Social Justice, Academic Philosophy

Defining Social Justice, Etc.

[Note: Sorry for the strange lack of paragraph breaks under the fold. I don’t know how to fix this.]

David Friedman is worried that the term “social justice” has no definite meaning, despite my claims to the contrary. He has two arguments to this effect:

  1. My definition leaves open a great number of questions. What counts as “minimally decent”? What counts as “coercion”? Does the justification of coercive institutions depend “entirely” on how well the institution serve the poor (or least advantaged)?
  2. Matt Zwolinski and I, in different contexts, have offered somewhat different definitions of “social justice”.

1 isn’t a problem for me at all. These definitions are supposed to leave questions open, as I will show below. 2 is more significant a problem for me than 1, but I don’t think it’s a big deal either

1. What “Social Justice” Leaves Open

Distinguish between the concept of something and differing conceptions of it. Richard Dagger and I both agree that the concept of “civic virtue” is about having the disposition and ability to promote the common good over purely private ends. But he and I have substantively different conceptions of civic virtue. While we agree on the definition of civic virtue, we disagree about what civic virtue requires. He and I–or anyone else who theorizes about civic virtue–might have differing views about what counts as the common good, what it takes to promote it, how strongly one must be motivated to promote it to have civic virtue, and so on. However, the reason our debates are debates about civic virtue–the reason we are not just talking past each other–is that we are all discussing the idea of having the disposition and ability to promote the common good over purely private ends.

Or, to take a religious example, Christians and Muslims have the same concept of God, but have disagreements in their conceptions of God. Or, two Christians might define “God” the same way, but have substantive disagreements about the nature of God. (E.g., Was Jesus fully divine and fully human? Is God one person or three? Did God simultaneously create and redeem the universe, or did redemption actually occur at the time of Jesus’s death?)

Rawls says that (1) assigning rights and duties and (2) determining the proper distributions of benefits and burdens are built into the concept of justice. Marxists, classical liberals, libertarians, left-liberals, conservatives, etc. may have different conceptions of justice. They disagree about what rights and duties we have, and what the proper distributions of benefits and burdens are. However, the reason all these people are having a genuinely substantive debate about justice, rather than just talking past each other, is that they are all talking about 1 and 2.

2 concerns “distributive justice,” or, as Nozick would prefer (since “distributive justice” is a loaded term), “justice in holdings”. Now, there are lots of theories of justice in holdings: Nozick’s entitlement theory, meritocratic theories, strict egalitarianism, sufficientarianism, etc. There are endless variations of each of these theories. Even defining a broad class of them will leave questions open. E.g., sufficientarian theories say that distributive justice requires that every citizen get enough to lead a decent life, but then different sufficientarians will dispute who counts as a citizen, what counts as enough, and just what role this sufficientarian principle plays in a full theory of justice. Still, everybody who discusses these issues is discussing the issue of distributive justice, because they are all discussing 2.

Now, a proper subset of theories of distributive justice count as being theories of social justice. Theories of social justice focus on the idea that moral justification of coercive institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged. Just as with the other philosophical terms, the definition here is supposed to leave open many questions for debate. What counts as a coercive institution? How strongly does the moral justification depend on how well the institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged? (Few advocates of social justice think this is the only criterion of legitimacy or justice.) Who counts as the poor or least advantaged? Is this about absolute or relative deprivation? What counts as the boundaries of society? If even one person falls through the cracks, does that make society unjust? And so on. Anyone who has a conception of social justice advocates some principle in this vicinity. People disagree about the answers to these questions. But what makes them talking about social justice, rather than something else, is that they are discussing these issues so defined.

So, Ayn Rand has a theory of distributive justice/justice in holdings, but not social justice. The most basic form of utilitarianism is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice, because it has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged. (Insert utility-monster or Omelas-type thought experiment here.) “To each according to his merit” is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice.  I’m inclined to say that egalitarianism is not really a theory of social justice either.

2. Gotcha! You and Matt Gave Different Definitions

I probably was misleading, if not inaccurate or incorrect, when I said there’s a “definite” meaning. That might suggest that everybody in philosophy agrees on the necessary and sufficient conditions for social justice.
On the contrary, the term is probably more of a cluster concept or archetype concept than a term with necessary and sufficient conditions. (Very few terms, including philosophical terms, have necessary and sufficient conditions.) My definition and Zwolinski’s and Tomasi’s are not exactly the same, but they are not far apart either. They’re right in the middle of the cluster. I don’t think this detracts from what I claimed.
If you think that this means that I’m wrong that social justice has a definite meaning, then you should also think I’m wrong to hold that in philosophy “liberalism”, “socialism”, “capitalism”, “institution”, “government”, “democracy”, “utilitarianism,” etc. have definite meanings. But that doesn’t seem right. Instead, probably all of these are cluster concepts rather than concepts that admit of necessary and sufficient conditions. “Liberalism” is not an empty term. There are clear liberals–like me–and clear non-liberals–like Mussolini. There are clear democrats–like John Rawls–and clear non-democrats–like David Friedman.
Same goes for “social justice”.
An Extra Bit:
Friedman also asks,
Do you believe that [John Rawls’s] derivation of the minimax rule [is] more defensible than the claim that “Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful.?
Here I concur with Matt Zwolinski, who wrote:
Yes, I think that Rawls’ defense of the maximin principle is “more defensible” than Rand’s critique of Kant or Plato. Given that Rand never actually bothered to read Kant, and that her critique of him has precious little to do with what he actually said, this is not a terribly high bar.
I don’t know whether Rand actually read Kant or not–I trust Matt has some basis for asserting that. But her criticisms of Kant are at best really silly. She attacks straw men. Here’s what I take to be an accurate summary of Rand’s views on Kant:
As an example error,
An action is moral only if a person has no desire to perform it but performs it out of a sense of duty and receives no benefit from it of any kind.
Nope, that’s not right. It’s based at best on a misreading on the Insensible Man example from the Groundwork. First, Kant distinguishes between the rightness and wrongness of an action and the moral worth associated with it. An action is right or wrong, generally, independent of a person’s motives. The moral worth of an action is really an assessment of a person’s motives in performing the action. Second, Kant does not hold that your actions can have moral worth only of you perform them out of a sense of duty alone and only if you receive no benefit from them. He can’t say that, given his other commitments–he believes that you can always choose to act in ways that have moral worth, but he thinks you cannot perfectly control your motivations and desires. In the Insensible Man example, what Kant actually says is that because the depressed man clearly has no other motives, it’s clear to us that he is sufficiently motivated by duty to do the right thing. For Kant, for your actions to have moral worth, your sense of duty must be sufficient to make you perform the right action, regardless of your other motives. So, for example, I have both prudential and moral reasons to feed my children. (Contrary to Rand’s misinterpretation of Kant, Kant thinks prudence and morality overlap, but are distinct categories.) Now, so long as my moral motivation is strong enough to get me to feed my children, it doesn’t reduce the moral worth of my actions that I also have strong prudential reasons (such as a desire to stay out of jail or a desire to have my wife be nice to me).

