Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

How To Implement Mutual Respect as the Ethic of Justice

Created: 19 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
15 min read

Liberty and equality, echoing around the world from the Declaration of Independence of what would become the U.S., became the basis of a social architecture that has included personal liberty, political equality, and a market-based economy. Since that Declaration was published, even the most cynical of political thinkers and actors have had to account for those two ideals. We’ll see below how recognizing mutual respect as the ethic of justice would take justice even further in the same direction that basing it on liberty and equality has taken it.



Actually, mutual respect already exists as an ethic within those ideals. It is implicit in the ideal of equality. In fact, I’ll argue herein that mutual respect is actually responsible for the justness of political democracy. That suggests that explicitly recognizing mutual respect as our communal ethic of justice could only reinforce that cultural bulwark. Likewise, adopting mutual respect as our explicit communal ethic would enhance our cultural goal of maximizing personal liberty. Finally, we’ll see that mutual respect can be applied to the market-based economy as equality per se cannot.

Still, it is understandable that reconsidering what the ethic of justice must be would give most people pause. For one thing, human history provides us with more than one example of the idealistic impulse going terribly wrong. The French Revolution is perhaps the most horrifying example of such tragedy. In England, the revolution that put a final end to the idea of absolute monarchy in that nation ended up with the establishment of the world’s first modern dictatorship. In Russia, the first attempt at establishing a regime based on liberty and equality ended up with the Bolsheviks taking power. Germany’s attempt at institutionalizing democracy and a market-based economy after World War I with the Weimar Republic ended up with Hitler’s being appointed Chancellor. On second thought, maybe the French Revolution isn’t the worst example.

All of that is most edifying. Even so, historical failures in the effort to further justice via a sudden event are no reason to abandon hope in that possibility. We do have the examples of England’s Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution to hearten us. More recently, the fall of the Soviet Empire, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and, most recently, the regime change implemented in Ukraine speak to that possibility. It would seem that the primary lesson to be learned from history is that the attempt to achieve more justice must not exceed practical possibilities.

In any nation with personal liberty, political democracy, and a market-based economy, the only “sudden event” required to implement mutual respect as the ethic of justice would be to institute a new and different monetary system. That would transform the functioning of the market-based economy while leaving intact its defining institutions. Such a monetary system would be revolutionary without being radical. The implications of this ethic of justice for the functioning of the economy are, however, the subject of Part 1 of this essay. Here the subject is a new approach to justice. We must begin with a critique of our current cultural ethos.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. were Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, et al., but our philosophical godfather was John Locke. He was the English philosopher who wrote the book on liberty and equality as the twin pillars of justice (Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689). In the main, those ideals have served us well (however much we have failed to live up to them in different areas at different times), but after all, it has been more than three centuries since Locke was thinking and writing. Common sense suggests that an update might be in order. More concretely, basing justice on those two ideals raises both theoretical and practical issues.

Liberty was directly equated with justice by Locke in his second Treatise. He began with the idea that injustice is being “subject to the arbitrary will” of another person . Therefore, justice is not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person. Since to be free of the arbitrary will of any other person is to enjoy a state of liberty, he concluded that liberty is justice. It turns out that justice-as-mutual-respect was right there, right then, if only Locke had seen it: if being subject to the arbitrary will of another person is injustice, then each of us must refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will.

In addition to that more dialectical argument, Locke had liberty as a Natural Right. That is where he got himself entangled in all manner of theoretical and practical problems. [Bertrand Russell asserted that Locke’s success as a philosopher can be attributed to his simply ignoring the contradictions and other complications in his lines of thought.] For starters, how can a Right to liberty—people’s being imbued with permission to run around doing whatever they want—have anything to do with justice?

Locke did evince a very positive view of human nature, as evidenced by his conception of a “State of Nature.” Locke’s immediate predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, famously described life for humans in a world without communities, with individual human beings living on their own, as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Locke conceived of a vastly more benign State of Nature. Though separate and independent beings, people would interact, engaging in trade, etc. Most of all, they would be living a life of maximum liberty.

Still, Locke had to account for the observation that human beings have always lived together in organized communities. Locke surmised that (despite his idyllic Sate of Nature) human beings surrendered the maximum possible liberty in exchange for greater security and more prosperity (his version of the social contract). The demonstrated social nature of human beings makes any notion of ‘surrendering’ a radically individualized existence utterly absurd, but Locke insisted that the Lost Cause of such an existence must inform the social order.

