Governmentality by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Foucault, Michel. 1991. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Check out this (YouTube video, 11 minutes), this (Encyclopedia Britannica entry) and this (learned introduction from the blog, Critical Legal Thinking), in order, before proceeding. Or better not proceed!

Political writing concerning the ‘art’ of government —  of the self (by, well, the self), of souls (by the priest), of children (by the father/teacher) and, especially, of the state (by the prince) — develops and flourishes starting from the 16th century. Questions concerning “how to be ruled, how strictly, by whom, to what end, by what methods, etc.” become salient in this period thanks to the double movement of state centralisation due to the fall of feudalism and religious rupture due to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

This development may be fruitfully examined against the backdrop of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince which is the starting point and well as the point of departure for the literature on the art of government.

The art of government that Machiavelli’s work presented was centred on the interest of the prince.[1]This prince is external to the principality and the link between the two is merely synthetic.[2] This being so, the link is fragile and constantly under threat. If the prince want to maintain his principality, he has to strengthen this link and is this link — “the prince’s relation with what he own” — that is the object of Machiavelli’s art of government.

It is this notion of the art of government — that of maintaining a principality — that is being questioned by the new political writing. Consider Guillaue de La Perrière’s Miroir Politique.

Firstly, it is recognised that the art of government in not to be associated with the prince alone. There are — as mentioned in the beginning — multiple forms of government which are immanent within the state, for example, the government of the family. The task is to establish linkages between these different forms of government. In fact, the art of government in this literature, is concerned with extending the model of family management ([private] economy) to the state (political economy).[3] This model implies exercising “a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and goods.”

Secondly, government is defined as “the right disposition of things, arranged so as to lead to a convenient end.” The ‘things’ are neither the subjects nor the territory in which they live. Rather they are men in their relations with material things, with culture and with natural events.[4] Government relates to this complex of men and things of which men and their territory are only variables.

Thirdly, government is directed to ‘a convenient end’. In La Perrière, this end is not “the form of the common good” — for Samuel Pufendorf, ‘public utility’; for Machiavelli, maintenance of the principality —  but rather something which is “‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed.” The end then is not a singular and circular one but a purality of specific ends. They are to be attained by disposing — managing, or arranging — things in ways such that the specific ends may be achieved.[5]

Lastly, the wisdom of the ruler or governor, understood as knowledge of the things he manages and his diligence, understood as acting in such a way as if he were in the service of those he is governing, are essential to government.

This abstract notion of the art of government did not remain abstract but first got concretized in the notion of the ‘reason of state’ in the late 16th and early 17th century. The reason of state simply refers to the idea that the state could be governed according to rational principles. But the growth of the art of government was frustrated by 17th century political and economic crises[6] as well as the pre-eminence of the question of sovereignty.

Mercantilism represents the first application of the art of government. It is the “first rationalisation of the exercise of power as a practice of government”. However, as its object was the sovereign’s might, and its instruments — laws, decrees, regulations — those of sovereignty, it remained immobilized by the institution of sovereignty.

On the one hand, then, the art of government was hampered by the rigid, large, and abstract framework of sovereignty. On the other hand, it suffered because of its reliance on the weak model of the family. (How could this model hope to succeed at the level of the state?)

The rigid framework of sovereignty was broken through the rise of the science of government in the ‘economic’ plane which enabled reflection on the art of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

The limiting model of the family was overcome through the emergence of ‘population’ which replaced the family as a model for government and relegated it to the role of a ‘privileged instrument’. The population — the interests of its constituents, understood collectively as well as individually — became the end of government, that is to say, the target of its tactics. The population also constituted the domain whose knowledge it was essential for the ruler to have. In short, the population became the new subject.

The new science called political economy arises out of the perception of new networks of continuous and multiple relations between population, territory and wealth; and this is accompanied by the formation of a type of intervention characteristic of government, namely intervention in the field of economy and population. In other words, the transition which takes place in the 18th century from an art of government to a political science, from a regime dominated by structures of sovereignty to one ruled by techniques of government, turns on the theme of population and hence also on the birth of political economy.

Having said these, neither sovereignty nor discipline became less important as the art of government developed. The former had to be given a juridical foundation and the latter had to be inculcated to manage the population.

Governmentality, to conclude, is the ‘ensemble’ of “institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics” which realise government. It is the tendency that has led to the pre-eminence of government (over other forms of power like sovereignty, discipline). It is the process through which the state has become governmentalized.

Maybe what is really important for our modernity — that is, for our present — is not so much the étatisation of society as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state.


[1] Whether or not this interpretation is correct is not important. What is important is the it was interpreted in this way.

“Let us leave aside the question of whether the interpretation of Machiavelli in these debates was accurate or not.” (p. 89)

[2] The link between the father and the child in a family, in contrast, is natural and ‘essential’.

[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Political Economy.

[4] Consider this metaphor. To govern a ship means to take care of the ship and sailors. But it also means to take care of its cargo, to reckon with storms, to establish relations between the sailors and the cargo and the ship all of which are to be taken care of. Government relates to this complex of men and things.

