Social Justice

Specificity and Overspecificity about “Social Justice”

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.)

  • Are you still arguing that any libertarianism that thinks “social justice” has no definite meaning is a “cartoon”?

    • Yes, and I will continue to do so until they all bow before me and proclaim me the least cartoony libertarian ever.

      • Sean II

        Hmmm…could you be a little more specific?

      • j_m_h


    • Ross Levatter

      Jason would seem to have lots to talk about with Bill Clinton. They could wile away the hours discussing the various meanings of “is” and “definite”…

      • matt b

        This is a pretty cheap shot, Ross. People on here have been asking Jason to provide a definition of social justice and when he attempts to do so they either complain that (a) it’s not precise enough or (b) he’s gotten far too deep in the weeds. Some people make both claims simultaneously!

        • Ross Levatter

          It’s not a cheap shot at all, Matt. Jason has declared as cartoonish people who think “social justice” has no definite meaning and then when pressed for a definite meaning sounds much like our 42nd President expounding on what “is” means. “It’s a cluster concept.” “There’s a difference between concept and conception.” “Every philosopher I know agrees that…” “[Those who argue against me have] naive views about how language, concepts, and definitions work”. This is the stuff from which satire is made…

          Perhaps you confuse “cheap shot” with “priceless.”

          • matt b

            Your reaction is quite bizarre. First of all, comparing an earnest man of ideas like JB to Slick Willy is polemical, borderline douchey bullshit. Beyond that, you act as if stating that there is a difference between a concept and a conception is comical sophistry when it’s actually self-evident. For example, there’s this concept of “freedom” and then there are various conceptions of what it means. For orthodox libertarians being free means one is able to pursue their personal projects without force being initiated against them unless they violate the rights of others. For left-liberals this is an inadequate conception for all the reasons you know and reject as an orthodox libertarian. For conservatives, freedom means being empowered to act virtuously (the Santorum view). So the arguments made against Jason’s position, including yours, really do miss the mark and treat some pretty obvious distinctions as unpardonable obfuscation.

          • Ross Levatter

            Matt B,

            Your reaction is quite silly. Comparing a person who labels his opponents “cartoonish” to slick Willy is anything but polemical. And using the phrase “borderline douchey bullshit” does not, perhaps, achieve the level of philosophical nuance for which it seems you desire to be known.

            As the many very cogent and negative responses to this OP make clear (to say nothing of the relative Likes and Dislikes registered by observers), it is foolish–one might even say borderline douchey bullshit if one’s vocabulary were sufficiently unimaginative–to BOTH claim that X has a definite meaning AND refuse, over and over again, to provide that meaning. You seem to have little in the way of powers of extrospection, so let me make it clear: Jason has very much harmed both the level of comity and sophistication of this on-going BHL debate by referring to opponents as cartoonish. An “earnest man of ideas” would apologize. Even Clinton did that much…

          • matt b


            You need to stop mischaracterizing the statements of people who disagree with you. Jason laid out a list of hard libertarian beliefs and said they are cartoonish. He didn’t say everybody who disagreed with his views are cartoonish (he quite clearly said well known hard libertarians like Nozick are not cartoonish). He could just have easily drawn up a list of silly left-liberal dogmas or silly conservative dogmas and if he had done so that would not have, in anyway, implied that he thinks all left-liberals are cartoonish or that all conservatives are cartoonish. So this assertion that Jason thinks everybody who disagrees with him is cartoonish is flagrantly false.

            Nuance is good much of the time but I don’t worry about being insufficiently nuanced when I’m talking about how evil Hitler was or how awesome blueberry pancakes are. In the same vein, if someone is denigrating a serious philosopher by comparing his sincere efforts to grapple with important issues to the slippery evasions of a comically prevaricating politician I don’t worry about the term “borderline douchey” lacking nuance or precision. I suppose “douche nozzle” would have been more imaginative though.

          • Hume22

            I’m not sure who’s view is what and who is defending whom. Here are my two cents. Jason likes to have fun and he wrote up this list in jest. The only issue I have with it is that it seems uncalled for in the following sense. First, most libertarians, whether academic philosophers or the dude behind a computer screen wasting time at the office, have a kind of complex: we feel as if others dont take our views seriously, and we are really sensitive to this, so we either long for legitimacy or strike back as the outcast (‘f**k em, you all are silly anyway”). Second, most readers of this blog are not academic philosophers, so they come here hoping to read good libertarian ideas from really smart people with impressive resumes. It’s a nice change from the normal deluge of left-liberal credentials being flung in our faces. Such readers tend to look up to such distinguished philosophers (whether Nozick or Rothbard or Mises or Hayek, etc.), and this is a great place to engage in discussion with persons whose names match the names on some of the books they own. So it seems to me to be somewhat uncalled for to mock (even in jest) the views of persons who have different preference orderings and dont see philosophy in general and “the political” in particular as the most important thing in their lives, using their time in pursuit of different careers and thus with less ability to spend analysing and debating complex philosophical issues. As noted above, libertarians are already sensitive to legitimacy claims, so people are more likely to take even greater offense when the criticism is coming from a place they hope to go to find an outlet from the normal world where our views are looked down upon.

