13 comments on “A Framework for Social Justice

  1. Brian, the Original Position and the Difference Principle are good starting points for thinking about social justice, but they are rather poor instruments to draw conclusions. One of my biases against philosophical arguments is that they are able to control all the variables, whereas the real world is more messy. That is why I like my philosophy well tempered by empiricism. In the real world unintended consequences are the norm – so a well-reasoned policy to improve social justice may actually have unintended adverse consequences. The tax policy example you give is an obvious one, since adjusting tax rates up and down changes productivity rates and tax avoidance rates. Your example of a 99% tax rate would probably result in far less tax being collected and thus less money available to fund gov’t programs for poorer people, thus decreasing the difference between the rich white guy and poor black woman, but making things worse for everyone.

    Another aspect of your argument I find problematic is that it rests on rather rigid categories of people – income level, racial class, touchiness levels. All of these things are subject to change or to be less relevant. For example, if you live in a place with universal health care, universal education, public art, good public transit, and good public parks and recreation, high income no longer buys that much more quality of life.

    Finally, to your topic of touching at conferences. I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or another – but if it is important to people, surely wearing a simple button or other outward indication of preference about touching is all that is needed.

  2. Rawls is amazing and I would have his babies.

    Also, I find Singer meshes well. If we spread the original position to include animals (or even just the more complex ones), it leads nicely into animal rights.

  3. I don’t see how any of this comment connects to the points that I’m making.

    Of course social policy needs to be empirically informed.
    Of course there are often unintended consequences to policies.

    The Difference Principle does not exclude empirical data; to the contrary, if often requires empirical data.

    Your objection seems to be based on a flawed understanding of Philosophy.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/07/23/science-vs-philosophy/

    Another aspect of your argument I find problematic is that it rests on rather rigid categories of people

    1. My example uses those category, not my argument.

    2. Then feel free to reframe the examples using different categories. The categories I chose for the examples seemed highly relevant. If you want to divide people up by hair colour, that’s your call, but I don’t see how it would be relevant…

    For example, if you live in a place with universal health care, universal education, public art, good public transit, and good public parks and recreation, high income no longer buys that much more quality of life.

    I agree.

    This changes my argument (as opposed to my example)…. how?

    but if it is important to people, surely wearing a simple button or other outward indication of preference about touching is all that is needed.

    You don’t see the irony in (incorrectly) complaining about empirically-free reasoning, and then making this comment?

    As a matter of fact, this outlook has been taken by some conferences, to a varying degree of success. There were, ironically enough, some unintended consequences. You should spend some time googling this. You might be surprised to learn that you’re not the first person to think of it…

  4. As a matter of fact, this outlook has been taken by some conferences, to a varying degree of success. There were, ironically enough, some unintended consequences. You should spend some time googling this. You might be surprised to learn that you’re not the first person to think of it…

    This is the only part of your post/comment combination that I find even vaguely objectionable. I trust the conversations that have been had over it are quite interesting, and I would love to peruse them. If you didn’t have any specific pages in mind, would you mind at least sharing some suggested search terms? Perhaps my google-fu is weak; it seems it is not up to the task.

    Thanks.

  5. That’s a fair point, sorry about that.

    A (non-fatal) criticism of a sticker system is that it’s essentially ‘opt out’: people tend to be assumed to be in unless their sticker explicitly states that they have opted out.

    Jen McCreight’s experience with Mensa: http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/my-day-with-mensa.html

    Another issue is that they can get quite complex: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2011/07/ssacons-new-sticker-code/

    I think an additional advantage of having an ‘ask first’ policy is that is brings awareness to people that they should (actually!) ask before touching someone. This whole conversation certainly raised my awareness a great deal. Simply having stickers wouldn’t necessarily (imo) have had the same effect, on me at the least.

  6. Brian – my first comment was not a fair response to your post – but had more to do with triggering a lot of related ideas and arguments in my head which I unsuccessfully tried respond to. Let me try again:

    In my opinion the Difference Principle is a useful heuristic to help think about social justice issues generally. I think that it is a clumsy tool when applied to a specific situation. In a specific situation you are subjectively picking the parameters to evaluate by the Difference Principle and then appear to make an objective assessment (“Unjust” “Just”) from that evaluation of subjective parameters. So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.

  7. That should read: “So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.”

  8. In a specific situation you are subjectively picking the parameters to evaluate by the Difference Principle and then appear to make an objective assessment (“Unjust” “Just”) from that evaluation of subjective parameters.

    I do not understand your criticism, because this criticism applies to every scientific experiment ever conducted: parameters are always “subjectively” chosen.

    Furthermore, it is entirely possible to make an objective decision based on subjective parameters. As a matter of fact, it’s entirely necessary. I’m not sure what you mean by “Objective”, as it seems to be at right-angles to how I’m used to seeing it used, and that is: once all people agree to the criteria by which something is to be judged, they will all necessarily come to approximately the same conclusion.

