Domestic Theories of Justice

Domestic Theories of Justice

Robert A. Schultz (Woodbury University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-922-9.ch005
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In this chapter I will deal primarily with principles of justice for a particular society, a society whose members share benefits and burdens and regard themselves as cooperating members of that society. This type of justice is called domestic justice, to contrast it with transnational or global justice. Usually it is people in a given nation who constitute a society and regard themselves as belonging to a single economic and political unit. As I mentioned in the discussion of globalized institutions in Chapter 2, federal arrangements such as the US and the EU are possible with subsidiary units with partial autonomy, both economic and political.
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Other Theories Of Justice

A few other theories of justice besides utilitarianism and the social contract theory have some popularity and are worth mentioning. They are meritocracy, libertarianism, perfectionism, egalitarianism, and pluralism:

  • Meritocracy holds that a just distribution of goods is allocation according to the merit of the person. Merit is determined by the individual’s achievement through the use of his or her ability and talent.

  • Libertarianism holds that a just distribution of goods is any distribution that started from an initially just position and resulted from transactions which are, roughly, honest ones. Libertarianism calls for minimal interference with people’s transactions in maintaining a just distribution. (This is the version of Robert Nozick (1974))

  • Perfectionism is the view that a just society promotes the realization of human excellence.

  • Egalitarianism is the view that all goods produced by society should be distributed equally.

I will not consider any of these theories as candidates for a theory of justice because they would not likely be freely chosen by people agreeing on principles to regulate their society. Following Rawls, I regard the correct principles of justice as those that would be chosen as a social contract. For Rawls, the original position is the situation in which the social contract is made and the principles of justice are chosen. (1999a) I will return shortly to a discussion of why the less likely theories would not be chosen.

The fifth theory, pluralism, is the view that there are many principles of justice which conflict, but there is no higher-level principle to settle these conflicts.4 This theory basically rejects using a social contract to determine the highest-level principles of justice. Pluralism claims instead that we have a bundle of intuitive principles of justice which have to be balanced against each other, but we do this balancing without the aid of any higher-level principle or principles of justice. The only reply to pluralism is to show that there is a higher-level principle which is in reflective equilibrium5 with our judgements concerning justice. So pluralism is the default theory if no more comprehensive theory is plausible.


The Social Contract

The basic idea of a social contract is that a justly ordered society is one to which individuals can freely decide to obligate themselves. This idea is clearly expressed by the Declaration of Independence of the United States of 1776. Influential early versions of the social contract include Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1690), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762). Locke in particular had great influence on the founding fathers of the US. The idea of a social contract is attractive because it provides a non-coercive ethical basis for social rules. Of course there is no actual social contract, either written or oral, that members of societies agree to. But we can determine whether our social rules are ones that could have been chosen in appropriate decision circumstances. It was the insight of the 20th century philosopher John Rawls (1999a) that this procedure was the appropriate one to determine the principles of justice, the ethical principles governing society and its institutions.

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