*This paper was originally written for my political philosophy class

Sam Seitz

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Emmanuel Kant represent three of the most significant philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries who wrote about justice as it related to political and social interactions. For Rousseau, justice is a function of the general will, which he defines as the society’s common interests as democratically decided by the society itself. Kant’s views on ethics are radically different than either Rousseau or Hume, as they are centered around a categorical imperative that defines ethics independent of societal norms or social contracts. Though, like Rousseau, Kant emphasizes the importance of individual rights, as they form the basis of his conception of the categorical imperative. Hume’s conception of justice is more utilitarian than the other two in that it emphasizes the aggregate well-being of society over all other considerations. Like Rousseau, Hume does have some conception of the general will. However, Hume conceives of the general will as simply a collection of norms and believes that they are emergent phenomena and not the result of some social contract. All three philosophers present compelling conceptions of justice. However, Rousseau’s vague explanation of the relationship between the individual and general will and Kant’s view that the Western notion of self is universal mean that their theories aren’t as convincing as Hume’s, which focuses on the contingent nature of ethical norms.

Of the three, Rousseau’s theory of justice is perhaps the most democratic, but it also suffers from inconsistencies and severe empirical problems. Rousseau contends that “Man is born free” and that “His first law is to attend to his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself… [and] he becomes thereby his own master” (Rousseau, 561-562). In other words, humans’ natural condition is freedom, and thus coercive subordination is never ethical because, as Rousseau rhetorically asks, “What kind of right perishes when force ceases?” (Rousseau, 562). Since Rousseau holds individual rights above all else, he needs some mechanism for explaining the emergence of macro-level legal and ethical standards in a society. This mechanism is the general will.

Rousseau argues that the general will emerges when people gather together to create a social contract governing their community. For Rousseau, it is imperative that all are equal to one another during the formation of this contract, as any other arrangement would represent a violation of people’s fundamental rights of individualism. After all, if certain people had special privileges during the establishment of the Rousseauian community, they could use this power to bias the social contract in their favor and thus undermine others’ ability to voice their preferences. This process of creating a society by first giving up all perquisites creates, according to Rousseau, a community that everyone helps to shape and that is, therefore, a reflection of the general will of the entire society. This is important for him because this general will is the basis for justice and morality. Individual preferences are subordinate to the general will, and when the governing body of the community fails to act in accordance with the general will, it is no longer legitimate.

Despite the appealingly democratic nature of Rousseau’s theory, there are two serious problems that undermine his conception of justice. First, like all social contract theorists, Rousseau faces an empirical problem because there simply are no examples of perfectly free beings gathering in the state of nature and negotiating a contract by which to organize themselves. While one can certainly use the state of nature as a thought experiment, it is far from clear that an imaginary hypothetical environment is at all useful for deriving ethical principles. One could imagine any kind of social arrangement from which to draw ethical conclusions. But if these arrangements are purely abstract hypotheticals, it is unlikely that the lessons derived from them will be of much use to ethical theorists seeking to understand justice in the real world. Rousseau’s problems are worse than those of other social contract theorists, however, as his conception of society requires every citizen to constantly contribute their input regarding how society should be run. This is clearly not how any actual society works, though. For example, everyone born in the U.S. today is simply inserted into the pre-existing American society without having any ability to shape political or cultural norms. If anything, those born into a society are shaped by the society, not the other way around. The second serious defect in Rousseau’s theory of justice is that it fails to provide a satisfactory definition of the general will. Is the general will simply the aggregation of all the citizens’ desires, or is it instead the decision that is in the best interest of all members of society regardless of the democratic will of the people? Of course, these two definitions can converge when the democratic majority’s wishes align with the overall society’s interests. But when they do not, it is not clear which interpretation takes precedence.

Kant’s theory of justice is in many ways a refinement of Rousseau’s conception of justice. Indeed, Kant is able to create an interpretation that avoids all of the shortcomings of Rousseau’s by focusing on the intrinsic value of all humans. Kant argues that there exists a categorical imperative that governs justice and ethics. Like Rousseau, Kant’s categorical imperative is derived from the sanctity of the individual, which Kant argues is a priori. To derive his theory of justice, Kant argues three propositions. First, only actions done for moral duty have moral worth. Second, moral worth is derived “not in the objective to be reached by that action, but in the maxim with which the action was done, without any regard for objects of the faculty of desire” (Kant, 772). In other words, motives matter, and the consequences of an action are less important than the reason for action. Third, “duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law” (Kant, 772). This is because actions based purely on inclination are simply a matter of taste and not grounded in any deeper ethical principles. From these three principles, Kant derives a universal ethical truth, the categorical imperative: One must treat others as ends in and of themselves, not just as an ends to a means. Kant contrasts this with hypothetical imperatives, which are simply actions designed to accomplish certain contingent goals. While hypothetical imperatives can be justified in certain scenarios, they are not universally applicable and thus cannot be categorical.

