Sunday, March 16, 2008

Some thoughts on justice, political action and individual choice

I've just finished reading G.A. Cohen's If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich? The book is quite interesting, and it covered much more than I can possibly discuss here. So I'm going to limit myself to the topics that tie into what I've been mulling over recently, namely, government coercion and individual justice. Cohen did bring up some interesting thoughts on what the nature of God would be like and why he might have created us, along with some discussions on religious belief in general (specifically the effect of growing up in a certain denomination), but that's for you to read about if you want. I apologize in advance for the ridiculously long post, but I hope you can bear with me as I work through my thoughts on this... so here it goes.

Cohen distinguishes between three different strategies for justice, namely the Marx, Rawls and Christian strategies. Under the Marx conception, justice in the form of equality is an inevitability that will be born out of history (so to speak). Cohen spends a good deal of time challenging the Marx thesis, and he shows (quite convincingly) that equality will not come about on its own. Several lectures within the book were dedicated to showing why this is the case, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave it at this: equality is not inevitable, so the Marx strategy is not going to be sufficient for achieving real justice.

The second conception that Cohen evaluates is the typical liberal view (circa Rawls) that justice can be achieved through political means. Justice isn't (in the case of Rawls) straight forward equality, but we'll leave the difference principle out of it for now. For Rawls, and many liberals, justice can be achieved by constitution-making, or changing the structure of our society and government so that these institutions are just. ( Note: the use of liberal in this sense is the political philosophy use of “liberal” and not the pop culture designation for Democrats and others on the left of the political spectrum. Of course that's tricky in and of itself, but the best definition I found of the Rawls sort of political liberalism is that it's aim is to “ provide a political framework that is neutral between such controversial comprehensive doctrines” (SEP). I wish I had a better grasp of that particular concept, but for now I'll move on.)

The problem that Cohen found in the Rawls' conception is that there is a possibility that you might have a “just government” without necessarily having much in the way of a “just society.” The laws and regulations that govern the 'basic structure' of society can be just without having just-minded citizens within that society. The reason for this divide is that under the Rawls' construction, the people must only agree to (and understand) the principles of justice as they apply to the framework of their society. Rawls' conception is ill equipped to deal with the individual choices of people within those societies and within those structures. I agree with Cohen that this poses a serious problem for his theory of justice. If, for example, you have a “just” structure, but within that structure the choices of individuals counteract (or fly in the face of) the governing principles, then justice has not been fully achieved. It is inadequate to say that a government must achieve the end of promoting the welfare of the least advantaged if the members of that society continually choose to promote their own welfare in ways that disadvantage the worst off. As Cohen (rightly) points out, “the justice of a society is not exclusively a function of its legislative structure, of its legally imperative rules, but is also a function of the choices people make within those rules.”

Cohen give a pretty good critique of Rawls' exclusive focus on the basic structure (whatever that really is), and how that is an inadequately narrow focus for the principles of justice. He goes to on examine how many professed egalitarians suffer from this Rawlsean attitude. By suffer I mean, they live out their lives in the way that Rawls laid out his theory. They are more focused on fighting for the legislative and political achievement of justice, that they neglect to make personal choices that reflect their belief in equality. If, for example, your average political philosophy professor is a proponent of egalitarian ideals, and if he also keeps enough of his (modest) income to allow him to live relatively well-off, then he is not himself promoting justice through personal choice. A truly committed egalitarian would give away as much of her resources as possible in order to ameliorate the plight of those less fortunate than herself. She would live as spartanly as possible in order that her earnings could work towards righting injustice. While I'm sure there's a few egalitarians like that indeed do give away a considerable portion of their income, there is a sizable portion that don't. In fact, as Cohen points out, there is a good number of fairly rich egalitarians out there fighting for social change yet living the good life. Of course this skirts the practical issue of trying to live justly within an unjust environment (and having to include a certain level of risk into your calculations), but for the most part, egalitarians could do more than they currently do (on the personal level).

