The choice of the word 'idea' indicates that we are dealing here with a
'look' or 'face' of being, a way in which the world shapes up and gains
contours for human understanding. In Plato's thinking, the ideas are nothing
other than the looks which beings as such present and offer of themselves
to understanding. An ideal is not just an idea, but an unrealized idea,
a guiding sight. Accordingly, the idea of social justice would be visible
to the human mind, but not, or not yet, realized in social reality. But
as unrealized, it would still have the potential to be realized and thus
serve as an orienting image for political action. As such an ideal, social
justice must not be merely a dreamt-up Utopia but must address a potential
of human being to be social in a specific, concrete, historical way.
Before asking what this purportedly fair and alluring but nevertheless deceptive and unsound idea of social justice is, we must clarify, at least in rude outline, what social being and justice are.
If we look back through the history of philosophy, we find various answers to this question. One such answer is to say that human beings depend on each other to live. Alone, even as adults, they cannot provide for themselves. Another answer is that human beings essentially have the lo/goj, i.e. understanding and language, and that their being is stunted, i.e. essentially lacking, if they do not speak with each other. But is there not a deeper-lying reason why a human being cannot be a human being without associating with others?
Whereas beings present themselves to human understanding as what they are, i.e. they show their essences, with the presentation of human beings to view the matter is not so simple. Why? Firstly, because human beings have a reflexive relation to their own presentation. Every presentation of a human being is a self-presentation in which a self is also understood in showing itself. Because of this reflexive selfhood that is an essential aspect of human being, a human being is not a thing, a something or a somewhat, but a somewho.(3) Human being itself must be thought through as whoness or quissity, and not in the traditional categories of whatness, quiddity or essence with which metaphysics has thought human being since the days of Plato and Aristotle, such as a tripartite entity composed of body, soul and intellect.
Human being as whoness implies that a human being understands itself as presenting its self when showing itself in the world. It is self-conscious in the double meaning of this word: aware of its self and concerned for its self. Things show themselves as what they are in the world to human understanding, but they have no selves to which they have a reflexive relation. They just show up for human understanding. Human beings, by contrast, show themselves and they show themselves off to other human beings, who are likewise selves. Secondly, who I am as a self in my self-identity is not merely self-reflection of consciousness back onto an ego-point of consciousness, but a reflection back from the world from those practices that habitually define my world and thus also who I am. These self-defining habitual practices are different from me simply as an awareness of the world, but precisely in this difference as belonging to me they constitute my identity as the individually lived world, understood in some way more or less explicitly, with which I identify. So how I show myself off to others is also a showing who I am in and through the habitual practices with which I identify my self. Moreover thirdly, the selves that are thus presented to others in the world are neither fixed points of identity nor rigidly habituated individual ways of being in the world, but are in constant movement, for the reflexive relation of a human being to its self is a relation of self-understanding that is continually unfolding and shifting through changing life-practices. The self and self-understanding do not remain static. They are in flux, not only through the many moods of the day and various situations, but also through various phases of life in which one understands and comports oneself, and lives one's self differently in changing life-worlds. Whoness as in movement is therefore temporal.
But there is more than a reflexive relation of self-understanding and a reflection of self-identity in a shining-back from the world in how human beings present themselves, also showing themselves off to others. For, in the fourth place, the relation of self-presentation is not just self-reflexive and a reflecting-back from the world; it is also reciprocal: human beings present themselves as selves to each other. In other words, who I am as a self is a shining-back not only from my practical life-world with which I identify, but also a shining-back from the others who reflect who I am.This each-otherness of self-presentation compels us to speak in terms of you-and-I or me-and-you or we. The things that we deal with in daily life are somewhats that are adequately covered by the grammatical third person, whereas the relations of self-presentation have to resort to the grammatical first and second persons taken together, the first person referring to the self-reflexivity. In fact, it must be said that the three grammatical persons are fundamentally rooted in the phenomenality of whatness on the one hand and whoness on the other (and not conversely). Whoness cannot be conceived without the moment of a reciprocal relation between you-and-me, whereas whatness is adequately captured by a one-sided relation of presentation of things to human understanding.
It does not suffice merely to conceive of the three grammatical persons as forms denoting or indicating respectively the person speaking (first person), the person spoken to (second person), and the person or thing spoken of (third person).(4) It is not merely a matter of speaking, but of the very constitution of selves in the reciprocity of self-presentation. Not only does my self, understood as a complex of masks of habitual self-comportment in the world which belong to me and through which I understand my self, remain in flux throughout my life, and your self similarly remain in flux throughout your life, but the reciprocity of our relations to each other itself comes into play in shaping each of us as selves. Reciprocity in this fundamental sense does not mean that there is a give-and-take, that something is returned in kind, but means that my reflexive relationship to my self in presenting myself to you is also a mirroring of myself in you, no matter how (deficiently or indifferently) you comport yourself toward me, and vice versa. Self-reflexivity and reflection in the other go together. Moreover, the relations of self-reflexivity and reflection in the other are willy-nilly reciprocal in any encounter, even the most fleeting and indifferent, so that there is a fourfold structure within which the relation between you-and-me plays out: me presenting myself to myself in presenting myself to you, and you presenting yourself to yourself in presenting yourself to me, and that in such a way that we recognize, estimate and esteem each other in some way or other, no matter how minimally or deficiently or indifferently. Within this fourfold structure, our selves are shaped and continually reshaped through the movement of living together, which, as a reciprocal relation in movement, is an ongoing interplay.
