deletedMar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022
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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

Nope. These are “justice” as in distributive justice and corrective justice. Aristotle. If you think “criminal justice” when you hear these phrases, that’s you.

The people using these phrases think, to the extent they think about it, that these forms of justice can be achieved by giving to those who have not, mostly without taking from those who have. If there is a fantasy here, it is utopian plenty, not retributive harshness.

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(Possible?) copyedit thread:

“the guy who’s more sensitive to violations and more efficient and punishment than anyone else“ —> not sure what was intended but I think the “punishment” line is truncated

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I can’t recall hearing or reading anyone use the term climate justice. Google says people do…so it’s a thing.

Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in real life use the term woke. It’s wildly popular among Very Online People.

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A related TLP-esque theory: the move away from virtue, away from agency, is *precisely the point.* By placing all of these domains outside of individual control, they're removed from your power, and you're absolved of any real responsibility or personal failing.

Currently, many are powerless and frustrated in their individual lives. They start out convinced that nothing they do can help the world because of their own deep-seated insecurities and inadequacies. But recognizing, confronting, and overcoming your insecurity is hard. Reframing everything as "justice" scratches the same itch, allowing people to express their sense of powerlessness, but doesn't make them feel like it's an individual failing of theirs, since "justice" is systemic, broad, administered by the state and beyond any individual's control.

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Climate “justice”—“just ice.”

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

henry george wrote very movingly about how this framing contests with hypocrisy around charity, without being so foolish as to say good things aren't good.


Sometimes the zeitgeist swings too far and perhaps it gets annoying when people talk about justice as a buzzword instead of the result of reflection. I think what you identify is use of justice as a buzzword, and yeah the internet rotates through them aggressively. At best it does have the function-in my opinion- of not letting rich liberals off the hook for some of the harms they've driven in this country (particularly around housing), where helping and being nice is contrasted with legitimate support of some of the greatest drivers of huge economic problems.

But then people say "housing justice" and oppose supply increases anyways. So I shrug and stop listening to the word justice until I trust the speaker to actually be able to argue why something is just.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

An essay which reframes the question of "justice" from a Buddhist perspective titled "Wisdom over Justice" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/uncollected/Justice.html

an excerpt

"... the Buddha never tried to impose his ideas of justice on the world at large. And this was very wise and perceptive on his part. It’s easy enough to see how imposed standards of justice can be a menace to well-being when those standards are somebody else’s. It’s much harder to see the menace when the standards are your own."

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Ring the right bell for the right cause - scratch the right itch with the right term - and the guilt ridden tend to come running, wallets in hand. It's pavlovian. Righteousness is very marketable, especially when people are eager to show off their progressive bona fides and what have you.

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Turning everything into "justice" supports moral absolutism and attempts to eliminate the possibility of debate. If you disagree with justice, you're just evil.

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I mean I think this is basically all coming out of the SJ community; they have their own idiosyncratic meaning of "justice" and are applying it to lots of things. I don't think it's some distinct phenomenon that's broader than SJ. And indeed many of the things you say here apply to SJ more generally.

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Reminds me of this comment : Process vs outcome based orientation


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This may be a variation of Crotchety Crank's point: acting in the name of 'justice' is acting in the name of a greater good, a higher principle. Whereas 'helping others' can easily be construed as condescending (which it often is) and even self-serving (which it often is). Any whiff of self-serving condescension creates dissonance for those who like to think of themselves and others as being altruistically motivated. They may feel on safer ground as the Keepers of The Obviously Unimpeachable Justice Faith.

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When you don't know a word, but don't have a dictionary, you can often determine the meaning from how people use the word. The pitfall of this is that it may result in one thinking that "criminal justice" means "making bad people suffer".

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Maybe the people you’re thinking of who use “climate justice” and “economic justice” and “X justice” don’t realize how these phrases land with others. But this not a motte and bailey. They are quite sincere in also thinking that “criminal justice” is not justice and is not a model for what they want.

Again, maybe these phrases are poorly chosen give their goals and beliefs. But they very much don’t come out of an attempt to ride the coattails of criminal justice.

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My suspicion is that we talk about "helping" when the pie is big enough i.e. the economy is growing, and the average person sees a chance at advancement. When it becomes more of a zero-sum game due to low economic growth or stratified classes, then "justice" comes more into vogue.

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It's simple: it's all "justice" because justice implies the existence of both victims and perpetrators. Unfairness and disparities in outcomes between people, rather than bad things that can be improved in absolute terms. It's a justification for attacking a person, rather than helping a person. It's just more of the same political stuff.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

"Justice" also connotes someone somewhere intending to do harm where there isn't always intent. Justice can be demanded, there's moral certainty, whereas anyone can just shrug off platitudes. The term's connotations are satisfying simple and simply satisfying, which is perfect for the social media age.

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That's a cool way of looking at it. What I want to know is whether people using [X] justice are actually more concerned with exacting justice against someone instead of helping the original group. I don't think Stalin called it "Economic Justice", but did he call it "helping the poor"?

From the wiki article on economic justice, it doesn't really sound that bad. "Economic justice aims to create opportunities for every person to have a dignified, productive and creative life that extends beyond simple economics." Isn't that a good goal?

I agree that it sounds annoying, but mostly because it sounds like the latest term in a long line of saying things without really helping. I don't really see how [X] justice is any more pernicious than committing yourself to War on [X].

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There's a few other meanings of "justice" which I think are more relevant for some of these justices. There's fairness, which fits best with the "justice" in "economic justice". There's also restitution, which fits with "racial justice".

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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.

I never saw this as rejecting utopianism. It's just that in the Jewish vision of an ideal economy, there are still some people who can't take care of themselves and everyone else just steps up and takes care of them.

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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 talked with a Unitarian minister recently about the difference between moral issues and political issues. She asserted with certainty that there was no difference whatsoever. Apparently those who disagree with her notion of “justice” are simply evil.

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Perhaps it allows people to support a cause without having to propose any specific solution since "justice" should be self-evident.

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I mean, on the neoconservative right everything is war: war against terror, war against drugs, spiritual warfare. I think the framing resonates depending on your moral framework.

Left wing 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.

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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

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The intrinsic lack of justice in the world (as it is) is disturbing, to say the least. Arguably human beings have been in a struggle to make the world more just for a long time, but at its heart, the world is not just. How could it be? For the same reason it’s not unjust either.

It seems to me a lot of people aren’t really able to come to terms with that truth in a fundamental way, and they start looking for someone to blame.

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Feels to me like saying “we should pursue economic justice” is a way of saying “we should help the poor, and I went to college!”.

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Some of us rather think "we should arm the poor" though I suspect I'm in the minority here.

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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."

Several more points:

-I agree with James Grimmelmann that what is meant by all these forms of "_____ Justice" is very much restorative justice, not retributive justice. Which I encourage you to look up if you haven't heard of that "_____ Justice" before :)

-Climate Justice means responding to climate change in an equitable way, recognizing that its impact is greater on some groups of people than others, and thus that as we plan how to mitigate the impact of climate change, we need to do it in such a way that historically marginalized people don't continue to bear the brunt of the impact.

-Now don't get too made at me for attempting to give this community the opportunity to learn to better steelman SJAs. To an SJA like myself, your article screams that you need to check your privilege because your white fragility is getting triggered (would love to explain those terms more if requested). It sounds like you want to cling to the sense that you still live in a utopia, want to feel good about being a generous, saintly person, and want these so much that you don't want to recognize the systems that oppress people with historically marginalized identities and instead would like to rationalize their situation being their own, individual fault.

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The dystopian comparison is not applicable, as there is Orwell and Huxley (and if you insist, Kafka and Phil K Dick). Orwell (or Kafka) deals with force and redistribution of power as "justice", Huxley (and likely PKD) deals with subverted utopias as "freedom". People are starting to forget about Huxley, whilst overly obsessing over Orwell. https://expressiveegg.org/2017/01/03/ur-kinds-dystopia/

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Social justice, the first one of these I heard 20+ years ago, still doesn’t make sense to me. I read about it and it still sounds like white noise or laundered ideas passing as an excuse. What the professor said here: https://youtu.be/YQ-Upb4Szms

No more kicking the monkey !!!

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Alasdair MacIntyre, call your office. By which I mean: we can only frame ethics as justice because (as MacIntyre points out), we in the modern West lack a common vocabulary of virtues and values, which would (in his view) derive from a notion of the telos (purpose) of a human life. In the great religious traditions, justice is balanced with mercy (at least theoretically), but justice as SJW's use the term isn't the justice that Aristotle thought of as one of the virtues: it's a demand for intervention by some authority, not the practice of fairness towards another person. Mercy, on the other hand- at least, as I see it- can only be an individual virtue, but woke/Successor Ideology/SJW theory doesn't have any room for individual virtues, so all we have is justice without its necessary counterbalance.

I could be wrong about all of this, but I think MacIntyre has a lot to say about where things went off the rails.

