I am very excited to welcome Sally Haslanger as the next featured philosop-her. Sally Haslanger is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. She has published on topics in metaphysics, epistemology and feminist theory, with a recent emphasis on accounts of the social construction of race and gender. In metaphysics, her work has focused on theories of substance, especially on the problem of persistence through change and on Aristotle’s view that substances are composites of matter and form. Her work in feminist theory takes up issues in feminist epistemology and metaphysics, with a special interest in the distinction between natural and social kinds. She has co-edited Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays (Cornell University Press, 2005) with Charlotte Witt, Theorizing Feminisms (Oxford University Press, 2005) with Elizabeth Hackett, and Persistence (MIT Press, 2006) with Roxanne Marie Kurtz. She regularly teaches courses cross-listed with Women’s Studies. Before coming to MIT, she taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and the University of California-Irvine.
Her post follows.
What is the Domain of Social (not Political?) Justice
I. Between the Individual and Political
Recently I’ve been arguing that there has been insufficient attention in the analytic philosophical literature to the domain of social practices. On the one hand, mainstream analytic political philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about the State and institutions that form the “basic structure” of society, but (perhaps due to the influence of political liberalism) do not consider the micro-politics embedded in the practices of everyday life. Ethicists, on the other hand, tend to focus on individual action (character, will) and often don’t even consider that an agent, in acting, is engaged in a social practice.
This may be a serious misrepresentation of recent history of philosophy (I know it leaves out a LOT of us who are working outside the mainstream, e.g., in feminist and critical race theory). However, even if it is a distortion, it is worthwhile to get clearer on what constitutes the domain of social justice, i.e., the domain which we have reason to think is outside the state’s purview, but also a realm where we aren’t just talking about individual actions but structures and practices.
Recently, I heard the objection that there isn’t a separate domain of social justice. The objection comes from two sides, the individual side and the political side. On the individual side, the claim is that if you have a society of good people, you will have justice, for good people arrange themselves in ways that prevent injustice. On the political side the claim is that if you have justice in the basic institutions of society – usually understood in Rawlsian terms – then that’s all justice requires. Under such conditions things might not be perfect, but that’s due to moral wrongdoing. It isn’t injustice.
I find both of these arguments startling. If the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Movement of the late 20th century taught us anything, they taught us that state action cannot reach many sources of bias that are responsible for persistent inequality, and this persistent inequality is unjust. The state can’t tell us whom to love, trust, or admire; it can’t tell us what to aspire to, where to live, what to care about. But these issues aren’t just a matter of individual psychology and individual agency either, for who we are and how we live is conditioned by the social practices and social meanings that structure our lives. As individuals, we aren’t responsible for social meanings (though we must constantly navigate them) or social practices (though we can act to resist or sustain them). Good people enact problematic practices: they may enact them unintentionally or without awareness; they may even think that the behavior in question is entirely natural and they have no choice; or they may not be in a position to have any idea they are problematic. And some of the practices in question cannot be ruled out by state intervention and so could occur even within a politically just society.
Maybe the suggestion that, “Good people arrange themselves in ways that prevent injustice,” is exactly what I’m worried about. Good people are, by the time they are socialized, already arranged. We are embedded in social meanings. We live in a social world structured by practices. It is true, of course, that these meanings and practices can change. But the change must be social change, collective change. It isn’t about just changing the State or just changing my individual attitudes.
I take the point here to echo G. A. Cohen’s critique of Rawls. Let us assume for the moment that Rawls’s theory of justice is a good example of a theory that applies to the basic structure of society. Cohen has argued that a just structure is not enough:
A society that is just within the terms of the difference principle, so we may conclude, requires not simply just coercive rules, but also an ethos of justice that informs individual choices. In the absence of such an ethos, inequalities will obtain that are not necessary to enhance the condition of the worst off: the required ethos promotes a distribution more just than what the rules of the economic game by themselves can secure. (Cohen 1997, 10; also Cohen 2000, 119-123)
Cohen frames his critique of Rawls by echoing the feminist slogan “the personal is political.” This would suggest that the source of injustice in such a society is personal. But note also that he describes the site of an additional constraint on justice as the social ethos. One might argue that individual and institutional injustice are the expression of deeper and less tractable sources of inequality in social meaning. But what exactly is social meaning?