[5] Foucault contrasts sovereignty with government as part of this point. The end of sovereignty, understood as the common good, is achieved essentially by obedience to the law, which is given by the sovereign. The purpose of sovereignty then is served by the exercise of sovereignty. The end of government, on the other hand, is a plurality of specific ends which are convenient for each of the things governed and which will be achieved through a mutiplicity of tactics, of which law is but only one. The purpose of government is served by the application of tactics to the things it manages.

[6] “[F]irst the Thirty Years War with its ruin and devastation; then in the mid-century the peasant and urban rebellions; and finally the financial crisis, the crisis of revenues which affected all Western monarchies at the end of the century.” (p. 97)



Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1985. “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14 (3). Wiley: 223–51.

Section I explains “justice as fairness” as a political conception of justice applicable to the basic structure of society in a democratic society.

Section II asserts the intractability of disagreements over fundamental questions in any society and describes what a political conception of justice can do to adjudicate between these disagreements. It then indicates how justice as fairness could achieve that. It also indicates why justice as fairness is a political and not a metaphysical conception.

Section III states the overarching idea of justice as fairness as referring to a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. It then expands on the idea of fair terms (or system) of cooperation and the notion of persons.

Section IV explains through what process the fair terms of cooperation are determined and considers (possible) objections to that process.

Section V discusses the notion of a political conception of the person, i.e., as a free citizen.

Section VI clarifies why justice as fairness is a truly liberal view.

Section VII concludes with remarks on how social unity might be forthcoming through justice as fairness.


Justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. It is of course a moral conception but one that is worked out for a specific subject — the “basic structure” of a modern constitutional democracy. This basic structure consists of the society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and the way in which they fit together into a unified system of social cooperation.

Justice as fairness, it follows from the previous paragraph, is not intended as comprehensive moral conception that applies to all general subjects. To reiterate, justice as fairness applies only to the basic structure and not to other subjects the personal actions or philosophies of persons. This is unlike a comprehensive moral doctrine like utilitarianism which is understood to hold for all kinds of subjects.

Justice as fairness is intended for — see the second sentence of the first paragraph — democratic society. It draws upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation.


Any society is bound to face situations where there is controversy regarding fundamental questions which might appear, and prove, to be intractable. In such situations, a firm foundation of justice supplied by a political conception of justice, such as justice as fairness, might help sufficiently narrow down the divergence of opinion so that political cooperation is, despite differences of opinion, made possible.

There is no agreement in democratic thought about how the values of liberty and equality can best be secured or distributed through the basic structure of the society. The disagreement may be understood, broadly and crudely, as a conflict between two traditions, one stressing individual freedoms and the other, public values.[1] Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these two traditions by proposing two principles of justice which regulate how the basic structure should realise the values of liberty and equality. These principles are:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Justice as fairness also specifies a point of view from which these principles are advanced as more appropriate to free and equal democratic citizens than other principles of justice.

How might the disagreement alluded to in the last paragraph be settled? It might not be possible to do so, and indeed, as pointed out earlier, the most that could be done could be to narrow the differences.

A political conception of justice should be in accordance with our “settled convictions”[2] as well as the “shared fund of implicitly recognised basic ideas and principles expressed by the public culture”. The public culture however is the source and arena of the disagreement. A political conception of justice then has to organise the basic ideas and principles such that they are seen to fit together properly. It could even go further and supply an overarching (more fundamental) idea with which to tie together these basic/familiar/intuitive ideas and principles. This can be done if the conception provides a reasonable way of shaping the underlying bases of agreement in the public culture into a coherent view.

If justice as fairness achieves these goals, it will provide a reasonable public standpoint from which citizens might judge the justness of the social institutions using principles supplied by the conception. Also, in this conception, the manner of judging and justifying institutions are not based on the logical validity or even soundness of arguments but instead on arguments which are derived from premises which are recognised as acceptable through a prior consensus. It is for this reason that the aim as well as the content of justice as fairness is not metaphysical but political. It is not a conception that pretends to be true metaphysically but one that serves as a basis for political agreement for resolving fundamental questions by free and equal persons.

Justice as fairness avoids disputed philosophical, moral, and religious questions simply because there is no way of resolving them politically. It also avoids metaphysical notions about the true nature of the self in conceptualising the idea of free and equal persons. By avoiding these irresolvable issues whose inclusion would make any political conception useless, justice as fairness hopes to moderate between differing political views.


The overarching intuitive idea behind justice as fairness is the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.

Cooperation as understood in justice as fairness is marked by three features:

  1. It refers to activity based on publicly recognised and accepted rules and procedures, and not to merely socially coordinated activity brought about by a higher authority but.
  2. It involves fair terms of cooperation meaning not only that the terms of cooperation should be ones that each person may reasonably accept provides others do but also that they specify reciprocity or mutuality.[3]
  3. It involves the idea that the participants are seeking to achieve their rational advantage or good.

The person as understood in justice as fairness is a person who can cooperatively participate in social life. That person is a citizen.[4] These participants are free and equal. That they are free is connected with their capacity for moral thought and for reason which enable independent judgment. That they are equal is connected to them having the aforesaid capacity to the requisite degree so as to ensure their full cooperation in society.