          • matt b

            A true libertarian would not have put stars in the F word 🙂 No I mean I hear where you’re coming from but I do have some fairly pointed disagreements. To begin with, I just don’t think Rothbard is a serious philosopher. Did you read Matt Z on his arguments a while back? It was really quite devastating. And I think that a lot of libertarian arguments are spectacularly weak when it comes to making the case for absolute property rights, self-ownership, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, I think the reason you see people like Ross and others saying silly things like “Jason Brennan is the Bill Clinton of the libertarian world” (paraphrasing but accurately so) is that it stings when a libertarian philosopher points out that the giants of libertarianism produced some really awful arguments. Now if Brennan went constantly shit talking libertarians as a bunch of poor people hating materialistic selfish scumbags I would be more sympathetic to claims about his writings re-enforcing the idea that libertarian ideas, broadly understood, lack legitimacy and are not deserving of respectful engagement. But since he has not done this despite the insinuations in the comments I’m not really sympathetic. Indeed, I think JB and others have been really careful not to slip into the crude caricatures we’re used to hearing from leftists while making their disagreements with libertarian orthodoxy clear.

          • Hume22

            Matt, Thanks for the response. I’m very sympathetic to your views here. As a philosophy phd candidate myself, I have pretty thick skin and I am quite familiar with the strong (and not so strong) arguments against my favored libertarian-ish views, and my preference is that more people in the ‘libertarian tent’ were more familiar with these arguments and took them seriously, wrestling with the work of those who fundamentally disagree, rather than relying on, say, Nozick’s arguments against Rawls or Rothbard’s arguments against Nozick, etc.

          • matt b

            Well thanks for the discussion. It’s good to be able to have a reasoned dialogue regarding this post which has seen a lot of hysterical reactions. Where, if I may ask, are you enrolled as a philosophy phd candidate? How have your views been received?

          • Hume22

            Matt, I’m at an ivy league program, but I prefer not to say. I like my colleagues and the faculty, but there is no doubt a bias and a certain hostility against political philosophies that are not of your standard egalitarian/high liberal variety, a hostility that sometimes comes out in the grad department areas/paper-bag lunches, etc., (unless of course you are to the left of such views (e.g., socialist/marxist)). Although interestingly enough, the hostility is usually from non-political philosophers. For practical purposes, I thus keep my philosophy as close to the vest as possible. This is not impossible for me because my focus is primarily on political legitimacy, political authority, and political obligation, and there is much more common ground between libertarian-ish/anarchistic views and left-liberalism than might initially appear.

          • matt b

            I respect your desire to maintain privacy but then I’m a libertarian ha so that’s not a big surprise. I’m not surprised that it’s mostly from non political philosophers since political philosophers at least have some exposure to contrary views and know that there are good people on the other side whereas your average English professor does not. Maybe will see you post as your real self some day right here on BHL 🙂

  • hamilt0n

    Much like how “rights” is shorthand for “thing I like” for many people, it seems like social justice, as described here, could be shorthand for “things those on the left don’t care for.”

    Maybe it’s legitimate to form a broad coalition of unrelated themes and gripes and give it a technical-sounding name (maybe that’s the *only* way to discuss important topics with a large portion of the population), but I don’t think that’s ever going to appeal to libertarians.

    • Theresa Klein

      Personally, I think it’s a rhetorical device that campus activists invented because “socialism” had gotten a bad name. And they wanted to latch themselves onto “justice”, a concept most Americans still regarded as reputable. Sort of a George Lakoff “lets control the dialogue by manipulating the connotation of terms we use” strategy.

      • Sean II

        I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. Whatever “social justice” turns out to be, the term clearly did come into vogue as a lefty dog whistle and content-free hooray word.

        Despite the valiant efforts of Vallier to give it a kind of meaning that only philosophers or adventurous libertarians would ever think to demand, that is still how the term is most commonly used.

        When the college girl with the big glasses and the small eyes talks about social justice, she simply means: whatever policies I like = justice. The word has become a mere suffix, hence “reproductive justice”, “green justice”, etc.