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Like many semantic shifts, I suspect this is because using the justice framing is more successful in arguments. People need to fulfill justice/obligations but want to be saviors.

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The way "justice" is being used in this post implies something systemic, so beyond the level of an individual. When I think about "helping," I think about what I can do. It's neither justice nor being a savior. It's just the right thing to do.

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It seems like Marketing 101. Define the name of your movement in a way that makes it very difficult for your opponent to argue against it.

If I support more foobars and you support less foobars, we can have a sensible discussion about whether foobars are good or bad. Or, I could label the pro-foobar position as "Foobar Justice" and hold a big "Foobar Justice" rally. Now, in order to make the opposite case you need to either come out and say "I oppose Foobar Justice" or else attempt to make the case that "actually it's the less-Foobar position that's Foobar Justice".

But of course this is an asymmetric weapon, it only works for the sorts of people who have the sort of social power that allows you to redefine words; if you don't have all the journalists on your side then you're not going to be successful.

See also: "-phobe". You don't have to win an argument that bazqux is good, if you can simply label anyone opposed to is as a bazquxphobe, clearly motivated by an irrational fear of bazqux.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

One consequence of the excessive justice-speak is that it has, along with my predisposition towards contrarianism, made me skeptical of the concept of "justice" at all. Someone asked me about a year ago, why "justice" is an important virtue, and I realized it was a question I had never considered.

Surely it's important for a governing body's legitimacy: a government which does not uphold the commonfolk's expectation of justice will face social unrest. But among utilitarians, is there a reason to pursue justice as a first-order virtue? I can't summon an argument for it.

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“Climate Justice” and “Environmental Justice” are well-defined terms with their own Wikipedia pages. I don’t get what you’re going for, Scott, talking about this as if you knew nothing about the concepts or about ideas of Justice other than criminal justice.

Should we discuss this by trying to fill in the missing context? Denouncing Justice as a woke concept? I have no idea.

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I notice this phenomenon basically exclusively in left-wing cause areas, and I think it's because social justice, specifically, is about distribution not output. Outside of hardcore utilitarians, people don't think of the total quantity of a desired resource/welfare as something you can get right or wrong. Whereas whether a distribution is right or wrong is probably the first moral belief a person develops, e.g., try giving just one baby sibling candy. The word we have for what we are trying to achieve when we solve a distribution problem is "justice." People who are predominantly interested in solving distribution problems then overextend that paradigm, and so we end up with weird stuff like "reproductive justice," even though the top priority of its supporters isn't really to correct some distribution but to protect a right.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

The Justice trend likely also connects back to Critical Theory / Marcuse / the New Left. These guys were/are busy critiquing every aspect of The West in order to tear down the system. For each identified injustice it was only natural that a corresponding Justice movement be built up to further the cause of Revolution.

And let me add that Critical Theory, which is now pervasive in our culture, has no positive vision to build up, only (by definition) a criticism. So there can be no great deeds to memorialize, only wrongs to call out.

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Yes. Needing justice means that there are “bad guys” preventing justice or promoting injustice. The 21st century is all about splitting the world into good-guy and bad-guy categories, assisted by our preferred sources of media and propaganda. The West is in a very bad spot.

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The fun thing about this is that without the criminal justice connotations e.g. “climate justice” just means “the normatively correct policy towards climate” so being in favor of it becomes a tautology.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 17, 2022

This seems to be tied to a shift in worldview that I'm tempted to label "post-Christian": the "Christian" view (though, not exclusively held by Christians) is that we live in a fallen world, and while we should always strive for justice and loving our neighbor, we'll never achieve it on this side of eternity: the world is and always will be fallen. Evil is natural and good is the exception.

But the "justice-oriented mindset" (held by many good Christians) seems to stem from and foster a perspective where "utopia" is the default state and anything keeping us from utopia, is an injustice inflicted by perpetrators. It carries an expectation of perfection, and anything short of that is something to be angry about.

In short, it's a question of whether we live in rotten world where we still have the opportunity to do good, or in a good world that we have the 'opportunity' to mess up.

The first view encourages an admiration of "saints" and an equanimity towards "sinners" who are doing "no more than what you'd expect of them". The latter encourages a righteous anger towards sinners, with an apathy towards everyone else, who are doing "no more than what's expected of them".

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

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.

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This was a powerful post for me perhaps because I hadn't thought about it. My mentor used to say to me that language isn't just semantics; it is everything. It is everything because language is how we know the world and make distinctions, she would say. Thank you for reminding me of that fundamental truth.

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"A narrative of justice allows, at best, non-criminals - people who haven’t broken any of the rules yet"

No, a narrative of justice allows for victims - persons with absolute moral authority, who cannot be blamed or held responsible for their plight. People who can demand restitution - and retribution - from those who they identify as perpetuating injustice.

Victimhood grants status, and "justice framing" identifies victims. This is not to say that "being victimized" is good, but remember we're talking about how we label reality, not what reality is. So, all else being equal, it's better to be a "victim of injustice" than to merely be "unfortunate".

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As lawyers we will do well to be on our guard against any suggestion that, through law, our society can be reformed, purified, or saved ...

Law reflects, but in no sense determines, the moral worth of a society. The values of a reasonably just society will reflect themselves in a reasonably just law. The better the society, the less law there will be. In Heaven there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. The values of an unjust society will reflect themselves in an unjust law. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.

Grant Gilmore, The Ages of American Law 109–11 (1977)

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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.

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Perhaps framing things as an issue of "Justice" justifies coercion to solve the problem? "Let's help the poor" might encourage people to donate money. Seeking "Economic Justice" permits taking *other* people's money to solve the problem.

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IME most people who think about all things in terms of justice are transparently in pursuit of retribution, which includes punitive redistribution and/or collective reparations.

Are you the parent of a bright child? Your desire to provide her access to academic options suitable to her interests/intellect = hoarding resources. (The pie cannot expand.) Justice requires that you strip your child of the privilege she inherits from you. (Privilege cannot be extended to all, it must be taken away from some.)

Do you enjoy the climate in California? Justice requires that you welcome as many immigrants from Mali, or Honduras, or Syria, as want to come to CA, since your privileged use of the environment in CA contributes to global warming which drives apocalyptically bad weather elsewhere. It's only just that California be shared with the victims of your privilege.

I keep waiting for some of the well-off justice warriors I know to hand the keys to their homes to Native American families who could really use them, but for some reason, that never happens.

Per John McWhorter, the current brand of social justice reflects a religious impulse. Embracing radical equity is way to get clean, as we are all polluted by the (original) sin of racism and its concomitant stain of privilege. All of us, that is, except for the designated non-privileged.

What strikes me as interesting is that among true believers, certain categories of people who used to be considered non-privileged have fallen from grace. These include women, who are now only conditionally non-privileged (they should be non-white or at least bisexual, but in any case their general status has been overtaken by transwomen, justice for whom takes priority); Jews, who we now should understand are white, both currently and historically, except for those who aren't and therefore are eligible for sympathy (for microaggressions related to being non-white, not for getting beaten in the streets for being Jews); and Asians, who hoard educational resources and are successful like Jews, so are filthy privileged, a.k.a. white-adjacent.

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This comes very close to articulating my problem with the social justice movement, at least as it applies to my friend group.

I've got a lot of small complaints but the bigger issue is that the current take 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.

The underlying request appears to be, "Everyone! Stop doing things! If we all stop doing things then poor folks will finally have free internet!"

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> 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.

...how much of the series have you read?

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

"I can’t find clear evidence on Google Trends that use of these terms is increasing."

I checked Google n-grams for just "justice", 1630-2019. (Don't try terms like "climate justice" there, because I think what you get is mostly "climate. Justice".) While "justice" peaked in 1971, hit bottom in 1984, and has now risen significantly higher than its 1971 peak, it's still only one-third as common as it was from 1762-1865. But inspecting a few dozen of the books the phrase was found in, it seems the apparent massive decline in interest in justice was due to a decline in interest in the duties of a Justice of the Peace, and in divine Justice.

OTOH, the 1798 book /Enquiry Concerning Political Justice And Its Influence on Morals and Happiness · Volume 1/ by William Godwin, written at the peak of the use of "justice", suggests that "we assume the term justice as a general appellation for all moral duty." If that was a common belief, that could explain the explosion of usage of "justice". In any case, this seems to be what's happening now.

That use of the term "justice" to mean all-purpose morality probably originated with Plato's Republic. The history of the Greek word δικαιοσύνην is too complex to get into here; but basically Plato wrote this huge book that said "justice justice justice justice" over and over again while slowly twisting the word to connotatively mean "absolute good" and to literally mean "systemic oppression in the pursuit of the attainment of absolute power and spiritual perfection by an elite few".

So the entire Platonist tradition has been stuck with presuming both that "justice" is always synonymous with "the absolute good", and that its meaning is at the same time infinitely malleable via dialectic. (They don't see it as being malleable; they see dialectic as infallible, so any apparent changes in the meaning of "justice" under dialectic exegesis merely expose our previous understanding as flawed.) The Social Justice movement is part of that tradition.

