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The Duty of Justice in the Modern Ghetto

Glen Liu
Harvard University


The modern ghetto, understood as severely impoverished urban neighborhoods with majority black citizens, is rampant with unlawful behavior, ranging in severity from petty theft to organized crime. Many citizens criticize the ghetto poor for failure to obey the law; however, from the standpoint of Rawlsian justice, such criticisms are often invalid. In this paper, I first reconstruct Tommie Shelby’s argument that the ghetto poor cannot be criticized for failure to respect the law since civic obligations are grounded in a reciprocal relationship between the citizen and the basic structure of society. Then, I discuss the case of kingpins, who profit unreasonably from injustice among the ghetto poor. Though, as members of the ghetto poor, they cannot be criticized for being unlawful, I argue that their actions are nonetheless impermissible because they violate the Rawlsian natural duty of justice, which states that citizens are required to uphold just institutions that exist and assist in bringing about just institutions that do not. After explicating the duty of justice in the context of the modern ghetto, I also argue for the Solidarity Presumption, which claims that an unlawful act that harms a fellow member of the ghetto poor violates the duty of justice and thus is morally impermissible. To address dilemmas that challenge the Solidarity Presumption, I rely on Kant’s universalizability principle, which I argue provides support for the Solidarity Presumption. 

I. Introduction


             The modern ghetto, understood as severely impoverished urban neighbor-hoods with majority black citizens, is rampant with unlawful behavior, ranging in severity from petty theft to organized crime. Many citizens are quick to condemn these actions, arguing that unlawful behavior by the ghetto poor only worsens preconceived stereotypes and inhibits the passage of assistive legislation. Progressive advocates, on the other hand, argue that what must be changed first is the fact that the modern ghetto is subject to a myriad of deep racial, political, and economic injustices. 


             In “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto,” Tommie Shelby argues that certain reasons for criticizing deviant actions by the ghetto poor are unjustified. Drawing on a Rawlsian notion of justice, he claims that they are not required to “respect the authority of the law qua law” because the basic structure of society in the United States is intolerably unjust toward the ghetto poor (151). Thus, while many Americans believe that all citizens, regardless of class, race, or status, should obey the law, Shelby claims that when the ghetto poor engage in deviant acts such as “crime, refusing to work in legitimate jobs, and having contempt for authority,” they cannot be criticized specifically for failure to respect the law (128). 


             However, Shelby leaves open whether these deviant acts could be criticized for other reasons. Indeed, it is certainly the case that there are members of the ghetto poor who not only perpetuate the injustice unfolding in dark ghettos but also profit handsomely from it, something that seems strikingly unjust. A prominent example is drug kingpins, who exploit the need for a sense of belonging among younger members of the ghetto poor and advocate for violent crime to fuel their drug profits. 


             In order to address this objection, I will introduce Rawlsian natural duties, which, unlike laws, are binding upon all people due to their status as moral agents. I will specifically discuss the natural duty of justice, which states that citizens are required to uphold just institutions that exist and assist in bringing about just institutions that do not yet exist, at least when this can be done without placing a significant burden on the agents in question. I will argue that, when applied to the ghetto poor, the duty of justice condemns the criminal actions of kingpins as morally impermissible. 


             From the duty of justice, I will draw what I call the Solidarity Presumption, which states that an unlawful act that harms a fellow member of the ghetto poor violates the duty of justice and thus is morally impermissible. I will then address the difficult tension that arises when the Solidarity Presumption is applied to specific cases of crime where members of the ghetto poor harm each other in order to survive. On the one hand, citizens harming each other often prevents just institutions from taking hold, for reasons that I will discuss in greater detail later. Yet on the other hand, in many cases, such criminal acts are done solely to survive, which would seem to be sufficient grounds for their moral permissibility. 


             This tension is made even more difficult because Shelby and Rawls both refrain from commenting on the permissibility of acts in specific cases, as this lies outside of the scope of their respective projects. As such, I will turn to Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, which provides us with a framework of ethical action. In particular, I will argue that many of the cases that violate the Solidarity Presumption also violate Kant’s universalizability principle. Thus, I will argue that the duty of justice, alongside the universalizability principle, provides adequate justification for the Solidarity Presumption. 

