Justice as an Institution: Part One

Conceptualizing Justice

“Those people who treat politics and morality separately will never understand either of them.”  — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

There are few concepts that have been more central to the realm of politics than the concept of justice.  Justice is at the heart of civilization’s structure and is a nebulous notion that has arrested the minds of philosophers and thinkers alike.  This is for good reason. What is central to each individual’s idea of how society should function is surrounded by this abstraction which has produced the many interpretations of what is known as government.  One of the earliest speculations of a just society —a transcendental solution— resulted in of one of Plato’s dialogues, Republic. In later attempts to conceptualize justice into government through political philosophy,  John Stuart Mills’ concept of utilitarianism and the sovereign of John Hobbes Leviathan are meant to ellipse justice into an comprehensive vision.  But what is justice? Equity, Fairness? And why can’t its parameters be agreed upon even after over 2400 years speculation.

The Transcendental Society

There are few things more perplexing than political polarity; however, if one is to narrow down what justice means, especially in contemporary thought, one has to consider the diversity of what that means. In The Idea of Justice, Amayarta Sen provides an analogy which identifies these many ways in which one could conceptualize justice:

“…Anne, Bob and Carla — should get a flute about which they are quarreling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it .

…In an alternative scenario, it is Bob who speaks up, and defends his case for having the flute by pointing out that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own.

…In another alternative scenario, it is Carla who speaks up, and points out that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor.”—Amayarta Sen, The Idea of Justice (2009)

[In all three instances the situation of one is validated by the other two illustrating the validity of the stake of each party involved.]

Sen is quick to point out following his narrative that Bob would be empathized with by an economic egalitarian and Anne and Carla respectively by the utilitarian and the libertarian (or perhaps the socialist in Carla’s case, though Sen does not mention this).  Using the anecdote of the three children and the flute, Sen illustrates the greater point of his work which surrounds the pluralism of justice.  No one political philosophy can lay claim to justice, indeed as he goes on to argue, it is the fundamental folly of philosophers to seek a transcendental, rather, the penultimate solution in regards to dilemma’s requiring justice. This broad explanation illustrating the problems surrounding the translation and pluralism of the concept of justice does not define what it is and that is the point.

Justice is subjective which is why, as a concept, it often brings to mind equity or fairness of an individual; however, this perspective, being inherently subjective is limited to the experience of the individual. It is for this reason in fact that in Plato’s society in the Republic that the notion that justice is not defined by individual experience but by the respective occupation of an individual in a level of society which is suited to their essence.  Essence is this sense is not to be attributed in the definition of the existentialist (that idea had not yet been established), rather, the characteristics which encompass an individual’s nature.  In this sense, Plato eliminates the need for subjectivity of the individual for justice to be constructed into a society.  Though it is certainly expedient of anyone to state that all Greeks viewed that justice was one occupying ones status, in Plato’s mind this was most certainly the case.

The noble lie and the Myth of Metals with which Plato’s hypothetical oligarchical society was built upon is one of the many item’s of contention with which Plato’s society is heavily criticized for.  The reason being is for Plato’s moralization of absolute truth through the dialectic in all his work and the natural contradiction with which he hold’s his just society framework together.   A contradiction which contemporary thinkers like Bertrand Russel would equivocate to eugenics and, as can be understood by perceiving the whole of Plato’s just society, authoritarianism.

[Plato’s Socrates speaking as a leader of his just society to his citizens]

“…the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth…While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious — but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.” — Plato, Republic (approximately 450 B.C.)

In Plato’s just society, or as it is commonly referred, Utopia, gold, silver, iron and brass are separations of class among its citizenship.   It is said by Plato that — having previously acknowledged the untruth of it — every citizen is born with metal in their blood discerning their placement in his Utopia.  Those with gold blood should be among its aristocracy (philosopher kings), silver of it guardians or army, and the brass or iron blooded to occupy the subsequent places as noted in the quote above.  This meant by Plato to be literally understood by his citizenship; however, for Plato this is a means of managing the structure of his Utopia based on the nature of the individual in service of the society as a whole (Aldus Huxley explores a more digestible form of this type of Utopia in his book  A Brave New World).  In Plato’s mind this created a just and perfect society as each mans place matched the nature of the individual to the status best serving the whole state.  A more modernized version of this conceptualization of justice is seen in John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism (this will be elaborated on more in the next part of my inquiry) which, consequently, shares a similar end as Plato’s.

