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Does a Just Society Require Just Citizens?

Jimmy Alfonso Licon on moral mediocrity.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men […] you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
(James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers)

We are tribal in our political and moral thinking, and project our deficiencies onto others. We rarely live up to our ideals. We are susceptible to motivated reasoning: evaluating evidence in a biased way to arrive at our favored conclusion. We confabulate about our motives and beliefs. This isn’t to deny that people can be loving, generous, and self-sacrificing, but to emphasize the dark side of human nature.

Many political philosophers argue that bad citizens make the state a necessity. If we were saints, the state would be unnecessary: people would be good citizens because they recognized it was the right thing to do – there would be no need for state violence to enforce the good. However, we do need the state to protect our right to property, rectify wrongdoing, enforce contracts, take care of the sick and aged, and so forth. The need for the state is thus largely because of individuals who disregard justice – murder, theft, and assault are not the fruits of justice. On the flip side, it should be clear why morally perfect citizens wouldn’t need a state: they would be willing to do what’s right, help each other without fear of exploitation, and so forth. The need for the state amply testifies to the human moral shortcomings.

Introducing Moral Mediocrity

We may be curious then why people aren’t morally better – a good way to build a good moral reputation is to be good. Part of the answer comes from psychology; there is good empirical evidence that we are morally mediocre. People aim to be morally on par with their peers; not especially worse, or especially better. We notice the behavior of our peers, and calibrate our behavior roughly to match. And indeed the evidence for moral mediocrity is robust, though not decisive. To give an example, people are more likely to reduce their household energy usage if shown statistics that they are using more energy than their neighbors. Practices like littering, lying, tax compliance and suicide appear contagious. The fact that practices as distinct as littering and suicide are highly sensitive to peer compliance shows how susceptible we are to moral mediocrity: we tend to adhere to moral rules and norms about as much as our peers do – not very much more or very much less.

It is noteworthy that the empirical evidence for moral mediocrity isn’t decisive – it could be that only some people are morally mediocre, while others are morally exemplary. The purpose of this exercise then isn’t to take moral mediocrity as empirically established, but to take the evidence for it seriously, and then draw out the implication. The empirical evidence, though not air tight, warrants taking moral mediocrity seriously enough to apply it to questions of justice and freedom. So, from here on, we’ll take moral mediocrity as a live psychological hypothesis, and think about issues like a just society through those lenses.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Angel In Montfort L’Amaury Church © Andrea Kirkby 2016 Creative Commons 2.0

Winning the Moral Lottery

It may illustrate the nature of moral mediocrity (and how it applies to us) to consider whether we ourselves might have become slave owners had we the financial means, had we lived in a less progressive time – say, in the United States, early nineteenth century. The evidence strongly suggests, but doesn’t prove, that we likely would have owned slaves if we had the financial means – or that we would condone the practice, anyway. Before learning of moral mediocrity, it is tempting to think we don’t presently own slaves because we each recognize that it would be wrong – and our present actions are based on that. Though this could be the correct explanation, the empirical evidence of moral mediocrity suggests it is instead just because we are all embedded in a system of moral norms and rules, held by much of the population, that owning slaves is wrong. The reason you personally don’t own slaves now likely has little to do with your moral character or foresight – it is likely because you live in a society where slavery is widely condemned.

The same applies to women’s suffrage. If we asked the average person today why they accept that women, like men, have the right to vote, they would likely cite fairness and inclusion. While those are good reasons for universal suffrage, they aren’t likely what explains why most people favor of universal suffrage, even though not long ago it was widely opposed. During the debate over women’s suffrage in the United States, even many women opposed women’s suffrage. This should strike us as odd, yet it was quite common. Some women at the time didn’t see suffrage as about fairness and inclusion. Some opposed women’s suffrage just because it was common in society at that time to see women as morally and intellectually inferior to men. Many folks today accept universal suffrage because the majority of their peers do. It belongs to their moral inheritance, instead of being a product of their moral ruminations. And of course moral mediocrity is a good thing in this case, but it should be clear from these examples that we often don’t deserve much credit for our moral views, good or bad – rather we should realize there is considerable luck involved in our moral beliefs and norms. Our moral beliefs could have been far worse (or better) if we had been reared by and surrounded by people with different views.

