In 2018, Arizona State University became the subject of a critical New York Times article following the school’s decision to establish a program for the study of “political economy and moral science.” Designed to focus on under-taught works such as Adam Smith’s economic philosophy and The Federalist Papers, the program came under fire because it was “too heavily focused on white male thinkers from the United States and Europe.”
This kind of racial reductionism is common in academia. In 2017, students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, bent on “decolonizing” the syllabus and “address[ing] the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism,” demanded that thinkers such as Plato, Descartes, and Kant give way, for the most part, to non-Western philosophers. If white European philosophers must be studied, let it be from “a critical standpoint.”
At first glance, it is not unreasonable for students who want to immerse themselves in non-Western cultures to maximize every opportunity to do precisely that, even if it means relegating the giants of European philosophical thought to the footnotes. But that is not how philosophy works. Its thinkers are interdependent, each relating to the others. There can be no comprehensive study of Kant without the study of his contemporary David Hume. Nor can Descartes be comprehended without understanding Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
The idea that Western and non-Western philosophy can be entirely compartmentalized is a product of ignorance. Some of the most influential works of medieval Islamic philosophy, for example, were composed in Spain—a nation that engaged in a fair bit of colonizing long after its Islamic influences had been integrated into Iberian society. Those Islamic philosophers, heavily influenced by their classical predecessors, in turn had a profound effect on the philosophical minds that came after them. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza set Europe on a course toward the Enlightenment, but he was also a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew from Portugal. Spinoza’s works are, however, unlikely to appear on the preferred reading list of London’s irate anti-colonial student activists. Their objections are less a matter of geography or ethnicity than a self-referential preconception about what they believe ought to be considered white European thought.
An item posted on the website Accredited Times praising the anti-white philosophy campaign asserts that our own age, graced by the philosophy of the great hip-hop artists, is “far superior” to that of the ancient Greeks. “When modern geniuses like Kanye West and Dr. Dre are still very much alive,” writes a self-described “transpecies activist, new age spiritual guru, and chief diversity coordinator,” “it is nothing short of perverse that our youth are forced to study philosophy from over two thousand years ago.”
These social-justice activists don’t know what they don’t know, but they also don’t seem to care that they don’t know it. They are not familiar with the Western philosophy they claim to resent. They don’t appear to know much about philosophy in general—neither the philosophy of others nor even their own. The pursuit of social justice is rich with history. It’s a savage irony that since the philosophical minds who gave birth to the concept of social justice were, by and large, white males, they would be spurned by their disciples.
Aristotle was among the first Western philosophers to examine the nature of justice—who should enjoy its benefits and how inequality results in or exacerbates injustices. If justice is viewed as a commodity, Aristotle thought, it should be equitably distributed across a population. Because all commodities are finite, a happy medium lies somewhere between getting more than your fair share and not getting enough.
Aristotle saw justice in terms familiar to future generations of redistributionists, even Karl Marx. If a society is possessed of only a handful of unique musical instruments, for example, Aristotle thought that they should be distributed to those who can play them best, giving society the maximum benefit from their use. This might seem a reasonable judgment if you don’t consider some of the more intangible virtues we prize now, such as dignity, property rights, and enfranchisement.
Aristotle endorsed equality, but not as we understand it today. He took for granted slavery and the inferiority of women. In fact, Aristotle saw the human condition as suited to social stratification. His concept of justice exemplifies a problem with which all of his successors would struggle. If justice is a virtue, it’s a strange one. It is not doled out by the charitable, and its recipients are not obliged to be grateful upon its delivery. If justice is giving each man his “due,” then those who are owed justice may seize it—by force, if necessary. But who determines what is “due” to someone?
Aristotle’s descendants were not as comfortable as he was with a stratified society. Subsequent thinkers including Rousseau, Hegel, and eventually Marx all took a stab at understanding and addressing the causes of social inequality. Many philosophers of justice during the Enlightenment focused on the establishment of just institutions. With the right social mechanisms, they reasoned, inequality will take care of itself.
This was not sufficient for John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of our time. At Harvard, he built a theory of social justice that animates its activists today, many of whom have probably never read a single word of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice.
How do you create a just institution? Rawls prescribes what he calls the “veil of ignorance,” according to which justice is “redistributed” by those who have no idea who the lucky and unlucky recipients will be. The veil ensures that the distributors of justice cannot know the class, abilities, tastes, physical characteristics, or morality of the people who will benefit from their actions. As much as these distributors of justice might want to bestow advantages on themselves or their particular tribe, they are blinded by the veil. Their adversaries might end up being the beneficiaries of their unfair distribution of social goods as much as their allies will.
