Social Justice Research Paper

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Social justice is a subcategory of the wider term justice and concerns justice as it refers to the distribution of valued goods and necessary burdens. Such distributions can take place at all levels of societal aggregation: at the micro level of face-to-face interaction, at the meso level of intermediate institutions and organizations, and at the macro level of a society’s basic structure. The ways in which these various levels provide (or deny) access to social positions, in which they regulate the allocation of rights and duties as well as of scarce goods and necessary burdens, and in which they interact through an encompassing framework of institutionalized rules and procedures, form the subject of social justice.

1. The Levels Of Social Justice

1.1 The Macro Level

The macro level is itself subdivided into several layers. The highest layer is that of the constitutional order of a society: its polity determining the (permitted) forms of government and the ground rules, as well as scope, of ‘normal’ politics; its economic regime, its social and legal systems, and the integration of its major institutions into one large scheme. The next lower layer is that of concrete politics. Here, different social groups compete for influence in the designation of particular policies concerning all aspects of social life which can become a matter of political and legal regulation under the chosen constitutional frame. And finally, there are the policies themselves, e.g., particular fiscal, economic, educational, welfare, etc. policies. The initial design of such policies can have far-reaching implications for future policies because once a particular policy structure or pattern is established in a given field, it tends to shape the public’s expectations towards it and to lead to a certain degree of inertia, making radical changes difficult and limiting the options available to future policy makers. In many ways, these policies also affect what happens at the meso level.

1.2 The Meso Level

This is the level of organizations. When considering organizations from the point of view of social justice, it is useful to distinguish between types of organizations according to the societal sector or social subsystem into which they fall, e.g., business organizations belonging to the economic system, political parties belonging to the political system, hospitals belonging to the health system, schools belonging to the educational system, etc., because the various subsystems follow different logics of operation, subjecting their organizations to separate ‘local’ rationalities which in turn affect the ways in which these organizations (and their representatives) conceive of and deal with ‘local’ justice problems. Local justice problems concern the allocation of various in-kind (and mostly nonor not fully marketable) goods such as university places, jobs, public housing, and scarce medical resources; in short, the rules for inclusion into or exclusion from organizations and for the distribution of some of their main ‘products’ and services. The problems are typically dealt with and resolved by the respective organizations themselves. However, both the degree of local autonomy and of local scarcity are subject to the influence of macro level decisions. Thus, the state can mandate particular principles that must be observed in their handling (e.g., antidiscrimination laws) or it can refrain from doing so; it can issue rules for some such problems but not for all of them, and these rules can be more or less determinate. As for the degree of scarcity, on the other hand, the state’s influence is particularly evident in the health sphere. The lower the budget assigned to healthcare as a whole (macro allocation level), the greater the need for rationing in the various branches of the health system (micro allocation level).

1.3 The Micro Level

This level is not to be confused with the above micro allocation level referring to problems arising within organizations. Instead it concerns a separate societal level, namely that of interactions between individuals in relatively unorganized social contexts. An example are families and the ways in which they allocate the burdens facing them in their everyday life. It is obvious that at least theoretically this level of decision making leaves the widest scope for individual choice. However, in reality this scope is multiply constrained by cultural traditions framing the perception of appropriate choices, even though the traditions themselves may undergo constant changes. Moreover, higher-level decisions can have a significant impact on this micro level as well. Thus, if a welfare state exists which provides generous old age pensions, then this will obviously relieve the youngers’ (immediate) duties against their parents. Likewise, if such a welfare state implicitly favors a pattern of lifelong, uninterrupted full-time employment, then, given a cultural background in which it is ‘normal’ for women to bear the bulk of child-rearing duties coupled with a tendency for work organizations to allocate better paid jobs to men, this will weaken women’s bargaining position in the negotiation of the distribution of household chores.

2. Theories Of Social Justice

Most theories of social justice focus on the macro level. Some, like the famous Theory of Justice by John Rawls (1971), view this level, or more precisely, its highest layer, as the primary, if not only subject of a theory of social justice (see also Barry 1995). Other conceptions, such as Michael Walzer’s (1983), include a much wider range of issues.

