Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Justice for Earthlings

David Miller


This book collects a number of my essays about justice written over the period 2000–2010. It was a good decade for writing about justice, judging by the stream of books and articles that academic political philosophers produced, but not so good for justice itself. Justice in this context means justice in the distribution of rights and opportunities, income and wealth, goods and services – what is often called social justice, though the term has become problematic, as we shall shortly see. The philosophers who write about justice nearly all understand it as requiring some form of equality, and there has been intense debate about exactly which form should be chosen; there is also intense debate about how widely the justice net should be cast, whether the aim should be equality within each separate political community or equality worldwide. Whichever way the idea of justice is understood, however, the real world seems to have moved in entirely the opposite direction. Levels of interpersonal inequality have relentlessly increased, both nationally and globally, mainly because in both developed and developing countries a class of super-rich persons has emerged, easily able to outflank the policies states have traditionally employed to reduce inequality among their citizens. Alongside this, there is evidence that public opinion, even in countries with strong traditions of social democracy, has become more tolerant of inequality. Fewer people now think that it is part of the state’s business to redistribute income and wealth in favour of the poor. There is certainly anger at the present time directed against rich bankers and financiers who are thought to have inflicted harm on others by virtue of their risky behaviour, but this does not extend to sports stars and celebrities whose extravagant lifestyles are seen as appropriate reward for having won out in the lottery of life.

In this context, it is puzzling, to say the least, that philosophical enquiry into distributive justice should have largely been directed at exploring new and increasingly radical forms of egalitarianism. The prime contender here is the position that has come to be known as ‘luck egalitarianism’. What justice requires, on this view, is that people should all enjoy the same level of advantage unless they have made choices that lead to their having either less or more than others. ‘Advantage’ here is a term of art that can be interpreted in different ways, but for simplicity’s sake assume that it means resources such as income and wealth. Then the luck egalitarian principle holds that the only thing that should affect the level of material resources that someone now has are the choices they have made over time about how to live, what work to undertake and so forth. The effects of all forms of unchosen luck are to be neutralized by ‘compensation’. Unchosen luck will include the circumstances someone is born into, the talents they are born with, the effects of other people’s behaviour on their prospects and so forth. A moment’s reflection will reveal how extraordinarily demanding this principle is, whether applied nationally or globally. To put it fully into practice would require some agency capable of monitoring the situation of each individual person and working out how far their present resource level could be attributed to ‘luck’ on the one hand and ‘choice’ on the other, and then calculating, counterfactually, what their position would have been if the effects of luck had been neutralized and only choice remained. Then the agency would have to extract resources from the beneficiaries of ‘good luck’ in order to provide compensation to the beneficiaries of ‘bad luck’.

A philosopher sympathetic to the position I have just outlined would no doubt protest that this misrepresents her views unfairly. The luck egalitarian principle is not supposed to guide practice directly. What it does instead is to define justice at the most abstract level. Once the meaning of the principle has been clarified philosophically, we can then turn our attention to society and to politics, and work out how far we can implement it and by what means. No doubt there will be limitations imposed both by our inability to gather the kind of evidence that would be needed fully to realize that principle, and by people’s reluctance to make the transfers that would be demanded of them, but these limitations should not influence the way we think about justice itself. If we allow them to do so, our theory of justice will be contaminated by irrelevant contingencies. It will become more conservative and less demanding than it should be, by allowing human frailties to affect our understanding of what is supposed to be the highest normative standard by which human beings and human societies can be judged.

As the title of the book may suggest, the essays it includes all challenge the way of understanding justice presented in the last paragraph. They represent justice as a human invention that accordingly is shaped by the circumstances of human life. Were these circumstances to change radically, what we would see would not be the arrival of perfect justice, but its disappearance in any form we could recognize. Even if we held on to the word, we would mean something different by it. Furthermore, it is not one thing: no single principle, such as the luck egalitarian principle just outlined, can possibly capture the richness of human thinking about justice. Even the most influential theory of the past half century, put forward by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, has turned out to be a partial theory, insofar as it is only plausible as an account of what justice demands of the public institutions of a self-contained nation-state. As Rawls himself admitted, if we want to understand what justice requires on a smaller scale – in social institutions such as families, schools and colleges, and churches – we would have to extend and modify his theory. The same is true if our aim is to understand justice at international or global level. If we want to say what justice must mean for Earthlings, therefore, we have to begin by thinking about the many different relationships in which these creatures stand towards one another, from the most intimate to the most distant. We will find that different principles fit different cases, as I shall explain in greater detail shortly. Any overarching theory that tries, Plato-like, to discover a single form of justice present in all these diverse instances will either be hopelessly inaccurate, leaving many aspects of justice unaccounted for, or else so vague as to be useless as a guide to practice.

To defend such an approach to justice we must also confront some basic questions about the nature and purpose of political philosophy itself. What is our aim when we think about politics from a philosophical perspective? This topic is taken up in the first and last essays in the book. The opening essay attacks the idea that the aim is to discover fundamental principles whose truth holds regardless of any facts we might discover about human beings or human societies. The principles we formulate and defend are meant to be action-guiding. And the actions they are meant to guide, the essay claims, are those of our fellow citizens, who come already equipped with their own beliefs about justice and other political values. This imposes feasibility constraints on the principles that can justifiably be advanced. It is not that they must be immediately acceptable to everyone; it is rather that good reasons can be given for accepting them, on the basis of beliefs that people hold to begin with, and in the light of the actual circumstances they find themselves in, rather than some imaginary world whose natural and social laws are different from our own.

Since these conditions might seem self-evident if political philosophy is to have any practical value, one might wonder how the idea of a fact-independent political philosophy took hold. The last essay in the book suggests a diagnosis, which is that such a political philosophy is born of disappointment at developments in the real world. I suggested above that there was paradox in the fact that while equality in the world itself appeared to be in retreat, many political philosophers espoused egalitarian theories of ever-increasing radicalism. This position is only sustainable if one is prepared to declare that the mechanisms that are producing increasing levels of inequality are irrelevant from a normative point of view. Clearly, if principles are independent of all facts, they must be independent of these facts as well. Political philosophy so understood cannot respond constructively to changes that are occurring in the world outside, so it has to retreat to a position of pure, principled opposition. I call this ‘political philosophy as lamentation’ (for what cannot be achieved) and suggest that there is at least one historical precedent for the kind of retreat that we seem to be witnessing from engagement with the forces that are actually shaping our societies and our world.

Read the full excerpt here.

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is the author of Justice for Earthlings (2013). Miller is Professor of Political Theory and an Official Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He is also a ...

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