Historical materialism sheds light upon the changing of the Western view of justice

By By Min Changhong / 08-25-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)



Goddess of justice Themis with a balance in her right hand and a sword in her left hand


Justice is a core concept in Western political philosophy. Views on what is justice and how to pursue it, how­ever, vary considerably at different times. Justice was viewed as a virtue in the classical era, but it is considered a right in modern times. In the con­temporary era, interest has shifted back to the virtue of justice.


The priority of rights over goodness or the other way around is argued endlessly. There seems to be an im­passable gulf between human virtue and individual right. Hence, if justice is to be accurately understood, we can neither get stuck in the intuitive perception of virtue by ancient phi­losophers in the context of backward productivity nor in the one-sided pro­tection of individual rights by modern philosophers in the condition of un­derdeveloped social productivity.


Instead, rights and virtues gradually become unified in the practice of pro­ducing materials, which constitutes the purpose and approach of Marxist political philosophy.


Virtue vs right: a pendulum for Western view of justice

Before the time of Socrates, West­ern philosophers were obsessed with the mysteries of nature and satisfied in exploring the universal noumenon, which is defined as a "thing-in-itself" or something that is known without the use of the senses. Thanks to So­crates, attention was shifted to "vari­able human politics" from "invariable cosmic origins".


Nevertheless, he did not give up his ultimate goal. Instead, he started with human politics as a means of pursu­ing the eternal truth and supreme good in the universe, bridging the di­vide between the limitless philosophy of cosmology and the limitations of human politics.


In The Republic, Plato indicated through the discourse of Socrates that justice means everyone in a nation should fulfill duties suitable to his na­ture, namely the reasonable speciali­zation of the virtue hierarchy. Aristo­tle, in his elaboration of the internal relation between justice distribution and the greatest good, indicated that whoever contributed the most to the good of the political organization should have a larger share in the city-state in accordance with the spirit of justice as fairness. Judging from this, the individual right to be treated equally, as championed by Aristotle, is the embodiment of political good­ness and group virtue. As traditional society gave way to modernity, the development of material production and the increase of market exchanges prompted the expansion of freedom and rights. In the process, the Western view of justice changed its emphasis from group virtue to individual free­dom, turning justice from a positive virtue into a negative one.


For example, Adam Smith regarded justice as a virtue to care for others' happiness insofar as justice could only stop us from harming our neigh­bors, and the notion almost lost the sublimity it had in traditional society.


John Stuart Mill admitted the over­whelming importance of justice and rights but identified these concepts as a more absolute and necessary requirement based on their contribu­tion to social utility. Unlike Mill, John Rawls opposed the subordination of individual freedom to utilitarianism. In his eyes, goodness is a political concept and the priority of individual rights should be respected.


Though rights-oriented liberalists had various interpretations in this regard, they agreed that the rule of justice specifying individual rights dic­tates that any special interpretation of the common good cannot be relied upon. As a counterweight to political liberalism prioritiz­ing individual rights, many scholars use a modern approach to interpret the ideologi­cal tension between the supreme good and individual right from different angles.


To tap the value of classical virtues, Leo Strauss revisited the arguments of ancient and modern times, reviewing the shift from classical philoso­phy’s emphasis on the greater good to the priority given to rights in Hobbes’ time. He theorized that an overemphasis on individual rights and the loss of virtue lead to a crisis in modern times.


In the book Liberalism and the Lim­its of Justice, Michael Sandel wrote that Rawls based the principle of justice on morality. Striving to recre­ate classical ethics in the modern age, Alasdair MacIntyre posited that we are likely to reach an agreement and avoid disorder if we pay attention to achieving a beautiful life rather than individual rights. Daniel Bell attribut­ed the modern belief crisis to the loss of the concept of the city-state. The city-state theory cherished the civil virtue mainly as a result of restrained demand and gains with freedom as a side benefit. By contrast, the modern theory values freedom and unlimited happiness with public interests as a side benefit, he noted.


Justice was viewed as a virtue in the classical era but is seen as a right in modern times. But it seems as if the pendulum is swinging back to the notion of justice as a virtue. The evolution toward a retrospective view indicates frustration among contem­porary scholars.


Historical materialism unifies virtue and right

Modern politics, be it liberalism or conservatism, radicalism or socialism, should be rejected from the perspec­tive of the virtue tradition because modern politics itself is an institution­al rejection of the tradition, MacIntyre observed. He added that the unity of free men described by Marx, implying radical individualism from the very beginning, should also be rejected. However, he not only misinterpreted modernity but misunderstood Marx.


It seems that the priority given to individual rights in modern times, ini­tiated by the bourgeoisie, has caused an all-out crisis in classical virtue. In fact, it has thoroughly deconstructed the oppressive classical virtue, creat­ing the conditions necessary to con­struct the virtue of free will from the bottom up.


This echoes the efforts of Marx, who not only affirmed the historical progress the bourgeoisie had made by safeguarding individual rights, but maintained that the sustainable development of material production will certainly bring to life the right to develop freely and roundly. On the basis of political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, Marx founded a brand-new political philosophy, the aim of which was human liberation. The system integrated both the supreme good and individual right, paving the way for the sound development of modernity in the future.


During the time in which Marx lived, the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie brought about the pro­motion and expansion of individual rights. Private property is inviolable in capitalist states, and consequentially, freedom is limited. It was this limita­tion that Marx intended to transcend.


He negated the one-dimensional concept of individual rights in a dia­lectical way and reaffirmed a more comprehensive view of individual rights that included social benefit, providing guidance for the improve­ment of human virtue.


Marx devoted his lifetime to the advancement of human beings. In his early works, he resorted to rational should-being to criticize irrational being and ideal productive labor to negate the alienation of labor, particu­larly evident in Economic and Philo­sophic Manuscripts of 1844.


In the works of his mature period, he also mentioned ideal labor based on a scientific analysis of the capital­ist mode of production, objecting its use to replace real productive labor in different historical periods. This practice, he insisted, would inevitably lead to historical idealism. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels revealed from the perspective of his­torical materialism for the first time that human nature, namely the sum of all social relations, came into being in the practice of producing materials whose historical status and meaning was spoken highly of. They stressed the decisive role of material produc­tion in propelling historical progress because the social relationship, with productive relations at its base, can be improved only by developing pro­ductive forces. Only in this way can economic conditions be provided for interpersonal compassion, assistance and care, enabling the individual to transcend the narrow self.


For some time, there have been endless debates over whether Marx­ist philosophy can be classified as political philosophy. The supporters of this position point out the attention Marx and Engels paid to individual rights while their opponents focus on how they failed in this regard.


The disparate judgments result from the fact that the two parties, con­fined to the narrow vision as defined by liberal political philosophy, get stuck in the modern Western view of justice as a right and neglect political philosophy’s purpose of pursuing the common good.


However, it is beyond doubt that Marxist philosophy is political philos­ophy. It not only pursues the supreme good and safeguards individual rights but also resolves conflicts between the two aspects from the perspective of historical materialism. Moreover, it constitutes a new system of political philosophy targeting human libera­tion, providing new approaches to easing the tension between the social and individual benefits and that be­tween mankind and the individual. Marxist political philosophy focuses on the integration of virtue and rights in the process of material production, serving as a beacon for the future.


Min Changhong is from the Mobile Station for the Post-doctors of Marxist Theory, Zhejiang University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 601, May 28, 2014 

The Chinese link is:


Translated by Ren Jingyun