Social Sciences

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

Which theory (classical, social contract, Marxism, or utilitarianism) of social justice matches our current system in the US?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Let's begin with a quick overview of what each of the different models would entail.

Utilitarians, following Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, both nineteenth-century British philosophers, hold that the greatest good consists of providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is part of the broader theory of consequences which holds that an action is good insofar as it maximizes good consequences. In the case of utilitarianism, the consequences are utility, which is measured in terms of individual happiness. For them, social justice would require policies that make the greatest number of people as happy or well-off as possible.

Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher, claimed that social justice consists of egalitarianism—everyone having a roughly equal amount of relevant resources. In such a society, there would be no income inequality.

Social contract theories date back to the Roman philosopher Lucretius, but the more recent versions are associated with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). A recent version was defended by Timothy Scanlon. Theorists are not committed to a particular substantive version of social justice: they argue that what's just is determined by a contract, implicit or explicit, between the citizens who make up a given polity.

The United States today is a combination of the utilitarian and social contract theories. Policies and laws are made with an eye toward the greatest good—this reminds one of utilitarianism. They are justified, however, on the basis of a social contract.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The US system today most closely resembles a utilitarian system.  Utilitarians believe that society should be ordered in such a way as to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.  Our society, with its emphasis on free markets, is set up in this way.

We tend to think that free markets will bring the greatest overall level of prosperity.  We do not worry too much about the inequality that comes along with the free market.  We feel that this inequality (even when it leads to some people living in true poverty) is an acceptable outcome given that the free market system can make life so good for the majority of us.

In this way, we adhere most closely to utilitarian ideas of justice in our system today.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial