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A Framework for Social Justice

[This is, as the title says, a framework for social justice, not the only one. There is more than one way to go about framing social justice. This is just one of more effective ones, in my opinion.

Also, I'm talking about 'touching' and 'conventions' here, so consider this a trigger warning, if relevant]

Talking about social justice is all well and good, but when it comes to the particulars, how do we decide how to move forward? Or (possibly more importantly) how do we recognise the wrong thing to do? In order to fix problems, we must first correctly identify the problem, then identify a solution. False negatives and false positives are always a concern. So how should we proceed?

We could, of course, bring in some basic heuristics. “Women and children first”. “Protect the underprivileged”. “Favour people of colour”. These policies all have their own issues, of course, and can easily come into conflict. They are all also highly contextually dependent.

Enter John Rawls. John Rawls brought forward two principles that allow us to move away from simple (and overly-simplistic) axioms to better conceive of the just choice to make. Of course, this is not a ‘perfect’ solution, but it’s certainly far better than many others that have been advanced in our history. The first is The Original Position. The second is known as The Difference Principle. I’ll explain these below, but I’m using them in a slightly different context to Rawls, so any Rawls purists out there will have to have some patience.

The Original Position

The Original Position is a thought experiment, which can’t determine any historical truth (which would be a ludicrous notion), but useful in helping a person explore their own thoughts on the matter. While we are sometimes told to ‘imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes’, this is largely insufficient to help us flesh out any ideas of justise we may implicitly hold.

The Original Position should be used to help us flesh out policies and decisions. Imagine the world as it is. Imagine all the people as they are, the various social advantages and disadvantages, the 1% of folk with the bulk of the wealth, that in the vast majority of cases there is no social mobility: if you are born poor, you are overwhelmingly likely to die poor.

Now envision your new policy. Clearly, your policy should advantage someone, but let’s put that someone to one side for a moment: who does your policy disadvantage? How big/small is that group?

Rawls suggests that now, we should invoke what he called The Veil of Ignorance. Imagine that you have no idea who you are in society. You could be old, young, rich, poor, black, white, yellow, green, whatever. The odds of you being any combination of those match the demographics of society. Now realise that there is a chance that you are a member of the group that’s about to be disadvantaged: 1) does being the recipient of the disadvantage seem acceptable/reasonable to you, given your other circumstances? 2) Do you really want to accept the odds that you ‘could’ be in that disadvantaged group?

If you answer ‘no’ to either of those questions, then it’s clear that the policy that you are advancing fails to be ‘fair’ under your own conception of fairness. So it would be exceedingly unfair to burden other folk with this unjust policy.

Given society as it is, you could be a male of white British descent, with an annual salary of $250,000, ample savings and several fully-paid off homes, currently paying 36% in income tax. Or you could be a woman of black Carribbean descent, barely scraping by on a part-time wage of $10,000 a year, with a family to feed, renting a sketchy tenement. You have exceptionally low odds of being the former, relative to being the latter (estimate based entirely on income distribution, though I really can’t imagine the other factors changing things significantly).

Personally, I can’t think of any tax increase (short of 100%) that would make the ‘guy who is rich and white’ choice inferior to the ‘woman who is poor and black’ choice. Even at 99%, the ‘guy who is rich and white’ is making more, annually, than the ‘ woman who is poor and black’. I’m not suggesting that 99% taxes are absolutely fair, but I am saying that on this measure alone there’s nothing unfair about increasing the taxes of the rich person: 1) given the other advantages of being the ‘guy who is rich and white’, paying 50% taxes vs. the previous 36% seems to be not that big a deal and 2) the only problem with the odds of this particular group is that they’re too low, I want higher odds of being in this group…

So sometimes The Original Position doesn’t help us get anywhere. I mean, if you take the example up above to be unjust from the get go (and I mean with regards to being a woman who is poor and black), then The Original Position doesn’t help you. I don’t want (let’s say) 30% odds of being someone who is discriminated on the basis of my gender, discriminated against on the basis of my ethnicity, and to be in poverty. Not one of those things is good by itself, I certainly don’t want all three combined. So if we suggest increasing taxes on the ‘guy who is rich and white': it’s still unjust, as I still don’t want to face that 30% roll of the dice. If I suggest lowering taxes on the woman who is poor and black: it’s still unjust, as I still don’t want to face that 30% roll of the dice. All ‘tax adjustments’ (in this context) run into this brick wall. The Original Position has essentially broken down, and doesn’t provide us with any guidance.

