Highlights From The Comments On Justice Creep
A lot of comments on Justice Creep fell into three categories:
First, people who thought some variety of: yes, all this stuff is definitely a justice issue, and it’s good that language is starting to reflect that more. For example, Adnamanil:
So... as someone who actually does use "___" Justice, quite frequently, I'd like to say that I think it's a good thing to reframe "helping the poor" or "saving the poor" as "pursuing economic justice." I don't think it's a good thing for people to think of themselves as saviors, to me that's a really unhealthy and unhelpful mindset which results in people who aren't themselves poor thinking they can be the experts and the decision-makers, and that there is something wrong with poor people, that they need to be "saved" or "fixed." We live in a world where there is enough food to feed everyone, yet people go hungry; enough shelter to keep everyone warm, yet people go cold. To me, that says there is something wrong with our system of resource distribution, not with the people who ended up, for one reason or another, being left out of it.
Does that result in a sense of responsibility to fix the system? Yes! Does it imply that we don't live in Utopia? Yes! Because we don't. And I don't think we should pretend to. But it also implies that we *could* live in utopia. It demonstrates a real hope about the possibility of utopia. It says, "if we could figure out how to live together better, we could all have enough to eat and be warm."
Regardless of whether it is useful -and I hope it is- I think that honesty compels a clear-eyed person to talk about many of these things in terms of justice, even in the narrowest conception of justice.
The mistake in Scott’s article is assuming that these forms of justice are merely metaphors or analogies on criminal justice. Many of these are about justice in exactly the same sense that crimes are about justice- no metaphor required. Of course, they are also about being just in other senses- justice was never just about crime. For example, one can detect demands for social justice in the bible that go far beyond "wouldn't it be nice to help people", but nonetheless aren’t framed in terms of the criminal law.
Nevertheless, yes, climate justice and economic justice- for example- are also about being just in the same way laws against murder are- no stretching of meaning is required…
Read the rest of his post for more.
Second, people who think justice terminology is a dastardly plot to make people violent, hateful, and bigoted. I admit my original post was not guiltless here, but some commenters went much further:
I think there has been a general shift towards villifying our social/political opponents. “I believe in helping women” leaves open a discussion of “how”. “I support justice for women” implies that all persons who disagree with my beliefs are evil. Similarly we use words like “misogynistic” and “racist” with ever widening meaning because those words label our social opponents as evil.
I notice that "bringing justice" licenses any amount of violence on the bringer's part, as long as the claimed crime is outrageous enough. And violence has been in vogue recently.
Third, this one sentence comment by Anonymous Coward: “How long before 'incels' campaign for 'sexual justice'?”
I understand why some people will find this trollish or uncouth, but I thought it captured the heart of the matter better than anyone else.
The argument for why poverty is a justice issue goes something like this:
Some people are suffering terribly
It’s not their fault, and they’ve done nothing to “deserve to suffer”
Other people have much more than they need
This has been brought about through the choices of individuals and governments. Maybe nobody specifically says “I choose for Jeff Bezos to be a billionaire and Somali orphans to starve to death.” But a lot of people keep giving more money to Jeff Bezos and not helping Somali orphans. And governments generally enforce (or at least refuse to intervene against) the economic system that makes this keep happening. And voters keep re-electing the politicians who allow this.
Therefore, there is injustice.
Now consider incels. Not necessarily actually-existing incels, but some hypothetical best-case scenario for the philosophy. Let’s say a guy with a birth defect that makes him horribly deformed, nobody will date him, and this makes him depressed and suicidal. Don’t tell me these people don’t exist, I’ve met them. Once again:
These people are suffering terribly
It’s not their fault, and they’ve done nothing to “deserve to suffer”
Other people have much more (sex) than they need
This has been brought about through the choices of individuals and governments. Maybe nobody specifically says “I choose for this hot guy to have sex at a dozen different parties a month, and this other guy to be loveless forever.” But a lot of people keep having sex with the hot guy and rejecting the deformed person. And governments generally enforce (or at least refuse to intervene against) the cultural norms that make this keep happening. And voters keep re-electing the politicians who allow this.
