motivated to commit crimes if it’s the only way for them to attain a better position in life. Better opportunities diminish the desire to commit crime because there are often more efficient and less risky ways to try to improve one’s life than crime has to offer.

When are rights violated?

Consider the following six situations and whether or not any rights are being violated:

  1. A corporation sells TV sets that don’t work and scams people out of their money because people assume that the TV sets work when they buy them. Is this a violation of anyone’s rights? Mill can argue, yes, because a person’s property rights entail that property is transferred given an agreement and no one agreed to buy a broken TV set. Buying a TV set implies that it works unless it’s explicitly made clear that the TV set is broken.
  2. Samantha was born in a poor family and she could never afford an education. She couldn’t afford food and couldn’t find a job, so she starves to death. Meanwhile there is an abundance of food and wealth that is almost exclusively owned by the wealthiest members of society. Was any right being violated? Mill could argue, yes, because (a) she should have been given a free education and (b) she has a right to social welfare and redistributing wealth could have helped her survive. People have duties help one another and they can’t just let others die of starvation.
  3. The government taxes all profits 10% to help poor families buy the necessities of life. Anyone who doesn’t pay their taxes can be punished. Was any right being violated? It seems obvious that the right to property was violated in this case, but Mill could argue that such a violation is necessary for ethical reasons—either because of conflicting rights or other moral considerations to the “greater good.” It is possible that a utilitarian could argue that taxing profits by 10% isn’t enough, or there’s some better way to redistribute wealth, but we will leave that concern aside for now.
  4. The government subsidizes the big bank industry by using tax money to give the big banks billions of dollars to help them avoid bankruptcy. Was any right being violated? Yes, property rights are being violated in this case because people are coerced to pay taxes to fund a bailout. Is it just to violate property rights in this case? It depends whether the big bank industry getting loads of free money will lead to the greater good. This seems unlikely considering that businesses that go bankrupt are often either not conducting business properly or aren’t providing a service people want, but some people might argue that “saving the banks” will prevent a huge disaster to the economy—and absolutely no other alternative course of action would be better.
  5. A corporation hires hit men to kill the competition. Was any right being violated? Mill will argue, yes, because we have a right not to be harmed and it will probably not serve the greater good. The happiness of the “competition” (and their family and friends) matters just as much as everyone else’s happiness.
  6. The people who personally made the decision to hire hit men to kill the competition are thrown in prison after being found guilty in a court of law. Are any rights being violated? Yes, the rights not to be harmed are being violated here. The criminals have rights not to be harmed, just like everyone else, and being in prison is a violation of liberty—something that would ordinarily be considered to be unjust behavior against “innocent people.” However, a utilitarian could argue that it’s for the “greater good” to throw the criminals in prison because such use of coercion helps discourage and prevent further criminal acts and rights violations.

Nozick’s Libertarian Theory of Justice

Nozick’s theory of justice affirms that we have negative rights (to be left alone) but denies that we have positive rights (to social welfare or education). Nozick will find that taxation, a form of coerced redistribution of wealth, is unjust because we have a right to property and we don’t have a right to social welfare. We have no ethical obligations to help others—and even if we did, his theory of justice would override any other moral considerations there might be. Nozick will find that public education to be one more form of redistributing wealth. I expect that Nozick’s government to be fully funded by donations and/or requires volunteers. It would be wrong to tax people to have a police department because that’s just one more unjust violation of our property rights. The police department, fire department, public schools, prisons, and everything else must either be “for profit,” exist from volunteers, and/or be funded by donations.

How do we apply Nozick’s theory of justice? First, we need to know what rights we have. He thinks we have “Lockean rights”—a right from being harmed, a right to property, freedom of speech, and so on. Second, we need to know how those rights apply to various contexts.

Consider how Nozick’s theory of justice could apply to the contexts mentioned earlier:

  1. A corporation sells TV sets that don’t work and scams people out of their money because people assume that the TV sets work when they buy them. Is this unjust? I expect that Nozick will agree with Mill here. As I stated before, a person’s property rights entail that property is transferred given an agreement and no one agreed to buy a broken TV set.
  2. Samantha was born in a poor family and she could never afford an education. She couldn’t afford food and couldn’t find a job, so she starves to death. Meanwhile there is an abundance of food and wealth that is almost exclusively owned by the wealthiest members of society. Was any right being violated? Nozick would say, “No.” No one has a right to anything nor does anyone have an obligation to help others. To redistribute wealth using coercion would be a violation of our property rights and there is no conflicting right against our property rights in this situation.
  3. The government taxes all profits 10% to help poor families buy the necessities of life. Anyone who doesn’t pay their taxes can be punished. Was any right being violated? Nozick would say, “Yes,” because taxation is a violation of our property rights, just like any other form of coerced redistribution.
  4. The government subsidizes the big bank industry by using tax money to give the big banks billions of dollars to help the big bank industry avoid bankruptcy. Was any right being violated? Yes, property rights are being violated in this case—and there’s no rights that could possibly justify taxation or coerced redistribution of wealth.
  5. A corporation hires hit men to kill the competition. Was any right being violated? Nozick will answer, “Yes,” because we have a right not to be harmed and people were killed. There are no conflicting rights in this situation, so the corporation has done something unjust.
  6. The people who personally made the decision to hire hit men to kill the competition are thrown in prison after being found guilty in a court of law. Are any rights being violated? Nozick can argue, “Yes,” the rights not to be harmed are being violated here. However, there can be conflicting rights in this case. The criminals in question should be in prison assuming it’s necessary to protect the rights of others, and that seems like a fair assumption.