So we shouldn't expect their interpretation of "justice" to stay logically consistent over time. It would make sense to also try interpreting them as doing what Plato did, and what they claim everyone else is doing: using language to socially construct oppressive structures, in the pursuit of power.

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On the one hand the courts act as supervisors and enforcers for the US administrative state, now at least as powerful as the increasingly ceremonial democratic elected state. So it's sensible for someone who wants administrators to do something to use the rhetoric of justice still popular in the courts.

On the other hand, this 'whatiwant justice' reeks of low-IQ academia and Clement Greenberg's point that everything in academia is kitsch.

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A riff on this is that “we should help the poor” implies (or at least leaves open the idea that) charity is a supererogatory action: morally praiseworthy but not required. Charity is a gift, its recipients should be grateful, and the givers can feel magnanimous.

Justice is morally obligatory. Charity is not a gift but restitution for a wrong; givers aren't magnanimous but are merely returning what might as well be stolen property, and should still feel residually guilty for the period of time that they held it; recipients don't feel grateful, because they are just receiving what they were morally owed, and indeed might feel bitter for the period of time in which they hadn't yet received it.

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Life is unjust. Where do I file a complaint?

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If you think of "criminal justice" when you think "justice", aren't you already partly in dystopia? Otherwise, "justice" evokes people getting what they deserve, as opposed to their getting crumbs out of the munificence of moral saints who are also the better-off.

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Wow I thought wellness justice was a joke by Scott, but nope.

What if we join the zeitgeist and fight for “rationality justice”? Although I don’t know what exactly that means.

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Let me see if I remember the Thomas Aquinas I've just been reading. Justice consists in rendering to each his due. Justice is concerned with equality; equality can be arithmetic, as in everyone receives the same amount absolutely, or geometric, as in everyone receives the same amount in proportion to something.

As applied to the post: pretty much everyone is "for" justice. Including social justice; since justice is a property of human relations, justice cannot be asocial. Pretty much everyone is for equality. And we usually agree that the relevant equality is geometric. We disagree about how to implement geometric equality: which qualities are the measure of proportionate punishments and rewards, to what extent they are present in particular cases, and whether certain trait-rewards pairs constitute equal proportion or not.

We argue about to what extent economic desert is in proportion to hard work vs. exchange value. We argue about whether the executive or the janitor is really the one who works harder. We concede some desert to the work of creating and organizing a useful enterprise, but argue about whether the founder's reward for this kind of work is proportionate to his employee's reward for her work. But importantly these are all economic justice arguments. Including the rightist ones. In fact "Welfare Queens" is probably one of the biggest economic justice movements in recent politics. It just didn't call itself that.

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"Mercy, High Ones. Not justice, please, not justice. We would all be fools to pray for justice."

-Cazaril in Lois Bujold's "The Curse of Chalion"

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

Are there any cases where justice is not zero-sum?

That's the big semantic shift here. "------- justice" implies that the only way to proceed is to take something away from one party and give it to another. It denies the possibility of positive-sum outcomes.

I have trouble distinguishing cause from effect here, but a lot of this seems to correlate well with the rising popular sentiment that anything that discomfits rich people is worthwhile, even if it winds up discomfiting non-rich people as well.

That kinda sounds like a PR problem to me. Where's noblesse oblige when you need it?

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This is very interesting, given that many of the same people who use lots of terms like 'social justice' and 'climate justice' are also for the shift towards 'restorative justice', where the idea is to move away from the punishment model in the actual justice system.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

I got a two-month ban for a one-sentence version of this post :(

Edit: That aside, it seems to me that classical conceptions of justice revolve around the minimization of externalities. Harm should be compensated and/or punished, while doing good should be rewarded. As you reap, so should you sow.

Social justice strikes me as at best orthogonal to this, and often directly opposed, in that it seeks to weaken the connection between reaping and sowing. That's not necessarily always a bad thing, but it's very different from justice justice.

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> 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.

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There is one aspect of the justice language that wasn't mentioned in this post and that is quite important to me: I think the justice language is a lot kinder to the people who suffer most from the problem at hand.

Consider economic justice: if we "help the poor", this implies that the people being helped are poor, in need of help, etc., probably due to their own fault. But it's not their own fault, on the contrary! Much of that poverty can be traced to unjust events in the past, for example exploitation by richer countries.

Same for the climate: people who bear most of the consequences have to do that because better-off people have a lifestyle that leads to a much too high carbon footprint. It is important to understand just how unjust this is, and that the people who "help poor victims of climate change" are in fact co-responsible for the problem.

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I suppose part of this is that "helping others" feels like a nice thing you get bonus points for doing, but "X justice" sounds like a basic thing you have an obligation to enforce. So maybe there's just some memetic selection going on, where justice memes are just intrinsically fitter -- in which case there's little hope here, unless a fitter meme shows up or society/language changes significantly?

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The steelman for Justice is of course that in a justice framework the downtrodden have a right to things (like resources, legal equality etc.) and it's legitimate for them to demand them and organize to get them, while in a charity framework the subaltern should be grateful for whatever scraps they get while those handing out the charity get to feel saintly for what they do.

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Don't overthink it. It's just that most classic American tradition: the rebrand. The idea that you can change the way people feel about things by changing the words they use to talk about them is surprisingly well grounded, at least when it comes to consumer goods. Its track record in activism is not nearly as good, but that's not likely to stop people from trying.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

Systematic problems exist and will most likely require systematic solutions. Slavery was an issue that was evil to many individuals, and there was moral value in being kind to individual slaves, but what saved the most *individuals* was not individual niceness, but laws being changed and navys stopping ships.

Justice (or 'fairness' if that's a less freighted term) is inherently about how people relate to each other, so problems in that space will naturally tend towards the systematic.

It's odd to read this view on a blog that often talks about effective altruism. Individual niceness is rarely optimal or most effective. Effective altruism is an unintuitively systematic approach to the problem of suffering in the world.

If anything I would perhaps put this trend down to increasing utilitarianism in the world. Utilitarianism is an unintuitively systematic approach to morality. Perhaps it's precisely because Utilitarianism is winning out over virtue ethics that the utopian view of individuals excelling at virtues no longer resonates quite so well.

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I have very similar feelings about the word "fairness". So much so, that I would treat them as synyonymous. If somebody uses either word to argue for a position, I will immediately discount it heavily. Life is neither fair nor just.

People just use the fuzzy words "fair" and "just" to imbue their subjective preferences with unearned moral weight. I find that fundamentally dishonest and always in bad faith.

"Of course, every society is somewhere in between Utopia and Dystopia, and needs values relevant to both. Justice is a useful lens that I’m not at all trying to get rid of."

Is it useful, though? When I find myself using it instinctively (like when I perceive myself being mistreated), I can usually reframe it and get a much clearer picture.

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Good observation. I have been describing it as the Formal layer suppressing the Tacit layer.

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Read Jonathan Sumption (e.g. his Reith Lectures); former UK supreme court judge -- very much in the direction this post is heading, but from a different (more legal and historical, also institutional) perspective, crisp and clear.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

I think its mostly about marketing. Most of the issues to which "justice" is added are extremely complex and not easily amenable to improvement. They are also morally complex too (e.g. carbon emission limits in developing countries). Describing an issue as extremely complicated and not easily improved does not motivate advocacy or fundraising. Neither does acknowledging moral nuance.

Justice flattens and simplifies all that. Either you care about justice or not. Nobody will admit the latter, so people are herded to support activist stances on issues for fear of being ostracized as unjust, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. The details of the issue, both technical and moral, become secondary. They can be addressed after the support and money are raised, presumably.

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In Hebrew tzedek (צדק) means justice and tzedaka (צדקה) means charity, although I'm not actually sure when the latter came into common use with that meaning. There's also mishpat (משפט) which is more unambiguously legalistic/criminal justice. Sometimes mishpat will be contrasted with tzedaka, in which case mishpat means law and tzedaka means charity, but sometimes tzedek will be contrasted with hessed (חסד), which is usually translated as "kindness", in which case tzedek is the more legalistic term.

There's also Tzadik (צדיק), a righteous person, which derives from the same word, and usually a Tzadik is someone who is unusually virtuous (e.g. Noah in the flood story was a Tzadik). Although even there it's a question whether this was just that he was better than his peers or he was objectively unusually virtuous despite his surroundings.

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Scott writes:

> Here’s a crazy theory: the moral transition from other virtues to Justice mirrors the literary transition from utopian fiction to dystopian

That isn't really my understanding of how literary 'topias have progressed. Which pre-dystopian era utopias are you thinking of? _Utopia_ by More is the only one I can think of and is only ambiguously utopian at that, and perhaps you could argue some works of political philosophy sketch the outlines of what a utopia might look like if only we listened to the Wise and Correct author of the piece. At a huge stretch you could see _Brave New World_ as a kind of utopian vision, and I'd only suggest that because it was written prior to the period usually regarded as the 'dystopian era' so is less obviously a deliberate take on the 'dystopia' genre.

