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:
Read the rest of this entry »