Thus far we have seen that association with one another is not just a hallmark of human being but is constitutive of human being itself as selfhood in a reciprocal interplay in which we present ourselves to each other as who we are. But how, more precisely, do we present our selves to each other? In contrast to thingly beings that show themselves as what they are to understanding human being, human beings show themselves off as who they are to each other primarily in a presentation of abilities. The being of everyday things is that they show themselves as what they are good for. Things are good for this or that application or use, and the look they present of themselves is the look of their being-good-for this or that use, i.e. a potential for use or use-value, which is a kind of power. Human beings present themselves to each other in the first place also as what they are good for, but this being-good-for is not applicability or usefulness, but rather ability or being-able-to..., which is always also a possibility of being, a potential and power. What makes human beings good for each other is their abilities, of whatever kind — including not just vocational abilities, but also those private social abilities such as parenting, maintaining friendship, etc. — and it is in their abilities first and foremost that human beings show themselves off to each other and are esteemed as who they are. Such showing-off of abilities is all-encompassing — even those who lack confidence and do not put their abilities on display, or have little ability to show, are showing off in a deficient mode within the ontological dimension of whoness. Here the focus is on the display, estimation and interchange of abilities in civil society, which is the arena where people go about the business of daily life. Although abilities are the primary powers of somewho, there are other powers derivative of such powers, such as the wealth accumulated through the estimation of one's (family's) abilities or the power associated with political office acquired through the estimation of one's politicial abilities of whatever kind, including dubious ones.
Abilities are potentials or powers to do something useful, whereas things have the potential to be used (passive!) for doing something useful. I understand my self in the first place through my powers to do (active) something, and others understand me in the first place as being someone who is able with a certain range of abilities which, as potentials that I can bring to display or as strings in my bow that I can tauten depending on the situation, constitute also a core of my identity that is lived in the world. This is why the self-presentation of human beings to each other is not just a showing of themselves but a showing-off of who they are. In the common intercourse of daily life, we show ourselves off to each other in our abilities, our personal powers (and secondarily in the derivative social powers indicative of our abilities of whaterver kind), and all our abilities are such as social, i.e. only in being appreciated by others, or at least, an other (the human being whose ability fails to find any appreciative mirroring at all in an other is most probably a demigod). Even the showing-off of prestige in showing what one has is derived from ability because a phenomenon such as, say, ostentatious consumption amounts to nothing other than showing off what one has achieved and acquired through the exercise of one's abilities and is therefore a sign pointing to such abilities. My own who-standing is therefore first of all my understanding of my self as having certain abilities, and my who-standing for others is how others understand me first and foremost as someone able to do such-and-such. That is my reputation, which forms the core of my everyday identity in civil society.
How I come to stand (or fall) as somewho for myself is in large part having my self reflected by the others who recognize appreciatively (or depreciatively) my abilities, my powers, my potentials, thus validating (or invalidating) a who-stand. And similarly, I understand others in the first place through how they show themselves off in their abilities and the signs thereof, which makes my understanding of others always already a vertically dimensioned appreciation/depreciation of others' abilities, no matter how loose. My self-becoming is primarily a developing of my potentials into habitual abilities that I have and through which I show myself off to the world as who I am, and from whose shining-back in the recognition and estimation by others I gain my stand in the world. And similarly for the others. We show ourselves off to each other and recognize each other reflectively as able, competent somewhos in an ongoing interplay. In this ontological discussion it must be kept in mind that ability includes inability and incapability, and competence includes incompetence, i.e. all ontological dimensions encompass the phenomenon concerned in positive, negative and neutral modes.
Just as what things are good for makes them valuable for a certain use or range of uses, what human beings are good for, namely, their abilities, make them valuable to each other. We recognize and acknowledge each other as who we are in acknowledging each others' abilities. This is not merely a theoretical matter, a matter of contemplation, but a practical matter, a matter of action and interaction. When things present themselves to understanding in what they are good for, this is only the prelude or condition of possibility for them actually being used. What I have in my possession I actually use; I employ my possessions' potentials for use in using them. But the business of everyday life involves also first acquiring what I do not have in order to use it. Most of the things I have, I have acquired at some time. If this acquisition has not been merely an appropriation or a gift, it has been an exchange. Exchange takes the form of giving something useful, valuable in exchange for something else that is useful, valuable, including money, which is universally valuable in being able to purchase particular useful things. This is the elementary exchange of goods, and even theft or receiving a gift can be regarded as one-sided, limiting cases of exchange. These goods are good for living in their being used in usages. Exchange-value is therefore derivative of use-value, and is itself a social power, i.e. as value the power to acquire something else.
But the business of everyday life is not just a matter of the circulation of goods in a circle of exchange. Goods are made in the first place through the exercise of abilities, and it is the exercise of our abilities, of whatever kind, that allows us to acquire the goods we require to live well. Behind every thingly good that is exchanged for some other thingly good there are the abilities and the exercise thereof that have brought forth the goods in the first place in some kind of production process or other. When we recognize each other in our respective abilities that define who we are, therefore, this has the practical import that we also exchange our abilities with each other either directly in serving each other or indirectly in exchanging the goods that are the (mostly composite) products of our (several, combined) abilities, almost always through the mediation of money (which thus introduces a further level of indirectness). Exchange is always reducible notionally to the simple paradigm of an exchange of abilities. Furthermore, to make certain goods it is necessary that we combine and co-ordinate our abilities in enterprises and organizations. In this combining and co-ordination of our abilities in concerted action, too, we must recognize each other as who we are primarily in recognizing each others' abilities. Even in accepting employment in an enterprise or organization (with or without hierarchical structures), there is a reciprocal recognition of abilities, since the employer, too, or the organization as a whole is recognized as capable (as being in some sense a good or capable company or enterprise able to maintain and/or better its stand through validation in the market-place). The recognition and practical validation of abilities in exchange is rarely simple, firstly because even a lone artisan uses means of production (tools, raw materials, etc.) embodying others' abilities, and secondly because a complex, organized, collective worker tends to be the norm, especially today.