        Say what you will about cartoon libertarians, but when they use the word “freedom”, they are at least describing a regime of negative rights that would be recognizable to Locke, Mill, Rand, Rothbard, and even Jason Brennan. Amusing as it is, “keep the government out of my medicaid” is just a clumsy error of application. It does not reflect some big conceptual instability in the term “freedom”.

        The same cannot be said of social justice girl. She’s not eligible to make the same mistake, because in her use of it if not in Rawls’ or Vallier’s, the term is pure Humpty Dumpty.

        • Aeon Skoble

          Spot on.

        • good_in_theory

          “When a man is thought to have a false idea of justice, or gratitude, or glory, it is for no other reason, but that his agrees not with the ideas which each of those names are the signs of in other men.”

          -John Locke.

          Your collective historical ignorance aside, the term social justice “came into vogue” as an outgrowth of the debates about “the social question,” or “the social problem,” the name by which the problems of poverty, health, labor conditions &etc were called during the rapid changes in social relations brought about by industrialization and urbanization, which were studied under the new “social sciences” with their analysis and description of what one could call demographic changes.

          To go with Matt’s “social injustice” framing, social injustices were the problems created and/or identified by these changing conditions and methods of analysis. Social justice was the question of how changes to (social) institutions could ameliorate these problems.

          Your demeaning caricatures supposedly vague notions of social justice fit with this basic conception rather easily. Problems, identified at the level of populations, which are potentially resolvable by changing socio-political institutions.

          From a random treatise on social justice from the early 20th century, on “the momentous problem of social justice”: “In common with all the world I had recognized that our institutions were wrong somewhere, and that most people’s lives were failures – doomed to be so from birth”

          Along similar lines, from another treatise (contrasting social justice with legal justice): “we are no longer sure of our institutions.”

          or another:

          “on what [principles] … shall the state control and discipline its members, and adjust their conflicting interests…. That is the problem of social justice.”

          But then, one could go back to Aristotle to get the kind of distinction at work here:

          “Of particular justice and that which is just in the corresponding sense, (A) one kind is that which is manifested in distributions of honour or money or the other things that fall to be divided among those who have a share in the constitution [GiT: remember, Greek, so this is some varitation on polis, the political community or city state] (for in these it is possible for one man to have a share either unequal or equal to that of another), and (B) one is that which plays a rectifying part in transactions between man and man.”

          So, (A), the justice of the distributions of goods occasioned by institutions, and (B) honoring contracts.

          Who cares if justice becomes a suffix? It has always been thus, because it has always been applied to different kinds of things.

          The more appropriate way to phrase this is that it has always been a word which *takes adjectives*. Complaining that justice is ‘reduced’ to being modified by adjectives to specify the particular sorts of injustice to which it refers is abject stupidity.

          • Sean II

            I’m curious: how did you go about choosing that “random treatise on social justice”? Did you take out all of your treatises on social justice and give them at least four good riffle-shuffles before dealing one from the top of the stack? Perhaps you “burned” the top treatise and then dealt out the one underneath it?

            I ask because, you know, I’d hate to think the draw was rigged in some way. I’m not changing my mind because of some “hand-picked treatise on social justice”, dammit. For me, it’s gotta be random or else no deal.

          • good_in_theory
          • Sean II

            Oops, I’m afraid that fails to meet my condition. A sort by relevance is definitely not random.

            But all is not lost. Since we’ve established that you have access to Google, may I suggest searching for the word “vogue”?

            I believe you’ll find it does not mean “known to a subset of writers” or even “used by certain intellectuals”. Indeed, unless I miss my guess, the entry should say something about being popular, common, widespread, etc.

            Fair warining: there may be one item in there about an early 1990s dance craze, but I’ll agree to ignore that part if you will.

          • good_in_theory

            Do you actually have a point about randomness, or are you just being an inane jester as per usual?

            Discussion of “social justice” was quite “in vogue” in the early 20th century. “The social question” isn’t the name of a strictly academic debate, but a popular one that occurred in the popular press, was the object of speeches and parliamentary debates, &etc.

            Talk of “social justice” wasn’t in any way restricted to academics, being discussed in newspapers and by religious leaders, as well as popular writers. In other words it was a natural outgrowth of the popular, public, political discussion of ‘the social question’ and efforts at ‘social reform’ – concerns with poverty, labor, and the distribution of resources occasioned by the social transformations of the 19th century.

          • Sean II

            Okay, I can see you won’t rest until the last ounce of fun has been drained from this, so I’ll play it mostly straight.

            I made a comment about how the term social justice is commonly used, what it means on the street, how it came into vogue in the parlance of our times, dude. (NOTE: italicized terms appear in the original)

            I never said the term did not exist before this or that year. I never said the common meaning was it’s only meaning. In fact, I was careful to note that the common meaning differs from the academic meaning.

