Should just individuals in an unjust society try to realise, in their personal lives ideals of justice that the state is failing to pursue?

I argue a resounding yes. Cohen (2000) argued for this but was unable to reach a definite conclusion. I however will achieve a definite conclusion by working through examples of the best excuses used to justify not pursuing justice and showing them to all be significantly flawed.

It should be noted that I am providing a practical argument with practical reasons designed to be useful and applicable to the world we live in. This approach is being taken because this issue is highly relevant to everyone today and so there is no need to create highly theoretical scenarios to play out the answers to the question. We have a world where it can be applied.

‘Realising ideals of justice’ here means spending one’s resources, including time and money, in a strategy with the envisioned goal of increasing justice.

It seems initially obvious that part of the requirement of being a just individual is being someone who lives a life consisting of just actions. What the state has to do with this is not apparent. This is the root of my argument. A just individual cares about justice. They care if someone is treated unfairly and they especially care if they realize that they themselves are treating people unfairly. It is ridiculous therefore to suggest that it may be justified for a just individual to say that it is not their responsibility to try to realize ideals of justice, regardless of the condition of the state and regardless of whether it is in their ‘personal’ lives or not. I believe the question can only be seriously asked from a perspective of extreme sedation caused by excessive wealth.

I say this from first hand experience of a solo hike of five hundred and fifty miles along the Appalachian Trail which I completed recently. On this journey everything I needed was on my back. Temporarily free of societal class, expectations and materialistic greed life was more healthy, more fulfilling, more educational and better in every way imaginable. It became apparent and continues to be so, that our supposed ‘need’ for the vast majority of our material possessions is merely a matter of habit, a habit that can be broken remarkably easily, as well as re-formed easily. I assert that all material wealth must be carried as a burden regardless of whether it is physically on our backs or not. We may not feel it, but it is there, destroying our virtue.

As well as money being realized to be a hindrance to a good life rather than a prerequisite, there was social freedom also. A bearded raggled hiker has no class or rank. If a ‘stranger’ needed food, you give it to them, regardless of whether you carried it a hundred miles on your back or not. It becomes apparent that with a little change in perspective all people are brothers and sisters. There were no strangers on the Appalachian Trail, and so there need be no strangers anywhere else.

The purpose including all this is two fold:

1. Giving money or resources to realize ideals of justice is equivalent to removing a burden from the receiver and the giver. 2. Refusing to be part of a social rank designated by society gives freedom and is something to be sought after, not avoided.

Having made these points, I can outline the arguments used by those claiming to be just individuals who believe they are justified in not pursuing ideals of justice in their personal lives. It shall be shown that their arguments are based on illusions created by the unjust society that they live in and that turning the state into a reference point for their actions is completely unjustified.

Reasons the wealthy claim as justification for hoarding wealth

Primarily the issue here is whether those in control of wealth who claim to be just should share their wealth to bring about a more just society; not weather those with very little who claim to be just should give what little they have away; and it is not about earning either. The problem, as Cohen (2000) says, is in the keeping of high earnings. Therefore the reasons that the wealthy who claim to be just use for keeping their wealth, need addressing.

1. The ‘drop in the ocean’ argument. This is the excuse a wealthy person gives instead of resources, by saying that if all the wealthy people agreed to share their resources to bring about a just society they would take part, but because there is no chance of success there is no point in losing all their wealth in a failed attempt to bring about justice on a societal scale. 2. Social alienation from peers if significant wealth was given away. 3. Fear their children will be alienated from other children of wealthy parents. 4. In order to help bring about justice the wealthy person need this money to ‘rub shoulders’ politically influential people.

Points 1-3 are the weakest and will be refuted first. Point 4 requires more attention but in the end will be shown to be unjustifiable.

The drop in the ocean argument is both the most commonly used reasoning and the most fallacious. It is said from a cold position of isolation that doesn’t truly accept the lives of others as being real. The less fortunate people are only a theoretical problem, and so if the problem can’t be solved then after giving extravagantly the problem would still exist and the wealthy person couldn’t just make more money and go back to their old life style. This the subconscious thought process that provides the soil for this weak weed to grow. It can be easily uprooted.

The same argument could used to justify murder. There are billions of people in society. If I killed 10 of them, I can’t see how it could make a difference to society, their lives are a drop in the ocean, so if I killed them, its not wrong, just the same as if I helped them, its not right.

Slightly less dramatically, it is plain to see that a poor person in a life or death struggle who can be saved by an unaffordable operation would be greatly affected by a donation from the wealthy person. I struggle to see how a just individual with wealth to spare could suggest, when made aware of the situation, that they should keep their money. They may say that they are aware of it and are aware that situations like this happen all the time and that they know they should be helping more but haven’t quite got round to it yet, but then they are not a just individual. It is plain to see that the ‘drop in the ocean’ argument is ridiculous.

Points 2 and 3 can be refuted by my earlier points. If a wealthy person fears they will be alienated from their peer group if they give all or most of their wealth away for the purposes of making society more just, and they succumb to this fear, then they are not a just individual. Thinking that it would be ‘nice’ if the world was more just while chatting with other wealthy peers and then not doing anything or doing very little is an act of injustice. There is no reason for the enforcement of justice to be left to an unjust state.

Furthermore, regarding points 2 and 3, Cohen says that a rich person should not be asked to depart from the norm of his peer group or make a sacrifice that would alienate his children. He gives the example of wealthy parents buying their children new bicycles. He says that if one set of parents do it, what reason does the other in the peer group have for not buying their child one also? This is complete nonsense. Firstly, because what is good for a child is to develop their imagination, which will enrich the rest of their lives, not to be given toys that take that do that for them, although admittedly bicycle a rare example of a ‘toy’ that doesn’t do this. A child playing in the woods without any toys is far happier, healthier and is being prepared better for the future than a child at home who is bought things because their friends have them too. Secondly, the social norms of a group in an unjust society are more often than not skewed by the society. In other words, social norms, such as buying material products for children may well be contributing to the injustice further and so should not be mindlessly obeyed. For example the product may well be non-recyclable, leave an environmental footprint due to transportation, be made by exploited workers, use environmentally disastrous products like palm oil and oil and promoted by advertising to subliminally brainwash the buyer, while the taxes paid on the transaction fund a war to allow the oil to be stolen from those who need it most. Such a social norm is to be avoided. In fact, separation from such groups would probably be good for the child and the parent and so in an unjust society the individual must think for themselves and enforce justice where they can.

This brings me on to point 4. I argue that wealth is sedating, as well as potentially corrupting. By sedating I mean that once a certain standard of living has been achieved, we stop noticing it. It is a matter of habit. For example if we are used to having lots of modern kitchen appliances that are supposed to make our lives easier to give us more time for more important things, like earning money to pay for the appliances, we stop noticing their benefit. Cohen says himself he does not feel particularly rich and that as professors go he is one of the poorest. This is due to sedation, which happens to us all in the capitalistic world of materialism. According to a survey of global wealth in the year 2000, household wealth of $61,288 puts the owner in the top 10% globally (Davies et al,. 2007). In the United Kingdom, 56% of adults are in this top global 10%, yet I doubt they ‘feel’ rich. In Waldon (1995) Thoreau makes an excellent point:

“If civilization is an advantage it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box…Would a savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?”

I argue that the wealthy middle classes live in ‘palaces’ and have been sedated by the luxury into believing they don’t have much to spare. This means that for point 4, where they claim to need money to remain in politically influential social circles, must be ruled out, because people cannot be trusted to remain vigilant in the prioritising of justice while possessing so much money because it will sedate them into a materialistic malaise.


I have demonstrated that in an unjust state the state loses its monopoly on enforcing justice and it becomes a matter for the just individual. I have also shown that reasons holding the wealthy individual back from trying to realize ideals of justice through donating their money are not justifiable and that the keeping of wealth is a habit that should be broken by just individuals in an unjust society.


Cohen, G. (2000) If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Thoreau, H. D. (1995) Waldon, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Davies, J, and Shorrocks, A. and Sandstrom, S. and Wolff, E. (2007) The world distribution of household wealth, Center for Global International and Regional studies

Political Philosophy

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