And in being fully cooperative participants, they have the capacities (“moral powers”) for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good. Having a sense of justice simply means they find it proper to adhere to the political/public conception of justice, here justice as fairness. Having a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and to rationally pursue one’s conception of rational advantage. In addition to these two moral powers, participants have at a given time a particular conception of the good which they try to achieve which they can pursue. This conception of the participants as having the two moral powers and therefore free and equal is a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.

“...[T]he fundamental question of political justice [is this]: ... what is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. It is this question that has been the focus of the liberal critique of aristocracy, of the socialist critique of liberal constitutional democracy, and of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at the present time over the claims of private property and the legitimacy (in contrast to the effectiveness) of social policies associated with the so-called welfare state.”


How are the fair terms of social cooperation to be determined? Through a contract by free and equal participants. However, this contract must be entered into in the appropriate condition, i.e., they must be situated fairly or symmetrically such that their decisions are not distorted by particular features of social institutions or indeed their own particular circumstances. This condition as achieved via the “veil of ignorance” which prescribes an “original position” where the participants are sheltered from the influence of contingent advantages.

But this original position is only a device of representation and does not occur in actual societies. This renders the contract nonhistorical and hypothetical. What significance can such a contract have? The significance lies in the features of the original position itself. Without those very features — the idea that the participants are symmetrically situated and that their contingent social circumstances are unknown to them — no contract can be truly fair.

As a device of representation the idea of the original position serves as a means of public reflection and self-clarification. We can use it to help us work out what we now think, once we are able to take a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires when society is conceived as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal persons over time from one generation to the next. The original position serves as a unifying idea by which our considered convictions at all levels of generality are brought to bear on one another so as to achieve greater mutual agreement and self-understanding.

However, the original position behind the veil of ignorance, even if it appears abstract, must not be misunderstood to presuppose, for example, some metaphysical notion of the person.[5]


What is entailed in conceptualising a political notion of the person, i.e., as a free citizen?

First, citizens are free in that they conceive themselves and others as having the capacity to have a conception of the good. This also means that they are capable of revising the conception on rational grounds and that their identity as free persons in the political/public sense is not tied to any particular conception of the good.[6] However, their nonpublic identity — their personal devotions and loyalties, their religious or philosophical convictions —could be very different from that expressed by their political identity.

Second, citizens regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. Claims founded on duties and obligations which are based on the moral doctrines and conceptions of the good that they uphold are also considered as self-originating. To say that citizens are free in this way is to say that in democratic societies they actually think of themselves in this way. The importance of this aspect of their being free is to state that in so far as the claims do not derive from duties and obligations, that is in so far as the claims are not self-originating, they have no weight.[7]

Third, citizens are capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their claims are assessed. Briefly stated, this means that citizens are capable of adjusting or restricting their claims so that they can be pursued through mean which can reasonably be available to all. The weight of the claims in other words is not determined by the pyschological intensity of the desires but why considerations of cooperation and reciprocity.


Justice as fairness is a liberal view. In a democratic society, there will surely be incommensurable conceptions of the good. This fact, which is a given, is why the person is conceptualised as and restricted to a political notion, i.e., as citizens. Persons are free to be committed to comprehensive doctrines or ideals, whether liberal or otherwise, in non-political parts of their lives as long as these doctrines are not introduced into political discussion. This point is crucial because an insistence on liberal ideals would make the conception incompatible with other conceptions of the good turning liberalism itself into a dogmatic doctrine.

In any just democratic society, conceptions of the good apart from liberalism are likely to persist and it is this variety that justice as fairness tries to account for by identifying areas of “overlapping consensus”, i.e., intuitive ideas shared by diverse conceptions of the good. This consensus is the most that can be achieved.

But isn’t justice as fairness merely a modus vivendi that allows groups to pursue their own good subject to certain restraints? First, justice as fairness is a moral conception even if not a comprehensive one that stresses the virtues of cooperation. It is not merely a modus vivendi. Second, the principles of justice are accepted by the diverse conceptions of the good or as integral to them and not merely as convenient means apart from their moral doctrines.


Most political conceptions of justice do not allow a plurality of conceptions of the good. Examples of such conceptions include those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition and classical utilitarianism. By contrast, liberalism does allow for a plurality of competing or even incommensurable conceptions of the good. It assumes that a public agreement on one conception of the good is not possible.

How can social unity be secured if this is the case? Justice as fairness understands social unity as founded not on a singular conception of the good but on the public acceptance of a conception of justice as regulating the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is independent from and prior to the concept of goodness in that the principles of justice specify the acceptable conceptions of the good.

End Notes

[1] The first can be identified with John Locke (what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the moderns”) and the latter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or the “freedom of the ancients”).

[2] These might include “the belief in religious toleration and the rejection of slavery”.

[3] For more on this point, see John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

[4] ‘Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. We add the phrase “over a complete life” because a society is viewed as a more or less complete and self-sufficient scheme of cooperation, making room within itself for all the necessities and activities of life, from birth until death.’