Friedman then asks,

 Would you be willing to describe Rawls as a “cartoon liberal?”

No. He has his cartoonish moments–for instance, his discussion of what regime-types satisfy justice as fairness is terrible, in my view, because he cheats–but he’s not a cartoon liberal. I don’t think all of his arguments are good, but he’s not a silly out-to-lunch nincompoop.
Friedman adds,
If the answer to both questions is “no,” I do not see how you can defend yourself against the charge that you have a double standard, treat arguments made by academic philosophers, at least famous ones, with more respect than arguments made by other people—even when both are equally bad.

Really? Ayn Rand’s critique of Kant is as good as Rawls’s argument for the Difference Principle? Really? I don’t see the double standard. Rand’s critique of Kant is intellectual excrement. (As Rand would say, “Judge and prepare to be judged.”) Rand on Kant is like Naomi Klein on Milton Friedman or Corey Robin on Hayek. In contrast, Rawls’s defense of the Difference Principle is not fully compelling because there are some important objections and questionable assumptions.


  • Ryan Long

    Last week, you claimed that knowledge could be known even if it could not be articulated. This week, you claim that concepts can be understood, and even debated, even if they cannot be definitively articulated.

    It is true that many intellectual concepts mean different things to different people, but I am not sure embracing ambiguity is the solution here. The Republic did not succeed in defining “justice,” but discussing the ramifications of various definitions bore philosophical fruit. I think it would have been a much shorter book had Socrates told Glaucon, “Thrasymachus and I agree in the middle of the cluster.”

    • No, you’re assuming incorrectly that “definite” requires necessary and sufficient conditions. Hardly any concepts in natural or scientific language admit of necessary and sufficient conditions.

      Also, you seem to be collapsing the distinction between conceptions of justice and the concept of justice. It’s easy to define the word “justice”. It’s hard to know what justice requires.

      • Ryan Long

        True, but the one and only necessary and sufficient condition for something to be “definite” is a definition. Not only is that a very minimal standard to meet, it is a necessary condition for discussion that transcends the “definition stasis.” And, it is one that simply entails two or more parties reaching a consensus on that definition and proceeding accordingly.

        Your point about justice vs. the concept of justice is well-taken.

        My point, though, is that last week you answered a call for greater specifics with the answer that such specifics were inarticulable; and this week, you have answered a call for better definitions with the claim that the definitions are necessarily ambiguous. Reading some some of your other posts, it’s difficult to believe you didn’t have something more specific in mind when you were discussing these things. At what point do things like definitions and articulability start to matter?

        • Ryan, I give up. You’re just repeatedly mischaracterizing me. I give up.

      • “It’s easy to define the word “justice””

        You might want to discuss the matter with Matt Zwolinski, since in the process of commenting on my post responding to a post of yours and defending the claim that “social justice” has a definite meaning in philosophy, he wrote:

        “As for terms like “justice” and “happiness” – if you think that these
        have a definite meaning in philosophy, I’d be interested in hearing what they are.”

        If you tell him, I won’t have to.

        • matt b


          Maybe it’s just easier to ask you some direct questions like whether or not you believe that coercive institutions must be sufficiently beneficial to all to legitimately command obedience or whether you believe that innocents are morally entitled to have their basic needs met assuming they cannot meet them on their own and whether you think that a social safety net could ever be justified to ensure this. I mean to me these are the questions at the heart of the discussion and it seems to be more productive to address these questions then get caught up in definitions.

          • Ross Levatter

            “or whether you believe that innocents are morally entitled to have their UNDEFINED basic needs met assuming they CLAIM THEY cannot meet them on their own AND NO VOLUNTARY ORGANIZATION IN CIVIL SOCIETY COULD ASSIST and whether you think that A COERCIVE TRANSFER MECHANISM EUPHEMISTICALLY DESCRIBED AS A social safety net could ever be justified BY MAKING THE POTENTIALLY SOPHISTICAL CLAIM THAT THEY WILL ensure this”


          • Good questions, although since I’m the one who has been trying to get the BHL people to explain their position, perhaps they should be the ones answering them. And if I had answers from them, I would also want reasons.

            1. I don’t know what “coercive institutions” means, for reasons I discussed in the first of my three posts on my blog on this controversy. Is permitting me to use force to prevent someone from killing me a “coercive institution?”

            2. I don’t believe people are morally entitled to have their basic needs met, and I don’t think that in a society such as ours, where the poor have a consumption standard well above what most people had prior to the past century or so, “basic needs” is a useful concept. It isn’t as bad as “minimally decent lives,” but in a modern society it is still pretending to an objective standard where that isn’t one relevant to real arguments.

            3. I don’t regard either utilitarianism or natural rights as a fully adequate position. One should normally not violate rights in the usual libertarian sense, although defining that involves more problems than most libertarians realize. But if you have an enormous gain in utility for a small cost in rights violation–my standard example is stealing a nickle to prevent a catastrophe that would wipe out humanity–you should do it.

            4. Initial acquisition of land raises serious problems. I’ve discussed my preferred solution, which isn’t very good, in an article on my web site.


            Some possible solutions claim to justify something like a safety net–I discuss one in the article–but none that I find really satisfactory. I think that set of left-libertarian approaches, of which Georgism is the best known, approaches the problem in a different way than the BHL people seem to want to.

            Hope that helps.

          • matt b

            First of all let me say how it cool it is for me to be talking to David Friedman. Despite our disagreements, I think you’re a fascinating and important thinker. So I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect clear definitions. When I use the term “coercive institutions” I refer to legal frameworks which rest upon the coercive enforcement of a set of rules people cannot opt out of. Property rights regimes are coercive since they license the use of force against people who do things that go against the wishes of property owners. I think this can be justified just like self-defence can be justified but in both instances we are talking about the use of force.
            Well here I guess we just have a fundamental moral disagreement. I think a liberal state (I know you don’t want any state) has a moral obligation to create set of conditions under which individuals can secure autonomy and I believe that you cannot secure autonomy and, by extension, be a responsible self-author if you are suffering because of hunger or a lack of shelter or what have you.