From these considerations we see that everyday life with one another in society is an ongoing exchange of abilities and an interchange of the reciprocal (appreciative/depreciative) recognition, estimation and validation of those abilities. We reciprocally recognize each other as who we are primarily in our abilities, and we also understand (and appreciate) ourselves in the first place through our powers to produce and perform. Furthermore, not only do we value and estimate the things of daily life in what they are good for, but we value and esteem each other in what we are good at and good for by virtue of our abilities. (This applies not just to the intercourse of civil society, but, one could say, wherever human beings have 'to do' with one another: in private life, in politics, in art and philosophy. And it applies not just to our modern civil societies because reciprocal estimation, esteem, validation, valuation, etc. can be made out as a socio-ontological dimension wherever and whenever human beings live together in society, even when such an interplay of estimation assumes forms of appearance foreign to modern civil society.) Both things and people have potential in what they are good for, and this being-good-for is the basis on which we value and esteem not only things, but also each other and also, self-reflectively, our selves. The Greek word for esteem, estimation, value as well as honour, public office, social standing, which brings the value of both things and human beings together is timh/, a concept that plays a vital role in both Plato's and Aristotle's writings on political and social life. Timh/ signifies a rich, ubiquitous, social phenomenality that must play a major role in any social ontology.
Having prepared the ground through a discussion of the elementary social phenomena of interplay, estimation, esteem, value, social power constituting the multifaceted dimension of whoness, we must make a great leap in order to quickly come closer to our, or rather my, chosen subject of (social) justice.
To live well in society with others is not only to enjoy the "conveniencies of life" (Adam Smith) provided by others, but also to enjoy the estimation of one's own standing and status as who as it is reflected by others' esteem for oneself. These interchanges among the members of society constitute in the first place the 'good life' of civil society, a society of citizens, eine Bürgergesellschaft. Even on this rudimentary level, the social interchange of daily life is never merely 'materialist' in today's vulgar sense, but always an interplay in which esteem and self-esteem inevitably come into play. Even the mere possession of material goods is woven into esteem in the form of social prestige. Moreover, the value of goods and the worthiness of persons are both an ongoing outcome of the interplay of recognizing and validating, of estimating and esteeming.
There are all sorts of ways, however, in which the interchanges of daily life can go wrong and, instead of enhancing life, detract from it. An agreement to exchange goods (with or without the mediation of money) may be reneged on, or one's property may be stolen or damaged by someone else. Theft and property damage can be regarded as one-sided, deficient forms of exchange since taking or appropriating is a limiting case of exchange and also a refusal, or negative mode, of recognition of the other as an owner. Or it may turn out that a contract into which one has entered in good faith as a fair exchange turns out to be a fraud. Or someone may sell a good on the market that harms the health of those who use it and thus turns out to be among the bads of living.(5) Or someone else may act in such a way that completely disregards and curtails the enjoyment of one's own property and possessions. Or, instead of being esteemed and respected in daily social intercourse and having one's stand as somewho in society affirmed and respected, be it only through formal politeness and regard in one's dignity as a person, one may be exposed to public insult that injures one's self-esteem, or defamation, slander or libel that detract from or even destroy one's reputation and social standing, one's very being as somewho (which is always social, always a mirroring coming-about through social interplay). One may even be physically assaulted, which is also a kind of negative interchange.
All these interchanges, one-sided and deleterious as they are for living well, are instances of injustice in the sense that they are unfair. Justice is fairness, and fairness means in the first place that each has his or her own due, fair share of the goods and bads of living together in society. The bads of living are all that detract from living well. For instance, I may get a bad reputation and lose my social standing as somewho, and this is bad for living, but it may be justified and therefore just and fair because I have shown myself to others through my comportment not to deserve others' respect. I may show myself to be incapable, or unreliable in sticking to agreements, or to have acted ruthlessly against others in the pursuit of my own interests. My loss of reputation would be unfair and unjust if it were, say, the result of calumny by a competitor starting false rumours about me.
We can see that justice is embedded in everyday life, which is in the first place a movement of interchanges, a metabolism in the literal, originally Greek sense, in which individuals, individually or collectively, strive for the goods of living and against the bads of living. Human beings have an appetite for living well, and this appetitive reaching-out keeps them in motion. Only through interchanges can they gain what is good for living, both in the sense of material goods and possessions and in the sense of enjoying the mirroring of others' esteem, appreciation and respect for individual abilities, which lends and affirms social who-standing. But more than that, the striving for the goods of living in civil society is also inevitably a competition against others who are similarly striving for the good life, not only in acquiring material goods, but also in achieving social status and prestige. Especially in striving to be somewho there is necessarily a desire, born of the competitive mirroring into which each of is thrown, to stand higher than others in who-status. Self-esteem thrives on comparative superiority. Moreover, in striving to gain the goods of living, we must strive to have our abilities recognized and practically appreciated (usually in the act of remuneration) by others as at least up to the mark, or superior, in the competition against others with similar abilities. Such competitive striving for goods and social standing is a power interplay among powers in the sense of abilities and for powers in the sense of the valuable potential residing in goods of all kinds.
There must be rules of play for each of these interlinked competitive strivings according to which individuals can fairly gain what they are after. As mentioned above, examples of unfair interplay include stealing from another, not fulfilling contractual agreements or trying to ruin a competitor's reputation by slandering his or her abilities. The fairness of the rules of play for the competitive interplay of daily life is the core of justice. Such practised fairness is the beauty of social interplay. The rule of law, even before a concept of government and the state is thought, has to be conceived in its fnndamental sense as the rule of fair rules for competitive interplay. Such competitive interplay does not guarantee that everybody gets an equal share of the goods of living; there can be great differences in what people have and as who they are regarded to be. If the interchanges of competitive life in the final analysis come down to the recognition and esteem accorded to each other's individual abilities, including how they are rewarded, it is hard to conceive how something resembling equality of honour and esteem and merit could be at all possible. Such an equality makes no sense, for individual abilities, and therefore merit, differ widely. There can be only formal equality before the rules of play of competitive life, and this formal equality is recognized in the concept and guaranteed in the status of personhood that ensures that every citizen participating in the power play of life is at least subject to the same rules of play in the competitive struggle for living well. There must be not only formal respect for each other, an honouring of each other as persons, in the hard game of life but also an adherence to rules of competitive interplay that formulate what today is called a level playing field.