Many theories of the first type deliberately restrict themselves to the formulation of principles for a society’s basic structure. Once these principles are met, they are willing to leave the ‘rest’ to the political process. If the rules by which political decisions are made are fair, then, according to these theories, the outcomes must be accepted as legitimate by everyone because they have been brought about in a manner against which no one can reasonably object. Hence, the obligation to comply with policies and norms even if one objects to their content. The nature of these theories is thus predominantly procedural (e.g., Habermas 1983, Rohl and Machura 1997), although some, like the Rawlsian theory, also formulate one or more substantive principles. There are also macro level theories which go beyond the basic structure and address issues of normal politics as well, e.g., welfare policies relating to public education, medical care, or unemployment benefits, as in the case of David Miller (1976).

The second group of theories is much broader in scope, covering the whole range from micro to macro issues. More recently, there has been a development towards more specialization on particular types of justice problems arising within single subsystems of society. An example of this is the proliferating work in the so-called applied ethics, especially in the fields of medical and bioethics. Some of these theories also cover issues of distributive justice, with special attention devoted to problems of medical triage. Another recent development is the aim to cut across the various social subsystems and to cover, in a systematic way, the whole range of micro allocation problems facing intermediate institutions and organizations. This is the local justice approach developed by Jon Elster (1992). And finally, there is a growing body of feminist literature (e.g., Okin 1989). Much of this work starts from relative disadvantages that women encounter at the micro and meso levels and looks at the ways in which macro level institutions or policies account for them.

One pervasive problem in the theoretical literature on social justice is a widespread lack of awareness of differences in the subject matters of the available conceptions. The result is that the participants in the pertinent debates often talk past each other. They will, for instance, argue, that a principle suggested by a particular theory is unsuitable for a particular problem, but ignore that the principle was never meant to regulate problems of that sort because its suggested scope is much more limited than the critics impute. Or they will argue that a theory fails to give due weight to a particular principle, but fail to realize that the principle in question may be appropriate for some situations, but not necessarily for the ones forming the subject of the criticized theory. A favorite target of this sort of criticism is John Rawls’ theory.

A second problem is that much of the theorizing in the philosophical literature lacks a proper understanding of the structure and functioning conditions of modern society. But political theories (as they often conceive themselves) that do not ‘know’ the society whose operations they seek to guide (see Luhmann 1980 for this criticism) are unlikely to be politically very instructive. The social theory underlying most normative theories of social justice is often rather simplistic, variously modeled after the Greek polis, a medieval village community, the market place or a handful of stranded islanders having to regulate their common affairs. The complexity of modern society is mostly ignored by this kind of theorizing—although its principles are proposed for the operations of real societies, not fictitious ones.

A third problem is that the available theories of justice are anything but clear about the meaning of social justice. Some associate it with a particular understanding of equality, others equate it with some notion of fairness, and still others use the term in still another way. There is a plethora of theories promoting different principles of justice, some favoring desert (or equity) as the first principle, others rights, and still others needs, but even those choosing the same principle may interpret it very differently. For example, how is one to determine, measure and remunerate a person’s deserts (and in which contexts are they relevant)? No consensus exists on any of these questions in the pertinent literature. Moreover, there are not only various single-principle conceptions, but also proposals for pluralist theories, some covering all three of the above principles, others allowing for as many principles as there are ‘spheres’ of justice. In the latter case, the meaning ascribed to social justice becomes largely a function of the problem at hand. Taken together, these (and further) difficulties leave the impression of a great deal of messiness and ambiguity in the (mostly normative) theorizing of social justice.

3. Empirical Work On Social Justice

Not much different is the situation in the social science literature on social justice. Here, the starting point is often some ideal of equality drawn from the enlightenment tradition and forming a standard against which the performance of a society’s institutions is judged (e.g., Kluegel and Smith 1986). The ideal is rarely openly expressed or explicitly defended, but nevertheless drives ongoing attempts at laying bare inequalities in all areas of life and the social mechanisms underlying and reproducing them, with the implicit message being that the contradiction between ideal and reality calls for social reform. One problem with this literature is its hidden normativity, its unquestioned support for a certain notion of equality whose rightness is presumed (and presupposed) rather than argued for. Another problem is that it possesses no measure for admissible degrees of inequality or for prescribed degrees of equality. This problem is discussed with great vigor and sophistication in philosophy (see, e.g., Dworkin 1981a, 1981b) and (welfare) economics (e.g., Sen 1992). The advances made in this literature, however, have so far remained both unattended and unmatched in the social scientific work on inequality.