            You responded by rushing out to the nearest phone booth and changing into your super-pedantic alter ego, then flying off to give me a super-pednatic response.

            But it’s all bullshit. It doesn’t mean anything. I don’t care how the term “social question” was used in 1810. I’m interested in what “social justice” means today, and I claim it’s mostly just a dog whistle, secret handshake, whatever.

            You’ve offered nothing in response to that, so yeah…I’m pretty much gonna ignore you or “jest” with you inanely, until you come forward to dispute a point I actually made.

          • Hume22

            ” In fact, I was careful to note that the common meaning differs from the academic meaning. … But it’s all bullsh*t. It doesn’t mean anything.”

            Just so I have a better understanding of what this whole debate is about, Sean what do you take “meaning” to consist in?
            Also, just so we’re not talking past each other, if certain concepts are notoriously subject to intense controversy and debate (‘freedom,’ “rights”, “liberty”, “equality”, “democracy”, etc.), how if at all does this controversy affect the ability of these words to have a meaning (based on your take on ‘meaning’)? Thanks.

          • Sean II


            You’re welcome, and I really “mean” that.

          • good_in_theory

            TK: “Personally, I think it’s a rhetorical device that campus activists invented because “socialism” had gotten a bad name.”

            S-II:”I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that”

            Consider it reasonably disputed (and factually inaccurate).

            So what was that which you never said?

            What you have said (or assented to) are a number of inaccurate – or outright daft – innuendos and statements.

            1. It’s not a “rhetorical device invented by campus activists.”

            2. It didn’t “come into vogue” as a content free hooray word, it has had a continuous, increasing, popular usage, and it may have ‘come into vogue’ *specifically on the student left* of the 60s/70s to the present, or whatever, not because of a lack of content, but because student left concerns fell within the ambit of the continuous popular usage of the concept.

            3. “Social justice” was not merely “known to a subset of writers” or “used by certain intellectuals.” It was used by community groups, discussed in the popular press ,talked about in parliamentary debate, brought up by popular fiction writers like London or Sinclair, used in the mottos of labor and left newspapers, the subject of academic, popular, and religious treatises. In other words it was about as rarefied as, say, “health care,” “the drug war,” or “environmentalism.”

            4. It does mean something in its common usage, your inability to do other than ridicule and demean ‘leftists’ as somehow especially confused and uniquely extreme in the incoherence of their political beliefs notwithstanding. If you can’t figure out how the way in which social justice is used evokes common concern and conceptual unity with its continuous usage, from its historical inception to the present, then you’re just being dense.

          • Sean II

            That’s your gripe? Then why didn’t you just respond to Theresa directly? The offending text (from your point of view) seems to have appeared in her comment. I just said amen and chimed in a few thoughts of my own. It’s considered friendly, you know, to sometimes begin comments with “thank you!” or “right on!” or “I don’t think anyone could dispute that…”.

            As I’m sure you realize – or would realize, if not presently possessed by your super pedantic self – such overtures don’t actually reflect a literal and complete endorsement of every word in the preceding comment.

            If you want to know what I’m actually saying, I’ll spell it out for you: There are two meanings of social justice.

            1) The high meaning, which can be whatever you like, maybe: “social institutions should be judged based on how they work for the benefit of the least well off.”

            2) The low meaning, which in common parlance tends to be something like “Yea, Obama!” or “Inequality bad”, and which functions as a highly reliable way for lefty people to recognize each other in the first few moments of a political conversation.

            Now, if you want to deny that meaning 2) exists, go right ahead. That’s the only issue that matters here.

          • good_in_theory

            If “social justice” just acts as a shibboleth, then it is no different than “rights,” “freedom,” “democratic,” “liberal,” “traditional,” “moral,” “free market,” “libertarian,” or any of numerous other words people use. Yes, one’s vocabulary is a heuristic used to divine one’s affiliations and interests. So what? What’s the point of such an insipid observation?

            Further, to think that because we make judgments about others on the basis of the words they use, people use words and understand them as nothing more than status signals, is just a ridiculous bit of reductionist thinking.

            Even if ‘lefty caricature’ knows that using “social justice” signals something about their politics and in part uses the phrase to function as such a signal, this does not mean that they don’t think that “social justice” has specific content or that the reasons they use that signal instead of another is reducible to its function as a signal.

            In fact, they almost certainly do think it has specific content, and this content is a product of the continuous historical use of the term. If they can’t offer a thorough account of what they do or don’t consider to be “social justice” if pressed, then they are like basically every human with respect to likely the vast majority of the words they use.

          • Sean II

            Now, you’ve left me to wonder whether you read my comment at all.

            I specifically said that “social justice” in the mouth of a lefto was not like “freedom” in the mouth of a libertarian.