The character of the striving for living well as a competitive game according to fair rules of play implies i) that conflicts between parties inevitably arise and ii) that the rules of play themselves must be assessed with regard to their fairness for all players, giving rise to further conflict, a kind of meta-conflict. Both these implications call for adjudication and appraisal and therefore a judicial instance, or judiciary, charged with the duty of concretely realizing justice conceived as fairness of interplay by adjudicating conflicts and assessing the fairness of the rules of play themselves. Historically, this judicial instance may be a prince, a king, an entire bureaucratic apparatus including a constitutional court, or something more exotic, like a tribal leader, but such — not unimportant — details do not concern us here. We are concerned here only with the simple, abstract ontological outlines of the phenomenon of justice. Justice as fairness consists in each player in the competitive power play of civil society receiving his or her fair share according to the merits of each social interaction, where 'merit' has to be heard from its Greek origin in the verb mei/resqai, 'to receive a (deserved, fair) share'.
The judicial instance that stands above the fray of the competitive interplay of daily life in the striving to live well is the seed crystal of government and the state. We will work here only with the most rudimentary notion of the state. Instead we turn to another conception of justice that inevitably will be raised as an objection to the considerations so far. Up till now we have been considering implicitly only a reformulation of the traditional conception of commutative justice that goes back to Aristotle. 'Commutatio' is the Latin translation of Aristotle's word suna/llagma, which means 'interchange'. But Aristotle has also another concept of justice, famously known as distributive justice, from the Greek for 'distribution', dianomh/. Distributive justice, as the name says, concerns the distribution of the goods of living, principally material goods and social esteem. To be just, this distribution must also be fair and equitable ( i)/soj).
But in this case, the fairness cannot be fair rules of competitive interplay on a level playing field. The fairness must consist in a fair allotment of the goods of living, and such allotment requires a criterion or criteria. But what could such criteria be? Aristotle says that the distribution of the goods and bads of living, to be just, must be "according to the worth" (kat" a)ci/an) of each individual and offers four possible criteria for such worth: free birth, wealth, nobility of birth, and ability or excellence. The bads of living in this scenario of distribution would include such things as the armed defence of one's country or having to shoulder one's share of economic hardship suffered by one's society as a whole. Today in the West we can accept as valid only the first and/or the last of Aristotle's criteria: free birth and ability, and both come into contradictory play in Western democratic politics. Everyone is born free, endowed with 'inalienable', 'inviolable' 'human' rights, so that everyone has an equal claim on the goods of living, so that the goods and bads of living would have to be distributed equally to be just. (E.g. an 'inalienable', 'human' right to health care.) Or alternatively, the goods and bads of living would be just only if they were distributed according to individual ability and lack thereof, i.e. according to merit. But Aristotle wisely avoids saying that the distribution of goods and bads could be corrected (diorqwtiko/n) by a judicial instance. The judge and the act of adjudicating are reserved for correcting anomalies and resolving conflicts in the interchanges among individuals, especially in contracts that have been freely entered into, i.e. according to Aristotle, corrective justice concerns commutative justice.
And there is indeed something amiss in a notion of socially actionable justice that demands either equal distribution of the goods and bads of living or their distribution according to ability. For in the first case, how could an equality of distribution be achieved? Equality of honour and esteem in society could not be enforced in any way because esteem and honour arise out of the innumerable interchanges of daily life itself. Only a formal equality of persons and a formal equal respect for persons is justiciable. Otherwise, to achieve equality, all acts of esteem among people would have to be totally formalized into rituals of mutual respect. And an equality of material goods would mean that the exchanges of material goods would be unjust because they inevitably lead to gain, perhaps on both sides of the exchange. But even mutual gain resulting from an exchange of goods would be unjust measured against the criterion of equality because all those who did not similarly gain would have, by comparison, lost out. To assert and enforce a criterion of equality in the distribution of the material goods (and bads) of living would lead to a static situation of immobility, because the free interchanges among free individuals on the basis of ability would have to be curtailed and their outcomes continually revised for the sake of social equality. Furthermore, such an ethos of rigid equality in the distribution of goods would go hand in hand with an ethos of extreme envy that regarded anyone 'gaining more' as already socially unjust. Finally, equality in the distribution of goods could only be enforced by a totalitarian instance that either suppressed all free interchanges among the citizens or constantly revised them.
And in the second case, the 'distribution' of the goods and bads of life according to individual ability and merit is already provided for in the fair competitive interplay of everyday life in which a kind of distribution of esteem and wealth takes place as an outcome according to how individual abilities are acknowledged, esteemed, honoured, appreciated, appraised, valued and rewarded in such exchanges and interchanges. A separate distiubitive justice according to merit is therefore redundant. Those with ability will assert themselves in the power play of life, whereas those who are incapable or unable to show off their abilities, or lack ability, will lose out, so that, against the criterion of ability, distributive justice will be automatically served simply by commutative justice being served. Ability will accord with merit, and the distribution of the goods of living will be according to merit, and thus just, as long as the rules of competitive interplay are fair.
