Friend of the blog, Mark Lebar (here) thinks Kevin’s response to David Friedman regarding social justice is basically misguided. Mark accurately claims that “if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others.” He then asks “What does the social injustice supervene on?” and responds that “The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.” I’m not so sure about that.
Kevin had said he is “a moral individualist in the sense that [he] thinks injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations” and not “groups defined independently of their members” but that “social injustices can be committed independently of human design.” I think this is exactly right. Mark thinks Kevin is merely “paying lip service” to moral individualism properly understood. I don’t think so.
If I understand Mark’s main worry, it’s that whereas what we ordinarily call injustices can be normative properties that supervene on individuals, social injustices would have to be normative properties that supervene on groups. He tells us that “without the thought that the normative property (the social injustice) supervenes on facts about groups, rather than individuals, there is no injustice here to be found. And that’s just where the BHL’ers would like to be able to find injustice.” I think this is right, but perhaps confusing. The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G. Once this is seen, there is no real problem at all in thinking about social injustice and remaining committed to normative individualism.
But there is a different way that I would prefer to go with this. I’m not a rights theorist; I tend to think harms are more basic than rights. I won’t go into that here, but to play with Kevin’s definition of social injustice a bit, I would prefer to say that social injustice “obtains when an institutional arrangement generates a distribution of goods [broadly construed] that” does harm, “independently of the deliberate design of individuals comprising the institutions.” Social justice, then, requires having a system that does not cause such harms. Our system (i.e., that of the current U.S.) does such harms. To that extent, our system contains social injustice.
Let me spell this out just a bit. First, harms are not the same as hurts. Harms are injuries—the relation to jurisprudence is important. With Joel Feinberg, we should say harms are wrongful setbacks to interests. Second, there are individuals who find themselves harmed—having their interests wrongfully setback—in our society, though no particular individual harmed them. I’ll spell this out using an example from my forthcoming book:
It is obvious that agent A might not intend to harm B, but might nonetheless culpably engage in an activity that results in B having interests set back—and the fact that A was culpably involved matters. So, for example, if you buy an iPhone on the “five finger market” and it turns out that the iPhone in question was mine, you have culpably engaged in an activity—theft and black market purchase of stolen goods—that leaves me with my interests wrongfully set back. You are culpable—and so can be said to participate in the harm to me—because you should have known not to buy an iPhone where you did. You may not have harmed me on your own, but you did participate in a system that harmed me. … Given that you were not solely responsible, you may not have to pay the full restitution on your own. It may be that there should be some sort of systemic assistance program meant to compensate those who suffer harms (genuine harms, not mere hurts) attributable to many agents, though not all individually identifiable. This becomes more plausible as larger and larger groups cause the harms in question.
This sort of harm, I would say, is a social injustice. It’s not that there is some social group that is harmed (groups are not harmed, though the members of a group can be harmed in ways directly related to their being members of the group). It’s that the social system caused a wrongful setback of interests to an individual.
Let’s return to Mark’s worry. He rightly noted that “if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others.” He then asks “What does the social injustice supervene on?” and responds that “The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.” But what we have just seen is that a social system—itself made up of individuals acting in various ways—can harm individuals. So perhaps we should say that the social justice is a normative property that supervenes on such social systems such that no individual has her interests wrongly setback by that system. (I realize this may be problematic as stated since there is a normative property supervening on something that includes a normative property.)
Now David Friedman might worry that my definition of social justice differs from those definitions previously offered by Jason Brennan and Matt Zwolinski. I think Jason’s post answers that worry pretty definitively, but my definition is perhaps interestingly different in that it specifies what ought not happen, while Jason and Matt’s specifies what ought to happen. They want to “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives” (Jason) or “serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged” (Matt). I actually think that the best way to do that (on either formulation) is to prevent harms in the first place, but I will stop here for now and perhaps post about this issue at a later date.