We speak as if people have (normative) claims against social institutions.  For example, perhaps I have a claim against U.S. society that it provide sufficient opportunity – access to relevant material and social resources – for me to advance my (reasonable) interests and welfare.  On the other side of the coin, society would owe me this.

What are individual claims against social institutions (or social institutions owing one something or being obligated to do or provide something)?  This, it seems to me, is a good place to start the most general kind inquiry into what social – or more broadly institutional – justice is.

If claims correspond to obligations and reasons, including reasons of obligation, are possessed only by individual agents (not by groups or collections of individuals or agents), it is tempting to conclude that (a) talk of claims against society or society “owing one something” are simply confused.  On the other hand, it is also at least somewhat tempting to hold onto intuitions like the intuition that society indeed owes one some things by delving into the metaphysics of agency or personhood and claiming that, (b) in some perhaps extended but relevant sense, institutions including society are agents or persons.  However, I would suggest another approach.

This approach holds onto the “individualist” premise about reasons of [a] (and the institutional or social justice intuition of [b]), but instead of dismissing institutional or social obligations construes them as secondary or derivative phenomena (that we perhaps capture in a shorthand or metaphorical language that strictly and literally applies only to individuals) that are a function of individual obligations.  Schematically, here is a way to do this:

Social institution X being obligated to individual Y to PHI is constituted by some or all of the persons that compose X being obligated to do their part in bringing it about that X performs PHI (=exhibits a certain collective pattern of human action H), if enough similarly obligated others in X do their parts as well.

This conditional obligation would then be cashed out in terms of actual obligations that individual agents have when (i) compliance or part-doing conditions are met and (ii) the specific actions that constitute doing one’s part, given one’s role in the institution, are specified.  (I’m glomming things together a bit, here.  Given just [ii], you get role-relative conditional obligations that specify particular actions, not just some existential generalization over possible actions.)

What do you guys think about this way of cashing out the idea that society (or some other institution) “owes one something?”

3 thoughts on “SOCIETY OWES ME

  1. You can probably predict my responses by now, but why suppose that obligations, owing, and the like are fundamental? Why isn’t the good (perhaps particularly the common good) fundamental, and obligations (and rights) derivative from that? Consider the following two claims: (1) society owes you access to relevant material and social resources to advance your reasonable interests and welfare; (2) for society to provide you with access to relevant material and social resources to advance your reasonable interests and welfare promotes the common good. In either case, as you discuss, we need to do something about this pesky ‘society’ thing. But among the other potential virtues of making the common good more fundamental than obligations and rights, I would submit that one advantage of starting with (2) is that it is readily translated into (2′): for social institutions to provide you (and everyone else) with access to relevant material and social resources to advance your (their) reasonable interests and welfare promotes the common good. We still need to ask questions about the reasons and obligations that people have and why they have them, but (2′), unlike (1) or any similar translation of (1), does not seem even to appear to lead to the suggestion that there are such things as society or social institutions that can be the subjects of obligations. If we start with (2′), we can say with a straight face that the notion that ‘society owes you’ is nonsense while also accommodating, at least in principle, any intuition that such language is used to express about the shape that social institutions ought to take; society and social institutions just aren’t the sort of thing that can owe anything to anyone. They can, however, be the sorts of thing that are better or worse at promoting the common good, and that may itself provide individuals with reasons and obligations to support such institutions. No need to consider what it is for a social institution to be obligated, even in a derivative way, because it can’t be; but nothing substantive lost, either, since depending on what the common good is, what actually promotes it, and what kinds of reasons it provides to individual agents, we can get everything that anybody ever wanted to get out of the notion that society has obligations.

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    • I did not mean to imply that the claims-obligations level of analysis is fundamental – or even more fundamental than the individual good, the good of society, etc. The important implicit claim, I suppose, is that the claims-obligations level of normative analysis “gets at” enough interesting stuff to stand on its own. Of course, without making this explicit, this kind of analysis may invite treating claims and obligations as analytical or ontological primitives… (I trust that you are expecting something like this kind of response from me at this point!)

      I agree with you that claims and obligations (or, more precisely, and at a deeper level of analysis, the responsiveness and norms that govern claim-making and obligation-type motivation) depend on something like the common good ((or, more specifically, a certain mode of group or social functioning that is characteristic of human beings).


  2. Also, and amusingly, I initially misread the title of your post as “SOCIETY OWNS ME,” which created a rather different set of expectations for the content of your post. Perhaps that’s a subject for a future post.

    Liked by 1 person

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