II. The Ghetto Poor and the Law


             Shelby’s core thesis is that while many law-abiding citizens denounce the ghetto poor for their failure to obey the law, they are, in fact, exempt from obeying their “civic obligations.” He writes: “Civic obligations are owed to those whom one is cooperating with to maintain a fair basic structure” (144). Thus, he conceives of social justice in a society as “a matter of reciprocity”: citizens who benefit from a basic structure must also do their part in upholding it (129). It is in this sense that civic obligations are grounded in a reciprocal relationship between the society and the citizen. As a corollary, then, it is unreasonable to expect citizens who do not benefit from or are even harmed by the basic structure of society to be required to uphold it. 


             To be precise, however, it is important to distinguish between a basic structure of society that is unjust and one that is intolerably unjust, as only in the latter are citizens exempt from fulfilling their civic obligations. For Shelby, the necessary and sufficient condition for a livable basic structure of society is that the “constitutional essentials” are secure. Enumerating these, he writes: 


…[T]hese essentials are the familiar basic rights of a liberal democratic regime—such as freedom of speech, conscience, assembly, and association; the right to vote and run for office; the right to due process and judicial fairness—and the political procedures that ensure democratic rule. The constitutional essentials also include freedom of movement, free choice of occupation, formal justice, and a social minimum that secures the basic material needs of all citizens. (145) 


             Even a cursory understanding of black ghettos, however, would show that they lack these constitutional essentials. Shelby defines a black ghetto as having three core characteristics: “(1) predominantly black, (2) urban neighborhoods, (3) with high concentrations of poverty” (134). Shelby also claims that “the impact of institutional racism is deepest in dark ghettos,” precisely because those ghettos feature a combination of both unlivable poverty and extreme racism (139). For instance, those who live in dark ghettos are disadvantaged when it comes to employment, given that employers “expect blacks from the ghetto to be generally violent, dishonest, unreliable, and ignorant” (140). Thus, the vices of racism and poverty are together manifested in dark ghettos, and this, along with the fact that the ghetto poor have very little power to influence policy changes, prevents constitutional essentials from taking root. 


             This leads to Shelby’s ultimate claim, which is that “the deviant conduct and attitudes prevalent in the ghetto” are not “unreasonable” (143). That is, given that the relationship between the basic structure of society and the ghetto poor is broken, unlawful actions by the ghetto poor cannot be criticized solely for the reason that they are unlawful. 


III. Kingpins and Natural Duties


             There is, however, a sort of crime which is pernicious in a different way and ought to be denounced — namely, organized crime. While petty crimes committed by the ghetto poor, such as tax evasion and shoplifting, are often done out of necessity, gang leaders among the ghetto poor perpetuate injustice in order to generate lucrative profits, such as through operating the drug trade. For example, knowing that many of the youth in ghettos lack basic human essentials, such as a feeling of belonging and a livable income, these kingpins (as I call them) entice the youth to join their cause while promising to provide for them. Left with seemingly no other choice, the impressionable youth gradually gravitate toward gang activity, further increasing the leaders’ profits by perpetuating injustice in the ghetto. 


             Now, on Shelby’s view, because kingpins are also members of the ghetto poor, they cannot be criticized solely for being unlawful. The basic structure of society, namely the political and social institutions of the country, are intolerably unjust toward them just as they are toward other members of the ghetto poor; the only difference is that kingpins use this to their advantage. However, they can, and should, be criticized for disobeying their natural duties, a Rawlsian concept that Shelby also employs heavily in his writing. These natural duties, in contrast with civic obligations, are binding upon humans because we are all moral agents. Thus, they hold irrespective of any citizen’s relationship with the basic structure of society. This motivates Shelby’s assertion that “even if a society is fundamentally unjust … it does not follow that the ghetto poor have no moral duties to one another or to others” (151). 