            Recall: “Say what you will about cartoon libertarians, but when they use the word “freedom”, they are at least describing a regime of negative rights that would be recognizable to Locke, Mill, Rand, Rothbard, and even Jason Brennan.”

            Likewise, “democracy” is mostly a term that means the same thing to philosophers as it does to people on the street (at least until you modify it with “economic” or “workplace”). Likewise, “free market” usually means about the same thing no matter who is using the term (although there are, of course, errors of application).

            So…no, GiT, I’m NOT saying that “social justice” is a term like any other. I’m saying it is especially notable for its lack of any clear meaning, even among those leftists who eagerly use the term as a calling card.

          • good_in_theory

            Well, that’s a nice expression of your own parochialism, but the criterion of distinction between “words Sean thinks are like social justice” and “words Sean thinks are like the libertarian (not common, notably) conception of freedom,” seem to be, “how much Sean has bothered to to think about it and whether or not it’s politically convenient for him to say the concept is coherent or not.”

          • Sean II

            This has not been one of your better outings, GiT. Perhaps I bring out the worst in you?

          • good_in_theory

            How else is one supposed to respond to an argument whose only evidence is your own bluster?

            “Hey everybody, social justice is only used as a shibboleth for ‘on the left and DTF. How do I know? Well, I made a funny caricature of a college leftist above, which is clearly an accurate and objective picture of reality; what more do you need?”

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            My goodness, you have pedantically managed to beat a dead horse…to death. The issue is not one of definition or usage, but whether the term in question actually refers to something real. If you open your personal dictionary you will find a definition of “unicorn,” which has been in use far, far longer than “social justice.” But unicorns don’t exist, and neither does social justice until someone defends it using the methodology that philosophers employ for competing theories of justice, i.e. what is its ethical foundation, what are its implications, how does value sit with other competing values, which might conflict with it, etc. You consider yourself a smart guy, so feel free to take a whack at this.

          • good_in_theory

            That is an issue, but I don’t see it as the one proper to this particular subthread, containing the following thoughts:

            1. social justice means ‘things liberals like’ (hamilton)
            2. social justice was ‘invented by campus activists because socialism had a bad name’ (Theresa)
            3. social justice came into popular use purely as a ‘dog whistle’ (sean)
            4. again, social justice just means ‘things lefties like’ (sean)
            5. social justice, before being invented by campus activists, was only ‘known to a subset of academics or writers’ (sean)

            But “social justice” wasn’t invented by campus activists, it didn’t come into popular, widespread use as a dog whistle, and to describe its meaning as simply ‘things lefties like’ is willfully ignorant reductionism.

            What I have been “pedantic” about is, you know, the actual history of public and popular discussion of specifically *social* problems, and the historical origins and developments of the term “social justice.”

            Perhaps some subset of libertarians are happy to be completely ignorant of the relevant intellectual and conceptual history, or the tangible political and social history, behind political concepts (evidently many are). But perhaps there are a few who might actually value history and knowledge over baseless assertion. Here one could start with Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, where there is a chapter on “the social.”

            As to whether social justice “exists,” I find this to be a rather odd way to talk about such a sort of concept. Define what kind of existence you’re talking about and what it would mean for “social justice” to exist for you (what your definition of “is,” is, to piggy back off another digression), and maybe we can get somewhere. I don’t really see what your stipulations for something existing as a philosophically competitive theory of justice has to do with whether or not social justice exists.

            I look at it rather straightforwardly, as informed by the history. The term social justice emerged as a response to a particular set of *real problems* people confronted in the 19th century concerning poverty and work and the relationship between employees and employers. Social justice could be then defined as something like, “the rectification of these problems.” So a demand for social justice is a demand for the solution of particular problems – a kind of goal/aim/possible state of affairs. And that, to me, seems like something that exists, in an appropriately qualified sense of ‘existence.’

            More generally, social justice is a concept people use, it has boundaries even if they are fuzzy or contentious, even if it is reducible to some other concept, and when people use it they are trying to get at something, and many people have a common conception of what it’s about, even if libertarians are themselves incapable of wrapping their heads around it. Which is also enough for it to exist, in my lights.

            So what are the precise ontological stakes here?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree that theories of justice don’t exist/not exist in the way of unicorns. I believe the appropriate analog for theories is something like “add to/detract from the search for truth.” I claim that “social justice” falls into the second category.

            I start with the fact that “social justice” seems entirely superfluous. Any theory of justice that violates the valid moral claims of any group or person is flawed to that extent, and certainly inferior to any competing theory that doesn’t. If a political theory that defends free market capitalism would predictably not give the poor and vulnerable what they deserve, it is unjust to them; why do we then also need to say this theory violates the demands of social justice?

