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social justice 1

“In an unjust society, the only place for a just man is in jail.”  – Thoreau

To help me think about social justice and public morality—where we’ve gone wrong and what we should do about it, I’ve been reading the bestseller, Justice:  What’s the Right Thing to Do?  by Michael J. Sandel.  It’s very readable.  Every citizen should read it.

Sandel addresses the nature of moral justice in society by providing a critical understanding of the thought of major philosophers and schools of thought, applying their understanding to key issues, illustrated by many case studies from American society of the last several decades, and thereby providing examples of how to think well.

Here is an oversimplified and distortingly abstract sketch, by chapter, {[with an eye to my present struggles]}:

“Doing the Right Thing.” “To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize….what people are due and why.”  Three major approaches to reasoning about “justice and injustice, equality and inequality, individual rights and the common good” are to maximize welfare, to respect freedom, and to promote virtue (in the context of ideas of the good life, the right way to live).  Such reasoning is a public endeavor, requiring dialogue between opposing views.  Our dialogue can include the views of the most helpful thinkers, past and present.  And true to the way philosophers typically go about this thinking, Sandel’s many casestudies show how complicated and engaging this can be.

“The Greatest Happiness Principle / Utilitarianism.”  Jeremy BenthamPrinciples of Morals and Legislation (1780), proposed that pleasure and pain, although subjective, exist in objectively measurable quantities, and that the only justification of duties and rights is, not universal human rights, but practical maximization of pleasure (e.g. for the majority of people) relative to pain.  Objection:  this could lead to treatment of persons in ways that violate fundamental norms of decency and dignity.  Eg torture.  Objections: can qualitative be quantified, and is it possible to “measure and compare all values and goods,” even human life, “on a single scale?”  Is there a single universal “currency” of the value and dignity of moral goods?  Cost-benefit analysis suggests translation of all value into comparative monetary terms.  Eg the smoking-lung cancer debate, and the decision to market cars with exploding gas tanks.

In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill moved to reconcile individual rights with Utilitarianism on the principle “that people should be free to do whatever they want, provided they do no harm to others.”  Weight is given to the long-term interests of humanity.  Objections:  moral basis of rights is subject to contingencies and frivolity, and individuals can be wronged on the way to the long-term.  Beyond utility, then, Mill proposed that the highest goal of human life is full development of the individual’s faculties, and moral character, which can be accomplished only through freely making choices.  Furthermore, utility can even assess high/low qualities of pleasures.  We prefer higher pleasures because they satisfy a universal sense of human dignity by engaging our highest faculties and appealing to our “love of liberty and personal independence,” thus making us more fully human.  Pigs and fools are too easily satisfied by pigishness.

{[Republicans justify the Wealth Gap by suggesting that any means of redistribution of wealth violates their freedom of choice, which to them appears to be an absolute principle that thus overrides contingency; and that, although their choices do bring harm to others, the wealthy, being godlike Job Creators, as well as self-made men—such stuff as myths are made on—create more pleasure (in addition to their own) than pain, at least long-term.  But The Very Few giveth jobs, and taketh jobs and decent salaries and pensions away.  Yet it is clear to them, too, that they possess the higher character.]}

“Do We Own Ourselves?”  In Libertarianism, the principle is individual freedom of choice.  Libertarians are not the only ones to stress freedom of choice.  But they place major emphasis on “ownership” of property (including oneself and money)—i.e. freedom to choose what to do with it—especially in a “free market.”  The justness of laws, rules, regulations, can be tested by whether they take away the individual’s freedom of choice.  They mostly do.  This is especially important in the marketplace, which must provide conditions in which individual’s may “freely” bargain in order to attain a just determination of the value (price) of anything and everything.  Contracts must reflect free consent, and then are inviolable.  Government can be justified only by free consent of the governed, and may coerce individual behavior only to the most minimal extent consistent with general welfare.*  The general welfare is maximally identified and attained when individuals are freely choosing, especially in a “free market.”

{[These first two philosophies are tested throughout the book, and do not come off well—notably in the actual marketplace.]}

*{[Thoreau, btw, said that the value of a thing is “the amount of life”—meaning especially spiritual—“that must be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”  He readily consented to being governed—e.g. taxed—as long as government did not force him to violate his bond with humanity, as in taxation to support slavery (Fugitive Slave Act) and conduct of imperialistic warfare (invasion of Mexico), which he civilly resisted, freely and justly choosing to go to jail for having broken the law.  (And we must tell again the wonderful legendary moment when Emerson came to bail him out, saying “Henry, what are you doing in there?”  To which Thoreau replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”)  Also, see King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.]}

“Hired Help / Markets and Morals.”  Two claims for free market:  that interfering with voluntary exchanges violates individual liberty (libertarian); that mutual gain promotes general welfare, as long as nobody hurts somebody (utilitarian).

Objections:  (1) inequality of distribution of wealth limits options and thus prevents truly free market choices and fair social institutions;”  (2) “certain goods and social practices are corrupted or degraded if bought and sold.”  (75)

Volunteer vs draft army:  Inequality of distribution of wealth turns the market coercive, making military service a commodity, and undermining the concept of universal civic duty and accountability.  Why not simply hire foreigners or private contractors?  What is the source and scope of civic duty in a democratic society?

Paid surrogate pregnancy also tests the freeness of choice in the marketplace of unequal distribution of wealth, and the validity of seemingly consensual contracts in which a party can never be adequately informed about the outcome.  Pricing degrades human life by being a lower than appropriate qualitative norm of evaluation (my wife is lovable, or useful?)—along with the profit motive, pricing degrades babies, women, and the mother-child bond.

Can there be freedom of choice, if substantially unequal distribution of wealth limits options and coerces behavior?

Can there be a truly consensual contract in matters of humanity in which no one can ever be fully informed of outcomes?

How can we determine when (if not always) the appropriate norm for evaluation is/is not the free market?  When it is not, what is?

{[Republicans typically conflate “market” and “moral” by playing with the word “free,” claiming that (their) absolute freedom of individual choice is necessary to both a true market and a true morality.]}

{[The idea of a (often referred to as “the”) “free market” is a red herring, but it makes an interesting imaginative case study because it is discussed by Republicans as if it is simultaneously an ideal phenomenon and an actual (endangered) reality.]}

{[Thought makes Republicans and libertarians appear thoughtless.]}

“What Matters Is the Motive.”  In Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Immanuel Kant proposed that it is the nature of humanity that every person is a rational being, and thus is capable of intelligibly and freely choosingTherefore, every person is worthy of dignity and respect, and we are capable of arriving at universal principles of human rights.

These four propositions form a supreme value, which must be upheld and enacted, for the sake of maintaining that supreme value—without which, we have stupidity, self-enslavement, and violation of our common humanity.

Humans are creatures beyond pleasure and pain, measurement, commoditization and price, because we can choose to act according to a law that we give ourselves—an inner law, rather than be the instrument of outside agents or conditions.  “To act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end, but to choose the end itself, for its own sake.” (109) In so choosing we enact our universal human dignity.  Respecting this dignity means treating persons as ends in themselves, for the sake of our common humanity.

A good will “has full value in itself.”  It is our duty to do the right thing, for this right reason—we do it for the sake of the moral law.  No other motive is consistent with moral worth.  Thus we free ourselves from the dictates of nature, convention, whim, appetite, profit motive, ideology, bigotry, dictatorship,… And thus we enact universal dignity and worth.

We can reason in ways such as:  how much there is of something, what we want to accomplish and why and how, or how to price something.  That kind of reason, although it involves choices, is not an exercise of autonomously free choice, does not serve actions that are ends in themselves, and is not the basis of moral justice.

Moral reasoning is the determining of laws (“categorical imperatives”) that are universal.  Such a law is an action that is good, in itself, because it accords with universal reason, applies unconditionally in all circumstances, and must be obeyed, for the sake of sustaining it, regardless of the results. It is “a practical law that by itself commands absolutely and without any further motives.”  Such an action is good in itself, and is necessary for a will that is in accord with reason.  To be free is to have that mental disposition, and to so act.

How to recognize a categorical imperative:

{[A child who says, “That’s not fair!” is applying Kant’s “pure practical reason,” calling for obedience to a categorical imperative, brought to bear practically in the specific instance.  The exclamation point in the tone of voice is the claim of universal dignity and respect.]}

A c. i.  is “a practical law that by itself commands absolutely and without any further motives.”  It binds us as rational beings regardless of our particular ends.  {[The child may simultaneously have a selfish motive, but the justness of the law does not require it.]}  The “formula” of a universal law, is to act only with a rule or principle “whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”—thus in practice negating your own special advantage.

“We can’t base the moral law on any particular interests, purposes, or ends, because then it would be only relative to the person whose ends they were.  ‘But suppose there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute value,’ as an end in itself.  ‘Then in it, and in it alone, would there be the ground of a possible categorical imperative’.” (121)

Persons have absolute, intrinsic value.  Therefore:  “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

We treat each and every person with respect, because we respect humanity—“for a rational capacity that resides, undifferentiated, in all of us.”  (123) Thus justice requires that we uphold the human rights of all persons, dwelling, everywhere, in the “‘intelligible’ realm of free human agency.”  (127)

“The Case for Equality / John Rawls”  Life does not naturally provide fairness or equality, but we can maximize those goods by the way we deal with the inequalities created by nature and by ourselves.

If we sat down to write a social contract, including principles to which we would all freely consent, we would face so much disagreement and imbalance of influence (because of unfairness and inequality), that it would be very difficult for us to reach a just agreement.

Thus Rawls proposed, in A Theory of Justice (1971), that “the way to think about justice is to ask what principles we would agree to” if we sat there, as “rational, self-interested persons,” “in an initial situation of equality.” We can think that way if we “imagine that we choose behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that temporarily prevents us from knowing anything about who in particular we are.” Since, in that ignorance, “no one would have a superior bargaining position, the principles we would agree to would be just.” (140-41)

The resulting contract would exhibit two principles:  (1) “autonomy” (self-imposed, taken freely upon ourselves), which “provides equal basic liberties for all citizens,” and “takes priority over considerations of social utility and the general welfare;” and (2) “reciprocity” (“the obligation to repay others for the benefits they provide us”), which “concerns social and economic welfare.” It does not require equality of wealth, but it “permits only those…inequalities that work to the advantage of the least well-off members of society.” (142)  Contracts, even our Constitution, carry moral weight insofar as they realize those two ideals.

In less-than-ideal life, these principles are still those of a just contract, therefore we must do what we can to maximize their application to provide equality.  And even then, there will be inequalities; therefore we apply “what Rawls calls ‘the difference principle’: only those social and economic inequalities are permitted that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (151-2)

A moral point that is clarified under the veil of ignorance is that “the distribution of income and opportunity should not be based on factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view.”—such as the accident of birth, or the arbitrary features of the libertarian free market.  (153) Our meritocracy corrects for some disadvantages, but still allows some inequalities from nature—a kind of “natural lottery; and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective.” (154)  So again we apply the difference principle, encouraging the superior to exercise their gifts, but as a common asset, for the good of all, acknowledging “in advance that the winnings don’t belong to them alone, but should be shared with those who lack similar gifts.” (156)

This is hard for Americans to agree to, because we tend to want to believe that fairness is based on reward for individual effort and outstanding achievement—or even in celebration of superior natural endowments.  Indeed, says Rawls, we can justly provide what he calls “entitlements to legitimate expectations.”  But we can know what is a just expectation only after we have put in place the rules, the “terms of social cooperation,” in the manner described above and to the benefit of the least well off.

