Social injustice and harms

Over at BHL, my friend Andrew Cohen has responded to my post earlier this week making a skeptical case against the normative credentials of the idea of “social justice.” Andrew thinks that part anyway of the problem with my skeptical argument is that is framed in terms of rights. He believes that “harms” are “more basic” than rights, and that if we recast the story in terms of harms, we get a plausible normative account of where exactly social justice (more specifically, moral injustice) comes to be. I had framed that question in terms of supervenience, which is the idea that somehow moral (or more generally normative) properties come to be because of or in virtue of underlying non-normative (natural) properties. Most moral philosophers accept that as an analytical framework, because (i) it seems to be the way we think about normative properties, and (ii) it is neutral between at least a wide variety of theories about what the normative properties we should care about are, and what they supervene upon. I don’t think Andrew is rejecting that bit of analytic framework: he is thinking it works better if we look at “harms” as being the base (the “subvening” class of natural properties). Andrew has a book coming out explicating this sort of framework, and I haven’t read it. No doubt some at least of what I have to say here Andrew has counterarguments for in his book. My point will be that what we have on the table now neither solves the present problem (making normative sense of social justice) nor is an advance in providing analytical tools. Let me take the second, more general, point first.

First, I agree with Andrew that rights are not the most basic normative (moral) concept. But I don’t think that matters here. We’re after an understanding of justice or injustice, and rights-talk can usefully be used as a shorthand for the moral status that is violated or abused or what have you when injustice occurs. (And I’m fine with Andrew’s suggestion that it may be more useful to get a grip on injustice than on justice.) We can differ on what rights we have, and on why we have the rights we have, but still agree that injustice occurs when rights are violated. That anyway is the tradition I think most BHL’ers have been working in (indeed most liberal political philosophers, in the inclusive sense of “liberal”), and the one I work in. I don’t think it is one Andrew offers any alternative to, as I will argue.

Here’s the problem, and it is not a new one. The notion of “harm” is under pressure from both the normative and the non-normative side. That is, we want to use the term in such a way that harms are bad, but we also want to use it to capture certain kinds of natural fact about the world, such as when for example I hit your arm with my running chain saw. Since attaching normative properties to natural properties is in some sense the very problem I think we face in thinking about “social justice,” this might be a virtue for thinking in terms of harms. In fact I think it is not, because rather than providing a careful analysis of how this “attachment” takes place, harms-talk often equivocates between the two uses. Andrew does this in his post.

Harms, he says, are not just hurts. Although he doesn’t define “hurts,” what he goes on to say about harms suggests that we could think of hurts as “setbacks to interests.” That’s fine, provided we have a (more basic) account of interests. I doubt we can do things this way, but set that aside. The point is that hurts, so understood, have no import for (in)justice. That’s because setbacks to interests, though in most cases disagreeable to those whose interests they are, don’t necessarily represent moral wrongs. I can apply to a job I really like, and which it would be in my interest to get, and be in dandy shape until you — better educated, more experienced, a better candidate in every way — apply for the job as well, and get it. You have set back my interests in doing so, and so have hurt me. But (barring some further story) you have not wronged me, and there is no injustice involved. So hurts are not what we are interested in.

To move past this point, Andrew specifies that what we are interested in is wrongful hurts, wrongful setbacks to interests. That’s what harms are. They are wrongful, hence normative.  (So, strictly speaking, “wrongful harms” should be redundant, on Andrew’s view. I think it is telling that he finds himself using that locution anyway.) But now we need an account of when harms are wrongful, and when not. Harms are not, after all, normatively basic: they are dependent on an account of when setbacks to interests are wrongful, and when they are not. It is worth considering what J.S. Mill does when he runs into this problem, in trying to establish his “Harm Principle” as a basic principle for understanding when social intervention in individual action is permissible and when not. As many observers have noted, this strategy cannot possibly make harms basic, because many (including the harms to “disappointed competitors,” as in my example above) do not trigger the Harm Principle. That is to say, they don’t carry the normative significance that the relevant harms do. Nor do harms resulting from the “inseparable” effects of the “unfavorable judgment of others” (Ch. V), nor harms that are not “direct and in the first instance” (Ch. I), and so on. Mill finds himself using the language of “rights” to pick out which harms count: it is those that violate rights! (Ch. V).

I don’t mean to saddle Andrew with Mill’s problems, but he faces the same challenge: which harms are wrongful? When Andrew tells us what that criterion is, I will say: fine. Let’s say that people have rights to not being harmed in those wrongful ways, and we are right back where we began. Where is the injustice that doesn’t occur by individuals to individuals — the harm (following Andrew) that we need the notion of “social justice” to capture?

Notice that we cannot answer simply by identifying people whose interests have been set back. Doing so is identifying hurts, but not yet harms. To show the harms necessary for injustice, we have to show that these hurts are wrongful. If we are successful, at the end we will have an account of wrongfulness that cannot be set out in terms of hurts (since it is a criterion for when hurts become harms). So the recourse to hurts and harms is a superstructure, not a foundation. I doubt it offers much to moral theory, but as I say I haven’t read Andrew’s book, so Andrew very likely offers interesting ways to address these concerns.

In any event, the problem for the case at hand —making normative sense of “social injustice” — is that the structure Andrew is providing will face a challenge: show how there is a wrongful hurt that isn’t a hurt imposed by an individual, on an individual. Perhaps his book will do this, but we don’t have an indication yet of how he can do so. As his commenters have pointed out, Andrew’s example (of a receiver of a stolen iPhone) doesn’t work. There is no question that there is wronging occurring here, and that it counts as injustice. (At least I am not inclined to quarrel with the example in this way.) But just for that reason, we don’t need “social justice” to identify the wrong: we get everything we need with plain old injustice. At least, Andrew has not shown that this is not so. Moreover, this is far from the kind of case that “social justice” is trotted out to cover: the kinds of cases that, for instance, Kevin hoped to explain with the idea that “social justice” is an emergent property. So I don’t see that we make any progress on the problem by focusing on hurts or harms.

Addendum: one other point about Andrew’s argument. He says this:

The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G.

The first clause is amenable to moral individualism, on one reading. The fact that these individuals may be collected into a group in general would not change the moral standing, entitlement, or obligations of those individuals, if moral individualism is true. But the second clause (following “so”) can be true only on a reading of the first that is not compatible with moral individualism. The question is whether the subvening base of the moral properties (in this case, justice or injustice) is the individuals in the collection, or the collection itself. These can have importantly different properties. The House of Representatives is a collection of individuals. That collection has the authority to pass laws that none of its members do. The individuals are entitled to cast votes in their respective states, but the collection is not. Thinking that all the properties of the collection are just the properties of its members is a classic informal fallacy. I think the normative purport of “social justice” depends on that fallacy, and this is an indication of how easy it is for even a good philosopher to commit it. On moral individualism, only individuals, not the collections to which they belong, subvene normative properties. That’s why there is a normative problem with “social justice.”

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