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Dear Ed,

Social justice: that's the subject of this latest instalment in the weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. I hope you find it interesting and useful - and if you do, by all means let other people know that they too can sign up for the series

The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. In particular for this week's email, Ed Randall.

If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.

If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.

Best wishes,


Social justice

A critical and much-disputed concept in political philosophy generally and in liberal political thought in particular, the notion of social justice is concerned with the ways in which members of a political community determine the extent of their obligations to one another. There are a number of competing liberal ideas about social justice which give rise to strikingly different recommendations about the claims that members of a political community have upon one another.

Social justice is a particularly difficult concept for liberals. Liberalism in all its many forms embraces the beliefs that every citizen should stand equal before the law, that citizens should have the right to associate freely, to express themselves as they choose and to participate in free and fair elections, and that citizens should enjoy full civil rights, including the right to own property and to enter into contractual agreements of their own choosing. Many liberals, however, struggle with the proposition that respect for the rights of others requires them to support public policies that go well beyond the defence of individual liberties and basic political equality.

The term ‘social justice’ is widely employed as a label for sets of ideas and intuitions commonly found in both theology and political theory about the obligations that flow from being children of a divine creator and/or quintessentially social creatures. Ideas about what is socially just are meant to guide communities and individuals when they decide how to share the burdens and benefits of a common existence. Perhaps the best-known precept in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which can also be described as a principle of social justice, is that ‘you should do as you would be done by’.

The most notable contributor to the twentieth-century discussion of social justice, John Rawls, is a representative of a school of philosophical thought often known as contractarianism, most strongly linked with the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The publication of his Theory of Justice in 1971 generated great interest in the idea that a liberal society could and should be based upon principles of justice that invited each and every member of society to do much more than simply respect other people’s basic liberties. Rawls fashioned a political argument – what he called a theory of justice – that urged people to give their active support to political institutions specially engineered to distribute assets and opportunities as fairly as possible. Rawls described this as justice as fairness. Almost all of us recognise or are capable of recognising, he implied, that if we really want to reach a secure agreement about what it takes to create political institutions for a just society, it will be necessary to fashion the institutions, so far as possible, in a way that does not give or appear to give undue weight or influence to any particular interest.

According each citizen equal respect, a basic liberal value, requires that the interests of each and every person should be seen to carry an equal weight. Rawls noted that the liberal and utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham had proposed that the surest way for any government to do exactly that was to use a calculus of benefit and harm that made the greatest good and the good of the greatest number the fulcrums of public policy. Rawls rejected such an approach for fashioning the institutions and policies of a just society. Utilitarianism was fatally flawed; it permitted, for example, the interests of minorities to be disregarded, and could in theory sanction slavery, as long as the majority benefited as a result.

If individuals mattered, if each person was entitled to equal respect, and utilitarianism was rejected because it could not entrench equal respect, how could liberals set about formulating principles of social justice that were fair, robust and capable of protecting personal liberty? Rawls’s answer was a philosophical method that would enable people to devise an agreement about fair principles of justice in a way that was itself both transparent and fair.

Rawls’s theory is in effect a thought experiment dedicated to the search for general principles capable of commanding the support of reasonable people. Rawls was convinced that a debate about the principles needed to underpin a just society – a debate that he imagined taking place behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ depriving individuals of any knowledge of their individual interests and personal circumstances – would lead to agreement that the just society would give priority to fundamental or basic liberties which every member would enjoy. Such an agreement became the foundation for his first principle of justice.

Rawls was confident, however, that his debaters would go further and agree, subject to first securing basic liberties, that everything possible should be done to protect the weakest and most disadvantaged members of society. This commitment to a liberal egalitarianism was, above all else, a consequence of strong beliefs about the origins of material differences in human societies. Rawls considered that the most significant differences in life chances, and as a consequence in personal wealth and income, were undeserved, that the most telling material differences in life arose from initial endowments of ability and opportunity that were arbitrary from the moral point of view. When we think about our own circumstances and the distribution of life chances in general, Rawls was convinced that we would come to the conclusion that luck played an enormous – almost certainly the decisive – part in personal fortunes. We do not choose our parents, the time or place of our birth, our ethnicity or our gender. Rawls’s judgement, therefore, about the outcome of a fair and informed debate concerning the principles for a just society was that the participants would agree a constitution in which inequalities of wealth and income would only be sanctioned and justified if they served the interests of the most disadvantaged members of society. He referred to this, his second principle of justice, as the ‘maximin rule’.

Rawls’s formulation of what appeared to be a wide-ranging and radically egalitarian liberal principle of social justice attracted considerable criticism from other liberals, most notably his Harvard colleague and fellow political philosopher Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Nozick criticised Rawls for propounding a notion of justice that justified never-ending and liberty-destroying interference by public authorities in the lives of individuals who had, quite justly and fairly, acquired all that they possessed.

