As a general principle, one can say that justice means treating equals equally and un-equals unequally or treating people as they deserve to be treated. What this formula does not disclose, however, is who is deciding how to treat whom. “Who are we when we decide who is equal and who is unequal?”
“Who could we be?” We could be people who have things and then try to figure out how to share what we have. This would be the stance of owners—thinking about what people have and what they deserve. (Most libertarianisms think as owners.) Or, we could think of the “we” as members of the civic, and then wonder about how all members could get what they deserve. On the one hand, we are worried about the distribution of property—of things people own. On the other hand, we are worried about the distribution of provisions—things we need.
We can further explore this distinction between ownership and membership with Martin Ostwald ‘s translation of what Aristotle had to say about exchanges:
But in associations that are based on mutual exchange, the just in this sense constitutes the bond that holds the association together. . . . For it is the reciprocal return of what is proportional (to what one has received) that holds the state together. . . . For this is the proper province of gratitude: we should return our services to one who has done us a favor, and at another time take the initiative in doing him a favor. (Aristotle Nichmachean Ethics, Book V, 5, 32–5)
What is fascinating about Aristotle’s description of exchanges here is that it occurs in an “association,” and this association is held together by reciprocity—the justice of exchanges. People who make exchanges, in other words, belong to the same association. They are members before they are owners, and their membership is protected by reciprocal returns.
Adam Smith’s view of the market is totally different. His people act in their self-interest. It is not a matter of justice, but of calculation. It is all about the supply and demand of the things people produce. There is no reciprocity in Smith’s economics. His mythology of the “invisible hand” holds things together. In simple terms, Smith has replaced human relationships with property relationships..
We do not need to return to Aristotle and especially not his fourth century context. We do need to think about the foundation of our economic life together and how a civic view of justice—justice based on membership rather than ownership—might allow us to move away from the dismal destiny of our current economic framework to one that actually protects the life of people and the planet.
So where would we start? We can start with thinking about what we belong to instead of what belongs to us. We belong to families, to neighborhoods, to nation states, to a global community, to various associations, and so on. In the global community, we are all members. What do all members deserve? As members of families, family members belong. Should all members be treated equally? Between the family and the global community, there are other communities and associations. What are the rights and obligations of membership in these communities? A lot to think about, but if we begin with our status of members, at least we are thinking in the right direction.