Why Rights or Justice?

I’ve just posted a new video on YouTube.

It talks to Raymond Geuss’ critique of Nozick’s and Rawls’ notions of rights and justice.

Whilst you’re at it, here’s a short pro-Rawls discussion about his Theory of Justice:


Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

All equalities are not equal

I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.

Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat
Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.

“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” [1]

Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:

  1. Ontological Equality

  2. Equality of Condition

  3. Equality of Opportunity

  4. Equality of Outcome

Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.

Tautological Equality

In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.

1 = 1

2 = 2

1 + 1 = 2

Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.

Ontological Equality

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this  aspect.

Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?

The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.

Man U
Manchester United football club players

Equality of Condition

Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?

The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.

Starting Line
High school girls at a starting line

Equality of Opportunity

My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.

Cage Match
Cage Match Fight

This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).

A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.

The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.



Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.

Substantive Equality of Opportunity

A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.

The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.

Image of Alice taking with a dodo bird
‘At last the Dodo said, everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.

The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).

Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.

Dancers represented in Harrison Bergeron


In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.

In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.

End Notes

[1] Equality: Sociological & Philosophical Perspectives, Brighouse & Wright, 2009 (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Sociology%20915%20&%20Philosophy%20955%202009%20syllabus.pdf, retrieved 5-9-2017)

Also note, that I reserve the right to make inline edits to this post in an attempt to extend, clarify, and otherwise elucidate this topic on equality.