Fair enough?


A comment on yesterday’s hubristically titled post focussed on the absence in my account of ‘how to save the world’ of any mention of social inequality. It is a valid criticism. But here are some things to bear in mind when we do talk about social justice.

When people are asked about what is unfair in society they are as likely to focus on what philosophers call procedural justice (playing by the rules) as distributional justice (social equality). As any political canvasser knows, if you ask people in disadvantaged areas about what is unfair they are more likely to refer to the neighbour who is working while on benefits or the immigrant family perceived to have got housing priority than to bankers, private education or the class system.

In his recent book on moral instincts, Jonathan Haidt suggests these two views of fairness (he calls procedural justice ‘proportionality’) are distinct impulses. While, as would be expected, the left tends to have the strongest story on distributional justice, conservatives often have a powerful message on the procedural dimension.

Sticking with Haidt, we need also to deal with the central idea of his book, which is that our moral judgements are more instinctive than reasoned. For example, he cites the example of Millian liberals who, having responded negatively to a story about a man buying a supermarket chicken, having sex with it then cooking and eating it, then scrabble around trying to find some harms-based rationale for their response. So while from moral and political philosophy we can derive ideas about what ought to offend us, this is not the same as changing what does offend us, the latter being based on long evolved aspects of our characters. It is like the distinction between what we know to be healthy foods and our continuing appetite for curry, beer and doughnuts.

In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I made the point that in progressive circles a lot of time is spent discussing the content of social justice but much less on the emotional foundations which underlie a desire to treat others justly. These debates are now getting more prominence with the growing popular interest in brains, behaviour and evolution. ‘Empathy’ is a widely discussed phenomenon, the existence and significance of mirror neurons is hotly debated and I suspect this year will see a shift in the evolutionary debate towards those who argue for group selection.

Although Robert Putnam’s work on values and diversity is important (and challenging) we could also do with more sociological research on why fairness is more or less powerful as a social norm in different types of places and communities.

Finally, people for whom justice is the most important value have to accept that most people are less motivated and more pragmatic. I am sure most voters would subscribe to the Ralwsian exception; inequality can be justified if it increases the aggregate well-being of everyone, including the disadvantaged. This is one reason why the left has seized so enthusiastically on the evidence presented by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level.

Nor is it simply that arguments for justice have to contend with an economic/utilitarian calculus, there is also the value people ascribe to freedom as a virtue. Whilst people on the political left tend to assume that greater equality is a characteristic of a better society, those with less strong political leanings may see the connection between justice and progress as more contingent.

I have said before that one important aspect of what I call ‘the social aspiration gap’ is that we are not in any way on track to deliver a widely shared value; namely that all children should have reasonably equal life chances. I adhere strongly to this value (and I believe any credible meritocrat must also be an advocate of greater equality across society in general), but I also think the case for fair life chance is more likely to be furthered if progressives move beyond assertion and theory (however elegantly expressed) to an account and strategy informed by wider insights into public values and human nature.

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