If you don’t want to complete this with “…there is injustice”, then congratulations, you have rediscovered the way that almost every society throughout history has thought about inequality.
[I have had this argument before enough times to know people always try to weasel out of it. Some people insist that every single lonely person in the world deserves it, because loneliness is a 100% reliable signal of being a misogynist who hates women - (What about lonely women? Probably racist.) Other people say that if these people just used better deodorant and learned social skills, they would all get partners, so it’s their own fault for not trying (much like how if poor people just worked hard and learned to code, they would all be millionaires). Still other people say that sex and relationships aren’t a human right (but a First World lifestyle with free college education and public transport and high-tech health care is, that’s just what God decided when He granted us inalienable rights, I don’t make the rules) and nothing that isn’t about a human right can be unjust or unfairly distributed. I reject all of these as weaselly.]
This single scenario - incels and “sexual justice” - is almost the lone survivor of a once omnipresent clade - a sort of philosophical living fossil. It’s been so roundly outcompeted by fitter memes - the more modern perspective of “if there’s inequality caused by human choices then that’s unjust by definition” - that it’s hard to remember that the alternative ever existed or is even possible. If this last living fossil ever goes, an entire phylum of philosophical possibility will be lost to human comprehension forever.
Part of my objection to justice creep, which I didn’t explain very well in the post, is that by assuming the “inequality therefore injustice” perspective is right, it denies this whole ancient phylum of philosophical creatures a priori.
When we’re looking at an idea like “sexual justice”, we come up with objections like:
Even though in some sense I’m responsible for this person not having sex, in the sense that I choose not to have sex with him, choose not to vote for candidates who will mandate sex with him, and consume/signal-boost cultural products that have typical beauty standards, this is not the sense where I should actually feel bad or responsible in any way, or where his suffering is sufficiently “my fault” to give me any obligation to help him.
It’s hard to think of a way to help him that doesn’t impinge on important freedoms in some way. Either the government would have to use force to coerce people to have sex with him, or use force to coerce people to give him their money so he could pay others to have sex. Both of these solutions seem to have enough ethical downsides not to be worth it.
Given that there’s some sense in which his problems are caused by acts of God (eg his deformity) and some other sense in which they’re caused by his own failures (eg not becoming so amazing at social skills he can compensate) I don’t feel like society is culpable enough that we have to reorganize it to fix this problem.
Needless to say, if we held the same mindset when thinking about climate or the economy, we could generate the same objections.
And none of these problems come up if we retreat from “sexual justice” to “sexual welfare”. Would it be kind and compassionate to help this person have sex? Straightforwardly yes. (I think some people will object because they interpret “welfare” as “government benefits”, but I’m not talking about this here, just the concept of wanting people to fare well.)
So am I saying that governments shouldn’t help the poor? Or that incels are right about everything and we need state mandated gfs/bfs? Or am I going to weasel out of this? Let’s keep going and see!
Brad Foley writes:
Liberals are focused on a notion of equality and fairness as justice (I think Haidt's moral foundations theory is really helpful here). So the idea that wealthy nations create the most CO2 and cause the most global warming, where poorer nations (mostly already hot) will disproportionately experience the worst effects, is inherently unjust.
I am really grateful to Brad for bringing up Haidt’s moral foundations here - if I’d thought about it when writing the original post, I would have been able to do a much better job.
The transition from “help the poor” to “pursue economic justice” is, in Haidtian terms, a shift from the Care/Harm foundation to the Fairness foundation. I worry about this because I find myself much more comfortable with Care/Harm than with Fairness. I am very easily able to answer questions like “Are incels sad because they don’t have sex? Would it improve their lives if you gave it to them?” (yes, definitely), whereas I have no idea how to answer questions like “Is it unfair that incels don’t have sex?” (see discussion above; it seems unfair in some cosmic sense, but not necessarily in the sense where I feel certain that society is mandated to address the unfairness)
Likewise, when I play computer games, which causes my local power plant to emit a little more CO2, am I harming people on Kiribati? Yes, definitely (to some very small degree). Is it a violation of climate justice that I am allowed to play computer games? Can we at least agree that this is a tougher question?