[5] When, we simulate being in this position,  [behind the veil of ignorance,] our reasoning no more commits us to a metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than our playing a game like Monopoly commits us to thinking that we are landlords engaged in a desperate rivalry, winner take all.

[6] For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before. There is no loss of what we may call their public identity, their identity as a matter of basic law.

[7] “Laws that prohibit the abuse and maltreatment of slaves are not founded on claims made by slaves on their own behalf, but on claims originating either from slaveholders, or from the general interests of society (which does not include the interests of slaves).”

Another importance of this aspect is that it clearly identifies that it as peculiar to a particular conception of justice. The example about slaves just given flows from a political conception of justice where certain groups slaves are not viewed as self-originating sources of claims.

Justice as Fairness by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1958. “Justice as Fairness.” The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

Section I claims that the fundamental idea for the concept of justice is fairness.

Section II introduces the two principles of this conception.

Section III explains how these two principles are arrived at.

Section IV pre-empts possible criticisms against justice as fairness as developed in Sections II and III.

Section V sketches why fairness should be central to any concept of justice.

Section VI characterises the utilitarian conception of justice as one concerned with efficacy.

Section VII discusses why such utilitarianism fails as a conception of justice.


The fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness. The paper will try to justify this claim. It is this aspect of justice (as fairness) that classical utilitarianism fails to account for.

Three things should be kept in mind. First, justice is considered as a virtue of social institutions[1] (henceforth “practices”[2] as Rawls does) and its function is essentially distributive.[3] Second, justice is considered as only one of the many virtues of practices. Justice is just one aspect of any conception of a good society. Third, the principles of justice discussed below are not the principles of justice.


There are two principles of justice as fairness:

(a) first, each person[4] participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all;

(b) and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The first principle expresses a presumption against “distinctions and classifications” created by practices. Put another way, the first principle presumes an original situation of equality. However, it does not rule out deviations from this state — “there can be, and there often is, a justification for doing so”.

The second principle defines what sort of deviations from this original situation of equality — or inequalities[5] — permissible. First, only those inequalities are permitted which benefit everyone.[6] Second, those offices and positions that have benefits attached to them must be open for all to acquire through fair competition.


How are these two principles arrived at?

Imagine a society of persons where a system of practices is well in place. Now suppose that they are, by and large, mutually self-interested. This means that they are self-interested but not always so. They have loyalties to their families, nations, churches and the like whose interests they also pursue. This does not imply however that they are mutually self-interested under all circumstances. They are so only when they participate in “common practices”. Also, suppose also that they are rational meaning that (a) they know their own interests, (b) they can foresee the consequences of their actions, (c) they can adhere to their chosen course of action, (d) they can resist enticements for immediate gain, and (e) they are comfortable with certain limited differences in their condition and that of others.[7] Finally, suppose that they have similar needs and interests which enables their fruitful cooperation.

This society of mutually self-interested, rational, and similarly situated persons, since they already have a system of practices in place, can be imagined to regularly discuss complaints about the practices they have set up. They first establish the principles based on which their complaints will be judged by letting everyone propose the principles based on which he thinks complaints should be tried. This is done on the understanding that once the principles are adopted, they will be binding on all future occasions. This provision disallows principles that may be peculiarly advantageous for a particular complaint as they will be, if adopted, imposed on everyone for every complaint that might arise.

The two parts of this conjectural story have definite significance. The first part reflects the typical circumstances in which questions of justice arise. Such circumstances are those where conflicting demands are brought to bear on the design of a practice by persons insisting on what they consider to be their rights. The second part represents the constraints under which persons are brought to act reasonably. The constraints are those of morality which, at the very least, imply acknowledgement (a) of principles that must be pursued even if they conflict with self-interest[8] and (b) that principles must be applied impartially to all.

Given the circumstances and the constraints specified by the two parts, it can be seen how the two principles of justice put forth at the beginning of Section II might come about. This is not offered as proof that those two principles will necessarily be chosen but merely to show that those principles could be chosen.


Justice on this account appears to be a sort of pact between rational and egoistic persons similar to the sort advanced by Glaucon at the beginning of Book II of Plato’s Republic.[9] However, this is not entirely so.

First, the conjectural account does not advance any theory of human motivation (or human nature) underlying the actions and decisions of persons. The account refers simply to the fact, in the circumstances of justice, the different parties do press their conflicting and competing claims on one another and do regard themselves as representing interests which need to be considered. Second, the account does not seek to explain the establishment of any particular society or practice as most social contract theories set out to do. The different parties “jointly acknowledge certain principles of appraisal relating to their practices [which are] either already established or merely proposed” (emphases added). Third, the account does not imply that the parties are coming together for the first time. It applies even when highly developed social institutions already exist. This means that the account is not fictitious. In any society where people reflect on their practices, there will be times when principles of justice would actually be discussed in the way sketched by the account.


