10 Big Questions
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Social Justice

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THE TEN BIG QUESTIONS

Social Justice


Jennifer asked:

Do nations of the Western, developed world have any moral obligation to help or even share their wealth with poorer people of the Third World? Should we be doing more as a nation in Britain?

A friend once gave me a fortune cookie, the little slip of paper inside read: "Food first, then ethics". Writing this answer I have that little slip of paper mounted in front of me on my desk. I keep it there to remind me of what I take to be a very important point: that people cannot think on an empty stomach and that ethics is a relation possible only for 'satisfied' people. The rich nations are satisfied and are in a position to realise that the poor are not. So yes, individuals and the western world have an obligation. it is established immediately once we realise that they need our help (but only realise this once we have satisfied our own needs).

This sounds like a selfish philosophy, it sounds like we first look after ourselves, get our own house in order and then see what other people are up to. This is not what I mean, rather mine is a description of a full human life. We each have a dual existence: a personal and an impersonal life both of which make demands on us. The point is we get outside of the personal once we have dealt with the demands, by getting food, though I don't think this is an all or nothing affair, we do not have to satisfy all personal demands before we recognise other people and In fact some of my personal demands are nullified by the demands of other people. Or more accurately If I fulfil my personal demands in favour of the other person I an acting unethically.

This is of course not an argument but a position to argue from: before we enter in to the ethical relation we need first to generate the conditions where the ethical relation is possible. This I guess is vaguely reminiscent of Aristotle's approach. He says that we "need to be brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things" Nicomachean Ethics book I chap 4, although I don't want to suggest that I advocate an Aristotelian answer to ethics). If some one approached Aristotle and asked him if it were wrong to kill babies, he would look at them 'gone out'. if they don't already know that they should not kill babies, there is no rational argument that will serve to get them to understand.

Similarly if someone doesn't see that allowing people starve to death is wrong this is because they have not entered into the ethical relation in the first place. Further no rational argument would persuade them to enter into ethics. It is not that kind of matter.

I am sorry is this is a little wishy-washy, but I wanted to give you a different account of why we should help others from the typical talk of entitlements, lifeboat ethics (proposed by a fella called Garrett Hardin) and the distinction between killing and letting die.

Of course these do have an important part to play, but they apply to the different question as to what form the help to deprived countries should take. For important discussion of these issues see Peter Singer Practical Ethics and his How are we to Live?

Should we, as you suggest share our wealth with the poor? The answer will depend on what you take the aim of the help to poor countries is. Is it to relieve poverty, develop the economy, if so it is not clear that such actions will be successful (at least in the long term). Perhaps we should be more concerned with the emancipation of the people in the poor countries, if so then we need to change many of the current institutions, e.g. governments, banks and multinationals. As well as the policies and activities: high interest debts, the exploitation of the natural resources of the countries by greedy business often based in the developed countries. In which case perhaps we need to take more action in our own nations, in order to fight for changes against the injustices of the system.

Brian Tee

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Shelly asked:

How is justice related to equality and how is equality related to the distinctive identities and other circumstances of individuals such as age, race, and disability?

One aspect of justice is fair or equal treatment of human beings. People who call for equal (political) treatment (practical maxim of equality) of human beings normally hold that all human beings, just because they are human beings have the right to equal treatment in certain areas like the right to vote, equal treatment in court but also equal opportunities e.g. regarding education and jobs, and equal distribution of necessary goods e.g. medical treatment.

As you can already see from this sentence there are a number of notions linked together (which is why justice/equality is such an interesting topic) — in the following I will just try and give you some ideas you may want to explore ...

The notion of equality of human beings i.e. the factual statement that human beings are equal (as the basis of the request that human beings should be treated equal). The problem with that, as Bernard Williams has pointed out in 'The Idea of Equality', in: Problems of Self (1973), is that if you take it literally it is too strong i.e. wrong because there are numerous counterexamples where human beings are clearly not equal, e.g. our genetic make-up differs, we differ in talents, upbringing, social circumstances, physical strength and health etc. On the other hand if you interpret the statement in the weak sense it is too weak, because it is trivial to say that the only thing which is equal is the fact that we are all human beings. Williams suggests that between these two extremes the factual statement could be supported by the following considerations:

1. All human beings feel pain. Any society that discriminates certain groups using a criterion like colour of the skin does so either arbitrarily (because the criterion is irrelevant) or simply acts wrongly i.e. disregarding the capacity of these human beings for feeling pain. In fact according to Williams the latter is the case, demonstrated by the fact that people/societies who act like that normally rationalise the discrimination additionally i.e. they do not say that colour of skin is sufficient for different treatment but they attribute some character deficiencies or lack of intelligence or other weakness to the group they are discriminating against. This shows according to Williams that they in fact know and agree that all human beings are equal and have therefore a claim to equal treatment.

2. All human beings have moral capacities: Kant has argued that all men deserve equal respect as moral agents. Williams finds a problem with this as Kant in order to remove this claim from contingencies (i.e. he does not want to allow the capacity for moral action to vary like other talents or capacities vary between men) makes it a transcendental capacity; this results however in the problem that there is a conflict between this vague notion of equal moral agents and the practice of holding men responsible for their actions according to their capacities (e.g. taking into account mental illness, moment of extreme anger etc.). Williams however finds that something is left of this notion in that we can request for every man that his point of view is considered, what it means for him to live his life (i.e. empathy, putting oneself in his shoes). One point Williams makes is that we should bear in mind that society can influence our consciousness (i.e. extreme oppression can lead to the oppressed adopting the same point of view, that they deserve such treatment. Therefore lack of suffering is in itself no guarantee that the system is fair).

