The Search for the Just Society

Edward J. Dodson



Explain to students that the course is designed to provide them with a sound historical framework from which to evaluate the degree of justice inherent in various societal structures.

As a beginning exercise, ask the students for their opinion, first, about the degree of justness and, second, the degree of liberty existing in the U.S. Do not attempt, as this point, to provide definitions of these terms.

Put a line graph on the board, with zero at the left and ten at the right. Write each student's name on the graph below whatever number they choose. Ask them to explain why they feel the way they do.

Next, put several more line graphs on the board and write the names of different countries next to them (e.g., Russia, India, France, etc.). Ask the students to rate each society as well, then discuss the reasons for their answers.

Introduce two general benchmarks of how societies might be measured as just:

(1) that the overwhelming majority of citizens have a sufficient quantity and quality of the basic goods (economic and political) necessary for a decent human existence (i.e., food, clothing, housing, employment opportunities, access to education and medical care, and sufficient time to participate in civic affairs and for leisure); and
(2) widespread participation in the political decision-making process. Discuss the current conditions in the above countries based on these general criteria and ask whether anyone feels any differently about their previous answers.

Begin discussion of the history of the human civilization. Key points to make are as follows:

  • The earliest archeological evidence traces the origins of homo sapiens to some 2.5 million years ago in the savannah of Northeastern Africa (Ethiopia). Early humans probably evolved in a number of regions; some groups survived and grew in numbers, others became extinct.
  • Use a small circle graph to show initial territorial range of early foraging groups. Explain that they existed as small clans or extended families -- some more, some less nomadic depending on the resources available to them in their immediate locations.
  • Increase the size of the circle graph to display territorial expansion, explaining that advances in technology and tool-making enabled them to become effective hunters (adding concentrated protein to their diets) and contributing to population increases. Advise the students that a controversy of some note has been raised by biologists who contend that fertility might be related to the amount of certain proteins in the diets of various peoples; a high rate of fertility is actually related to a protein deficiency (and a corresponding higher rate of infant mortality).
  • Explain that effective hunting skills eventually would greatly reduce the supply of large game animals, so that population size pressed against the resources of their natural environment (given their stage of technological development, particularly the absence of domestication of foodcrops or animals). Some of the group might move out on their own to a new territory, or the entire group might migrate as a tribe, following the natural migration of animals.
  • Draw several other circle graphs on the board to show the existence of other groups and the extent of their territories. Use a dotted line around each circle to show how their territories might overlap. Discuss what would be likely to occur when these groups come into contact with one another: (1) reach an accord and share access (cooperation); (2) engage in hostilities (conflict).
  • Discuss internal changes in tribal/clan societies resulting from external threats. Division of labor arises where some hunters become warrior-protectors. Hierarchy eventually produces a warrior-chieftain. Larger, more powerful tribes may vanquish, absorb or annihilate their competitors. Slaughter of adult males was a common practice. Enslavement of captives added to number of people involved in food production and contributed to further subversion of a communitarian form of socio-political organization. A communitarian society is one in which mostly all property (particularly food) is owned in common and there is a minimum of hierarchical complexity, usually limited to decision-making assigned to tribal elders.
  • External pressures from other groups stimulate not only a division of labor but also changes to the physical form of settlement. Villages become fixed in location for longer periods of time, and some groups construct walled exteriors to protect themselves from attack. Fixed settlement stimulates the domestication of animals and plants and eventually leads to agriculture.
  • With settlement and the general increase in population, the role of the hunter becomes diminished and evolves into a full-fledged warrior subgroup. Eventually the warriors (sometimes in combination with the mystics/knowledge-bearers) use their coercive and persuasive strength to secure privilege for themselves (i.e., a redistribution of wealth to themselves far above what producers would willingly pay -- that is, give up part of their production -- for services provided).
  • Oppression by the leadership group leads to further change in the physical structure of settlements. Within the outer walls the leaders build fortified centers (citadels) designed to consolidate administration of government and to protect themselves from periodic outbursts by the peasant population.


Lesson 1 * Lesson 2 * Lesson 3 * Lesson 4
Lesson 5 * Lesson 6 * Lesson 7 * Lesson 8