So the conception of distributive justice is either impractical and asphyxiating for the metabolism of social life, poisoning it in an atmosphere of envy and requiring a totalitarian superior social instance that would stifle the interplay of mutual self-interests and enforce equal distribution, or it is superfluous because the tough but fair competitive interplay of life already brings about a just distribution according to individual abilities, i.e according to their merits. The instance meting out distributive justice has therefore traditionally been a god or gods, divine destiny or divine providence. But in the modern age, starting in the nineteenth century on the Continent, the demand for distributive justice was raised again on the secular plane as a politically realizable goal under the name of social justice. The state is called upon as a kind of secular god to realize some kind of social justice on Earth, to mete out just deserts according to criteria of just social distribution which the state itself, mediated by political struggle, democratic or otherwise, posits as embodying the social good. The rise of distributive social justice as a political idea goes hand in hand with the historical death of the Christian God in the West. If there is no longer any divine instance to be prayed to that is endowed with the power of divine providence to justly distribute the goods and bads of living — perhaps in a mysterious, godly way — then it falls to a human-made instance, the state, to provide care and to define and ensure just distribution. But a redistribution of honour and esteem can hardly be enforced by a social, political instance, and an equal distribution of material goods is realizable only by extinguishing the freedom of exchange by means of a totalitarian political state that forcibly redistributes wealth and/or the means of acquiring it according to a state-posited conception of social equality or 'social need'. People's individual abilities no longer are justly entitled to the rewards achieved through hard, competitive interplay based on mutual agreement. Rather, the rewards are forcibly reallocated according to what the state — perhaps as an outcome of bitter political struggle — posits as compatible with its conception of social justice.
Furthermore, because conceptions of a transcendent beyond and a promised life after death gradually lose their power over human souls in the modern age, the only possible paradise becomes a quasi-paradise on Earth, which consists in human beings being relieved of their cares so that, through the march of progress, they can progressively come to live carefree in security, as far as humanly possible from a life of care and insecurity. That human beings could be carefree, however, amounts to a kind of merely imagined conception of fulfilled human happiness, because to be a human being means essentially to take on the care of shaping one's self and casting one's shared life-world. And shaping one's own existence through the continual interplay with others is only possible and necessary because human being itself is an exposure to the abyss of nothingness from which existential possibility — freedom — arises, including the possibility to unfold one's potential, one's powers, abilities.
There is an ontological difference between commutative and distributive justice, i.e. between the fairness of social interplay and the allocation of the goods of living, whose root lies in the Aristotelean ontology of movement itself, which distinguishes between the du/namij (potential, power) as the starting-point (a)rxh/) of a movement and its e)ntele/xeia (actualitas, literally: 'having-in-the-end') as its realized outcome. This gap is mediated by e)ne/rgeia (literally: 'at-work-ness') or the movement generated by the power itself at work. Commutative justice concerns the potential of powers — in the first place, individual powers and abilities — in interplay with each other in the sociating interchanges of life, whereas distributive justice concerns what one has in hand securely in the end. The former is oriented toward freedom of social movement which, as potential, is risky and whose justness lies in fair play, whereas the latter is oriented toward having secure possession and fulfilled needs. Hence the conceptions of social justice are fundamentally and essentially already (socio-)ontologically at loggerheads. Social justice in the commutative sense means the fairness of interplay championed by the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition, in which the fight for social justice amounts to a fight for civil rights in the sense of overcoming discrimination against certain groups in society (e.g. women, blacks, coloureds, gays & lesbians, foreigners, etc.). On the European Continent, however, and arising from the Social-Democratic tradition born of an historic compromise with Bismarck in the 1880s, social justice means 'naturally' the distributive justice of having one's living 'needs' securely fulfilled by the social welfare state. Any social arrangement smacking of risk and insecurity is therefore accordingly 'naturally' felt to be 'unjust', and this is the prime tenet of left-wing politics. Thus a simple socio-ontological difference underlies unbeknowns, and is the main motor of, the political struggles that are being fought out interminably in modern societies. The political players themselves are blind to this socio-ontological difference in which they are ensnared.
All sorts of compromises and hybrids between the freedom of interchange and exchange in civil society on the one hand, and the enforced equal distribution of goods by a totalizing superior political power on the other are conceivable and practically inevitable, not only because it would be impossible for even a draconian, totalitarian state to entirely stamp out exchange transactions among its citizens or to thoroughly even out differences arising from such exchange transactions in the name of social equality. One such hybrid is the Continental European idea of the so-called 'socially just market economy' (soziale Marktwirtschaft) which provides for some measure of freedom for the metabolism of civil society, but always with the proviso that the outcomes of this metabolism must be continually corrected for the sake of the poor, in line with a conception of a 'just' distribution of social wealth allowing for some degree of inequality. But can it be said that in this way a just balance between commutative and distributive social justice could be struck, which allows for some differences in the distribution of wealth, but always within state-imposed limits of what is 'acceptable' to current opinons about social justice and social equality, including in particular, public opinion about how great a gap between the haves and the have-nots is socially acceptable? Is any balance conceivable that would amount to anything more than merely a contradiction-ridden, arbitrary compromise reached only through political power struggle among social classes each vying to assert its collective self-interests? Can the demand for social equality be thought as a demand for social justice or is such a demand ultimately tyrannical in denying merited, just reward for individual ability? What does material equality have to do with justice at all? Why should each member of society deserve an equal share of wealth? Why should each member of society even have a right to a minimum material standard of living? And if some degree of inequality in the distribution of wealth is admitted, what could conceivably be the well-founded criterion for this degree of inequality?(6) Or is there no criterion, but only the ongoing, shifting, factical outcomes of politico-social power struggles? Would it not be more appropriate, insofar as the word 'justice' is to mean anything at all, to demand solely the (commutative) justice of fair rules of play for competitive social interplay, which would result in a focus on the conflict over what constitutes fair rules of play for precisely competitive social interplay?
Any realization of some kind of secular distributive social justice demands not only the existence of a judicial instance, as in the case of commutative or interchange justice, but a superior instance of political power that is empowered to adjudge factical criteria for social justice and to forcibly redistribute social wealth, since the outcomes of the ongoing striving for gain in the competitive interchanges of civil society have to be revised by this power in the name of social justice. This superior instance is called the social state (to distinguish it from the liberal state), and it has political power, i.e. power over the polis, civil society. Political power is the power to rule others, a power to be distinguished from personal ability. The superior political power may be absolute, as in the case of an autocratic monarch or dictator, or relative, as in the case of modern Western democracies where the state's power is always also relative to the power struggles of self-interest going on among social groupings and classes in civil society. We cannot go into detail here about the ontology of social and political power. Rather, our concern here is with the question of social justice, and for this question we need only consider whether there should be a superior, governing, political instance with the power to implement some conception or other of social justice. This instance is usually called the welfare state, but it is perhaps more appropriately called the social welfare state, or simply the social state, as proposed above. The "should" in this instance refers to whether a state redistributing wealth can ever do so in the name of a coherent concept of justice.
