Social Justice

Against Social Justice

Jason Brennan writes

Social justice is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

And that’s one reason why I don’t think “social justice” is (or, perhaps, “should be”) central to bleeding-heart libertarianism. This has been a source of frustration to me in watching the back-and-forth between my old friend Todd Seavey and my much newer friends here at BHL: the concept of “social justice” is coming to occupy an outsized place in the understanding of BHL, and so arguments about the latter are decaying into arguments about the former.

Here I in part blame the estimable John Tomasi, whose important Free Market Fairness does the same thing. (I’ll be talking more about this at the APSA roundtable on the book.) John is concerned to build libertarian policy on Rawlsian foundations, and to persuade libertarians to embrace “social justice” a la Rawls rather than rejecting it a la Hayek. But the methodological claim– we should understand arguments about the best liberal society as arguments about social justice– sometimes eclipses the substantive arguments as to why a libertarianism inflected with attention to the moral concerns that animate left-liberalism is the most attractive combination.

I have two key objections. The first is, perhaps, idiosyncratic. The second really should not be.

1) “Justice,” says Rawls, “is the first virtue of social institutions.” Montesquieu, for one, disagreed, saying that justice sometimes needed to be moderated and tempered; its rigor and its formality could be too demanding. Now this is a difficult thought for post-Rawlsian political philosophy. More or less whatever anyone thinks is the morally best system all-things-considered gets called the “just” system. We can find arguments in favo of less equality or less liberty or less security, but the idea of an argument in favor of less justice probably strikes my colleagues here as an abuse of language.

But Rawlsian “justice as fairness” is actually a meaningful departure from earlier conceptions of justice, and I think comes at the cost of some conceptual slackness. From being the jurisprudential and legalistic virtue of social institutions, it has been transformed into being the ultimate, all-encompassing virtue. In other words, we can (I think we should) morally evaluate political-economic rules with reference to their effect on the least-advantaged without calling that concern “justice”– and without thereby diminishing the importance of that consideration. Here I think David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice is the better guide. His understanding of justice is itself pluralistic, but he also says that justice itself sits in a wider pluralistic moral universe, and may sometimes be judged against standards outside itself. The argument he posted here about property rights and utility seems to me in the right spirit– and in a spirit that’s quite difference from the justice-absolutism that tells us we haven’t really cared about something politically until we’ve classified it as justice.

Wearing my political scientist’s hat, I’ll say: we should think about security like this– as a fundamental value of political systems, but one that is at least partly external to justice. It may be impossible for a society to meet its necessary threshold of security without committing injustice, as when it faces a choice between utter military defeat and reliance on conscription, or extrajudicial imprisonment. Insisting that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” tempts some into incorporating security within justice, so that the demands of military necessity count as demands of justice, and tempts others to deny that there could ever be circumstances when the two values conflict. These both seem to me obstacles to clear thinking. In my view the values of the bleeding-heart– centrally, the attention to need as a criterion with very substantial moral weight of its own– can, and should, conceptually stand (at least partly) outside “justice” in a similar way.

2) The Rawlsian definition of social justice is constructed on the idealized model of a closed society, entered only by birth and exited only by death. The sense in which both Jason and John use “social justice” bears the legacy of that deep moral mistake.

The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

Like Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson (different as those two are!), I think that we who care about freedom should be deeply outraged by the wrongs done by the system of border controls to keep people in poverty. I think this is a central, defining issue for bleeding-heart libertarianism. And the language of social justice renders it invisible, because the poor people being hurt are not already “members” of the “society” whose institution are being evaluated. It doesn’t just say that the harm done to the non-members is less important than the effect on the poorest members; it denies that the former is a consideration at all. When combined with the “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” mindset, that leaves my bleeding-heart libertarian colleagues in the paradoxical position of hiding from view arguably the greatest-magnitude source of state harm to impoverished human beings.

“Social justice” has long sounded to people as if it makes “justice” more social-as-opposed-to-individualistic. But that is always, always just one side of the coin. The social is also more particularistic rather than universalist; the social pertains to a society, and (implicitly or explicitly) “social justice” enhances the importance of the society’s boundedness for justice.

The concern for material need, for the moral importance of poverty and deprivation as such, and for the moral importance of the individual human beings who are poor– and all of this in the immediate term, in a way that cannot simply be answered by appealing to institutions that enhance long-term growth– these unite the bleeding-heart libertarian with the Rawlsian left-liberal. But that doesn’t mean that Rawls was right about everything foundational; and his conceptual apparatus about justice in general and social justice in particular does not meet (my understanding of) our intellectual needs here.

  • Those are great reasons. They are not my reasons for resisting the call to social justice, but they’ll do.

  • Kevin Vallier

    I think no one on this blog is as tied to the Rawls of Theory as John Tomasi is. But perhaps John’s Rawlsian commitments have suffused our descriptions of social justice. And perhaps we should decouple social justice and Rawls a bit.

    But just a bit. Try this on for size. As you know, I like the Rawls of Political Liberalism much more than the Rawls of Theory. But in PL, Rawls’s focus on legitimacy seems to make room for balancing competing considerations to justice, as you mention in (1). A less than fully just regime can be legitimate and in some cases, I take it, less than fully just might be what is called for. Jerry Gaus follows the later Rawls in avoiding what we might call “justice fundamentalism” since we disagree about justice and hopefully have a way of getting along anyway that doesn’t depend purely on power relations.

    In my view, the nationalism in Rawls’s later work is based on his sociological assumption that liberal democratic societies have a uniquely thick number of shared ideas on which a political conception of justice can be based. A Society of Peoples has a thinner bases precisely in virtue of the fact that different societies share a small set of ideas and conceptions out of which norms and principles can be generated. But if we deny this thesis (as Jerry partly does), we can extend the bounds of “members of society” to “members of the public” which can extend across the globe (or at least to all agents that are autarchical).

    So in any case, here’s my general point: the later Rawls’s framework seems less vulnerable to your concerns and a conception of social justice bound by these considerations might survive them.

    An unrelated point: an odd thing about the evolution of John’s thought is that he was closer to the later Rawls in Liberalism Beyond Justice and the early Rawls in Free-Market Fairness. Who else moves from ’93 to ’71, right? (I pointed this out to him. He was amused.)

  • good_in_theory

    I’m not sure why ‘social’ and ‘society’ are being read as ‘national’ and ‘nation-state’ or ‘civil’ and ‘civil society’ or ‘civitas.’

    Take this quote from the sum up of the Cato Unbound piece:

    “This broad concept can be fleshed out in a number of different ways by different particular conceptions of social justice. And a full conception would say, among other things, … what the scope of social justice is (The nation? Humankind? All sentient beings?)…. Again, we have not attempted to articulate or defend such a conception here. ”

    Perhaps the problem is something along the lines of Arendt’s argument that states are the only effective bearers of human rights claims.  Ius civiles, ius gentium, ius naturalis … ius humanitas, ius socialis (not actually latin terms, but hey).  All different things, but states are the largest entities able to take charge of them.

    States may be the largest effective social institutions, but that does not mean ‘the social’ is defined by the ambit of the state.  The state’s responsibilities (justice) may exceed its contents (formal citizens).  “Society” is generally bigger than “Polity.”  Social membership is not political membership.

    Insofar as that is the case, libertarian social justice could include both classically libertarian avocation of free movement (of goods, labor, etc) as well as left arguments for what amounts to alien citizenship for example.  As such the claim to, let’s say, civil justice – that the state not harm my own interest by restricting trade because I am a citizen – could be separated from the demand that the state not harm my own interest by restricting trade because I am part of society.

    The alienage example I think is particularly useful here – it is very clear how non-resident aliens are clearly part of the society (or community) without being part of the polity, and one could separate rights they have as society members from rights they would only have as polity members.

  • Todd Seavey

    First, I promise to play nice even if Jason Brennan weighs in.  Second, social justice and libertarianism aside, now I’m more fascinated by the fact that immigration plays such a huge role not just Jacob’s political thinking but even his foundational meta-ethical thinking, it seems.  And I’m not saying that’s clearly wrong, just very interesting (it resembles a bit the surprising focus Bryan Caplan put on the issue of immigration’s costs in one of his recent blog entries on the BHLs and social justice).  

    I mean, usually you hear more people criticizing idealistic and utopian society-modeling and city-imagining for _eroding_ nationalist, communitarian, traditionalist institutions — but if even things like Rawls strike you as being “bad for the Mexicans” (so to speak), you sir are mighty internationalist in orientation — not a surprise, given your travels, expat status, ethno-relations interests, and emphasis on things like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

    But it sort of makes me now think that a popularizer of the Levyan worldview could almost _start_ with the globalism and work downward — and of course, there always was some merit to the dangerous-but-logical Kantian idea that if liberty is good for everyone, maybe a single global law code is the thing to aim for (not that you need to say that or are likely to, for various practical and diversity-respecting reasons) — but I begin to suspect you’re about that anti-nationalist at heart.  

    (And if I got along with the neoconservatives fairly well in the previous decade, I think it was partly because they, like the neoliberals, at least seemed to want something like a shared global regime of respect for individual rights, though in practice it might just mean bombs for all, just as the neoliberals may just end up giving people managed trade for all — but that global interconnectedness is very, very appealing and the smart, cosmopolitan thing to aim for one way or another — and it’s scary when it breaks down, contrary to what some of the paleo types might wish for.  But I never thought poor Rawls was guilty of threatening universalism.  Labor unions, on the other hand…)

  • Kevin, given that the conversation has recently revolved around essays coauthored by Matt & John, I don’t think it will work to try to separate John out too firmly from everyone else.  And Jason’s posts, from which I quote, don’t seem noticeably farther from Rawls on these questions than John & Matt are.

    Agreed broadly about early/ late Rawls and about John’s own curious migration.  And I thought about writing up a paragraph or two on Rawlsian “stability.”  If you’re determined to have justice be the first virtue of social institutions, then it certainly does make sense to build a stability criterion into your choice of conceptions of justice.  And, like you, I’m a Political Liberalism sympathizer.   But even if Rawls-sub-PL is less vulnerable to (1) than Rawls-sub-TJ is, I’m still inclined to think that he’s vulnerable enough that it should worry us.  And of course he buys a little bit of relief on (1) at the price of worsening (2)– “stability” is only the stability of the self-contained liberal-democratic nation-state.

    Todd, what I am is mighty anti-nationalist in orientation.  You say “even things like Rawls”– but my point is that Rawls is especially bad here, pointing us in a direction that makes it extremely difficult to take *any* domestic account of interests, rights, needs, or suffering beyond our borders.  It’s certainly not a new thought with me that Rawls was guilty of threatening universalism in some fashion.

      But as to what I affirmatively am, after being anti-nationalist– at that point we’re veering into the territory of an article that I don’t want to blog about until it’s accepted at a journal (knock on wood).  

  • Dshapiro

    Jacob, so glad you posted this, because it will remind readers of this blog that to be a BHL is not necessarily to be committed to the viability of the concept of social justice. Matt Zwolinski noted this, I am pretty sure, in his original post introducing the blog, but it is worth reiterating. Unlike Jacob, I am not opposed to the use of “social justice” as a viable concept. But I not yet won over, and it is good to have a debate about this at BHL.

    Daniel Shapiro

  • I guess I don’t quite understand Jacob Levy’s target. Is he just saying that Rawls is wrong? Well, that’s fine. But it seems like you could be a BHL and think that “social justice” is a central feature of bleeding-heart libertarianism and also believe that:

    (1) Justice only involves one important set of moral considerations (there are other kinds of moral considerations too).
    (2) The scope of social justice extends beyond the nation-state.

    So, even if Levy is right, it is unclear whether most BHLs are making some kind of mistake by focusing on social justice or making it central to their view.

  • Damien S.

    Couple of random thoughts:
    While I don’t know more than what Wikipedia says, English common law had a concept of equity parallel to laws, and courts of equity.  My understanding is that the formal workings of the courts of law might give result X, and the courts of equity were where you went to plead “this outcome, as an outcome sucks/is unfair/is unjust” and for remedy.  Sounds something like “social justice”.

    Pinker notes that recovery from an unjust regime like South African apartheid may require full confession and incomplete justice, not chasing down every perpetrator but acknowledging wrongs and moving on.  Formal ustice as a high value competes with peace and not getting people killed.

    Should “social justice” be taken as a composite phrase, ‘social’ ‘justice’, or as a single semantic unit these days?

    • good_in_theory

      This historical detail has caught my eye as well.  I’m also not at all versed in the legal history, but I recently checked this out to read:

      Conscience, Equity and the Court of Chancery in Early Modern England

      Another interesting point is that on, say, Strayer’s  account ( Chanceries were the locus of development of the apparatus of the modern state.

      So there’s an interesting nexus of equity, centralized powers, moral conscience, and executive/judicial discretion that’s all suggests something interesting about the state.

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  • Amanda Achtman

    For Aristotle, justice was a sort of extrapolation of private virtue in the social context of the polis. He said, “Justice in this sense, then, is complete virtue; virtue, however, not unqualified but in relation to somebody else.” The concept of “social justice” then would have been utterly redundant for Aristotle. In Plato’s Republic Socrates says, “And again, we have often heard people say that to mind one’s own business, and not to be meddlesome, is justice; and we have often said the same thing ourselves. […] Then it would seem, my friend, that to do one’s own business, in some shape or other, is justice.” And so, what is the proper relationship between the individual and the community? Bastiat says, “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” The word “justice” should not need to be modified by the word”social.” That justice involves relationships is implicit/essential to the meaning of justice. I oppose social justice insofar as it is basically “socialist justice” where, as Bastiat says, the distinction of government and society has been blurred.For an excellent scholarly article on social justice, I recommend: Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Perspective and a Theory by Carl L. Bankston III, published in the Independent Review.

