(SOC331)Commutative Justice and the National Debt

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In Chapter 4 of the text, the author examines commutative justice across the generations (see Section 4.5). This idea arises from the writings of British political thinker Edmund Burke (1790):

“Society is indeed a contract… a partnership in all art, a particular in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born…” (Reflections on the French Revolution, para. 165)

Burke’s idea of a social contract between generations is often cited in contemporary debates about the spiraling nation debt of the United States. What do young and old citizens living today owe, as a matter of commutative justice, to generations of citizens who are not yet born? Is it just for today’s citizens to demand policies (e.g., low taxes and high levels of government service) that create huge debts for future generations to pay?

Your initial post must analyze the commutative justice issues of the national debt. How can there be a social contract between citizens living today and future, unborn citizens? What are its terms with respect to the national debt? How is the perspective of many living citizens on this contract likely to differ from the perspective of future, unborn citizens? What should we do now to fulfill our obligations under this contract? How should this contract be enforced?

To help you successfully complete this discussion, review the following required resources:

  1. Debt, deficits, and demographics: Why we can afford the social contract
  2. Viewpoint: Why the young should welcome austerity
  3. A nation in debt: How can we pay the bills?


Your initial post should be at least 300 words in length. Support your claims with examples from at least two of the required resources for this discussion, and properly cite any references. Respond to at least two of your classmates’ posts by Day 7 whose viewpoints are different from yours. Each peer response must be at least 125 words. Stimulate critical thinking by contrasting your perspective with your classmate's and explaining yours, or by asking your classmate a question and explaining why your question is significant.   

Case 4.5: Reparations for Slavery: Is This Justice?

Associated Press

Should descendants of slaves be offered reparations for harm allegedly done to them by the institution of American slavery and its aftermath? A 2004 court case involved African American descendants of slaves who sued 18 corporations that allegedly benefited from slave labor at a time when slavery was legal in the United States ("In re: African American slave descendants litigation," 2004). The plaintiffs argued that slavery in the United States was unjust and immoral and that the corporations' predecessors became rich through the slave trade and slavery from 1619 to 1865. For relief, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages from the corporations. The court dismissed the suit based on several "well-settled legal principles":

  • The plaintiffs had no constitutional standing to bring the claims.
  • The plaintiffs had no legal standing to speak for the wrongs done to the slaves themselves.
  • The issue of slavery reparations "had been historically and constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches of government."

Case 4.5 reminds us that questions about commutative justice can involve exchanges across ethnic groups and generations. At times, government may be a party to these exchanges; at other times, government may be the arbiter of these exchanges. Or it might be appropriate for the government to stay out of the exchange. What issues do we need to consider? Think about whether there is an intergenerational contract between the young and the old. Examine the challenges to commutative justice for various economic classes posed by government leaders whose loyalty to their party may conflict with their loyalty to their constituents.

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