Other than that though I can't think of any others that would qualify until after the atomic-age dystopian period, where you do see some genuine attempts at writing utopias (e.g. Heinlein if your idea of utopia is right-libertarian or Banks if your idea of utopia is left-libertarian) - utopias in general are not well explored in fiction because almost by definition a society free of conflict will be free of narratively interesting conflict, so my impression is not that 'utopia' are a reaction to 'dystopia' but rather that if you have a point about what you think society should look like it is easier to write a dystopia without that quality rather than a utopia with that quality.

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The difference is that help requires a patron and someone willing to be patronised. Justice requires power (typically, the controlled application of violence). Calls for justice are really demands for power to be applied against your perceived enemies.

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while mentioning climate justice you missed the single thing that would let you understand what it is, did you know that there are carbon budgets and climate justice is about the distribution of those budgets ?

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The dig at "climate itself isn't just" feels cheap, like it deliberately tries to misunderstand what is meantby climate justice.

To me, climate justice clearly does not imply that we should all have a right to live at a temperate climate zone. It implies that there is a part of climate that is man-made, that disfavours some more than others, and that is caused more by some then by others.

Like murder: It is man-made (we do not call earthquakes murder), it disfavours some (the victims) and is caudes by some (the murderer/s).

It would feel wrong to react to murder with a call for non-murder progress, to call on murderers and non-murderers alike to maybe strife to murder less, so we may live in a better world.

Likewise, murderers trying to frame the murder debate with things like "Doesn't nature murder too, so non-murder is unrealistic anyway" are not accepted as an equal alternative point of view.

Because this is not a neutral subject where everyone can have any point of view, and those doing good are padded on the back. It is a question of a moral dimension, where a sense of justice kicks in, and a sense is emotional and doesn't hold all piints of view as equal.

That is what framing something as justice is about: It assumes people have natural rights to something, and ignoring them is unjust.

"Climate justice" implies that polluting or not is not like giving alms or not (where you are not a bad person if you do not give a beggar money), but instead like stealing/murdering or not.

I find that this framing makes sense to me when it comes to climate or pollution.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

This is a textbook illustration of what Thomas Sowell (also picked up by Pinker in his "Blank Slate" book) has called "the utopian vision" (as contrasted with "the tragic vision").

What is meant by those terms is a secular formulation of "the problem of evil": "why does evil exist and how to solve it?".

The "tragic vision" asserts that "evil" is the default state of things, demanding no explanation, and requiring positive intervention (by "saints" and "heroes") in order to bring about the "good".

The "utopian vision" asserts that no, the default state of things is a "good" one: humanity is naturally peaceful and prosperous, and when it isn't, this demands an explanation in the form of identifying who is to blame for disturbing that "good" state (a class, a race, an economic system, an ideology).

The intervention to bring about the "good" and restoring "justice" is a negative one: the elimination or at least the punishment of that class, race, economic system, or ideology.

It is simply assumed that once the obstacles are removed, the whole of humanity will naturally recognize 21st century Western urban progressive values.

In the "utopian" vision there is no room for "saints" and "heroes" because everyone is a "saint" and a "hero" unless prevented by the the evil classes and races, ideologically defending their privileges in the form of "unjust" economic and political systems.

On the other hand, someone like Sowell and Pinker would argue that even to speak of "injustice" makes no sense, because everything labelled "unjust" by the "utopians" is simply a continuation of behaviors inherited from our historical and evolutionary past, that are still very much a reality throughout the animal kingdom.

When the vegan activist asks "what gives you the right to milk the cow and take away the hen's eggs?", they are clearly starting from the position that humans wouldn't "naturally" be doing any of that. So naturally they conclude, humans who consume animal products are guilty of an "injustice".

Once you understand this dichotomy, everything in the language of the culture wars, and even the culture wars themselves, start to make perfect sense according to their own premises.

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The 'justice' framing is an attempt to cut down on out of context people coming in and doing something that's mostly for themselves, and to instead make them think about who the injured party is and how to support their volition rather than just imposing your own solutions.

It also encourages not dumping the costs on the injured parties - the difference between environmental activism and climate justice is the attempt to make sure the people who are suffering the most from climate change don't end up having to bear the greatest costs for fixing it (which is generally an easier way to fix the environmental problem).

The justice framing is 'fix this, but not at the expense of the people affected, ideally at the expense of the perpetrators or beneficiaries of the broken situation' rather than just 'fix this'.

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>You can’t “help the economy” or “save the poor” merely by harming rich people. Can you get “economic justice” this way? Depends who you ask, but I notice that “getting justice” for a murder involves punishing a suspect a lot more often than it involves resurrecting the victim.

Speaking of punishment and murder, here is a little talked about aspect of Stalin's policies. Stalinist/leninist policy was big on the retributive social and economic justice. The policies that resulted in the Holodomor were all justified as a way to bring justice. They were intended to punish the rich, landowning kulaks for being rich, landowning kulaks (peasant who owned more than 8 acres of farmland) and the punishment was "liquidation".

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I’d suggest it’s because pursuing economic justice is easier than helping the poor. To pursue economic justice asks us to tell a story about the specifics of a particular situation and why it is intuitively bad. Telling stories is fun and easy. It focuses on individuals and requires verbal skills. Most people can do it. To help the poor requires us to figure out which practical policies will provide a net benefit to the poor in their practical implementation. This requires a lot of detailed analysis of tradeoffs, ideally quantitative. It focuses on systems and institutions and requires mathematical skills. Very few people can do it.

This is why, in my view, there has long been a trend in law towards preferring a rights based approach over balancing interests approach. As Eric Posner has pointed out in The Twilight of Human Rights Law, there are literally hundreds of human rights that have been recognized in international treaties. They cannot all be satisfied simultaneously—the right to freedom of expression can be restricted in the interests of social order. If couched in terms of rights, this gives rise to a clash of rights, where lawyers can tell stories about which right should prevail in a particular context. If couched in terms of balancing, this requires an empirical investigation of exactly how much a particular rule advances social order. Most lawyers are verbally adept, but are bad at math (which is why they went into law). Couching the debate in terms of rights privileges lawyers over economists, so of course lawyers prefer a rights based approach to a balancing approach. Rights based approaches are easy to sell to the public for the same reason.

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I think the people who are the main progenitors and promoters of this framing (progressive thought leaders) are actually pretty explicit about why they think the justice framing is preferable. You hit on many of the reasons e.g. they believe and want to emphasise that they think action is obligatory, because owed, because they think someone (possibly 'the system' as a whole) has caused some harm, and they think action would therefore be a necessary correction, rather than something supererogatory we could do to improve a merely natural state of affairs and feel good about.

I think the thing that is somewhat obscured in your account is that these are, to a large extent, explicit reasons why people are arguing for a justice framing, not just something that people have unconsciously fallen into. If you just google 'justice not charity' you'll see innumerable examples of people explicitly arguing along these lines and, as an explicit slogan, "social justice not charity" goes back as the 1920s (https://www.bbc.com/news/disability-52477587).

I would agree though that some of the tendency to think or speak in these terms (particularly more recently, as the meme has become more popular and mainstream), is more unthinking and unconscious, and is downstream of these earlier more explicit arguments. i.e. progressive thinkers explicitly make these arguments, this filters down into other engaged progressives/journalists, and now other people broadly aligned with them pick it up as a tic, without much explicit reflection (in the same way that people start referring to "white supremacy", rather than simply "racism" because they grasp it's the done thing and sounds a bit stronger, but without a clear idea why).

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Concerning utopia/dystopia:

I have the exact opposite interpretation. Helping the poor isn't utopian. It sure is the nice thing to do, and sometimes people do it even now - but it implies that there are poor people. That's the status quo and thus not utopian.

Going for economic justice on the other hand means attempting to abolish poverty (to me at least) - that's utopian.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

Yippee, time for me to play a theologian on the Internet!

And make no mistake, what we are talking about here *is* theology. The language of justice is a theological concept, and the social justice movement in its beginnings was influenced by Catholic religious thought:


"While concepts of social justice can be found in classical and Christian philosophical sources, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, the term social justice finds its earliest uses in the late 18th century, albeit with unclear theoretical or practical meanings. The use of the term was early on subject to accusations of redundancy and of rhetorical flourish, perhaps but not necessarily related to amplifying one view of distributive justice. In the coining and definition of the term in the natural law social scientific treatise of Luigi Taparelli, SJ, in the early 1840s, Taparelli established the natural law principle that corresponded to the evangelical principle of brotherly love—i.e. social justice reflects the duty one has to one’s other self in the interdependent abstract unity of the human person in society."

Yes, once again, Blame The Jesuits.

But what we are more concerned with here is Liberation Theology and its intersections with Marxism, which brings us to South America.

I don't know how many of you have ever heard of a book called "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" but boy howdy was/is it influential in social sciences.


