Social justice as an emergent property

I have great respect and (in many cases) affection for my friends at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians. But I am not a bleeding heart libertarian, and from the outset I have resisted its siren song, mostly over its endorsement of “social justice” as a moral and/or political ideal. Unlike Hayek, I do not think the concept is incoherent. But I think Hayek has a point, and my resistance to the concept I think tracks at least some of Hayek’s motivation. But that resistance is normative, rather than conceptual. Recent exchanges on BHL have helped me clarify my thinking about the point that concerns me.

Kevin Vallier posted this week on the topic, responding to challenges from David Friedman as to the cogency of the concept. The discussion that follows Kevin’s post is excellent, and I am highly sympathetic to many of those resisting Kevin’s analysis. However, I would mount an objection slightly different than those on offer there.

Start with a point of agreement. Kevin says,

I take it that the term “social justice” can be used to cover individual rights-violations. For instance, if John rapes Reba, he has committed a grave injustice, one that could be called a social injustice. However, this is not the conceptual home of the concept of social injustice.

He is surely right about this. Individual rights-violations are, by their nature, unjust. Since they are transactions between two individuals, they are also social, and we can, if we like, uselessly append “social” to our description of actions as unjust. If that is all “social injustice” means, there would be no quarrel here. As Kevin suggests, we need to look elsewhere for its “conceptual home.”

Kevin thinks that “conceptual home” is in the class of emergent properties. Here is his central claim:

Social injustice is an emergent property of certain kinds of social, moral and political practices. Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion. Institutional racism is a paradigmatic case of social injustice. It is an emergent property of a social institution that commits an injustice without any individual acting in an unjust fashion.

Emergent properties are an important class of properties, but Kevin’s proposal is unusual in deploying the concept in this way. Why? He is proposing that a normative property — social injustice — is emergent from non-normative properties (perhaps the distribution of “opportunities,” however those are measured). And this is curious. The typical deployment of the notion of emergent properties would, I think, involve the emergence of non-normative (let’s call them “natural”) properties from other natural properties. Many of the spontaneous orders we see in both natural and social science are of this sort. The structure of crystals is an emergent property in the sense that crystals have that structure because of other physical properties they have. Language-use is a property that humans have in virtue of various neurological and other biological properties we have. And so on. Nothing to see here. Emergence of normative properties from other normative properties is also, I’d think, unproblematic. That would be, for example, the liberal analysis of slavery. We see the large scale pattern of injustice as caused by an assortment of unjust individual attitudes, beliefs, and courses of conduct. Again, nothing to see here.

But the proposal that normative properties might emerge somehow from natural properties oughtn’t to be dismissed simply because it is unusual. If you work much with normative concepts, you become accustomed to the idea that things work differently when you are contending with reasons, norms, and the like rather than causes. If the world is a causal order, and it has normative properties, then somehow we have to end up with normative properties emerging from natural ones. The form of emergence that moral and other philosophers typically deploy is supervenience. Normative properties like goodness, rightness, and so on supervene on natural properties, in the sense (some sense; different theories give different accounts of this relation) that the normative properties occur somehow because the natural properties occur. If you are a hedonist, for example, you think that badness supervenes on pain, goodness on pleasure. Something (an act, a state of affairs) has the property of badness precisely because it also has the property of being painful.

And this gets us to what is interesting. Remember that, if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others. What does the social injustice supervene on? The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.

Is that a problem? I’m not sure. I am inclined to think that the essence of individualism at the heart of liberalism is a kind of moral individualism — the idea, roughly, that all sources of value, obligations, and so on are individuals. Does Kevin believe that? Here’s what he says:

I can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but from my vantage point libertarians all too often ignore social injustices because of their sometimes flat footed (dare I say “cartoon”?) moral individualism. I’m a moral individualist in the sense that I think injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations. In a real sense, I don’t think injustices can be committed against “Americans” or “blacks” understood as groups defined independently of their members. So traditional libertarians are right that emphasize that the idea of social justice can sometimes be deployed in inappropriately collectivist ways.

