Social Justice as an Essentially Contested Political Concept

What is social justice anyway?

The only way to start is to admit straightaway that there’s no correct answer the question. Political terms such as “justice”, “freedom”, “equality”, and even “social” are famously “essentially contestable.” Words that express big political ideals crackle with motivating rhetorical electricity. They’re romantic and glamorous and people will die to defend them. That’s why words like “liberty” and “justice” are fated to be sites of semantic turf wars fought by rival political factions who want to pack the concept with a meaning favorable to their ideology’s aims.

Another way to put it is that there’s no determinate fact of the matter about the meaning of essentially contestable concepts. There are multiple and often incompatible accounts of the content of these concepts. Let’s call those accounts “conceptions.” So there are multiple conceptions of justice and liberty. But it’s not as though “justice” and “liberty” are empty shells that you can fill with whatever you like. A conception of justice isn’t really a conception of justice if it doesn’t have anything to do with what people are due or ought to get. A conception of liberty isn’t really a conception of liberty if it doesn’t have anything to do with the absence of limitations on action. But in virtue of what are people due, say, rights or, say, a cut of a business’ profits? What limitations on action count as restrictions on liberty? (I’m not free to go to El Paso because a tree fell on me? Because I don’t have enough money for a bus ticket? Because a guy with a gun won’t let me across the Mexico-U.S. border?) Different answers generate different conceptions that generate different ideas about what it means in political terms to realize an ideal of justice or liberty or whatever.

If you see someone pounding the table insisting that their conception of an essentially contested concept is the uniquely correct one, you’ve found an ideologue. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong. But generally you can be pretty sure that they’re rigging the game in a way that arbitrarily accuses millions of people of misusing words. Steven Pinker will tell you that language doesn’t work that way. Linguistic prescriptivism mainly functions to send a signal about what kind of person you are. There’s a lot of this in politics, which is, after all, a factional and solidaristic enterprise. If someone insists that “liberty” just means “negative liberty,” despite common usage to the contrary, the news you can use is that he’s a libertarian.

You may be worried about the implications of conceptual indeterminacy, but this example actually illustrates the fact that everything’s not simply up in the air. Some conceptions are better than others. It’s possible to offers reasons on their behalf. For example, some conceptions arbitrarily flout common usage without offering generally compelling compensating advantages. That’s the problem with most sectarian table-pounding about the meaning of political words. There’s more. Essentially contested concepts may be short on determinate, analytically unpackable contents, but they’re generally in a certain line of work. Some conceptions are better suited to that work. More than anything else, an essentially contested concept just is the history of its competing conceptions. This history is generally reflected in the usage of political terms in the wild. Close examination of the history of conceptions and the application of the concept in ordinary speech will reveal certain recurring ideas and themes. A satisfactory theoretical conception of a political term preserves these ideas and themes and gets them to hang together in a coherent way that is useful for the line of conceptual/normative work the concept happens to be in.

If you think this sounds a lot like how Aristotle said we’re supposed to do moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, then you’re right. Aristotle was smart. David Schmidtz is smart and his method in Elements of Justice is, I think, exemplary. He doesn’t insist that justice is one thing. He pays attention to history and discourse and insists that it’s not. He gets the various elements of justice to hang together as well as possible without torturing them, which leaves you with a conception of justice that’s still pretty indeterminate in some ways—nothing like the ONE CONCEPTION OF JUSTICE TO RULE THEM ALL—yet is nevertheless extremely illuminating for having explained the indeterminacy (too many jobs/contexts for a perfectly unified master conception) and for having explained what rival conceptions miss or unduly minimize or how they sometimes change the subject.

If it were possible to stop the train of history and jump off with a final and authoritative conception of an essentially contested concept, contestation wouldn’t be essential. But it is. Nevertheless, at any given time, some conceptions of big-ticket political ideals are more useful for present purposes, more adequate to history and usage, and less partial, ideologically rigged, and wrong. The ground is solid enough to build on.