"Dedicated to the oppressed and based on his own experience helping Brazilian adults to read and write, Freire includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. In the book, Freire calls traditional pedagogy the "banking model of education" because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like a piggy bank. He argues that pedagogy should instead treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge."

Sounding familiar, that "co-creator" bit? And so it should sound. This is the language adopted by Social Justice activists; we've laughed at "feminist glaciology" but this is where the theoretical underpinnings come from.

In the 70s, Marxism was very trendy. Especialy in South America, which it is stereotyping but not completely inaccurate to say had a long tradition of revolutions and new oppressions needing new revolutions. At this time, you could take your pick of dictatorships right *and* left wing in various South American countries, hence for the intelligentsia Marxism was the cool fix-it solution to all problems.

This intertwined with Catholic social justice, and once again, Let's Blame The Jesuits! (As an aside, if anyone is wondering about Pope Francis' economic and political views, kindly remember he's a South American Jesuit so this influences him, though he is also considered right-wing because of his views on tradtional topics).

Liberation Theology - if you've ever heard the expression "the preferential option for the poor" (and if you're Catholic no matter what stripe, you certainly have), this is where it comes from.


I'm going to be jumping around timelines a bit, so forgive that. Okay, anyone else on here old enough to remember things like the American nuns killed in El Salvador?


This was a whole tangled mess of politics, with the situation in El Salvador being one of left-wing revolutionaries fighting a civil war against a right-wing military junta, and pretty much everyone being caught in the cross-fire. St. Óscar Romero had been murdered while saying Mass by someone considered to be acting on the orders of a right-wing political party because of his criticism of both sides, but particularly the government, for what they were doing.

The American nuns were also seen not alone as missionaries but as political activists, including by the Reagan Administration which was supportive of the El Salvadoran regime (remember, the USA was and is very concerned about Communist governments to its south):

"Unlike President Carter, succeeding U.S. President Ronald Reagan favored the Salvadoran military regime; he authorized increased military aid and sent more U.S. military advisers to the country to aid the government in quelling the civil/guerrilla war. His foreign policy advisor Jean Kirkpatrick declared her 'unequivocal' belief that the Salvadorean army was not responsible, adding that "the nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear about this than we actually are."

Okay, let's get back on track. So given the general tenor of the times, with revolutions here there and everywhere and the displaced/in power governments fighting back just as brutally, the pressures on theology to respond saw the formation of Liberation Theology, which quickly started branching off into off-shoots which became more about Marxism and less about Catholic dogma, and then sub-dividing into things like Black Liberation Theology, Feminist/Womanist/Mujerist Theology, and the likes, and the descendants of these dropping the theology and going full-fledged secular social justice but retaining much of the language and the concepts underpinning the same.


"Liberation theology is a Christian theological approach emphasizing the liberation of the oppressed. In certain contexts, it engages socio-economic analyses, with "social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples." In other contexts, it addresses other forms of inequality, such as race or caste.

Liberation theology is best known in the Latin American context, especially within Catholicism in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council, where it became the political praxis of theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, and Jesuits Juan Luis Segundo and Jon Sobrino, who popularized the phrase "preferential option for the poor". This expression was used first by Jesuit Fr. General Pedro Arrupe in 1968 and soon after the World Synod of Catholic Bishops in 1971 chose as its theme "Justice in the World".

The Latin American context also produced evangelical advocates of liberation theology, such as Rubem Alves, José Míguez Bonino, and C. René Padilla, who in the 1970s called for integral mission, emphasizing evangelism and social responsibility.

Theologies of liberation have also developed in other parts of the world such as black theology in the United States and South Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit theology in India, and Minjung theology in South Korea."


"One of the most radical and influential aspects of liberation theology was the social organization, or reorganization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities, also called basic ecclesial communities. Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the Church hierarchy. In this context, sacred text interpretation is understood as "praxis".

The priest Camilo Torres (a leader of the Colombian guerrilla group ELN) celebrated the Eucharist only among those engaged in armed struggle against the army of the Colombian state. He also fought for the ELN.

Liberation theology seeks to interpret the actions of the Catholic Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the poor and disadvantaged. In Latin America, liberation theologians specifically target the severe disparities between rich and poor in the existing social and economic orders within the state's political and corporate structures. It is a strong critique of the economic and social structures, such as an oppressive government supported by a conservative Church hierarchy and by First World economic interests, that allow some to be extremely rich while others are unable even to have safe drinking water.

Contemporaneously, Fanmi Lavalas in Haiti, the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil, and Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa are three organizations that make use of liberation theology."

Whew. Let's catch our breath before diving into the theology of justice, okay?

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1. I question the assumption that "justice" naturally implies "criminal justice" (punishments). The first definition on M-W is "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by [1] the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of [2] merited rewards or [3] punishments." The broader sense is impartially doing what is required and giving people what they are owed, which could be good or bad.

2. As an example of what "most" people naturally think of when they hear the word "justice," consider one of the most famous line in the most famous book in the world: Deut. 17:20 "Justice, justice shall you pursue." The immediately preceding verse (17:19) is "You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just." That isn't about criminal punishment; it's about fairness.

3. I think you have a point about economic "justice" suggesting "We have some kind of obligation to pursue it." In Hebrew, the word translated to English as "charity" is "tzedakah," which derives from "tzedek" - justice. In contrast, "charity" derives from Latin "caritas" - affection. Etymology is not destiny, but a standard Hebrew school lesson (which may carry some truth) is that "charity" suggests something that you might feel like doing when you're feeling ... charitable (or like a helper or savior). Because you care. But if you don't care, or don't feel charitable, you don't do it. Vs. giving tzedakah (justice) is something you must do because you are *obligated*, whether you feel like it or not.

4. And I think that's the broader reason for the shift to "justice." It's not about being cops meting out punishments, but rather emphasizing a framework of obligation to give people what they deserve, rather than a framework of voluntarily helping people because you happen to feel like it. A good secular example is Peter Unger's "Living High and Letting Die." I can't remember if he uses the word "justice," but the idea that you *must* do this (rather than "you'll feel good about yourself if you do this") is pervasive in it.

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Scott, you're recovering your SSC edge. Well done, and this is really good food for thought.

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You say we are a "weird superposition of criminals and cops" but I think those who insist on the manifold flavors of justice you mention see themselves as self-appointed judges who condemn the unworthy, the morally superior men or women who bring the miscreants and rule-breakers to heel, true warriors for justice who confront the evildoers and thus have something to feel good about.

Being censorious is both easier and more satisfying than just being good.

The best high is the moral high.

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Have no data and this is just a gut feeling, but it seems like a response to the death of traditional religion. Something’s got to fill that void. Using a single word as a rallying cry seems like a kind of shibboleth. “Justice as religion” seems to do the trick nicely. A new religion whose icon is a woman wearing a blindfold, attempting to promote equality (holding a scale) via the sword.

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> You can’t “help the economy” or “save the poor” merely by harming rich people. Can you get “economic justice” this way? Depends who you ask, but I notice that “getting justice” for a murder involves punishing a suspect a lot more often than it involves resurrecting the victim.

That's a way to see it, but another way to see it would be "saving the lives of potential subsequent victims". I don't know how effective is it in reality, but to me it is an important part of "getting justice".

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Planet of Cops is a fun essay. (Cops, though, ≠ justice, necessarily.)

Most commenters here are noting that the justice idea is retribution-based, that is, ideologically driven ideas of what justice is. The planet of cops/drive toward justice—in whatever form—may be just 'civilization' at work. Norman O Brown always said that since we have to repress our animalistic nature to remain civil to one another, have a civilized society, and that Freud noted that repression results in insanity, all of being a civilized society results in insanity. Dwelling on justice, being a planet of cops, well, those are just symptoms of civilized society's insanity. As is the Planet of Cops essay.

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The terms seem confusing to me. At a personal level if you make a mess, you should clean it up. But if you don't and there are enough people around who start to insist on the behavior they might use shame, create incentives or fines. As it scales up to things like the global climate we see a desire to get corporations to do something similar. We use fines and penalties as sticks and tout things like ESG money as a carrot. Universal Basic Income has been kicking around in no small part to the almost incomprehensible wealth and income gap in many parts of the US. But it is it really about justice? Or the money? There are lots of people who don't have the tools to "succeed" in a way that would provide them a decent life - home, food, healthcare. What do you want to do about that? Nothing? Move them? House them in little sheds in a Walmart parking lot? Draft them into public service so they can have a home, food and healthcare?

"Justice" conjures up aspects of "right" and "wrong" for many people and it complicates the question. Is it "just" for "hardworking folks like me" to have to give money to "provide for people who are just sitting around?" Then everyone gets angry.

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This piece starts off strong, but I think Scott (uncharacteristically) loses the plot once he goes into the "climate justice" example and talks about how justice = criminal justice = retribution.

Scott's observation is true that "we should help the poor" implies something nice that you can do that is not obligatory, while "we need to pursue economic justice" implies that things are unjust, hence there is a moral obligation to fix the situation and moral culpability in letting it continue. So far, so good. But the obvious next question isn't "why the rhetorical shift", but "is the rhetorical shift correct". IS there economic/racial/social/environmental/climate/intergenerational injustice worth speaking of that we are obligated to resolve?

