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?

  • Even if there were no competing notion of social justice, it pays to ask proponents of the modern liberal version of social justice what the term means. To the extent you get an answer, because that answer is probably objectionable in pretty clear ways, you are often that much closer to a competing definition.

  • lump1

    I like this idea of the “essentially contestable” concepts. But I worry that the boundary of this category itself is rather fuzzy and … contestable, and many debates hinge on whether a concept is nailed down or contestable. Relativists argue that every damn notion is essentially contestable – bristling with latent phallocentric/eurocentric normativity. Others claim that even “social justice” has one correct, and many incorrect accounts. In practice, the best way to argue that something is socially just is to show that it comes out as just on all or most of the leading accounts of justice.

  • Emotionalogic

    Of course, creating a historically viable, internally coherent conception of social justice (or liberty, equality, etc.) does none of the work of explaining why that conception is actually a moral good. It just paints a picture, and people will like it or they won’t. So as moral philosophy it seems to lack a certain oomph.