Therefore, the operator behind the veil will choose the fairest distribution possible—to make sure his own people are not disadvantaged by the system. No one should enjoy an unearned advantage in a just society, Rawls theorizes, and the veil eliminates that temptation. Rawls contends that this is the place from which any just society must begin.
“Activists, social workers, and policymakers may have absorbed only secondhand versions of Rawls,” the sociologist Carl Bankston says. “Nevertheless, social justice advocates in general sound quite Rawlsian.” He notes, however, that “seeing people as positions rather than as individuals implicitly reduces them to categories.” Bankston observes that Rawlsian thought leads to the division of society based on perceived levels of “victimization or oppression.”
Here is where Rawls’s veil falters somewhat for those seeking social justice in the here and now. Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools, and Loving v. Virginia, which struck down bans on interracial marriage, could not ignore the identities of those who suffered discrimination and disenfranchisement. The policymakers who crafted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts knew full well which groups were being persecuted and who was doing the persecuting. In these cases, applying the veil to the redistribution of justice, both social and economic, would have been both counterproductive and morally obtuse.
This is indeed a key weakness of Rawls’s unworldliness. His thought experiment about the veil of ignorance is exactly that, an experiment, and that could apply only in a world in which everyone agreed that it was the only just system. And besides that, Rawls’s conception of the ideal just society is itself problematic, argued his Harvard colleague Robert Nozick in 1974’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Resources are not, Nozick wrote, the product of divine providence. All goods that exist today were crafted, produced, extracted, or designed by the hands of man. Insofar as someone has secured his resources legitimately, he has every right to them. The Rawlsian idea that resources—both tangible and intangible—should be distributed independently of the personal investment that brought them into existence has been tried in the Communist world. Nozick observed that conditions in Marxist societies were not only objectively unjust but also wildly economically inefficient.
While Nozick criticized Rawlsian philosophy for its impracticality, the economist Friedrich A. Hayek savaged its immorality in The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his three-volume philosophical work, Law, Legislation, and Liberty. A passionate critic of redistributionism, Hayek had no use for “social” anything. Calling it “a weasel word” that “wholly destroys” the meaning of whatever it happens to modify, Hayek deemed social justice among the worst of the lot of 160-odd “social” somethings.
“Everybody talks about social justice, but if you press people to explain to you what they mean by social justice…nobody knows,” Hayek told William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line in 1977. He dismissed the expression as “empty and meaningless,” “a quasi-religious belief with no content whatsoever,” having the potential to lead to “the destruction of the indispensable environment in which the traditional moral values alone can flourish, namely personal freedom.” It is an “intellectually disreputable” idea, which carries with it “the mark of demagoguery and cheap journalism, which responsible thinkers ought to be ashamed to use because, once its vacuity is recognized, its use is dishonest.” He was not a fan.
Hayek’s principal objection to social justice was that it distorts the marketplace, which he viewed as the most powerful engine of human potential and happiness. “Few circumstances will do more to make a person energetic and efficient than the belief that it depends chiefly on him whether he will reach the goals he has set himself,” Hayek contended. He reasoned, therefore, that social justice is an illusion.
Rawls’s idea of a just institution is a fallacy, Hayek declared. The minute that an institution starts redistributing society’s goods, it becomes unjust. The more a set of institutions commits itself to addressing inequalities, the more inequalities it causes: “This would go on until government literally controlled every circumstance which could affect any person’s well-being.” No one can depend on anyone but himself to secure his maximum economic benefit. To give in to the temptations of distributive justice is to empower the state, invite collectivism, socialism, and ultimately tyranny.
Social justice is “a demand that the state should treat different people differently in order to place them in the same position,” Hayek told Buckley. “Making people equal—a goal of governmental policy—would force government to treat people very unequally, indeed.”
Hayek did not see the state as a purely oppressive institution, nor did he resent basic welfare programs such as social safety nets or public education. The libertarian dogmatist Ayn Rand described him as “an example of our most pernicious enemy” because of his willingness to compromise with the demands of the modern liberal state and its voters. Hayek did, however, understand that Rawlsian ideals break down when they are applied in the real world. Men are fallible, advantage-seeking political animals, a truth that cannot be theorized away. The veil as Rawls envisioned it is an entirely theoretical construct that denies essential human nature.
