Rawls on Marx; December 1973

John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University.  The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx.  The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  I served as graduate assistant in Rawls’s lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course.  Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls’s treatment of Marx’s ideas about economic justice.  This lecture demonstrates Rawls’s understanding of the fundamentals of Marx’s economic theories and the labor theory of value.  (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx’s economics, though I can’t at this moment confirm this.)  This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of “analytical Marxism” announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, “The Marxian Critique of Justice” in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).


John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls’s formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn’t make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just.  Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as “preaching”.

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn’t want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists’ program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn’t do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn’t judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period — where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:

To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40) 

Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production.  (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like “slavery is always unjust.” There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn’t mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let’s now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental — as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.

Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. … This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)

The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one’s labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn’t deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common — exchange of equivalents for equivalents — but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian’s argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx’s criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx’s analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx’s analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for “meta-ethics” in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of “moral constitution” for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls’s philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our “considered judgments” about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of “reflective equilibrium” as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls’s approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls’s theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, “what is the best theory of justice?”, with the question, “what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?”, there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls’s description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls’s assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the “maximize expected utility” rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the “maximin” rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we “maximize the minimum.” (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not “what outcome would the rational agent choose?”, but rather “what decision rule would the rational agent follow?”.  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls’s use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual–the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here — anti-foundationalism and decision theory — are consistent.  If Rawls’s theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a “kind of moral geometry”.)  What makes Rawls’s use of decision theory “anti-foundationalist” is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine’s notion of “The Web of Belief.”

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls’s moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman’s excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)

Repression in China

The Chinese government signaled a major escalation in its policy of repressing dissidents with this week’s conviction of dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo on charges of subversion (New York Times link).  Liu’s eleven-year sentence on charges of subversion sends a chilling message to all Chinese citizens who might consider peaceful dissent about controversial issues.  Other dissidents have been punished in the past year, including environmental protesters, advocates for parents of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake, and internet activists.  But Liu is one of the first prominent activists to be charged with subversion.  Liu is a major advocate of Charter 08, and his conviction and sentencing represent a serious blow to the cause of political liberalization in China.  Regrettably, the regime of citizen rights of expression, association, and dissent has not yet been established in China.

What is Charter 08?  It is a citizen-based appeal for the creation of a secure system of laws and rights in China, and has been signed by several thousand Chinese citizens (New York Review of Books translation).  The central principles articulated in the Charter include:

  • Freedom
  • Human rights
  • Equality
  • Republicanism
  • Democracy
  • Constitutional rule

The specific points included in the Charter include:

  1. A New Constitution
  2. Separation of Powers
  3. Legislative Democracy
  4. An Independent Judiciary
  5. Public Control of Public Servants
  6. Guarantee of Human Rights
  7. Election of Public Officials
  8. Rural-Urban Equality
  9. Freedom to Form Groups
  10. Freedom to Assemble
  11. Freedom of Expression
  12. Freedom of Religion
  13. Civic Education
  14. Protection of Private Property
  15. Financial and Tax Reform
  16. Social Security
  17. Protection of the Environment
  18. A Federated Republic
  19. Truth in Reconciliation

What is involved in advocating for “legality” and “individual rights” for China’s future? Most basically, rights have to do with protection against repression and violence. These include freedom of association, freedom of action, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the right to security of property.  History makes it clear that these rights are actually fundamental to a decent society — and that this is true for China’s future as well. Moreover, each of these rights is a reply to the threat of violence and coercion.

Take the rights of expression and association.  When a group of people share an interest — let’s say, an interest in struggling against a company that is dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river — they can only actualize their collective interests if they are able to express their views and to call upon others to come together in voluntary associations to work against this environmental behavior. The situation in China today is harshly inconsistent with this ideal: citizens have to be extremely cautious about public expression of protest, and they are vulnerable to violent attack if they organize to pressure companies or local government to change their behavior.