Thinking about justice in the manner so described brings out the idea that fairness must be central to justice. Rules of a practice are fair if they are accepted as applicable by all concerned on the basis of them (rules) being legitimate.[10] Similarly for principles of justice. It is this idea of mutual acceptance (or mutual acknowledgement) which makes fairness central to justice because when understood through the conjectural account, the principles of justice arrived at are what can be undoubtedly called as fair since they are premised on the notion of mutual acknowledgement brought about by the condition that these principles are binding on everyone. It is this notion of mutual acknowledgement that ensures a community between persons and their practices based not on force.

If the rules of a practice are correctly acknowledged as fair, duties on the part of the parties to act in accordance with those rules when it fall upon them to comply are born. This is the duty of “fair play”.[11] This obligation to abide by the rule does not depend on any explicit contract acknowledging the practice but merely requires knowing participation in and acceptance of the benefits of the practice.

The duty of fair play might enjoin upon the participants to sacrifice their self-interests in particular situations. This is the expected consequence of the strong commitment to the rules made in the general position (the situation described in the conjectural account, see Section III). The acceptance of the duty of fair play along with this constraint is recognition of the others as persons with similar interests and capacities, as specified in the general position.

These comments are made in order to anticipate and forestall the misinterpretation that the account presented of justice and fair play requires that there be de facto equality (“balance of powers”) in the general position. Such balance is important but is not the basis. The recognition of one another as persons with similar interests and capacities involved in a common practice is enough basis for the acceptance of the principles of justice and the duty of fair play.

One consequence of the conception as explicated thus far is that there is no moral value in satisfying a claim that is incompatible with it. Put concretely, there is no moral value in the satisfaction derived out of something which one imposes on others but would not accept for himself, regardless of the pleasure it generates.


For the classical utilitarians, justice is a kind of efficiency. Justice is tied to benevolence and benevolence is brought about through the most efficient design of institutions to promote the general welfare

A common objection is that this would “justify institutions highly offensive to our ordinary sense of justice”.[12] However, classical utilitarianism can answer this objection. For one, individuals are considered as having roughly the same utility function and differences due to accidents of birth and upbringing are ignored. For another, they accept the idea of marginal diminishing utility.[13] These two assumptions build a strong case for equality.

However, even if these assumptions actually operated and led to similar principles of justice, they would still be fundamentally different from justice as fairness. Firstly, in the utilitarian conception, the principles of justice are the contingent result of a higher administrative decision. Second, the individuals receiving the benefits due to the utilitarian calculus are non-related units to which resources may be allocated. Their enjoyment of the benefits has no moral connection with other persons.

It is assumed that the administrator will after considering all relevant criteria make the correct executive decision and that the principles of justice would result from this being so.


Many social decisions are of course administrative decisions. And classical utilitarianism can properly account for many of these decisions about social utility. However, as in interpretation of the principles of justice, classical utilitarianism fails.

It allows one to argue — not that the classical utilitarians did — that slavery is unjust because the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder. The point is not whether the disadvantages to one party can outweigh the advantage of the other but simply that slavery is not in accordance with principles that can be mutually acknowledged and it is for this reason that slavery will always be unjust. The classical utilitarian might retort that it is not always true that the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder and in the cases where this is not true, slavery is not wrong. Indeed, it is right, and for the same reason that justice is right. He might point out that utilitarianism gives no special weight to justice above and beyond the basic concern with effectiveness. And if slavery is effective, it is perfectly just.

But reasons of justice have a special weight which utilitarianism cannot account for but justice as fairness can. The argument that slavery is sufficiently advantageous might not be wildly irrelevant but it nevertheless constitutes a moral fallacy. Since slavery does not ensue from principles that could be mutually acknowledged, the advantages or disadvantages (benefits or burdens) that result from it have no moral significance. If the slaveholder recognises the injustice of slavery, he will disregard the advantages that might flow from it. Such advantages then cannot be grounds for defending a practice as just. For these reasons, the principles of justice have a special weight. With respect to the principle of the greatest satisfaction, they have an absolute weight. They are not contingent.

This criticism of utilitarianism does not depend upon whether or not the assumptions of similar utility functions for individuals and diminishing marginal utility (see section V, second paragraph) are understood to be scientific or psychological. It is certainly more attractive to consider the latter to be true. However, even if the assumptions are understood as moral or psychological, the mistaken belief in the intrinsic value of satisfaction of (moral and psychological) desires irrespective of the relations between persons still remains.


“By way of conclusion I should like to make two remarks: first, the original modification of the utilitarian principle (supra note 6) actually has a different conception of justice standing behind it. I have tried to show how this is so by developing the concept of justice … [which] involves the mutual acceptance, from a general position, of the principles on which a practice is founded, and how this in turn requires the exclusion from consideration of claims violating the principles of justice.

Second, … I have been dealing with the concept of justice. …Societies will differ from one another … in the range of cases to which they apply [the concept of justice as fairness] and in the emphasis which they give to it as compared with other moral concepts. A firm grasp of the concept of justice itself is necessary if these variations, and the reasons for them, are to be understood.”

End Notes

[1] Why is justice considered only in its application to social institutions? Because its application to social institutions is “basic” and may be “easily” applied to other “subjects of justice” such as persons or particular actions once its principles are established.