Let's stick with the "climate justice" example. The weird oversight in this paragraph is that "climate justice" is, rather obviously, a shorthand for "climate CHANGE justice". Talking about the Little Ice Age or pleasant climates is missing the point, which is that the downsides of climate change (sea level rise, dangerously high wet bulb temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, etc), are disproportionately felt by one group, while the behaviors causing it (energy-intensive behaviors) are disproportionately enjoyed by another. If you accept the standard models of anthropogenic climate change, we're basically saying "high energy consumers are taking future utils from people living in low-lying areas and hot climates, without consent or remuneration". Under almost any moral framework that sounds like an "injustice".

Each of the other examples should be thought of the same way: the thesis of the "X Justice Warrior" is "the current system is unjust in ways that impact X", and the job of the skeptical blogger is not to say "why are you saying 'justice'", but to formulate an argument on whether that thesis is true or false.

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Justice stands above democracy. Both in discourse and in law.

The other framings sound like policy choices, subject to things like electoral choice; a Justice framing is a constitutional framing. It implies a bureaucracy above political scrutiny (publicly-funded jobs for wordcels!). On the other hand, if you say something like "we want to solve climate change", this may attract solutionism (which would be jobs for shape rotators).

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Your last point is spot on, I would add that the 'justice' movement doesn't just transition from other virtues but no longer makes justice a virtue practiced by the individual toward others but rather refers to justice as something that is due to us by 'right' from the state.

The whole movement is part of the reduction in face-to-face relations and the movement toward helping groups rather than individuals and the authoritarian instinct that originates from that.

Fr. James Schall of Georgetown has very good writings on justice (The Most Terrible of the Virtues).

"The origins of social justice lie in Machiavelli's rejection of the possibility of virtue.... good regime meant not that individuals are just but that the laws are just. Whatever the laws, if citizens obeyed — usually by force — they would be prosperous, happy, and peaceful. Law was will."

Whenever someone uses the word 'justice' for a cause they mean that they want to use the coercive powers of the state to achieve a structural outcome. Very different from the intentions of say a classical charity looking to help individuals directly.



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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

I think being regarded as a defender/upholder of justice is one of the greatest honors. "Justice League" is a fine name for a group of superheroes tbh

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Justice is a subset of the topic of fairness. The problem with using the word fair is that we have different definitions of fairness. Using the word justice is one way people try to get out of that trap.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

It seems like there's some Hegelian is/ought thing going on when you use justice as part of (say) 'economic justice'. There are normative premises that qualify justice/injustice.

Aside: Rawls wasn't the only philosopher to see justice as a crucial atomic term. Plato and Derrida used it as such.

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Your use of the word "saints" is very accurate. I think some themes from Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" are relevant here. He notes the shift in medieval Christianity (driven in part by the Protestant Reformation) from a "two-speed" religious system to an age of reform and "mobilization." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Secular_Age#Part_I:_The_Work_of_Reform

In medieval Christianity, there was a recognition that ordinary people lived out their faith in a more limited "secular" way, but that some people aspire to a more demanding "religious" life. Not everyone could take on these demands, but everyone should venerate and respect those who do. A similar dynamic exists in Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism's distinction between the demands of lay life and monastic life.

The work of Reform, in Taylor's words, was an effort to smash the distinctions between lay and religious life. Reformers recognized that Scripture made no distinction between these two speeds and that all Christians were called equally. They decried both the lax morals and practice tolerated for lay people and the pride and self-righteousness of the clergy.

Taylor doesn't consider this an analogy - he draws a straight line from Protestantism to modern liberalism. It's the ongoing crusade of social reform, just with evolving beliefs about what that means. The language of "charity" you suggest is a "two-speed" system. The average person shouldn't be expected to do anything more than pursue their own interests most of the time, but some exceptional people rise above and are to be celebrated and venerated for it.

Reformers hate this distinction. The transformation of society means that everyone will have to sacrifice their self-interest, so those who do so should not be made into heroes. Instead, everyone has to be brought up to that level as a baseline. This results, just as the Protestant Reformation did, in a shift from a social religion built around venerating saints to one obsessed with justification and salvation.

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I don't disagree that a motte-and-bailey exists. "Justice is preferable to *in*justice" is easily defensible; "the criminals must be punished" is more productive, a rallying cry which attempts to reach the Average Law and Order Enjoyer.

That said, quantity of Google search results is rather weak evidence. There was a [post on the Motte](https://old.reddit.com/r/TheMotte/comments/t6ypmn/for_the_longest_time_theres_been_a_claim_floating/hzgqchx/) two weeks ago which tried to get people really upset at the economic-justice rhetoric around India. Specifically, that a claim is "particularly pernicious" because it has "more than three million results" on Google.

This figure is basically meaningless! Doing the suggested search for ourselves we get 1 page of relevant results before Google decides to include articles about American economics and climate politics. How relevant are the following millions?

Using search prevalence as it is here, to estimate vocabulary prevalence, is a better idea--the search term is more focused and results seem to stay on target. Percentage of usage would be more solid. If people are publishing articles using "climate villains" instead of, uh, "climate prisoner's-dilemma-defectors" or "climate degenerates," it probably says more about the alternatives.

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Here's a fun experiment: Replace "Justice" with "Envy" and see if any of the proposed actions required to address them actually meaningfully change. They don't, because in the age of envy™ justice means not that people are suffering (this is good, double-plus-good if you're certain flavours of Christian) but that some people have the audacity to not suffer enough. Once no one isn't visibly suffering any less, we've reached justice utopos and can wind down the grand social experiment called society because we've achieved Marxism or something.

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Perhaps you have read Justice as a larger loyalty by Richard Rorty. Regards, Alejandro Baroni, Montevideo, Uruguay

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I think part of what's going on is that SJAs don't want heroes, they want routinized bureaucratic systems which produce the outcomes they want.

Routinized bureaucratic systems aren't necessarily awful-- it's quite pleasant to be sure that clean water will come out when you turn on the tap. Whether that approach makes sense for as much as SJAs want is another question.

(Yes, I know that not everyone, even in the US, has reliable access to clean drinking water.)

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I think erasing the idea of the White Savior is wrapped up in this. Challenging the idea that white people can not be saints that improve racial inequities, because whites are also responsible for those inequities.

I'm sympathetic to that point of view because, when I was a little girl in church, I sometimes felt that church goers almost acted as if poor people existed as an opportunity for normies to prove how good they were, instead of asking why poverty existed in the first place. Sainthood can be very ego driven.

However, I agree that the current moral landscape is entirely too grim.

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How long before 'incels' campaign for 'sexual justice'?

I wonder what society's response would be to that hated outgroup using language in the same way...

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

What the *leaders* of the activists - which group, I've noticed, often have a foot in two worlds - are feeling, besides the usual yen for power, and a safe sinecure away from dirty commerce or manual labor, is closest to mercy, to the feeling we ascribe, somewhat sourly, to a Lady Bountiful.

(It is easy, if you like, to be more generous than I, and view the impulse very favorably. Indeed, you probably should, a happy life and the benefits flowing to the world therefrom, in some way probably require that you do. To feel as I do about such things, and about people generally, is to inhabit a dark place, the only relief of which is going into nature, and that too is spoiled now ... well, for some of us.)

However, mercy and justice are necessarily opposed. There is no way to reconcile them. What these activists want can never answer to "justice". If you are in sympathy, you should give up the attempt. Your vast intelligence can't help you here.

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Definitely have noticed this - justice is woke term which suggests government is needed and 'will be there to help the oppressed', liberty and freedom are antithesis and are my preferred adjectives.

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Could declining belief in God be one reason for the popularity of the justice frame? Something like: We still have a Christian sense that we're all sinners (or even that we carry guilt for the actions of our ancestors) but we no longer have a deity to judge and/or forgive us. So we end up becoming the "weird superposition of criminals and cops."

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Claiming that something is "motte-and-bailey" is usually itself a motte-and-bailey fallacy. The motte is someone using one meaning of a phrase to make a provocative claim, then switching to another meaning when challenged. The bailey is a phrase being understood differently by different people (which is going to happen for any remotely complex concept that enters the popular consciousness).

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

Tell me your substatck deal is making you unfathomably rich without telling me your substatck deal is making you unfathomably rich.

Jokes aside, I think this kind of discussion of justice needs to be grounded in the idea of the social contract, lest you strawman the ongoing discourse with rhetorical questions like 'was the little ice age unjust?'

I don't see these novel uses of the term 'justice' as necessarily concept creep, but rather as earnest discussions regarding e.g. the economic or environmental implications of our stated political and moral values.

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Not sure how we can even have this conversation, without focusing on the popularizer of the term justice: Father Coughlin. As leader of the National Union for Social Justice political party and the newspaper "Social Justice", today's SJW's truly stand on shoulders of giants. Does this meddlesome radio priest not deserve a steelman or even disclaimer?

