Featured Philosop-her: Miriam Ronzoni


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.

— MK

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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.[1]

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.

[1] 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).

5 responses

    2 very short (connected) questions: 1) The “widely shared intuition” that Schemmel’s relational egalitarian is better able to capture (i.e. the fact that causing women to be unequal by institutionally disriminating them is worse than allowing women to be discriminated by institutionally failing to neutralize institution-independent cultural norms) is just the “act-omission” asymmetry? (The idea that causing harm is (generally) worse morally than failing to prevent it?)
    2) How would you argue for relational egalitarianism facing ah philosopher who denies the validity of the widely shared act-omission asymmetry intuition? After all, the fact an institution is widely shared does not make it valid and, in the specific case of the act-omission asymmetry, its validity is extremely controversial.

    • Michele: no, Christian’s article has a whole section on why causal involvement is not the main part of the story here (and, it that respect, he also explicitly distances himself from Pogge), which you might want to look at. His claim is about the expression of attitudes, not about causal involvement in bringing about certain states of affairs. I, as you will have gathered from the second part of my post, think that institutions act in both kinds of cases, in that I think that institutions are there to respond to specifc social environments – so we cannot really speak of a distinction between harmful actions and failures to act in their cases.

  2. Miriam,

    Thanks for this, which seems exactly right to me about the virtues of relational egalitarianism. I wonder though why you want to insist on a sharp demarcation of the basic structure, which principles of justice evaluate, and the social conditions of justice. Why shouldn’t we just say that, insofar as they impact on women’s status as free and equal, that the norms which sustain a gender pay gap are part of the basic structure and unjust? If the basic structure matters, it seems to matter because of its role in determining the terms on which its members interact and so whether those interactions are free and fair in the relevant sense. If gender norms are sufficiently powerful to influence whether interactions are free and fair in the relevant sense, why aren’t they part of the basic structure?

    Notice that this doesn’t have to require that a just basic structure will include highly prescriptive egalitarian norms of personal conduct. A just basic structure will ensure that interactions are free and fair, and any highly prescriptive norms of personal conduct are problematic from that perspective because they require certain behaviour. A basic structure with such norms would most likely be unjust precsiely because their restrictive effects would mean that interactions were not reliably free and fair. A just basic structure requires that highly prescriptive norms of personal conduct at least do not exercise significant influence over the rights, liberties, and powers citizens possess. In that sense, we define the political as a subset of the social, concerned with a particular kind of status, what we could call, say, democratic citizenship.

  3. Rob, excellent question. A couple of points:
    1) First, a disclaimer: I am not sure I want to express a commitment (in this post and in general, because I haven’t made up my mind about it!) to whether social norms are or are not part of the basic structure. So I guess I don’t (yet?) have an answer to your question, but just a few thoughts.
    2) In the paper and in my work, rather than addressing the question of whether social norms are part of the basic structure, I try and explore how far one can go with a purely legally coercive/political understanding of the basic structure, and try to argue that one can go quite far indeed – if, that is, one accepts (as I think one should do) a specific and fairly expansive understanding of what it means for a (political/legally coercive) institution to be just. I think that’s an useful exercise.
    3) As I said I do not have a firm view – let alone an argument for it! – but I do have a certain inclination towards the view according to which the basic structure delineates the contours of the political and the political only. It’s a mixture of considerations, having to do with publicity and with the fact that I am more skeptical than you seem to be about how much it’d be possible, on the grounds, to include social norms without becoming over-expansive and whilst remaining broadly liberal in spirit (i.e. whilst keeping the private/public distinction, though with redesigned borders in favour of the public)
    4) In a world in which we have managed to prevent sexism from having devastating effects on the freedom and equality of women, we’d probably agree in not considering the still existing sporadic sexist behaviour of some as part of the basic structure. But in our world, that’s not the case, because, as you put it, sexist norms are powerful enough to have those effects. Now, this strikes me as implying that the issue is then about how much power *political and legal institutions allow sexist norms to have* – and that, in that sense, it might be phenomenologically more useful to keep the two distinct. But this all very tentative really.

  4. Miriam, thanks for your response, which is very helpful. In several ways, I don’t think we disagree about this at all. I agree, for example, that the question here and now about sexist norms is the extent to which formal political and legal institutions control and ideally eliminate their impact on the status of women and others as free and equal. I also share your worry about articulating a conception of social justice which remains broadly liberal in the specific sense that it carves out a space for people to live their own lives free from duties to others. I suppose my concern is about whether your defence of those commitments rests on an attractive account of the basic structure.

    I’m particularly concerned about why we would pick out the basic structure as the subject of justice on your account when, as you admit, it doesn’t include everything which has a significant impact on the status of members of a society, and doesn’t even include everything which has a significant impact on their status through being accepted as authoritative by them, since norms operate through acceptance of their authority. Of course, there may be some attractive criteria for picking out the subject of justice which deals with this problem. I’m just not sure how it fits with any of the ones we currently have.

    To put it another way, I think a defensible criterion for the political is unlikely to pick out only legally coercive institutions, just because the structures which set the terms citizens interact on and which citizens themselves sustain through their submission to are not always and everywhere only legal coercive ones. It may be a requirement of justice that the terms citizens interact on are set only by legally coercive institutions, but that’s importantly different from the claim that as a matter of fact, the terms are always set by those institutions. Anyway, thank you for this, which I hope has been as helpful for you and everyone else as it has been for me.

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