The Problems of a Just Society: The Importance of Goods Beyond Justice

The question I want to examine is whether there are societal problems that need to be overcome that nonetheless could not be referred to as injustices? For the sake of simplicity I will say that a just society is one in which all persons are treated with equal respect. While this is a very abstract definition of justice it should suffice for the purposes of this entry. My answer to this question is that there are societal problems that cannot be made sense of as injustices, and that while justice is an exceedingly important societal value, we need to be attentive to societal goods that cannot be construed as an elements of a just society.

Given the definition of justice that I established above it would seem that there are certainly problems that can arise in a just society that nonetheless cannot be construed as injustices. For example, the absence of a rich culture of the arts, the absence of a rich culture of athletic competition, and the presence of a broadly, ill-informed, and apathetic citizenry are all societal problems in that they are problems that relate to the common life of a society. But nonetheless none of these problems can be adequately construed as an injustice. No person is treated with disrespect by not having access to a rich culture of the arts, even if this is an opportunity that would be beneficial to human flourishing.

Someone might say that even if the absence of access to a rich culture of the arts is not an injustice, a society still needs to provide each individual with enough opportunities so they can truly be an autonomous author of their own life. This is true, but having enough opportunities need not necessarily mean having the particular opportunity to access a rich, artistic culture, so all that this point suggests is that justice requires individuals to have a certain set of life opportunities available to them, but on the face of it, it does not specify which ones are to be available. Furthermore, any one particular opportunity does not seem to be required for justice. For example, if a society does not engage in the arts and one is born into that society, does the absence of access to the arts constitute an injustice? I would say no, as one still has many other opportunities and can still live autonomously. So, it seems that there are societal problems that can arise in a just society, that cannot be construed as injustices.

I also specified that these societal problems are something that must be overcome. My argument for this is that while justice is extremely important, many of the goods that are not secured by justice, are not simply an optional extra, but are rather a part of society that we have some sort of obligation to establish. For example, let us imagine a just society that experiences the three societal problems that I pointed out above. The failure of a society to overcome these problems would leave the society impoverished in a civilizational sense, and while our obligation to realize these goods beyond justice is likely less pressing than our duty to overcome injustice, it still seems that we do have an obligation of some kind to establish these goods within society. We have such an obligation as the life of a society that experienced all three of these societal problems while just, would also be mundane, and banal, and the goods of a rich, artistic culture, athletics, and an informed and engaged citizenry enrich the lives of all.

Now the question might come up of why the aforementioned is important. One reason why this set of issues is important is that there is a tendency among politically informed, and engaged people within postindustrial societies to focus their attention on eradicating injustice and ending oppression, and while these are exceedingly important goals, sometimes the politically informed and engaged become quite silent about the decay of the culture of the arts, athletics and the tendency of apathy among the citizenry. The problem with this silence is that certain imperative of postindustrial societies are working against these goods beyond justice, while justice itself is much more unaffected by these imperatives. I am largely thinking of the imperatives of technological progress, capitalist accumulation and commodification. These imperatives tends to distract people from public life through the development of entertaining technologies, and the way in which these entertaining technologies encourage a flight to the private sphere. Furthermore, these imperatives tend to commodify the arts and athletics, and thus discourage a rich culture of the arts and athletics, as people worry less about the inherent excellences of the arts and athletics and more about their marketability. The result of this is that the culture of the arts and athletics that is produced is one of marketability, rather than one that is committed to the particular excellences that the arts and athletics realize. Consequently, politically informed and engaged people in postindustrial societies need to begin thinking and speaking about these issues to a greater degree, not at the expense of issues of justice, but in addition to, as some of the most dominant imperatives of postindustrial societies threaten these goods that are left unsecured by the presence of justice.

Some Thoughts on the Distinction Between Moral Rights and Legal Rights

Often it is said that if the law does not condemn an act all have a right to engage in that act. While this statement is correct in the sense that all citizens do have a legal right to do anything that is not condemned by the law, this statement is problematic as it fails to distinguish between moral rights and legal rights and thus encourages us to think of all rights as having a legal character and therefore that anything permitted by the law is permitted in general. Thinking of all rights as having a legal character impoverishes our ethical vocabulary and damages our capacity to explain why we find acts deeply objectionable.

To begin with I would like to clarify my distinction between legal and moral rights. One has a legal right to do something when the law does not condemn performing that act. Contrastingly one has a moral right to do something when an act does not violate any morally salient duties. This is of course an extremely simple distinction, and one that glosses over much of the complexity of rights, but the basic point is that moral rights are wider than legal rights. Most legal rights will have a basis in moral rights, but there will be many moral rights and correspondingly violations of moral rights that will not be touched by the law. For example one may have a legal right to deceive one’s friends for personal gain, by presenting a false picture of oneself, but one certainly does not have a moral right to do so, as it is deeply unethical to deceive one’s friends for personal gain, as this invalidates the entire basis of the relationship of friendship, which is trust, honesty and intimacy. Consequently, there are cases in which our legal rights as citizens and moral rights as ethical agents are distinct.

When someone says that all have a right to do anything that is not prohibited by the law, this can be taken in one of two ways. In the first sense this means simply that a person cannot be punished by the law for doing something that is not condemned by the law. In this sense this statement is clearly correct. In the second sense, this statement means that no one can be criticized from a moral perspective for doing anything that is not condemned by the law. In this second sense we see the erasure of the vocabulary of moral rights as distinct from legal rights, and the reduction of the moral to the legal. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in post-industrial societies to think in terms of this second sense of the statement that all citizens have the right to do what is not condemned by the law. We can see this with the way that people who critique someone’s legal, but ethically questionable actions are met with righteous indignation, and the idea that we should not pass judgment on someone if they have not broken any laws. I don’t mean to suggest that this tendency is totalizing as there are still many who strongly distinguish between moral rights and legal rights, but there are tendencies among certain groups in post-industrial societies to reduce what is morally permissible to what is legally permissible.

The tendency to conflate legal rights and moral rights is problematic as it impoverishes our moral vocabulary and understanding. If we think in this way we still know that murder, rape and theft are problematic activities. But we cannot explain why we admire the loyal, trustworthy friends, over the calculating two faced false friend, because if what one has a moral right to do is the same as what one has a legal right to do, than from the perspective of moral rights the two faced false friend and the honest, loyal trustworthy friend are the same, for we have just as much of a right to be a false two faced friend as a honest, loyal, trustworthy friend.

A person who lacks the vocabulary of moral rights independent of legal rights will likely have the sense that being a two faced false friend is wrong, but they will not be able to explain that the two faced false friend is ethically problematic because he violates the duties inherent in the relationship of friendship. Consequently, he or she will be stuck and have a hard time justifying her moral intuitions and perhaps begin to cease believing in them. If such an attitude becomes widespread in our society we are surely in trouble as much of what enriches our lives are acts and relationships that while not actively regulated by law, are nonetheless structured by particular moral rights and obligations, so in order to keep these practises healthy and secure we must ensure that our ethical vocabulary and understanding of moral rights does not deteriorate.

It should be noted that I am in no way suggesting that morality is rights-centric and can be reduced to a set of rights and correlative duties, but rather I am merely suggesting that rights language is a part of morality. There are certainly many reasons why particular acts that are not prohibited by law are unethical and problematic beyond the fact that one does not have a moral right to perform a particular act. For example, I may not have a moral right to ignore my friend’s phone calls when we are having a dispute, but this is not merely problematic because I am deceiving my friend. It is also problematic because it reveals that I am a coward, and cowardice is certainly a vice. So, while I am using rights to ground my discussion here, I am not suggesting morality is rights-centric.