Comment justice. It is unfair that Scott's blog gets more comments that other blogs?
This is obviously a troll, yet I challenge people to come up with reasons why it’s false that don’t also disprove economic justice or climate justice or so on (please think for two seconds when proposing your reason about whether it has a clear climate or economic equivalent).
So my answer to this is something like “I have no idea what justice is, but I care about people and want them not to be harmed, and I hope this is enough”.
In my ideal world, everyone would get a guaranteed basic income, not because I have any idea what level of UBI would be “just”, but because it’s bad for people to be poor. If they want to use that money to hire a prostitute or a cosmetic surgeon to pursue a romantic relationship, that’s fine with me. If they want to use that as seed money to start a business and become a billionaire and be much richer than everyone else, that’s fine with me too. I can’t guarantee I have solved all of the moral issues that will come up / stay around, but I feel much more confident addressing them on a care/harm foundation than a fairness one.
Devin Kalish on the Effective Altruist Forum writes Brief Thoughts On Justice Creep And Effective Altruism:
When Effective Altruists look at the world, they see lots of cases of unacceptable neglect and apathy and deep power differentials between possible beneficiaries and possible benefiters. Oh, and they also see sentient beings even more numerous that humans alive on Earth being actively/purposely subjected to non-stop torture for minor benefits to humans (that probably aren’t even net beneficial to humans), heavily normalized by culture, and which nearly everyone of moderate affluence on Earth is complicit in. The former types of issues can be given a justicey spin, but once you buy the right moral premises, the latter category screams “justice issue”. Ignoring this dimension makes it hard to see why animal welfare is such a popular cause area, indeed many passionate Effective Altruists I have run into, whether they are directly working on it or not, have a special, very personal investment in it when you talk to them.
This is actually a really great point!
I feel no hesitation using justice terminology for animal issues. If you accept the basic philosophical underpinnings of the vegan worldview - animals are sentient creatures who it’s morally wrong to hurt - then yeah, the fact that we raise them in tiny cages and torture and kill them does seem manifestly unjust.
Why do I find this so much easier to swallow than eg climate justice or economic justice? I guess it’s because climate justice involves summing up a bunch of things which are not themselves unsympathetic (me playing computer games, you playing computer games, so on x 1 billion) yet happen to have bad consequences. Economic justice is the same way - I spend my money on things I want and find useful, you spend your money on things you want and find useful, and at the end we find that Jeff Bezos has $200 billion and a Somali orphan has $0. It doesn’t seem intuitively bad to play computer games or to spend your money on things you want and find useful. Whereas the animal problems really are “someone captures and tortures and kills a bunch of animals”. I guess I’m bringing in sketchy stuff like the act/omission distinction and the doctrine of double effect here, but this really does seem pretty different from the other two cases.
(looking back, there was a disanalogy in that paragraph - the animal equivalent to “me playing computer games” is “me eating meat”, which seems less directly unjust than me being a factory farmer. But the climate equivalent of “running a factory farm” is “running a power plant”, which still seems less directly connected to sea levels rising in Kiribati than capturing/torturing/killing animals is to those animals being captured/tortured/killed)
Despite this feeling like the clearest case of justice to me, I hear the phrase “animal justice” less often than any of the others (though some people apparently do use it). The closest equivalent is “animal rights”. But a lot of the animal activists I know have been deliberately moving away from that to something more like “animal suffering” or “animal welfare”, I think because “animals are endowed with natural rights” is a harder sell than “animals being tortured is bad”.
I’m not sure why the animal and human cases are moving in opposite directions.
Antoine B writes:
A community I know was victimized for decades by the polluting discharges of politically powerful hog farming conglomerates. I don't doubt that some people there wanted retribution against the bad actors, but as far as I could tell, most just *wanted it to stop*.
Isn't it fair to frame their struggle as an appeal to 'environmental justice'?
This seems like the strongest argument against the point I was trying to make above.
I imagine eg the hog farmers dumping toxic sludge into a river, and then it makes lots of people sick. Here people are being at least kind of directly victimized by the hog farmers, in the same way the animals are being directly victimized by the factory farm.
