Saturday, May 23, 2015

Justice as Getting What You're Owed

Justice is getting what is owed for what is done.

This definition of justice makes it active, the result and consequence of action.

If you take from someone -- money, life, etc. -- then you owe what you have taken, plus retribution for engaging in a violent act.

Trade is therefore necessarily just, as you are paying your debt immediately upon receipt of what is given you. More, since no trade takes place unless both parties perceive themselves better off, there is an element of gift in mutual trades that makes it a form of generosity beyond justice. Mutual trade is therefore more than merely just.

You only have to use threats to get a trade if the other party does not perceive themselves as better off from the interaction. Truly just taxation would therefore never require threats; people would voluntarily give if they were persuaded they would be better off from the transaction. If your knee-jerk response is that not enough would donate, that simply means you are too lazy or unintelligent to think of anything other than force.

Working for a wage is therefore just, since you are getting what is owed you for the work you have done for the person. One can make plenty of arguments in favor of worker-owned businesses, but justice is simply not one of them. However, we can see that slavery is always necessarily unjust, since the slave is not given what is owed him for the work being done, by definition.

This definition of justice also means that welfare is not just, since those receiving it are doing so despite having done nothing for it -- or, precisely because they are doing nothing. Arguments for welfare or negative income taxes or basic income guarantees must therefore come from someplace other than a position of justice. There might be plenty of pragmatic reasons for supporting such programs, but justice is, from the above definition, not one of them. You are not owed anything simply for existing. You are owed things only when you have incurred a debt in someone else. We may prefer living in a society in which everyone receives a basic income guarantee (or not), but one cannot make the argument from the position from justice. As for where you get the money from, that of course may involve questions of justice. See above, on taxation.

This definition of justice also connects justice to morality in a way I have not before found. Ought is the past tense of "to owe." Further, "to owe" is related to "own," showing the connection between ownership, owing, and ought. Thus, we see the connection between ownership and justice -- without ownership, there can be no justice. One cannot steal without ownership.

The libertarian idea of self-ownership also then tells you, with this definition, that murder, rape, assault, and slavery are all forms of injustice. Since you are taking what another owns, you owe them. You owe them more than its worth when you use force, because the person would not have made the gains from trade.

None of this negates in the least our instinctual feelings of injustice towards these things. It provides a rational explanation of them, is all. Our feelings that we are being treated unjustly in this or that circumstance stems from an understanding that we are not being given what we owe. Now, that does not mean that just because we feel someone owes us something that that is the case. We can be wrong about what others owe us. People who feel like "the world owes" them something are wrong. Particular people or organizations owe them, if anyone does.

More, nobody owes you more than what you agreed to receive. So, for example, if you get hired someplace at a given wage, and the person hiring you says you will get a raise after a year, then you are owed a raise after that year. The person truly would be acting unjustly if they refused to give you that raise, or if they conveniently found a reason to fire you to avoid paying you more. But if they did not, then you are not owed a raise -- or a promotion, for that matter. The decision by your employer to do so is therefore extra, a gift for doing more than what you had agree to do. But gifts by definition do not require reciprocation, so even if you give more than you said you would, that does not mean the other is necessarily obliged to reciprocate with a raise or promotion. Of course, one should not be surprised if one doesn't retain workers for long with that attitude. No one said there wouldn't be consequences to your actions. But one should not judge those actions as unjust if the gift is not reciprocated -- or just, if the gift is reciprocated.

A gift therefore goes beyond what one is owed. You are not owed technological advances, art, scientific discoveries, or philanthropy. Nor are you owed the social wealth created by the market. Those are gifts above and beyond anything you are owed. Acts of mutual trade are just, because each is getting what is owed; and to the extent that each is getting more, there is also an element of gift involved as well. Mutual trade is thus both just and more than just. All of the advances in science, technology, and wealth creation in our society are therefore  gifts freely given by the invisible hand. In the case of science, art, and technology, from others' obsessions.

These are a few of the implications of this definition of justice. Certainly more needs to be done to tease out the implications of the definition -- and to justify the definition itself.
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