October 4, 2018KR BlogBlogLiterature

Hume, Locke, Rawls, and the Roots of Social Justice

In this time so full of social justice questions, I decided to go back to a grad school textbook, Social Justice (edited by Mathew Clayton and Andrew Williams), to get a handle on the origins of our thinking on social justice in this country.

The first three chapters of Social Justice feature excerpts from works by John Locke, David Hume, and John Rawls, which reveal fundamental differences in these thinkers’ approaches to justice.

Whereas Hume sees justice as a means to the end of mutually beneficial cooperation in society, Locke views it as an outcome of the labor of the individual.  On the other hand, for Rawls, justice is neither a means to an end, nor a way of validating one’s claim, but rather a copiously conceived set of principles that act as standards to ensure fairness within a society.

Locke defines property as that which an individual removes from nature through labor in order to make it justly his or her own. He writes that when an individual picks fruit, for example, that fruit “being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men.”  In this way, Locke concludes that a person is justly entitled to something because he or she has made the effort to claim it.

Like Locke, Hume views private property as central to any theory of justice. He begins by asking, “Why raise land-marks between my neighbour’s field and mine, when my heart has made no divisions between our interests?” This leads him to the observation that, although society hasn’t reached a point where it’s “a second self to another,” the family unit comes closest to this ideal.

Hume concludes that because society hasn’t reached that ideal point, justice and private property are essential to its ability to function. But unlike Locke, he doesn’t view justice as the outcome of respect for that private property, but rather as a means of ensuring the constructive cooperation of people within a society.  He can understand justice only as a virtue that “derives its existence entirely from its necessary use to the intercourse and social state of mankind.” If justice is merely a means for achieving a functional, socially cooperative society, though, how can one be sure that the society is, in fact, just?  It is possible for a society to work and feature social cooperation while still being fundamentally unjust.

While social cooperation is Hume’s desired outcome, Rawls views it solely as the function of society that determines the distribution of advantages. He doesn’t approach justice as a means to an end like Hume, or as an end like Locke, but rather uses his principles of justice as a rubric to ensure fairness within society.

Rawls believes that the role of social justice is to determine “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.” Rawls doesn’t merely see social justice as a set of guidelines for fairness, but rather takes into account “the study of the ethics of creation: an examination of the reflections an omnipotent deity might entertain in determining which is the best of all possible worlds.” It is deeply enlightening to read these philosophers because in their words lie the origins of our modern justice systems in all their strengths and weaknesses.