The Difference Principle

Rawls has a second principle to help us navigate the cases where there is an obvious injustice: The Difference Principle. The Difference Principle (in the context that I wish to apply it) can be simply stated as:

When instituting a policy that affects two parties, any policy that increases the ‘difference’ between them is unjust.

This can be a difference with regards to economic standing, social standing, political standing, anything at all. To refer back to the above example, there are five possible basic tax options (I’m not addressing combinations at this point): hold the guy who is rich and white’s taxes stable, and either increase or decrease the woman who is poor and black’s taxes; hold the woman who is poor and black’s taxes stable, and either increase or decrease the guy who is rich and white’s taxes; hold everyone’s taxes steady. From The Difference Principle, two choices are immediately up for elimination: decreasing the guy who is rich and white’s taxes while holding the woman who is poor and black’s taxes steady, and increasing the woman who is poor and black’s taxes while holding the guy who is rich and white’s taxes steady.

Ideally (and I’m going beyond Rawls here), the least unjust choice is to increase the taxes of the guy who is rich and white while also decreasing the taxes of the woman who is poor and black. This would be the option (of the nine possible combinations) that most radically reduces the financial difference between them.

The tax issue is, I think, a relatively simple example, and it was chosen for illustration purposes. Let’s choose a much more complex issue. Can of worms, I choose you! I’d like to talk about sexual harrassment policies at conventions.

I’m going to bolster the anti-sexual-harrassment-policy side’s argument here, on the basis that if it fails for this Strong Argument, then it also fails for all weaker arguments (spoiler: it fails). To further strengthen the anti-sexual-harrassment-policy side’s argument, I’m going to weaken the pro-argument.

Group A: this group of people who feel that touching (including, but not limited to, handshakes, high-fives, hugs, or just standing quite close to people) is a necessary part of their day-to-day existence. For them, having to stop and check (either verbally or visually) is an actual and real impediment to their daily lives. For the sake of this argument, it will be taken as a matter of fact that checking (verbally or visually) draws undue attention to the act of touching, and subsequently a number of people shy away who would otherwise (i.e. If not asked) been 100% ok with the touching. That is to say that ‘checking if touching is ok’ actually diminishes their lives.

Group B: this group of people are slightly uncomfortable with being touched. It slightly increases their stress levels. Being in close physical proximity to people is tolerable as long as it’s unavoidable, but it’s merely tolerable and considered the price of taking the bus or train. If they are checked with prior to being touched, they tend to refuse, and if checked with after the fact, they report that they were unhappy with being touched. This is to say that ‘being touched without consent’ actually diminishes their lives.

Group C: this group doesn’t care one way or the other, and will no long feature in this discussion.

If we place these two groups in any major urban area, we can see that Group A is relatively well off: they are often placed in close proximity to people, on public transportation, in movie theatres, waiting in line at a fast food restaurant, in bars, etc, etc. Group B, however, is generally stressed for all the reasons that Group A is generally happy.

Add in a convention. At the convention, there is going to be a lot of unavoidable physical proximity. People from both Group A and Group B wish to attend. Group A will see the proximity either as a bonus (more contact above their usual), or normal. Group B will see the proximity as normal and a stressor (or worse, depending on how they have managed to minimise their daily contact with folk). There will also be a lot of optional touching (handshakes, hugs, etc). For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that these two groups are approximately the same size, ergo a 50/50 chance of being in either group (being in Group C renders the whole discussion irrelevant (on this analysis), so I’m excluding them on that basis).

There are two options: institute a sexual harrassment policy, or not.

Step 1: apply The Original-position reasoning.

If we don’t institute a policy regarding touching, a lot of the optional touching will happen (as it already does): slapping people on the back, touching arms when saying ‘hello’, and things of that nature are going to be assumed to be acceptable. Group B is going to be additionally stressed. I would really prefer not to have a 50% chance of being in this group.

If we do institute a policy regarding touching, a lot of the optional touching is not going to happen (as stipulated in the description of Group A): the people in Group B are almost universally choose not to be touched, and a lot of people in Group C are going to shy away from touching they would otherwise not care about. Group A is going to be additionally stressed due to (what feels like) constant rejection of friendly overtures. I would really prefer not to have a 50% chance of being in this group.

The Original-position doesn’t clarify this for us, seeing as both groups appear to be negatively affected by one of the only two choices.

Step 2: apply The Difference Principle.

Given that Group A is generally happy in society, and that the incidental touching is something that they enjoy (and can easily seek out if they feel that it’s missing), and that Group B is generally unhappy with the incidental touching in society, then (all else being equal) Group B is disadvantaged with respect to Group A.

If we don’t institute a policy regarding touching, Group A’s situation is maintained, and Group B’s situation is diminished. This would increase the relative difference between their positions. Unjust.

