Monday, July 10, 2017

Fairness, justice and fighting injustice

The world very often appears to be unjust. Very often the idea of justice is linked to a related idea of fairness. Most people prefer things to at least appear fair. So, when there is obvious injustice, not only do we think of that as being unfair we also tend to think that it is deserving of some remedy. 

In 1994, the Borrie Commission on social justice, set up by the then Labour leader John Smith concluded:
“The future can be better than the past, it is up to us all to make it so.” (Borrie Commission, 1994: 399)
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that in the 13 years that have passed since that report was published not only did the future not get better, but that it has, for many people, gotten considerably worse. And, whilst politicians continue to talk the language of social justice, it is rare that they actually define what justice would look like. 

So, in this post what I want to do is see if we can nudge them in a direction where not only do we notice injustice, but also think about how to turn back to a concern for social justice.

According to the renowned philosopher, John Rawls: 
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” (Rawls, 1971, 3)
These words are worth dwelling on in the context of the state of the World as we now find it.

In essence, what Rawls was saying was that if a state of affairs are manifestly unjust then it is incumbent upon “us” to change it. Injustice, in this definition, simply cannot be justified and neither can it be allowed to go unchecked.

Rawls theory was 600 pages in the original and ran to three books and a mountain of academic papers. The main point for Rawls was that a just society could not be based on the self-interest of a few. To avoid this he devised a neat device which if you are/were a fan of The West Wing was explained by staffer Will Bailey to a group of interns.

The idea is that in order to arrive at a just outcome representative persons are placed behind a veil of ignorance in which they do not know:
“the social positions or the particular comprehensive doctrines of the persons they represent. They also do not know persons’ race and ethnic group, sex, or various native endowments such as strength and intelligence..” (Rawls, 2001, 15)
The idea is that social justice cannot be constructed in order to support the interests of any particular group. For Rawls a conception of social justice can be arrived at through abstract reasoning devoid of human experience. Indeed, injustices which are a consequence of class, gender, ethnicity or any other lived experience are deliberately excluded from the discussion. The objection is that the opposite of justice – injustice – is rooted in precisely the human experience the veil of ignorance tries to ignore. Rawls, of course, knows this and this is precisely why he argues that the veil of ignorance is “a purely hypothetical situation” (Rawls, 1971,12).

Perhaps the main practical point to take from Rawls conception of justice is to be found in his opening statement. 

That is, that from a practical point of view injustice is wrong and should be corrected. The problem is not just in defining injustice, but defining it in such a way as to suggest practical remedies. The way in which modern politics is presented, particularly in the media but also by politicians, is that many of the injustices that exist are almost acts of nature that nobody could have foreseen and therefore nobody could do that much about. Citizens far from being active participants in political discussions cede their control to politicians and officialdom, who so often ignore or marginalise the views of those they supposedly represent.

Judith Shklar in her book ‘The Faces of Injustice’ discusses the difference between injustice (which demands reparation) and misfortune (which demands only pity). In a passage which has great resonance currently she notes:
“Civil servants in a democracy are supposed to be responsible to the public. Our first suspicions should be turned toward governmental and semi-public agencies because it is not unlikely that they could have done more in the past and should do more in the future to ensure our safety.” (Shklar, 1990, 56)
On re-reading this passage recently I could not help but think of the disaster at Grenfell Towers in London in which at least 87 people died, and around 200 were made immediately homeless. When this issue was raised in Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, he was of course accused of playing politics with the disaster by Conservative Communities Minister Sajid Javid (

The exchange that led to this accusation followed an exchange between Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.

In fact, the Grenfell Residents Association had written numerous times to the local authority (which coincidentally is controlled by the Conservative Party) and in one prescient passage predicted that it would take a fire before anybody took notice. (

Accusing your opponents of playing politics is a convenient way of avoiding the fact that tragedies such as that experienced by the residents of Grenfell are not misfortunes, they are rooted in political decisions taken by politicians – both local and national – who see disasters as ‘unintended consequences’ of their wider agenda. In this case the wider agenda was one of austerity cuts to local government and a mission to reduce what they see as ‘unnecessary red tape’.

As Judith Shklar continues: 
“Even though the disastrous burdens left us by our deceased predecessors or the work of the invisible hand and a harsh but predictable nature cannot be identified as actively unjust, they are amenable to improvement. Those who can alter their course or avert their effects are passively unjust if they do nothing at all.” (Shklar, 1990, 56)
The issue here is that we should not have to wait for a disaster before we notice the injustice.  Had anybody in a position of power actually paid just a bit of attention to the residents of Grenfell Tower a number of people who are now dead might well have lived. Whilst we can all agree that residents burning to death as a result of political decisions over which they had no control is unfair does that mean that they are unjust. This was no misfortune, it was a foreseeable disaster, and the failure to act was not just passive injustice, it was a demonstration of how marginalised some sections of the community have become. It should remind us, as if we need a reminder, that we are far from living in a just society. But, it should also prompt us to ask what such a society might actually look like?

Most people would no doubt agree with the politician who wrote that a just society is one “with a commitment to fairness at its heart.”* But in invoking fairness, and it is worth noting in passing that Rawls used justice as fairness as a shorthand for his theory, all we do is shift the debate from what do we mean by justice to what do we mean by fairness.

