[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:
- 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)?
- 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
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.?
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.
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.
Friedman then asks,
Would you be willing to describe Rawls as a “cartoon liberal?”
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.