Citizens who respected the basic liberties of others were entitled to their holdings: their property and income. They should not be dragooned into supporting a social purpose that they had not freely chosen, so taxation to fund social programmes designed to modify life chances and redistribute income was therefore unjust and illiberal. A government that took income and property from individuals in order to secure the defence of the realm could, with difficulty, be justified but governments that imposed taxes in order to achieve some grand social design would be behaving unjustly. A just society was one that respected the results of trades and agreements between free citizens, and justice would only be served by ensuring that the most basic rights, the rights that underpinned individual freedoms and title to the fruits of one’s own labours, were respected. In Nozick’s opinion, Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism – as expressed in his maximin rule – could not be reconciled with the most elemental liberal ideas about justice.

Another liberal, Friedrich Hayek, was equally scathing in his criticism of Rawlsian justice and similar notions. The notion of social justice, Hayek declared, should be dismissed as nonsense, because there was no certain way of judging any particular distribution of wealth or income superior to any other in terms of justice. In the absence of some lofty vantage point from which to judge objectively the relative justice of an array of different distributions, how was it possible to tell which of many possible distributions was the fairest? While Hayek could agree with Rawls that market distributions were arbitrary from the moral point of view, and he accepted that what many regarded as virtue or hard work often went unrewarded, it would, in his opinion, be illogical and illiberal to call for an alternative distribution because it could be said to be fairer. Furthermore, although market distributions were frequently shaped by chance factors they had a great advantage, that of facilitating the most efficient allocation of scarce resources amongst competing ends. Hayek argued that attempts to modify market distributions were not only likely to reduce the allocative efficiency of market exchange but were also likely to extend the powers of government at the expense of the individual.

Hayek’s rejection of the term ‘social justice’ has itself attracted criticism. Judith Shklar argued that the concept of social justice need be neither arbitrary nor indeterminate, but was simply a recognition of the fact that human beings are capable of formulating, agreeing and implementing social and economic plans, reflecting the popular will, aimed at modifying some of the economic and social consequences of unfettered markets. Hayek might well be justified in warning those who favoured actions that entailed constant interference in markets of the dangers of unintended and damaging consequences – but the spontaneous order of the marketplace, which had such virtue in his eyes, was not necessarily superior to the social and economic order that followed from the choices of an active and informed political community. Hayek, in Shklar’s view, had been unable to sustain his general objection to public policies aimed at promoting social justice.

Objections to Nozick’s criticisms of Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism go deeper still. Other liberals, such as Ronald Dworkin, have objected to Nozick’s insistence on the overriding importance of rights of acquisition, describing them as unreasonable and arbitrary. Surely in a political community, Dworkin argued, we are entitled to express concern for others? Indifference to the fate of one’s fellows or reliance upon the unpredictable and charitable impulses of neighbours cannot be accepted as an adequate basis for the shared existence of a community. Nozick’s philosophy is, in Dworkin’s terms, based upon an all-or-nothing conception of individual rights, whereas it may be more reasonable to start with the proposition that the right to property is only one amongst many – competing, for example, with a right or entitlement to assistance from others in an emergency. Similarly, if rights to private property are absolute and unchallengeable, does that mean that the whole of humanity must accept, for all time, that the children of those who first laid claim to the ownership of the earth’s natural resources should inherit an unbreakable title to whatever their forebears acquired? If rights or entitlements need to be balanced against one another then the attractions of a political philosophy that regards one right or value as overriding all others are greatly diminished.

Nozick and Hayek are far from being Rawls’s only critics, however. Communitarians attacked Rawls’s restrained and highly conditional egalitarianism because it gave, in their view, a wholly unjustified weight to individual preferences and led to a serious neglect of the myriad ways in which the beliefs and behaviour of individual human beings are shaped by their membership of particular human communities with distinctive ideas about what is good and just. The dispute between liberals and communitarians has been a striking feature of political and philosophical argument over social justice for more than thirty years, reflecting to a certain extent a tension between different interpretations of liberalism: those that are self-regarding and individualistic and others that are other-regarding and more socially aware.

Whatever may be said about the obscurities of academic debate over the notion of social justice, discussion of what it means to be just and what it takes to be fair is unmistakably alive and kicking. Liberals and their political rivals continue to engage in fierce arguments about how far the state can reasonably be expected to go in accepting responsibility for the distribution of income and opportunity. Information about how well or badly public institutions, such as schools or hospitals, work, and ideas about what they can or should do to make society fairer have a special significance at the cutting edge of contemporary politics.

It is especially important, therefore, for the quality of political debate and the impact that liberal arguments can have, that those who regard themselves as liberals are aware of the origins and understand the controversies that now surround a key – if much disputed – concept in liberal political thought: social justice.

Further reading

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