Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Rights (Page 2 of 2)

What is the value of (even fair) equality of opportunity in an unjust society?

People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs?’, about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:

And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.

I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose to individuals’ strive to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls‘ principle of fair equality of opportunities(henceforth FEO) requires this: ‘[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.’ The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.
One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one’s family of origin determines one’s chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone’s life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents’ money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserveto reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.
Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.
You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be most often false in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, ‘good enough’ will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.
An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.
One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.
Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls’ theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?
So it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.

Should Snowden go back to America?

Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Snowden-2.jpg  

Mr Snowden violated US law. He should return to the US and face justice,” argued a senior White House advisor. That attitude reflects the reaction of many in the American and British security establishment to Snowden’s leaking of classified documents detailing the mass surveillance programs of the US and British governments. Currently Snowden has temporary asylum in Russia, which is due to expire at the end of July 2014 (though I’m still hoping Germany might do the right thing and offer him asylum). There are however I think broadly three reasons that could be given for why Snowden should instead go back to America and face trial, only one of which has I think has some plausibility, though I think its overridden by other considerations.
First, some might argue that Snowden should go back and face trial because he harmed national security. This is the kind of argument made by the security services themselves and their political allies. The head of Britain’s MI6 for example said that the UK’s enemies were “rubbing their hands with glee” at Snowden’s revelations about spying practices. I think this kind of argument is entirely wrong. Not only should we be sceptical that national security, as it conceived by the US and UK authorities, is something to be protected. But as Glenn Greenwald shows in his excellent replies to this BBC interview the supposed harm done to national security is unproven, and most likely untrue. ‘Terrorist’ groups for example already know that everything they do is subject to intense monitoring by the security services. It is also an attempt to distract from how these surveillance programs have invaded the privacy of innocent people. Furthermore, we should always question official claims of harm done to national security if those same officials deny the public access to the information required to evaluate those claims.

Glenn Greenwald on BBC Newsnight
A second kind of argument doesn’t claim that Snowden did anything wrong but argues that if you carry out an act of civil disobedience you should be prepared to bear the legal consequences of it. It is often thought that even if breaking an individual law (such as leaking classified documents) can be justified for conscientious reasons, you are still have an obligation to the overall legal and political system. This means that you should stand trial as a way to show both your disagreement with the specific law and your commitment to that system. But as Kimberley Brownlee points out it is not clear that willingness to accept punishment is really an essential part of civil disobedience. In many cases of civil disobedience there does not seem to be any obligation to the overall legal and political system because that system is so unjust. This is definitely true of the US during the period of the civil rights movement (often thought a defining case of civil disobedience) and it is, I would argue, still true of the US today. The enormous levels of economic inequality, the extensive and institutionalised racial and gender injustices, and the military and economic actions of the US across the world, mean that citizens (such as Snowden) do not I think have an obligation to the US legal and political system.
A more plausible version of the previous argument is that Snowden should go back because this makes it more likely that people will take his views more seriously and challenge the surveillance programs of the state. This is essentially a strategic argument about what is most likely to convince people. A frequent reaction in the American press has for example to point to Snowden’s supposed ‘hypocrisy’ in asking for asylum from an authoritarian regime like Russia (it is frequently forgotten that Snowden was forced to stay in Russia because the US withdrew his passport). Returning to America, it could be argued, would make it easier to counteract this kind of argument and make the case against state surveillance.

While I think this is the most plausible argument (because we desperately need a campaign against the surveillance of the state) I don’t think its decisive. Its not clear to me that if Snowden would go back that it would make that much difference to the debate. There is an enmeshed security and media establishment in the US (and the UK) that is dedicated to the destruction of his credibility. Furthermore we have to consider how terribly the US has treated other similar whistle-blowers, such as Chelsea Manning. She was subjected to 11 months of solitary confinement, which the UN special rapporteur on torture described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that “could constitute torture”, and she has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison. Given that Snowden could expect similar treatment I think he is justified in staying as far away as he can.

Should the UK be granted a referendum on membership in the European Union?

My answer to the question posed in the thread title is a ncaa tentative ‘no’.  My answer is tentative partly because I usually bestow considerable value on democratic choice and partly because I remain worried that my natural negative reaction to all Tory policy might cloud my judgement.  But, to the best I can exempt myself from this partiality, I do think that the ‘no’ answer is correct.  Here is my reasoning.

In the literature on secession, there wholesale mlb jerseys are two broad positions.  On the one hand, some think there is a direct or primary right to secede.  That is, groups always have a right to choose to leave an existing state provided that they, as a group, meet some criteria.  The usual criteria are (a) being a ‘people’ with a shared set of cultural traditions or heritage distinct from those cheap jerseys of the wider nation of which they are presently a part or (b) democratic election (e.g., by majority vote).  On the other hand, some think that there is ‘only’ a default or secondary right to secede.  Groups have this right of only if their present government mistreats them in certain ways.  Here, the right to secede is like the right to revolution.  It is ‘activated’ if governments abuse citizens’ most basic rights, by, for example, torturing them or imprisoning them for their political beliefs.
My view is that secession cannot be a primary right.  It seems to me too permissive to allow groups such broad discretion on leaving an existing state.  In certain cases, this would permit patently unjust possibilities, such as the white South Africans responding to the end of Apartheid by voting to form an independent nation.  More generally, we surely think that there are limits on what a people can choose.  People do not have a right to disenfranchise part of the existing population of a nation on matters that concern them all, so why should they have a right to vote for border changes that would have the same effect?
Thus, my sense is that any right to secede from a political association must exist only on the condition that been the political association surpasses a certain threshold of injustice.  If this line of reasoning is applied to the case of the EU, the UK clearly does not have a right to vote on its membership.
I guess that there are two possible objections to this view.  First, it might be argued that the EU is nfl beyond a threshold of injustice.  I find it difficult to see wholesale mlb jerseys how such a position could be substantiated.  Indeed, given some of its decisions, such as voting rights for prisoners, I am inclined to think it propagates less injustice than the UK.  But, at any rate, it clearly does not fall foul of grave human rights abuse or anything that would permit rebellion.  Second, it might be argued that there is a difference between seceding from a state and seceding from a supranational organisation.  I cannot say that I disagree with this thought, but I do not think that the difference will be sufficient to challenge my central claim.  Whatever the differences, the EU wholesale jerseys is a political association with binding rules of membership subject to demands of justice.  The parallels are not so far from much decentralised federal structures like Switzerland.  So, just as I believe the people of Zug do not have a right to choose independence from the Confœderatio, I do not think the UK should be granted a referendum on European Union membership.

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