a thought or two prompted by reading chapter one of Gaus’ “The Tyranny of the Ideal”

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.”

3 thoughts on “a thought or two prompted by reading chapter one of Gaus’ “The Tyranny of the Ideal”

  1. I think this is basically on the right track. But what it shows, I believe, is that principles of justice for various non-ideal scenarios play a backup role in ideal justice. They direct us, for example, not to insist on a perfect Nozickian chain of voluntary (or otherwise fair) acquisition beyond a certain level of cost-feasible certainty, or too far back. Such a principle of justice underlies the idea of statutes of limitation. Aside from epistemic costs becoming too large, without limitations, virtually every title to any kind of property would be destabilized, and the assurance of stable expectations that von Hayek correctly demands for markets would be lost. Economic collapse would follow. So at least one secondary principle of ideal justice that limits the pursuit of ideally just conditions according to other principles will be a utilitarian one that requires us to avoid economic collapse when we can do so without too much injustice to particular individuals or groups (e.g. we would not torture a thousand people or commit genocide to prevent economic collapse etc.). These secondary or backup principles are incredibly important parts of justice. For example, they would play a major role in counseling against most kinds of broad reparations for slavery or the mass deaths (a lot by disease, some by war, and some due to ethnic cleansing) and treaty-breaches from which Native Americans suffered in the 17th – 19th centuries in north America.

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    • Thanks, John. What you say seems right and the cases you bring up are instructive. I’m not sure just what sense you give to standards of ideal justice being primary (not secondary or back-up). One might hold something like this: we are morally required to approximate ideal justice to a degree that takes proper account of the normative weight of countervailing practical (including moral) considerations. That makes the primacy normative and also captures a natural sense in which justice (and standards of ideal justice) are more normatively important than other salient practical or moral considerations (but not in a way that pushes us toward quixotically trying to implement, not just react positively to or wish for, scenarios that meet standards of ideal justice).


  2. right, this is exactly what has to be worked out. The same thing comes up in theories of human rights regarding the “feasibility” of supplying them, or securing access to the goods that are the (formal) objects of these rights. The feasibility considerations are not primary, but they do have an important effect on the content of human rights, it seems.

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