Cohen asks how this could be. How can so many people believe in equality yet continue to profit from inequality in real life? Cohen goes through a series of excuses (none of which really amount to a decent justification) that the egalitarians could offer, but for now I want to focus on the attitude itself and how that attitude plays out in my own life. The attitude is this: I can't right injustice alone, so I will focus my attention on making sure the government rights injustice (even if that means coerced redistribution). I may not consciously think this way, but unfortunately I behave like I really think this way. It's an attitude that is both pessimistic on the personal level for society, yet also rather pessimistic about my own ability to help voluntarily. I focus on making sure the government forces me to help (and also forces everyone else to help), instead of just getting out there and doing what I can on my own. To be fair, part of the problem is collective action. I'm well aware that by wielding what small power I have in our (supposedly) democratic government I can do more overall good than simply operating on my own. A just society is not the work of any one person. But, it's not the work of institutions either. I must do what I can through my everyday personal decisions, and also through my political decisions. The two must go hand in hand. My behavior shouldn't show contradictory beliefs. Too often the liberal focus is on what the government can do, and not what each individual must do in her own life. Cohen recognizes this problem, and it's one I'm finally starting to see myself.

This brings us to the Christian conception of justice. Under the Christian conception (at least, based on Christian theology and not necessarily how Christians practice today), the fight for justice is really a fight of individuals. Justice will only be achieved if there is a “revolution of the soul” or some sort of individual moral battle. Cohen says, “Jesus would have spurned the liberal idea that the state can take care of justice for us, provided only that we obey the rules it lays down, and regardless of what we choose to do within those rules. And I believe that Jesus would have been right to spurn that idea.” The Christian conception doesn't rely on the government to fight injustice because each person is individually responsible to fight this battle. This is why you don't see as many socially conscious Christians fighting for the welfare state. They are fighting instead within their churches and within their own communities to fix the injustice in their own backyard. They don't fight for the government to feed the poor and shelter the homeless, because they see it as their personal responsibility to do this as a body of believers. There is (or at least, should be) an ethos of justice in the Christian church, and the ethos doesn't want to bother with the government (when it comes to the fight for social justice). Now this isn't true of all Christians (certainly there are Christians who also fight for government-driven justice, and there are also Christians who aren't very socially conscious at all –unfortunately). Part of this, I think, is a mistrust of the government. Why should the government take my money when I know better how to put that money to good use in my community? That is, I think, a valid point. There is an element of mismanagement (at least in the US) within the government (and lack of efficiency), that keeps many well-meaning people at bay (our lack of real control of the government doesn't help much either). I know this because in the church community that I grew up in, the attitude was something like this: it is not the job of the government to take care of the people, it is the job of the church because that is how we are called to share the love of God with our neighbors. This is why many Christians I know don't fight in the political arena; instead they fight in their own backyards.

So if we disregard Marx, then we have these two competing attitudes. One says that we should fight for a just government, and the other says we must fight to make more just-minded people. I think it's too easy to rely on the government to solve our society's problems, so in that respect I think that the Rawls route is a cop-out. It's too easy to support Rawls' route while at the same time living unjustly in your own life. However, I think there's some something missing in the Christian conception. While I whole-heartedly agree that there must be in change in society's character (which must be achieved through individual attitude transformation), I also think that it's wrong to ignore the power we (should) have over the government. If you really want to right injustice, you must both live a just life and use what power you have to ensure justice on a larger scale. For those in democracies, that means wielding your political influence to make sure our coercive government is not unjust. If everyone lived a life a personal justice, then the coercive power of the government would not be needed. However that's unlikely, so we must be prepared to fight at both the individual level and at the collective level to achieve social change. I am still uneasy about government coercion on a whole, because I think that, at least in the US, we don't have much in the way of real control over our government. But let's say we did, then we would morally obligated to use said power to achieve a more just society. Both battles must be fought, because I don't think that either can achieve its desired end alone. A just government is nothing without just citizens, and just citizens can't achieve real justice within an unjust government.

I wrote all of this mainly to sort through my own competing convictions. I have both the desire to see a revolution in our government and also a revolution in the ethos of our society. I want both, and I do a poor job in both battles. A few weeks ago I talked about the Christian stance on wealth, and I stand by my admission that I have yet to conqueror the selfish materialist in myself. At the same time, I don't even know where to begin on the political front (being unimpressed by both the Democrats and the Republicans). It's rather frustrating to read a book like Cohen's, to be caught up in his message, and to then realize that I'm a big part of the problem. I'm convicted in both senses, doing hardly anything to help realize justice on either front. But the first step is awareness, and the second is action. I'm not quite sure what my role is yet, but I'm working on it. So I want you to know that I don't write about all of this in vain, but rather to motivate myself to get out there and be a part of the solution, both as a social activist and (more importantly) as a Christ-follower.

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