Monday, October 6, 2014

Ganging Up On The Concept Of Justice

Justice. I don't know what this is or where it's from but I like it.
Wasn't it just recently that justice was considered one of the fundamental pillars of modern western society? Wasn't it justice that was supposed to be the foundation for that whole human rights business? Wasn't justice what we were honoring with all those statues with the blindfolds and scales and all that? Wasn't "fighting injustice" how people described their activities when they were trying to make the world a better place?

So isn't it weird to hear so many enemies of justice lately dismissing justice as a phantom value, something that doesn't really exist?

One of the enemies of the concept of justice is found in the forces of efficiency. The forces of efficiency are those who think that what's valuable can be measured in terms of overall effects. The more ambitious front of the efficiency forces (like some philosophical utilitarians) might aim for maximizing well-being, which you can at least see how it might make sense as an overall value.

But more economically minded efficiency forces have known all along that going down that road means that poorer people should get more stuff. So they redirected toward "Pareto efficiency" which just means you can't make one person better off without making another worse off -- which let's face it is about the lowest bar you could possibly set for a measurement of how things should be. It's like you're deciding how to share some food and you say "well, don't throw any away.' Yeah -- thanks for that insight!

The economically minded efficiency forces are the ones you always hear talking about "growth" whenever some inconvenient issue arises. Why are workers being mistreated? Uh, "growth." Why are government services being dismantled? "We're growing the economy." Why can't everyone have health care? "This is better for growth." I feel like with growth people there's always this idea of "oh, once we grow the economy we can use the money any way we like and we could just give it to the people who got shafted by the policy." Sure -- and then we can all go celebrate in Valhalla and eat magic apples and live forever.

For a few hundred years the efficiency forces have been telling us that justice is a kind of false value, that there's no such thing really, that what seems like "justice" is just people having some feelings.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you -- especially the doctrine's economic form. It's more efficient to let you keep your stuff and do what you want to do, so poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

Another enemy of the concept of justice can be found in the forces of liberty. The forces of liberty are those who say the only real value is respect for individuals' rights to do as they please. Other rights -- and other values -- well, you might have thought they sounded good, but really they're kind of a fake-out. The forces of liberty sometimes say they're all for justice, it's just that they know with their moral insight that true justice is about people getting to keep their property, as long as they got it justly-- leaving aside, I guess, the fact that everything any western hemisphere person has acquired was gotten through a chain  of events that includes land-stealing, slavery, etc. etc.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you. You get to keep what you have and do what you like. You don't even need the efficiency loop-around. Poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

When it comes to trying to say why, exactly, justice is a phantom value, the enemies of justice have various strategies.

Some utilitarian efficiency theorists, like Peter Singer, say that beliefs about what's just are a kind of evolutionary left-over, like it might have helped us survive to think that people ought to be treated fairly, but now that we can do "rational thinking" we know better.

I could go on and on about this -- and in fact I do go on and on, since this is the topic of a some scholarly work I'm doing. But basically, as I see it the problem is that you can't justify utilitarian obligations except by appeal to the same kind of intuitive moral thinking that would work just as well to justify justice-based obligations. There's nothing specially rational about maximizing preference satisfaction -- that's a moral idea just like justice ideas are. Even the idea that interests are things to be satisfied is a product of evolution. So I don't agree that maximizing preference satisfaction is specially rational in a way that justice isn't.

Some economic efficiency theorists say that attempts to be "fair" are really examples of "bounded-self-interest" -- and so are just another way that humans fail to be fully rational. You thought caring about fairness might be a good thing, but from this point of view it seems more like an unfounded prejudice which, in addition to being irrational, also probably hampers growth.

But as I see it, here too there's nothing morally neutral about measuring in terms of efficiency. Sure, "efficiency" might sound precise and scientific where justice sounds vague and ambiguous. But really, efficiency is vague and ambiguous as well. What are we measuring? Well-being? Preference-satisfaction? What if those aren't the same? How do you measure? Should you maximize or just meet the Pareto "low bar" of not throwing the food away?

From the liberty front, we also hear that justice is vague and intuitive. With all the disagreements about justice, who can really say? But again, liberty is vague and intuitive as well, and its nature is a topic of frequent debate.

In fact, when it comes to ambiguity and uncertainty, it should give the "efficiency" and "liberty" enemies of justice pause that although they agree about justice, they disagree about a ton of other stuff, including the basic values. So it's not like the other values are so obvious and crystal clear that they command universal agreement either.

Personally, I think most people care about efficiency, liberty, justice, and other values, all at the same time. Yes it's hard to prioritize and figure out how to honor all of them. But that is, I believe, our moral task.

One of the things I work on in philosophy is meta-ethics, which basically means the foundations of ethics and ethical reasoning, and I try to figure out what status our intuitive beliefs have, and what this tells us about the importance of various values and how they can be mutually honored.

And sometimes I'm like "WTF am I doing with this obscure topic?" And then I think about the enemies of the concept of justice, and I remember.

1 comment:

Christopher Grisdale said...

Loved this post! So snarky. It's hot.