Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

21

THE MORAL SELF IN THE FACE OF INJUSTICE

Laurence Thomas

If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips.

(Mahatma Gandhi)

The theoretical arguments for equality are most compelling. If respect can be, or could come to be, demanded of an individual, then surely that very same individual can be accorded respect. There is no biological feature of any human being which contravenes this consideration. Men and women cannot demand respect of one another and, with any justification, refuse to accord respect to one another simply on account of gender differences alone. Likewise for blacks and whites or, in general, any two ethnic or racial groups. Indeed, the same holds for sexual orientation, whether or not this has a biological basis. Heterosexuals cannot demand respect of homosexuals and then, with any justification, refuse to accord them respect, and conversely, where sexual orientation alone is the basis for the refusal to accord respect.

James Sterba has perhaps made the case for equality, across diversity, more forcefully and eloquently than any other contemporary philosopher. At the very least, justice demands equality with respect to the basic rights of society. There is no getting around this truth. Unfortunately, though, this truth does not address a very pressing question, to wit: What should be done if a society fails to accord the basic rights to a particular group of its citizens? Since the non-violent protests against the British by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and the Civil Rights Movement that took place in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, civil disobedience has been widely recognized as an appropriate way for individuals to protest injustices which they must endure in their very own society. In his work A Theory of Justice, John Rawls appears to have adequately captured the moral significance of civil disobedience from a philosophical perspective when he noted that civil disobedience is an appeal to the moral conscience (or sense

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