To summarize: as we have already pointed out, the state is impotent to enforce any redistribution of the good of social esteem, because this good is the very evanescent non-substance of the mirroring interchanges of everyday life. The state, as judiciary, can only adjudicate conflicts among parties over questions of honour, as in the case of defamation or libel law suits, which are instances of conflicts over interchanges in civil society, and thus of commutative justice. The state cannot distribute the social good called honour, even in distributing public offices, because honouring and esteeming is essentially an act of individual freedom in the social interplay in which we mirror our esteem (or lack of it) for each other.(7) Furthermore, we have seen that the exchanges of economic life, too, can be regarded ultimately as interchanges in which individuals mutually recognize, value and esteem each other's abilities, so that any attempt to interfere with and 'readjust' economic exchange by state fiat in the name of social justice is insofar an act of injustice against the valuations and rewards that come about of themselves through the diverse competitive interchanges occurring continually in the daily power play. The interchanges are just if the formal rules of play are fair, but the social state overrides this outcome in the name of a conflicting conception of justice that is given the morally imposing name of social justice.
Der Mensch hat Recht auf Nichts,From the vantage point now reached on our path of thinking, the idea of distributive social justice can be seen to collide essentially with the justice of free and fair competitive interchange in civil society and also to be based more or less strictly on a criterion — namely, equality — of dubious validity. We can thus conclude that the idea of social justice is specious in the double sense of being both attractive and ill-founded. The alternative would be to declare fair competitive interchange among free individuals who are only formally equal as persons to be a sham conception of justice, a critique (of laissez faire capitalism, of liberalism, of neo-liberalism) which has certainly been attempted within the socialist tradition. The attractiveness of social justice as an idea and ideal is that it promises a share of social wealth independently of whether one deserves it on the basis of individual ability and merit, and it promises it as a right, without corresponding obligation, that can be claimed and asserted, and also enforced by the power of the social welfare state. Being promised a share of social wealth provides security for living well, independently of how one fares in the competitive interplay of civil society. Security is a state of being se-cura, without care. In this case the security is provided by the social welfare state that cares for its citizens. Ever since its emergence in the nineteenth century, the idea of social justice has been portrayed by its proponents as an advance on the individual, merely 'bourgeois', rights of liberalism: "life, liberty, estate" (John Locke). They have therefore portrayed themselves as progressives. In truth, however, social justice not only fundamentally collides with the rights of individual liberty by negating the outcome of free and fair social interplay, but it is not even justice in the true sense, that is, as long as justice is connected with a notion of 'to each his own' and 'just deserts'. Caring for needy others, i.e. for those who are unable to help themselves, is not an issue of justice and should be called by its proper name, namely, charity.
er hat Verpflichtungen für die Wohltaten,
die er empfangen hat.
People do not have a right to anything;
they have obligations for the good deeds
they have received.
(Friedrich Nietzsche KSA13:101)
Charity is originally a Latin word, caritas, with a long history in the Christian tradition. Caritas, in turn, is one of the Latin Biblical translations of Greek a)ga/ph, which was also rendered in the Bible as dilectio, from diligare: 'to esteem highly, love'.(8) Caritas is 'dearness, love founded on esteem'. Thus we find a link between charity and Greek timh/, esteem. In the Christian tradition, one's fellow man is loved, valued and esteemed merely by virtue of being one of God's creatures who is loved first and foremost by God Himself. The duty of all Christians is to love their neighbour, to value and esteem him or her as a fellow creature of God for whom God Himself cares and provides. The value of the other is not based on any intrinsic value of one's neighbour, namely his or her abilities, his or her powers to perform or produce, but derives from the supreme being, God, for whom each human being is equally worthy. And after the death of the Christian God? The individual still has the dignity of personhood, independently of ability, which is the formal status of the individual that provides the indispensable framework for the free, competitive metabolism of civil society. Moreover, compassion for the plight of others, a 'suffering along' with them, does not disappear, and those in need still excite compassion. Charity can be provided by acts of kindness and benefaction within civil society itself, and a wealthy society can well afford to provide materially for the destitute who cannot help themselves. Such welfare — given in the name of charity, not social justice — provides a certain level of material security to all members of society that prevents destitution. Such charity can indeed be formulated as an obligation to help those who cannot help themselves, and the social welfare state can be one of the agents for fulfilling this duty toward members of society who, for one reason or another, are unable to care for themselves. The criterion for a claim on a portion of social wealth is then no longer that of equality, but helplessness. Society, through the agency of the state, can take on an obligation to help the helpless and concede them a right to a level of material support. Such social welfare could be said to be based on an obligation to solidarity with the helpless, whose human dignity demands that they be helped.
