Social justice looks at how a society chooses to distribute the things that we value, among them income, wealth, powers, and more. Social justice asks: What is the right thing to do? Nearly 2,500 years ago, Plato got the philosophical discussion of justice going, and we have yet to agree on an understanding.
Contemporary philosopher Michael J. Sandel identifies three goals a society can use to guide the distribution of goods: we can either seek to maximize welfare, or to promote the virtue of the citizenry, or to respect individual freedoms. Each of these rival ideas requires a different understanding of justice, as each finds its way into our lawmaking.
The welfare idea that social justice is determined by the consequences of a policy is rooted in the philosophy of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that the right thing to do is that which maximizes welfare. For utilitarians, a just policy is one that increases the collective happiness of society. Utilitarians believe that the highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness by weighting costs and benefits.
Alternatively, the idea that for lawmaking to be just, it should elevate the virtue of citizens reflects the Aristotelian view that the law should be interested in questions of what is a good life. According to Aristotle, the law should allocate goods so as to promote the virtues of the citizenry. But, since there are competing conceptions of a virtuous society, our modern thinking is that, the law should neutral on this respect. The theories of justice that underpin our rights should not rely on any particular conception of virtue. Freedom requires that citizens, on their own, choose the best way to live.
Both of these ideas of social justice conflict with Professor Sandel’s third approach to justice, which defines justice as respecting freedoms and individual rights. This is a free-market conception of justice that recognizes and safeguards our voluntary choices. Markets allow people to choose how to value the things they decide to exchange. Markets respect our individual freedoms.
The utilitarian idea that a just policy is one that increases the collective happiness of society sounds reasonable until we begin to explore its values. For example, is morality a question of calculating cost and benefits, or are there human rights above such calculations? Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) made the utilitarian position clear when he scorned natural rights calling them “nonsense upon stilts.” Utilitarianism can not respect individual rights given its focus on the “greatest happiness.”
In our society, these philosophical concepts are best illustrated by policies that tax the rich disproportionally to purportedly help the poor. Let’s use taxation as an example. According to the Internal Revenue Service, our tax policies in 2014 showed that:
The share of income earned by the top 1 percent of taxpayers was 20.6 %. But their share of federal income taxes paid was 39.5%. This 39.5 share of income taxes paid was greater than the share of taxes paid by the bottom 90% combined (29.1%). The top 50% of all taxpayers paid 97.3% of all individual income taxes while the bottom 50% paid the remaining 2.7 percent
To some, this disproportionate taxation is as it should be. To others, it violates our fundamental rights. Regardless of what may be the good intentions of government, persons, (in this example high-income individuals), should not be used as means to the welfare of others. On what grounds is our labor at the disposal of society as a whole? Human beings deserve government’s respect, regardless of who they are, or how much they earn. These tax policies treat high-income individuals as instruments to advance the collective happiness of others.
Our tax code reflects a conception of justice based on a certain understanding of the good life, and it is in conflict with freedom. Even desirable ends must not supersede individual rights. Social justice is not about maximizing happiness. Social justice is about respecting people as ends in themselves. Let’s be careful, if democratic consent validates the appropriation of property, does it also justify the taking of freedom?