What’s the subject of justice? pt. 1

April 28, 2008

By ‘subject of justice’, I mean ‘what claims of justice are about’. So the title question, then, is: what constitutes the content of claims about justice?

Famously, Rawls (1971) answered the question as follows:

The primary subject of the principles of social justice is the basic structure of society, the arrangement of major social institutions into one scheme of cooperation. We have seen that these principles are to govern the assignment of rights and duties in these institutions and they are to determine the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life. The principles of justice for institutions must not be confused with the principles which apply to individuals and their actions in particular circumstances. These two kinds of principles apply to different subjects and must be discussed separately. (TJ, sec. 10)

Following Rawls, a distinction has been made in the political philosophy literature between an institutional view and an interactional view. Pogge’s formulation of this distinction in ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’ (1992) is representative:

An institutional conception postulates certain fundamental principles of justice. These apply to institutional schemes and are thus second-order principles: standards for assessing the ground rules and practices that regulate human interactions. An interactional conception, by contrast, postulates certain fundamental principles of ethics. These principles, like institutional ground rules, are first-order in that they apply directly to the conduct of persons and groups. (p. 50)

(If you’re interested, two prominent rejections of this distinction are G.A. Cohen, ‘Where the Action Is’ (1995) and L. Murphy, ‘Institutions and the Demands of Justice’ (1998). Pogge, ‘On the Site of Distributive Justice’ (2001) responds. Strictly speaking, Pogge characterizes the interactional view as a view concerning ethics as opposed to justice. But, as I’ll try to make clear below, there could be a way in which both the interactional and institutional views are views of justice.)

To illustrate the distinction, consider the following scenario:
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Recalcitrant Credences

April 23, 2008

The following principle strikes me as plausible:

If S is ideally rational, has the concept of justification, and has credence X that P,

then S believes that she is justified in having credence X that P.

In other words, ideally rational agents believe that all their credences are justified. Any thoughts? I’m sure this has been addressed in the literature, so if you know of any relevant citations, please pass them along!

Bystanders to Oppressions

April 20, 2008

I attended several interesting talks at the Central APA. This time, I tried to select more politically-oriented sessions, despite my lack of knowledge in that area. Subsequently, I was exposed to a lot of interesting issues I probably would never have thought about otherwise. One symposium that particularly got me thinking was “Responsibility for Resisting Oppression”, with Bernard Boxill, Thomas Hill, Jean Harvey, and Sarah Buss. One topic that came up was the responsibilities of “bystanders” to resisting oppressions, compared to that of the oppressed themselves.

That got me thinking: Who is a bystander? For example, are we bystanders to the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibetans? Suppose that information about this oppression were nearly impossible to get, then are we nevertheless bystanders? This hypothetical has implications for assessing our responsibilities as bystanders in everyday situations. There are many instances of systematic injustice in workplace or private homes. We might then ask: Are we bystanders to those, and if so, what are our responsibilities? Reflecting on these scenarios rather naively suggests an epistemic condition on answering the question ‘who is a bystander’: we are bystanders when we can easily obtain knowledge of the oppression.

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