The use of private security companies on behalf of companies, land developers, and other powerful interests in China is reasonably well documented. And these companies are largely unconstrained by legal institutions in their use of violence and gangs of thugs to intimidate and attack farmers, workers, or city dwellers. It’s worth visiting some of the web sites that document some of this violence — for example, this report about thugs attacking homeowners in Chaoyang. Similar reports can be unearthed in the context of rural conflicts over land development and conflicts between factory owners and migrant workers.

So this brings us to “legality.” What is the most important feature of the rule of law? It is to preserve the simple, fundamental rights of citizens: rights of personal security, rights of property, rights of expression. What does it say to other people with grievances when private security guards are able to beat innocent demonstrators with impunity? What it says is simple — the state will tolerate the use of force against you by powerful agents in society. And what this expresses is repression.

It is also true that the state itself is often the author of repression against its own citizens for actions that would be entirely legitimate within almost any definition of core individual right: blogging, speaking, attempting to organize migrant poor people. When the state uses its power to arrest and imprison people who speak, write, and organize — it is profoundly contradicting the core rights that every citizen needs to have.

It should also be said that these legal rights cannot be separated from the idea of democracy. Democracy most fundamentally requires that people be able to advocate for the social policies that they prefer. Social outcomes should be the result of a process that permits all citizens to organize and express their interests and preferences — that is the basic axiom of democracy. What this democratic value rules out is the idea that the state has a superior game plan — one that cannot brook interference by the citizens — and that it is legitimate for the state to repress and intimidate the citizens in their efforts to influence the state’s choices. A legally, constitutionally entrenched set of individual civil and political rights takes the final authority of deciding the future direction of society out of the hands of the state.

Give the Chinese people democratic rights and they can make some real progress on China’s social ills — unsafe working conditions, abuse of peasants, confiscation of homeowners’ property, the creation of new environmental disasters. Deprive them of democratic rights, and the power of the state and powerful private interests can create continuing social horrors — famine, permanent exploitation of workers, environmental catastrophes, development projects that displace millions of people, and so on. The authoritarian state and the thugocracy of powerful private interests combine to repress the people.

(Here is a very interesting audio interview with Perry Link on the NYRB website about the context of Charter 08. Also of interest is a piece by Daniel Drezner (post) on Charter 08 on the ForeignPolicy blog.  See also this very extensive analysis of the Charter by Rebecca MacKinnon at Rconversation.)

Paying for health

A person’s income determines his/her access to many things he wants and needs: food, clothing, transportation, housing, entertainment, and the internet, for example. And people who have higher income are able to consume more of all of these categories than people with lower income, if they choose to. More affluent people shop for food at Papa Joe’s or Whole Food; live in larger and more luxurious homes; buy their clothing from boutiques rather than Penny’s or the thrift shop; and drive multiple handsome cars. Poor people can’t afford the luxury end of these forms of consumption. And in some way our culture has judged that these sorts of inequalities of consumption are a legitimate and fair part of a market economy; if you judge that inequalities of income are justifiable (perhaps with some limits on extremes), then you pretty much have to support the idea of inequalities of consumption as well.

But what about goods that have a price but that are essential to living a decent human life? Food certainly falls in this category; if 30% of society could literally not afford to purchase enough calories to provide 2200-2900 calories per day for adults and 1800 calories for children, then we would probably have a different idea about the fairness of a market for food — the principle that says “to each according to his/her earning capacity” doesn’t seem very convincing in circumstances where it leads to malnutrition or starvation. In other words, if the normal workings of a market economy left a significant segment of the population without the ability to purchase enough food for subsistence, we would surely judge that this isn’t a fair or socially just way of distributing income and food. And there is an important point to be noted here: there is hunger in America, and the system of producing goods and income isn’t fully satisfying the subsistence needs of the whole population. (This is exactly what makes it compelling that our government needs to provide food assistance for the very poor, through food stamps or targeted income supplements.) So there is an important issue about the justice of current actual distributions of such basic goods as food, clothing, or shelter across the U.S. population.