          • You mentioned self-defense. Go back to a point I’ve raised earlier. If the institutions permit someone to use force to defend against being murdered or rape, are they coercive institutions in your terms? Does that mean that if the institutions don’t succeed in making sure nobody suffers due to hunger or a lack of shelter, it is unjust for them to permit individuals to defend themselves? I don’t think this line of argument leads to a coherent, let alone defensible, position.

            I’m currently writing a post, which I expect will go up shortly, which (among other things) looks at just how little it takes to satisfy your “hunger or a lack of shelter” criterion if one takes it seriously, defines it as a lack of food and shelter sufficient to reduce one’s life expectancy in half (arbitrary, but a way of avoiding the slippery slope towards requiring perfection). And note that if you are going to take your position seriously, you have to either claim that most of the people who have ever lived did not have autonomy (whatever that means), or accept a standard that is probably even more restrictive than that one.

          • matt b

            Let me address your other post about the feasibility of a BHL state here since I missed it earlier and then address the separate points you raise in this one. You rightly noted that many libertarians are skeptical that a redistributive state, even one that redistributes for BHL reasons as opposed to left-liberal egalitarian ones or Marxist ones or because a congressman has buddies who want taxpayer money to help fatten the profits, would lead to more good than bad. Even if the issues of public choice were avoided, they contend that problems would quickly present themselves with implementation, referencing Hayek and the knowledge problem. Okay. So I take that critique seriously. But I find it to be a bit disingenuous. Why? Because many, though not all, of the people who make it would be opposed to a BHL limited redistributive state even if worked out very well because they have an a priori moral objection to any and all redistribution no matter how minor the redistribution and no matter how major the improvements in human welfare.
            Is the post which will be up shortly on here or your website? In any case, I’d like to read it. I really want to hone in on your statement concerning autonomy. I’m not sure if your familiar with the work of political philosopher Alan Wolfe but he recently (sort of recently anyway) wrote a book about liberalism which defines liberalism as the idea of “giving as many people as possible as much control over their own lives as feasible.” I consider that to be a most apt description and it seems to be that autonomy refers to that idea of control, to the concept of self-mastery, self-realization, moral independence, and a core level of well being so that one can achieve those things. If one accords great weight to those things as I do then one by extension will highly value institutions which create the conditions under which those things can be realized. Now if you don’t care about those things very much and really only care about property rights or utility or what have you then I won’t move you but it seems to me that expanding autonomy is morally valuable.

          • 1. My new post is on my web site.
            2. I only occasionally read things by philosophers. I haven’t read Wolfe. In my view, economic efficiency is a proxy for giving people as much control over their own lives as possible. It isn’t a perfect proxy, but I expect most of the reasons it isn’t would apply to any alternative a philosopher came up with. This is, after all, an issue economists have been thinking about for quite a long time now.

            You can find discussion about such issues in various of my books, in particular Price Theory, Hidden Order, and Law’s Order.

          • matt b

            I look forward to reading it tomorrow when I have some more time. For now, let me say that I agree with your points on econ efficiency to a large extent but sometimes it works the other way. Indeed, talk to low skill workers and see just how true that is by which I refer to the many ways they are treated as subhuman creatures by bosses who only care about more widgets, not human lives.

          • I’m not sure from your comment if you know what “economic efficiency” means. It’s a technical term, and like many other technical terms using ordinary language carries the risk of being misinterpreted. None of the argument depends on whether or not bosses care about human lives.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I guess I’m a little puzzled by how your comment that: “So I take that critique seriously. But I find it to be a bit disingenuous…,” actually responds to Friedman’s objection regarding the inherent threat posed by a central coercive authority, i.e. the state. I don’t see how the spirit in which a critique is made can affect its truth value. I might disingenuously offer you the proposition that “2 + 2 = 4,” but the statement is true, even were it offered maliciously. Friedman’s objection is a powerful one against claims for “social justice,” which as I have pointed out make no sense other than as quasi-empirical claims that free market capitalism will not work as planned. If we treat political philosophy as an exercize in economics or history, the actual track-record of the state becomes highly relevant.

          • matt b


            You are certainly correct that the spirit in which a critique is made does not affect the truth value of the statement. For example a racist who wants to end all foreign aid because he does not care about people who aren’t white would still have a lot of factually correct points to point about the failure of foreign aid. However, I do think it’s relevant to point out when people are being disingenuous. Hard libertarians know very few people share, or ever will share, their view that redistribution is immoral no matter how positive its consequences so they shift to the argument of “It does not work” When you go “Okay but what if it did work” they go to “It does not” and then you say “No no but my question is what if it did” they say “It doesn’t” It’s like talking to a wall. I mean you’ll have some hard libertarians who will be open about their opposition to redistribution no matter what but most run away from it.

          • “Hard libertarians know very few people share, or ever will share, their view that redistribution is immoral no matter how positive its consequences”

            Could be. But I offered my arguments against that position, in print, in 1989, so I’m not sure how the point is relevant to my post.

          • matt b

            I was actually responding to the other Friedman. I think your argument about perverse consequences of redistribution should be taken seriously but I was just noting that a lot of libertarians hide behind that position because they know their view that redistribution is always wrong no matter what the benefits may be is super unpopular whereas the “it could go wrong” argument strikes most people as far more reasonable.

          • jdkolassa

            Would that be “The Future of Liberalism,” by any chance? Just curious; I googled Wolfe and wasn’t sure if that was the book you were talking about.

            I also feel, as a libertarian, I must make a confession: I don’t care about free markets as much as other libertarians do. I really just care about people being able to run their own lives. Inasmuch as free markets allow one to do that, I’m sold. In the words of John Tomasi, I care about people being “responsible self-authors.” What you’re saying about autonomy here, then, deeply interests me. I wish more libertarians had a similar outlook, instead of being so damn caught up in Austrian economics.

          • matt b

            It absolutely is. This is a podcast GMU’s terrific Russ Roberts did with Wolfe in which he thoughtfully challenges him regarding the evolving meaning of liberalism and the differences between modern and classical liberals.
            I completely agree. The obsession with Austrian economics (which has been shown to have major flaws by unimpeachable libertarians like Bryan Caplan) is counterproductive. Responsible self-authorship is immensely attractive and a libertarianism that incorporated that concept in a major way would be all the better for it both in terms of its philosophical merits and its popular appeal.

