David Friedman has recently challenged BHLers to clarify our understanding of social justice (also see here). David has expressed some frustration that BHLers have sometimes offered definitions of social justice that seem inconsistent with one another.
I differ a bit from J about how to understand social justice, so I thought I’d offer another answer to David’s question (see J’s reply here, and David’s reply to J here). To do so, I’m going to focus on social injustice rather than social justice. I think we can get a clearer grasp on what social justice is by focusing on its opposite.
I take it that the term “social justice” can be used to cover individual rights-violations. For instance, if John rapes Reba, he has committed a grave injustice, one that could be called a social injustice. However, this is not the conceptual home of the concept of social injustice. A social injustice is often taken to contrast with an individual injustice. In particular, one core intuition that grounds the coherence of social injustice is that social justice need not be the result of any deliberate action on the part of individuals to realize socially unjust states.
In other words, social injustice comes about through human action, but not necessarily human design. Sound familiar? It should. Social injustice is an emergent property of certain kinds of social, moral and political practices. Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion. Institutional racism is a paradigmatic case of social injustice. It is an emergent property of a social institution that commits an injustice without any individual acting in an unjust fashion.
I recognize that the “emergent property” aspect of social justice hasn’t been talked up that much on the blog. But that’s what all the talk about justifying institutions rather than individual actions ultimately presupposes.
The common libertarian reply to these cases is that only individuals can act unjustly. There’s no such thing as a group or collective agent that could commit an injustice. Thus, if, say, blacks and whites have different opportunities due to their racial differences but no individual acted in a racist fashion to bring about the inequality, then there can be no injustice by definition. Unequal racial outcomes may be morally regrettable, but they can’t be unjust. I think this view is mistaken. And I think even Rothbardians can acknowledge as much, since left-Rothbardians have pioneered using the concept of social justice prior to us neoclassical liberals. Consider Charles Johnson’s paper “Women and the Invisible Fist” as an illustration of a left-Rothbardian approach to social justice.
So in light of all this, let me try to define a social injustice:
Social Injustice: A social injustice obtains when an institutional arrangement generates a distribution of goods [broadly construed] that is unfair [broadly construed], independently of the deliberate design of individuals comprising the institutions.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, yes, I use the term “distribution” fully aware that in some important sense there is no “distribution” of certain goods by a central authority. I mean something much more innocuous –a pattern of holdings. Second, by “goods” I mean the “currencies” of injustice offered by philosophers (primary goods, capabilities, opportunities, or welfare). We don’t need to settle on a currency to make sense of the concept of social injustice.
The last clause allows social injustice to occur independently of the deliberate design of individuals, which means that we can usefully understand social injustice as a kind of emergent property of institutions and the distributions they generate.
The key term, and the one that risks making the definition circular and/or question-begging is “unfair.” By “unfair” I just ask people to input their preferred system of moral and political principles. “Unfair” is a placeholder term.
To illustrate, insert Rothbardian libertarian principles into “unfair.” For a Rothbardian libertarian, a distribution is unfair if it comes about through violations of the non-aggression principle (there are some caveats here I can’t review). So, imagine a spontaneous order process that imposes negative externalities on a property owner (call him David). Say, for instance, that David lives next door to a public park where people are allowed to smoke (call it Smoker’s Park). The smoke produced by any one smoker would normally dissipate quickly, and have no noticeable impact on David’s person and property. But since so many people smoke in Smoker’s Park, David’s home and possessions begin to reek of smoke. And on some afternoons, he and his family choke from smoke inhalation. Arguably David’s person and property have been aggressed against in the sense that people together have imposed a cost on him that they could only do so fairly with his consent. But no one person caused the rights violation. In that case, I think it is fair to say that a Rothbardian social injustice has occurred.
The problem with some of the definitions of social justice that David has reviewed is that they run together social justice with Rawlsian social justice. A Rawlsian conception of social injustice involves inserting Rawlsian principles into the “unfair” term. This is how we reach the definitions of social injustice that my Rawlsian buds and I have offered. For instance, on a Rawlsian view, a social injustice obtains when economic institutions fail to provide sufficient primary goods to citizens to allow them to enjoy the worth of their basic liberties, even if no individual participant in those institutions tries or intends to thwart said enjoyment. Similarly, if we focus on political liberalism, a social injustice obtains when coercive economic institutions generate distributions that some can reasonably reject.
Different theories of justice can employ the ideas of coercion, aggression, sufficientarian principles, primary goods, minimally decent lives, and the like to specify a conception of social injustice. But I take it that the concept of social justice is that of injustices arrived at via a spontaneous order process. Social injustice is an emergent property of individual activity. It is the kind of injustice that results from human action, not human design.
Given the way I have defined “social injustice” many libertarians will reply, “Oh, ok, that’s fine. Big deal. Is that all you BHLers care about?” I can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but from my vantage point libertarians all too often ignore social injustices because of their sometimes flat footed (dare I say “cartoon”?) moral individualism. I’m a moral individualist in the sense that I think injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations. In a real sense, I don’t think injustices can be committed against “Americans” or “blacks” understood as groups defined independently of their members. So traditional libertarians are right that emphasize that the idea of social justice can sometimes be deployed in inappropriately collectivist ways.
But social injustices can be committed independently of human design. That’s a significant claim that departs from many threads of libertarian thought popular today. And my view on the matter is one of the reasons I joined the blog.
A second reason I joined the blog was to draw connections between political liberalism and libertarianism for anyone interested. I hope to draw another connection in my next post, where I will explain what I think is cool and neat about Rawls. Then I can explain why I adopt a broadly (’93, not ’71) Rawlsian understanding of social injustice. That will complete my answer to David’s question.
Update: Mark LeBar, a friend and fellow philosopher, has an outstanding criticism of this post that you can find here.