[2] The word “practice” is used as a technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves. penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure

[3] “The principles of justice … formulat[e] restrictions as to how practices may define positions and offices, and assign thereto powers and liabilities, rights and duties”.

[4] The term “person” could mean human individuals, nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on.  In any case, the principles apply to all. The use of the term is self-confessedly ambiguous.

[5] These inequalities are not the differences in offices and positions and the differences in benefits and burden that ensue from them.

[6] This modification of the utilitarian principle that everyone must benefit from the inequality disallows utilitarian justifications that appeal to the greater magnitude of the benefits accruing to some compared to the burdens borne by others.

[7] The last point implies that the rational man in not greatly worried by seeing others in a better position unless that were the result of injustice. The rational man, in a word, is free from envy.

[8] “A man whose moral judgments always coincided with his interests could be suspected of having no morality at all.”

[9] “They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him, that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins.” John M. Cooper ed., 1997, Plato: Complete Works, Indianapolis: Hackett, 358e–359b. (See this if you don’t know what the numbers mean.)

[10] “A practice will strike the parties as fair if none feels that, by participating in it, they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate.

[11] “…[T]o refer to it in this way is, perhaps, to extend the ordinary notion of fairness. Usually acting unfairly is not so much the breaking of any particular rule … but taking advantage of loop-holes or ambiguities in rules, … and more generally, acting contrary to the intention of a practice.”

[12] Rawls of course is referring to the objection that the general welfare could be bought at great particular cost. The greatest happiness of the many, to use other words, could come at the expense of the greatest suffering of the few.

[13] Satisfaction derived from additional units of a good diminishes. The implication is that fantastic differences in levels of satisfaction are unlikely to occur.


The Security Problematic of the Third World by Mohammed Ayoob — A Summary

Ayoob, Mohammed. 1991. “The Security Problematic of the Third World.” World Politics 43 (2). Cambridge University Press: 257-83.


The postwar world has been marked by (a) the doctrine of mutually assured destruction of MAD (thanks to the rise of the “awesome destructive capability” of nuclear weapons) and (b) the entrance of many new members, Third World states, into the system of states (thanks to the decolonisation process). The former has, thanks to MAD, stabilised the global balance of power while the latter has, by spawning a group of “floating” states which were “up for grabs”, introduced instability in to the system of states. In addition, the former has received much attention in international relations literature while the latter has not. Even if the security of Third World states is considered, it is done so from a distinctly Western perspective. This article is a review paper of four volumes which seek to fill this gap in the literature. (Note: There will be no explicit reference in this summary to the books reviewed although the paper draws upon and quotes from them frequently.)

“The[] … issues that … need to be addressed from both historical and comparative perspectives [are] as follows:
(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?
(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?
(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?
(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?
(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

The following sections will tackle each of these five questions in turn.


(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?

The traditional use of the concept of security has assumed the (a) military nature and (b) external origin of threats to state security. These assumptions are upheld even by those who insist on international security and are unwilling to accept the centrality of the state.[2] These assumptions are the natural result of a particular intellectual tradition that grew — from 1648 to 1945, to use symbolic dates — in the context of interaction among sovereign states and the identification of individuals with their respective (sovereign) states. The sovereign state thus became the unit object of security. After 1945, the Western world (“Europe and its offshoots”) was divided into two halves which were stabilised by a mutual balance of terror, i.e., by MAD. Alliance security, established in both halves, became superimposed upon state security. The essential assumptions, however, remained unchanged.

This understanding of security faces problems when applied to the Third World. The idea of security as (a) external, (b) systemic (or international), and (c) alliance-based are “thoroughly diluted” in the Third World.  Firstly, in the Third World, security threats substantially emanate from within states. External threats do exist but often they gain salience precisely from those insecurities that already abound within. Secondly, the Third World is relatively unimportant to the central strategic balance. Conflicts have proliferated in the Third World with the participation and even encouragement of the superpowers but without undermining the overall strategic balance. Thirdly, the notion of alliance security is absent for states in the Third World which, even if they are allied with the superpowers, receive a qualitatively different form of commitment to that accorded to Western states. The security of Third World states is not considered synonymous with the security of the alliance.


(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?

Third World states are different from Western states. The mere possession of “juridical statehood” is insufficient ground for treating Third World states on par with Western states. The latter possess features such as strong state structures including rational-bureaucracies, infrastructure and internal cohesion which are largely absent in the former. The relevant factor for this discrepancy is time. The stable Western states are the finished products of centuries of unhappy historical experience. Third World states, on the other hand, are only a few decades old and have not had enough time to mature their institutions and societies.[3] It is this fact, the lack of the “software” of security, that makes recourse to military measures, “hardware” instruments of security, to deal with political challenges attractive for Third World regimes.

The current security predicaments of the Third World are partly explained by their similarity to the Western experience of state-making in its early stages.[4] This similarity is not merely coincidental. As such, the security problems faced by Third World countries today is not that astounding. The rest is explained by the telescoping of the state making process into a drastically shortened time period, and the low level of state power and legitimacy in Third World states.


(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?