For a morally just society we should deal with the facts of inequality received from nature, chance, and social circumstance “by agreeing ‘to share one another’s fate,’ and to ‘avail [ourselves] of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit’.” (166)

“Arguing Affirmative Action.”  Purposes:  (1)  To promote diversity, as a common social good.  Students learn more from one another, and the university’s civic purpose is better served.  Objections:  (a) it is just, but in practice it will not achieve its aims, and might do more harm than good; (b) the end is worthy but the means are unjust (overriding an individual’s rights).  Response to (b):  no rights are violated, if the univ. defines its educational mission, sets the criteria which serve that mission, and applies them accurately in each individual case.

Further objection:  But if the use of race as a criterion for racial segregationist was unjust, isn’t it also unjust in affirmative action for integration?  Response:  Segregationist usage was discrimination, based on prejudice, hatefully and contemptuously applied against individuals on the basis of an irrelevant, categorical criterion.  Not so, with affirmative action.

And note:  not a matter of distributing justice by rewarding moral virtue (e.g. studying hard, playing by the rules).

(2) To compensate for past injustice and its effects.   Objections:  those who benefit are often not those who suffered, and those who pay the compensation are seldom those responsible for the original wrongs.  So, re. “the difficult question of collective responsibility:  Can we ever have a moral responsibility to redress wrongs committed by a previous generation?…we need to know…how moral obligations arise.  Do we incur obligations only as individuals, or do some obligations claim us as members of communities with historic identities?”  [more to come]

“Who Deserves What? / Aristotle” (384-322 BC)  Today we “seek principles of justice that are neutral among ends, and enable people to choose and pursue their ends for themselves.” (187)  For Aristotle, justice is connected to ideas of the good life, including honor, virtue, and moral desert.  In order to define rights, we must determine “the purpose, end, or essential nature of the social practice in question,” including “what virtues it should honor and reward.” (186-7)

Just distribution means giving each person what he or she merits, and merit depends on what is being distributed.  It is just to give the best flute to the best flute player (regardless of eg wealth, advantages of birth), because the purpose of a flute is to be played well.  For Aristotle, this reasoning fit the essential nature and meaning of nature itself, seen as an order of purposeful things.

How can we apply this to social institutions, including politics, about which there are disparate ideas of purpose?  We ask, what is the purpose of political association?  For Aristotle, “‘the end and purpose of a polis is the good life, and the institutions of social life are means to that end’.”

The purpose of political activity is to “form good citizens and to cultivate good character”—to encourage goodness. (193)  The purpose of politics is not to protect wealth or to satisfy the majority; it is “nothing less than to enable people to develop their instinctive human capacities and virtues—to deliberate about the common good, to acquire practical judgment, to share in self-government, to care for the fate of the community as a whole.”  (194)

How should political authority be distributed?  Those citizens who “excel in civic virtue”—qualities of character and judgment—“are the ones who merit the greatest share of political recognition and influence.”  They educate the citizenry in the qualities of good citizenship and the good life. (193-5)

For Aristotle, it is our nature to be the creatures with language—the medium of deliberation, with others, about justice and the good life.  We realize our nature, and learn to exercise virtue, by participating in the politics of our polis—“sharing in significant action and bearing responsibility for the fate of the community as a whole.” (199)

“What Do We Owe One Another? / Dilemmas of Loyalty.”  Do I have a moral obligation to take responsibility for injustices (such as genocide, slavery) that I did not commit?  “To answer…we need to think through some hard questions about collective responsibility and the claims of community.” (210) According to “moral individualism,”very influential in American thought, my free choice and consent are the only sources of my moral obligation.

