"Social justice = the idea that coercive institutions can be legitimate (i.e., permissible) only if, under favorable circumstances, they can reasonably be expected to help ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives."
(From Jason Brennan’s Facebook page)
"social justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged."
(Definition offered by Zwolinski and Tomasi in the course of a Cato Unbound exchange)
In a recent piece
on the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, Jason Brennan took some of his fellow libertarians to task for “cartoony opinions on complex matters.” His list of examples started:
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today.
(followed by points 2-17)
While I agreed with many of his examples, that was not one of them. If “social justice” has a definite meaning in philosophy, philosophers should be able to offer clear definitions and the definitions should be consistent with each other. As the quotes above, from philosophers from the same faction of the same political movement, demonstrate, they are not. The first specifies that it is about coercive institutions, the second about institutions in general. The second makes the evaluation of a society depend on how well it serves the interests of the poor and least advantaged, the first makes it depend on maintaining a minimal standard for “conscientious people.” The poor and disadvantaged are not all conscientious, conscientious people are not all poor and disadvantaged. Both definitions look more like political rhetoric than political philosophy.
Not only are the definitions not consistent with each other, neither has a clear meaning. Consider, for instance, “minimally decent lives.” A modern making a list of the requirements would almost certainly include access to decent medical care, by which definition no human being prior to 1900 lived a minimally decent life, since what we consider reasonable medical care did not then exist. One obvious response is that what is a minimally decent life changes over time. But that is to concede that the definition uses dishonest rhetoric, pretends that a relative concept is an absolute one. To say that the same life would be minimally decent if lived in 1700 but not if lived in 2000 makes nonsense of the words “minimally decent.”
An egalitarian might say that what matters is not the absolute level but how equal the society is. A utilitarian could point out that what distribution of income maximizes utility depends, among other things, on how much income there is to be distributed. The BHL folks are unwilling to identify with either of those approaches and unwilling or unable to offer a substitute that actually means what it says.
To continue … . “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.” Depends entirely? Two societies are equally justified if they equally serve the interests of (say) the bottom 10% of the income distribution, even if, in one of them, the rulers live a life of luxury supported by the taxes of everyone else above the bottom, or if, in one, almost everyone above the bottom 10% is a (well taken care of) slave? Does Brennan think there is any human being who thinks none of that matters, that the moral justification of the institutions depends only on how well they serve the bottom of the distribution? I am pretty confident he does not—he is, of course, welcome to correct me in the comment thread to this post.
One possible response is that advocates of social justice believe that the justification of the society depends in part on the implications for poor people. But so does very nearly everyone else. Utilitarians believe that the justification of the society depends on how well it serves everyone’s interests, the poor and disadvantaged included. Similarly for alternative candidates. The concept that, according to Brennan, has a definite meaning in philosophy either has a meaning that nobody could take seriously or a meaning that distinguishes it from practically none of the alternative concepts—the only exception I can think of is a pure deontological position that pays no attention at all to consequences. I agree with Jason that consequences matter, but that agreement does not define social justice.
To return to the first definition … . If “coercion” means the literal use of force, then fighting off a murderer or rapist counts as coercion, making a society that permits it a “coercive institution.” Does Brennan believe, does he think anyone believes, that permitting such self-defense is only morally permissible if it helps “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives?" What if self-defense is relevant to only a few, and most will get to live minimally decent lives without it? What if it is important only to people who would manage minimally decent lives even if they are not able to use force to defend themselves, but much better lives if they are?
Brennan might reply—he is again invited to do so here—that using force in self-defense does not count as coercion. But that would bring him straight into one of the problems with libertarian theory that he is, I suspect, already aware of. Libertarians say they are against the initiation of coercion, but their definition of initiation of coercion depends on their definition of what rights people have. If Brennan uses the same definition of rights for his definition of social justice, then practically all libertarians believe in it. If not, then what distinguishes Brennan et. al. from the rest of us is not their commitment to social justice but their view of what rights people have.
One of the things that bothered me
in a later online exchange with Matt Zwolinski (on libertarianism.org) was a tendency to slide over from the right to use force to protect property in land, which raises serious moral issues since most land was not produced by humans, to the right to use force to protect property in general. Without a theory of what property claims are legitimate, one cannot distinguish the use of force to protect legitimate property from other and coercive uses, which gets us back to the idea that one is only permitted to fight off a murderer or rapist if doing so helps the poor—or at least helps whoever is at risk of not living a minimally decent life, whatever that means.
I should probably stop now, at least for long enough to give Jason Brennan an opportunity to respond. Before doing so, it is worth pointing out just how heavy a burden of justification he has imposed on himself. In his point 1 he was not merely claiming that his view of the status of the meaning of social justice was defensible. He was claiming that it was so obviously true that to deny it was a cartoonish position.
to Zwolinski and Tomasi on social justice from the Cato Unbound discussion.
started by Bryan Caplan, with comments by me and others, on the problem of defining social justice.
You might be a cartoon bleeding heart libertarian if:
1: You describe Rawls as offering the “philosophically most sophisticated” theory of social justice—and then decline to defend it
when "David Friedman trenchantly critiques the maximin decision rule that lies
at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice."
2. When asked to define "social justice" you insist that the idea is well
defined and prove it by offering two or more inconsistent definitions.
3. When asked in exactly what sense your philosophy implies a special concern for the poor, you change the subject
4. Your explanations of why the views of other libertarians are wrong
are clearer, better written, more convincing and much shorter than your
explanations of what you believe and why it is right.
5. You describe your associate professor's salary as a "minimum basic income." (Suggested, perhaps a little unfairly, by Sean II commenting on Brennan's post)
I continued the argument in a later post
, and Matt Zwolinski offered some responses in comments to that post.
Jason has now responded
on his blog.