A way out of this quandary is to say rights and liberties aren’t mere means to maximizing collective well-being. Rather, their protection and fair distribution satisfy demands of justice, and justice, like well-being, has intrinsic moral value.
Theories of justice vary. Among the most prominent is that developed by philosopher John Rawls. Another from philosopher Martha Nussbaum seeks to improve on Rawls’ theory, particularly regarding justice for the disabled (including the intellectually disabled, who would be in my hypothetical minority) as well as non-human animals. Both theories affirm the value of well-being. But they also affirm the value of justice, which appears to serve as a vital check on the excesses of consequentialist moral theories (Sam’s included).
My aim in this post has not been to offer a thorough defense of justice’s intrinsic moral value, much less any moral theory that requires it. My aim has been far more modest. First, raise doubts about Sam’s view—plainly expressed in (5), but also sufficiently captured by (2)—that all that matters morally is well-being. Second, suggest a plausible alternative view, namely that justice also matters morally, and not merely as a means to well-being. I have argued for this view largely by raising concerns about denying it. Before I wrap up, I’ll try to dispel a few worries that could come along with affirming it.
Affirming the intrinsic moral value of justice does NOT
- Conflict with (1)—that is, the intuition that neither good nor bad can exist in a world uninhabited by conscious life. On the contrary, just as well-being can only exist within conscious creatures, justice can only exist between conscious creatures—particularly more socially developed creatures such as humans.
- Require the existence of non-natural or supernatural entities or properties. On the contrary, just as conscious creatures are natural phenomena, their relationships, actions, and institutions, be they just or unjust, are also natural phenomena.
- Entail that more intrinsic moral value—namely, increases in collective well-being—can be worse, contrary to the assumption I made above that intrinsic moral value is not subject to the law of diminishing returns. On the contrary, just as misery (understood as the opposite of well-being) is intrinsically bad, injustice is intrinsically bad. If maximizing collective well-being involves some great injustice, then maximizing collective well-being can make the world worse.
To close, I want to emphasize my response to the second worry. Finding intrinsic moral value in justice doesn’t require us to look outside the bounds of nature. Justice and injustice can be just as much a part of the natural world as well-being and misery.