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Plato: The Republic

Plato argues that the only kind of society that can ensure people get their due is a meritocracy. In a just society, the producers and auxiliaries perform their proper functions while being led and controlled by the guardians. Plato’s ideal state rests on inequality among citizens who are sorted into three classes marked by unequal shares of power and privilege. People are assigned to different classes according to merit, but inequality is still the rule. To Plato, justice is every person playing the proper role that he is given.

Hobbes: Leviathan

Everyone is an egoist, Hobbes says, devoted to serving her own best interests. But in a world of such egoists, there will be conflict among the competing interests, and everyone will live in fear and insecurity, a cut-throat “state of nature.” In such a world, it is rational for people to make contracts with one another to ensure a minimal morality that can restrain self-interest and establish a measure of security. To see that the contracts are honored, a powerful sovereign, or Leviathan, must enforce the terms of the contracts, which are the laws and rules that make civilized life possible.

Locke: Second Treatise of Government

Locke sees “the state of nature” as an inferior state caused by lack of adequate cooperation and common laws but still as one in which our natural rights are enjoyed. Humans are not all as egoistic or innately cruel as Thomas Hobbes would make out. Government arises through a social contract in which individuals agree to be bound by the laws of a central authority that represents the will of the majority. The will of the majority and natural rights to life, liberty, and property limit the government. The government loses its legitimacy if it ceases to represent the will of the people and becomes tyrannical. In that case revolution is warranted.

Rawls: A Theory of Justice

Rawls says the just state is based on principles that people would agree to under hypothetical conditions that ensure fair and unbiased choices. He holds that if the starting point for the social contract is fair—if the initial conditions and bargaining process for producing the principles are fair—then the principles themselves will be just and will define the essential makeup of a just society. To the question, “Why should the individual acknowledge the principles chosen in the original position as morally binding?” Rawls answers, “We should abide by these principles because we all would choose them under fair conditions.” That is, the rules and rights chosen by fair procedures are themselves fair because these procedures take full account of our moral nature as equally capable of “doing justice.”

Marx: Manifesto of the Communist Party

Marx’s political theory is a form of socialism, the political and economic doctrine that the means of production (property, factories, businesses) should be owned or controlled by the people, either communally or through the state. The guiding principle is equality: The wealth of society should be shared by all. The ideal distribution of goods follows the classic formula: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Okin: Justice, Gender, and the Family

Okin says traditional theories are based on the assumption that there is a wall of separation between private and public life and that only public life is the proper concern of political theory. But women have largely been relegated to the private sphere, where issues of rights and equality are not supposed to apply. Consequently, women have been left out of traditional theories of justice, an omission that ensured women would not be treated as the moral equals of men.

Miller: Political Philosophy

Miller argues that the feminist critique of inequalities in private life does not show that the “personal is political” or that the traditional theories of justice are seriously defective. The critique suggests that the principles embodied in these theories are relevant but have yet to be fully applied to private life.