But push a little deeper and consider the “market for health care”. Supporting one’s current healthy status is a costly effort; repairing the body in times of traumatic injury or serious illness is even more costly; and our society leaves a lot of the allocation of health care services to private purchasing power. Health insurance is the primary vehicle through which many Americans provide financially for their health care needs. Some people have insurance provided or subsidized through their employers; some families purchase health insurance through the private market; and many families lack health insurance entirely. Upwards on 47 million Americans are uninsured, including 20% of adults and 9% of children (CDC link). And this includes a wide range of Americans, from the extremely poor to the working poor to the solidly middle class.

It is clear that access to doctors, hospitals, nurses, and prescription drugs is a critical need that everyone faces at various points in life. It is obvious as well that one’s future ability to live and work productively and to enjoy a satisfying life is conditioned by one’s ability to gain access to health care when it is needed. It is also clear that uncertainty about the availability of health care is a major source of anxiety for many, many people in U.S. society today. So it is self-evident that decent health care is one of our most basic and unavoidable needs.

So what do people do when they lack health insurance and serious illness or injury occurs? This isn’t a mystery anymore; families go into debt to doctors and hospitals, they face bankruptcy, they find some limited sources of free care (free clinics, pro bono doctors’ services), and they forego “optional” treatments that may well extend the length or quality of life. And it is evident that this pattern results in very serious harms and limitations for people in these groups. People who have the least access to health care through our basic institutions may be expected to live shorter lives and to suffer more.

And what about people at the high end of the income spectrum? How do they relate to the problems of health? Here too the answers are fairly well known: they are able to seek out the best (and most expensive) specialists, travel to national centers for specialized treatment, and undergo advanced diagnostic tests that are not covered by insurance. (Here is a news story from CNN on boutique health care.) The affluent aren’t able to assure their health through expenditure — but they can certainly improve their odds.

In other words, ability to pay influences the quality and extent of health care that an individual or family is able to gain access to; and the health status of the family is affected by these variations in quality and access. So, to some meaningful extent, our social system places health care in the category of a market good.

But here is the question I’m working around to: what does justice require when it comes to health care? Is it right to look at health care as just another consumption good like shoes — affluent people wear Gucci and poor people wear Dollar Store, but everyone has his/her feet covered? Or is health care in a special category, too closely linked to living a full human life to allow it to be distributed so unequally? (Norm Daniels has spent most of his career looking at this issue, from the points of view of philosophy and concrete policy reform. See Just Health: Meeting Health Needs Fairly for some of his findings.)

It seems a bitter but unavoidable truth that there are very substantial inequalities in the provision of health care in our society. One person’s likelihood of surviving a devastating cancer may be significantly less than another person’s chances, simply based on the second person’s ability to pay for premium health care services. Further, it seems unavoidable that these extreme inequalities are flatly unjust in any society that believes in the equal worth of all human beings. And where this seems to lead is to the conclusion that some system of universal health insurance is a fundamental requirement of justice.

Conflict as an empirical-practical study

Conflict and peace studies have been a part of academic research since at least the 1970s. Many universities have created major research centers devoted to the study of the causes of conflict and possible pathways of conflict resolution. In some cases the focus of study is on particular zones of inter- and intra-state conflict: recurring civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East; Northern Ireland; Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia; or US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War. And in other cases the focus is less regionally specific and more concerned about identifying root causes and remedies for social conflict.

Causes of large social conflict are widely varied: for example, disagreements about access to resources, including water; disagreements about the use of religious sites; direct military competition to secure hegemony in various regions; disagreements about physical borders between states; and the list can be extended. We can also speculate that there is a “social psychology” associated with conflict — both as a cause and as an effect. Social conditions that create fear, uncertainty, or suspicion of other social groups are surely relevant to the occurrence and duration of social conflict. In turn, an extended period of conflict and violence among groups within a population further undermines the potential basis for future trust and cooperation among members of these groups. And we can likewise explore the dynamics of the processes of political entrepreneurship through which some leaders seek to mobilize support around divisive identities and issues.