Let’s consider for a bit what this means. For one thing, it means that we are the recipients of a moral inheritance. The moral progress that we take for granted, but that was lacking in past generations – that men and women are morally equal, say – is something that was fought for and won by those who came before us. We were lucky enough to inherit such moral progress – just as some people are enough lucky to inherit wealth – and we shouldn’t either take it for granted, or wrongly assume that it somehow reflects our impeccable moral characters.

Moral Education to the Rescue? Perhaps Not

We may think the problem of moral mediocrity is a lack of moral education: that average folk aren’t trained to think deeply about ethical problems. It isn’t that they aren’t moral people, but they defer to their peers because it helps them get by in the world. They lack the moral knowledge and expertise to see why and how they should, sometimes anyway, defy popular moral standards. Here we may think moral philosophers could help us improve our moral thinking, and so we should expect professional moral philosophers to be closer to moral exemplars than the rest of us.

Unfortunately this isn’t how things are. The question of whether moral philosophers act better than the rest of us has been studied with gloomy results:

“Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. […] For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from other sorts of professors – logicians, biologists, historians, foreign-language instructors.”
Eric Schwitzgebel, A Theory of Jerks (2019 )

It turns out that there is at best a weak relationship between ethical training and ethical behavior, one inadequate to make a society just. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Whatever the reason, the evidence suggests moral education won’t fix an unjust society: we can’t educate our way to just citizens. Moral education may be necessary, but insufficient for a just society and that may be because of moral mediocrity. While moral education looks like a dead end, we may be able to improve people’s behavior by making use of that moral mediocrity.

A Just Society without Just Citizens

Now that we’ve explored the nature of moral mediocrity a bit, I want to return to the question with which we began: does a just society require just citizens ? The answer is simply ‘no’. This may strike us as odd: since many philosophers think we need the state because the citizenry are morally flawed, it would seem we need a just society to be comprised of just citizens. But this depends partly on what we mean by ‘just’ in this discussion. Roughly, to act justly is to act in ways that people deserve. However, in a richer sense, to be just is to choose actions that are just for just reasons. To be a just citizen, as we’ll use the term here, is to act justly for just reasons. Merely doing the right thing isn’t enough – we could do that by luck or coincidence.

Suppose Omar is very drunk and feeling generous, and decides to give Sally the rest of the cash in his wallet – several hundred dollars it turns out. As it happens, Omar owes Sally that exact amount of money; he borrowed it, and never repaid it. To be clear, Omar didn’t give Sally the money because he owed her, but because he was drunk and impulsive; had he been hanging with someone else, he would have given them the money instead. This is not a case where Omar acts justly, for his actions aren’t motivated by just reasons, but by circumstances. Had Omar given Sally the money he owed her because he owed her the money, then it would have been just.

One way to get people to act justly is to encourage them to act justly for just reasons – this would require just citizens though. However, there is another way to have a just society, but without just citizens. If people are morally mediocre, then we can use that mediocrity make them act justly. If people are surrounded by other citizens behaving justly, they will also act justly – to be like their peers. This is moral mediocrity: people aim to be about as morally good as their peers. This harkens back to our earlier discussion about moral mediocrity: aiming to be about as morally good or bad as one’s peers isn’t necessary a bad thing; but really depends on the moral baseline of one’s peers. If one is surrounded by moral saints, morally mediocre folks will (usually) act saintly. It isn’t bad to be morally average amongst angels.

We could in principle have a society where everyone acted justly – where there was no need for anything like the state – but they did so because most everyone else acted justly too. People will improve their behavior if their peers do. With the distinction between just actions and just people in hand – the former makes choices that happen to be just, and the latter because they are just – we should explore how a society could arrive at a justice equilibrium, where average citizens act justly because their fellow citizens act justly too.