If we do institute a policy regarding touching, Group A’s situation is diminished, and Group B’s situation is maintained (or improved). This would decrease the relative difference between their positions: not Unjust.

‘Unjust’ policies are simply unacceptable. Our choices must be limited to only those choices that are (at worst) ‘not Unjust’.

Therefore, whatever a person’s inclination towards touching or not touching, being touched or not being touched, or asking (visually or verbally) for consent, the institution of a policy requiring consent prior to touching is not unjust, and can’t be argued against on those grounds.

Comments

  1. Blair T says

    Brian, the Original Position and the Difference Principle are good starting points for thinking about social justice, but they are rather poor instruments to draw conclusions. One of my biases against philosophical arguments is that they are able to control all the variables, whereas the real world is more messy. That is why I like my philosophy well tempered by empiricism. In the real world unintended consequences are the norm – so a well-reasoned policy to improve social justice may actually have unintended adverse consequences. The tax policy example you give is an obvious one, since adjusting tax rates up and down changes productivity rates and tax avoidance rates. Your example of a 99% tax rate would probably result in far less tax being collected and thus less money available to fund gov’t programs for poorer people, thus decreasing the difference between the rich white guy and poor black woman, but making things worse for everyone.

    Another aspect of your argument I find problematic is that it rests on rather rigid categories of people – income level, racial class, touchiness levels. All of these things are subject to change or to be less relevant. For example, if you live in a place with universal health care, universal education, public art, good public transit, and good public parks and recreation, high income no longer buys that much more quality of life.

    Finally, to your topic of touching at conferences. I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or another – but if it is important to people, surely wearing a simple button or other outward indication of preference about touching is all that is needed.

  2. says

    Rawls is amazing and I would have his babies.

    Also, I find Singer meshes well. If we spread the original position to include animals (or even just the more complex ones), it leads nicely into animal rights.

  3. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I don’t see how any of this comment connects to the points that I’m making.

    Of course social policy needs to be empirically informed.
    Of course there are often unintended consequences to policies.

    The Difference Principle does not exclude empirical data; to the contrary, if often requires empirical data.

    Your objection seems to be based on a flawed understanding of Philosophy.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/07/23/science-vs-philosophy/

    Another aspect of your argument I find problematic is that it rests on rather rigid categories of people

    1. My example uses those category, not my argument.

    2. Then feel free to reframe the examples using different categories. The categories I chose for the examples seemed highly relevant. If you want to divide people up by hair colour, that’s your call, but I don’t see how it would be relevant…

    For example, if you live in a place with universal health care, universal education, public art, good public transit, and good public parks and recreation, high income no longer buys that much more quality of life.

    I agree.

    This changes my argument (as opposed to my example)…. how?

    but if it is important to people, surely wearing a simple button or other outward indication of preference about touching is all that is needed.

    You don’t see the irony in (incorrectly) complaining about empirically-free reasoning, and then making this comment?

    As a matter of fact, this outlook has been taken by some conferences, to a varying degree of success. There were, ironically enough, some unintended consequences. You should spend some time googling this. You might be surprised to learn that you’re not the first person to think of it…

  4. says

    As a matter of fact, this outlook has been taken by some conferences, to a varying degree of success. There were, ironically enough, some unintended consequences. You should spend some time googling this. You might be surprised to learn that you’re not the first person to think of it…

    This is the only part of your post/comment combination that I find even vaguely objectionable. I trust the conversations that have been had over it are quite interesting, and I would love to peruse them. If you didn’t have any specific pages in mind, would you mind at least sharing some suggested search terms? Perhaps my google-fu is weak; it seems it is not up to the task.

    Thanks.

  5. Brian Lynchehaun says

    That’s a fair point, sorry about that.

    A (non-fatal) criticism of a sticker system is that it’s essentially ‘opt out': people tend to be assumed to be in unless their sticker explicitly states that they have opted out.

    Jen McCreight’s experience with Mensa: http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/my-day-with-mensa.html

    Another issue is that they can get quite complex: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2011/07/ssacons-new-sticker-code/

    I think an additional advantage of having an ‘ask first’ policy is that is brings awareness to people that they should (actually!) ask before touching someone. This whole conversation certainly raised my awareness a great deal. Simply having stickers wouldn’t necessarily (imo) have had the same effect, on me at the least.

  6. Blair T says

    Brian – my first comment was not a fair response to your post – but had more to do with triggering a lot of related ideas and arguments in my head which I unsuccessfully tried respond to. Let me try again:

    In my opinion the Difference Principle is a useful heuristic to help think about social justice issues generally. I think that it is a clumsy tool when applied to a specific situation. In a specific situation you are subjectively picking the parameters to evaluate by the Difference Principle and then appear to make an objective assessment (“Unjust” “Just”) from that evaluation of subjective parameters. So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.