          • jdkolassa

            I’m not sure I would label Caplan as “unimpeacheable.” Otherwise, I don’t see anything I disagree with. Definitely will listen to the podcast. Thanks for the info; maybe we can change the liberty movement.

          • matt b

            I just meant unimpeachable in the sense of “Not one of these mushy pinko commie BHL libertarians like myself” ha. Yeah definitely let me know what you thought. It was nice to hear such a respectful and reasoned conversation for me and yes I sure hope more people in the liberty movement share our enlightened perspective ha.

          • jdkolassa

            So I listened to the podcast on my morning walk around the National Mall (I live less than a mile from the US Capitol) and I was struck by how even handed it was in terms of agreement vs. disagreement. Let me see if I can recall some of them.

            My first agreement was with him over the transformative power of liberalism. I don’t think Wolfe was really talking about environmentalism–maybe he was–but it struck a chord with me on that front. Something that deeply annoys me about most environmentalists is how they regard anything made by man to be alien and/or evil (usually both.) Building cities and developing new technology is somehow unnatural and even anti-nature, probably because somewhere in there Bambi is being chewed up by the gears of industry. (What a discomforting thought…) However, I’ve always thought this view was utter rubbish. If man is a species, in the environment, then clearly what we do *IS* natural, and all of our progress and construction is part of nature, it can’t be separated. To reject what we’ve build is to essentially reject humanity; I mean, are they complaining about the massive towers that those African ants build? Then why complain about the towers we build? We’re part of nature as well, and this view by many environmentalists is just plain antihumanism. What Wolfe said on that point was quite reassuring.

            I also agreed with him on the phrase of (paraphrasing here) helping as many people as possible have as much autonomy/control over their lives as feasible; while a bit long and clunky, I still think it’s a great tagline and basically sums up how I feel about liberty and politics. Of course, I disagree with him over welfare; while I’m kinda leaning towards a sufficientarian view of welfare these days, beyond that, bring on the laissez-faire.

            His comments on scientism were good, and I do agree with his criticisms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I find they dovetail into determinism, which I think is an idea that is outright dangerous to humanity. I even agree that in some aspects it’s worse than religious fundamentalism, because while religion is–and here I disagree with Wolfe–silly and easily dismantled by logic, determinism is supposedly backed up by “science” which gives it a cover of legitimacy. Denying human agency and free will is a dangerous move that opens the door for all sorts of totalitarian horrors, as well as basically excusing everyone for anything they ever did (“Yes, I shot you in the foot, but it’s not like it was my fault, it was a result of thousands of years of evolution and physics!” “Oh, well then, off you go.”)

            However, now for some disagreements. For starters, I don’t agree with Wolfe that inequality is a big issue. I do believe in equality before the law and equality of dignity, but I don’t believe in such things like income inequality, or at least I don’t think they are a problem. I’m much more concerned with income *mobility,* and the lack of that is a *serious* issue that modern liberals simply do not recognize, yet it’s at the core of many of our current problems. (My former boss made this video for the Economic Freedom Project; I interned on that after this was done but helped with some others: )

            I also don’t agree with his argument about capitalism taking power away from people, because it makes the mechanisms that deliver things to people “invisible” (if I recall correctly.) I do find it is an interesting critique, one I haven’t heard before, but I think his worries are essentially misguided. First, one reason that the market is opaque today has to do with so much government involvement and regulation and that political-business collusion is so commonplace, something that Russ rightly laments. But secondly, it’s not so much that the market is “invisible,” but rather, that people don’t bother to do much research into what is going on. And why should they? The opportunity costs for that are kinda high. Instead of worrying about how everything works, people can devote more of their time and energy towards things they’re actually interested in and let other people take care of the boring stuff. That isn’t wrong or disempowering, it is precisely the opposite. If people take the time to do their research, they’ll find it’s not so invisible or opaque as Wolfe makes it out to be. You can actually uncover quite a lot just by asking questions and trying to figure things out; it’s only invisible if you don’t bother to do any of that.

            Overall, though, I found it exceedingly refreshing and an interesting take on liberalism; I definitely want to read the book. Like I said, I definitely agree with his tagline on substantive liberalism, and I think it’s just great. That’s all, really, we should be focused with; enough about these intricate economic theories, we can leave those to economists and yes, if you’re REALLY interested in them, to you too, but when trying to promote libertarianism they’re a secondary tool, not a primary one. Having read Tomasi’s FMF earlier this year, this podcast complemented that nicely; when talking about liberty and autonomy, I could picture the words from Tomasi’s section on how the right to productive property, to start a business, and to enjoy one’s profits as being basic liberties on par with the freedom of speech and association (and under a Rawlsian framework, no less) appearing in my head and gently wafting over to Wolfe’s desk. I hope he read Tomasi’s book; I’m sure he has. I just think the two go well together.

            Although I disagree with his ending part; as an ignostic atheist, I actually don’t see nearly as much of a place for religion as he does, even if it’s religious naturalism or religious humanism or something similar.

            And….mayhaps my conversion to neoclassical liberal is now complete. 🙂

          • matt b

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I also really appreciated your post yesterday on the guy you knew in NY. I think it’s those type of stories that will really get people to think long and hard about whether or not big government and big labor are really friends of the poor and vulnerable. I don’t think there’s a single thing you wrote here that I disagree with at all so I think you are a true neoclassical liberal 🙂

        • Jason Brennan

          I think Matt’s wrong about both unless he’s using “definite” in the same way you are, to mean widely agreed on necessary and sufficient conditions.

          • Yes, that was my point. If we understand “definite meaning” in the very demanding way that David does, then not only is “social justice” mush, but so are “happiness,” “justice” and the other terms you point out such as “liberalism.” But, of course, I do not think these terms are mush. And what that shows is that David’s standards for non-mushiness are unreasonably high.

          • How about “minimally decent lives?” Also has a non-mush definite meaning?

          • Yes, I responded to this question on your blog. It’s easy to think of examples of individuals whose lives fall below the threshold of minimal decency, and easy to think of examples of individuals whose lives fall well above it. So the term has a meaning, even if the conceptual lines are (like they almost always are) difficult to draw precisely.

