2013-05-29

Social Justice

Even if the BHLs are all wrong when it comes to making and subsequently defending their weaker claims, it would be fallacious to conclude that because they can't defend their claims, the claims are thus false. If we temporarily suspend disbelief, can we make hay with any concept of social justice?

Defining The Terms
Justice is a highly contested concept in philosophy, and has been for thousands of years. A vague, but fairly acceptable definition for the term might be "each person getting exactly that which he or she deserves, erring on the side of excess when it comes to good things happening to good people."

That's for "justice," now what about "social?" That one is quite a bit easier: something is social if it involves a group of individuals who share a common attribute. This leaves the door wide open, but it is necessary to do so. After all, I can form a social group around any attribute I want, so long as the rest of the group agrees. Likewise, I can also create a social group for you, so long as I can convince sufficiently many other people that the grouping attribute I've chosen is applicable. It's not important that you agree, it only matters that other people do. This is how stereotypes are made, after all.

Having thus defined "social" and "justice" individually, the definition of the conjoint term "social justice" is obvious: Social justice is when each social group gets exactly what it deserves, erring on the side of excess when it comes to good things happening to good groups.

Applying The Terms - Part One
A key point here is that this definition is fully acceptable and intuitive when applied to groups to which we feel an affinity.

For example, social justice occurs when the poor as a social group gets more of what it deserves. That is, the poor consists of individuals of no less moral worth than any other social group, yet they possess less material wealth. Therefore, social justice occurs when we give more material wealth to worthy people in need, i.e. members of the poor as a social group.

Likewise, social justice occurs when women as a social group gets more of what it deserves. That is, women are individuals of no less moral worth than any other social group, yet they possess a relatively lower level of social credibility relative to men as a social group. Therefore, when we give more social credibility to women than they currently have, we are spreading social justice.

Applying The Terms - Part Two
Another key point is that, just as Plato and Socrates observed eons ago, justice is not merely providing good to those worthy of receiving good, but also bad to those worthy of receiving bad. Justice hasn't been served until a criminal, for example, has received fair punishment for his crimes.

Applied to social justice, however, we begin to sense a need to tread carefully. Which social groups deserve punishment? In some cases, it is easy to define, as in the case of umbrella-concept bogeymen: racists, criminals, the corrupt, the morally depraved, and so on. It is easy enough to conjure up terms that imply the existence of a group of knaves who warrant punishment.

But when called to actually specify social groups who ought to be punished in the real world, with a real legal policy of social justice, we are almost sure to fail. To use the two groups specified in the previous section, how many of us would go on record calling for social justice to be waged against the poor, or against women? Clearly, any such person would be deservedly run out of town. Even calls for social justice against the corresponding opposites - the rich, and men - make most people uncomfortable. Granted, there has been some success over the years demonizing "the rich," or "the one-percent," etc., but it is only the most extreme and vociferous socialists and feminists who would call for social justice against all rich people or all men. For the most part, such calls would make normal people very uncomfortable, and rightly so.

And it is obviously even worse to argue for social justice against other groups based on race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, and so on. Most of us are able to realize fairly quickly that this is unacceptable bigotry.

Concerns
Therefore, it might be that, while justice is a concept that involves both rewards and punishments, social justice is a concept that only involves rewards.

But if this is so, then shouldn't we instead call it "generosity" or "kindness" or perhaps "egalitarianism?" The reason we do not use these terms is because "justice" as applied to social justice is meant to imply that there are social groups who do not have things to which they are actually entitled. The key implication is that by further depriving these groups of what they do not have, things that the rest of us do indeed possess, we are perpetuating an injustice.

Social justice implies not that we should be kind and generous to all social groups, nor that we should treat them all equally. Social justice in fact goes a step further to suggest that whatever conditions are currently had by the poor, by women, by African-Americans, or whomever, are morally wrong and that failing to correct the problem - or at least to try - constitutes a black mark against our own personal morality.

To that point, I raise two objections:

1. Unless you believe in Original Sin, it is impossible to hold people morally responsible for the present conditions of the world, no matter how ill they are, unless you can draw clear causality between the actions of the accused and the suffering of the victims. Regarding the poor, for example, it is not at all clear that my getting up and going to work and going home and spending time with my family every day, etc., is contributing to the suffering of the poor. So, in what way am I morally responsible for the suffering of the poor? And if the answer is, "You are morally obligated to help the poor," then I ask again: Are you not merely talking about kindness and generosity, rather than justice?

2. As I noted above, I can assemble a social group consisting of any particular attribute I choose. All I require is an applicable attribute and a large enough number of other people who agree with me. Therefore, I can draw the "poverty line" at $15K per year, $50K per year, $150K per year, or any other number. I need not draw my racial groups around skin color alone, I can draw them around national borders. Therefore "Americans" should give more to "Africans" to correct social injustice. Or, perhaps I am more interested in the unique social injustice suffered by those of mixed racial origin versus the luckier members of pure race-based groups. Here I might pit a son against his own father.

Under the social justice framework, any group I can identify can be argued as having unique social justice concerns that ought to be corrected, but there is no framework for identifying which group should be focused on first or most passionately. There is also no discussion about the selfish motives of group insiders who argue for the social justice of their own group. Of course there are selfish individual motives for all of these things, but there is no room for that particular line of analysis in a social justice discussion.

Conclusion
David Friedman has quite adeptly poked holes in our ability to concretely define social justice. Here, I have attempted to define it and discuss it as broadly as possible. Even in as flattering terms as we can give it, the concept involves major problems that cannot be easily overcome.

So, I would argue that social justice is at best problematic, and at worst more of a rhetorical tool used to promote selfish political objectives. At any rate, it is a difficult thing to take seriously.