I am very happy to welcome Miriam Ronzoni as the next featured philosop-her. Ronzoni is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Manchester and the principal investigator of a Research Project on “Background Justice between States: Global Institutional Design to Foster Sovereign Statehood,” at the Technical University of Darmstadt, funded through a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award. She is mainly interested in contemporary normative theory. Her interests are both in meta-ethical problems (e.g. the justification of normative principles) and in applied ones (e.g. social and transnational justice in non-ideal circumstances).
Her post follows.
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Thank you Meena for hosting me on your blog! I was originally going to write on something else, but what is starting to shape up as a debate taking place in your “Featured Philosop-her” section prompted me to change my topic. So, in the spirit of continuing that debate, I would like to offer some remarks on the relationship between justice and institutions (with special emphasis on a specific understanding of the basic structure of society) by way of a partial response to some concerns raised by Kristina Meshelski and Sally Haslanger in their respective posts.
Kristina argues that Elizabeth Anderson’s relational egalitarianism (1999) cannot account for structural injustices that are not the direct result of unequal treatment by the state. Some structural distributive inequalities, she claims, are unjust regardless of their cause (i.e., even if they are the unintended result of uncoordinated behaviour). Therefore, she concludes, whereas Anderson is right in pointing out that equality of status is an important aspect of justice which distributivists overlook, she ends up making the opposite mistake of fetishizing relational concerns. Sally, on the other hand, argues that most of mainstream political philosophy disregards the social, understood as a distinct level of analysis from both the individual and the political. The state cannot penetrate and regulate all aspects of our lives; on the other hand, many such areas are best described as embedded social practices and norms which we reinforce and perpetuate as a result of social pressure, rather than freely and individually chosen types of conduct. Social practices (such as gender norms) give rise to injustices which can be described neither as unjust individual conduct, nor as unjust coercive rules imposed by political institutions. Interestingly, both Kristina and Sally use examples concerning gender to support their claims. Kristina argues that the pay gap between men and women is an injustice even if, as an involuntary outcome of many uncoordinated actions, it is not a sign of the state (or anybody) directly treating women as less than equal. Sally mentions norms of motherhood and the idea that “pink means girl and blue means boy” as social norms that cannot be described as freely chosen by individuals, yet are beyond the scope of action of political institutions. Sally also establishes an explicit analogy between her remarks and Cohen’s critique of Rawls’s claim that only the basic structure of society is the site of social (or for Sally, presumably, political) justice.
I would like to suggest that we need relational egalitarianism precisely to describe what is distinctively unjust about the pay gap between men and women. And I am going to ground that claim on an account of institutions and their agency which might address some (though probably not all) of Sally’s concerns.
To justify the first claim, I am going to draw on Pogge’s (1995) critique of purely recipient oriented approaches to justice and on how Christian Schemmel (2012) uses such a critique to vindicate relational egalitarianism. Purely recipient oriented conceptions view justice as a matter of what individuals are entitled to get, rather than of how institutions ought to treat them. Now, suppose that in societies A and B women are equally impoverished, but that in society A women are legally prevented from engaging in paid labour, whereas in society B they are legally allowed to work and employers are not allowed to discriminate against women, but enforcement of such non-discrimination policies is lax and spotty. If the distributive outcome is identical, purely recipient oriented approaches cannot account for the arguably widely shared view that both A and B are unjust, but A is more unjust than B. Schemmel draws on this point to argue that only relational accounts can account for that: both societies treat women as less than equal, but the attitude they thereby express is different – whereas society A officially sanctions that women are not equal members of society, B expresses disrespect for women in terms of neglect for the special obstacles they face. Hence, although B is less unjust than A, it is nevertheless unjust in relational terms because institutions do express an attitude when they disregard specific social disadvantages that pre-identifiable groups face. Indeed, he goes on to claim, only relational theories can account for the fact that B-type disadvantages are graver when they cluster around a pre-identifiable group (in terms of gender, race, or class) rather than across a random range of individuals, because, in allowing that to happen, institutions express the attitude that members of that group are less than equal. Hence, the pay gap, understood as pay gap between men and women rather than a random inequality, is something which specific injustice relational egalitarians can describe better than distributivists. Relational egalitarians not only can account for such structural injustice, but can provide a more sophisticated account of what is exactly unjust about it.
Now, as some might have already noticed, this presupposes a particularly demanding and expansive conception of what institutions are and should do. As artificial agents that we create, institutions are unjust, on this account, not only when they “actively” promulgate unjust rules, but also when they fail to respond to specific and context-sensitive social challenges. In this sense, the business of institutions is both to act on just rules and to bring about the social conditions for principles of justice to be realized. This leads me to an expansive understanding of the realm of action of the basic structure (Ronzoni 2008a and 2008b): informal social norms are not directly part of the basic structure of society, but what makes said basic structure just largely depends on prevailing social norms in a given society. Hence, Cohen is right in saying that “sexist family structure is consistent with sex neutral family law,” but wrong in implying that sex neutral family law is what (Rawlsian) justice requires in all scenarios. In a sexist society, sex neutral family law is unjust and expresses disrespect for women, in that it neglects the fact that women and men are not equally positioned when they apply for jobs, file in for a divorce, etc. In not trying to address that (with incentives generating policies to trigger changes in social norms), and in failing to envisage compensatory instruments in the transition towards a just setting (with instruments such as quotas, affirmative action, or compulsory paternity leave), institutions are being unjust.
This, I believe, can address some (though not all) of Sally’s concerns: without making the social collapse into the political, we should have an account of the latter that is not blind to the former. Just political institutions are those which respond to the specific challenges of the social environment they have to regulate (prevailing norms of “total motherhood,” for instance, being one of them). And finally, to connect this point back to Kristina’s argument, “uncoordinated behaviour” is perhaps best described as the outcome of unjust social norms, and unjust social norms are almost invariably the vestiges of past political injustices whose long-term effect is still with us (of a time, in the case of gender, when the less than equal status of women was legally affirmed – Kristina herself speaks of historically disadvantaged groups).
Incidentally, I think this has implications for how we conceptualize the basic structure of society in global justice debates (Ronzoni 2008a and 2009) and for the importance of non-distributive justice concerns at the global level. This last topic is what I originally wanted to write my post about, so I guess you’ll have to host me again one day if you want to hear that part of the story 🙂
Anderson, Elizabeth. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.
Cohen, G.A. “Where the Action Is: On the Site of Distributive Justice.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26 (1997): 3–30.
Pogge, Thomas. “Three Problems with Contractarian-Consequentialist Ways of Assessing Social Institutions.” Social Philosophy and Policy 12 (1995): 241–66.
Ronzoni, Miriam. “The Global Order: A Case of Background Injustice? A Practice-dependent Approach”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 37 (2009): 229-256.
_____ “Two Concepts of Basic Structure, and their Relevance to Global Justice”, Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric 1(2008a): 68-85.
_____ “What Makes a Basic Structure Just?” Res Publica 14(2008b): 203-218.
Schemmel, Christian, “Distributive and Relational Equality.” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 2012 11(2012): 123–148.
 Cohen himself uses gender as an example: “sexist family structure is consistent with sex neutral family law (1997: 22).” Yet, on reflection, appealing to Cohen might turn out to be counterproductive for Sally, since Cohen’s claim is that, given that the basic structure cannot put a remedy to all injustices, principles of social/political justice must apply to individual conduct, as well (in other words, he seems not to see a possible space for the social as a distinctive sphere).