Thursday, July 19, 2007

What Justice Requires, “Many-things-Considered”

Theories of distributive justice seek to help enlighten us concerning what constitutes a fair distribution of different things (e.g. rights and freedoms, income, opportunities for education, healthcare, welfare, etc.). What, for example, would constitute a fair distribution of wealth and income among compatriots (or generations, or nations, etc.)? Or how should society distribute scarce medical provisions to those in need of medical treatment? Some theories of justice champion a principle of equality, others principles of liberty, sufficiency, priority, democracy, utility, etc.

A theory of distributive justice can help us diagnose the ills of our own societies and help inspire sage prescriptions for transforming the status quo into something that is more humane and fair. So I believe political philosophers have an important role to play in terms of helping us grapple with the difficult and complex issue of how we ought, collectively, to live together. Yet having said that, I think philosophers also need to exercise some humility when deliberating about what justice requires. Unfortunately the contemporary focus on deriving what *the* principles of justice are has lead many a philosopher astray as most attention is given to fine-tuning one’s analytic skills rather than being attuned to the empirical realities of real societies. I have posted a few blogs on these themes before, and this forthcoming book expresses my general concerns with ideal theory and the principled paradigm. But today I wish to raise a different, though related, issue.

Our attention to the demands of justice can be developed at many different levels of abstraction. Here is a simplistic typology of the different levels of analysis one could be concerned with:

(1) what the demands of justice are, “all-things-considered”
(2) what the demands of justice are, “many-things-considered”
(3) what the demands of justice are, “some-things-considered”
(4) what the demands of justice are ,“when only abstract concepts (e.g. equality) are considered” (or, what justice requires when justice is construed purely as an abstract ideal or Platonic form).

I believe that something like this typology is very useful and can help political philosophers and theorists explain a lot of what is going on between proponents of different theoretical traditions. Egalitarians believe that others (like libertarians) ignore the harmful effects of the free market (e.g. the vulnerability of the worst off, inequality, etc.). Libertarians believe that egalitarians ignore the importance of side constraints or the inefficiency of the planned economy, etc. Feminists believe liberals ignore the realities of patriarchy. Multiculturalists believe that liberals ignore the fact of cultural inequality. And finally deliberative democrats believe justice-theorists ignore the limitations of their own armchair theorizing and the importance of democratic practices and institutions, disagreement, etc. One could go on and on, revealing how some theories are attuned to different kinds of concerns and ignore (or bracket) others.

These various considerations have lead me to be much more a pluralist than I once was. Certain values have an important role to play in certain contexts but not others, and figuring out when they have a role to play is the real important challenge. So for me the real action takes place in (2) (with (1) being a kind of ideal that we strive for but never reach), rather than in (3) or (4).

The most influential example of (3) is John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness”. Rawls takes some important considerations (e.g. moderate scarcity, pluralism, impartiality, etc.) seriously but he also invokes a number of idealizing assumptions that impoverish his theory (e.g. full compliance, society is closed and full of normal functioning people). And these idealized assumptions really skew and impair the prescriptions of Rawlsian justice.

Those partial to (4) might argue that I am confusing two different things- principles of justice and principles of regulation. This of course raises important questions concerning what kind of principles the principles of justice are (e.g. do they serve as a guide for human action). And this adds a further layer of debate to these issues. For me, there is no substantive difference between principles of justice and principles of regulation (though not every principle of justice need be a principle to regulate an institution). The principles of justice are those principles that dictate how a just society is to be regulated. That is why I think the important action takes place closer to (1) and (2) rather than (3) or (4).

The ideal/non-ideal theory debate, which is beginning to gain real momentum, will hopefully lead to a more serious debate about which kinds of considerations should be incorporated into (2). Which considerations- of the many, many considerations that arise- should a normative theorist take seriously? (and which should we ignore, etc.) Asking, and attempting to answer, that question will result (hopefully!) in us taking a “big picture” perspective on these issues. And that could really transform our moral sensibilities in important ways. It could open our eyes to new concerns we tended to ignore (e.g. the limitations of government, dangers of group polarization, etc.) or it could help us realize that certain convictions or beliefs are no longer tenable, etc.

I believe the best consequence that will likely result of our taking this big picture perspective is that it is more likely to lead us to taking a *proportionate* response to the different demands of justice that arise in real, non-ideal societies. To ensure our response to any particular demand of justice (X) is fair and proportionate we must appreciate not only the moral stakes at risk in pursuing X (e.g. equality, liberty, sufficiency, etc.), but also the costs, risks and tradeoffs involved with aggressively pursuing X rather than other laudable aims (e.g. Y and Z).

I think further benefits will be reaped by taking “justice-many-things-considered” (rather than (3) or (4)) seriously. It should make normative theorists realize how limited their armchair theorizing is. Defensible normative theories must take empirical considerations seriously and strive for something more meaningful than winning an abstract “first-best conceptualism” debate. A serious debate about which constraints or considerations we should take seriously will necessitate interdisciplinary dialogue and research, and this should help philosophers become more aware of the contentious assumptions they make (but do not have to defend) when they only engage in debate and dialogue amongst themselves. Furthermore, taking these various constraints seriously will make us realize that the demands of justice are provisional (both morally and politically provisional).

I will finish this post by re-stating some comments I made before:

…the most difficult decisions we face in life, both as individuals and collectively as a society, are typically decisions we don’t have to answer, once and for all, at one particular moment in time. They are questions we continue to revisit, time and time again (e.g. healthcare reform, the environment, the economy, balancing work and family, etc.). As time goes on the circumstances change, new information comes to light, our moral sensibilities evolve. How we respond to these changing circumstances is really the measure of our moral integrity, rather than appeals to consequentialism or deontology.

We view the moral agent as one who learns from experience, who exercises the appropriate amount of humility, who is willing to defer judgment when faced with tough decisions they are not well positioned to answer, who is willing to consult with others, and who is open-minded. This is all lost if we say— “the right decision is that which promotes the best consequences or moral principles”. Such a vision of ethics is worrisome for a variety of reasons. One concern is that it can delude us into thinking that we can be self-sufficient at living a moral life. That all we need to do, if we want to make the right decision, is get the information about the consequences right, or properly deduce what the principles from some hypothetical original position are.

I look forward to having many substantial debates on what should and should not be included in an account of what justice requires, “many-things-considered”. Such an account of justice is one that will accommodate our democratic commitments (which I believe is imperative). For our democratic institutions and practices are essential for ensuing that we keep an open mind concerning what should be included in a determination of what justice demands, “many-things-considered”.


Update: As I was finishing this post I happened to come across this excellent post by Jim Johnson. On that post he cites the following insightful passage from Sheldon Wolin:

"Theorists have given us pictures of political life in miniature, pictures in which what is extraneous to the theorist's purpose has been deleted. The necessity for doing this lies in the fact that political theorists, like the rest of mankind, are prevented from "seeing" all political things at first hand. The impossibility of direct observation compels the theorist to epitomize a society by abstracting certain phenomena and providing interconnections where none can be seen. Imagination is the theorist's means for understanding a world he can never "know" in an intimate way."

Wolin’s passage captures nicely some of the concerns I have expressed here. The theorist has to employ some abstraction to help provide us with a “bird’s eye view” of the moral/political landscape. That is why I believe the notion of justice, “all-things-considered”, is unattainable (though perhaps it is an ideal we strive for).

The key issue then becomes- what can a theorist justifiably delete from the picture? Human nature? History? Scarcity? etc. If the abstraction is taken too far I believe it perverts the theoretical exercise as it diminishes, rather than enhances, our understanding of the world. And that is why I believe the real action concerns what justice requires, “many-things-considered”.