social injustice and individual obligation

Suppose that society can wrong individuals and groups within society (as I think it can).  If one (or some group) is wronged in any way, one can legitimately complain (object, demand, etc.). If one is wronged by society, one complains to… society.  But society is not an agent, so such a complaint cannot function as it would if one were privately wronged. And so, though we can say that society is obligated to right the wrong, it seems we must cash this out in terms of the obligations of individuals. 

But these obligations might seem rather weak. If there is some clear, known collective action that would right the wrong, then, plausibly, each person in society has an obligation to do her part to get the wrong righted — but only if enough others are willing to and can do their part as well.  But say they aren’t. Then the conditions for the obligation are not met.  However, one probably then has this kind of weak obligation: the obligation to care about the injustice and to do something (not too costly) to move matters toward righting it. If this is how collective social obligations to right social-institutional wrongs works, then victims are in a tough spot in terms of social-regulative norms:  there are none that directly and effectively target righting the wrong. There is not much to say other than “come on guys, get your shit together” if not enough people are doing enough (but everyone cares and is doing something constructive).  Things get more complicated, and worse, when there is no clear, in-principle viable plan to fix things, so that it is unclear what any individual’s part would be in the fixing.

I’m inclined to think that “social injustice” is just a uniquely sucky sort of injustice in this respect.  Unlike as is often or typically the case with personal wrong-doing (and even state wrong-doing), there is no obligation or set of obligations that are more or less guaranteed — if complied with — to right the wrong.  And I suspect that “social justice warriors” (both in the narrow, popular sense and in a wider sense that would fit all social reformers) gravitate toward framing social wrongs as if there were clear, urgent obligations such that, if the right state agent or agents or enough people met them, the wrong would be righted.  But if things are as I say they might be obligation-wise that does not make the wrongs meted out by society any less wrong…  It does make for a certain kind of moralistic error (a variety of what C.A.J Coady calls “moralism of scope”). The flip-side “complacent” or “conservative” temptation is to close one’s eyes to the wrong or perhaps treat the socially bad thing as merely a bad thing that we need to coordinate to overcome, not a wrong to be righted.

If I’m right, then righting social wrongs in a morally appropriate and effective way requires some mixture of: (a) moral cajoling and shaming regarding noticing and caring and doing something, however minimal, to make it more likely (or try to make it more likely) that the wrong will be righted, (b) implementing good strategies for solving the relevant collective action problem and achieving the collective action necessary for “society” to “meet its obligation” and (c) only once [b] is achieved, engaging in the moral cajoling and shaming to get folks to do their part in some actual, realistic plan for collectively righting the wrong.  We should neither skip directly to (c) — the relevant obligations do not exist and the relevant demand-making, etc. therefore is not legitimate — nor deny or downplay the collective, social wrong-doing.

(These thoughts are provoked by my reading the first two chapters of David Estlund’s recently-published book, UTOPOPHOBIA: ON THE LIMITS (IF ANY) OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.)

9 thoughts on “social injustice and individual obligation

  1. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I think there’s another way of framing this suspicion:

    And I suspect that “social justice warriors” (both in the narrow, popular sense and in a wider sense that would fit all social reformers) gravitate toward framing social wrongs as if there were clear, urgent obligations such that, if the right state agent or agents or enough people met them, the wrong would be righted.

    Distinguish actual from normatively ideal social justice warriorism. “Actual” includes the entire spectrum of people who invoke that self-description or somehow satisfy it, from the best to the worst. Whereas “normatively ideal” refers to the actually best plus those versions of SJW-ism notionally (but feasibly) better than the actually best. Normatively ideal social justice warriors gravitate toward social wrongs that are clear and urgent, such that if the right set of agents satisfied the obligation involved in rectifying them, the wrongs in question would in fact be rectified or come much closer to rectification.

    Part of the disagreement between SJWs and their critics is how to define and deal with the problematic end of the spectrum of actual SJWs (including how important it is to do this at all, whether in general or in some particular case or cases). But part of the disagreement is that those sympathetic to SJW-ism are convinced that there are a large number of cases where people confront clear and urgent wrongs of the rectifiable (or somewhat rectifiable) sort–except that critics of SJW-ism dish up lame excuses for quietism to avoid dealing with them, or worse, minimize the injustices themselves to give the false impression that they don’t need rectification.