Traditional libertarian and conservative opponents of social justice make the mistake of challenging the coherence, and thus the rhetorical and normative authority, of the concept itself—as if the concept was in a line of work not worth doing. This is a mistake, because they would have made more progress had they instead contested the meaning of social justice and offered a conception of it more compelling and adequate than the alternatives. As a matter of history, rejecting the concept has not much undermined its cultural and political currency. The main effect of right-leaning social justicitis has been to leave its meaning largely unchallenged, in effect giving those who don’t doubt it’s utility carte blanche to fill it in with their favored conception. So that left’s favored conception has prevailed for a very long time and, as a consequence, has done real and lasting damage to the prospects of classical liberal politics.

Some argue that offering a fresh classical liberal/libertarian take of social justice amounts to little more than an attempt to opportunistically “hijack” or “co-opt” a term with a settled anti-libertarian meaning. But this argument misunderstands the essentially contestable nature of political concepts (and thus misunderstands the nature of politics itself) and subtly begs the question by implicitly denying that the meaning of the concept seems so settled because of the same lack of contestation that is being advised. That is to say, a bad effect of the policy of non-contestation—the fact that most everybody agrees that social justice means what the social-democratic left says it does—is taken as a reason to maintain that policy and continuing attacking the coherence of the whole concept.

But, again, my claim is that rather than undermining the currency and political force of the concept of social justice, this policy has simply sharpened its political thrust by helping to lock in a socialist-flavored conception of it. My further claim is that classical liberal and libertarian thought has ready at hand the resources to supply a conception of social justice that really does count as a conception of social justice—it is in the right line of work—and that it is at least as morally attractive and intellectually credible as rival conceptions. Setting forth this conception in good faith lays claim to currently uncontested ground, which forces engagement from those who would defend the prevailing conception.

Some people in the market for a conception of social justice will adopt a neoclassical liberal conception wholesale. Others will modify their current conception of social justice to address weaknesses exposed by the neoclassical liberal challenge, drawing them nearer to it on this or that margin. Most importantly, offering a neoclassical liberal conception of social justice removes permission to simply ignore classical liberal and libertarian thinkers. The rejection of social justice is taken by many on the left as prima facie evidence that the argument that matters most has been won already—that libertarians have in effect conceded that they cannot compete in the terms decent people most care about. So there’s no reason to engage. All that remains is to diagnose why libertarians so vehemently insist that there’s a debate about liberty that is (a) worth having, that (b) they think they can win, but which (c) has nothing to do with social justice.

Classical liberals suffering from social justicistis tend to identify the concept of social justice so strongly with the technocratic-egalitarian conception of social justice that they can’t see how it’s possible to offer a classical liberal conception that doesn’t give away the store. I think they’re making a simple mistake about the fixity of moral concepts and underestimating the resources of their own ideas. In any case, refusing to offer a conception of social justice pretty clearly gives away the store most broadly liberal people want to patronize in exchange for a poorly trafficked, well-defended bodega. At least its ours, I guess. Who wants those customers anyway?