For many, and I suspect most people reading this, it is blindingly obvious that it is both unfair and unjust that, to take some random examples:

Now, according to both John Rawls and Judith Shklar these statistics represent known injustices and no matter how they developed they demand that society rectifies the unjust situation. Social justice, it could be argued, demands that we do not allow such obvious injustice to continue. Yet, as we can see, from the final statistic not only do we allow the situation to continue it would appear that it is actually getting worse. The direction of travel is not toward more justice but more injustice.

One of the problems of confronting injustice is precisely that it can appear to be insurmountable. Think about it for a second, how do you solve the problem of modern slavery, or the massive wealth inequalities that exist globally? These are complex issues with complex and often historical causes that are unimaginably difficult to solve. The conclusion could be that it is hardly worth trying. Wrong. It’s got to be better to try and fail, than not to try at all. Which I realise is a long way from offering an actual strategy.

The other problem with social justice is that not everybody is convinced by the remedies. Robert Nozick, a contemporary of Rawls (they actually gave seminars together at Harvard) is not convinced that it is possible to rectify the problems of the past other than by the implementation of a central state planning apparatus. As a supporter of what he terms a ‘minimal state’ Nozick is wary of any attempt at redistribution, particularly if those currently with immense wealth might lose some of it to aid those with little or no resources. As he states it:
“The term “distributive justice” is not a neutral one. Hearing the term “distribution”, most people presume that some thing or mechanism uses some principle or criterion to give out a supply of things. So it is an open question, at least, whether redistribution should take place…” (Nozick, 1974, 149)
In Nozick’s view of the World distributions are just provided they are the consequence of a series of individual exchanges which are carried out legitimately. In other words, if some people are rich because they have invested well and made money that is not unjust. Even if their being rich means that some others are made poor. Provided their wealth has been acquired legitimately then no injustice has been committed. Nozick calls this ‘entitlement theory’ and it is, in part, a refutation of the idea that injustice can be corrected by the state. This view is the logical conclusion of Nozick’s libertarian position of supporting only a minimal state. In so doing, he rules out as impractical or impossible any remedy to injustice, in favour of allowing the ‘invisible hand’ to do it’s work.

I have never been convinced by the idea that it is impossible to change things. But, when we are talking about a globalised World in which capital can be moved at the flick of a computer switch, and when multinational companies can close a factory in Newcastle or Bridgend and relocate to a place with cheaper labour, the impetus to fight injustice can seem like a labour of Sisyphus.

Neither Rawls nor Nozick (or for that matter most mainstream politicians) would deny that slavery is unjust, or that poverty was a bad thing. And, yet, slavery and poverty persist. Perhaps it is not enough to consider these things as simply structural defects of an economic and political system but rather locate them in a lack of basic human respect.

Rawls tells us that social justice is political not moral and Nozick regards the free market as the answer to all social and political problems. The idea that it is, perhaps, the neo-liberal capitalist system that is the real problem has, to a large extent, fallen off the radar. Some of this is undoubtedly to do with the fact that Marxism, the major political counter-ideology to free market capitalism has fallen into disrepair. So, it may be that we need to rediscover Marx in order to counter injustice. But it is not necessary to become a Marxist in order to believe that human lives should count for something. That every person should be entitled to a life of dignity and mutual respect.

For now, let us remind ourselves that in the UK in 2017 there are still massive inequalities, most of which are indefensible if we believe, as I do, that all people are entitled to be treated with at least the basis of human respect.

This impetus has certainly been given a lift by Jeremy Corbyn, who invokes social justice as an aspiration arguing that we should “look to a future of decency, equality and real social justice.” (,-equality-and-real-social-justice/#.WV40B8aZN-U)

It is a matter, in the end, of taking sides. By doing nothing we perpetuate injustice, not necessarily because we agree that it is a good thing, but our inactivity is a form of passive acceptance of the status quo. As Agnes Heller concludes in her book ‘Beyond Justice’:
“Equal life chances for all, equal freedom for all.. can also be conceived of as a goal. Yet this goal is still a means. The goal of the best possible socio-political world is worthy of pursuit because it is the condition of the possibility of the good life for all.” (Heller, s1987, 326)
And, as I have said elsewhere:
“A world in which every human was accorded human respect, let alone one where every single person was able to fulfil their merits and to have them recognised, would be one in which the hegemonic sovereignty of the free market would be undermined, if not completely destroyed.” (Middleton, 2004, 239)
Whilst social justice may seem to be as far away as ever, it is within the purview of all of those of us who decide that it is something worth fighting for. It is not just a plaything for political philosophers but has real consequences for millions of people throughout the World. Many of those people cannot fight for themselves, their very conditions deny them that opportunity which is why it is so important that those of us able to do so raise our voices about injustice whenever we can.
As Jeremy Corbyn told the young audience at Glastonbury Festival following the General Election: “Let’s build a World of peace, justice and human rights across the World”.
Why not?

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Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice
Rawls, John (2001) Justice as Fairness: A restatement
Shklar, Judith (1990) The Faces of Injustice
Heller, Agnes (1984) Beyond Justice
Middleton, David (2004) ‘Why we should care about respect’ Contemporary Politics, Vol 10
The Borrie Commission (1994) Social Justice. Strategies for national renewal