    I think we can see in historical retrospect that a huge number of people thought they could sit on the sidelines and watch, say, the struggle over civil rights or the Vietnam war, whether because they thought that neither issue was clear enough to yield an action-guiding verdict, or because they regarded neither as big enough of a deal to be worth responding to. Or else they exaggerated their own powerlessness about responding to them, or got lost in recriminations about the excesses of the more excessive features of the civil rights or anti-war movements. But they were wrong about all of that. It’s the SJWs–the activists– that were right.

    I have sympathy, as you know, with many criticisms of left-wing SJW-ism. I think leftists are far too quick to make accusations of racism (or sometimes, sexism), they’re far too quick to conceive honest disagreement from the right as bigotry or culpable ignorance, and they’re far too quick to seize on particular instances of misfortune in order to emotionally blackmail their interlocutors into their favorite sort of meliorism (“I had cancer and I was without health insurance; therefore Medicare for All”).

    But I think conservative critics of SJWs are too quick to cherry pick evidence in order to rush to the conclusion that SJW-ism is either immoral or ineffective or both. You know the drill: BLM = the KKK. BDS = anti-Semitism. Radical critics of American foreign policy are traitors. Resistance to imperialism = terrorism. Indigenous resistance to disruptive corporate development = Luddite primitivism. #MeToo is a whiny, man-hating movement. Trans-gender people are psychotics. Principled opposition to Trump is nothing but partisan animosity for the man who tells us like it is. Concern about climate change is anti-human Luddite apocalypticism. Regulation is bad unless it’s applied to undocumented aliens. And so on.

    Given the devolution of the Republican Party under Trump, and the implosion/polarization of the conservative movement for related reasons, I acknowledge the left-wing problem but regard the right-wing one as looming much larger and more dangerously in American political life. The left has its problems, but the left is not in power. The problems of the right are worse, they are in power, and they’re completely out of control. So despite my agreement with what you say above, I suspect there’s disagreement a few steps down the road.

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      • I’m not sure how much of the “moralistic overreach” or “overly/unreasonably demandingness” of our SJWs might fit my framing and supposition. Maybe quite a bit, but the overall story is more complicated and surely includes aspects of our human, tribalistic psychology.

        At the more practical level — and practical concerns about SJW moralistic overreach in general did motivate my interest in the topic at least somewhat — I think a big question is the extent to which SJW overreach (as a response to complacency, ignorance, vice) provokes worse attitudes and behavior among the complacent, less-socially-aware, only slightly vicious, etc. E.g., if you treat non-racist people who care about unequal socio-economic outcomes along racial lines –but do not see the potentially problematic role of stereotyping — as if they were racists, they will respond with (justified) resentment. And probably become both less sensitive to the racially unjust social outcomes and more likely to exhibit problematic (or even outright racist — i.e., hateful or inferiorizing) racial attitudes. As I see a lot of this, I give a fair amount of credence to the idea that, say, attitudes about difference on the political right are not alarmingly vicious. I give less credence to the idea that they are not socially problematic… Maybe this points to some of our areas of disagreement.

        I’m more certain, though, that there is social injustice (not just bad social conditions — some social inequality is unjust, not just bad) and that we have a ground-level obligation to care about correcting it and to take some action toward this (however ineffective, even if only symbolic or expressive — this does not have to be mere in-group virtue-signalling and “othering” of the “less woke”). Plenty of folks — whether due to moralistic provocation or not, whether through complacency, ignorance or vice — do not meet this obligation. This, I think, is a good starting point and common ground.


        • Maybe here’s a way to think about this, and put it in a broader context.

          Start by distinguishing perfect from imperfect duties, a la Kant. A perfect duty is one that must always fully be satisfied as stated, for instance, the duty to respect the rights of others. Whereas an imperfect duty is one that can’t be flouted or ignored, but admits of multiple means of fulfillment, including degrees of fulfillment and options on when it’s to be satisfied, for instance, the duty to contribute to the well-being of others, or the duty not to make small contributions to evil ends.