Though they may be loath to admit it, social-justice advocates agree with Hayek on one core point: Perfect equality isn’t just unattainable, it’s undesirable. Like society’s tangible goods, intangible goods such as justice simply cannot be doled out from behind a veil of ignorance without perpetuating the very injustices we are trying to rectify. True justice, social-justice advocates argue, requires a social reversal. Oppressors must be subjugated and the subjugated must be lifted up. The veil would prevent a just society from achieving that objective.
Modern social-justice advocates have no interest in a color-blind society. Nor would they accept the notion that just institutions can be trusted to maximize collective benefit. They are suspicious of institutions in general, in fact, since those institutions are invariably the flawed inventions of corruptible men. They are unconvinced that perfect equality is desirable, because such a naive ideal ignores historical injustices. We must all bear burdens that are passed on to us at birth by our parents. These are obligations we cannot shrug off, no matter how hard we try.
In truth, social-justice advocates aren’t pure Rawlsian theorists, but they are not doctrinal Marxists either. They’re certainly not libertarians. So what are they? Their theory of justice is rooted in a more subjective notion—a hatred of luck.
Can institutions be made morally perfect? Can mankind? The answer is, alas, no. So the social-justice movement’s intellectual class has largely concluded that the pursuit of pure equality is not just a waste of time, it’s ethically flawed.
These theorists are content to use the noble idea of equality as a starting point, but they veer off the paths forged by Aristotle, Hume, and Rawls when individual actions or circumstances should preclude one person from receiving the same justice as another who is more deserving. How can it be just for people to enjoy the benefits or suffer the burdens associated with the conditions into which they were born? Are the less fortunate and the historically “privileged” truly equivalent? If we treated them equally, is that justice? Or does justice require confiscating benefits, perceived to be unearned, from some to give to others?
Andrew Lister, a lecturer at Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of Social Justice, expands on the notion that true distributive justice may have to account for the luck of the draw:
The rationale for focusing on social positions is that people will be born into different starting points in life, which make it more or less likely that they will be able to succeed. People are born with different levels of innate talent. And assuming that liberty must permit private childrearing in some form, we will never have perfect equality of opportunity. Moreover, even if there were perfectly fair equality of opportunity and no differences in levels of innate talent, any economic system involving the market will involve a substantial element of luck. People who are willing to play by the rules will suffer unmerited failure; others less meritorious will win success. . . . Since everyone depends on the cooperation of others, we ought to take advantage of this morally arbitrary luck to claim a greater share of what we produce together—not unless this inequality will make everyone better off.
This is an opinion that can be arrived at only by those with a powerful aversion to internalizing the lessons of history. Eliminating hereditary claims to title and nobility is one thing; neutralizing less tangible benefits based on a subjective assessment of “privilege” is something else. Social leveling is predicated on the sacrifice of individual liberty and potential. Indeed, as Lister concedes, “maximizing expected opportunity means being willing to accept that some may have very small chances in life in order that others who have already greater chances can have greater chances still.”
For the social-justice left, that is an unacceptable concession. Theirs is a crusade against “brute luck.” Those who believe in this philosophy and are familiar with the literature on the matter call themselves “luck egalitarians.” Natural talent, opportunity, or even personal tastes—these are disparate circumstances that must be corrected through social leveling.
“The aim of justice as equality is to eliminate so far as it is possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own,” writes Richard Arneson of the University of California at San Diego. As he and other critics of luck egalitarianism point out, this kind of forced leveling only makes people bitter, ungovernable, and unproductive. These circumspect critics of luck call themselves “rational egalitarians.”
The Spanish academic Anca Gheaus tries to smooth over these divisions by identifying how social goods can be distributed in a way that doesn’t make the public want to rise up in violent revolution: “To promote equality of status, we could eliminate (especially early) school selection based on merit and deemphasize quantitative evaluation of pupils and exams. To promote equality of power and inclusion we can, for instance, plan towns having in mind the goal of racial integration or introduce workplace democracy.” This is the fatal conceit of the haughty technocrat.
Gheaus has inadvertently allowed the social-justice mask to fall. Believers in her particular form of social justice see society not as an infinitely complex set of interactions and traditions shaped by trial and error over generations but as one big problem to fix. What’s more, they think they are sharp enough to fix it. If only they had the power to remake the world in their own image, this would be a just society at long last. This kind of hubris inevitably gives way to power hunger.
The pursuit of a purely just, rational, and equal society has preoccupied philosophical minds for millennia despite the impossibility of ever achieving such a thing. By defining justice as a tangible and therefore finite good, social-justice advocates are trapping themselves in a constricted and ultimately doomed paradigm.