This conception of justice is deeply appealing because it recognizes the value of the individual while avoiding the awkwardness of Rousseau’s theory of the general will. After all, Kant argues that one’s individuality is itself precious and outweighs the arbitrary desires of majority rule. Nevertheless, Kant’s claim that his conception of justice is universal or categorical is difficult to defend because Kant takes the human experience as a constant. Indeed, he seems to believe that all people have the same notion of self as Enlightenment-era Europeans. The entire basis of Kant’s claim that individuality is something sacred is his belief that everyone has a desire to be a rational being. In other words, Kant believes that human dignity exists because people value themselves and their individuality. Historically, though, people have not always viewed themselves as distinct individuals. For example, most ancient punishment was collective, and people could be punished for transgressions committed by family members. In Buddhism, there is the concept of anatman – no-self – which argues that individuals’ consciences do not exist, but are rather a transient product of interacting dharma fields (Harvey, 57). This reveals a fundamental problem with Kantian ethics: In cultures where the concept of self simply does not exist in a way recognizable to 18th century Europeans, Kant’s theory falls apart because there are no longer individuals able to give value to themselves, and thus Kant’s whole notion of human dignity collapses. Rather than discovering an ultimate categorical imperative, Kant simply developed a contingent ethical principle based on the norms of his society.

David Hume’s theory of justice is able to overcome many of the problems found in both Rousseau’s and Kant’s. Unlike Rousseau, Hume is not a social contract theorist, but he is also not a deontologist like Kant. Hume’s views of justice and human nature are broadly similar to Hobbes’ in that he believes humans act according to personal preferences and actions are not intrinsically good or evil. However, Hume advances Hobbes’ view of human behavior by arguing that morality emerges from the establishment of human conventions, which shape our preferences. According to Hume, these conventions arise because they are necessary for an ordered and well-functioning society, and this is only possible when a group shares a general sense of good and evil. However, these norms emerge not only because of society’s desire to increase utility by creating a standard ethical code but also because “we naturally sympathize with others in the sentiments they entertain of us” (Hume, 622). In other words, we care about the way others view us.

Hume’s view of justice is ultimately consequentialist and utilitarian, as he argues that just actions should be ones that increase the aggregate level of utility in society. However, he incorporates ideas of emergent ideational forces, which makes his theory of human nature more refined than that of Hobbes. For Hume, reason is not the basis of justice, but one can use reason to determine what is optimal for society given the norms and conventions of the society. Actions that are just, therefore, are actions that maximize utility and create an environment in which cooperation and positive-sum situations become possible.

As Hume points out himself, his conception of justice is not perfect because it creates a free-rider problem. While it is true that standard rules and ethical norms are generally advantageous for society, there are scenarios in which it is expedient to ignore the moral code in order to gain an advantage. For example, were one to find a wallet lying on the ground, it might serve that person best to simply take the money instead of attempting to return it to its owner. Since the owner likely would not find the wallet, taking the money is not a net-reduction in utility because the previous owner of the wallet has already suffered the costs. Moreover, because nobody would ever know that the morally dubious discoverer of the wallet stole the money, there would be no erosion of the norms of just behavior. Thus, this scenario represents a victimless crime, at least when viewed through a Humean lens. However, one could argue that Hume’s own theory of utilitarianism solves this dilemma because it would actually increase society’s utility more to return the wallet. This is because returning the wallet would increase the utility of the original owner while simultaneously increasing societal utility by reinforcing the norm of property rights, which are necessary for a well-functioning society. Of course, a self-serving individual might ignore this logic and still steal the wallet, but this would just represent a moral failing on their part, not a failing of Hume’s conception of justice.

All three philosophers present compelling and thought-provoking conceptions of what it means to be just. Rousseau and Kant hold the individual above all else, while Hume believes that the betterment of the society – as determined by cultural norms and conventions – outweighs the desires of any one individual. Of course, all three views have weaknesses: Rousseau’s conception of the general will seems poorly defined and, at points, contradictory; Kant’s categorical imperative seems to be little more than an elevation of contingent Enlightenment norms to universal status; and Hume’s view of justice potentially justifies exploitative “free-riding.” Nevertheless, Hume’s theory very clearly comes out on top because it understands that justice and morality are contingent on cultural norms and because the utilitarian aspect of Hume’s theory at least partially mitigates the problem of free-riders. None of the aforementioned theories of justice are perfect, of course, but Hume’s seems to be closest to the truth.


Works Cited

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hume, David. “A Treatise of Human Nature.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 600-636.

Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork For the Metaphysics of Morals.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 765-805.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Of the Social Contract.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 561-595.