            Once we start weaving into the basic principles of political morality special demands for a particular group, we should justify this priority. Why not condition “justice” on also respecting the interests of minorities, gays, the environment, property-holders, the talented and entrepreneurial, the traditionally religious, etc? Once we start down this road how do we integrate all of these special demands? Incorporating “social justice” within the boundaries of a rights-based theory seems especially problematic, since there is an obvious tension between these ideas that must be reconciled.

            I have not yet seen anyone answer these questions to my satisfaction. I say more on this subject here:

          • Hume22

            Mark, While I am somewhat sympathetic, I was under the impression that the dialectic is such that BHLers are just providing a definition/conception of social justice, while you are making substantive moral claims.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You are right. I expanded the discussion a bit. I will now rest on my First Amendment rights. 🙂 Or, perhaps in light of recent events, I should take the Fifth!

          • Kevin

            BHLers are not merely providing a definition/conception of social justice, they are most importantly trying to make it compatible with libertarianism (e.g. “Rothbardian fairness”) in a substantive way. That’s what makes it so difficult.

            The problem is that the only unique aspects of “social justice” (consequentialist and non-individual-derived) don’t fit at all with libertarianism and when they claim that it does fit, it comes off as incoherent or totally ignoring the only unique aspects of the term “social justice”.

          • Hume22

            Kevin, Again, although I am sympathetic to what you are saying here, this sounds far too substantive to be appropriate in the present context. I think the claims you are making are only appropriate as a critique of an individual philosopher’s worked-out theory. So I think you should write a critique of, say, Tomassi’s recent book and show where exactly his commitments are vulnerable to your arguments. But then we must keep in mind that Jason, Kevin Vallier, Matt, etc. are all individual philophers with importantly different political philosophies. For example, Vallier is committed to a kind of justificatory liberalism, and this seems to me to be fundamentally different than, say, Jason’s kind of republicanism of some sort (might not be a fair label).

          • Kevin

            So when Kevin Vallier defines “social justice” and plugs in “Rothbardian fairness”, thereby using “social justice” against its main thrust (or as Brennan might say, similar to using “bachelor” to describe a male toad), it is out of context and too substantive to point that out?

            I’m not making a moral argument like Mark was, I’m making a semantic incompatibility and linguistic argument like Brennan is in this thread.

            Nevertheless, I understand your point, as well as their great difficulty here. They are at the semantic frontier trying to stretch the bounds of both traditional social justice and libertarianism and they need to start somewhere with _some_ definition, which will probably change as they go in order to get it to fit with their similarly adapted libertarianism. It is all subtly in flux while they explore.

            That said, it might not be a bad idea for them to use a different term that they can independently control rather than directly stretching one which already exists. Of course, libertarians would probably still complain. 🙂

  • j_m_h

    I like the premise here about is this an argument about terms or not. If it is the that might be mostly a waist of time for everyone.

    But perhaps not. The question of applying the term “bachelor” to a toad is relevant because we need to ask Would we apply the term “married” to a toad? No, so the concept of bachelor simply doesn’t fit. That type of relationship doesn’t fit.

    So the real question comes down to: Does justice only apply to individuals or can it be applied at the social or institutional level? No doubt this has been discussed before but I suspect the jury is still out.

    If we’re dismissing the discussion by picking on definitions that’s unfortunate. If we’re willing to explore the underlying question here about the concept of justice criticism is good.

    I’m not sure how to interpret everyone’s comments. Personally my intuition says there’s something worth looking at here in a serious way.

    • “So the real question comes down to: Does justice only apply to
      individuals or can it be applied at the social or institutional level?” Yes. Maybe I’m missing something (always a possibility), to me the difference between vanilla justice and “social” (or “institutional”) justice seems analogous to the distinction between players breaking the rules of a game and having a game whose rules don’t meet some external standard by which we judge that some games are better than others.

      It’s certainly true that complaints about the rules of a game can and do degenerate into nothing more than complaints from losers in the game that the wrong people won. But I think it’s possible to judge a game based on other factors: Are the rules such that people are incentivized to cheat more than in other games? Is the game characterized by more injuries to players than in other games? Do the rules disproportionately favor following a single strategy at the expense of other possible strategies? Is playing the game actually enjoyable to those who play it? For example, when people lose do they tend to lose by extremely lopsided scores, as opposed to feeling they had a reasonable chance of winning? And so on.

      The rules of a game evolve over time as humans intentionally seek to change them for various reasons, whether to favor themselves, to make the game better according to their own lights, or both. Some games become more popular than others; if few people want to play a given game then it is at risk of dying out (if old) or never attracting players (if new).