But from the hog farmers’ perspective, they’re just running a hog farm, which (ignoring the vegan objection for now) is a perfectly reasonable non-criminal thing to do.
The hog farm example seems like a middle ground between hurting someone extremely directly (eg factory farms, ordinary violent crime) and hurting people extremely indirectly (eg playing computer games in a way that produces fossil fuels), in a way where now I’m not sure I can distinguish between them meaningfully.
I admit this is awkward for my theory, so I’ll make a deal: I’ll blur some of my distinction between the harm and fairness foundations if you let me use the phrase “hog justice”.
I've got a lot of small complaints but the bigger issue is that the current take [on justice] assumes people go without because of people.
In this model, a state of nature just provides everything, and the only reason there are haves and have not is that human-built systems get in the way. There's no allowance for the idea that maybe those systems provide valuable services, and trying to point out that they often do is either a sign of privilege or bootlicking.
I think this is another framing of the point I made above with incels. Related to the story where someone (Milton Friedman? I can’t find the source) was asked about the causes of poverty, and answered “Poverty doesn’t need a cause, it’s the natural condition, we should be looking for the causes of wealth.”
Is this the same question as whether to use the justice foundation here? That is, if you accept Friedman’s formulation, must you stop seeing (at least some) poverty as economic injustice? If you reject the formulation, is an injustice-based view of economics the only logical option? I’m not sure!
Fairness is something that even some animals understand. Almost every child needs to be told that the world isn't fair, because they start from an innate assumption that it should be. Perhaps we should just talk about fairness instead of justice and then this complaint goes away?
This led to a very interesting subthread between kyb vs. Ruben on whether it’s in fact true that animals and very young children understand fairness. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inequity_aversion_in_animals , this Twitter discussion and the linked papers, and the rest of the conversation.
Daniel Speyer writes:
I recall hearing in childhood religious school back in the early 90s that the English word "charity" comes from the Latin "caritas" meaning compassion, and it's about a feeling of caring deep in your heart. But the Hebrew "tzedakah", often translated as "charity" comes from the root "tzedek" meaning justice.
So if they're smelly and obnoxious and ungrateful and no one could blame you for not feeling compassion, you still need to give because justice calls for them to receive. Similarly if they are so numerous that you can only relate to them abstractly.
Interesting! I think GK Chesterton has said something almost the opposite of this, where Christian charity is superior to justice, because the just man only helps people who ‘deserve’ help, whereas the Christian helps everybody.
And Cloven Pine Games:
Something's off here. What Scott describes as "justice creep" sounds in many ways like a classically Christian understanding of justice. For instance, what is St. John Chrysostom invoking when he says "the coat rotting in your closet belongs by rights to man who has no coat" if not some version of economic justice? And yet, Christianity manages to also talk about many other virtues, and revere many people as saints (including, uh, Chrysostom). So, at least within the worldview from which the concept of saints derives, there is room for both widespread injustice crying out for remedy and genuinely heroic examples of virtue. And why shouldn't there be? The fact we have many injustices to right does not cancel out opportunities to cultivate virtues like patience, fortitude, and temperance.
Young philosopher who teaches Political Phil here (though doesn’t publish, so not an expert).
Here’s the usual train of thought. First, the difference between Morality and is Justice is that the latter is thought to be about ‘the basic structure of society’ with ensuing debate about what the boundaries of this are. But as a first pass, getting cheated on by your partner is thought to be not unjust, but being robbed by the government is, even if you feel the former immoral treatment would be worse.
One thing Rawls took a theory of distributive justice (a theory about how benefits and burdens should be allocated by the basic structure) to be concerned with was ‘the social bases of self-respect’ – some minimal standard of respect with which you can interact with others and pursue your conception of the good life. SJW's have taken this and run with it.
