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What elements make up our idea of justice?

In classical liberalism, justice leaves society better off by providing a chance for a better life.

DAVID SCHMIDTZ: The concept of justice is a concept of what people are due. That I don't think is debatable. I think that is just what people take us to be talking about when we use the word. So there's a lot to argue about, but what we argue about is what people are due. My own theory is that justice is more than one thing and that the way that we should treat people depends upon the context. The way that we should treat people depends upon who they are, what it is about them that we should be responding to.

If we were talking about a daughter then we would say how old is this daughter? Is this daughter 18? Is this daughter four years old? That has a lot to do with what we owe her. We might say at a certain age what we owe children is to be responsive to their needs. That's what we aspire to as a civilization is for children to get what they need. And then we might say well, here's the trick is the endpoint of childhood is supposed to be adulthood. And the transition to adulthood from childhood is a transition from a stage where a person's claims are based on their needs to a stage where their claims are based on something else. So when a child says hey, it's my life. For a while the answer is no, actually it isn't. We're in charge of you for now and our obligation is to be in charge of making sure you have what you need even if that isn't what you want.

But at some point we reach a stage in your life where when you say it's my life we have to say god help us. We love you, we wish we could protect you from everything in the world including your own choices. But the fact is you now are an adult. You have your own life to live. In some sense you're on your own in a way that you weren't on your own when you were a child. So we have to respect the choices that you make from here because that's the kind of society that we want to live in. We want to live in a society where everyone feels comfortable standing or falling by their own merit. So that's a transition to a different kind of stage in life where the principles aren't need, the principles are different – equality, reciprocity and desert meaning what people deserve.

We need to talk then about what the principles of justice are and we need to talk about why we would believe that it's those principles and not something else that would be at the heart of justice. So we all know that in some sense equality is baked into the concept of justice. There's something about justice which is antithetical to thinking of ourselves as a class society, thinking that oh, you want to sue me? What you don't understand – I'm upper class, you're lower class. You lose, it doesn't matter what the substance of your claim is. The fact is you're from the wrong class to be a winner. You're a born loser. That's not what justice is. Justice is somehow the idea that we are going to be citizens involved in a project of building a community and there isn't anything about what I want that privileges it over what you want. So in that sense we have to be equals.

And so in that sense if somebody says everyone has a right to a day in court. Everyone has a right to air their grievances before an impartial judge, that sort of thing. Everybody has in that sense a status of citizen where no one has an upper class citizenship, no one has a lower class citizenship. You're a citizen of a country and that puts all of you on a par. So that kind of equality is baked in. Now if we said well, you should all have the same income, then I think we would raise some questions and I would then try to relate those questions to something more fundamental. But first questions might be so, wait a minute, if we're all supposed to have the same income and so I have that income at age 18, are we saying that when I hit age 58 I should never have gotten a raise? Is that the idea? Is the idea of equal income meaning we shouldn't have anything to look forward to? And you say no, that would be crazy. That would not be something that any sane person would want. So that means that we cannot think of that as the kind of equality that's baked into justice because justice isn't crazy.

So it's some other kind of equality that's baked in and it's the idea of equal citizenship. So I want to say that. I also want to say that there are specific contexts and specific relationships that call forth different principles of justice. So if someone helps you, you're drowning and someone pulls you out of the pool and saves your life what do you say? You say I owe you one. And that is a profound thing to say. That is a meaningful thing to say. If you said I will be there for you. Why? Well because you were there for me. Now so that's reciprocity. That is an idea of returning favors. Returning favors, the parts of justice have their own parts too so there are different say flavors of that principle of reciprocity. So sometimes you might say my teachers did me a favor. I need to respond to that. I need to respect that. I need to honor that, but I'm not doing that by having a retirement party for my teacher. That's not the way to go or maybe that's part of it. But the other part of it is to say something like that teacher gave her life to put the next generation in a better position to flourish. That included me. What I've got to do is pass the favor on. They call it paying it forward now and the idea is that sometimes the right way to respond to a favor is to pass it on.

So that's an important principle of justice. And sometimes people will say wait a minute. I was the person who crossed the finish line first. The rule says I get the gold medal. And so we say yes, you deserve that. You were the one who provided the performance that that reward attaches to. So yes, you get that. Or when women start saying equal pay for equal work you say well, that is a principle of equality but it's something else as well. It's a principle of equality that responds to what people have done, who people have been. It's to say well, the reason we're paying you this is because you did the work that we said we would pay you this much for. We're not paying you half that. We're not paying you twice that. We're paying what you had good reason to expect us to pay you on the basis of the excellence of your performance. So that's a principle of desert and it's hard to spell that in a way like does desert, you know, you spell it with one S and people say desert. But the idea is what people deserve.

So these are all different flavors of justice, different principles of justice. I call them elements of justice and I call them elements to mark that I don't think it's helpful conceptually to try to reduce these to something more fundamental. So my argument for these principles, not proof, just evidence, is to say look at what kind of life those principles enable us to live. So why would we want to give children what they need? Why give workers what they have earned? Why return favors to people who have gone out of their way to help us?

Well, there's an answer to that which is to say look at the kind of lives that people can build together when those are the principles that we live together. Look at the lives that children can grow up to live. Justice is something that a society's better off with it than without it.

  • How can we ensure people get what they are due, in terms of justice?
  • Philosophy professor at University of Arizona, David Schmidtz says the answer to this question needs context. Who is the person we're referring to, and to what are we responding?
  • Some elements of justice include equality, returning favors, and the right to air grievances.

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