      The analogy to historically-evolved but ultimately human-designed institutional frameworks in societies seems pretty self-evident to me. Whether it is actually a useful analogy I leave to others.

  • I don’t see the problem in defining consequentialist. A consequentialist theory is one that holds that the evaluation of something depends only on its consequences. That doesn’t distinguish one consequentialist theory from another, but it shouldn’t, any more than the definition of “mammal” should distinguish among different kinds of mammals.

    My complaint is that you don’t provide an equivalent definition for “social justice,” not that you don’t tell me what particular theory of social justice you support–presumably different ones for different BHL posters.

    • Ashton

      How about, what’s wrong with Vallier’s claim that “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”? This is a definition of “social injustice,” which I think Brennan agrees.

      A paired, though not exclusive, definition of “social justice” with regard to society claims “if there are Rawlsian economic and social inequalities in a society, those inequalities can be just only if “they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” (While ignoring other Rawlsian conditions for a just society). What’s wrong with this latter claim?

      Is the salient issue that there is no given definition for “social justice” or that the given definition of “social justice” does not fit with cluster of descriptions used to define libertarianism?

      • “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”

        There are all sorts of problems with that, starting with the fact that the amount of goods available is finite. There are only so many goods available for everyone to enjoy. Seconds, what counts as “sufficient” to enjoy the worth of basic liberties? (This is a problem previously raised).

        The thing is that markets are very good at efficiently distributing scarce resources. This has been proven time and time again. More importantly, markets preserve the incentives to produce MORE of those resources, thus making them more widely available to more people. Once you get past the fact that there are finite amounts of goods, then the whole thing devolves into an argument about economics, and since market are better are producing more stuff the overall “sufficiency” of the goods available to everyone is better and thus markets are more just.

        The realy underlying problem here is that the advocates of “social justice” theory are either unwilling or unable to acknowledge the scarcity of resources. If there were ever forced to acknowledge scarcity then you would have to have a debate about resource allocation in markets versus governments, and that is an argument they would lose.

      • And as a further aside, it seems to me that the definition of “social justice” is perhaps intentionally mushy, precisely so as to avoid getting pinned down and forced into these debates about the specifics of policy.

      • TracyW

        “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,

        That primary goods do not come about merely via economic institutions, but by people’s labour and the operations of the natural world?

        So, say if Yellowstone Park erupts, and global agricultural output falls so much that there’s too little food for everyone to eat. Is that a social injustice?

        Or, say that 90% of humanity freely decides to abjure luxuries and live a life of meditation, only working sufficiently to secure enough food for themselves and their immediate dependents. This would probably mean a sharp drop in living for the other 10%, by means of the fall in the division of labour, say that this sharp drop in living standards means that they can’t enjoy the worth of their basic liberties (eg healthcare is now much worse). Are those 10% the victims of a social injustice just because their fellow citizens have chosen a very limited lifestyle? In other words, does social justice require your fellow citizens to labour on your behalf?

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s not the right definition of consequentialism, so that’s why you don’t see the problem.

      • martinbrock

        What is the right definition of consequentialism?

      • Ross Levatter

        Why should we take your assertion seriously, Jason?

      • martin

        Presumably the definition of consequentialism is as difficult to give as the definition of social justice, so I won’t ask you to give it (as another martin did), but what’s wrong with this one? Or: what kind of consequentialist theories don’t fit this definition?

        • aaron

          I cannot speak to what Jason was thinking but that definition precludes any normative moral theory from being called consequentialist in a prescriptive way. In addition that definition would not allow rule or virtue consequentialism to be truly consequentialist and would render consequentialism incompatible with any other normative metric.

          • Christ Jesus

            The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on consequentialism opens with a definition: “.. the view that normative properties depend only on consequences.” William Haine’s consequentialism article for the IEP is substantively the same. Other sources are all similar.

            These fit David’s definition perfectly and describe the uncontroversial thrust of consequentialism for the vast majority of philosophy.

            The burden would clearly be on Jason to explain why all these people are wrong. This seems pretty silly.

          • martin

            There’s no entry on Social Justice in the SEP.

            I guess it’s a cartoon encyclopedia…

          • good_in_theory

            It doesn’t have an entry on justice either…

          • Christ Jesus
          • good_in_theory

            Well, that would qualify it as having entries on social justice as well…

          • Christ Jesus

            Not really, because Jason has just argued that ‘social’ justice is a subset of ‘distributive’ justice which focuses on the poor. The SEP article on distributive justice does not include ‘social’ justice among the many forms of distributive justice it lists or the other articles with justice in the title

    • martinbrock

      Usage of “property” is also mushy. Rothbard strives for a very specific usage, but he’s clear that his specific usage deviates from the usage of Locke for example. A philosopher defining “property” consistent with both Rothbard and Locke necessarily requires a vague definition.