To assure the benefits of communal life for all there must be law and order. The laws of a community must conform, said Locke, with the “Natural Law.” Within the Natural Law liberty is a “Natural Right” and is constrained by the Natural Rights of (for Locke) person and property: Every person’s liberty ends at the person and property of any other individual. Locke emphasized the applicability of that constraint on liberty across socio-economic lines—with unrecognized implications for government.

For Locke, maximizing liberty must be the organizing principle of a community, to be accomplished by having the minimum laws possible. That proposition is conveyed in another of his famous phrases, “government as Night Watchman.” Consider, however, this illustration of that analogy: If one were in a sketchy part of town late at night and saw, to one’s relief, an officer of the law on the corner, would one rather that individual looked like an NFL linebacker or a ballerina? Pursuant to Locke’s logic, to secure the blessings of communal life for all members of the community, government must be big enough and strong enough to protect the most vulnerable members of the community from any predations of the most powerful in it. Today, the most powerful entities in most nations are large corporations. Within Locke’s way of thinking, the existence of such large, powerful bodies requires a big, strong government. Yet, according to Locke, a big, strong government necessarily constitutes a threat to liberty. That conundrum is a spike in the heart of Locke’s thought.

Finally, basing justice on a priori Rights is inherently self-centered—being all about my rights: my liberty, my property, etc. Perhaps the sorry state of communal civility in the U.S. these days reflects more than two centuries of such egocentrism. Much of postmodernists’ critique of modernity generally and the ‘Enlightenment project’ specifically centers on a lack of regard for ‘the other’ in all contexts; concerning ethics that refers to other people (although Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel did include mutual respect in some form in their ethics and, as already noted, it is implied in the ideal of equality).

Though Locke included property among the Natural Rights he enumerated, there is even an argument against private property contained his formulation of Natural Rights. If justice is the highest social value, and liberty is justice, how can property trump liberty? The very existence of my property is a limit on your liberty; the more I own, the more your liberty is necessarily limited. [The Declaration of Independence adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776 substituted as a Right “the pursuit of happiness” for “property” because the latter would have raised the issue of slavery, which the Congress had agreed to ignore.]

The ideology that Locke’s ideas generated also recognizes communal rights, including political and legal rights, based on equality. It is in his first Treatise that Locke made a case for equality. His purpose in it was to argue against the doctrine of the Divine Right of monarchs (which says volumes about the difference between the world he lived in and ours). He predicated his argument for human equality on his Christian beliefs. Yet, the Christian Bible nowhere suggests any notion of social, much less political, equality. It only says that rulers (and for that matter slaves’ masters) are as liable before God as their subjects are. That constraint is explicitly included in the doctrine of Divine Right anyway, however much it was ignored by rulers. Even so, the idea of human equality has become firmly embedded in our cultural ethos.

A seismic schism does exist between communal rights based on equality and the a priori Rights of liberty, etc. Whereas the former constrain power by diluting and delimiting it, the latter promote the concentration of unbounded power. As a Right, liberty is a grant to exercise power. Property is a source of power—and the usual means for acquiring it, money, another source of power. As for the pursuit of happiness, according to Dr. Greg Etchason (M.D.), the “drug of choice” of human beings, that which people want most to have, and to have more of it no matter what, is power.

That schism denotes a destabilizing tension deep within the ideology Locke initiated. In nations organized in accordance with that ideology an unsteady social equilibrium has existed atop the fault line along which the concentrated power inherent in that ideology’s a priori Rights presses against communal rights. If an actual rupture were to occur, it would reduce to rubble the social architecture of personal liberty, political democracy, and a market-based economy.

Making mutual respect our explicit communal ethic can resolve those issues within Locke’s approach to justice and accomplish yet more good. We do, however, have to define the domain of justice. Conduct outside its domain would be left to personal morality, such as that provided by one’s religion. Leaving out a few technicalities, we can say that the domain of justice is the realm of effecting choices (choosing among perceived alternatives and taking action to bring those choices to fruition). [Warren J. Samuels discussed ‘social power’ as the ability to effect choices in “Property and Power,” in Perspectives of Property, edited by Gene Wunderlich and W.L. Gibson (1972).]

If we accept that the domain of justice is the realm of effecting choices, the ethic of justice becomes mutual respect in effecting choices. What must be respected specifically is the capacity of all people to choose for themselves. [I address unavoidable hierarchies such as parenting and bossing people at work in my book, A Just Solution, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.]

