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.)