Featured Philosop-her: Kristina Meshelski

I’m very pleased to welcome Kristina Meshelski.  She is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge.  She specializes in political philosophy.  Her current research includes work on Rawls, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory, the scope of distributive justice, how social contract theory can adequately respond to globalization, and affirmative action.  She also does a bit of work on Spinoza.

Her post follows.


Thanks Meena for having me on the blog!  I want to use this space to try out an argument I’ve been developing against relational egalitarianism.  Like many philosophers I know I was extremely happy when I first discovered Elizabeth Anderson’s 1999 article “What is the Point of Equality?” which argued for relational egalitarianism as an alternative to luck egalitarianism.  Briefly, while luck egalitarians seek to equalize inequalities due to luck, relational egalitarians seek to equalize inequalities in social relationships.  For me, the biggest problem with luck egalitarianism is that it must rely heavily on a distinction between chosen and un-chosen circumstances in order to demarcate which inequalities are objectionable.  For example, consider two unemployed people.  The luck egalitarian needs to know why they are unemployed – someone who had the misfortune of being born in an area without any job opportunities or without money to move was unlucky and thus her unemployment is something society should seek to redress in some way, but someone who freely choses to turn down job offers in the interest of leisure is unemployed by choice and thus her unemployment is not something society should seek to redress.  This is a problematic distinction to rest a theory of equality on for those of us concerned with oppression.  I do not doubt that there is such a thing as choosing a certain way of life as opposed to simply finding yourself lucky or unlucky, but using choice as the way to set the limits of egalitarianism is far too blunt to take account of the real facts of the world.  When a person faces oppression it can become impossible to tell which difficulties she faces are her own fault, so to speak, not to mention I find it profoundly unhelpful to try to figure this out at the level of theory.

So an alternative to luck egalitarianism was certainly needed, but recently I have more and more misgivings about relational egalitarianism, and I want to try and articulate some of them here.  I’m here sticking to the domestic context for the most part, but I think my worry applies to relational egalitarian views of global distributive justice as well (Rekha Nath defended one such view on this blog, though I think her view escapes my worry).

For Anderson, relational equality is an equality of authority, status or standing, as opposed to an equality of goods.  To me, this collapses some important distinctions.  On the one hand, it is taking a stand against resourcist views, which seek to equalize resources.  There are some well-known problems with resourcist views, most importantly the fact that we all need different amounts of resources to flourish.  (At this time in my life I don’t require any assistance to walk, but I can’t see much without my glasses/contacts.  All this requires more resources than some people, since I need to buy stuff to see well, but far fewer resources than it would if I had to buy something like crutches, a wheelchair, or a guide dog.)  Whether or not we want to respond to these complications by adopting a welfarist view (in which we seek to equalize welfare) we can at least say that strict equality of resources is not sufficient or necessary for distributive justice.

But I am uncomfortable with the idea that concern for equality of status or standing should replace concern with equality of resources. It seems there is something very different going on when we use relational equality as justification for more equality – as when we say we want to equalize more than resources – as opposed to when we use relational equality as a justification for less equality – as when we say those who are equal in status do not need to have equal resources.

I argue in a (unpublished) paper that principles of justice should regulate structures, not individuals or institutions.  To connect to Sally Haslanger’s earlier post on this blog, I am replacing what she calls “political justice” with something I think is broader, and may answer some of her concerns about the narrowness of “political justice”.  My motivation for this is roughly the same as that articulated in Iris Marion Young’s later work, that there may be injustice that is not caused by individual bad actors, nor is it caused by state institutions like the legislature or the criminal justice system.  Young defines structures as “the accumulated outcomes of the action of masses of individuals enacting their own projects, often uncoordinated with many others” (2011, 62).  Young wants to differentiate between structural injustice and injustice directly caused by the state whereas I would say these things are not easily separated.  But I am in agreement with her that justice, including distributive justice, must be concerned with the outcomes of various uncoordinated actions.  For example, it seems that the pay gap between men and women is the outcome of many uncoordinated actions.  Though we have evidence that some employers pay women less than men consciously and with malice, this doesn’t seem to account for the entirety of the pay gap.