Why Trump Might Win

Authoritarians get into power by understanding the mass psychology of perceived authority/legitimacy. They know it’s a cultural coordination game and that all the other stuff—positions on issues, etc. —only matters insofar as it’s instrumental to getting people to reject rivals and rally to your banner. So the key to campaigning is to (1) relentlessly puff up your public image in a way that signals authority to the most numerous part of the demos. It helps enormously if that demographic happens to feel exceptionally anxious and put-upon. (2) Relentlessly delegitimize the opposition’s claim to authority in any way possible to minimize the probability that enough of the public will coordinate around them.
The thing that has really thrown everyone this election season, I think, is Trumps no-holds-barred delegitimatizing tactics. If possible, he’ll go directly for the throat. If this were a monarchy and Trump were taking part in a succession battle, he’d accuse his rivals of being secret bastards out of the line of succession. In America, “birtherism” serves that function. Obama isn’t a legitimate president. Canadian Ted Cruz isn’t qualified to be president. Or Hillary Clinton deserves to be in jail, might even end up being in jail, so how can she be president? Etc. If you can’t directly undercut legitimacy like that, relentlessly “brand” your opponent in a way that shows them to lack natural authority (“little” flop-sweat Marco, “low-energy” Jeb, the listless nancy) or sows questions about legitimacy (“lyin” Ted, “crooked” Hillary). But the really ballsy tactic is going just straight-up cuckoo, like insinuating Rafael Cruz had something to do with JFK’s assassination. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would be disqualifying, but Trump uses his mendacious brazenness, and his ability to slough off criticism for it, as a qualifying signal of authority. It’s like a peacock’s tail. The fact that he manages to thrive despite such a showy liability simply underscores his fitness. Scary!
Hillary Clinton is Trump’s dream opponent because she comes pre-weakened by a decades-long Republican de-legitimation campaign, which Bernie Sanders was able to take advantage of, and is still taking advantage of, leading large segments of the rival party to actively undermine Hillary Clinton’s claim to legitimate authority. Trump’s taking it relatively easy on Hillary and will as long as Bernie’s still doing damage for him. But as soon as Bernie stops poisoning Hillary’s electoral well, Trump’s going to give us a spectacular masterclass in shameless demagogic de-legitimating tactics. She can’t be authoritative because she’s a woman. She’s too authoritative, so she’s barely a woman at all. What’s the point of a woman trying to act like a man when you can just get yourself a man? She’s ugly. If she can’t stand up to her rapist husband, she’s too weak to stand up for you. She’s a shameless opportunist who put up with humiliation for power, but people who will put up with humiliation don’t deserve power. She’s in the pocket of the Saudis. She’s in the pocket of the banks.
He’s going to have a field day. And I’ve stopped feeling sure that he can’t win in large part because many of the people who understand fully how awful Trump is have also spent so long actively cheering on anti-Clinton de-legitimation campaigns that the idea of coordinating around her produces knockout levels of cognitive dissonance. Hillary needs anti-Trump people to actively promote her claim to legitimacy, but so many of them are so invested in her lack of it that they prefer to work for Trump instead by reinforcing the fact that Hillary, like Trump, is unacceptable and unworthy of support. Trump understands how this works and knows this antipathy to HRC work to his advantage, even if it comes from people who say they like him even less. This is the dynamic that has me worried.

Yes, Trump is Worse

I agree with Ezra Klein here. And the insistence with which people attempt to draw moral equivalences between Trump’s transparent thuggery and Clinton’s totally mundane, corrupt-within-ordinary-parameters party machine politics strikes me as a dangerous symptom of a diseased political culture. I find it especially distressing when it comes from libertarians and worry that a movement that has spent decades advancing the indiscriminately delegitimatizing view that politics is inherently criminal, violent, and authoritarian has probably made it harder to see what ought to be vivid distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable political conduct. And that, in turn, has made it more likely that we will get politics that are criminal, violent, and authoritarian. I mean, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: what’s the difference, right? Well, there’s a difference. And sooner or later unintended consequences come for everybody, even the people who think unintended consequences are for other people. The question is what you do with the cognitive dissonance. When it begins to become apparent that the way you’re pursuing your political goals is having the opposite effect, do you double down and make things worse? Or do you put away your pride, admit error, and modulate your approach in light of new facts?

Another thing that worries me this year is that the dynamics of normal factional politics has a “crying wolf” problem. Partisans have a powerful incentive to encourage the idea that voting for the other side will lead to a dire catastrophe that can only be averted by making sure they lose. But, as it happens, Barack Obama has been a good president, John McCain would have been a fine president, and Mitt Romney, I think, would have been a really good one. (I voted for him once and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.) Hillary Clinton would be a normal president. Donald Trump really could be an utter disaster in just the way Ezra suggests, but there’s little chance right-of-center folks are going to listen to guys like Ezra, who used to be in the business of arguing overdramatically that opposing Obamacare could lead to the deaths of many tens of thousands. We’re wolfed out. So, of course, here comes a very big bad one.

