Othered Bodies, Social Contract Theory, and the Expansion of Justice

by Brianne Donaldson

This essay is one of a 6-part series titled “What is Justice?”:FirstSecondThirdFourthFifth, and Sixth

In the previous reflection, I examined several types of divine justice (i.e. transcendent or natural justice) that provide foundational social values that become central in a specific context. Notions of inherent dignity (who has it; who does not) and context-specific morality emerge and evolve in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities in which there is an abundance of injustice. In the face of apparent human ineptitude—alongside the best efforts of human jurisprudence and prophetic ethics—these traditions maintain a supernatural/transcendent judge that will somehow dole out the punishments and rewards people really deserve. Even karma—which does not require deity—blends together human activity upon a backdrop of natural law in which our fate is simultaneously self-inflicted as a result of our own thoughts, words, and actions, even as the consequences lay largely outside explanation (karma could explain deformity, disease, or low birth, for example).

These systems hybridize divine and human judgment (though there were always atheistic traditions that are lesser knowni), yet retain a link between the two that is notably challenged in the Enlightenment with the rise of social contract theory (SCT). SCT necessitates a higher opinion of human capabilities to understand and agree upon mutually principles to govern a functioning, fair society. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are all in this camp to a degree, as are later ethical theorists of utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham) and deontology (Immanuel Kant), which represent the two major lines of normative ethical theory. Both theories acknowledge the intractable social relations that we depend on—from needing someone to cut hair and make shoes, to funding collective public services, to the reciprocal hope that if I don’t drive drunk and endanger others, neither will someone else endanger me.

John Rawls (1921-2002) stands as one hinge between divine and human judgment. His move toward philosophy emerged after his experience in WWII and the aftermath of Hiroshima. Whatever utilitarian calculations justified the annihilation of a quarter million Japanese civilians to serve the “greater good,” or whatever lingering ideas of Manifest Destiny stoked the hubris of the A-bomb, the skeletal ruins and mind-numbing suffering of Japan crushed Rawls’ faith and inspired him to develop a new “theory of justice” (Marino 378).

Rawls assumed that: (1) people were rational beings with their own ends (an idea that echoes Kantian deontology’s respect for the dignity of persons and the second formulation of the categorical imperative to treat others as endsii; (2) humans were capable of creating justice-producing principles, and (3) there really are such principles that free and equal people could create to obtain mutual advantage. Rawls rejected utilitarianism as a foundation because it suggested that one could—when it served a “greater good,” however defined—override the dignity and rights of persons. For Rawls, SCT demanded a voluntary release of certain rights in the form of agreed upon principles that could benefit everyone. His theory of justice required one to imagine a hypothetical scenario (the “original position”; Marino 379) in which a group of individuals unaware of their own skills, race, nationality, gender, wealth, and birth status (what he calls the “veil of ignorance”; 379) design principles that will benefit everyone regardless of where they turn up in the social order.

Without a clear transcendent foundation, Rawls suggests that “liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage” (392). Productive inequalities might exist so long as they benefit everyone, especially the most vulnerable of a given society.

Rawls saw that existing justice structures permitted the “othering” of an entire country and reduced its bodies and history to agony and dust. Values of self-respect and human dignity allowed Rawls to doggedly affirm every human life, to create concrete principles from that affirmation, to observe how the principles work in the real world, and revise as needed (what he called “reflective equilibrium”; 389). Rawls’ “theory of justice” indeed requires some kind of value claim and then requires its continual re/assessment and enlarged application to the Other—a dignity of life that cannot be overridden for expediency, self-gain, or to benefit a privileged majority, an idea that informs the rise of social justice, to which I’ll turn next.

Works Cited

Marino, Gordon. Ethics: The Essential Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2010).

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

i Such as Daoism, Buddhism, Jainism, the Indian Cārvāka materialists and Sāṃkhya philosophy school (and certain strains of Vedic thought that are ambiguous on deity), Epicureanism, the Sophists, among others.

ii“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant 88).


Photo Credit:

LIFE’s Bernard Hoffman to the magazine’s long-time picture editor, Wilson Hicks, in New York, September 1945.

Time Magazine Online