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Social Justice Theory and Social Contract Theory

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

Social justice theorists worry about “distributive justice”—that is, what is the fair way to distribute goods among a group of people? Marxist thought emphasizes that members of society should be given goods to according to their needs. But this redistribution would require a governing power to decide who gets what and when. Capitalist thought takes a different approach, rejecting any giving that is not voluntary. Certain economists, such as the late Milton Friedman (see the sidebar in Corporations and Corporate Governance ) also reject the notion that a corporation has a duty to give to unmet needs in society, believing that the government should play that role. Even the most dedicated free-market capitalist will often admit the need for some government and some forms of welfare—Social Security, Medicare, assistance to flood-stricken areas, help for AIDs patients—along with some public goods (such as defense, education, highways, parks, and support of key industries affecting national security).

People who do not see the need for public goods (including laws, court systems, and the government goods and services just cited) often question why there needs to be a government at all. One response might be, “Without government, there would be no corporations.” Thomas Hobbes believed that people in a “state of nature” would rationally choose to have some form of government. He called this the social contract, where people give up certain rights to government in exchange for security and common benefits. In your own lives and in this course, you will see an ongoing balancing act between human desires for freedom and human desires for order; it is an ancient tension. Some commentators also see a kind of social contract between corporations and society; in exchange for perpetual duration and limited liability, the corporation has some corresponding duties toward society. Also, if a corporation is legally a “person,” as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 2010, then some would argue that if this corporate person commits three felonies, it should be locked up for life and its corporate charter revoked!

Modern social contract theorists, such as Thomas Donaldson and Thomas Dunfee (Ties that Bind, 1999), observe that various communities, not just nations, make rules for the common good. Your college or school is a community, and there are communities within the school (fraternities, sororities, the folks behind the counter at the circulation desk, the people who work together at the university radio station, the sports teams, the faculty, the students generally, the gay and lesbian alliance) that have rules, norms, or standards that people can buy into or not. If not, they can exit from that community, just as we are free (though not without cost) to reject US citizenship and take up residence in another country.

Donaldson and Dunfee’s integrative social contracts theory stresses the importance of studying the rules of smaller communities along with the larger social contracts made in states (such as Colorado or California) and nation-states (such as the United States or Germany). Our Constitution can be seen as a fundamental social contract.

It is important to realize that a social contract can be changed by the participants in a community, just as the US Constitution can be amended. Social contract theory is thus dynamic—it allows for structural and organic changes. Ideally, the social contract struck by citizens and the government allows for certain fundamental rights such as those we enjoy in the United States, but it need not. People can give up freedom-oriented rights (such as the right of free speech or the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures) to secure order (freedom from fear, freedom from terrorism). For example, many citizens in Russia now miss the days when the Kremlin was all powerful; there was less crime and more equality and predictability to life in the Soviet Union, even if there was less freedom.

Thus the rights that people have—in positive law—come from whatever social contract exists in the society. This view differs from that of the deontologists and that of the natural-law thinkers such as Gandhi, Jesus, or Martin Luther King Jr., who believed that rights come from God or, in less religious terms, from some transcendent moral order.

Another important movement in ethics and society is the communitarian outlook. Communitarians emphasize that rights carry with them corresponding duties; that is, there cannot be a right without a duty. Interested students may wish to explore the work of Amitai Etzioni. Etzioni was a founder of the Communitarian Network, which is a group of individuals who have come together to bolster the moral, social, and political environment. It claims to be nonsectarian, nonpartisan, and international in scope.

The relationship between rights and duties—in both law and ethics—calls for some explanations:

  1. If you have a right of free expression, the government has a duty to respect that right but can put reasonable limits on it. For example, you can legally say whatever you want about the US president, but you can’t get away with threatening the president’s life. Even if your criticisms are strong and insistent, you have the right (and our government has the duty to protect your right) to speak freely. In Singapore during the 1990s, even indirect criticisms—mere hints—of the political leadership were enough to land you in jail or at least silence you with a libel suit.
  2. Rights and duties exist not only between people and their governments but also between individuals. Your right to be free from physical assault is protected by the law in most states, and when someone walks up to you and punches you in the nose, your rights—as set forth in the positive law of your state—have been violated. Thus other people have a duty to respect your rights and to not punch you in the nose.
  3. Your right in legal terms is only as good as your society’s willingness to provide legal remedies through the courts and political institutions of society.

A distinction between basic rights and nonbasic rights may also be important. Basic rights may include such fundamental elements as food, water, shelter, and physical safety. Another distinction is between positive rights (the right to bear arms, the right to vote, the right of privacy) and negative rights (the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishments). Yet another is between economic or social rights (adequate food, work, and environment) and political or civic rights (the right to vote, the right to equal protection of the laws, the right to due process).