The contemporary era of international linkages, whether military, economic, political, or technological, have substantial implications for Third World state making enterprises. This is particularly relevant for current technologies of communication and destruction.

In addition, the colonial experience has ensured that external factors have had serious impacts on Third World polities and their security environments. First, the decisions of colonial powers made for administrative purposes have resulted in the ethnic mix that Third World states possess in this day. This has major, often adverse, consequences for internal cohesiveness. Second, colonial legacies are responsible for many postcolonial interstate conflicts (Kashmir, for example).

Another aspect of the colonial experience is the transfer of the weakness and vulnerability of the colonies in relation to the colonial powers which is reproduced the postcolonial era in the form of the periphery-core dichotomy. The conflicts of the core, the superpower rivalries, are exported to the periphery, the Third World. Third World states are unable to prevent the occurrence of these conflicts or the intrusion of these conflicts into their polities.


(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?

The propensity to engage in interstate conflict is increased by the transfer of modern weapons and weapons technology from the Western to the Third World. It is not just the instrumental value of weapons but often the mere fact of possession, especially if they are sophisticated weapons, that can increase the prospects of conflict. The transfer of these weapons happens at great economic cost.

Recently, it is transfer of weapons technology which has overtaken the transfer of weapons themselves. This shift could underlie either a movement towards military independence or could simply be replacing one form of dependence by another.  Either way, the effect on the overall security of the Third World is negative. If the former is true, the war-fighting capacity of Third World states in increased. If the latter is true, the feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among Third World elites is intensified.

One dramatic subset of the transfer of sophisticated weapons technology is nuclear proliferation. Emerging Third World states see nuclear weaponry as essential to their promotion to influence in the world stage and there are credible if unacknowledged instances of Third World states developing nuclear weapons. The problem of maintaining security is not just limited to the management of dozen or so nuclear powers but the practical implications of having a number of those powers involved in regional conflicts.


(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

In most Third World states, military spending is dominated by operational costs (mainly salaries for troops) rather than by costs of sophisticated weapons. This indicates the high level of manpower required to maintain internal control (taxation, policing, and warfare for attaining state power). In this context, it is safe to say that development as a serious objective comes only after power accumulation (political legitimacy) and meeting regional threats (securing regime security) in the policy consideration of Third World leaders.


“In the final analysis, however, most of the deep-seated sources of conflict and violence in the Third World … cannot and will not be fundamentally determined by superpower actions and interactions…. Therefore, although changes in superpower relations may continue to affect some of these sources of conflict and insecurity in the Third World, these changes alone are not capable of transforming the basic nature of the security predicament of the Third World states. As it stands, the existing parameters of the security problematic of the Third World can be altered only if Third World states have adequate time to complete the twin tasks of the state making and nation building, plus enough political sagacity on their leaderships’ part to attempt to accomplish these tasks in as humane a manner as possible.”

End Notes

[1] The ideas of Section II and III are more fully argued for in Mohammed Ayoob, “Security in the Third World: The Worm About to Turn?”, International Affairs 60 (1): 41–51.

[2] The system-centric idea of security draws its inspiration from the English School of International Relations which insists on the relevance of the “international society”.

[3] The experience of India in maintaining a robust democracy is an exception.

[4] “Th[e] European experience … cost tremendously in death, suffering, loss of rights, and unwilling surrender of land, goods, or labor…. The fundamental reason for the high cost…. Building differentiated, autonomous, centralized organizations with effective control of territories entailed eliminating or subordinating thousands of semiautonomous authorities…. Most of the European population resisted each phase of the creation of strong states.”


Security in the Third World: The Worm About to Turn? by Mohammed Ayoob — A Summary

Ayoob, Mohammed. 1983. “Security in the Third World: The Worm about to Turn?” International Affairs 60 (1): 41–51.

Security has traditionally been defined as immunity of a state to threats from outside its borders. This is the traditional realist perspective. However, some writers see security in terms of the “international society” as a whole (and not in terms of individual states or nations).[1] They argue that the security of each state is inextricable intertwined with the security of the whole system. Yet, even if these two approaches — the first, state-centric and the second, system-centric — disagree on the relevant object of security, they nevertheless conceptualise security by reference to external threats to the state.

This view of security can be traced back at least to Westphalia. The evolution of the European system of states, from 1648 to 1945 to use symbolic dates, was marked by (a) the interaction among sovereign states and (b) the identification of individuals with their own states (thanks in no small part to the correspondence of state and national boundaries). These two processes laid the foundation for the intellectual tradition that came to see security as synonymous with the protection of the state from external threats.[2]

The division and stabilisation of the Western world into two blocs since 1945 has only strengthened this connotation of security. In fact, the superimposition of alliance security (whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or the Warsaw Pact) has increasingly obliterated even the difference between state-centric and system-centric approaches to security.

“The three major characteristics of the concept of state or national security in Western states … are (a) its external orientation, (b) its strong linkage with systemic security and (c) its binding ties with the security of the two major alliance blocs … [However,] in the Third World,[3] [they are,] if not totally absent, so thoroughly diluted as to be hardly recognizable. The primary aim of this paper is to analyse how and why they are radically different in the context of the Third World and what are the implications for the international system as a whole that follow from these differences.”