But caring for others is two-edged. Those who are cared for can become dependent on the care, and charity given as a free hand-out, without requiring any obligation or commitment on the part of the recipient in return, can induce the recipients to lose their dignity and motivation. For those who are destitute and unable to provide for themselves under any circumstances, such dependency is not an issue, for they are simply dependent without prospect of regaining independence. Nevertheless, there is invariably a loss of personal dignity in being helpless, since caring for oneself is the lot, and perhaps even the pride, of human being. For those who are only in temporary difficulties and could potentially provide for themselves through their own efforts, dependency on welfare can be demoralizing and crippling and actually stand in the way of the welfare recipient ever becoming able to fend for him- or herself. The metabolism of a civil society of free citizens rests fundamentally upon each member of society competing in the interplay to have his or her abilities esteemed and valued by others sufficiently to earn a good living. Earning one's own livelihood through the exercise and valorization of one's own abilities is a primary way an individual enjoys his or her freedom and independence and also gains his or her self-esteem, for self-esteem is not possible without also the esteem mirrored by others.(9)
Since the nineteenth century we know that the competitive interplay of civil society do not always guarantee an adequate livelihood for every economic player, and this may be so not merely because the rules of competitive play are grossly unfair and unjust or because they are infringed. The market metabolism of a capitalist economy, even according to fair rules of play, turns out both winners and losers in the competition to earn income, and that on a shifting, ever-changing basis. Those who lose out may do so not through any intrinsic lack of ability but because the market ceases, temporarily or permanently, to value those abilities or to value them only inadequately. Such individuals can come to need material support, but in this case the support they require needs to be regarded as helping those individuals to help themselves. The material care they receive must be transitional. For those in temporary difficulties in caring for themselves through competitive interplay, a temporary helping hand can be beneficial to enable individuals to regain a livelihood through the exercise of their own abilities, and this is in line with the ontological concept of freedom as free interplay on which civil society is based.(10)
Indeed, it could be said that, apart from any consideration of charity or compassion, it is good for society as a whole that all members of society are assisted to develop and realize their abilities as far as possible, at least to the extent that they can earn their own livelihood, for the exercise of each individual's abilities makes a contribution, no matter how small, to the wealth of the social whole, and each individual gains in self-esteem through economic independence. Society itself, through the agency of the state, must have an interest in getting the unemployed back to work. Again, this is not a matter of social justice, nor of compassion and charity, but of getting those who are able (back) into gainful employment for the good of all. The most important duty of the state in this latter regard is to prepare the young generation for the competitive vying economic life by giving them an education, and this duty, which can be regarded as an obligation of society, is in the interest of the social good because a society's wealth ultimately consists of the abilities of its members, so that society as a whole has an interest in encouraging and even obliging each individual to realize its potential to the utmost. The lifeblood of civil society is individual players' doing good for each other in the interplay on a mutually beneficial basis, and the state's primary raison d'être is to prevent them from doing bad to each other.
Apart from charity, education and transitional assistance, there is a further way in which the insecurity of the interplay of a market-based civil society can be dealt with from within civil society itself, and that is by means of insurance by means of which the players in civil society secure themselves against risk through self-organization rather than through submission to a caring, superior, political agency. Insurance is a way of spreading risk by collecting insurance premiums from the insured that provide a fund to help materially when certain well-defined, but unforeseeable, contingent events — in this case, involuntary unemployement — occur. Such insurance is a kind of collective saving consistent with principles of self-reliance and prudence. The alternative to this private insurance is welfare state social security that, if it is to be financially sound, has to be financed exactly like private insurance, on the principle of spreading risk through actuarially calculated premiums rather than pandering to (sections of) the electorate by handing out politically opportune, 'free-lunch' social welfare guarantees.
But the question is raised as to why the state should involve itself at all in the insurance business, thus assuming a paternalistic role. Instead, it could merely oblige citizens to assume the responsibility to take care of themselves by each taking out a certain minimum amount of private unemployment insurance. Such obligatory private unemployment insurance, a form of collective saving whose efficiency can be guaranteed by the competition among private insurance companies, could be the way in which the society as a whole provides the transitional assistance for those who have gotten temporarily into difficulties. Such transitional assistance would then be a matter neither of charity nor of state social security, with their potential to lower personal dignity and transform individuals' lives into self-interested social welfare careers, but of business and self-reliantly caring for oneself, clearly separate from any notion of social justice.
What about those who cannot 'afford' social insurance? If they are genuinely helpless, they will have to rely on charity and/or a minimum level of social welfare benefits. Otherwise, social insurance is just one among many of the necessities of living like food and housing whose affordability is relative to each citizen's economic situation that includes individual skills and abilities, the segment of the economy in question, the overall economic situation, general price levels, etc. That is, affordability is not a question of any kind of 'right to affordability', but of a social problem that can be solved or alleviated. Most important is that each member of civil society become imbued with the ethos of self-reliance rather than a catalogue of rights conforming to so-called 'social justice'.
There is a great danger in the social welfare state, especially when misconceived as a realization of the specious idea of social justice. The idea of social justice serves as an alluring alibi behind which individuals can become dependent and give up the effort to independently and responsibly shape their own lives, thus ultimately surrendering themselves as selves. They become thankless, demanding welfare recipients, and such thanklessness boomerangs to undermine the recipients' self-esteem. If welfare is regarded as an equal right of all citizens instead of as charity for the helpless or as transitional assistance given to help individuals who have lost their footing to recover their independent stand in the ever-changing interplay of civil society (which can be organized socially as a business matter of collective saving in the form of private unemployment insurance), this cocoons its recipients in a deceptive security and debilitating care-free-ness in the literal sense of being robbed of the responsibility to care for one's own existence by means of a sham conception of unquestionable human rights without obligation. Where an all-encompassing social security is regarded as a right claimable in the name of social justice by all members of society, no one is responsible for him- or herself, and the responsibility has been collectivized, relinquished and transferred to the social state which thereby becomes a paternalistic state whose task is to take care of a demotivated, irresponsible, unfree population. The insidious delusiveness of the notion of social justice goes even further in the construction of the so-called 'social market-economy' (soziale Marktwirtschaft) that has been established in post-WWII Europe, in particular in Germany. This kind of social construction presents the inverted and perverse spectacle of an asocial society complemented by an all-caring, 'social' state whose role is to bring the socially caring, welfare element, into society.