    • good_in_theory

      The Platonic conception of justice is not unambiguously relational.  The quote you offer is of a definition rejected by Socrates, in any case.  

      Platonic justice could be said to amount to the proper ordering of one’s soul.  Such a proper ordering will tend to have the effect of creating  good relationships with others, but justice inheres in the right ordering of one’s soul, not the goodness or badness of one’s relationships.  

      Aristotle is precisely opposite Plato on this point in the quote you reference.  Plato is not concerned with the content of the next sentence written by Aristotle concerning, “the actual exercise of complete virtue.”  One can be completely virtuous without ‘actually exercising’ one’s virtue, because actual exercise depends upon the phenomenal world, not the world of the forms.

      The article you cited seems equally suspect with regards to the facts: the idea of “social justice” entered the conceptual vocabulary in the mid to late 19th century and was a vigorous topic of debate in the early 20th century.  As such it can in no way ‘stem’ from developments of the late 20th century.

      Rather, it stems from the “cultural perspectives” of the mid 19th century, which was strongly concerned with what was called, “the social question.”  The concept may have been reinvigorated by developments in the late 20th century (after a stretch of people being preoccupied with blowing the shit out of each other), but it does not stem from those developments.

  • Andrew Lister

    Jacob: “The Rawlsian definition of social justice is constructed on the idealized model of a closed society, entered only by birth and exited only by death. The sense in which both Jason and John use “social justice” bears the legacy of that deep moral mistake.”  

    I don’t see the “single closed society” assumption as being a moral mistake.  It would have been a moral mistake if it involved the belief that what happens to human beings outside our own society is irrelevant, from the point of view of justice.  But I think that it represents instead a methodological belief, that we are more likely to make moral progress by starting with simple cases, and then considering more complicated cases.  Justice for the admittedly hypothetical case of a single closed society will not necessarily be the same as justice for one society among many, but it should be easier to figure out what justice is for one society among many when we have a decent theory of justice for a single isolated society.  Something similar can be said about Rawls’s assumption about that the members of this society are not disabled.

    The moral mistake, if it is one, is Rawls’s assumption that our duties of justice are appropriately limited by the psychology of reciprocity.  I may be willing to pay my taxes even if I think I could get away with cheating, but only so long as most other people are paying their taxes.  If people’s willingness to comply with laws and principles of justice is conditional on reasonable assurance of compliance on the part of others, and if where political institutions are lacking this assurance is also lacking, then principles of justice will not demand as much from us beyond our borders than they do domestically.  (“Not demand as much,” not “not demand anything”).  One version of this is “why should I make a sacrifice for someone else if the other people who ought to be making such a sacrifice aren’t doing so too?”  Another version is “why should I make a sacrifice for you if I have no assurance that you would do the same for me, were our positions reversed?”

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  • M Lister

    Jacob, I think you’re seriously misunderstanding the role of the “closed society” bit in Rawls’s argument.  (This relates to a misunderstanding I think you have elsewhere of taking Rawls to be much closer to David Miller than he is.)  It’s part of modeling the “strains of commitment” and almost nothing else.  It’s not part of the world outside of the constructive process.  This is one of the most misunderstood parts in Rawls, surely, but I think you’re taking it completely wrongly. 

    It’s true the _societies_ play an important role for Rawls, but not in any way that requires them to be closed in the way you suggest.  (Nor are “societies” or “peoples” “nations” in any way that’s picked up by people like Miller.)  

    • Matt,  
      “It’s not part of the world outside of the constructive process. ”

      But in a constructivist system (and I think I accept constructivism) there’s no hiving it off like that.  I know that Rawls  doesn’t hold as a policy matter that the just society is a closed society.  But constructing (or choosing, not quite the same but related) our understanding of justice based on a modelling assumption of a closed society is interconnected with treating the object of thinking about justice as *a* (unified and self-contained) set of social institutions that make up *a* (unified and self-contained) basic structure of *a* (etc) society, and allows for the special focus of attention on that society’s worst-off.  

      So once we’re outside of the constructive process and armed with the difference principle, we apply it to the worst off *members of our society.*  

      As far as the nationalism goes, this sounds like a conversation worth having at greater length– but I think that Rawls (like Kant and the social contract tradition) depends on a concept of “people” that he certainly doesn’t want to admit is nationalistic, but that is impossible to make sense of as anything else.  

      See also: the discussion of immigration in Law of Peoples– it’s imagined away in the construction of the realistic utopia.  Immigration, like war, is a topic only for non-ideal theory.  And he endorses Walzer’s nationalistic– what else would you call it?– argument about immigration in Spheres of Justice.

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