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?”