          One question is: are there any perfect duties such that their violation must, without exception, be responded to in some way? Arguably, rights-violations-within-a-territorial-jurisdiction satisfy this description. The principle would be: for any territory that constitutes a jurisdiction, respond to every rights violation without exception. On this principle, the failure to respond to a rights violation would be a violation of justice, and therefore wrong. That’s probably too strong a principle to be realistic, but perhaps there’s some such principle that can be worked out. If so, then a rights protecting agency, whether governmental or anarchic, would be delinquent if it failed to respond.

          Once you get away from rights violations involving coercion, it’s an open question whether non-rights-violative injustices that violate perfect duties require a response on every occasion (even assuming we can get clear on what they are). Overtly (and clearly) racist acts violate a perfect duty of respect for others. But does the commission of every one require a response of some kind?

          My hunch is that many left-leaning SJWs approach this question by thinking of “society” or “us” as being on par with a government that assumes responsibility for governing a territorial jurisdiction. On this model, think of “society” as a social collective with moral responsibility for “policing” injustices in a territory that it regards as its “jurisdiction.” (Of course, with the Internet, jurisdictions become infinitely malleable.) Then if an injustice (or some relevant species of injustice) takes place within that jurisdiction, it requires a response. To fail to respond is like the police department’s failing to respond to a 911 call.

          That’s a pretty extreme view that requires more justification than it gets. But now imagine extending it to violations of imperfect duties. For instance, a homeless guy asks you for money, you say no (or just refuse), and then get shamed for not doing so on this occasion. You protest by saying that you gave at the office, or give each month to Oxfam, or whatever, and that’s considered inadequate. (Of course, if you said, “Fuck him–I don’t give a shit about the homeless!” that would be inadequate.) And so on. I think the potential for abuse becomes clear with examples like this. It’s a mistake to treat apparent “violations” of imperfect duties as though they were violations of perfect duties on the further assumption that every violation of every (perfect) duty requires a response (or worse: requires a draconian, grandstanding, woke-AF response).

          The problem you’re getting at arises when you extend the preceding view to the (supposed) duty to respond to injustices, while becoming indiscriminate about types of injustice. Even if we grant ex hypothesi that rights-violations should always get a response, it doesn’t follow that every injustice should, regardless of degree and regardless of its status as violating a perfect or imperfect duty. Nor, of course, should we infer that because every rights-violation requires a response, other injustices don’t. After all, some non-rights-violative injustices are morally worse and/or more harmful than some rights-violations. (Trespass is a rights violation, but not necessarily all that evil or all that harmful.) There are just lots of open questions here.

          I guess it’s also a question whether state-sponsored injustices that are committed in one’s name have a different status than non-state injustices that aren’t. If my town instituted Jim Crow, that would have a different status than if each private institution in town did on its own private initiative (or even jointly).

          This is a tough call, though. I’d be required to pay for my town through taxes. I wouldn’t be required to pay for, say, a restaurant unless I patronized it. But both might (in some sense) institute Jim Crow “in my name.” And in our current context, we all indirectly subsidize everyone. I subsidize Town Hall more directly than I subsidize a restaurant in town, but since we all use the same utilities, which are public, I do indirectly subsidize the restaurant, too. I’m not sure whether that makes it more or less incumbent on me to protest the restaurant. On the one hand, I’m subsidizing it, so I’m contributing to it. On the other hand, I’m being forced to subsidize it, so it’s one more injustice I’m suffering (i.e., adds to my pre-existing burdens, hence gets me off some hooks).

          Have you read Roderick’s paper “On Making Small Contributions to Evil”? It takes a different tack than I just did, but it’s extremely clarifying. It’s a Word file, so I can’t link to it (that I know of). But Google it and it’ll come up.

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          • Thanks, Irfan. That is interesting and helpful. A nice model for a certain kind of possible SJW moralistic overreach.

            I take it that you suspect that many SJWs erroneously think something like this: by analogy to the state’s required response to certain (say criminal-justice type) obligation-violations that are rights violations, society is required [=has a perfect duty?] to prevent or correct violations of a broad, preferred range of both perfect and imperfect duties (many of which do not in fact support the obligation to prevent or correct or respond in some other, related way). Is that accurate enough?

