Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: social justice (page 2 of 2)

Towards a View from Nowhere

In the pursuit of justice, positional illusions can impose serious barriers that have to be overcome through broadening the informational basis of evaluations, which is one of the reasons why Adam Smith demanded that perspectives from elsewhere, including from far away, have to be systematically invoked. Though much can be done through the deliberate use of open impartiality, the hope of proceeding smoothly from positional views to an ultimate ‘view from nowhere’ cannot hope to succeed fully.

Amartya Sen from The Idea of Justice

Sen is rightly cautioning us to avoid any simplistic or reductive attempt to fix what is morally important. We are familiar with the notion that pursuing our own self-interest with no regard to its impact on other people is wrong. But he is also saying that even if we do have moral concern for others the nature of that concern can also be very partial – unfair. We don’t always understand what is in the interests of other people nor can we always trust our own values or ideals. Partiality creeps in everywhere.

However it is also important to notice that scepticism about our own moral perspective can easily slip into scepticism about morality as a whole. This is very different and very dangerous. Becoming sceptical about morality may seem more ‘liberal’ or even (in a highly paradoxical way) more moral; but it is not. Moral scepticism is the death of our shared humanity – it excuses both selfishness and moral laziness.

The fact that an objective perspective, God’s perspective, is difficult to achieve does not entitle us to abandon morality or to stop striving for moral truth.

In fact it is more rational to be humble rather than sceptical. It makes more sense, when in doubt, to look to the authority of those we can trust and to those values that have survived longest, instead of throwing ourselves upon the bonfire of scepticism.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

Sufficiency is Wealth

Nevertheless the soul can be just as thoroughly ruined by excessive poverty as by excessive wealth; both wound with equal severity, for wealth and beggary are two extremes. The mean is called sufficiency, and that is where abundant virtues lie, for Solomon has written, without reservation, in the thirtieth chapter, in fact, of a book of his entitled Proverbs: “By your power, O God, preserve me from wealth and beggary, for when a rich man takes to thinking too much about his wealth, he so sets his heart upon madness that he forgets his creator. And how can I save a man from sin when he is assailed by beggary? It would be hard for him not to be a thief or a perjurer…

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin: The Romance of the Rose

The idea that sufficiency is equal to wealth may seem paradoxical. Its truth depends on understanding the way in which inequality poisons life between fellow human beings – the excessively poor are tempted into one set of vices and the excessively rich are tempted into a different set of vices. However, in order to accept this analysis you may need to be able to see that we should judge social life by moral standards: economic growth and achievement, on its own, has no real meaning. It is what we do with our wealth that matters.

Another way of thinking about this is to recognise that one of the keys to citizenship is sufficient income security. If someone is too poor then they become unduly dependent upon others – this damages their status. However if someone is too rich they do not need others and this also damages their status (an oligarch is not a citizen). Having ‘just enough’ is also important in that it leaves us with room for growth, earning, development – that is, incentives for deeper citizenship.

Dignity Comes First

If you take a cloak from a neighbour as a pledge you must return it to him before sunset, for it is the only covering for his body and what else has to sleep in. If he shouts out to me I will hear him with mercy. 

Exodus 22: 26-27

In other words no debt entitles you to rob another of their basic rights, including their dignity. The cloak is also a symbol of our social covering – the means by which we maintain our dignity and appear with respect before others. Property rights exist – but they are not fundamental and they must be limited by the demands of basic human rights and our shared human dignity.

The Citizenship Imperative

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would help an alien or temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

 Leviticus, 25:35-38

This is a powerful moral test. Notice that the imperative to help a fellow citizen is put on the same terms as help for the alien. This may seem strange to us – because we have forgotten the ancient imperative to take particular care of the alien. To the Greeks Zeus was the champion of strangers. To the Jews – who really understood slavery and isolation – the duty to the stranger was absolute. So here the imperative to treat a fellow country man as if a stranger is to lift him on to the same, honoured footing. This means not taking advantage, demeaning or exploiting him.

We believe we are so advanced. But we treat the stranger as if he shouldn’t be here and we treat the needy as if they deserve their fate and anything we do for them is not from duty but from our own patronising kindness. We have fallen down from these ancient Greek and Jewish standards, but we close our eyes and pretend that we are rising. But we are simply rising on the back of the success of industrial production – there has been no moral advance.

Don’t Take Advantage

Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless: For their redeemer is mighty; he shall plead their cause with thee 

Proverbs, 23:10-11

This is a powerful image of social justice. The landmark represents the notion of an entitlement – something fixed and something that assures each party that they will maintain their fair share. However the writer knows that for those who are weak – the fatherless – there is always the grave danger that their rights and entitlements will be eroded.

The idea that God is standing alongside the fatherless is an ancient validation of the perspective articulated by the philosopher John Rawls: a society is best judged on the basis of how it treats those who are least able to protect themselves from exploitation.

Education, Democracy and America

In America, on the contrary, it may be said that the township was organised before the county, the county before the state, the state before the union… …The law enters into a thousand social wants that even now very inadequately felt in France.

 But it is the mandates relating to public education that the original character of American civilisation is at once placed in the clearest light. “Whereas,” says the law, “Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the lord…” Here follows clauses establishing schools in every township and obliging the inhabitants, under pain of heavy fines, to support them. Schools of a superior kind were founded in the same manner in the more populous districts. The municipal authorities were bound to enforce the sending of children to school by their parents; they were empowered to inflict fines upon all who refused compliance; and in the cases of continued resistance, society assumed the place of the parent, took possession of the child, and deprived the father of those natural rights which he used to so bad a purpose. The reader will undoubtedly have remarked the preamble these enactments: in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of divine laws leads man to civil freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America (1835)

de Tocqueville notices some very interesting features of the early American social and political system.

There is first the genuinely ‘federal’ character of early American political organisation. Authority is seen to lie in citizens, then towns, counties and then it moves upwards to the state and the union.

Yet he also observes that, at that time, American society was not individualistic nor anti-social. To de Tocqueville it was extraordinarily social:  the desire to do good and to attend to “social wants” is everywhere.

The paradox is that ambitious social concern combined with a federal and legalistic society lends itself quite naturally to demanding a state that can increasingly interfere with individual liberty. By the standards of the time, America was certainly a nanny socialist state. Perhaps its current liberalism is a reaction against this early enthusiasm.

However, some resolution to this paradox is found in the role played by religion in early American life. While tolerating diversity of religious practice, American society seems bound together in a shared moral concern for each other that is religious rather than liberal. However this is counter-balanced by a distinctively protestant concern for the liberty of the individual soul. The notion that any citizen can be sacrificed for the sake of the collective would be profoundly problematic for such a protestant country.

Today we are more sanguine about sacrificing the individual for the collective. Mechanisation, atomisation and the erosion of moral and religious feeling all encourages a sense that we are just all part of some vast machinery of need and production and that our role is simply to play our part and to try and squeeze out for ourselves whatever share of the social product we can manage.

If we are not careful citizenship stops being the foundation stone for a just society – instead it simply becomes a way of flattering us into accepting our role as mere subjects of the state.

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