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Essay on Government, Justice, and Human Rights

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ABSTRACT: This paper explores the relationship between justice and government, examining views on the subject expressed by traditional political philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke, as well as those expressed by contemporary political theorists such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. According to Rawls, justice is one of the fundamental concerns of a governing body; Locke and Rousseau agree that government and justice are essentially connected. Nozick and Max Weber, however, claim that the essential characteristic of government is not justice, but power. This paper argues that government, as an institution formed and controlled by human beings, is subject to the moral injunction to treat human beings as entities accorded certain rights, and included among these rights is the right to just treatment. Governments are therefore enjoined to be just because human beings, as rational agents, and therefore persons, are owed the minimal respect due a person, such as the right to freedom and the right to forbearance from harm by others to self and property.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;...that to secure these rights governments are instituted...." - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments"

Does government have an obligation to act justly? John Rawls cites justice in A Theory of Justice as the "first virtue of social institutions" (1971, p. 3), of which a government is one example. He writes expansively in the beginning of his book on the importance of justice and of its centrality in a "well-ordered" society. Eloquently, Rawls extols the primacy of justice, and asserts that no matter how efficie...


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...stice. (John Ladd, Trans.) New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Locke, John. (1947). Two Treatises of Government. New York: Hafner Press.

Lomasky, Loren. (1987). Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. (1987). On Liberty. In Robert Maynard Hutchins (Ed. In Chief), Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Nozick, Robert. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. (1955). The Social Contract. (Charles Frankel, Trans.) New York: Hafner Publishing Co.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. (1987). A Discourse on Political Economy. In Robert Maynard Hutchins (Ed. In Chief), Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.


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