It is apparent that the study of conflict inherently requires an interdisciplinary approach. It has sometimes seemed to tilt towards international relations theory, with its calculus of political interest and rational strategy. But the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, social psychologists, political scientists, and area specialists are all relevant to the key problems: arriving at applicable (and testable) theories of the causes of conflict in a variety of circumstances, and arriving at strategies for reducing the sources of conflict and defining pathways from “conflictual” to “non-conflictual”. We need to have fairly concrete sociological and ethnographic understanding of the structures and mentalities that are associated with extended periods of social conflict, if we are to understand the mechanisms that create, sustain, or inhibit these conflicts.

Resolution of inter-state conflict (warfare) seems to be a special case, and in many ways an easier case, than resolution of intra-state or intra-regional conflict. Answering the question, “Why do inter-state wars occur?” is likely to be quite different from answering the question, “Why does inter-group violence occur along ethnic or religious lines?” Finding ways of establishing enduring co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in India; finding ways of stabilizing relations between Protestant and Catholic communities and populations in Northern Ireland; resolving the causes of ethnic conflict and violence in Kenya or Rwanda; or creating a basis for peaceful co-habitation among Palestinian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem — each of these challenges seems different and more difficult than solving the Cold War or managing inter-state nuclear competition.

What are the sources of this additional level of difficulty? There seem to be several reasons for this greater intractability. First is the fact that these conflicts involve mass populations that are only subject to minimal degrees of organizational or state control. So it is often difficult to resolve these sorts of conflicts through negotiations among a few powerful parties; instead, alleviating the causes of conflict needs to be pursued on a more disaggregated level. Second, the dialectic of action and reaction, affront and retaliation, seems to take on a life of its own that makes inter-group conflict and violence very difficult to damp down. One incident leads to several, with a spreading radius of conflict.

So are there some basic hypotheses about reducing conflict that might be applied to a situation of conflict within a population in a specific region — whether among religious groups, ethnic identities, or other grounds of division? Here are a couple of thoughts.

  • First, remove the material causes of inter-personal and inter-group conflict — unfair rules, practices of discrimination, limited access to resources such as schools or clean water, or barriers on mobility.
  • Second, find ways of addressing past hatreds in the current generation. Somehow work towards establishing an openness to sharing of the region peacefully that doesn’t currently exist.
  • Third, work vigorously to establish new pathways of opportunity for disadvantaged populations: schools, health, property ownership.
  • Fourth, undertake a serious and goal-directed program of legislation and policy to correct past injustices.
  • Fifth, pay close attention to the details of the issues that divide groups — geography, claims on property, grievances about unequal opportunities — and be prepared to address them in detail.
  • Sixth, encourage the formation of organizations in civil society that see both sides, and that will work towards reducing objective and subjective causes of hatred and conflict.

These recommendations seem to amount to one basic point, almost Biblical in its simplicity: peace requires justice. So if we want to establish a peaceful regional or global society, we need to work very consistently and patiently towards establishing the conditions of just and equitable life circumstances for all people affected. Put the point the other way around, and you have a general hypothesis about the causes of conflict: pervasive, sustained injustice breeds violence and conflict.

But here is the hard question: is there any evidence that measures like these will work? Can a population get past its old sources of bitterness and hatred? Are there practical strategies that India, Ireland, or Israel can pursue that will methodically reduce the volatility of intra-population conflict? What kinds of empirical studies are available to help evaluate the efficacy of these various measures? Are there studies within social psychology on religious, racial, or identity politics that shed light on conflict and its resolution? These are the kinds of questions that we most need the disciplines of peace and conflict studies to address.