We need an account here of how a society-wide justice equilibrium came to be. Let’s take a fictional example. After decades of war, massive protests over wealth inequality, and severe, widespread food insecurity, the nation of Petoria passes sweeping reforms which, over several decades, cause a shift toward a more just society – and a combination of good fortune and policy design ensures reforms stick. This produces a new generation known as The Justice Generation. Justice-geners are good parents and grandparents; good citizens who comply with just norms and laws; who honor their debts; don’t cheat, or steal; don’t discriminate against fellow citizens; are only ever violent when defending themselves or innocents (and only when necessary, when peaceful measures are ineffective or exhausted). The Justice Generation ushers in a just society where citizens expect each other to live morally exemplary lives and this produces an elevated moral average for generations to come.

Even generations after the Justice Generation, we could expect their moral legacy to be intact (it would be delicate, but still). We could expect generations would continue to pass down the norms, customs, and legal apparatus of the Justice Generation, and citizens would continue to act justly, even if it’s because they’re going with the moral flow. They are good, in other words, because it is easier than being bad. Here we find a case of a just society without just citizens – it may be very hard to pull off, but it is doable.

Kant on Moral Mediocrity

As we’ve seen: moral mediocrity itself isn’t particularly morally good or bad. Much turns on the moral baseline of the group in question: if our peers are close to angels, moral mediocrity would be excellent, even if it could be a bit better. On the other hand, moral mediocrity in a religious authoritarian society would be awful. First you may wonder what could be morally bad about being moral mediocre if everyone behaves themselves. What would be the problem of moral mediocrity among angels? One problem might be that moral mediocrity is parasitic: individuals who are morally mediocre merely conform to the moral practices of their peers. From a moral point of view, there is something missing; if one simply conforms to the moral norms of those around them (which happen to be good), they don’t take an active role creating their moral lives. This would be to relinquish our moral autonomy to others. There is something to be said for someone who defers to the moral standards of their peers, but only after rigorous examination. Consequences and actions aren’t the only thing that matters morally; our reasons for action matter too.

Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century German philosopher, had a similar take: actions only have moral worth if we act from duty, not just in a way consistent with duty (we might do the latter accidentally). It is tempting when weighing alternative actions, to determine their moral status solely based on their respective consequences – whether they would produce more harm than good, say. There is a family of moral theories called consequentialism, which says the moral status of an action is settled by its consequences. However, a moment’s reflection reveals that when we evaluate the moral agents for their actions, we care about intent too. We would judge Kate for driving drunk, even if she frequently drove drunk without incident. Her actions, even if harmless up to that point, reveal a disregard for others. She doesn’t get credit for the lack of bad consequences up to that point – she just got lucky.

When evaluating an action’s moral status, Kant holds that we should distinguish between acting in accordance with moral law (e.g. getting things right by accident), and acting from duty: our actions are good partly because we aim at what’s morally right. When evaluating our actions, we should attend to why we acted that way. We shouldn’t get credit for a good outcome if it was a by-product of our actions – we don’t get moral credit for luck. Kant explains the importance of acting from duty:

“[There] are some souls so sympathetically attuned that, even without any other motive of vanity or utility to self, take an inner gratification in spreading joy around them, and can delight in the contentment of others insofar as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case the action, however it may conform to duty and however amiable it is, nevertheless has no true moral worth, but is on the same footing as other inclinations.”
(Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)

The takeaway here is that acting consistently with duty isn’t enough for moral credit. We often act in ways consistent with moral duties, but by accident. For example, most of us don’t steal candy bars from the local grocery story, but not because stealing is wrong, but for practical reasons. It is easier to buy the candy bar; dealing with the police is unpleasant; getting caught would be embarrassing, and so on. There is nothing especially wrong with this. However, Kant’s point is that one should get credit for doing the right thing if one acts from duty, but not as a by-product of mundane or malicious intent. When we act for moral reasons, it shows that our motives align with moral duty; they’re aiming at the moral good, not just hitting it accidentally. And this is fundamentally the moral problem with moral mediocrity: it is wrongly motivated.

© Jimmy Alfonso Licon 2023

Jimmy Alfonso Licon is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Philosophy at Arizona State University.

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