            But minimally decent is a normative term, not a value-neutral one. And I don’t see why you’re so resistant to the claim that its meaning might vary across time and culture. The point of talking about minimally decent lives, in this context, is to get clear about what we owe to each other. But, to point out just the most obvious reason for variance, ought implies can. So what we owe to each other is partly a function of what we are *able* to provide each other with. If we *cannot* ensure that kids don’t die of dehydration, because we live in dire circumstances in which there just isn’t enough water to go around, then it doesn’t make much sense to say that we “ought” to ensure that kids don’t die of dehydration – though it might be something we should aspire to. What counts as “minimal decency” must reflect social possibilities, and can rise and fall as those possibilities rise and fall.

          • Ryan Long

            Prof. Friedman’s questions are definition-stasis-level questions. You cannot really fault his standards if the conversation has devolved to the definition stasis. All we can really say is that people like myself (I won’t speak for Prof. Friedman) are reluctant to agree or disagree with you if we aren’t even sure what it is we are taking sides on.

            And it’s worth reiterating that it was Brennan’s claim that social justice had a definite meaning that initiated this line of questioning. I think at the bear minimum we have shown that Brennan was being remarkably unfair to some libertarians (who he, by the way, also did not clearly identify).

          • I stand by everything I’ve said.

            “Social justice” is a term like “distributive justice” or “liberalism”. We define it by showing that it links certain concepts together. These concepts function a bit like variables–they admit of a certain range of ways of being filled it. Different conceptions of social justice fill in the variables different ways.

            I’ve repeatedly given you guys the actual definition of the term. I’ve also shown how it can be meaningfully separated from other notions of justice.

            As far as I can tell, you won’t be satisfied unless I define social justice in terms of one very specific conception of social justice. Then and David Friedman would be happy that the term has definite meaning. However, if I did that, I’d misdefine the term, because it fact it is defined as I described it, where it admits of a range of different conceptions.

            That’s how the word works. I’m just reporting it.

  • Ashton

    I’m concerned about the claim: “They [Rawlsians, Marxists, Classical Liberals, libertarians, et. al.] disagree about what rights and duties we have, and what the proper distributions of benefits and burdens are. However, the reason all these people are having a genuinely substantive debate about justice, rather than just talking past each other, is that they are all talking about 1 and 2.”

    I do not think that discussion of differing definitions of the same purported concept and various possible problems that may arise with those definitions necessarily leads to that there is a genuine object of discussion, or conception. Suppose we do not have or possess rights and duties, or that rights and duties as concepts are incoherent. So then, we are actually talking past each other and we do not know it. It seems to me, simply talking about purported concepts or objects does not entail the existence of the purported concepts or objects of discussion.

    • Damien S.

      We don’t need to ‘have’ rights or duties as an intrinsic thing; we can talk about what society we’d like to live in, and what rights and duties we’d create through law or social expectation.

  • Ross Levatter

    Jason, do you believe, as a result of philosophical inquiry, that a just society may require forcible redistribution from X to Y if that is necessary to allow Y to have a “minimally decent life”?

    If so, is this (what would otherwise be) coercive action against X morally justifiable prior to clearly defining what “minimally decent life” means, or may the Minimal and Justified BH Libertarian State repeatedly coerce X on the grounds it can come up with SOME conception of minimally decent life that allows coercing X despite the fact that other conceptions exist that wouldn’t allow coercing X? Is it even a requirement on the Minimal and Justified BH Libertarian State that its specific conception of “minimally decent life” be temporally invariant, or can it change the meaning from year to year (with the consequence that one can never be truly confident as to the validity of one’s property rights)?

    • matt b


      We disagree on these sorts of issues but I think your questions are good ones which I hope Jason will address. Are you familiar with John Tomasi’s “Free Market Fairness”? Given Jason’s prior positive comments on it, I’m guessing it lays out a position quite close to his own view. Tomasi basically argues that the liberal state should create a set of conditions under which all individuals can be responsible self-authors empowered to pursue happiness and realize their best selves. In making this a reality, free markets are indispensable. However, Tomasi submits that the empirical evidence suggests a role for a social safety net given that conditions of extreme need threaten the ability of individuals to be responsible self-authors. A social safety net is also seen as justifying a scheme of private property rights since it’s unreasonable to expect people to obey rules which systematically prevent them from securing basic well being (Tomasi assumes Rothbardian or similar property schemes could very well have this effect). I would think anyone committed to the idea that individual self-realization matters and that the consequences of different property regimes for human well being matters would at least be open to such arguments.

      • Ross Levatter


        Thanks for a response. To be candid, I think (albeit tentatively, in the sense I’ve not yet read Tomasi’s argument), the claim “Rothbardian or similar property schemes could very well” have the effect of “systemically prevent[ing people] from securing their basic well being” is clearly false or both empirical and analytical grounds. Further, I think the term “extreme need” suffers from the same mushiness that David Friedman complains of with respect to “minimally decent life”.

        • matt b


          How is it clearly false, not only empirically but on “analytical grounds”? And do you not think extreme need and minimally decent can be defined in any meaningful sense?

          • Matt:

            I’m curious as to how your position deals with the possibility that you may be asking for two plus two to equal five. We don’t have the option of choosing any imaginable outcome–at most we can choose among possible sets of institutions and then accept the outcomes those institutions produce. Getting the outcome you seem to be suggesting requires a state with the power to take wealth from some people and give it to others, and there is nothing to guarantee that it will use that power in the ways you would want it to.

            I’m not a big believer in deriving normative conclusions from facts of reality, but I think part of the idea behind the natural rights/anti-distribution position is something along those lines, the claim that institutions for forcible redistribution can be expected to do more harm than good–even from the standpoint of someone who heavily weights the welfare of the poor. Consider, in the world as we know it, how many government interventions that harm the poor are justified as helping them.

  • Ashton

    “If you think that this means that I’m wrong that social justice has a definite meaning, then you should also think I’m wrong to hold that in philosophy “liberalism”, “socialism”, “capitalism”, “institution”, “government”, “democracy”, “utilitarianism,” etc. have definite meanings. But that doesn’t seem right.”

    You may not have the time, but I would be interested to read why you think why it does not seem right.

    Perhaps you are correct, it does not make sense to talk about issues that typically are dealt with in discussions of philosophy of language, in a post about political philosophy, which may take some of these issues for granted.

    • Actually, to be totally fair there might be a large number of people who could plausibly argue that the terms “liberalism”, “socialism” etc. don’t have definite meanings either, and they wouldn’t be “cartoons” for thinking so. Even if they do have definite meanings in a rigorous academic setting, they definitely DON’T the way they are used in popular political discourse.
      Are we really going to insult people for complaining that other people’s terms aren’t clearly defined?

