Jason Brennan has now responded
to my criticism
. He did so on his blog rather than in comments on mine, so I will rerespond here instead of there.
His first response to my claim that "social justice" has no definite meaning is to concede that I am correct if "definite" is taken in a strong sense. It does not seem to have occurred to him that that concession raises problems for his earlier post, in which his very first "you may be a cartoon libertarian if" criterion was "You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today."
He argues, however, that even if "social justice" does not have a precise meaning, it describes a cluster of related ideas and so is as precise as other terms used in philosophy. A simple test of that claim is whether he can use his definition to say what is a theory of social justice and what is not, and he attempts to do so.
To illustrate the failure of that attempt, I offer three quotes from his post:
1. “Theories of social justice focus on the idea that moral justification of coercive institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged.”
2. “Few advocates of social justice think this is the only criterion of legitimacy or justice.”
3. “The most basic form of utilitarianism is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice, because it has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged.”
Point 2 implies that serving the interests of the poor or least advantaged only has to be one of the things determining justice, not the only thing. Utilitarianism has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged, but it includes their utility in the total (or average) it is maximizing, hence the serving of their interests is one of the things determining justice for a utilitarian; if the poor do worse in society A than in society B and everyone else does exactly as well, then A is a less justified. It follows that, contrary to point 3, utilitarianism is (among other things) a theory of social justice.
To avoid this conclusion, Jason has to introduce the requirement of "special
concern for the poor or least advantaged" (italics mine). We have been here before. My clash with BHL folk over the question of what "social justice" means started in an exchange with Zwolinski and Tomasi on Cato Unbound where I made the point I have just made, and got the following response
As David notes, utilitarians care about the poor in the same way they
care about everyone else: their interests are to be taken into
consideration equally along with the interests of everyone else.
Advocates of social justice, in contrast, seem to care about the poor in
a deeper sort of way: in Rawls’ version, the interests of the least
well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else.
This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But it’s worth noting that for most of the real world problems that the
classical liberals were concerned about, it is a distinction without a
And, in the rest of their reply, they never explain what a special concern means.
As long as Jason's point 1 is interpreted to mean some concern with the treatment of the poor, as I think his point 2 has to permit, the only theories that do not count as theories of social justice are ones that hold that outcomes to the poor don't matter at all and I have a hard time thinking of any examples. Jason may think Ayn Rand qualifies. I will leave it to Objectivists to demonstrate that, in her approach to political philosophy, the lives of poor people mattered along with the lives of other people and leaving each person free to control his own life was the best way of serving man's life qua man.
Part of my criticism of Jason's position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term "minimally decent lives." In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that "minimally decent lives" in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language
." If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
Jason goes on to respond to the challenge in another recent post
, where I suggest that he is more respectful to a bad argument offered by an academic philosopher, specifically John Rawls' argument for his minimax principal, than to bad arguments offered by libertarians. He disagrees with my evaluation of Rawls argument, and writes:
"Rawls’s defense of the Difference Principle is not fully compelling
because there are some important objections and questionable
"Not fully compelling" implies that it is a pretty good argument with problems. But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which he will live will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life. No justification is provided for that assumption, on which the entire argument rests. Does Jason think there are pretty good, if not entirely compelling, arguments for it? Would he like to offer some?
If not, I do not see why he regards that argument as more defensible than the (bad) arguments Rand offers for her views. He goes into some detail on what is wrong with Rand's critique of Kant, and very likely he is correct. But his rebuttal of Rand depends on an analysis of exactly what Kant meant in parts of his writing. My rebuttal of Rawls is more nearly on the level of "his argument assumes that 2+2=5."
Aside from giving me an opportunity to get back at Jason for implying that I might be a cartoon, why does all of this matter? My criticism of the concept of social justice arose in the Cato Unbound discussion, in the context of my trying
to get the Bleeding Heart Libertarians to give a clear answer to the question of how their view of libertarianism differed from the views of other libertarians, most obviously from my view. Part of the answer seemed to be that they thought libertarians should make more of a point of the fact that a libertarian society would be good for (among others) the poor, but that defines at most a difference in rhetoric not content, since essentially all libertarians agree with the claim.
The other part was that they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what "social justice" meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn't.
Part of what is interesting about Rawls is that he does answer that question. Brennan, Zwolinksi and Tomasi all speak respectfully of him, but none of them is willing to adopt his answer. That leaves their position as the combination of a critique of the hard line natural rights version of libertarianism, a critique I agree with and made in print a very long time ago, with language about caring for the poor whose content they are unwilling or unable to explain, at least to me.
One final digression, having to do with my interest in moral philosophy. What originally intrigued me about both Rand and Rawls was their claim to have solved Hume's is/ought problem, to have offered a rational argument for normative conclusions based on positive facts—I think a stronger claim in Rand's version than in Rawls'. I concluded that both claims were bogus. Not only do both of them present chains of argument with at least one gaping hole, both of them try to paper over the hole with rhetoric—Rand more entertainingly than Rawls. Readers interested in my view of that feature of Rand's work will find a sketch here