II. Social Meaning
Begin (very briefly) with a background social ontology. Social structures are networks of social relations. Social relations, in turn, are constituted through practices. Social practices are, in the central cases, organized responses to a resource; shared schemas are what organize us. Borrowing from contemporary social science, I have proposed this hypothesis:
Practices consist of interdependent schemas and resources “when they mutually imply and sustain each other over time.” (Sewell 1992, 13)
What is social meaning? Social meanings can be understood on the model just presented as schemas. Lawrence Lessig says:
Any society or social context has what I call here social meanings – the semiotic content attached to various actions, or inactions, or statuses, within a particular context…[the point is to] find a way to speak of the frameworks of understanding within which individuals live; a way to describe what they take or understand various actions, or inactions, or statuses to be; and a way to understand how the understandings change. (Lessig 1995, pp. 951-2)
Extending Lessig’s suggestion, we should allow that not only actions/inactions and statuses have social meanings, but also include things such as corn, traffic signals, money, jewelry. Pink means girl and blue means boy, no? Importantly, Lessig points out,
[Social meanings] change, they are contested, and they differ across communities and individuals. But we can speak of social meaning, and meaning management, I suggest, without believing that there is a single, agreed upon point for any social act… (954-55)
However, social meanings are “in an important way, non-optional. They empower or constrain individuals, whether or not the individual choses the power or constraints.” (955; see also 1000) Two examples, (a) stigma, and (b) stereotypes/ideals.
a) Elizabeth Anderson characterizes racial stigmatization during Jim Crow:
The condition of racial stigmatization consists of public, dishonorable, practically engaged representations of a racial group with the following contents: (1) racial stereotypes, (2) racial attributions or explanations of why members of the racial group tend to fit their stereotypes, that rationalized and motivate (3) derogatory evaluations of and (4) demeaning or antipathetic attitudes (such as hatred contempt, pity, condescension, disgust, aversion, envy, distrust, and willful indifference) towards the target group and its members. (Anderson 2010, 48)
Stigma, like other social meanings, and like linguistic meanings, are collective and public. Such meanings affect us and our interactions even if we reject their content, e.g., whistling Vivaldi. (Steele 2011)
b) George Lakoff offers an analysis of our ideal of mother in terms of five overlapping cognitive models based on birth, genetics, nurturance, marriage, and genealogy. (Lakoff 2000, 395) He says,
…more than one of these models contributes to the characterization of a real mother, and any one of them may be absent from such a characterization. Still, the very idea that there is such a thing as a real mother seems to require a choice among models where they diverge. (395)
The central case [is] where all the models converge. This includes a mother who is and has always been female, and who gave birth to the child, supplied her half of child’s genes, nurtured the child, is married to the father, is one generation older than the child, and is the child’s legal guardian. (400)
Women’s lives are substantially organized around practices of mothering – in anticipation, in avoidance, in enactment, in resistance. But why do we even employ the concept(s) of mother? Why do we persist in thinking that one’s sex is relevant to one’s parental nurturing? How we define ‘mother’ and whether we continue to categorize people as mothers is a matter of justice. The same is true for ‘race.’ Insofar as social meanings define our social practices, and internalized meanings guide our interactions, social justice requires attention to – and changes to – social meanings. “Social meaning management” can be done through law (this is the point of Lessig’s article), and can be achieved through social activism (“slut walks”?), but if we focus entirely on the individual and the State, then we obscure the significance of such meanings and the necessity of changing them in order to achieve justice.