Justice, part 2

So far, our exploration of justice has brought up giving people their due, but we haven’t seen how to determine what that is. Philosopher Tim Scanlon argues that we must be able to justify our conduct to others. It’s inherently relational. Doing right by other people, he says, means treating them in ways they cannot reasonably reject.

Of course, we know that people are often unreasonable – we know that we ourselves are often unreasonable. A person might reject the way you treat them even if they wouldn't reasonably reject -- or a person might not reject the way you treat them even if they reasonably would.

As often seems to be the case in philosophy, the answer to a question seems to raise another question which is only a re-phrasing of the original question. If we had been wondering how to decide what is due, are we not now wondering how to decide what is reasonable? And doesn’t that practically amount to the same thing?

But there is a method here that we didn’t have before. It says: imagine yourself in the other person’s position. This goes beyond the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because it recognizes that others aren’t you, and they might not want what you would want. So we imagine their situation, with their interests and wants as best we can – and it may take some work to do this in detail -- and then we imagine them as having a moment of the greatest reasonability we can imagine. In that moment, would they reject the way we are treating them? To be a just person, one must carefully assess this question – mindful that one’s own greed, the opposite of justice, is likely to distort our imaginings.

Conversing with the real person, rather than just the imagined version of them, is an important check. It’s true we are all often unreasonable, but we might discover in that conversation some quite reasonable objections that imagination had failed to reveal -- or perhaps the opposite: some quite reasonable justifications for treating them in a way you had imagined they would reject.

What we owe to each other is to treat others in ways they cannot reasonably reject, using a mix of imagination and interaction with the real person to assess the reasonability of any rejection.

Moving to the social level, and the justice of social institutions, what people reasonably reject is inequality. Social justice is about equality. Some inequalities are not a problem. If you can run faster than me, or write books that sell better than mine, or you have more friends than me, that’s not the issue. But we are all entitled to equal concern and respect from society. How is that to be accomplished?

Some have argued for equality of resources. Ronald Dworkin, for instance, argues that a just state would ensure that individuals have an equal claim equal claim to the resources needed to form and pursue their own plans and ambitions.

Others have emphasized equality of opportunity. This takes a number of forms. Richard Arneson argues that individuals are not be entitled to a particular level of welfare, but to equal opportunity to exercise choice and responsibility in their pursuit of welfare. Amartya Sen favors equality of opportunities to achieve particular kinds of valuable individual functionings or states. G.A. Cohen argues for equality of “access to advantage,” which combines elements of some of these other views.

That sounds like worthwhile conversation – somewhat removed from practical reality, as philosophy tends to be, yet orienting us to a way of looking at current reality while paving the way conceptually for what might someday become practical. Tim Scanlon, however, directs our attention to something rather different from all of this.

Scanlon notes that the concern with inequality is not some abstract interest in a particular kind of distributive pattern.
“We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.” (Martin O’Neill, “What We Owe Each Other: T.M Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy” Boston Review, 2016 Jun 2)
Equality of stuff – or of access to stuff, or opportunity to pursue stuff – is one thing. Creating communities of belonging – places where everyone can feel a meaningful part of an interconnected web – which is itself a meaningful part of larger interconnected web – is something a bit different.

Addressing the inequality of stuff that, in this country, has ballooned terribly since 1980, is a necessary precondition. Current levels of stuff-inequality destroys the sense that we’re all in this together, undermining the chance for true community of belonging. To build the sort of equality that is most important, we probably do need to narrow the wealth gap -- and we probably don’t need to entirely eliminate it. Philosopher Debra Satz puts it this way:
“What we owe each other, what we owe our fellow citizens, isn’t cash to satisfy the strongest preferences people have no matter what they are. We owe them the social conditions they need to stand in relations of equality with us. That is not provided by cash in particular, but by allowing people the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and private resources they need to avoid oppression and to function as equals in a democratic society.”
Thus, “securing certain goods like education and health care,” should take priority “over other kinds of goods like surfing opportunities – even if some individuals would prefer surfing to schooling and to health care.”

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for thinking about these matters. If you'd like a place to start – well, the place to start is Plato’s Republic – or you could go straight to Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. If you finish that and would like some other suggestions, let me know.

“You have to give them hope,” said Harvey Milk. “Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.” To give them hope is to create a context in which meaning may be made –
in which each person may construct a life of meaning, partly by their own personal definitions of meaning, and partly by shared meaings --
in which each may stand with all in a relation of equality –
in which people flourish as they come into their full belonging in a community that flourishes –
and in which the rainbow flag of celebrating our diversity flies in every heart.

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