      • Damien S.

        “Libertarianism”, too.

  • I have responded to Jason on my blog:

    Interested readers may also want to look at my exchange with Matt Zwolinski on the comment thread to my initial post:

    • Let’s be clear that I haven’t conceded anything.

      You’re right that on the definition of “social justice” above, many people who take themselves not to accept social justice will count as having views of social justice. But that’s a feature, not a bug, of the definition. As I’ve been trying to say to libertarians for the past 2 years, many of them actually accept principles of social justice, but they just don’t call it “social justice”.

      Still, you’re wrong to say it’s all emotive mush. Perhaps the issue here is that I am characterizing a body of philosophical work, explaining what it has in common. People who debate what social justice is in philosophy debate the thing I said they are debating. People who debate distributive justice debate the things I said they are debating. Distributive justice is a broader notion than social justice. People who debate justice debate debate the thing I said they are debating. The proof is in the pudding. Read academic political philosophy published in the last 30 years and you’d go, yep, Brennan’s characterization of the debate is apt.

      As for why utilitarianism doesn’t count as a theory of social justice, it’s not because it says that the poor’s interests don’t matter at all. Obviously, it counts everyone’s interests. The problem is it doesn’t count them in the right way. If it turned out, empirically, that letting me torture everyone maximized utility, because I had an unlimited capacity for sadistic pleasure, and I experience exponentially more pleasure than others experience pain, then hedonistic act utilitarianism would recommend that they be tortured. Or, if it turned out that my having all the wealth while everyone else starves maximized utility (because I enjoy wealth so much), then hedonistic act utilitarianism would demand that I have all the wealth and others starves. But this is paradigmatically the kind of thing principles of social justice are meant to forbid.

      Yeah, I said, “concern” for the poor, and one of the questions in social justice debates is what counts as proper concern. But no one debates whether the examples above count as proper concern. Nor does anyone debate whether the following would count as “social justice”: let’s show special concern for the poor by torturing them for fun. Obviously it doesn’t.

      The word “social justice” isn’t some stipulated thing. It’s a natural term that evolved into having a particular use in political philosophy. I have characterized, correctly, how academic political philosophers use the term.

      • In case any readers are confused, Jason’s comment here is a comment on my post on my blog responding to his post on his, so you may want to read mine before reading the comment.

        Out of symmetry, perhaps even justice, I should now respond to his comment with a comment on my blog, but I don’t think I will.

        1. I didn’t say that “social justice” was all emotive mush, I said that “minimally decent lives” fit that description. I’m still waiting for you to either agree or show me that I’m wrong, that it really is a meaningful concept–it is, after all, your term.

        But I have, in the past, described the attempt to get BHL people to say what they think needs to be changed in libertarianism, what they want to add, as trying to nail jelly to the wall.

        2. “As I’ve been trying to say to libertarians for the past 2 years, many of them actually accept principles of social justice, but they just don’t call it “social justice”.”

        At some point, I think in my earlier exchange with Z&T, it was suggested that what BHLs believed in was distributive justice, of which social justice was a subset. Does that mean that Rand and Nozick, both of whom have views of entitlements, count as BHL’s? I’ve been trying to get you people to give a clear statement of what you believe in that the rest of us don’t, and I don’t think what I just quoted from you helps.

        One consequence of using a term with very unclear meaning is that you can attribute it to practically anything you want to. I don’t think that’s a virtue.

        3. It may well be that you can categorize some arguments among philosophers as about social justice–most obviously arguments about whether the poor are entitled to income transfers, and if so how much and why. But if all the term defines is a set of questions to be argued about, then saying that libertarians ought to include social justice in libertarianism, which I think was Z&T’s claim in the Cato Unbound exchange, doesn’t say anything. Do they mean libertarians ought to be willing to argue about whether libertarianism is good for the poor? Libertarians have been arguing about that forever.

        In order for including social justice in libertarianism to mean anything substantive, you have to have some account of what social justice actually is, not just what things people who say they are talking about social justice talk about.

        4. “The problem [with utilitarianism] is it doesn’t count them in the right way.”

        So now you have to tell us what is the right way to count the welfare of the poor in order to classify as a theory of social justice. And, if possible, why. I will happily agree that there are serious problems with utilitarianism, but the question is why it doesn’t fit your definition of “social justice.”

        5. “I have characterized, correctly, how academic political philosophers use the term.”

        I think I have too–twice. The term is used to mean ideas of what is just that especially appeal to people on the left. The term is used to mean that attitude that causes one to respond to all possible issues with “how does it affect the poor.”

        Does your definition do any better a job than mine of describing how the term is actually used? I’m not a philosopher, but I am an academic in a law school and a university that are very strong on social justice, so I get lots of opportunities to observe the usage.

        More important, do any of those definitions put substance into the idea that BHL people want to incorporate social justice in libertarianism?

        I could go on, but it would mostly be to point out things in my blog post that I do not think you have responded to, and people reading it, yours, and the comment thread can probably find those for themselves.

        • Ross Levatter

          DF: “In order for including social justice in libertarianism to mean anything substantive, you have to have some account of what social justice actually is, not just what things people who say they are talking about social justice talk about.”

          I remember listening to a nice chat between Russ Roberts and philosopher David Schmidtz. If I recall correctly (and even if I don’t, I’ve heard others make this same claim), David pointed out that the philosophy profession owed a great debt to both Rawls and Nozick for rescuing it from decades of analytic philosophy that had reduced the profession from discussing substance to discussing merely the correct meaning of words.

          In all things, the pendulum swings…

          • Jason Brennan

            Not really. Philosophers are not all caught up discussing the meaning of words. My academic work is not about discussing the meaning of words any more than David Schmidtz’s is.

            I’m giving definitions now because many libertarians stubbornly insist that certain words don’t have meaning.

          • matt b

            That was an awesome podcast!

        • Jason Brennan

          David, I have little idea what you believe about things philosophically, so I can’t give you a clear statement about what I believe that you don’t. I’ve read the Machinery of Freedom. I’m sympathetic to anarchism.

