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Mark LeBar
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At the very least, it is worth flagging the idea that the concerns about or with ideal theory raised here concern a specific conception of justice, namely justice as (primarily) a property of institutional structures, rather than justice in interpersonal relationships. (Or: a view on which institutional justice does not reduce to justice of interpersonal relationships, as I would think it does.) I'm really not sure how much of the problem of ideal theory persists if you have the reductive view. After all, an account of what is required of me to treat you justly need not change much whether you treat me justly or not (though how it says I should treat you surely would.)
I wonder, for those like Keleberg and Kervick, and others who think it is so obvious that markets failed: how long have governments been around? What has been the poverty rate for most of human history? When did that begin to change? Is it just an accident that markets and market-enabling institutions (like effective legal systems and robust rights to private property) came about in the same times and places that real change in the relentless poverty that characterized human history through recorded history also changed? That, to me, is a simply incredible reading of human history. Government could have fed nobody if not for food that markets allowed to be produced. That's not a final word on human social arrangements, of course. But it's a first word that, if it is lost sight of, will doom everything else we have to say to irrelevance at best.
Dave: I'm not sure I'm entirely following you, but I think I agree that the idea of the way I am suggesting thinking about things is that if (1) (or 1A) is false, then (2) is also false, but it's not the case that the truth of (2) makes(1) (or 1A) false. There could be a common cause (or source, or ground) for the truth of both claims, and that would be my view. That common source is a story about our being end-seekers and social, and the way those features of our nature wash through into (i) the productive activities that are produced under market-liberal political and legal institutions, and not under others (or not to anything like the same degree) and (ii) the kind of regard it makes sense for us to accord to each other, in light of the fact that we are beings who are like that (viz. end-seekers, in roughly the way Aristotle characterizes). That also means, you're right, that (1A) is really better as an expression of what I would want to claim. It's really a comparative claim, and I probably wouldn't even resist making it out to be a necessary condition on social arrangements that would produce the material conditions of human well-being. (1A) is weaker than that but stronger than (1), which is okay I think, at least in this context.
David, that's good to know. Thanks! I suspect that a large part (maybe all) of the explanation of our difference in judgments about what counterfactuals we think we can make sense of is explained by or underwritten by our differing philosophical anthropologies. Suppose, for example, that you had a really simple-minded hedonist view about what motivates us, and thus in a crucial sense (for practical purposes) what we are like. Then I think the counterfactual would be much more imaginable, because the pertinent features of human life would be as it were only fortuitously occurring in the same beings. They'd pull apart easily. Other views vary to the degree they see those things as linked in ways that tie to more or less essential features of what we take ourselves to be like. That would explain a lot about our different assessments of the plausibility of such judgments, no?
Jay, you ask about #2 — "what role does this [that the poor do well] play?" For my part, it might provide a certain kind of confirmation or vindication that social arrangements that are just — not as a matter of some macro-level institutional property (as social justice views have it), but as implementing micro-level just relations between individuals across society — also are congruent with (and perhaps at least partially causally responsible for) outcomes that we have reason to seek and appreciate. That doesn't make the outcomes themselves matters of justice, any more than the fact that such a society might also produce people who are well-educated makes it a matter of education. There are numerous close relationships such a fact might have to justice without itself even partially constituting what justice requires.
One question is the degree to which state action has as its explicit objective improving the lot of the worst off. You're probably right that this is much smaller than much rhetoric would suggest. But another question is how often the aim of improving the lot of the worst off is invoked as a justifying principle in political discourse, and here I would think it would dominate just about everything but debate about defense allocations (until we talk about closing plants, and then once again we get concerns about inflicting harm on the worst off...). So I think your point tends to undersell the significance of commitment to "social justice," or commitment against it, as a practical matter of public policy.
Allow me to add a note of concurrence from a different discipline. I teach philosophy, and the choice set is a little different (Wall St. banks seem less interested in philosophy PhDs for some reason!). Still the same essential contrast is there. Lots of kids like playing with the ideas in philosophy (for obvious reasons), but lack the sense for the opportunity costs and the competition for the few jobs there are. I tell them that grad school (at least PhD programs) are probably not for them unless they cannot imagine living their lives any other way than doing philosophy. For me, that discovery took me a few years doing something else. But that's the level of commitment it requires.
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Jan 9, 2010