Sandel proposes that individualism is not an adequate basis for a just society, and neutrality is misguided.  They are unable to “make sense of a range of moral and political obligations that we commonly recognize, even prize,” including “obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory and religious faith—moral claims that arise from the communities and traditions that shape our identity.” (220)

To see ourselves as both situated in community and free, Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue (1981) points out that we are “storytelling beings” who live our lives as “narrative quests.”  We cannot know what we are to do unless we know what stories we are part of.  We make meaning of our lives by trying to figure out what is our best turn of the plot, participating in a story that we are authoring together with many fellow citizens.  “Moral deliberation is about interpreting my life story, and involves reflection within and about the larger life stories of which my life is a part.  ‘It involves choice, but the choice issues from the interpretation; it is not a sovereign act of will’.”  It is “bound up with membership and belonging.”  (222)

Thus encumbered, “are we bound by some moral ties [beside the universal natural duties such as treating other humans with respect, doing justice, avoiding cruelty].…that can’t be traced to a social contract,” to consent?  Does the citizen have a moral obligation to advance the good? To test the obligations of solidarity or membership, compared with consent, Sandel discusses obligations of family, national resistance to oppression, acts of religious solidarity, the virtues of patriotism, immigration and borders, and “buy American.”

We object to an act from obligation of solidarity or loyalty only if it violates a natural duty.  Given the moral complexities of our stories, “what we admire is the disposition to see and bear one’s life circumstance as a reflectively situated being—claimed by the history that implicates me in a particular life, but self-conscious of its particularity, and so alive to competing claims and…(sometimes conflicting) encumbrances.”  (237)

{[Another fundamental act of language (and literary genre) is conversation (drama, dialogue), again suggesting that we are, by nature, communal beings, advancing the common life and good as couples and groups, mutually creating options and forming choices.  And living our mythic stories of the true.  Although the physical activity of thought is located in an individual brain, and thus the individual unit is bottom-line, can a theory or principle of justice be based on that individualism alone?  To what extent is the individual autonomous after the first act of dialogue?  Can an individual by said to have personhood before, or outside of, dialogue?]}

“Justice and the Common Good.”  In 2006 Senator Barack Obama asserted that resolution of social problems such as poverty, unemployment, health insurance, and racism requires moral transformation.  In 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy had called on Americans to value community and spiritual goods, and to pursue justice by bringing to bear higher moral principles.

Sandel proposes that a just resolution of our current debates over issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage, requires, not exclusive emphasis on individual freedom of choice, but engagement with moral and religious arguments regarding concepts of purpose, ideas of the good life, and what virtues to honor.  Principles, both secular and religious, must be clarified in dialogue, rather than being ignored in the name of pluralism and governmental neutrality.  Accurate accounts of current practice, and just interpretation of moral worth and respect for human dignity, must be written into our story of the common good.

“The challenge is to imagine a politics that takes moral and spiritual questions seriously [and] brings them to bear on broad economic and civic concerns….[in] a new politics of the common good.” (262-3) We must, for instance, cultivate a strong sense of community and the common good; strengthen institutions that bring together disparate groups of our pluralistic society in the practice of civic virtue; determine the “right ways of valuing key social practices,” including a “public debate about the moral limits of markets” and “what non-market norms [of evaluation] we want to protect from market intrusion;” understand the damage done by the huge wealth gap, not only to the poor but to “the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires;” and promote “conduct [of] our politics on the basis of mutual respect.” (263-8)

{[I agree that religious points of view must be included in the national dialogue. And IMHO we should draw upon scientific facts and analyses (as proposed in The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine HumanValues, by Sam Harris—see “social justice 2”).  We cannot achieve social justice with ideas of morality that are counter-factual.  Note that facts frequently expose the injustice of Republican positions, and surely that is one reason why they seek to de-legitamize science.]}

Other Topics:  99%OCCUPYnutshellnonviolentpowerhistorymisogynyracismmoneywealth gap 1wealth gap 2republican partynamescapitalismfascismother ismspathologiessocial justice 1social justice 2social justice 3soulbody and soulthingsanarchyactionsbtwbib

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