Social Justice without Nationalism

Social Justice without Nationalism

I started a version of this post a couple weeks ago, but since then the dispute between libertarians about the place of "social justice" in their philosophy has become white-hot, and I might as well jump in. The debate kicked off with the responses to Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi's lead essay in the April Cato Unbound, especially David Friedman's. Zwolinski and Tomasi of course stood up for themselves at Cato Unbound, but the debate has spread far and wide--farther and wider than I'm able to follow, I'm afraid. Thankfully, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog is your online one-stop-shop for the great libertarian war over social justice. On Monday, Jacob Levy wrote a typically insightful post, "Against Social Justice," which comes close to much of what I was going to say, especially this:

The Rawlsian definition of social justice is constructed on the idealized model of a closed society, entered only by birth and exited only by death. The sense in which both Jason and John use “social justice” bears the legacy of that deep moral mistake.

The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

Like Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson (different as those two are!), I think that we who care about freedom should be deeply outraged by the wrongs done by the system of border controls to keep people in poverty. I think this is a central, defining issue for bleeding-heart libertarianism. And the language of social justice renders it invisible, because the poor people being hurt are not already “members” of the “society” whose institution are being evaluated. It doesn’t just say that the harm done to the non-members is less important than the effect on the poorest members; it denies that the former is a consideration at all. When combined with the “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” mindset, that leaves my bleeding-heart libertarian colleagues in the paradoxical position of hiding from view arguably the greatest-magnitude source of state harm to impoverished human beings.

Yet I agree entirely with Jason Brennan's reply to Jacob:

1. You can think social justice matters without claiming that social justice (or even justice more broadly) is the first virtue of institutions.

2. I don’t take it for granted that “society” is co-extensive with the modern nation-state. Contrary to Rawls or Sam Freeman, I think immigration restrictions violate social justice. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. From my point of view, if you oppose free immigration (or something very close to it), then it had better be because you have an empirical disagreement with me about the expected consequences of free immigration. Otherwise, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense.

Jacob says the language of social justice renders invisible the profoundly immiserating injustice of the status quo system of border controls. I don't think this is quite right. I'd say the assumption of "analytical nationalism" -- taking it for granted that the nation state is the relevant level of socio-political analysis -- not the language of social justice, renders the injustice of immigration policy invisible. Now, it's certainly true that almost all contemporary conceptions of social justice are built atop the error of analytical nationalism. As for Rawls specifically, he's guilty of a nationalist conception of "the basic structure" of institutions to which the principles of social justice are to apply.

I agree with Jason (and Kevin Vallier) that social justice and analytical nationalism can come apart. That is to say, there is nothing unintelligible about a non-nationalist, cosmopolitan conception of basic structure and social justice. The obvious difference between nationalist and cosmopolitan conceptions of social justice is that, according to cosmopolitan conceptions, the basic structure encompasses the institutions that shape international patterns of trade and migration, and principles governing those institutions must be justified to the international motley who act within them. This is messy. Analytical nationalism is neat; it's nice to pretend that the basic structure fits inside the jurisdiction of the nation-state like a hand fits inside a glove. It's easier that way. But this sort of analytical convenience is bought at the price of irrelevance to the messy real world, even if we see ourselves as doing "ideal theory".

In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi calls the libertarian aversion to social justice "social justiticis." The present controversy shows that this is the perfect term. The aversion is more an allergy than anything. For those who continue to sneeze at every mention of "social justice," Kevin Vallier's latest post might help.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…