Moreover, an 'all-caring' paternalistic social welfare state can only be financed by large transfers of wealth in countless forms of taxation, and the higher such wealth transfers are, the less worthwhile it is to exert one's own efforts to have one's abilities valued and rewarded in competitive economic exchanges. Individual incentive is blunted by large blanket deductions from earned income under the guise of upholding an ideal of social justice and guaranteeing security. The result is a complacent society of compulsory solidarity in which the incentive to develop one's own individual ability and excellence is dulled, thus draining the life-blood from the metabolism of civil society.(11) The social state endangers the very socio-ontological ground of existence of that kind of human being we call the free individual, who is free — by virtue of the abstract, reified relations of sociation constituting civil society — in large degree to cast its own existence — at its own risk and responsibility.
Furthermore, a genuine basis for caring for others, namely, the ethos of compassion among people in the interchanges of civil society and a civic duty to help the helpless, withers because being cared for has become an assertable right, bureaucratically administered, and no longer the result of acts of charity and generosity within civil society. Customs of magnanimity, generosity, liberality, philanthropy, civic help, etc. based on compassionate civic duty give way more and more to the anonymous functioning of the bureaucratic apparatuses of the welfare state according to an intricate web of regulations constantly being woven by the state's industrious legislative activity. The more the state arrogates to itself in the name of social justice the responsibility of caring for society, the more its power bloats, the more civil society loses a sense of responsibility for itself and the more state power interferes with and embalms the free interplay of civil society.
Law is then no longer a matter of ensuring as far as possible fair and just rules of play among free individuals, but of positing through law what the state itself, mediated by the democratic political power struggle, wills and posits as good for society. The state's legislative will as regulated by democratic procedures of an elected parliament comes to be equated with justice per se. Law posited by state will obscures and displaces law in conformity with the fairness of competitive interchange among free individuals with individual rights of social intercourse. The free individual who is sociated through interchange with others is absorbed by the total social subject, the state, as merely a participant in its system of wilfully posited social well-being. The state is this total social subject because its willed conception of social well-being underlies what is to be posited and produced as an actual, realized state of affairs called social well-being.
A caring society cannot be the realization of an idea of state-guaranteed social justice, since such an idea only serves to establish, extend and consolidate the state's paternalistic rule over its population, to relieve citizens of any sense of self-responsibility, to further the collective egoism of social interest groups vying within the ongoing democratic political power struggle, and to feed social envy against the 'haves', whilst destroying the self-reliance and independence of its citizens as able individuals exercising their individual powers. Social justice itself could be called literally a false sense of security. But human living, if it is free, is also risky, and the free, competitive interplay of civil society is one arena of this riskiness, which is eroded more and more, the more the citizens seek security by subjugating themselves to a totally caring state that is nonetheless powerless to master the movements of a global economic interplay.
The normal, predominant everyday mode in which we care for each other, however, is, to start with, the deficient one of uncaring indifference. Each individual is absorbed in the concerns of its own world, whose compass includes only few who are dear to it. Practices of charity and compassion can therefore only be cultivated into an habitual ethos as a counter-movement to this indifference. But there is also a medium between uncaring indifference and acts of compassionate charity, and that is the interchanges of everyday life through which we earn our livelihood. Such earning is always an acknowledging, estimating and esteeming of our abilities, and we can only earn a living by serving others with our abilities, no matter what they may be. There is thus an intermeshing between being valued by others in the very palpable way of being paid for the exercise of our abilities, and caring for others in providing a service of some kind or other. This phenomenon of the intermeshing of valuing and appreciation shows that there is a mean between selfish egoism and self-sacrificing altruism that resides in caring for each other in mutually beneficial interchanges in which the goods of living, i.e. both the services provided through the exercise of abilities and the esteem we enjoy by having our abilities rewarded, circulate. Such intermeshing goes hand in hand with competition which does not have to be regarded as a blemish on social living even though it is by no means always pleasant and enjoyable.
Thinking and experiencing the interchanges of civil society in such a way is a possibility that provides an alternative to current modes of thinking, according to which the life of civil society is a relentless war of greedy egoists in dog-eat-dog competition with each other, or a purely 'materialist' realm of activity 'alienated' from 'genuine' human 'values' shared in love, community, friendship and the family. The concept of justice in its primary and proper sense as the fairness of the interchanges of civil society thus comes to have an experiential connection with caring for each other on a mutually beneficial and also potentially mutually satisfying basis, for self-esteem is deservedly enhanced by others' esteem that one comes to enjoy. The justness of fair interplay is thus not a matter of merely 'cold', 'hard-nosed' business, but can have also the 'warmth' and satisfaction of being engaged with each other. Keeping one's word in the interchanges that one enters into in daily life, for instance, can be a matter not only of justice as fairness, but be part of an ethos of esteeming both oneself and one's partner in the interchange. Indeed, keeping one's word is at the vital core of the ethos of fair interplay in civil society.
Pointing out the possibility of a connection between just and fair exchange,
on the one hand, and caring for each other in social interchange, on the
other, is not to deny and close one's eyes to the fact that there are also
outrageously unfair, ugly interchanges factually continually going on in
the world today. Such unfair interchange and exchange are a deformity of
what social intercourse can be as something humanly possible. Civil society
is about what we can do for each other on a mutually beneficial
basis, which includes also the negative, ugly mode of what we can do to
each other. Effort and political struggle to ameliorate such gross unfairness,
however, needs no recourse at all to a concept of social justice, but to
a concept of justice pure and simple, conceived as the fairness of interchange
in which not only the terms of exchange are fair, but mutual respect (as
equal persons) and appreciation (of each others abilities) are the basic
of social interchange. The role of the world's states in such a struggle
is not to multiply so-called social rights qua unquestioned human rights
in solemn declarations and to attempt to realize them by setting up paternalistic
state welfare and social security apparatuses or international welfare
organizations, but to concentrate their efforts on the very difficult,
never-ending task of establishing, through wise, discreet and circumspect
political action, fair rules of play for the interchanges among all individuals
earning a livelihood by exercising their abilities, whatever they may be.
The set of such individuals includes just about all of us.