Considering the notion of equal opportunities in unequal circumstances: Equality is often discussed regarding the distribution of (limited) goods: Williams argues that in cases of need such need should be the sufficient and operative criterion for distribution. Example: Sick people have the need (illness) and should therefore receive medical treatment (the good). The practice where money becomes a major factor in the allocation of medical treatment (rich people receive better or earlier treatment, the poor delayed, less good treatment or none at all) is according to Williams irrational.

The situation regarding goods that are allocated based on merit is somewhat different — they may be desired by those that do not merit them or not desired by those who merit them: Example: University education. In these cases there may be a mechanism to allocate the good e.g. certain grades to be reached at the final exams qualify you to enter university. The problem with this is that the circumstances may give certain groups an unfair advantage so that opportunities are equal only in name. Consider for example that rich people can afford tuition, can send their children to better schools etc. In those cases the question arises whether these underlying circumstances should be altered to provide truly equal opportunities? Williams sees a problem regarding where to draw the line e.g. should one (if it were possible) use brain surgery, genetic modification to erase differences that give advantage to more talented/ intelligent children? Carried to the extreme the notion of equal opportunity collides (and threatens to obliterate) the notion of personal identity and also the notion of equal respect deserved despite existing differences.

Robert Nozick has criticised the idea of need giving a right to receive certain goods. He pointed out that e.g. in the case of medical treatment the doctor providing the treatment has a legitimate right to want to make a living out of his talent/skill, and that this is the important consideration in the distribution of medical treatment. Nozick thinks society should not interfere with unequal situations that have arisen as the result of legitimate actions. You can think for example of a situation where some people chose to save their money, and pay for a better education of their children, the children consequently get better jobs, they marry in the same social circle and due to good connections do even better etc. The resulting inequality is the outcome of normal and legitimate actions. Nozick holds that people are entitled to have and keep property that they have legitimately earned (notion of entitlement).

It is noteworthy that often people argue for certain rights (which in fact both Williams and Nozick do in this discussion) without explaining where these rights come from (are there natural moral laws and rights or not?).

Consider also this: Is my need to eat a cake a sufficient reason for you to give me your cake or a piece of it (Williams)? On the other hand is your having the cake legitimately a sufficient reason for me not to take it from you if I want it (Nozick)? Is it not after all a question of power to take or to keep the cake? And could one not argue that society is a finely-balanced system of power structures where for example the need of the poor for medical treatment is met not just because of the need but because all of us together have a mutual agreement where all pay tax so that such expenses can be met should we ever need them etc. Obviously we feel differently about need for cancer treatment than requests for luxury goods, so should society provide for basic needs of all? What are these basic needs? And is it ultimately not a case of what a society can afford, and therefore a question of wealth?

In a restricted sense of 'justice' consider justice in court — in democracies people are supposed to be equal before the law, but the rich and famous can afford better counsel and can take their case if required through numerous appeals, which is much more difficult for the poor. Education might also play a role in whether you realise all the options you have to make your case. Again — existing circumstances can give the advantage to certain groups as opposed to others.

Helene Dumitriu

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Alex asked:

Does poverty diminish human dignity?

The short answer to your question is yes. Poverty has always been regarded by the public at large, and particularly the 'well-off', as a condition afflicting the lowly, the lazy, the careless, the uneducated, the undignified and the petty criminal. It has rarely been regarded that these conditions are the effects of poverty, but are usually considered to be the causes.

Although very young at the time I have retained vivid memories of what it was like to be poor throughout the 'slump period' of the 1930's. Although there were vain attempts to retain dignity, often by pretending that things were not as bad as they seemed, it was found that poverty was not a condition that could be successfully hidden, the facade was easily penetrated, particularly by the 'better-off'. Attempting toretain dignity was often carried to extremes, where some were willing to die rather than accept charity. A silly and futile sacrifice when the importance of dignity depended not on subjective feeling and emotion, but on objective perception by the public at large. Dignity is not an obvious attribute shown by someone standing in a long dole queue without overcoat in freezing cold or pouring rain. Neither is it plainly revealed by someone standing for hours in similar conditions outside a factory, hoping to be chosen to do a job for less than the going rate, and probably less than they would get on the dole. There was no great sense of dignity felt by children at school who stood with their backs to the wall in the playground, so that no-one would see the large patch or hole in the seat of their trousers. Down-at-heel shoes, or shoes that pinched because they were now too small, hardly allowed a dignified walk across a class room or a school stage.

However dignified the poor try to be their efforts are always under-mined by their perceived condition. Attempts to overcome this have usually been by way of cleanliness. In the 1930's, and indeed later, regular attention was devoted to scrubbing doorsteps and flags outside their homes, windows sparkled, there was a rigid adherence to the weekly wash day, if people dressed in rags they were proud to declare that they were clean rags. Homes, though sparsely furnished were often spotless and reeked of disinfectant. In contrast to this, however, there were those who had sunk so low with despair that they did not give a damn what their homes looked like or what they wore; these were the ones who usually found solace in the local pub and often became the stereotypes of the poverty stricken, having abandoned the futile effort to maintain a sense of dignity.

Whilst nations insist that capitalism is the utilitarian objective in this world then there will always be poverty, rich people gain their wealth at the expense of others, in a capitalist system there must always be an upper and a lower class, it could not work otherwise.

John Brandon

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