             In many ways, the enumeration of the natural duties ought to strike all reasonable thinkers as plainly intuitive. For instance, the duties that Rawls lists include the duty to not harm others, the duty to not cause unnecessary suffering, and the duty to have mutual respect for one’s fellow moral agents (A Theory: Revised 98). This list alone would be sufficient to explain why the actions of kingpins are morally impermissible for reasons other than their deviance. However, the duty that kingpins violate most egregiously is the duty of justice, which Rawls also calls “the most important natural duty” (A Theory: Revised 293). As such, the next section explicates the duty of justice in detail. 

IV. The Duty of Justice in the Modern Ghetto


             The duty of justice is defined by Rawls in the following passage: 


From the standpoint of the theory of justice, the most important natural duty is that to support and to further just institutions. This duty has two parts: first, we are to comply with and to do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves. (A Theory: Revised 293–294)


Thus, Rawls divides the duty of justice into two necessary conditions, both of which must be met in order for the duty of justice to be upheld. The unlawful actions of kingpins, however, are not only inimical to the attainment of just institutions, but they blatantly perpetuate injustice in dark ghettos. As such, they are to be criticized for not upholding the second condition of the duty of justice. 


             This criticism is still valid despite the massive profits generated from organized crime and the accordingly large cost the kingpins would incur should they act to establish just institutions among the ghetto poor. To see why, what must be made clear is that “cost,” as used by Rawls in his formulation of the duty of justice, should be understood as moralized cost, and thus should include some notion of justice alongside the economic sense of the word. 


             To better understand moralized cost, consider the following hypothetical. Suppose we have a despot ruling over a society of people who routinely suffer from injustice and deprivation under his reign. The realization of just institutions in this society can only occur if the despot’s pernicious grip on this society is weakened, and thus justice in this society comes at a cost to the despot. This, however, cannot possibly justify the despot’s refusal to assist in the establishment of just institutions, for then the conclusion would be that anyone who benefits from unjust institutions is exempt from assisting in the realization of just institutions, which would be absurd as a principle of justice. Thus, the clause “at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves” ought to be clarified to be: “at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves, given that the people in question aren't unjustly benefitted by existing unjust institutions. Call this expanded clause the Cost Clause. 


             Clearly, the leaders of organized crime in the ghetto are profiting unreasonably from injustice in the ghetto, and thus the exemption provided by the Cost Clause does not apply to them. They are akin to the despot in my previous hypothetical scenario, which means that though assisting in the realization of just institutions would invariably come as a cost to them in the economic sense, they are not exempt from this duty. Indeed, it is unequivocally true that organized crime must first be dismantled before justice can manifest in the modern ghetto. 


V. The Cost Clause Applied


             Now, beyond kingpins, the Cost Clause explains why other members of the ghetto poor could be exempt from assisting in the realization of just institutions. As I have discussed, the injustices that plague the ghetto poor preclude them from pursuing employment opportunities that pay livable wages. Instead, the ghetto poor are required to “work for poverty wages” that generally don’t secure them an income sufficient to meet their basic needs (Shelby 150). And without the prospect of better employment or educational opportunities, it is reasonable for them to turn to petty crime to supplement their sparse income. Because of this, members of the ghetto poor do not violate the duty of justice when they refuse to work menial jobs for poverty wages and instead turn toward deviant acts to generate a livable income. 


             But what of actions that prey on other members of the ghetto poor? Note that we’re no longer focused on kingpins, but rather on ordinary members of the ghetto poor who are oftentimes shoplifting or mugging in order to survive. The Cost Clause would seem to exempt them from criticism for these actions because of the plain fact that their survival could depend on these acts of petty crime. However, the fact that these acts of petty crime are detrimental toward the establishment of just institutions further complicates the issue. 


