In the sentence, "Just governments ought to ensure food security to their citizens" does "their citizens" refer to all citizens of the just government, or just most citizens in general?

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    "Good people ought to take care of their family." Do you interpret this to mean all of their family or just some family members in general? – Jim Mar 2 '15 at 0:32
  • (In case it isn't clear, the "just" in "just governments" is an adjective applied to "governments", where "just", in this case, means "fair". So, "fair governments ought to ensure food security to their citizens." Of course, many politicians would still find "wiggle room" in "citizens", arguing that someone, say, without a valid photo ID is not a verifiable citizen.) – Hot Licks Mar 2 '15 at 0:40
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    You seem to project a misalignment between your political culture and the political culture of the rest of the English speaking world. Normally, people are citizens of a state or country, not the citizens of a govt. Unless, you know of a place on this planet, where the govt is the state, and where without the govt there would be no state. – Blessed Geek Mar 2 '15 at 2:27

It's a little odd to say "Just governments ought to do X." If they're truly just, surely they do what any government ought in justice to do. Therefore, a simpler expression of the underlying idea here is "Just governments do X," or more specifically,

Just governments ensure food security to their citizens.

Alternatively, you could express the much same notion of what is appropriate for governments to do by saying

Governments ought to ensure food security to their citizens.

where the implication of ought may be "in order to be just" (although it may instead mean something like "in order to be successful").

Absent some external qualifying modifier—and there isn't one here—"their citizens" encompasses everyone in their country except noncitizens.

As to how a just government treats resident noncitizens with regard to food security, the reader is left to speculate freely; the example sentence does not address that question.

  • The statement is an assertion of what OUGHT to be, not an assertion of fact. It is saying, in effect, "Governments, to be just, ought to ensure food security to their citizens." This is what the speaker believes. – Hot Licks Mar 2 '15 at 2:23
  • @HotLicks: My point is that, as a matter of logic, what a government should do in order to be just starts with the assumption of a "government" (not otherwise modified), not with a "just government." It doesn't make sense to me to posit that the government is already just and then talk about what it ought to do in order to be what it already is. Do you see the circularity problem that is bothering me? That's why I suggested either starting with "a government ought to do X [in order to be just]" or "a[n already] just government does X [because doing X is just]." – Sven Yargs Mar 2 '15 at 2:35
  • But the statement is simply an assertion. "Logic" plays second fiddle to rhetoric. "Just government" is a rhetorical device. In this case there is no law writ in stone that says governments should ensure food security -- it's the speaker's opinion that this is what a just government should do. – Hot Licks Mar 2 '15 at 2:42
  • I concede that idiomatically English speakers use this wording all the time—e.g., telling a friend who may or may not be a good friend, "A good friend ought to pay for my lunch." I'm not denying that the usage is well established; I'm just just pointing out that logically "it's a little odd." – Sven Yargs Mar 2 '15 at 2:47
  • We're not talking logic here, we're talking English. – Hot Licks Mar 2 '15 at 2:48

Technically, "their" is a possessive, however the sentence would usually be understood in generality.

  • This doesn't really help. Possession is a lingustic term in this context, not one that actually refers to ownership. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 5 '15 at 11:26

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