Third World “Insecurity”: The Worm Within

Threats to Third World states emanate substantially from within. External threats exist but they remain marginal.[4] These external threats serve to augment internal problems and would not be effective without the latter.

Security problems in Third World states are largely internal mainly due to (a) their history of state formation and (b) the pattern of elite recruitment, regime establishment and maintenance.  Both of these differ starkly from Western states.

Firstly, Western states have achieved a level of “unconditional legitimacy” thanks to centuries of political and institutional development. Western societies have, through centuries of conflict and upheaval, reached a high level of consensus on fundamental issues of social and political organisation. They are thus strong as states.[5] In contrast, Third World states are extremely young and have not had time to develop strong state structures. In addition, in Third World societies, issues of political, social and economic organisation are matters of life and death contested at every level. There is no consensus. As such, they are weak as states.[6]

Secondly, as a natural consequence of the lack of consensus on fundamental issues, most Third World states are ruled by regimes with narrow support bases which hold on to power tenaciously and which are prone to disallow political debate. Security, naturally, comes to be defined in terms of maintaining the regime. This does not preclude disagreements in Western states. It means simply that the difference in scale and intensity is what makes disagreements critical to security in the Third World. In addition, the operation of the international economy which increases economic disparities has compounded the problem in Third World states by alienating the masses from the elite who rule. This poses a threat not just to the legitimacy of the rulers of these states but also the state structures through which the working of the international economy is translated.

The International Context: War by Proxy?

The link between the security of Third World states and the security of the world as a whole is “very fragile, if not totally non-existent”.[7] Conflict within and among Third World states is permitted or very often even encouraged. It is the fragility of political institutions and state structures in Third World states that enables this encouragement. Fragile polities facilitate intervention. Third World states serve as theatres where the drama of superpower rivalry can be safely acted out without drawing the superpowers into direct confrontation. The result is the exacerbation of the security problem in the Third World.

Other factors contribute to this state of affairs. Conflicts in the Third World (a) keep the arms industry in the developed world in business, (b) provide grounds for weapons testing, (c) enable superpowers to test each other’s tolerance, (d) serve as linkages between issues that superpowers can exploit, (e) provide opportunities to superpowers to demonstrate their credibility to allies, and (f) provide a way of ensuring access to strategic raw materials. In short, systemic inputs diminish security in Third World states whereas they augment security in Western states.

Given the fragile link between security of Third World states and the central issues of global security, war as an instrument of policy remains attractive to many Third World regimes. Not only that, proxy wars in the Third World remains a realistic option for the superpowers. A corollary of all these is that both superpowers have a vested interest in maintaining insecure regimes. However, the commitment towards Third World regimes are rather thin and extends greatly in terms of political and military investments but fall short of final commitment to save regimes (which would not be the case for “core” allies). Regimes, mistaken about the commitment of the superpowers, tend to be reckless, more repressive and less flexible. This adds to the problem of insecurity.

Implications of a Shifting Balance

The insulation of the Third World conflicts has been largely due to the stability of the strategic Cold War balance. This stability, maintained by the equilibrium of military technology, seems likely to enter into disequilibrium. The Soviet Union may with spirited military investment and political initiative make serious inroads into Western Europe or the United States may gain a strategic edge due to its technological and economic superiority. In any case, uncertainty would be introduced into superpower calculations making perceptions of situations as important as, if not more important than, actual situations. It is easy then to imagine that a period of transition — which the world seems to be moving towards at the moment — from the equilibrium would involve a “state of nerves” in which conflicts in the Third World which would otherwise be considered by the superpowers as routine would come to be treated as significant. This could be an entry point through which hitherto insulated Third World security concerns could affect the dominant stability of the strategic Cold War balance.

End Notes

[1] Reference to an international “society” is most obvious in what is known as the English School of International Relations.

[2] Put in a different way, the “external-directedness” of the concept of security — which, in one sense, is the fundamental attribute of the Western concept of security — is a corollary of the doctrine of state sovereignty in its pure and pristine form.

[3] “The term “Third World” is used in this article in a generic sense, and deliberately so. It is undoubtedly true that there are diverse elements within the Third World; it is also true that there are intramural problems, conflicts and antagonisms within it. However, these countries share enough in terms of their colonial past and their unequal encounter with the European powers following the Industrial Revolution to set them apart from the European states which have traditionally formed the “core” of the modern system of states.”

[4] “Any perceptive observer of the South Asian scene in 1970-1 would have realized that the Indian ‘threat’ to Pakistan was very secondary to that posed by East Bengali nationalists; also that the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 would either not have been fought, or, if fought, would have had a very different outcome if the bulk of the East Bengali population had not been disenchanted with the then existing structure of the Pakistani state.”

[5] This does not imply that they are necessarily powerful states. Here, the emphasis is on the strength of the structures of state.

[6] Again, this does not imply that they are powerless states.

[7] The exceptions to this are the major oil exporters and Israel which even if it is “physically located in the Third World it is not of the Third World”.