Rawls’s schematic sociology

John Rawls offers an interesting thought along the way in his development of the theory of justice, on the question of the stability of a well-ordered society.  Basically, the idea is that a set of principles of justice need to satisfy a condition of publicity and social stability: the principles need to be such that, when everyone knows that these are the principles that regulate their social interactions and know that all others have the same knowledge, the society remains stable.

Rawls puts the point this way:

Now a well-ordered society is also regulated by its public conception of justice.  This fact implies that its members have a strong and normally effective desire to act as the principles of justice require.  Since a well-ordered society endures over time, its conception of justice is presumably stable: that is, when institutions are just (as defined by this conception), those taking part in these arrangements acquire the corresponding sense of justice and desire to do their part in maintaining them.  One conception of justice is more stable than another if the sense of justice that it tends to generate is stronger and more likely to override disruptive inclinations and if the institutions it allows foster weaker impulses and temptations to act unjustly.  The stability of a conception depends upon a balance of motives: the sense of justice that it cultivates and the aims that it encourages must normally win out against propensities toward injustice.  (A Theory of Justice, pp. 454-455)

What is interesting here is that Rawls is engaging in a bit of sociological theorizing in this passage — not simply apriori moral philosophy.  He is offering an analysis of the social psychology and motivations of people living within various frameworks of justice — the principles governing the basic institutions and laws of a society — and he hypothesizes that the social psychology of citizens is influenced by the features of justice that are embodied in their society.  The resulting social psychology in turn produces behavior that is more or less compatible with the continued stability of the institutions and laws.  A given set of institutions, generated by a certain theory of justice, gives rise to motivations on the part of citizens in ordinary life; and these motivations can be either stabilizing or destabilizing to the postulated institutions and framework of justice.  There is a feedback loop from institutions to social psychology to behavior to basic institutions.

This raises an interesting question: how much of a role does a shared sense of justice play in sustaining a peaceful and stable society?

One piece of the answer is straightforward: injustice is a common cause of societal conflict and violence. Basic social relations that are perceived to involve unfair exploitation of one group by another are an obvious source of motivation towards resistance and group violence. Contrastively, institutions that are publicly recognized to treat all citizens fairly may promote a social psychology and a set of behaviors that are affirming of the institutions — leading to harmonious social life and stable institutions.

So Rawls’s argument here does suggest an interesting conjunction of sociological reality and normative reasoning about justice.  Rawls returns to this topic in Political Liberalism, where he questions the strong assumptions associated with the idea of a well-ordered society. He offers instead the somewhat less demanding idea of an “overlapping consensus” as sufficient for a stable democracy.
But a sense of being treated unfairly is only one out of numerous causes of social conflict. Conflict can arise over numerous other types of issues as well: ethnic or religious identities, racism, neighborhood boundaries, and state policy, to name several.  And these areas of potential conflict are not addressed by Rawls’s sketch of the sociology of a just society.

Public versus hidden faces of organizations

Think of a range of complex organizations and institutions — police departments, zoning boards, corporations, security agencies, and so on indefinitely. These organizations all have missions, personnel, constituencies, and policies and practices. They all do various things — they affect individuals in society and they bring about significant social effects. And, in each case there are at least three aspects of their realities — the ways they publicly present themselves, the ways their behaviors and effects are perceived by the public, and the usually unobservable reality of how they actually behave. Usually the public persona of the institution is benign, fair, and public- spirited. But how close is this public persona to the truth? In many of our basic institutions, the answer seems to be, not very. We are daily confronted with cases of official corruption, corporations that abuse their power, legislators who take advantage of insider status, and the like. So how can we conceptualize the task of getting a reasonably accurate perception of the hidden workings of our major institutions and organizations?

First, let’s consider whether it is possible to specify a minimum charter of good organizational behavior in a democratic society. This would be a partial answer to a part of our question: what defines the conditions of a socially acceptable and publicly defensible organization? Consider these aspirations —

  • The organization should have goals that are compatible with enhancing the public good.
  • The organization should have appropriate policies about behavior towards employees and the public.
  • The organization should genuinely incorporate a commitment of compliance to law and regulation.
  • The corporation should embody a faithful commitment to exerting its efforts on behalf of its stated mission and stakeholders.
  • The organization should be committed to transparency and accountability.