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Feels like a similar ideas as Laurie Anderson in O Superman- "When love is gone, there's always justice. When justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's only mom.

Hi mom"

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The imposition of 'justice' is always a net-negative, by definition.

At best one might hope to sort of 'balance' the moral ledger which would be zero-sum, but algorithmic overhead on actually bringing about 'justice' mean it's always negative sum. 'Under-balancing' means justice hasn't been achieved for the victim(s). 'Over-balancing' the ledger is its own kind of injustice.

There's no such thing as 'justice' and there never was. It's a word we use to _avoid_ thinking clearly. As long as we speak in terms of "justice" we're condemning ourselves to unnecessary conflict. The concept of justice isn't even necessary to identify or solve the problems mentioned (those that are actually even problems).

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The people that come up with these terms are just manufacturing problems so that they can sell you their solution.

Did you know that people JUDGE YOU for your wrinkly face? No, you're not just getting old, you're the VICTIM of WRINKLEFACE INJUSTICE. Call your congressman today and DEMAND that they use STATE VIOLENCE to COERCE EVERYONE to pay for our anti-wrinkle-ism cream. Patent pending.

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One aspect I don't see in the post or its comments is how all the subjustices--climate justice, tech justice, etc., aren't intended to each be a paradigm, but rather a signal of alliance with the broader social justice movement. "Hi, I'm interested in tech issues, approach them from a social justice angle, and want to demonstrate my solidarity with the larger movement, so I'm going to call my program "tech justice."

Recognizing the branding and solidarity aspects also helps us see another aspect of the phenomenon. Remember that one of the axioms of modern SJ is that all oppressions are related and that all oppressed peoples share common interests. By maintaining the brand of "justice," activists reinforce the message that power works to oppress from many angles, and that all people affected must work as one to oppose them.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

I do not have any evidence for this, but my assumption (as some who does political polling for a living) is that this seems like something that started as poll-tested messaging from politicians and political advocacy groups. "Help the poor" doesn't poll as well as "economic justice." "Help minorities get ahead" is a weaker message than "racial justice." These messages have the dual benefit of being 1) active and 2) vague while seeming concrete.

You can *fight* for economic justice. You can pursue it. These are active words that people like to hear from politicians. And you can put whatever policy or outcome you want into the economic justice box or the climate justice box, even as every policy or outcome also falls short of being "economic justice" or "climate justice." And "justice" splits the world into good and bad, black and white, so even if there's no exact meaning behind "justice" it makes people feel like there's a clear distinction being made between the good guys and the bad guys.

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Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

A thoughtful and interesting essay. Thanks!

My reaction is to think that framing things in terms of "justice" allows you to do things -- like punishment, expropriation, a general use of force -- that would be morally questionable if it was framed as charity or being good. Mother Theresa can care for the poor, because she's on a mission of mercy, but she can't do it by stealing from the rich at gunpoint, because that's not consistent with being a saintly nurse. Whereas Robin Hood can totally rob a random rich baron at arrowpoint, because he's on a mission of righing wrongs -- of "justice".

So yes I do agree it's a sign of social moral decay that too many things are framed as "justice," because what it really says is that we seek to license violence, compulsion, and force, against people we don't like for reasons perhaps sufficient (they invaded Ukraine) or perhaps not (we're envious because they're rich and we're not). And we're hoping we can achieve the moral license to be violent by arguing it's all in service of some larger moral good. We're enlisting in a Crusade, and murdering innocent infidels is OK because it's necessary to found the City of God.

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I think that anyone can feign seeking any kind of justice as a way of virtue signalling, but I disagree that this means that doing things like helping the poor or trying to stop climate change don't constitute a form of justice. Also, John Rawls does not have a monopoly on the concept of justice. There have been many other theories of justice posited since Rawls. I also disagree that "helpers" constitute "saints." I sure as a hell am not a saint, but I certainly do things to help people and the world when I get a chance, and I believe that this helps to create a more just world. I even think that murderers and rapists can contribute to "justice," by doing things like confessing to their crimes and apologizing to the families of/their victims, for example. Also, what do you mean by "harming rich people"? Does taxing the rich constitute "harming rich people"? Because I absolutely think that taxing the rich and using that money to improve society for the non-rich (the 99% of people who are not ultra-rich) is a form of justice. I think that you are mistaken to assume that "justice" must always involve some form of punishment or harming of someone else. I think it's possible for "justice" to be found in one person doing a good thing. I think you are correct that what you're talking about is mostly a semantic shift, but I think it's a mistake to focus on the semantics rather than the tangible consequences of people's actions or their actual motivations for acting.

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Another good post Scott.

Imo, its also linked to Nozick' idea of "normative sociology": “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all” https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/06/normative-sociology.html

X Justice is simply an euphemism, or a rhetorical device to implement Normative X for the activist class without concern for empirical realities. It may not help the "victims", but it does help create simple monocausal explanations around which to rally the comrades.

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Here's a probably more accurate idea:

"Justice" here is used to mean "this trumps all other considerations". You're normally not allowed to hurt people, but you are permitted to hurt people for justice. You are normally not allowed to rob people, but if they owe you and it's *justice* to take things from them, well, that's different. I'm permitted to stay neutral on some political issue... but if it's not political, it's a matter of *justice*, I'm obliged to act, and merely staying neutral is a terrible wrong for which I deserve to lose my livelihood and reputation.

That's why people say "justice". It's an unlimited license to ignore the normal rules about being nice to people, and to do so righteously.

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I'd be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to advertise one of my favorite podcasts, 2 Rash 2 Unadvised, which is a readthrough podcast of the Terra Ignota series. They are almost through book 3 if you want to listen along. https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/2-rash-2-unadvised-liam-nolan-waweru-kariuki-EsfnKi_mPOl/

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Comment justice. It is unfair that Scott's blog gets more comments that other blogs.

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I think what this piece is missing is looking at the issue from the perspective of those receiving the help rather than those giving it. Receiving charity is a handout from your betters. Getting justice is just getting what is your right. I think the social justice movement would look at the difference as supporting the existing social hierarchies in the first case, and working toward equality in the second. Whether there is any actual improvement in outcomes for either case, I don't know.

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It's ethical language used to cover a very moralistic and emotional sense of righteousness. Same with 'equality', which in certain circles doesn't even resemble its original meaning.

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One trend I've been keeping an eye on is the balance between referring to "rights" and "duties". These are fairly precisely symmetric terms: if one person has a right, that implies a duty of others with respect to that person. Google Trends suggests a better than 50 to 1 ratio in favor of rights.

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When I read about "Latest Thing We Had To Give a Title To" I feel like someone's trying to manipulate me. Exploit and use me, rather than convince or educate me. It's like looking at a news website and seeing every article title is click bait. I'm just moving on.

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The detailed semantics of "justice" is a red herring. "Justice" is a tribal identifier for the blue tribe, just as "liberty" is for the red tribe. That's why it's increasingly being attached, more or less arbitrarily, to other blue-tribe causes.

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So you basically think there's too much justice. Do you also think there's too much free speech?

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I think a big part of this is a shift in views in entitlement. There is a common view that people now have certain inalienable rights to health, wealth and other opportunities and it’s the states responsibility to provide these - so if you weren’t getting these you are a victim in need of redress, aka justice.

Previously The only area where you did have inalienable rights was if someone broke the law to harm you, requiring the state to act to punish the law breaker and seek justice. Whereas if you were poor and had no healthcare that was just tough luck, not injustice.

This makes it a bit of a mixed bag for me, racial justice - the idea someone is being wronged and deserves redress if they are treated worse purely due to their skin colour is pretty clear cut. But for other examples e.g. inter generational justice who is supposed to be responsible for ensuring everyone gets their entitlement?

Haven’t seen this mentioned (commenting late so might be covered in a thread)

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I feel like you're interpreting "justice" as specifically meaning "retributive justice as executed by a state," and that's a very narrow use of the term. And the same people who talk about "food justice" or whatever are generally exactly the same people who point out that the retributive view of justice is in itself a problem.

In the broadest sense, "justice" is simply the sentiment that the world is supposed to be a certain way, but it currently isn't, and some kind of action is necessary to get it back the way it's supposed to be.

In some situations, this isn't particularly theoretically difficult—if, as a moral principle, everyone in the world should have food, but some people currently don't have food, then you can restore a state of justice if you just find those people and give them some food; easy.

The more complicated ones are where there's really no specific action you can take to restore the way the world's supposed to be. If someone's dead when they're supposed to be alive, there's no known means to make them no longer dead. At best, you can figure out why they died and fix that problem so that no more people die unjustly for the same reason. If they died because someone murdered them, then... well, you have to figure out how you "fix" a murderer. And there are no particularly good answers there, because nothing you do to the murderer is ever going to achieve actual justice (which, again, would be for the murder-ee to be no longer murdered).