Rawls’s theory of justice

Rawls agrees with Nozick that we have negative rights and no positive rights, but he argues that social and economic inequalities are unjust unless they meet certain requirements. In particular, there must be equal opportunity (public education) and greater inequality must benefit those who have the least social and economic goods (the worst off group). Rawls disagrees with utilitarians that economic inequality is justified if it maximizes happiness—by providing rewards to being productive members of society—if such inequality doesn’t help those who are the worst off. (A utilitarian could argue that some people living in poverty are a necessary for the “greater good” but Rawls would rather no one live in poverty.)

Rawls thinks that redistribution of wealth and taxes are justified if it is the best way for the “worst off” to benefit from social and economic inequalities. He thinks total economic equality is just (perhaps in a socialist state), but he thinks that a capitalistic system might actually be better and help the “worst off” by rewarding productive behavior to give an incentive to increase productivity and therefore prosperity.

How will Rawls’s theory of justice apply to the six above contexts?

  1. A corporation sells TV sets that don’t work and scams people out of their money because people assume that the TV sets work when they buy them. Is this unjust? I expect that Rawls will agree with Mill and Nozick here. As I stated before, a person’s property rights entail that property is transferred given an agreement and no one agreed to buy a broken TV set.
  2. Samantha was born in a poor family and she could never afford an education. She couldn’t afford food and couldn’t find a job, so she starves to death. Meanwhile there is an abundance of food and wealth that is almost exclusively owned by the wealthiest members of society. Was any right being violated? Rawls would likely say, “Yes” because the economic inequalities don’t seem to help the “worst off.” (Perhaps Rawls assumes that people won’t starve to death if we have economic equality.)
  3. The government taxes all profits 10% to help poor families buy the necessities of life. Anyone who doesn’t pay their taxes can be punished. Was any right being violated? Rawls would say, “Yes,” because taxation is a violation of our property rights—but he might still think this form of taxation is just if it’s the best way to redistribute wealth and make sure the “worst off” benefit from economic inequalities.
  4. The government subsidizes the big bank industry by using tax money to give the big banks billions of dollars to help the big bank industry avoid bankruptcy. Was any right being violated? Yes, property rights are being violated in this case, but is it also unjust? If this form of redistribution will help the “worst off,” then it is just. However, it seems likely that Rawls would agree that saving an incredibly powerful company from going bankrupt would somehow benefit those who are the “worst off.”
  5. A corporation hires hit men to kill the competition. Was any right being violated? Rawls will agree with utilitarians and Nozick here and will answer, “Yes,” because we have a right not to be harmed and people were killed.
  6. The people who personally made the decision to hire hit men to kill the competition are thrown in prison after being found guilty in a court of law. Are any rights being violated? Rawls can argue, “Yes,” the rights not to be harmed are being violated here. However, there can be conflicting ethical considerations in this context. Rawls can agree with Nozick that the criminals in question should be in prison assuming it’s necessary to protect the rights of others.

Conclusion

Theories of justice won’t do us any good if they stay abstract and disconnected from reality. We should find out how to apply these theories to real life, and I think it is possible to do so. How to apply these theories will depend on our rights, how we decide to deal with conflicting rights, and whether or not rights are sufficient to determine what behavior is justified in each context. Mill and Rawls agree that there are important ethical considerations other than rights, but Nozick disagrees. I have discussed six different situations and attempted to apply each theory of justice to them. Hopefully these examples will (a) help illuminate how the theories differ and (b) help us know how to apply the theories of justice in general.

Notes

1 “The more money you get, the less that money can help your well being. People who have billions of dollars don’t get as much of a benefit from each dollar they own than others would. The poor often die from medical neglect, but everyone else can pretty much attain everything needed for survival. The luxuries enjoyed by the rich are much less important to their well being than the necessities that could be enjoyed by others if that wealth is shared. If we tax the rich to help the poor, than we could expect that greater goodness would result.” (“Three Theories of Justice.”)

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