  • Ashton

    One way to look at the disagreement between Friedman and Brennan is that Friedman reacts adversely to Brennan’s account of the “cartoon libertarian,” one which may very definitely include Friedman, given Brennan’s definition of “cartoon libertarian.” That seems a uselessly partisan discussion.

    Another is to suppose that perhaps what Friedman means to call the definition of “social justice” as “mushy,” is not that you cannot give a clear definition of “social justice,” but that he takes the definition of “social justice” provided as impractical or useless with regard to real world application, or would not properly serve its purpose, given what we take to know about economics, history, sociology, etc.

    • Ashton

      Or another way, I suppose, is that “social justice” as defined is incoherent or “mushy.” But, I do not believe (what do you care what I, a stranger commenting on a blog, believes? and I’m no closer to getting into graduate school for doing so), that’s what Friedman is claiming.

  • martinbrock

    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.

    Different people use “social justice” differently, just as different people use “property” differently. Social justice essentially involves exceptions to property. Social justice is the background of a picture with property in the foreground. The background of a picture of clouds necessarily has a cloudy boundary.

    That’s supposed to be a restatement rather than a challenge, but I’d also like to know your theory of social justice. I know that it’s your theory. Even if you pretend that it has some universal relevance, I still know that it’s your theory.

  • glennd1

    If this entire article isn’t mush then perhaps I am “without awareness of the relevant philosophy of” mushiness. Every time I come here, the absurdity of obscurantist preening seems to have become even more pronounced. Fyi, when someone speaks about Social Justice – I make them mean Rawls. Otherwise, they are talking about something else. I mean he did win the Medal of Freedom for it in 1998, with Bill Clinton telling him that he’d “saved democracy”, so it doesn’t seem TOO much of a stretch to assume the speaker is thinking about things like the “difference principle” (incalculable) and the “veil of ignorance” (childishly impractical). But I’m nowhere near as smart as you…

    • good_in_theory

      Except “Social Justice” as a term of art predates Rawls by about a hundred years, and there’s no reason to take his conception of it as the only one.

  • les kyle Nearhood

    Yes there is something called social injustice, therefore there must be a social justice. But it is really just the same thing as any other injustice. What I mean is that my idea of social injustice is arbitrarily stopping any person or group of people from pursuing those things they want in the marketplace.

    For instance, when Jim Crow laws stopped Black Americans from going to certain hotels and restaurants. That was a social injustice. (whether it needed a government remedy or not is another question). But it is also merely an injustice, the term social only gives it a slight descriptive which it did not need.

    Any other social injustice often mentioned, such as people earning unequal amounts of income in the marketplace, are not injustices at all. They may be unfortunate, but as long as no coercion, fraud, cronyism, or theft is involved then they are not an injustice.

    • good_in_theory

      ‘Stopping people from pursuing things they want in the marketplace’ is a rather bizarre notion of injustice.

      • les kyle Nearhood

        Bizzare? well it is a form of coercion, and only a subset of all injustices. Really do you go out of your way to be unnecessarily contrary?

  • Hume22

    “social justice”

    “justice” = giving each person their due. (thank G.A. for that helpful nugget).

    “social” or “the social” = see Durkheim, et al.

    Moral of the story: social justice means that we cannot determine what each person is due without taking into account “the social”, i.e., how and where everyone else fits into a coherent scheme of interaction and justification-giving (perhaps like a Leibnizian plenum, where “motion” in one domain has an effect on all others).


    • good_in_theory

      I think you can get that definition of justice in Plato.

      “Simonides, then, after the manner of poets, would seem to have spoken
      darkly of the nature of justice; for he really meant to say that justice is the giving to each man what is proper to him, and this he termed a debt.”

      • Hume22

        Yeah, for sure. The Cohen reference was tongue-in-cheek (“But if, as some of my critics insist, I simply *must* say what I think justice is, in general terms, then I offer, for those who will be content with it, the ancient dictum that justice is giving each person her due.” -Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008), at 7).

  • Hume22

    “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.)”

    So youre saying: if you think Frege is a tasty beverage, a super-thick milk shake served at Friendly’s, you just might be a cartoon libertarian.

  • Kevin

    But you have reversed your roles in those linguistic analogies, Jason. You BHLers are the ones avoiding the primary thrust of “social justice” by trying to make it fit libertarianism.

    Yes, you can define “social justice” to be a superset of libertarianism but to apply it to libertarianism is to largely ignore the only unique aspects of “social justice”, namely its consequentialism and non-individual-caused injustices.

    That is the underlying point of contention here.