             Indeed, when the ghetto poor prey upon each other, they often do so at the expense of sympathetic public sentiment and progressive legislation. Not only are these acts of crime seen by the general public as inherently problematic, but they also perpetuate a culture of violence and distrust in these ghettos. In his article, Shelby writes that there are two “criminal ethics’’ that emerge in dark ghettos: gangsters, who use violence to extract goods from others, and hustlers, who use deception to extract goods from others (137). Those of the ghetto poor who wish to benefit from petty crime generally adopt one or both of these identities, for each has its own advantages. 


             What is most salient to our discussion, however, is that even if a member of the ghetto poor refuses to commit to a life of street crime, he still must mold his behavior in order to survive in an environment riddled with crime. This requirement generally results in the development of traits reminiscent of the gangster or hustler ethic, despite the fact that the member of the ghetto poor in question has no involvement in petty crime. Along these lines, Shelby writes: 


Residents are always on guard and view strangers with suspicion, for one can never be sure that others are not looking to take advantage of you. In adapting to these conditions, many residents not directly involved in crime develop survival strategies that are similar to or mimic the strategies of gangsters and hustlers. To avoid being victimized one must appear shrewd and capable of defending oneself, with deadly violence if necessary. Here the familiar male adolescent desire to appear “tough” can take on lethal dimensions, with frightening consequences for those who live in urban communities. (139) 


Thus, the culture of crime in dark ghettos is highly pervasive, for even those who abstain from crime must develop personas that are unwelcoming, thereby contributing to a culture of hostility among the ghetto poor. 


             So, when it comes to committing acts of crime between members of the ghetto poor, the result is the reinforcement of a culture of hostility in dark ghettos. Such acts are likely to lead to increased racial prejudices as well as negative public sentiment toward the ghetto poor. Because of these consequences, the prospect of just institutions becomes increasingly unlikely in the modern ghetto. 

VI. The Solidarity Presumption and the Universalizability Principle


             To make things clear, I will call the claim that is causing the present tension the Solidarity Presumption, which states that unlawful acts that harm others among the ghetto poor, such as stealing from or taking advantage of a weaker member in the ghetto, are morally impermissible. To recapitulate, the Solidarity Presumption is not so straightforward because of the Cost Clause. That is: oftentimes these unlawful and predatory acts among the ghetto poor, though contributing to a culture of hostility, are done out of survival, and thus refraining from them would impose a huge, if not life-threatening, cost on the perpetrator in question. 


             What makes things more difficult is that both Shelby and Rawls refrain from commenting on how to evaluate the morality of individual actions. Shelby writes: “My goal is not to draw the precise line between permissible crimes and impermissible ones but only to offer reasons for thinking that the former set is not empty” (152). Similarly, Rawls does not provide us with a framework for evaluating actions, which is far too granular for his project in A Theory of Justice. Indeed, Rawls is more concerned with how the basic structure of society ought to be constructed; all other relationships, such as the relationship between two agents within a society, are handled by his natural duties, which are themselves unfortunately abstract. 


             What is missing here, then, is a true theory of moral action. Indeed, our present resources don’t provide us with much insight into how one ought to act in specific scenarios. As such, I will draw on Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy to help guide us in our quandary. Through explaining it in the context of the ghetto poor, I hope to show why his moral philosophy would support the Solidarity Presumption. 


             Kant’s moral philosophy is fitting for our current application for two reasons. Firstly, Rawlsian justice is largely built upon Kant’s ethical theory. Indeed, in the preface to the original edition of A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes: “The theory that results is highly Kantian in nature. Indeed, I must disclaim any originality for the views I put forward. The leading ideas are classical and well known” (A Theory: Original viii). Given that Shelby relies on Rawlsian justice, it would seem appropriate to apply Kant’s thinking to Shelby’s philosophy. The second reason is that Kant’s moral philosophy, particularly the universalizability principle, provides us with a clear framework for evaluating the moral permissibility of particular actions. The universalizability principle is as follows: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” where a maxim for Kant is understood as some action-guiding principle of this form: in order to generate some end B, I will perform some action A (31). 