70s/80s philosophers focused on structures and institutions like the law and courts, over time expanding to consider e.g. marriage and the family, and took these to be the main things we’d need to think about to ensure people could live minimally decent lives, see e.g. unfavourable attitudes towards the unemployed. But the modern argument is that our self respect depends a lot on things like culture and norms and stereotypes, so IF you think that the social bases of self respect are very important (such that we should be willing to make tradeoffs against e.g. economic freedom), and IF you think that self respect is strongly affected by cultural ideas, then you’re going to see all cultural ideas and discourse as a domain relevant to achieving justice – hence the kerfuffle over implicit bias, stereotypes, representation in media.
(Of course the causal sociological story actually runs from society to these arguments; philosophers don’t have enough of an impact. Parts of society get certain ideologies, become philosophers and then come up with the justifications. Of course many people also get the social bases direction wrong too – solve the economic inequalities and you’ll probably fix the stereotypes, which we know don’t have all that much power to explain current gaps).
Regarding Mali’s climate being a big part of why it’s poor, though this is true, the dominant line of thought would be that this is not relevant (to justice). Since capitalism has produced such a large surplus, it’s possible to arrange society in such a way that more of that surplus is distributed so everyone meets some minimal standard of living, and our failure to do this means Mali has a claim against richer nations. Even though it’s true that ‘the climate’ is a big part of our causal explanation, which part of a multi-factor causal explanation you pick as being relevant depends on normative assumptions, including how it’s legitimate for people to behave. When a driver crashes their car, the actual speed plays a very large part in the causal story. But assumptions about how drivers, council, and bosses ought to behave is going to determine whether we think the cause is the driver being reckless, council not having the appropriate signage or speed limit, or his boss putting unrealistic demands on the driver, or the wider economy making him poor so that he needs to drive quickly to make a buck in the first place. The speed might not be relevant to us.
We theoretically have enough causal levers that we could have helped Mali without causing climate change at all, despite its climate, and that’s what matters, no analysis of variance or (conveniently) knowledge about economics needed - it’s enough that a just outcome is possible and we collectively have failed to provide it. (This also is why ‘economic justice’ comes up less in discussions than ‘social justice’ – the perception is ‘redistribution’ can be a one-size-fits-most for various economic problems).
The counter argument of course is ‘planned arrangements of societies according to some ideal hasn’t gone well in the past, maybe we should study what things actually work and be concerned with what’s effective given how humans and systems tend to behave’. But of course how humans tend to behave is also a product of culture (more evidence of injustice!) and this kind of reply is less appealing in other domains e.g. if government officials keep being corrupt, you don’t say ‘well maybe instead of calling this state of affairs unjust we should remember what human nature is like, and design systems around it, think about what’s more effective, have a positive narrative’ – most of us would say that though what’s effective matters, this nevertheless seems to be an unjust state of affairs and we should label it as such.
So in general, it seems that there’s a tension between two roles we what the ‘justice’ concept to have. On the one hand, we want to use it to identify things that ought to be changed. On the other hand, we want to be able to create *effective* change, and these goals can trade off against each other. SJWs are identifying parts of the basic structure of society they think we are collectively obliged to change. Scott is drawing attention to the effects this usage has on actually creating progress. In the background are a lot of unstated assumptions / conceptual holes about what kinds of explanations count as relevant, and what causal levers we have or don’t have available.
“If I were in Terra Ignota, my fondest wish would be to excel in some way the same way Sniper, Apollo Mojave, and the other utopian characters excel, bringing glory to my Hive and giving its already-brilliant shine extra luster. But if I were in 1984, my fondest wish would be to bring O’Brien and the others to justice; to watch them suffer, to undo the wound in the world caused by their scheming.”
I think you have this entirely backwards, which may explain the disconnect here.
Think about low-hanging fruit, here.
If you're already in a utopia where everyone is very industrious and excellent, there is very little opportunity to actually improve things by trying to excel yourself; your society is already at the limits of what can be achieved by excelling, the marginal gains from the next marginal individual of average ability trying to excel even harder are slim to none. However, if your utopia is very focused on individual excellence and maybe doesn't spend much time looking at structural factors or inefficient distributions, one person looking for 'injustice' of these types might be able to find quite a lot of overlooked ways to improve things for people, and have a large positive impact.
