On Philosophy

February 24, 2007

Justice And Societal Health

Filed under: Ethics,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:05 am

Previously I have appealed to the notion that society, in a loose sense, can have interests, which is to say that things can go better or worse for it (and that we usually have a reason to act in the best interests of society, although this is an additional claim). More precisely, it is better for a society to be healthy than unhealthy. The health of a society is measured by two factors: how long it survives and how well it does in comparison to other societies (which is directly related to how long the society survives, because a society that can’t compete with its neighbors won’t survive very long).

Obviously a society whose citizens are unhappy with its government won’t survive in its current form for very long, unless the government has a way of correcting its problems without being completely replaced. There are many reasons why citizens may be unhappy with their government, but here I am just going to consider one of them, the one that is most detrimental to societal health: systematic injustice. Injustice almost always makes people angry at the cause of that injustice, if they are disadvantaged by it, and so unlike people who are unhappy in general, those that suffer from injustice will almost always be angry with their government. For example, a group of poor people who are poor because of their bad choices or bad luck may be unhappy, but they are unlikely to all blame the government as the exclusive source of their problems, or to act against it. However, if the government makes a group of people poor by unjustly depriving them of their money then they will resent the government, and will be united in a desire to take action against it. And furthermore they will be able to motive others to join them, because there are people who are opposed to injustice, even if they aren’t personally affected by it.

Obviously the larger the injustice the larger the problem will be for society. But even cases of injustice in which small numbers of people are affected can’t be ignored. For example, consider a completely inflexible government, which can only be changed by overthrowing it. Now any uprising has a chance of success, although smaller uprisings are naturally less likely to succeed. But this doesn’t matter in the long run, because if there really is injustice the people affected by it will rise up over and over again, until eventually they succeed. Of course this means that major injustices will result in a change of government in a shorter period of time then less significant injustices, but all this means is that the major injustices impact societal health more then the lesser ones, which is to be expected.

Of course it is unlikely for a society to begin its existence as perfectly just. Even with the best intentions mistakes can be made. Thus a truly healthy society must be flexible and responsive to its citizens. And at this point everyone assumes that I have shown democracy to be the best possible system of government. But that is the wrong conclusion to draw. It is true that a democracy is often more flexible than a monarchy (although it really depends on the monarch), but that doesn’t mean democracy is perfectly suited for dealing with injustice. For example, in a direct democracy, if only a small percentage of people were affected by the injustice then it is unlikely that the injustice would be fixed (if it benefited everyone else) unless they took matters in their own hands, and either changed the democracy by force, or scared the majority of voters into changing it from within the system, and neither outcome is desirable.

Representative democracy is slightly better. If the people who suffer from injustice can secure a few representatives then they have a good chance of being able have their problems addressed. For example, they can filibuster and disrupt the proceedings of government in other ways until they are heard, or in a parliamentary system other parties may need to form a coalition with them. But there is no guarantee that the people who are suffering from injustice will be able to secure representation in a representative democracy. They may be spread out over the nation, so that they don’t make up a majority in any region, or they may be underrepresented because of laws that prevent them from voting (maybe that is the very injustice which needs to be addressed). A case in point is the civil rights movement in the USA. In a representative democracy a group of people suffered from injustice, even though they could vote in principle. And they were only able to secure justice by protesting, mostly peacefully, until the rest of society realized that they had to address the problem (because the protests wouldn’t remain peaceful forever if the problems weren’t addressed). This situation should never happen, if the government is truly flexible and responsive to the needs of the people, and the fact that people had to take to the streets to get things changed in a democracy, which is supposed to be a government by the people for the people, shows there is something lacking in democracy.

But I’m not going to make a suggestion as to what could be better, because I have gone on long enough. And anyways I have said what I needed to drive home what I think is the important point here, that justice is vital to a healthy society. And thus that if you think that you are ethically required to strive for the best outcome, and you think the best outcome is that which is best for society, then you will do your best to insure that justice is done. And thus that the kind of consequentialist ethics that I advocate entails that we should act justly, and establish just systems, as a logical consequence, a result that reflects well on the system as a whole.

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