             To will that a maxim become a universal law involves clearing two tests: the contradiction in conception and the contradiction in will. For our purposes, discussing the contradiction in conception is sufficient. Given some maxim that has become a universal law, a contradiction in conception arises when the given end E couldn’t possibly be attained through your action A. The example that Kant gives in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is the following maxim: in order to get out of some difficulty, I will make a lying promise (15). To make this example even more concrete, suppose our maxim is: in order to make some money, I will make a lying promise. Thus, the universalization of this maxim would entail two consequences. First, any time anyone needs to make some money, they will make a lying promise. Second, everyone knows that this maxim applies to all agents. This maxim, however, cannot be rationally universalized. If everyone were to know that people will make lying promises in order to make some money, then, as Kant says, “there would properly be no promises at all” (15). That is, the universalization of this maxim would mean that no one would accept any promises, and so the plan of action set out by the maxim could never be fulfilled. Thus, we arrive at a contradiction in conception. 


             Similar contradictions in conception can be found in what I call “predatory maxims,” which are more related to our discussion of deviant acts. These are maxims that include lying, stealing, and threatening. Because of the plethora of existing resources that discuss Kant’s universalizability principle, I will not go into it further here. However, what I want to emphasize is that Kant’s framework stands as a valid measure of the morality of actions. 


             Moreover, Kant’s framework, specifically the universalizability principle, is especially salient for the Solidarity Presumption because many of the injustices present in the ghetto persist as a result of predatory maxims that have been largely universalized. That is, due to the fact that most members of the ghetto poor know that any stranger approaching them could be seeking to lie to or take advantage of them, a culture of distrust and hostility emerges. 


             This is exactly what Shelby means when he refers to criminal ethics that emerge in the ghetto in spite of the many members who do not wish to be involved in crime. Specifically, it is because innocent members know that it is often the case that their fellow members could be looking to take advantage of them that they develop a hardened personality. Such a reality does indeed make it hard for those with predatory maxims to realize their ends. Yet it also prevents a culture of trust and friendship from forming, which is necessary for just institutions to take root. Thus, Shelby writes: “Under these conditions a ghetto subculture emerges, where the traits of the gangster and hustler, usually condemned in mainstream society, are sometimes viewed as virtues” (139). 


             As such, the universalizability principle is especially important in the ghetto, owing to the fact that injustice is perpetuated by the reality that predatory maxims have been promoted to be universal, unspoken rules. Because of this, I find that an adherence to the universalizability principle would be a beneficial step toward the arrival of just institutions in the ghetto community. What this would entail is a collective rejection of predatory maxims and a subsequent loosening of the gangster and hustler ethics among the ghetto poor. In conclusion, from Kant’s moral philosophy, I find adequate support for the Solidarity Presumption. 


VII. Conclusion


             In this paper, I have articulated Shelby’s views on deviance in the ghetto poor in detail. I addressed the case of kingpins by arguing that the Rawlsian duty of justice makes many of their unlawful acts morally impermissible. I then introduced the Cost Clause, the Solidarity Presumption, and the subsequent dilemma that arises. Namely, though harming other members of the ghetto poor would seem to hinder the prospect of just institutions, doing so is oftentimes the only way for the agent in question to survive. To help find a way to resolve this tension, I turned to Kant’s universalizability principle, which, I ultimately conclude, agrees with the Solidarity Presumption. 


             However, with all that being said, I will not be so hasty as to conclude that this quandary is now resolved. Indeed, as mentioned previously, the costs of refraining from predatory crime among the ghetto poor are high, particularly for those who depend on these specific acts for survival. As has been discussed above and by Shelby, the basic structure of society, including our public institutions and policies, must be radically shifted in light of this fact. But that being said, there are still fundamental natural and moral duties that all members of society are bound by. Kant’s ethical theory introduces the notion that we are all bound under the same moral laws, and I find that this is sufficient justification for the Solidarity Presumption. 

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Original Edition. Harvard University Press, 1971.           

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, 1999.

Shelby, Tommie. “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 35, no. 2, 2007,

pp. 126–60.


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