Suppose that, for a certain type of cooperative endeavor in a certain type of circumstance, the only appropriate fairness-pattern (in the distribution of benefits and burdens) is equal shares of what is produced (as long as a certain minimum effort, of a certain minimal quality, is put forth). So, we do the thing, everyone crosses the effort/quality threshold, and we distribute the fruits of our labor equally. Is the distribution perfectly or completely fair or just?
Not necessarily. Maybe my contribution involved my unfairly acquiring something (say, wood for a fire that needed to be fed) from someone. Or maybe, though I traded fairly to get my wood, the person I got it from obtained it from some other person unfairly. The general pattern here (that need not involve anything like a chain of transactions a la Nozickian procedural justice) is: (social state of affairs) that-P is just only relative to the justice of (relevant social circumstance) that-Q; but it might be that, if that-Q is just, it is just only relative to the justice of (further relevant social circumstance) that-R; etc. Though there is no reason why this explanatory chain has to be super-long or super-complicated in all scenarios, at the level of evaluating whole societies and the complex interactions, norms and institutions that compose them, some considerable number of salient justice-evaluable circumstances and some considerable complexity should be expected. But that pushes us toward the idea that ideals of perfect or complete justice are unmanageable and quixotic.
This kind of strangeness (the alluring yet quixotic nature of the goal of perfect or complete justice in complex societal states of affairs), and this sort of specification of it, is what piques my interest in the topic. I’m not entirely sure how this maps onto Gaus’s idea of (or what the literature says about) what ideal theories of social or political justice are and what is interesting or important about them.
Here is how I would make this strangeness less strange (or resolve the conflict). Estlund is right that the truth of such matters of complete or perfect justice is independent of how likely (or how hard) it is to achieve such states of affairs. He is also right that such ideals of justice could well function “aspirationally,” as guidestars that help us find and stay on the path to more and more just states of social affairs. However, it is plausible that, at a certain point, the opportunity costs of pursuing more and more perfect justice become prohibitive – at which point other social desiderata start playing a role in the evaluation of social goals. If this is often the case in considering perfect justice at a societal scale, then our stance toward perfect social or societal justice should often be more like wishing than seriously desiring (or having as a goal). And our ultimate social goals should be somewhat mixed (not perfect justice goals) and our justice-goals to some extent limited.
I’m attracted to this view, but defending it would require establishing that the correct sense in which justice takes priority over other social considerations is compatible with the prohibitive opportunity cost idea. The simplest – too-simple – version of the priority of justice idea generates considerable rational pressure to articulate and double-down on perfectionistic goals of societal justice that, if my idea here is right, are normatively flawed, not merely “unrealistic.”