Get Over Yourself and Support Hillary Clinton

This sort of brazen banana-republic goonishness is why I won’t even consider voting for, say, Gary Johnson, unless Hillary’s polling ahead by 20 points in my state, and why you shouldn’t either.

I’m picking up a troubling sense that decades of partisan slagging on Clinton have made it hard for a lot of people who care about freedom, on both the left and the right, to support her. Well, get over it, babies. You’ve been underestimating how well our democracy does in fact protect our freedom. Maybe you’re convinced that it hardly protects our rights at all. That’s understandable. Under normal circumstance, if you want things to get better, you’ve got to draw attention to how bad things are, not to how well our democracy does work, considering. But it does work pretty well, considering, and that’s a huge blessing that we take for granted at our peril. Just take a look at the way this would-be despot threatens to censor the political speech and expropriate the property of perceived political opponents. We’re as rich and free as we are because that kind of stuff happens here a lot less than it might, and a lot less than it does in some other place, and one of the reason that’s the case is that we’ve historically considered it WAY out of bounds for potentially powerful political figures to threaten to stomp the shit out of the rights of their rivals.

Decent institutions aren’t magic. Good black-letter rules help, but they don’t make institutions work like algorithms make computers work. People following the rules, even when nobody’s looking, is what makes institutions work. People sticking to the spirit of the norms that underpin the rules, even when the rules technically allow this or that sort of bad behavior, is what makes institutions work. Healthy political culture makes them work. Well, Donald Trump is waging an onslaught on that culture. The man’s straight ebola to the American body politic. And we’re the immune system, people. We have a job, as American T-cells, and that’s to reject this virulence, and protect our political culture, such as it is, with the greatest possible collective force. The best way to do that is to help Hillary Clinton win this November in a momentous landslide.

Don’t like her? Hate her? Get over it, babies. Fighting for freedom and justice right now means limiting the damage this thug is doing to the norms that make everything else possible. It means scrambling to preserve our sort-of-shitty but also pretty good institutions. Hillary Clinton is basically a living manifestation of America’s prevailing political culture. Plenty shitty—warmongering, more than a touch corrupt—but also a competent, reasonable, relatively decent, public-spirited creature of America’s one non-imploding establishment political party. If you like freedom or social justice, or anything else this side of satanic chaos, your job is not only to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to stand up and say that you’re going to, loud and proud, in a way that communicates that you expect other decent Americans to do the same.

Maybe you’re a libertarian and you’re really into just how outrageously dumb voters are, have recently unlocked the mysteries of the political universe with your iron grasp of the logic of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits, believe that voting is complicity with state violence, and that Hillary Clinton’s just the worst kind of transactional log-rolling technocrat. Awesome. You know what? You’re right. Vote for Hillary Clinton. Or maybe you’re a progressive who thinks Citizens United consolidated the grip of the oligarchs and everything’s rigged against the people and the powerless, millions of whom suffer as we speak, and that Hillary’s in the pocket of problem—that she is the problem. Correct. Hillary Clinton is the problem. Vote for Hillary Clinton. FoxNews devotee who would rather blind yourself with the sharp end of an anti-Planned Parenthood picket than vote for HilLIEry? I get it. You love America. So vote for Hillary Clinton.

There is no partisan or ideological divide on the urgent necessity to maintain a baseline level of decency in our political culture. At this point, a crushing landslide for Hillary Clinton is the best we can do to protect it. This isn’t just a practical act of political self-defense. It’s a symbolic act of cultural assertion. Now is not the time for tender conscience and expressive individual participation (or non-participation). Now is the time for grudging but resolute solidarity and powerfully expressive collective participation. We need to put our individually insignificant pebbles in a pile and build a mighty wall against comb-over authoritarianism. Heave your pebble with double-hot hatred at Hillary next time. We need to suck it up, come together, and do something for our country. Nobody said fighting ebola’s fun.

HILLARY CLINTON 2016!!!!! #‎imwithher‬

[NB: This is an entirely personal message and should not be construed as reflecting the views of the National Football League.]