Politics of the Common Good in Justice  Essay

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Politics of the Common Good

In Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (2009), Michael J. Sandal argues that politics and society require a common moral purpose beyond the assertion of natural rights like life liberty and property or the utilitarian calculus of increasing pleasure and minimizing pain for the greatest number of people. He would move beyond both John Locke and Jeremy Bentham in asserting that "a just society can't be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice" (Sandal 261). Justice and morality involve making judgments on a wide variety of issues, including inequality of wealth and incomes, discrimination against women and minorities, CEP pay, government bailouts of banks and public education. Politics should take "moral and spiritual questions seriously" and not only on issues like sexual orientation and abortion, but also "broad economic and civil concerns" (Sandal 262). Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King added this moral dimension to U.S. politics in the 1960s when they criticized the Vietnam War, poverty and racial inequality and "appealed to a sense of community" (Sandal 263). So did Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign, although in practice achieving a politics of the common good in American society has been difficult, given the Lockean, natural rights basis of its 18th Century Constitution.

John Locke discusses the purpose of political society in Chapter IX of Two Treatises on Government (1690) in which he posits that rational human beings come together to form a community with certain shared goals that they cannot accomplish individually. Locke then asks why people should give up any individual rights and freedoms when they are the absolute lords and masters over their own persons and possessions. His central thesis is that in a state of nature, all of these rights are insecure, such each individual acts like a monarch in his own domain and most are not "strict observers of equity and justice." Therefore, being rational creatures, they realize that thy must give up certain rights and powers and unite "for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates" (Locke Chapter IX). To escape from the state of nature, they contract together to formulate laws, regulations and a constitution which all are bound to respect, with the understanding that individuals will be punished by the state if they violate the mutually-agreed upon rules. A state of nature has no neutral and objective judges to dispense justice and settle disputes "according to the established law," but rather each person acts as "both judge and executioner of the law of nature" (Locke Chapter IX). In so doing, they may be guided by emotions and the desire for revenge rather than justice, for no one in the state of nature has the power to enforce laws in a rational and just manner. When human beings exit the state of nature, though, they give up the right of revenge and private justice and delegate it to the state. Locke's government is a very limited one compared to the virtuous republic that Sandal proposes, and certainly does not propose social, economic and racial equality, but creates a government that will protect life, liberty and property against the depredations of others.

Sandal would go much further in the direction of using government and the political system to uphold morality and the common good than Locke, who was mainly concerned with maintaining public order and preventing violence against persons and property. Sandal's central point is that the collective ideals of justice and the common good "must find a way to lean against purely privatized notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virtue" (Sandal 264). He recognized the moral limits of capitalist free markets far more than the Lockeans and supporters limited government, and regretted that capitalist ideology had been expanded into "spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms" (Sandal 265). Private contractors like Blackwater have taken over many of the duties of the military, while public schools and colleges have also been turned into privatized, for-profit organizations. In the Wall Street crash of 2008-09, large financial institutions received trillions of dollars from Congress and the Federal Reserve, to save them from a collapse that their own fraud and corruption had caused. This leads another important point in Sandal's thesis in that not only do capitalist interest control the political system for their own benefit rather than the common good, but also that they have caused a huge increase in poverty and inequality in the U.S. over the last thirty years. Indeed, the tremendous gap between rich and poor has now undermined "the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires" because the entire political system favors the wealthy elite (Sandal 266). America has developed an aristocratic, privileged caste that lives in gated communities, relies on privatized heath care and services while allowing the public sector to deteriorate, and this can only be corrected by more investment in the public schools, public health care, museums, libraries, the environment and national infrastructure.

Sandal has made a very important point that the tax system should be made more progressive to overcome the vast gaps in wealth and incomes that have developed in this society. In the United States today the real basis of inequality is economic, and the fact that wealth and incomes have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the upper 20% since the 1970s, especially in the hands of the upper 1%. In this matter, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are correct since every study shows that wealth has never been more concentrated at the top since the 1920s, with the upper 1% having 40-50% of the wealth and the upper 10% about 75%. On the other end of the social scale, millions of manufacturing jobs that once employed the working class in Fordist industries have been disappearing over the last thirty years, either moved offshore to low-wage countries like China and Mexico of just eliminated by cheap imports. Free trade policies supported by Wall Street, large corporations, the Republican Party and conservative Democrats like Bill Clinton have added to this inequality, through agreements like NAFTA and the admission of China to the World Trade Organization. These same interests have also supported tax policies that have made the tax system far less progressive since the 1980s, although in the 1945-73 period when incomes were more equal the maximum tax rate was 70% or more. At the same time, payroll and sales taxes have increased and these fall hardest on the lower and middle-income groups, while social welfare programs have also been cut back. Recent Republican proposals to privatize even Social Security and Medicare are just a final culmination of their free market capitalist ideology.

America also needs new investments and policies to restore public education, and equalize funding of schools in poor and more affluent areas, particularly in the inner-city ghettos. At present, the education system is based on social class as well as race, although these two factors tend to overlap. Minorities in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods have the worst public schools in the country, as Jonathan Kozol and many other researchers have pointed out. These segregated ghettos spend half or less per student compared to the white, middle-class suburbs, and of course far less than the private schools that the upper classes attend -- the type of schools that prepare them for Ivy League universities. Almost no minority students from the inner cities will ever have the chance to attend these elite institutions, nor will lower-class and working-class whites, for that matter. Even if they could be admitted, they rarely have the money to attend. Under these circumstances, the fact that more young black males are in prison or on parole than in college should come as no surprise. These inner-city neighborhoods have high levels of crime and drug activity, few jobs, poor housing, public infrastructure and social services. In the last thirty years, they have been dealt with as a law enforcement problem and the prison population has increased 400%, leaving the U.S. with a larger prison population than the rest of the Western world combined.

In the Republican Party, the most powerful religious bloc is the white evangelicals and fundamentalists, especially in the South. These churches are socially and culturally conservative, and in politics are mostly concerned about issues like opposition to abortion, homosexuality and feminism. They rarely mention poverty, racism, or economic inequality in the United States, and even the Catholic Church, which does have a strong history of social justice concerns, also places most of its emphasis on opposition to abortion and gay rights. This is the legacy of the conservative Pope John Paul II and his even more conservative successor, and the result is that the largest and most powerful religious denominations in the United States are simply silent on matters like inequality. Even worse, the cultural issues they do emphasize tend to benefit the Republican Party, which is in favor of laissez faire, free market capitalism, opposed to labor union, and always demanding deregulation of…

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