Now I think there is some tension between a Young-type concern with structural injustice and Anderson’s relational equality.  I believe it has to do with the fact that we would normally take something like the pay gap as evidence of women’s oppression, without needing further information about how this is caused. (And I think this is the right thing to do, the pay gap is objectionable because it serves to marginalize a historically disadvantaged group, whether it is done on purpose or not.)  One way to understand this would be as Anderson does, that we find this inequality objectionable because it disadvantages people in the sense that it “reflects, embodies, or causes inequality of authority, status, or standing” (2010, 2).  But that explanation goes the other way too, we believe women are disadvantaged partly because there is a long-standing pay gap between men and women.  In other words, we take the pay gap as evidence of women’s disadvantage, at the same time as we find women’s disadvantage to be the reason why the pay gap is objectionable.

So while relational egalitarianism is very good at capturing the importance of equality of status, it seems counter-productive to say that equality of status can replace all other types of equality.  Resource equality seems petty or even confused at the individual level, but quite important at the level of social groups.  Shouldn’t critics of structural injustice want to eliminate these resource inequalities between groups?

Anderson makes my worry more acute when she asserts that while luck egalitarians believe justice consists in a desirable distributive pattern, relational egalitarians believe justice is a virtue of agents, not of states of affairs (2010, 2).  But if structures are outcomes they are at least partly distributions (in fact I believe structures are distributions, but that may be too much to argue for here).  So eliminating structural injustice must at least partly consist in achieving a desirable distribution, and this distributive goal is not reducible to achieving virtuous people and virtuous institutions, because an institution or a person could be virtuous and still inadvertently disadvantage a certain social group.



Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Fundamental Disagreement Between Luck Egalitarians and Relational Egalitarians.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Special Issue: Supplementary Volume 36 Supplement 1 (2013): 1-23.

Anderson, Elizabeth. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109.2 (1999): 287-337.

Young, Iris Marion. Responsibility for Justice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

4 responses

  1. As I’m reading this, you’re worried that relational equality leaves out some or all of these three things:
    1. Structural injustices, which can’t (entirely) be captured in terms of relations between individuals;
    2. Resource inequalities, which can’t (necessarily) be captured in terms of status and capabilities inequalities; and
    3. Unjust processes (such as pay discrimination against women), which cause but are not the same as unjust situations at particular moments in time.

    In addition, I think you’re saying that these things get muddled together in the various egalitarian debates, both horizontally and vertically. That seems clearly and unfortunately true. Off the top of my head, G.A. Cohen is the only person I can think of who carefully separated all of these things. But he made those separations at various times, and I don’t think kept them separated over the course of his whole career. So, your project sounds most interesting and valuable!

    Regarding 1, Anderson argues for individualism in her commentary on Schwartzman’s /Challenging Liberalism/ (http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2009.01062.x). Skimming that piece, I think Anderson’s view is that it’s perfectly fine to talk about how structural processes brought about some injustice, so long as we understand injustice itself individualistically. I’m not sure that I entirely agree, in part of the reasons Schwartzman raises in her reply (same issue of Hypatia).

    Regarding 2, I agree. Resources, status, and capabilities all matter. I would add that resources are in some sense *less important* than capabilities and (maybe) status. On my view, resources are only instrumentally valuable, while (some) capabilities are intrinsically valuable. Then we can say, for example, that a resource inequality is just when it’s used to ensure a capabilities equality.

    I haven’t thought much about 3 before, but it’s definitely thought-worthy.

  2. Thanks for that comment! I think you are right that Anderson believes we should understand justice individualistically. That does seem problematic to me too, though I’m currently playing with the idea that some injustices against identity groups reduce to injustice against individuals and some do not.

    I would say *usually* resources are merely instrumental. But a structural injustice can partly consist in a resource inequality, so in some cases I think equality of resources between groups can be a non-instrumental good. For example, if the US were able to somehow eqalize capabilities between whites and blacks I wouldn’t be satisfied with that unless resources were roughly equal too.

    The way you separate unjust processes from the other two was helpful to me in clarifying my thoughts, so thanks for that!

  3. Pingback: Featured Philosop-her: Miriam Ronzoni « Political Philosop-her

  4. I appreciate this is from back in March, but, hey, philosophy doesn’t get old…

    Great post. I think that, as Dan’s comment and Kristina’s reply allude to, some of the key things here are ontological. However, thinking about that in detail has led me into knots – perhaps someone can help me out! In the original post you say, Kristina:

    “So while relational egalitarianism is very good at capturing the importance of equality of status, it seems counter-productive to say that equality of status can replace all other types of equality. Resource equality seems petty or even confused at the individual level, but quite important at the level of social groups. Shouldn’t critics of structural injustice want to eliminate these resource inequalities between groups?”