Bad business practices and corruption can often be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles. The most offensive practices by powerful organizations — predatory behavior, asset stripping, the use of coercion and threat to achieve organizational goals, fraud, deception, illegal behavior, toxic waste dumping, evasion of regulations, and bribery — all fall within the categories identified here.

So how are we to determine whether our existing organizations and institutions satisfy these minimal conditions? We might imagine a routine “scan” of major institutions and organizations that asks a small set of questions along these lines:

  • What are the real operational goals and priorities of the organization?
  • What are the operational policies that govern corporate action?
  • How do agents of the organization actually treat members of the public in carrying out their tasks?
  • To what extent are there discrepancies between policy and practice?
  • To what extent do powerful leaders and managers use their positions to favor their own private interests? (conflict of interest)
  • To what extent do business crimes occur — accounting fraud, investor deception, evasion of regulations for health and safety?
  • And, most generally, to what extent is there a discrepancy between the official story about the organization and its actual practices?

It is very easy to think of examples of bad organizational behavior illustrating each of these questions — waste management companies fronting for organized crime groups, pharmaceutical companies producing defective generic drugs, police officers accepting bribes from speeding drivers, mining companies hiring “security workers” to evict “squatters.” And it would be a very interesting exercise to try to provide brief but accurate answers to each of these questions for a number of organizations. Based on the answers to questions like these that we are able to establish, we could then make an effort to answer the question of how great a discrepancy there is between the benign public persona of major institutions and their actual workings.

In theory we might say that answering these questions is no more difficult than putting a man on the moon — costly but straightforward. However, as was said twenty years ago in the context of anti-ballistic missile technology, the difference is that the moon doesn’t fight back. Organizations — particularly large governmental and corporate organizations — are very adept at covering their tracks, concealing bad behavior, and re-telling the story in their own interests. So the investigative challenge is a huge one — we might speculate that corruption multiplies geometrically, while investigative capacity multiplies arithmetically (a sort of Malthusian theory of misbehavior). Any given abuse can be uncovered in the New Yorker or on the 6 o’clock news — but bad behavior outstrips investigative resources.

So the task of understanding this aspect of modern society amounts to finding effective ways of shining a light on the real practices and priorities of important organizations and institutions. And the practical interest we have in controlling bad organizations — controlling corruption, ensuring good environmental and labor practices, eliminating coercion and violence — comes down to the challenge of enhancing the ability of democracies to investigate, regulate, and publicize the standards and outcomes of behavior that are required.

(Earlier posts have addressed aspects of this issue, including comments on corruption and publicity.)

A normative aspect to power

It sometimes seems as though there is a normative dimension to our concept of power. What if we defined “power” in these terms: an agent exercises power when he/she undertakes to compel individuals or groups to act in ways they prefer not to act, against their interests and without the justification of a legitimate state underwriting the compulsion. Notice that the last qualification entails that the exercise of power is by definition “illegitimate”; legitimate authority compels behavior but does not exercise power. So on this definition, there is a behavioral element and a normative element in the proposition that “A exercises power over B”: A compels behavior by B and A does not have a legitimate political or moral right to do so.

This might appear to be largely a semantic question: what do we mean by “power”? Is the exercise of the enforcement of law within a procedurally and substantively just polity an exercise of “power”? Or is it rather the exercise of rightful authority?

Certainly it is correct to observe that the behavioral aspect of involuntary compulsion is present in both types of cases. The criminal who is imprisoned for his crimes is treated coercively, in that he is confined against his will; so the state has the ability to “compel individuals to act contrary to their will”. If we took the element of compulsion and coercion as uniquely central, then both the lawful state and the extortion gang are exercising power — over criminals and innocent citizens respectively. If, on the other hand, we think that coercively backed authority is something different from “power”, then a democratically established legal authority cannot be said to be exercising power over its citizens (though it may do so over its international adversaries).