    An example: when measuring something, the choice between using the metric system or the imperial system is a subjective choice. There is no “objectively” correct conclusion to be made here. Your parameters will be either centimetres or inches.

    If you subjectively choose centimeters, then the object in question will be objectively determined to be 2.52cm in length.

    If you subjectively choose inches, then the object in question will be objectively determined to be 1 inch in length.

    At the root of all objective evaluations are subjective decisions about the relevant parameters. This is a fact of life, and not an appropriate criticism of, frankly, anything.

    So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.

    This is likewise confusing to me: “precision” has as much to do with subjectivity/objectivity as the colour “blue” does.

    “Precision” pertains to how detailed a particular conclusion is, within the framework of a particular evaluation. “Precision” doesn’t apply to choices. Precision doesn’t apply to my decision to have eggs for breakfast as opposed to toast. Precision doesn’t apply to my concern for calories over (say) fat content. Precision is relevant to evaluating the claims of the company with regards to how many calories they claim are in their product. Precision is not relevant to the comparison “product A has 80 calories, and product B has 900 calories”. “901 calories” is certainly more precise than “900ish calories”.

    At bottom, precision doesn’t apply to concepts that don’t have a scale, that are merely choices between categories: precision has nothing to say when determining whether something is an apple or a car.

    If you have a scaled measurement for justice, I’m interested in hearing about it, and in that context we can talk about precision. But it simply doesn’t apply to the Difference Principle.

  9. Eek… that “Original Position” thought experiment really, really creeps me out, in terms of belonging to a couple very, very small and very, very stigmatized minority identities.

    Does being stigmatized for being transgender or a recovering IV drug addict suddenly become more just because we account for <1% and 2% of the population, respectively? Is it the "fairness" of my oppression proportional to how "unlikely" I am to belong to this demographic?

    Conversely, are the social advantages conferred on me for being white, at the expense of those who are not, suddenly more acceptable because white people are the majority demographic in my country of birth?

    There are some pretty horrifying implications to this.

  10. If that is your reading of this, then I have explained it extremely poorly, because your reading is absolutely not in line with my intent.

    Does being stigmatized for being transgender or a recovering IV drug addict suddenly become more just because we account for <1% and 2% of the population, respectively?

    No, absolutely not.

    This isn’t a scale of ‘fairness’. Fairness isn’t considered to be a gradeable scale under Rawls. The whole (single) point of this is to draw a person’s attention to the injustice: would you (generic) be willing to accept a 1% chance of being beaten to death for having the gender identity that you do?

    If a person answers ‘no’ to this question, then they have accepted that the situation that people who are trans* face is inherently unjust. The end. No scale.

    If a person answers ‘yes’ to this question, then there are further repercussions (aside from my shock). We then move to the Difference Principle.

    The single, only, purpose of the Original Position is to help someone break out of their own blinders to see that a particular case is unjust. The Original Position, as an argument, has nothing to say about whether a system is Just, only whether that system is Unjust (as there may be systems that are neither Just nor Unjust, but ethically gray), and to rule out those systems as options based on this particular criteria.

    That’s it. It does not imply endorsement of “the majority of people are doing ok, ergo the system is cool”, and Rawls intended it as the complete opposite of that. There is no “ruling in” of any systems, there is merely a “this system has not yet raised a red flag”.

    My apologies for not making that more clear.

  11. Also, if I have used the “people who are Trans*” terminology incorrectly and/or offensively, I’d like to apologise in advance. This is not a topic that I discuss even irregularly, so my vocabulary here is likely crap.

  12. Ok…so you end the article with a justification for laws against shaking hands and patting backs? The idea that the only way to decrease the relative difference between them is by instituting a law against touching is based on the assumption that group a and group b have the exact same amount of people in it. When in reality…I think the amount of people who are scared to be touched are much lower than the amount of people who enjoy physical contact. But probably most people fall in category c anyway. I think you probably should have reiterated the fact that the justifications you’re making at the end of the article are based on an incorrect assumption.

  13. The idea that the only way to decrease the relative difference between them is by instituting a law against touching is based on the assumption that group a and group b have the exact same amount of people in it

    Their relative sizes are entirely immaterial. If there is a group of 100 people, 10 of whom strongly object to being touched, 90 of them prefer to touch/be touched, and all 100 are typically in an environment where touching is the norm: creating a temporary area where touching is restricted allows for relief for those 10, and decreases the ‘gap’ between the advantaged (those people who like touching and generally live in an environment where touching is the norm) and the disadvantaged (those people who dislike touching, and generally live in an environment where touching is the norm).

    I think you probably should have reiterated the fact that the justifications you’re making at the end of the article are based on an incorrect assumption.

    The whole ‘they have to be the same size’ is a red herring entirely of your own invention.

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