More on Libertarianism and “Social Justice”

“Bleeding heart libertarian” political philosophers Kevin Vallier and Matt Zwolinski have written responses to my post expressing some reservations about some BHLers embrace of the idea of “social justice.” They also comment on critics like David Friedman, Bryan Caplan, Mike Rappaport, and Todd Seavey, who have expressed related concerns. Both Vallier and Zwolinski make some good points. But I don’t think either of them really addresses the issues I and some of the others raise.

Vallier attempts to answer the criticism that the BHL conception of “social justice” is vague and unclear by providing a definition of the concept:

How does the term “social” modify the term “justice” such that we are left with an important and illuminating concept that is a kind of justice that libertarians should accept? I’m going to give a Rawlsian answer to this question by holding that social justice is justice with regard to the arrangement of a society’s basic structure… Rawls defines a society’s basic structure as follows:

By the basic structure I mean a society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and how they fit together into one unified system of social cooperation from one generation to the next….

[A] basic structure… rests on certain principles and shared ideas that are the subject of moral and political evaluation.

I certainly agree that a society’s “basic structure” is subject to moral evaluation and that an unjust basic structure should be rejected (at least if superior alternatives are available). However, virtually all political theorists accept the same idea, including libertarians who reject the idea of “social justice,” such as F.A. Hayek (who devoted much of his scholarship to trying to figure out what a more just basic structure of of society should look like). If social justice is simply used to denote the idea that the basic structure of society should be just in some general sense, then it’s not a very useful term because almost every political philosophy turns out to be committed to it. Nazis, communists, socialists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives all agree that society should have a just basic structure. Where they differ is on the question of which basic structure is actually the most just, and on the criteria for assessing that question.

This definition of social justice also does not conform to the most widely accepted uses of “social justice” in contemporary discourse, which usually have to do with alleviating poverty and promoting economic equality. That said, I recognize that this may be a case where some academic political philosophers use a term in a different sense from that used by laypeople and scholars in other fields.

Zwolinski interprets me and some of the other critics as advocating utilitarianism and puts forward various standard philosophical arguments against utilitarianism. I agree with many of these arguments. However, they only count against a theory that holds that utilitarianism is the only standard by which the morality of our actions should be judged. That is not my view. I reject both absolute utilitarianism and absolute nonutilitarian rights theories. Utilitarian considerations should serve as a constraint on rights claims and vice versa. For example, we should not endorse an absolutist theory of rights that holds that we can never restrict freedom of speech even if doing so is the only way to keep a totalitarian regime from coming to power and slaughtering millions. On the other hand, we also should not embrace an absolute utilitarianism under which we would have to let sadists torture innocent children so long as the evidence showed that pleasure of the torturers was greater than the pain suffered by their victims.

At what point should rights be sacrificed for utility or vice versa? If I had an air-tight answer to that question, I would be a great political philosopher myself. Sadly, I don’t. But even though I don’t have a good theory for handling difficult borderline cases, I think it’s still easy to recognize that we shouldn’t sacrifice huge amounts of utility for minor rights protections, and neither should we do the opposite. Thus, we should not allow civilization to be destroyed by an asteroid strike, even if avoiding this fate requires some infringement on property rights. Similarly, we also shouldn’t let “utility monsters” gobble up small children.

For reasons outlined by Mike Rappaport here and here, and earlier by David Friedman, I think utilitarianism also does a better job than “social justice” in explaining why libertarians (and others) should be concerned about poverty and economic well-being. One can recognize that without being committed to the idea that utility is the one true moral value that trumps all others.

UPDATE: I have belatedly revised this post to correct a minor, but annoying stylistic flaw.