Similarly, if you're in a 1984 dystopia, where everyone is constantly being brought low and made to suffer... it might feel nice to have your particular tormentors brought low and made to suffer, but it's unlikely to change much of anything or do much good. Even getting rid of the criminals and villains at the top of the foodchain will accomplish little, because there's no one good in your society to replace them. In this world, trying to excel an be personally virtuous may actually have a bigger impact than adding to the pile of persecutions; there may be a lot of people you can easily save and situations you can easily improve, just by caring and working hard, because no one else is doing that.
I think the move towards justice may be *because* we are in some sense a high-industriousness near-utopia; increasing productivity isn't actually going to help because it's already so high that we could instantly solve all of our problems if we directed that productivity towards doing so. Individual excellence can't save us because that excellence has as its best projected outcome becoming a tech billionaire and making a website a lot of people use to share misinformation and cat videos. In this world, the low-hanging fruit really *is* about how resources get directed and distributed, which goals are prioritized, how people are treated, how power is structurally represented and utilized - ie, 'justice' issues.
And on a totally different note, Jim Hays:
So about the "311,000" hits for "climate villains": this estimate is completely wrong.
I don't mean that it's not what Google says on page one of the search results. That part is true. But if you click through to page 15 of the results for this search, you find that the estimate reduces from 311,000 to 149 results. Google has decided that want to always provide an estimate of the total number of results for every search, but they have neither precomputed accurate estimates for all possible searches, nor do they wish to spend the compute to calculate good estimates on the fly for every search, when most people never go past page one. Their estimates can be ok for searches on common words (where they most likely do have cached in a database somewhere the current number of web pages associated with that term), but for compound phrases, they take each of the component words, and do some kind of math to estimate the value. So here, they would look at both "climate" hits (4,470,000,000 results), and "villains" hits (2,190,000,000 results), and maybe a few other parameters, and make a guess as to how often these appear together. Unfortunately, these guesses have almost no relationship to reality.
I often see these number cited as evidence for how prevalent something is. Given Google's reputation and prevalence, I find it pretty irresponsible that they still list these estimates despite knowing how wrong they are. But presumably some product manager likes showing users a lot of zeros to give an inflated impression of how comprehensive Google's web crawling is.
Here's a longer analysis. It's five years old, but not much has changed in that time:
Apparently, Google is currently experimenting with removing this number, which I applaud: https://www.seroundtable.com/google-estimated-number-of-search-results-gone-33016.html
But Kenny writes:
I'm less sure the estimates (of the number of search results) is wrong and think it's more likely that Google decided to more aggressively limit the number of results you can see. (And that makes sense – keeping some kind of 'paginated results' data, with thousands (or more) of results in some server's memory is expensive at their scale.)
I personally miss the days when there were (or could be) literally hundreds or thousands of pages of results for a search, but I think Google noticed (a while ago) that almost no one bothers looking beyond the first or maybe second page anyways.
I defy the data that there are only ~150 results for "climate villains"! That seems way too low to be plausible.
I second this theory. I don't know how accurate their estimates are, but I know that their total results are truncated enormously. Everything returns about 15-20 pages before "repeat with omitted" and returns about 30-50 pages once you "repeat with omitted." Searching for the two words 'climate' and 'villain' returns only 30 more results before or after searching again with omitted results included, than the respective search (omitted/non-omitted) for the quoted phrase '"climate villain"' even though most of the results for the two words don't include the phrase "climate villain" and many don't include either word (e.g. they highlight the phrase "bad guy" as why they matched it with "villain" or they highlight the word "environment" as why they matched it with "climate.") Similar numbers occur when searching for other random phrases. (I searched for "colossal regret" and "American dream" for reference. After repeating the search with omitted results, "American dream" still only gave 41 pages with 405 total results. The 44 million estimated results seems much more plausible of a total count for that phrase than the 405 it returned -- or the 21 pages before repeating with omitted results included.)
The “American dream” example is excellent, and handily convinces me that clicking through the paginated results is not a good representation of the total number of Cleve pages cataloged by Google which logically match the search input. However, I still maintain that the first-page estimate is also an inaccurate measure of the same.
It looks like figuring out how many Google results a term has is just a problem that is beyond us as a civilization at this point.