I’ve hard a hard time understanding why David Friedman and a few other commentators (e.g., Ryan) are so resistant to the account of “social justice” I’ve given. I think I’ve figured out the issue now.
“Social justice” is a broad concept. The definition links certain ideas or other concepts–coercion, poverty or disadvantage, legitimacy, etc.–together in a particular way. Each of these concepts that form part of the definition of “social justice” are themselves like variables. They admit of a certain range of interpretations when you fill them in, but as long as you stay in that range, you’re still talking about social justice. There is probably no sharp cut-off for these ranges, but that’s fine, since that’s true of almost all definitions. (E.g., bachelor = an unmarried adult male intelligent being*, but “unmarried”, “adult”, “male” and “intelligent being” are all vague concepts without sharp boundary lines.) Different conceptions of social justice fill in these variables in different ways. So long as they stay within the range, they count as conceptions of social justice. See here.
Given the character of Friedman’s objections and what he’s calling (incorrectly on two counts) “dishonest mush,” I suspect that if I given David a definition in which I filled in all the variables in one particular way, such that there were no further questions about it other than whether it’s true, he would have then said it has a clear and precise definition. So, for instance, if pressed, I could give you my exact conception or theory of social justice, I suppose. Had I done that, David would have seen the definition not as mushy, but as precise. He could then decide whether he accepts social justice or not, but he would no longer hold that it’s concept without a definition.
However, had I done that–had I defined social justice simply as my theory of social justice–I’d have been wrong about the definition. Or, had I defined “social justice” simply as Rawls’s second principle, with the full attendant theory, I’d have given David all the precision he wants, but I would then have been wrong about the definition. There are a range of views that count as views of social justice. You can see my previous post or Kevin’s post today for more on that. If I want to define social justice correctly, I have to give the definition that explains what those views have in common. I have done that many times already. The reason I can’t give Friedman what he wants he is that he wants (de re, not de dicto) a definition of “social justice” that would be wrong.
By analogy, there are a range of views that count as consequentialist. The word “consequentialist” has a definite meaning in philosophy. But if I were to define it, I’d define it in much the same way as I define “social justice”. The definition of “consequentialism” does not give you a particular moral theory or moral principle. Rather, it tells you have certain ideas fit together, and it specifies a range of views or theories that count as consequentialist. The same goes for many other words in philosophy, such as “liberalism,” “deontology,” “civic virtue,” “libertarianism,” and so on.
*You might be tempted to define “bachelor” as an unmarried male, but it seems strange to call a male toad, dog, or infant a bachelor. You might be tempted to say that “bachelors” must be human, but that’s not right, because it seems fine to call Mr. Spock a bachelor. “Married” might seem like a sharply defined concept, but if you look at all the historical variations on marriage in the world, it’s probably not.
As a final note, I’m suspicious that what’s underlying all this at this point is not a disagreement about politics, but that Friedman and some others might subscribe to naive views about how language, concepts, and definitions work. (Note that by “naive” I don’t mean dumb or not sensible, but rather held without awareness of the relevant philosophy of language or linguistics.)