A Theory of Social Justice

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I’ve previously mentioned The Examined Life, the film and book that examines the views of eight contemporary philosophers, and after watching the film American Casino yesterday — which investigates the subprime lending scandal and presents some awful examples of social injustice — tonight I wanted to share a quote from Martha Nussbaum.

In the film, Nussbaum spent most of her allotted ten minutes explaining and then critiquing the concept of the social contract, as advanced by Enlightenment philosophers, which is behind a lot of our social thinking today, including the thinking that underpins the financial markets.

She argues that social contract theory has never sufficiently accounted for differences in opportunity and natural ability. As an alternative, she mentioned Aristotle’s view that society should be organized to provide each person with what they need to live a full and fulfilled life.

That idea was the starting point of what is now called the capabilities approach to welfare economics and social justice. After the jump, I’ve placed the quotes that made the biggest impression on me.

The filmmaker, Astra Taylor, asks: “It seems obvious that people have motivations other than mutual advantage when they enter into relationships. Why does the social contract model ignore this?”

Nussbaum responds, with specific reference to disabled people:

Theorists of the social contract made a simplifying assumption that people only cooperate for the sake of mutual advantage, and they didn’t necessarily deny that people have, in real life, other motives for cooperation. But they thought it would be simpler [to] see whether you can get an adequate theoretical structure out of that.

Now, actually, I think that just didn’t work. You really need to record and include in your theory the fact that people cooperate for love of one another, out of compassion, out of respect for human dignity in one another, but also just simply out of love of humanity. All those things are real, but they’re theoretically important because they show us why we would want to create a society that fully included people with mental and physical disabilities. Now, mutual advantage cannot answer that question because many, many people with mental and physical disabilities do not repay [the expense] that we take in caring for them… Those who say, ‘Oh, those people don’t pay their own way’ — well, that kind of thinking is what has made it very difficult to solve this problem politically. That’s why we need to build into [the theory] the fact that just love of a person is an adequate reason to include that person in one’s political structure and as a full equal.

And on the above-referenced capabilities approach:

We begin with an idea that all human beings have an inherent dignity and what they require is life circumstances that are worthy of that dignity, which I believe is equal in everyone. So what does that mean? Here I draw on Aristotle and I also draw on the young Marx, who talked about a life that is truly human … a life in which we can use all our basic human equipment in a way that’s not just minimal but flourishing.

In my view, it’s the job of a decent society to provide all the people in that society with underpinnings of that decent human life.

Those underpinnings are the ten capabilities, listed and described here. The idea is that, if a society actually manages to set things up so that its citizens are not frustrated in exercising these capabilities, a basic level of social justice will have been achieved in that society.

It’s difficult to imagine a financial marketplace that would have anything but the creation of wealth as its primary goal; but it’s just a little easier to imagine a society that would keep the market’s greed in check by insisting that any wealth created be put to the service of human happiness, or at least that it not create more unhappiness.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →