Injustice and Its Victims (Or Not)

Michael Young and I are hanging out at an undisclosed location in New Jersey, riding out the coronavirus by trading barbed moral intuitions with (or at?) each other. We need help. I mean, we need your help adjudicating a clash of intuitions about injustice. I doubt that anything of great significance turns on which set of intuitions is right. But I called bullshit on some of the crap Michael was slinging at me, telling him that I would appeal for a verdict to the Final Authority of All Philosophical Authorities, vox populi. Or at least the voice of a handful of self-selected readers of Policy of Truth, the moral and epistemic paragons of the Internet.

I won’t tell you which of us holds which view until I get some responses. This is my idea of an incentive to get you to respond. Like you care.

Suppose that Smith makes an unjustifiable and unkind moral judgment on Jones’s character. Fill in the blank as to what this judgment might be. All that matters is that it be adverse (the more so, the better); that it be a moral judgment (however you understand “moral”); and that it be made in a way that flouts the requirements of conscientiousness, epistemic and/or moral. Suppose, further, that Smith’s judgments of Jones come not from interaction or expected interaction with Jones, but distant observation that precludes causal interaction with Jones beyond the sheer fact of observation. In other words, it’s as though Smith has watched a YouTube video of Jones, and no more than that. Jones doesn’t know of Smith’s existence, much less his adverse judgment. Smith and Jones do not expect ever to interact in the future, and in fact, never do.*

Consider three questions about this, all hair-splitting variations on the same theme.

Question 1: Has Smith done Jones an injustice?

Question 2: Is Smith’s judgment an injustice to Jones?

Question 3: Is Smith’s judgment unjust?

Michael and I split down the line on this. I guess the only thing we agree on is that the difference between us somehow matters (which may itself be completely delusional).**

One of us thinks that the “intuitively plausible” answer to all three questions is “no.” Justice and injustice presupposes bilateral interaction. There is no bilateral interaction here. In fact, it’s tempting to say that even the unilateral interaction involved is extremely minimal. Smith’s judgment is wrong, but it’s mostly a violation of a moral-epistemic duty to self. It doesn’t do Jones an injustice, is not an injustice to Jones, and is not unjust–because an action of this kind can’t be a matter of justice or injustice in the first place. To apply the concepts of justice or injustice here is a category mistake. Yes, we sometimes talk as though the answer to (3) was “yes,” but that’s a misleading facon de parler, not a literal truth. Injustice requires a victim, and since there is no causal interaction between Smith and Jones, Jones is not a victim; since there is no victim in the example, there is no injustice in it, either.

The other of us thinks that the “intuitively plausible” answer to all three questions is “yes.” Justice and injustice don’t presuppose bilateral interaction. They simply presuppose social interaction of any kind, unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral. And there is unilateral action here in a social context. For that matter, we should leave open the possibility that a person can do herself an injustice, in which case injustices-to-self are a clear counter-example to the “bilateralist condition” described in the preceding paragraph. Intuitively, the answer to (3) is obviously “yes.” If injustices to self are possible, then so are injustices to others that don’t affect them. But even if injustices to self aren’t possible, unjustified judgments of others’ moral character are injustices to them, whether or not those others are ever affected by the judgment.

Put it this way: if you saw someone walk down the street, noticed their race, and wished them ill because of their race, you would be wronging them (not wronging, or not just wronging yourself) in that act, whether or not they were causally affected by it. Likewise with gender: you see a woman being assaulted on the street (by a man), and take misogynistic pleasure in the fact that a man is assaulting a woman. The misogyny expressed there is an injustice to that woman and to women, not just a private moral failing or violation of a duty to self. And so on, for cases of envy, schadenfreude, etc. Once we see that in the case of (3), there is less pressure to give a “no” answer to (1) or (2). Contrary to the previously-expressed view, either causal interaction is not required for victimization, or victimization is not required for the expression of injustice (inclusive “or”).

Your turn, readers. Hard to think of a better way of spending one’s self-imposed coronavirus isolation than to hash through deep questions of this essentially impractical sort. Right?

*Nor does Smith pass the judgment on to any third party who interacts with Jones. Thanks to Loquitur Veritatem in the comments for suggesting this additional condition.

**We also agree, of course, that the act of making such a judgment is immoral. The disagreement is that one of us thinks that the immorality involves injustice, while the other doesn’t. Thanks to Ray Raad for inducing this clarification.

16 thoughts on “Injustice and Its Victims (Or Not)

  1. On Question 1: Smith has done no injustice to Jones, given that they will never interact, unless Smith has pronounced or will pronounce his judgment of Jones to others who might then do something detrimental to Jones (de-friending him, publicly demeaning him, etc.).

    On Question 2: Smith’s judgment is an injustice to Jones, regardless of the ramifications of the judgment, given that the judgment flouts the requirements of conscientiousness. (That’s a vague standard, but I take it toe mean in this context that Smith has only superficial knowledge of something that Jones seems to have done, knowledge that might be out of context).

    On Question 3, Smith’s judgment is unjust for the reasons given in my response to Question 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks. On (1), yes, this was meant to be excluded:

    …unless Smith has pronounced or will pronounce his judgment of Jones to others who might then do something detrimental to Jones (de-friending him, publicly demeaning him, etc.).


  3. First, it’s unreasonable to exclude all potential future interaction of any sort. To take a YouTube example, What if smith sees another YouTube video of Jones (Or of someone like jones) and has to decide whether to watch it or move on?

    Accurate answers to moral questions require a reasonable and realistic context.

    In any reasonable context the answer to all three questions is ‘yes’.

    However, even if you assume no future contact, the answer is still yes because your judgment of another person always has an impact on you and on other people you interact with. If you judge a person negatively because he’s black, that will impact how you see and interact with other black people in the future.


    • I don’t see why the scenario is unrealistic. You’ve identified one possibility, but that doesn’t rule out a case in which there is literally no future interaction. Suppose Smith sees a single video of Jones; someone then flags the video and has it taken down. It’s taken down, never re-instated, and Smith and Jones never interact again. In that case, Smith’s viewing the video is a one-time unilateral “interaction.” That’s not only possible but happens all the time. Nothing outlandish about it.

      Seeing someone like Jones (or seeing a video like the original one) is irrelevant to the question. The question is whether Smith has done Jones an injustice–Jones in particular, not someone like him.

      The question is not whether it’s morally wrong to make a judgment of this sort. Both Michael and I agree that it’s morally wrong. The question is whether the wrongness is specifically a case of injustice. One of us thinks it is, the other does not.

      Also, the position I take happens to be the correct one, while his is gravely in error.


    • I forgot to respond to this:

      If you judge a person negatively because he’s black, that will impact how you see and interact with other black people in the future.

      True, but that just changes the question to whether an injustice is done to those other people. And the same exact question arises in that case. On the first person’s view, for Smith to do an injustice to the other black people, he has to have a bilateral exchange with them. On the second person’s view, he simply has to harbor a culpable false view of them, whether he bilaterally interacts with them or not. Both of us would agree that it’s immoral to make such a judgment. The question is whether the immorality entails injustice.


    • Yes, there is a small dose of literary license involved here. At a minimum, there is a supervenience relation involved. Unfortunately, I’m not sure which way it goes. Do you supervene on my version of you, or the other way around? It’s too late for such quibbles.

      There is something absurd about my responding to you in a blog comment when you are about 15 feet away. But I guess this is social distancing at work.


  4. Michael and I–sitting a safe distance from one another outdoors–managed to work out what I regard as a pretty thorough solution to our apparent dilemma. It was more Michael’s doing than mine, but I played at least a midwife-like role. Will write it out when I get chance, but still interested in hearing what others might have to say.

    It belatedly occurred to me that my account of the first of the two positions conflates the claim that injustice presupposes a victim with the separate issue of what counts as victimization. But more on that later.


  5. I hate to say this, because it seems like a cheap response, but I think it’s the correct response, so here goes:

    The terms “justice” and “injustice” are used in a variety of ways. Sometimes injustice means a rights-violation or at least something in the neighbourhood (hence the maxim “volenti non fit injuria,” with the corollary that one cannot do an injustice to oneself). Sometimes it means any of a variety of weaker things (e.g., “your singing voice isn’t as bad as you said it was, you do yourself an injustice”). And then there’s the ophthamological article “Unjust Criticism of the Laser” that I discuss in my piece for Chris S.’s anthology. There are legitimate senses of “injustice” in which Smith has done Jones an injustice (and so on for the other cases), and there are also legitimate senses of “injustice” in which Smith has not done Jones an injustice.


    • It seems to me that if justice is a moral virtue, it has to have a certain unity to it, and that unity has to be reflected in how we predicate it of things. So while there may be diversity in the various uses of “just,” “justice,” and cognates, there’s got to some unifying account that ties the various (legitimate) uses together.

      I may try to spell this out later, but Michael came up with a nice account while he was visiting this past weekend. Initially, Michael was taking the second of the two positions; I was taking the first. The point he made borrowed a point that Ray Raad makes in the comments, but took them in a different direction. Suppose that Smith says something unjustifiably unkind about Jones’s moral character. In the usual case, these judgments have unjust consequences in the future, whether for Jones himself or Jones-like agents.

      Suppose that we have good evidence of a counterfactually strong generalization: one unkind moral judgment tends to beget others. This suggests that it is likely that some of Smith’s unjustifiable judgments will end up being unjust (in the sense that, if unchecked, the tendency will cause Smith to make an unkind judgment of some person in a context where there is an ongoing interaction). Yes, we can in principle abstract from this case to focus on the case where Smith judges Jones, and there is no further interaction with Jones. (Contra Ray, the no-further-interaction case is possible.) But the fact remains that counterfactually, if Jones were to learn of Smith’s judgment, he would have reason to object that it was unjust. The more reliable the causality in “one unkind moral judgment tends to beget others,” the less it matters that Jones’s objections are counterfactual. The less reliable, the more it matters. But ex hypothesi, we describe Smith’s judgments of Jones as unjust in a kind of attenuated “focal meaning” sense, by tying the generaliztion “unjustifiable judgments beget others” to the counterfactual test. A problem only arises if “unjustifiable judgments beget others” turns out to be false.

      This isn’t just an academic matter because “passing, stream of consciousness judgments beget others” need not be true. But a passing, stream of consciousness misjudgment of another might not qualify as injustice in any sense. It bears no causal relationship to the target, and (I would argue) he wouldn’t have reason to object to it, either.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “It seems to me that if justice is a moral virtue, it has to have a certain unity to it, and that unity has to be reflected in how we predicate it of things.”

        But if there is a moral virtue properly called justice, it doesn’t follow that all standard usages of “justice” pick out a moral virtue, let alone the same moral virtue. The unity of virtue is not a predictor of ordinary usage.


  6. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary (59): Arguing About Dentistry Under Lockdown | Policy of Truth

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