The end shared by Plato and Utilitarians can be summarized as: the actions of the individual should be to the benefit of the whole society, or state, and not the individual.  Noting this there arises a serious issue.  What might be just for a whole might not be just for an individual and cannot allow for equity or liberty of individuals as the sole agenda of the individual must always be in keeping with the best interests of the society which the individual is a part of.  If an individual’s position in a society as say, a farmer, is what is required of a society to be just than that individual may not alter their position for the simple reason that the justness of that society relies on those as identified as being required to fill that position as that is the position for which they are best suited.  Now say that this farmer has aspirations to be a politician. Assuming that this farmer was bred to be a farmer and all the individual’s experience in life had been in or towards farming in the interest of their society then that individual’s use as a politician would not be to the benefit of that society.  That individual could not be allowed to enter another field despite personal aspiration and to maintain the justness of that society would be thought to be made an example of to dissuade others from altering their status as it would be thought, using this logic, that should this reallocation might start a sort of movement it would cause the society to no longer be just thus collapsing its framework.  As Plato was earlier quoted: “…alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.”

So what are the rights of a citizen in Plato’s Utopia? Basic logic tells us that an individual in this society has no right but to maintain justness through their limited status.  This society is even more confounding when one considers the fact that Plato thinks of such a structure as inherently good.  As history has taught us, and individual who is confined without option to change their status in a collective is not in fact a citizen, they are a slave and in this case a slave to the idea of a just state while being confined through injustice.  In this sense, it is not possible for Plato’s Utopia to be just as such a society would not be equitable for the individual and liberty would be absent.  There would be no opportunity for fairness in regard to the individual as one would be forced to be content in there position in the state and growth or elevation of the individual would be an impossibility.  One should shudder to think where civilization would be if this was the order of things following Plato’s conceptualization of justice through a transcendental society.

Like most philosophy, much of Plato’s ideas make sense when you consider the man himself.  Plato was born an aristocrat and was very open about his rejection of manual labor.  Plato even goes so far as to state that manual labor is in fact immoral which is likely why he leaves the work of artisans, farmers and builders to the lowers classes (the brass and iron blooded) of his Utopia.  When one notes Plato’s status as an aristocrat it only makes sense that the governing of his Utopia is left to those with gold in their blood — the philosopher kings — as the governance of a society to a limited class is the trait of an aristocracy or an oligarchy (the only difference typically scene is the density of the upper class, both systems favor the upper class as leadership in any case).  Clear separations of class are another aspect of an aristocracy and the segregation there of.  Though it is true that one could advance in Plato’s Utopia through accident of birth — a silver blood being born of a brass or iron blood — segregation of classes in the reproductive sense was as strict as in similar societies of the period such as the Spartans.  Though the method of identifying what one’s blood contained remains ambiguous in Plato’s writing.  An individual of gold could not make children with one of silver; gold could only beget children from intercourse with gold and so on ensuring the purity of that class.  Again, one shudders to think what this might look like in a modern society.

If it has not been made clear by now, Plato’s Utopia seems less than desirable in the modern perspective.  Though a very complex feat on Plato’s part to envision what a perfectly just society would be through a very broad and relatively well reasoned volume of work, seems to lack any sense of what one would call justice.  There is a very obvious issue that arises when the conceptualization of a single individual’s idea of justice becomes the basis of an entire society and that is for good reason, it is subjective.  It is for this reason that in the next post we will look at ethics and moral philosophy and how it is used to create political philosophy.

It is recommended in any case that those still skeptical peruse the many forms in which transcendental societies have been conceptualized either in philosophy or in literature.  Below I will place some recommendations for the curious to explore some of the ways philosophers and thinkers have explored this.

As always honest and civil dialogue or feedback is always encouraged and the comments section is the perfect place for that.  Should want to contact me more directly (as I don’t have a good track record of responding to questions in the comments) you are free to do so at:



A Brave New World by Aldus Huxley

1984 by George Orwell

Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Republic by Plato


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