If we go down this road in analyzing power, then there is a close relationship between power, social justice, and democracy.

How would we decide this question? And does it have any importance for the purposes of social and political explanation, or for the design of social policies?

Is globalization unjust?

Globalization has many aspects. But consider this narrow definition: extension of international economic interdependence through unfettered international trade and investment. This process leads to a shifting of centers of economic activity as investors and entrepreneurs seek out favorable locations for business activity–mining, manufacturing, financial services, transportation and logistics, etc. Businesses will seek out low-cost environments for doing business activities. Among other factors, labor costs, environmental costs, and resource availability will drive patterns of investment. The process results in economic growth — that is, an absolute increase in the wealth and income created by the system as a whole. The resulting patterns will have consequences for incomes, environmental effects, and the flows of wealth among places on the planet.

Neo-liberal trade theory asserts that this international trading system will be welfare-enhancing overall: the gains to winners will exceed the losses to losers. The theory also disaggregates: a poor country will make better use of its resources and will be better off than before globalization. Let’s take these points as true for the sake of argument — though many critics of neo-liberal economic theory would dispute the assumptions that this assessment makes.

So, once again, is this process just, or does it simply perpetuate the debilitating effects of past injustice?

Before we can even begin to answer the question, we have to decide what we mean by “justice” in a global economic setting. Is a just system one in which everyone gets what he or she deserves? Or one in which everyone’s outcome corresponds to his or her contribution to the product? Or one in which everyone’s outcome is sufficient to permit him or her to satisfy basic needs for human development? Might we say that a just system is one that treats all parties fairly? And where does “fair equality of opportunity” come into the formula — would we want to say that an outcome is just whenever it has resulted from a non-coercive, rule-governed process in which conditions of fair equality of opportunity have been assured for all participants? And, of course, what do each of these formulas come down to in practical terms?

One reason why problems of justice are so difficult to think about in the context of global development, is the fact of the extreme inequalities that existed, and continue to exist, internationally — both before and during the processes of globalization. Many of these
inequalities were manifestly unjust — because they derived from coercive and unfair relations between countries of very unequal power (colonialism and conquest, for example). So what would be a just pathway of transition, from an unjust prior distribution of wealth and
power, to a later more just distribution of wealth and power?

We might also say that the situation of global justice is a bit similar to the situation of bargaining among parties with grossly unequal prior assets. Some people would judge that an unforced agreement between two parties is guaranteed to be fair by the fact of consent; the fact of consent implies that each party judges that he/she is better off with the agreement than without it — so each has improved his/her welfare. (This is what underlies the theory of Pareto-optimality.) But if the bargaining situations of the parties are significantly unequal, then it is easy enough to see how the stronger party can “take advantage” of the weaker party (the central result of bargaining theory). The division of the benefits of cooperation will be tilted towards the more well-off party; so is this a fair division of the fruits of cooperation?

So consider three different answers to the question, is globalization unjust?

* No, globalization is not unjust in the ideal circumstance in which every country and region can make free choices about the use of its resources and the agreements it makes with other parties. Each country will strive to make the choices that maximize the creation of
wealth and income it produces within the global system. What would make globalization unjust is if the process depends on coercion, corruption, and fraud.

* Yes, globalization is unjust, because the benefits of global cooperation are enormously biased to favor the interests of the rich and powerful. And even if the rules of international cooperation are unbiased (a claim that is often disputed), the superior bargaining situation of the wealthy nations guarantees a division of the benefits of cooperation that favors the wealthy over the poor.

* It is too early to say either way. The answer depends on what the outcomes are in fifty years. If international trade theory turns out to be true; if every region is able to develop its resources and human talent; if every region experiences significant economic growth and improvement of human development — then we may judge that globalization was a just process. If inequalities and human deprivation are even greater in some parts of the world in fifty years, then the process has proven to be unjust.