          In past posts, I’ve been proposing a counterfactual test to libertarians: If it turned out, empirically, that laissez faire capitalism consistently sucked in roughly the way many Marxists think it does, namely that under realistic would consistently lead to the vast majority of conscientious, well-motived, smart, industrious individuals living in poverty while only a small number of people prospered, but it also turned out that under, say, the Norwegian model, the overwhelming majority of people would lead good lives,* would you still favor laissez faire capitalism over the Norwegian model? If you say yes, you probably don’t endorse anything that counts as a view of social justice (or you assign it very small weight, I suppose). If you say no, you might endorse a view of social justice. I have to put a caveat in here, because strict utilitarians don’t count as endorsing social justice for reasons I’ve explained previously.

          In response to things like this, my colleague John Hasnas has said, “So, what you’re saying is that only crazy people reject social justice?” I don’t know if that’s quite right–I know some non-crazy people who reject it so defined–but he’s pointing out something I’ve been trying to show: most libertarians who claim to reject social justice care about the consequences of markets in the right way such that they count as having concerns of social justice.

          *Some libertarians say this is a conceptual impossibility. They say we don’t have to do any empirical work to know that Marxists are wrong about this or that laissez faire capitalism will be produce better consequences for most people than Norwegian capitalism. (I know this because commenters on this very blog have repeatedly asserted this.) Alas, that’s a cartoon libertarian view.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            My answer is that I would prefer the Norwegian model. Now, if it turns out empirically that laissez faire capitalism allows everyone to lead lives of material abundance, while the theory of political justice on which the Norwegian capitalism is built eventually produces widespread misery, would you continue to favor the Norwegian model? I presume that you would favor laissez faire capitalism. So, what does the notion of social justice contribute to arriving at the correct philosophical conclusions regarding justice that economics, history, social psychology don’t already tell us?

          • In your hypothetical, I would not favor laissez-faire capitalism. But I don’t think that implies anything about my view of social justice. You’ve told us that utilitarianism isn’t a version of social justice, and utilitarianism would lead to the same conclusion, as you note. My answer implies that I don’t accept the hard line natural rights position, but I think I have already said that several times over in the extended exchange.

            And I answered the essential philosophical question quite a long time ago, in Chapters 41 and 42 of _Machinery_. If the consequentialist costs of respecting rights are large enough, then respecting rights is a bad idea.

            Part of what bothers me about the language and arguments you (plural) seem to be offering is that they aren’t openly consequentialist. Talk about people having a right to some minimal standard, or about coercive institutions only being justified if …, is rights talk. And it strikes me as rather less convincing rights talk than the version I’ve already rejected.

          • Aeon Skoble

            “Some libertarians say this is a conceptual impossibility. They say we don’t have to do any empirical work to know that Marxists are wrong about this or that laissez faire capitalism will be produce better consequences for most people than Norwegian capitalism. (I know this because commenters on this very blog have repeatedly asserted this.) Alas, that’s a cartoon libertarian view.”
            That seems to imply that only utilitarians are non-cartoony.

          • matt b

            I don’t see how it implies this at all, Aeon. Saying that empirical work is required to discover the impact of X economic framework versus Y economic framework does not strike me as an endorsement of utilitarianism in anyway.

          • How’s that? I don’t get it.

    • Chris Bertram

      Friedman appears to believe that Rawls’s argument for the difference principle is a straightforward application of the maximin decision rule by the parties in the OP. But though such an interpretation is natural, it doesn’t seem to be quite right, as Samuel Freeman has argued. See

      • My views are based on reading Rawls long ago, not on following the discussion of his ideas. But I don’t think your point is relevant to my criticism. If Rawls argues for the maximin rule and has no basis for doing so, that corresponds to the 2+2=5 of my post. If he didn’t think it mattered to his conclusion, the difference rule, I doubt he would have done it, but if you think he has a different and more defensible justification for the difference rule, by all means describe it.

        • I think he gave you a link to the description, David…

        • Chris Bertram

          The point is that the maximin rule *is* defensible wrt to the justification of the first principle of justice, since the parties should not gamble with their most vital interests (such as freedom of religion). Since those most vital interests are not similarly at stake wrt to wealth and income (a less egalitarian distributive standard would protect those interests) the conditions for invoking maximin are not in play. So Rawls needs a different argument there.

          • David Friedman

            You write: “the parties should not gamble with their most vital interests (such as freedom of religion)”

            Imagine three societies. Society A has freedom of religion, everyone is dirt poor, no medical care is available. Society B bans, with criminal penalties, Taoism and Sikhism, but has a high standard of living, good quality medical care, and is in other respects a free and attractive society. Society C is like society B but has complete freedom of religion.

            What you wrote appears to imply that if I am given the choice between a certainty of A and a gamble between B and C, with 1% chance of B and 99% chance of C, I should choose A, as per the maximin rule applied to my “most vital interest.” Is that your view?

          • Chris Bertram

            What my view is (not especially Rawlsian as it happens), is beside the point: we’re doing Rawls interpretation here. Rawls allows liberty to be sacrificed for prosperity at very low levels of development. Hence the contrast between his general and special conceptions of justice. The lexical priority rule only kicks in under the special conception, where we already know that the key developmental threshold has been crossed. Given that threshold-crossing, Rawls thinks it is irrational for people to gamble with the liberties concerning their most deeply held values. So at the point where Rawls is deploying the maximin argument in support of the priority of the basic liberties, your Society A is already off the menu, as it were.

  • So, I would say that the libertarian conception of distributive justice rests on a combination of voluntaryism and self-ownership. Any products of your own labor which you retain prosession of are justly yours. Furthermore, you may engage in voluntary trade with others for the products of their labor and the distribution that results from the exchange is just so long as the exchange remains voluntary.
    Of course this leaves open the question of what counts as “voluntary” vs. “coercive” exchange, but aside from that issue, can anyone point out what else might be wrong with it?

    • Damien S.

      How do you get the raw materials you use to make those products? What does it mean to retain possession — do you have to carry it with you, can you leave it behind for a while (how long?) How little labor can you do and still claim something as yours? And ditto for land — do you have to live on it continuously? how much can you claim? Does mixing in a bit of your labor entitle you to own it in perpetuity? What justly happens to future generations, who have no free land to claim?

      • Those are all interesting questions, and some of them are the basis for left-libertarian arguments along Georgist and similar lines. I’ve even published on some of them.

        But that whole conversation is about entitlement, not desert, so incorporating it in libertarianism is working within the existing structure, not adding a concern with social justice to it.

      • les kyle Nearhood

        With all respect, those are basic questions about the theory, those are procedural questions which are best answered by the politics of the society in question.