    Firstly, I don’t think that Anderson would argue that a concern with relational equality ought to *replace* our interest in other types of equality (such as distributive equality). At least, that is what she seems to say in her reply at the end of the exchange contained in this paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2050-5876.2014.00763.x/abstract Essentially, Anderson thinks that distributive concerns ought to be viewed as only instrumental to achieving a ‘society of equals’; distribution is very important, but not what justice is ultimately all about. I don’t know whether she also subscribes to the descriptive analogue of this, i.e. that distributive inequalities are causally downstream of fundamental status, power, etc. inequalities. At any rate, this suggests that Anderson would agree that resource inequality is important at the level of groups, but only by dint of being relevant to relational inequality.

    So far, so good. However, if we ask ‘in exactly *what way* is resource inequality at the level of groups relevant to relational inequality?’ then this is where the ontological stuff comes in, and my hunch is that Anderson’s insistence on individualism prevents her from getting a better grasp on the relational inequality that she (in my view correctly) picks out as primary. I think Young is relevant here. Of course, her stance has many similarities with Anderson’s, particularly the emphasis on relationality and criticism of the distributive paradigm, but as far as I can see the main difference is that in Young’s project the social group is the principle relevant unit ontologically. For Young this is the outcome of taking seriously her contention that any consideration of social justice/injustice must start from the concepts of oppression and domination. If you’ll forgive a slightly long and I’m sure familiar quotation:

    “Oppression happens to social groups. But philosophy and social theory typically lack a viable concept of the social group. Notably in the context of affirmative action debate, some philosophers and policymakers even refuse to acknowledge the reality of social groups, a denial that often reinforces group oppressions. In Chapter 2 I develop a specific concept of the social group. While groups do not exist apart from individuals, they are socially prior to individuals, because people’s identities are partly constituted by their group affinities. Social groups [… are] fluid and often shifting, but nevertheless real.” (From Justice and the Politics of Difference, 1990, pg. 9)

    Now, it seems to me that on the Young view – relational and group-focussed – we can explain why, in your pay gap example, it is objectionable that there is a resource inequality at the level of groups: because it is a crucial part of the oppression suffered by a social group (women). Whereas, on the Anderson view – relational and individual-focussed – this is harder. Presumably it would go something like: the pay gap is objectionable because it reflects a situation where many individuals are of unequal standing, status, etc. with many other individuals. This seems to be in line with Anderson’s argument in the paper Dan links to, which looks like, crudely (I’m skimming too!): methodological individualism bad, normative individualism good (i.e., even though groups are relevant to thinking about justice, the individual is ultimately the only unit of normative concern). However, one could reply to this, what if it turned out that there was a clear pay gap between, say, people born January-June and people born July-December, or people with surnames beginning A-M and N-Z? (Or insert any arbitrary bisection of the population for the purposes of the argument.) Furthermore, the individuals making up the half of the population with (on average) lower pay are all also lower relationally-speaking, i.e. in status, standing, power, and so on. On the Anderson view then, this is bad under the general rubric that it is bad when individuals cannot all relate as equals. However, it seems to me that this is not the same as the issue of the gender pay gap and the related relational inequality between men and women. There, there is something *extra* that is specifically objectionable. What is this something extra? I think it has to be that it is not just the case that half (*any* half) of the population happens to be relationally lower in status, standing, etc., but that an actually-existing social group is oppressed.

    However, here is the problem for me. I’m inclined to agree with Anderson’s stance that individuals are ultimately all that matter normatively, because it seems slightly wacky to start having normative concern for a social group *separate* from concern for its individual members. (By the way, I don’t think that saying this means that one can’t still descriptively subscribe to the existence of social groups above and beyond individuals – it just seems weird to have normative concern for such an entity *itself*.) But on the other hand, I sense that there is something that Young’s account is able to articulate about why the gender pay gap is particularly a case of injustice that Anderson’s isn’t as much. I suppose one question is whether Young would also subscribe to normative individualism or whether she would argue that there is some sense in which it makes sense to talk about the oppression of a group tout court and therefore to make social groups ontologically our units of normative concern in thinking about justice.

    Anyway, this is now almost as long as the original blog post, so better stop. As a final comment, I also agree, Kristina, that structures have to be a key target of ideas of justice; I think this is probably the other main difference between Young and Anderson (particularly the later Young).

%d bloggers like this: