Do Your Bit, Claim Your Share: Justice, Ethos, and the Individual Duty to Contribute

Contemporary political philosophy primarily conceives of justice as a virtue of major social institutions. Yet, much advocacy of justice is increasingly focused on how well particular individuals live up to its demands, and proceeds by calling out and criticising their unjust behaviour. The institutional focus renders political philosophy unable to inform and evaluate such attempts to change, not legal frameworks, but rather the principles that people find acceptable and act on in their daily lives. To address this shortcoming, this dissertation provides a political philosophical analysis of what justice requires of individuals, and why. It does so by developing and defending an account of contributive justice, which answers the inquiry’s guiding questions of who should contribute to justice and why, as well as what a contribution is, and how individual duties of justice should be enforced. The arguments provided support the conclusion that achieving a just society is not simply a question of designing and complying with the right kind of institutions, but that we all have a pro tanto duty to contribute in our day-to-day lives towards the furthering of a just society, and that relying on informal and decentralised social sanctions is the best way to promote adherence to this duty.

The duty to contribute defended in this dissertation differs from existing policies that make access to welfare state services conditional on individuals’ willingness to work or study. It also differs from prominent existing philosophical defences of similar positions, centred around the ideas of equality, reciprocity, and fairly sharing burdens. Critically analysing these accounts, the dissertation shows that, although each account can justify a duty to contribute, their specific answers to the guiding questions are ultimately unsatisfactory. For instance, they are unable to explain both why it is unjust to opt out from doing your bit of the labour necessary to meet the demands of justice, and why individuals who cannot contribute should nevertheless be able to claim the share that they are due.

These shortcomings can be avoided, however, by combining concerns about equality, reciprocity, and fairly sharing burdens into a hybrid account. This generates a two-part pro tanto duty to contribute whereby, firstly, everyone has a duty to contribute towards making sure that everyone receives what they are due as a matter of justice. If and when this level is reached, everyone then has an obligation to benefit others, conditional upon them benefitting from the work of others. While it is unjust to refuse to contribute in the first way, the hybrid account leaves room for people to reject additional benefits and thereby absolve themselves from having to contribute further. Furthermore, the pro tanto nature of this duty means that it could be outweighed by other morally important considerations. Although demanding, it will hence not crowd out all personal pursuits.

The dissertation also suggests that adherence to this duty should be enforced not through state action, but rather by individuals responding to and upholding a system of social sanctions. Contrasting this so-called ethos of justice with similar systems of social control, such as peer-to-peer online monitoring and sanctioning, and the Social Credit System currently being implemented in China, arguably shows that the informal and decentralised nature of the ethos allows it to avoid the potentially freedom-curtailing effects of the similar systems.