            Several points.

            (1) Are SJWs typically focused on more on obligations to police violations of first-order obligations — or the first-order violations themselves? Though there is perhaps a fair amount of policing of the first-order policing (“get on board with denouncing the bad guys, folks — or else you are part of the problem!”), my guess would be that the policing of the first-order obligations is more prominent (“call out those racists!”). However, the appropriateness (though maybe not the obligation) to police/enforce the first-order obligations (e.g., to not do racist things) does seem to be a big deal for SJWs. So not sure that obligations to correct (enforce, etc.) the first-order obligations is where the action is at.

            (2) Your focus on (societal) response to violation of obligation leaves open who is doing the violating — private injustices (or even failures at being adequately benevolent or charitable) could be included. On my model of societal injustice, it is essential that society itself is responsible for the unjust conditions or treatment (and for this reason is obligated — perfectly obligated, I think — to right the wrong). Though I too focused on society’s obligation to respond to (correct, ameliorate) its obligation-violations (wrongs), I could just as well have focused on society’s first-order obligation to do the right thing. Generally, what X’s first-order obligation is and what obligation X (or some other agent) has to respond to X violating its first-order obligation are distinct.

            (3) If, as you seem to be, we are focused on the obligation to respond to (correct, ameliorate) wrongs, both who the perpetrator is (society, some private individual) and who owes the obligation (perpetrator, victim, bystander) matter. I read your model of possible SJW moralistic overreach as: (a) concerning wrongs or injustices that need not be societally caused and (b) concerning bystander obligation (so that being a part of the unjust collective action is not salient). I think these elements as well as your factors of (c) failure to distinguish perfect from imperfect first-order duties (or treating them all as perfect) and (d) failure to recognize that not just any first-order perfect duty violation would yield an obligation to respond to the first-order violation are relevant to any dangers of moralistic overreach that are in the ballpark. (To be fair, at some points, you do seem to focus on societally caused injustices and the special obligations that attach to being part of that society and being party to the societally-caused injustice.) So another possible moralistic error on the part of SJWs associated with your model (or one its close cousins) is that of confusing (more extensive) special obligations to correct wrongs in one’s own society with (less extensive) general obligations to correct injustice, whether private or societally-caused, in the world at large. Of course, there are at least reasons, and probably at least imperfect obligations, of both sorts (and the SJWs deserve credit for insisting on both of these things).

            (4) On my broader interpretation of your model, a focus on bystander obligation to enforce or police first-order obligations — especially in a coercive or semi-coercive way — fits a kind of moral, perhaps moralistic, error that, I think, is part of what you are driving at. Viz., the error of impermissibly, or at least inappropriately, coercively or semi-coercively enforcing first-order obligations that do not meet the typically heavy justificatory burden needed to justify such enforcement measures (as against giving reasons and using gentler if not precisely rational moves in moral suasion). The best case for justifying (and hence rendering permissible) the coercive or semi-coercive enforcement of first-order norms are cases of (i) clear, obvious injustice that (ii) themselves involves coercion or something like it or close to it. If certain relevant cases (punching Nazis, at least the worst bits of “cancel culture”) fail this test, then we have a kind of error that I would characterize not in terms of erroneously asserting first-order “violation response” obligations, but in terms of erroneously asserting sufficient reason and permission to engage in coercive or semi-coercive responses to first-order violations (that do not support such a response).

            That’s not as focused as I would like and I’ve certainly raised as many questions in my own mind as I’ve (tentatively) answered. But that’s what I’ve got.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I basically agree with that. I have some disagreeements, but they’re relatively minor and would take too long to spell out, and may turn out to be psuedo-issues anyway.

              If you haven’t sent an abstract on this to NASSP, and are not planning to attend NASSP this summer, I’m going to exercise my police function and recite social justice mantras at you until you capitulate.


              You have nine days. Then I get woke on your ass.


  2. Pingback: Cancel Culture Blues: The Strange Case of Steven Wilson | Policy of Truth

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