  • Ross Levatter

    Justin’s argument concludes “I am accurately reporting current usage of terminology commonplace in academic political philosophical circles.” I’m not sure what should follow from that. To a 21st century secularist, the fact a colonial preacher is using the term “witch” in a way that is accepted by most of his contemporaries does not count for much. To an atheist, the fact a theologian is correctly using the term “God” as all of his theological brethren does not count for much. To Einstein, the fact lots of other physicists were spending inordinate amounts of time attempting to measure the ether did not count for much. To Huemer, the fact most everyone thinks political authority is morally justified doesn’t count for much.

    It is unclear to me why the mere fact Jason “characterized, correctly, how academic political philosophers use the term” social justice should count for much if that term, as used by academic political philosophers, can’t answer some basic challenges from people like Friedman, Smith, Caplan, Nozick, etc.

    It would certainly help if a BHL philosopher could come up with a clear and specific scenario, A, such that in A hard libertarians (Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, Smith, Friedman, etc.) would say “X’s rights were violated here” but BHLers (Brennan, Tomasi, Zwolinski, etc.) would disagree. This doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult request to grant if BHL is really a distinct and different paradigm as opposed to a rhetorical trope to appease modern liberal academic mindsets.

    • Ross,

      The fact that everyone use the word “witch” the same way is all that matters here. To extend your metaphor, the dispute between Friedman and me in the current debate is not whether witches exist, but whether the term “witch” has any meaning, and how precise or definite that meaning is.

      So, in the present debate, I am not arguing that there are any true principles of social justice. I am arguing that the concept of social justice is meaningful. There’s a distinction between “all purported principles of social justice are false” vs. “all purported principles of social justice are incoherent”.

      If Nozick’s liberty upsets patterns principles is completely successful, it would not show that principles of social justice are incoherent. It would show that they are false. If Caplans’ micro-examples (I’m hungry, can I steal from you) work, they don’t show that principles of social justice are incoherent, but that they are false.

      We’re debating the coherence of the concept, not whether any principles falling under the concept are true.

      • Ross Levatter

        To be clear, Jason: Is your position that the principles of social justice are coherent but false? If that is NOT your position, could you help me out with the request I made in my last paragraph above?

      • Kevin

        The solution to proving at least some coherence is to enumerate members of the set denoted by the term.

        More specifically, in order to prove that social justice is coherent when combined with libertarianism, Ross’s challenge must be answered by providing specific examples evincing the distinction.

        • Damien S.

          Yeah. When you can’t define a category with rules, examples and prototypes of what fits and doesn’t fit are the way to go.

          OTOH, it may be that imagining even a single hypothetical example of guaranteed social justice compatible with right-libertarianism is the entire BHL project.

          • Kevin

            Yeah, and even when categories are defined with rules, those rules dictate what fits and what doesn’t fit, entailing the existence of examples. So, examples are a simple test for minimal logical coherence.

            From what I’ve read on BHL, your last paragraph sounds exactly right. It’s not that hard to pick a minimally coherent definition for social justice (one that has some specific examples), but it seems to be part of their mission to vary that definition until they find one that is compatible with libertarianism.

      • Michael J. Green

        I think Ross’s examples are misleading, but I agree with his point: You keep jumping between what is agreed-upon/understood by people and coherence. That’s great that academic philosophers know what they mean when they say social justice, but it doesn’t make it coherent. I can say, “Yellow tastes like a guitar screech,” and we can all nod our heads in agreement. We could write thousands of pages about what it means that yellow tastes like a guitar screech, what the consequences are, what it means for other established opinions or facts. That doesn’t make the statement coherent. Coherence is a judgment of the content of a statement, not its popularity, even its popularity amongst learned people.

        Personally, this business about “institutions must help the least advantaged” doesn’t strike me as coherent. My brain can make some kind of sense of it, as it does with my statement above, but whenever I delve into it I’m stopped by a series of basic questions. At the very least, it’s a hefty epistemological burden to assume. Then there’s the justice aspect to the term, with the common proposals making for a very confusing code of justice (I have good title to something, but if someone is found needy, suddenly I don’t?).

        Then again, you’ve said several times in this comment that social justice can be “true” or “false,” which also strikes me as incoherent (it can be useful or good, but ‘truthful’?), so maybe I’m way out of my league here. My brain only has two dimensions to work with, after all. Maybe, as Friedman says he was using definite in too ‘strong’ a sense, I am talking about coherence in a more demanding way.

  • matt b

    “Rand on Kant is like Naomi Klein on Milton Friedman or Corey Robin on Hayek.” Jason are you implying that Rand’s critiques are shallow, silly, and hyperbolic? Are you by extension suggesting she is not the greatest philosopher to have ever lived? Why do you hate reason so…. ha.

  • Pingback: Social Justice as an Emergent Property | Bleeding Heart Libertarians()



    You say:

    In past posts, I’ve been proposing a counterfactual test to libertarians: If it turned out, empirically, that laissez faire capitalism consistently sucked in roughly the way many Marxists think it does, namely that under realistic would consistently lead to the vast majority of conscientious, well-motived, smart, industrious individuals living in poverty while only a small number of people prospered, but it also turned out that under, say, the Norwegian model, the overwhelming majority of people would lead good lives,* would you still favor laissez faire capitalism over the Norwegian model? If you say yes, you probably don’t endorse anything that counts as a view of social justice (or you assign it very small weight, I suppose). If you say no, you might endorse a view of social justice. I have to put a caveat in here, because strict utilitarians don’t count as endorsing social justice for reasons I’ve explained previously.

    Let me change the scenario somewhat. Say I support laissez faire capitalism at the level of ideal theory. Sadly, when implemented it turns out that human nature is not what I expected. People behave much more like Marx hoped: they form worker co-ops, kibbutzim, and reject all hierarchical structures. People are generally happy with their lives, with one major exception. The more talented members of society are seen as elitist, non-conforming threats to this worker’s paradise, and are therefore shunned, scorned and rejected–in fact they are social outcasts.

    This manifest injustice causes me to reconsider and indeed alter my allegience to laissez faire, in favor of the Norwegian model. Have you not now demonstrated my implicit endorsement of “talented person’s justice”? I could multiply this example with others, but I trust you see my point. Is this really a fruitful approach to political philosophy? What is gained by this appeal to social justice? Why don’t we search for more universal principles of justice, like Nozick’s entitlement theory, that don’t rely on special sub-categories of justice?

  • Pingback: Specificity and Overspecificity about “Social Justice” | Bleeding Heart Libertarians()