  7. Blair T says

    That should read: “So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.”

  8. Brian Lynchehaun says

    In a specific situation you are subjectively picking the parameters to evaluate by the Difference Principle and then appear to make an objective assessment (“Unjust” “Just”) from that evaluation of subjective parameters.

    I do not understand your criticism, because this criticism applies to every scientific experiment ever conducted: parameters are always “subjectively” chosen.

    Furthermore, it is entirely possible to make an objective decision based on subjective parameters. As a matter of fact, it’s entirely necessary. I’m not sure what you mean by “Objective”, as it seems to be at right-angles to how I’m used to seeing it used, and that is: once all people agree to the criteria by which something is to be judged, they will all necessarily come to approximately the same conclusion.

    An example: when measuring something, the choice between using the metric system or the imperial system is a subjective choice. There is no “objectively” correct conclusion to be made here. Your parameters will be either centimetres or inches.

    If you subjectively choose centimeters, then the object in question will be objectively determined to be 2.52cm in length.

    If you subjectively choose inches, then the object in question will be objectively determined to be 1 inch in length.

    At the root of all objective evaluations are subjective decisions about the relevant parameters. This is a fact of life, and not an appropriate criticism of, frankly, anything.

    So my objection is essentially, it appears you are claiming more precision than in your conclusion than is warranted by your inputs.

    This is likewise confusing to me: “precision” has as much to do with subjectivity/objectivity as the colour “blue” does.

    “Precision” pertains to how detailed a particular conclusion is, within the framework of a particular evaluation. “Precision” doesn’t apply to choices. Precision doesn’t apply to my decision to have eggs for breakfast as opposed to toast. Precision doesn’t apply to my concern for calories over (say) fat content. Precision is relevant to evaluating the claims of the company with regards to how many calories they claim are in their product. Precision is not relevant to the comparison “product A has 80 calories, and product B has 900 calories”. “901 calories” is certainly more precise than “900ish calories”.

    At bottom, precision doesn’t apply to concepts that don’t have a scale, that are merely choices between categories: precision has nothing to say when determining whether something is an apple or a car.

    If you have a scaled measurement for justice, I’m interested in hearing about it, and in that context we can talk about precision. But it simply doesn’t apply to the Difference Principle.

  9. says

    Eek… that “Original Position” thought experiment really, really creeps me out, in terms of belonging to a couple very, very small and very, very stigmatized minority identities.

    Does being stigmatized for being transgender or a recovering IV drug addict suddenly become more just because we account for <1% and 2% of the population, respectively? Is it the "fairness" of my oppression proportional to how "unlikely" I am to belong to this demographic?

    Conversely, are the social advantages conferred on me for being white, at the expense of those who are not, suddenly more acceptable because white people are the majority demographic in my country of birth?

    There are some pretty horrifying implications to this.

  10. Brian Lynchehaun says

    If that is your reading of this, then I have explained it extremely poorly, because your reading is absolutely not in line with my intent.

    Does being stigmatized for being transgender or a recovering IV drug addict suddenly become more just because we account for <1% and 2% of the population, respectively?

    No, absolutely not.

    This isn’t a scale of ‘fairness’. Fairness isn’t considered to be a gradeable scale under Rawls. The whole (single) point of this is to draw a person’s attention to the injustice: would you (generic) be willing to accept a 1% chance of being beaten to death for having the gender identity that you do?

    If a person answers ‘no’ to this question, then they have accepted that the situation that people who are trans* face is inherently unjust. The end. No scale.

    If a person answers ‘yes’ to this question, then there are further repercussions (aside from my shock). We then move to the Difference Principle.

    The single, only, purpose of the Original Position is to help someone break out of their own blinders to see that a particular case is unjust. The Original Position, as an argument, has nothing to say about whether a system is Just, only whether that system is Unjust (as there may be systems that are neither Just nor Unjust, but ethically gray), and to rule out those systems as options based on this particular criteria.

    That’s it. It does not imply endorsement of “the majority of people are doing ok, ergo the system is cool”, and Rawls intended it as the complete opposite of that. There is no “ruling in” of any systems, there is merely a “this system has not yet raised a red flag”.

    My apologies for not making that more clear.

  11. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Also, if I have used the “people who are Trans*” terminology incorrectly and/or offensively, I’d like to apologise in advance. This is not a topic that I discuss even irregularly, so my vocabulary here is likely crap.

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