But social injustices can be committed independently of human design. That’s a significant claim that departs from many threads of libertarian thought popular today. And my view on the matter is one of the reasons I joined the blog.

How does the moral individualism Kevin endorses differ from “cartoon” moral individualism? I’m not sure.  Is it an aberration that in a previous paragraph he spoke of “a racial group failing to receive its due”? I think it is not an aberration, but a natural slide invited and made possible by adversion to social justice.

I believe (and I think Kevin believes) that groups are per se not due anything. There are certainly moral and political positions (positions worth engaging) that disagree. But these are certainly not within either the classical liberal or libertarian tradition, and they require a rejection of the moral individualism that I think is worth endorsing, and to which Kevin is paying lip service. And the issue here isn’t the defensibility of such a claim, but whether or not those committed to libertarian ideals and principles should embrace or reject the use of the concept of social justice.

Is this then just an unfortunate slip? The problem is, without the thought that the normative property (the social injustice) supervenes on facts about groups, rather than individuals, there is no injustice here to be found. And that’s just where the BHL’ers would like to be able to find injustice. It’s tempting to revert to the idea that the individuals in the groups in question suffer, say, from a deprivation of opportunities. But either those deprivations are by individuals, to individuals, in a way that violates the rights of the injured parties, or those are not. If they are, then we have plain old injustice, without a need to appeal to “social justice.” And if they aren’t, then it’s hard to see where the moral complaint is, nor what individuals are “committing” the social injustice. Here the view Kevin is proposing is trying to have it both ways. Skeptics about social justice think that is endemic to the concept.

It’s worth noting that in Rawls’ hands the problem has to be located in a different place. I can’t see that Rawls ever locates the injustice of social injustice in properties of groups. (Though groups figure into the specification of the remedy, in the form of the Difference Principle, I take this to be a feature of the solution to the problem, not part of the formulation of the normatively problematic state of affairs — the social injustice — itself.) In that sense, Rawls’ moral individualism is intact. To get to social injustice, as I understand him Rawls has to build the social properties at issue into the obligations of justice we have as individuals. That is, part of what it is for us to treat each other justly, as individuals, is on his view to establish and sustain social institutions with the properties called for by principles of justice. That way of conceiving of social justice has its own problems, not for this post (which is already too long as it is). Is it compatible with thinking that social injustice is an emergent property (to return to Kevin’s basic proposal). Perhaps. But if so the emergence is a 5th wheel: all the work in generating the social injustice is done by individuals failing, in effect, to act justly in establishing institutional arrangements that satisfy the principles of justice. I am skeptical that we do have obligations of justice of the sort that this interpretation of Rawls requires. One reason for doing so is that (like Nozick) I suspect that these obligations of justice are incompatible with obligations of justice I am much more confident we have toward each other (such as obligations generated by desert). That’s why I think there is something deeply problematic about the Rawlsian conception of social justice. Those reservations are not alleviated by recourse to thinking that social justice (or injustice) is somehow emergent.

8 thoughts on “Social justice as an emergent property

  1. “How does the moral individualism Kevin endorses differ from “cartoon” moral individualism? I’m not sure.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but the view that all agents are individuals (all sources of obligations, values, &etc) is clearly different from the view that all patients are individuals (injustice is only suffered by individuals). The latter does not commit one to the former.

    (Potentially an entirely spurious analogy, but to at least establish plausibility of the thought at face, ‘only individuals suffer pain, but not all pain is caused by individuals.’ Of course, whether that works with ‘injury/harm/injustice/whatever in place of “pain” is another question.)

    1. Git, you are right. One could accept only the weaker claim. But I think most in the liberal tradition have accepted the stronger one as well, and indeed I think the most plausible of moral theories sustain the stronger, rather than the weaker, claim.

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