In a related way, this problem also comes up in a second body of social science literature on social justice, that on judgments of justice. Its primary subject is that of income (in)justice and (in)equality (see, e.g., Alves and Rossi 1978, Kluegel et al. 1995). To simplify somewhat, a recurrent finding across societies and social categories is that most people tend to favor some degree of inequality over absolute equality (although they disagree about the proper extent and about the fields in which inequalities may prevail or should exist). They also tend to underrate the factually existing income (and hence, wealth) differences. Still, they would mostly prefer a narrowing of the differences that they believe to exist, even though most people are roughly satisfied with their own earnings. Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that people’s earnings roughly reflect their economic desert and that this is also what they should reflect. At the same time, market economies are generally preferred over planned economies, and their outcomes are largely taken to be desert-based. However, market allocations are anything but that; they are, as has been noted repeatedly, in principle unprincipled (Hirsch 1977). And this is by no means the only inconsistency; the one impression that inevitably emerges from the literature on people’s judgments is that these judgments are multiply confused. So what is one to make of them?

A third type of empirical work on social justice is Elster’s local justice approach. This work is concerned less with judgments of justice than with the ways in which justice problems arising in organizations are actually resolved and with the weight that justice considerations are accorded in such situations (see Elster 1995, Schmidt and Hartmann 1997). The aim is to supplement the normative literature with factual knowledge about the fields into which it seeks to intervene, the underlying premise being that normative theories need empirical foundations in order to render them applicable to a social reality which is much more complex than philosophical theories usually allow for. Finally, in a series of articles Raymond Boudon (1997, 1999; see also Boudon and Betton 1999) has suggested a rationalist and cognitivist conception of justice and morality more generally, according to which there are objective normative truths just as there are objective scientific truths, the basis for accepting them being in both cases their grounding in strong reasons. This conception, which is directed primarily against relativistic and culturalistic positions, seems very promising but also raises a number of methodological questions: how are we to determine, by sociological means, what these truths are, how can we ‘find’ and accurately identify them, and what are the techniques needed to separate them from those normative statements and proposals which only claim to be true? Given the novelty and as yet mainly programmatic nature of Boudon’s approach, it seems too early for a final assessment of its merits.

4. Desiderata

The concept of social justice is used very differently in the available literature, so if one is not already committed to a particular definition, it is hard to distil a common core out of its many usages. To some extent this has to do with the term’s indiscriminate application to almost any kind of distribution problem without consideration of the different quality of problems arising at different levels and in different subsystems of society. A first desideratum is therefore that these differences be adequately acknowledged in attempts at theorizing about the concept: social justice in the design of a society’s basic structure may not mean the same as social justice in the determination of wage levels by firms or in the distribution of household duties. To the extent that there are overlaps between the term’s meaning and links between single justice problems and/or levels of societal aggregation, they must be carefully examined and extracted. But if the term social is to have any serious meaning at all, then it is also important to develop a clear sense of the types of problems it is to be applied to, of their differences, their relative interdependence and independence. Or, to put it differently, what is needed is greater clarity about the locus of regulation of different categories of problems. Some such problems need to be regulated at the macro level, others are better left to lower-level instances. And it is quite likely that even a well-ordered basic structure will leave many problems of social justice unresolved and hence cannot prevent all injustices in the spheres for which it provides no determinate answers. If this is the case, then it is all the more important that the theoretical discussion be more focused and less diffuse.

Second, there is a need for more cross-disciplinary exchange, allowing the empirical and normative approaches to enrich each other reciprocally (see Miller 1999, Schmidt 1994, 1999). The philosophical literature needs an improved understanding of the real world because elegance is no guarantee for relevance; in fact, it frequently is an impediment because simplification can easily result in simplistic ideas about real world problems and their suitable regulation. The social science literature, on the other hand, needs more terminological, methodological and conceptual sophistication, and a better understanding of the categorical and epistemological differences between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ questions, in order to find its proper place in the analysis of normativity. A familiarization with the pertinent philosophical literature can be of great benefit in this regard.


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