Mutual respect in effecting choices becomes the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice. It tells us how we must act to act justly. The more we take others into account, the more justly we are acting. The minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice draws the line between just and unjust acts. It tells us what we must refrain from doing to keep from acting unjustly. It is this: No one may co-opt any other person in the process of effecting any choice. Anyone’s participation in that process must be conscious, informed, and votive. That means that, as a minimum, people are prohibited from killing, or harming, or coercing, or manipulating, or ignoring the interests of other people who are involved when effecting any choice. [“Manipulating” includes lying, cheating, etc.; “ignoring… ” includes harming or stealing their property in their absence, etc.]

With mutual respect in effecting choices as the ethic of justice we can still assign ourselves communal rights, including a right to private property. (That sure beats having to defend whatever one has or whatever ground one happens to be occupying against all comers.) On the other hand, the idea of a priori Rights, including a Right to liberty, is rendered null and void. With all people abiding by the minimum condition of justice, this ethic would provide the maximum liberty that coexisting people can enjoy simultaneously. That tells us that, properly understood, liberty is the product of justice, not its source, or foundation, or predicate, etc.

The mutual respect implicit in the ideal of human equality already exists as the true source of the justice in political democracy. The political process can be defined as the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole. The political system, then, is the set of institutions within which choices are effected for the community as a whole—with the offices of government as its functional core. With justice as mutual respect in effecting choices, every member of the community must be allowed to participate in the political process because everyone is affected by the choices effected within it.

Political speech is the part of the political process that transcends the political system. That tells us that political speech is something more than a right, but is its own element of justice in the political process. (Rights regarding other forms of expression must be decided in the political process.) Hence, liberty of political speech becomes the first condition of justice for the political process. That means it must be open to everyone in the community and cannot be externally constrained. Anything other than rational persuasion does violate the injunction against co-option, however, meaning lying and other forms of manipulation—much less coercion in any form—when participating in the political process must be renounced. [If there is something exceptional about the genesis of the U.S., it is that its formation came at the end of an extended period of (enough) liberty of political speech in which justice in governance could be robustly debated by—well, mostly older men of European descent—but the point is that those who in turn will have to live with the form of governance they would create must have the opportunity to express their ideas about the structure and intended functioning it should have (a lesson lost on contemporary efforts at nation-building)].

With liberty of political speech as the first condition of justice for a just political process, the second condition of justice is a democratic distribution of political rights. For present purposes let’s say that means that those rights are required for no one to exercise yet are available to all members of the community, but for non-arbitrary restrictions. Only a restriction which can be universally applicable can be non-arbitrary. Thus, age is a legitimate restriction on political rights, but gender and ethnicity are not. As for creed, the beliefs of every human being are arbitrary from the point of view of any other person with different beliefs; therefore, though any creed is potentially universal, creed cannot be used in determining the distribution of political rights.

With liberty of political speech and a democratic distribution of political rights, a just political process becomes a vehicle for procedural justice: the justness of the process produces just results. Beyond that, however, the conditions of justice for that process stand as constraints on conduct and outcomes in the process: the process may not be corrupted by unjust actions and may not result in outcomes which violate liberty of political speech or the democratic distribution of political rights.

To realize the conditions of justice for the economy we can use the political process as a template. As in the political process, liberty must come first: People must be free to decide how—and to what extent—they will participate in the economy. Similarly, the best way to get at the second condition of justice for the economy is to consider the second condition of justice in the political system. We can say that money is to the economic system as political rights are to the political system: It is the source of social power necessary to participate in it. That is true even of a barter economy. In that case the people involved in any exchange are producing their own media of exchange, their own ‘money.’ In a money-based economy with legal tender such activity will be limited. Justice in a monetary economy requires the existence of a democratically distributed (sufficient) income. (In a barter economy the means of production would be at issue.)

Like democratically distributed political rights, a democratically distributed income would be one which was available to all members of the community but for non-arbitrary restrictions, such as age. One way to institute a democratically distributed income would be to have that income be the money supply for the economy. That is to say, the money supply would originate as the incomes of certain individuals. A monetary system of that kind is the subject of Part 1 of this essay.

Justice has always been the hopeful expectation of human beings. Over the millennia, the cause of justice has advanced, however uncertainly. To recognize mutual respect in effecting choices as the ethic of justice would be another step forward. Applying that ethic of justice to life would maximize liberty, reinforce political democracy, and transform, while retaining, the market-based economy.

For more, see www.ajustsolution.com.

 Image: MSU

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