It's that lack of any truly just resolution to a problem like murder that leads people into some of the goofy ideas that tend to get mistaken for justice. Like, instead of thinking that murder is unjust because there's a person who is no longer alive, they come up with some variation on the idea that murder is unjust because it shifts the Ultimate Cosmic Balance towards the Green Team by 10 points, and that you can fix it by murdering the murderer back, thereby shifting it back 10 points towards the Red Team. (The really nutty variations on this idea will try to accumulate extra Red Team points by murdering other people on the Green Team, like maybe the murderer's family, or maybe people who look or act vaguely like the murderer, or...)

And that kind of thing should not actually be mistaken for justice. It's an error that arises out of the effort to fill the cosmic void left by the impossibility of real justice, but it is not, in itself, justice.

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The humanists seek to shine: Sniper is a humanist. Utopians are cogs in the machine of progress, each devoting to put every waking moment to that goal. And yes, I would take the oath.

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The justice frame has one advantage. In ethics, a fundamental rule is that "ought implies can."

So while we can all agree that donating time or money to a charity is ethically good and laudable, it is not possible for every single person to do this. Therefore we cannot e.g., pass a law that requires everyone to do these things.

This is why our criminal law system does what Scott describes — if you comply, you are merely not a criminal. This approach obeys "ought implies can" because no matter what your life situation is, you can always *not* do things.

And so many important moral duties are phrased as negative obligations. If we can think creatively about ways to improve society by *not harming it* then that should be doable.

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I am very late to the comments, but I have heard this problem described as the

"Lenin-to-Stalin Transition"

--When the original ideals and idealists are gone or fading, and the focus of the movement is increasingly on maintainin and extending its' (their, for the leaders/oligarchs) power.

The best and most absurd pure example of "mission creep" I have heard is the March of Dimes. Yes, even them.


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Perhaps part of the reason for this problem is the increasing dominance of Narrative as a means of political and social discourse. Narrative is a powerful tool for persuasion, but it does impose constraints. In particular, the most effective narratives by far are those with heroes and villains. Habitat for Humanity actually building homes for the homeless may be in some sense a heroic tale, but that's not enough. A story about greedy capitalist landlords throwing sympathetic victims out on the street has a *villain*, and that sells the narrative.

"Justice", is a term that in common usage implies a villain due their just deserts. So if a problem can be reframed as one of mumble-something Justice, the narrative is improved even if the identity of the villain is discretely unmentioned. The audience can usually find one easily enough.

Unfortunately, while there are forms of discourse which favor truth over falsehood, in cases where the root cause of a problem isn't human villainy, Narrative favors falsehood.

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I'm a big fan of punitive justice: I just think that it often leads us to bypass the court systems in a way that impedes the presentation of evidence. Revenge is a basic human need. For example, when I've been wronged, I can't feel happy until I've obtained revenge. Until I get redress of my wrong (in the form of a harsh and vindictive punishment for the offender), the wrong eats away at me like a great big throbbing wound, making me angrier and angrier with each passing day.

Some people might say that this is unhealthy, but I would argue that the people who tell me this are evil selfish hypocrites. Who are THEY to know how I feel or what would make me feel better? Imagine the presumption, the utter arrogance, to think somebody else knows better than ME about the state of MY feelings. Only the person who has been wronged has the right to decide whether they want punitive justice or restorative justice. I'm not judging the people who want restorative justice - it makes very little sense to me, but to each their own. As the wronged party, it's their prerogative to decide upon the proper punishment for their offender. However, they have no right to push THEIR values upon people who prefer punitive justice, like me. When I've been wronged, *I* get to choose what form of justice I prefer.

Ultimately, I think that the biggest moral divide between liberals and conservatives is the preference between restorative vs punitive justice. But to suggest that one kind of justice is inherently better or worse is evil and arrogant. Ultimately, both restorative and punitive justice have their uses, and it's up to the injured party to decide which flavor they prefer.

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I think the reason is a shift in strategy by progressives. Since they realized that political battles are difficult to be won and take a long time, phrasing demands not as political, but as "legal" seems an easier argument. In my homecountry of Germany I observe this a lot: instead of arguing for an increase in child allowance of X€ because children deserve it and we as a society should be able to take care of our children etc. it is often framed as a legal issue: The constitution guarantees everyone dignified living conditions, with the current amounts children cannot live "dignified", hence it is a matter of justice, not politics, to take care of children better.

It thus becomes no longer about convincing or at least co-opting the political opponent, but about proving something legally, which then can seemingly not be contradicted anymore. Needless to say, this strategy does not seem more effective necessarily.

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I have the feeling that Scott's post have become much more strawman-y recently. "The very laws of space and time are subject to spatial justice and temporal justice" seems either flat out wrong (the linked articles are in no way about the laws of space and time), or just humor I don't get and which turns into a motte-and-bailey. The same holds for the whole "What is climate justice" section. (Those are two examples that jumped out at me, without actively researching any of the topics.) It's a pity, because I always considered that taking others seriously was a key strength of the blog.

Or am I misreading this somehow?

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Justice is determining when it is righteous to harm another. That's why justice carries a sword.

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I thought I'd have a go at this comment as well:

"A narrative of helpers and saviors allows saints. It allows people who are genuinely good, above and beyond expectations, who rightly serve as ideals and role models for others."

I think the problem here is that, if you think that western pollution is now badly harming poor countries, those "helpers" are just the nicest muggers in the gang. They're above expectations because they're not breaking the nose of the poor quite as hard as the rest of the droogs; but the idea that they should be ideals and role models is a bit crazy.

"A narrative of justice allows, at best, non-criminals - people who haven’t broken any of the rules yet, who don’t suck quite as much as everyone else."

Having a good world seems to me to be largely about everyone agreeing to follow rules. I'd much rather have a society where everyone knows the basic rules (like don't steal, don't kill, and don't fuck up another guy's weather) than a society where they don't know those rules, and as compensation I get a Mother Theresa and a Princess Diana to help me out when my legs get blown off by a climate landmine.

If the choice you're presenting is saints vs justice, I'll take justice any day of the week.

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It feels like maybe a year ago that everything was "equity" instead of "justice" and that the George Floyd protests kicked off the big transition.

I'm not sure that there is great meaning to what positive word is in vogue to describe the various movements, but there may be meaning in the fact that they tend to change in sync. A large part of the current progressive philosophy is that all these disparate causes are unified and inseparable. Racial justice is reproductive justice is health justice is environmental justice. As part of that all the movements will share the same terminology to emphasize their shared ideological battle.

In this analysis justice takes over because it is particularly apt for the most salient of the progressive causes (BLM in June 2020) and then persists until a new cause catches the limelight and its preferred adjective takes over.

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"which I think is the most important. A narrative of helpers and saviors allows saints. It allows people who are genuinely good, above and beyond expectations, who rightly serve as ideals and role models for others."

a narrative allows? what about real life? what do real life "expectations" allow?

think of discussions around "bootstrapping" and underemployed PhDs and rising requirements (AKA "expectations") for entry-level jobs and such. there is at least a perception that normal levels of effort are just worthless shit, that you need to exert saint-like superhuman efforts to even *hope* to achieve a minimum success (and then you fail anyways).

you say the "We are not helpers"/"no sainthood to aspire to" stuff is an effect (rather than a cause) of the justice framing. I think it might begin the other way around, right?

same for climate. people tried to help by doing their saintly recycling and whatever for years and years. but the climate is getting worse and worse. so they see their efforts as worthless, and themselves as demonstrably powerless.

discussions about racism and sexism might go the same way... though I won't argue these perceptions are always accurate. but i don't think some kind of framing about "justice" is the cause. if anything, i'd guess the explanation for any seeming disproportionality these days is more similar to the cliche: "the news" (which is now social media) always focuses on the negative, no matter how much crime rates are falling, etc (and social media virality etc. seems relevant here).

you can, of course, go full-relative: "well, climate might be worse than it was decades ago, but it would be even worse if it wasn't for our nice saints!". same for people's employment situations. this is good and important to keep in mind...but the non-relative absolute measure (or: time relative, compared to the past, rather than an alternative present) can indicate things are still not ideal, and in some cases getting worse. and if human activity is making something worse for other humans...that's kinda where the whole idea of justice comes in, pretty unavoidably i think?

proposing some kind of relativistic hero framing doesn't even undo the justice metaphor. because you could speak in both metaphors simultaneously: "the villains would have stolen even more than they did if you hadn't exerted saint-like effort to rescue as much as humanly possible".

"I do think that’s potentially a sign of a sick society."

maybe, but a sign like that can go different ways. so what does it mean? is society sick just because the "justice" framing is causing problems? or, is there an underlying sickness, and the framing on justice only arises in an attempt to fix it? is the sickness/problem the thing the activists say is a problem? or are the activists the (perhaps psycho-somatic) disease/diseased?

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Mar 17, 2022·edited Mar 17, 2022

I'm pretty sure that most of these types of justice are just applying social justice to a specific topic, with the use of 'justice' directly borrowing from there. That is, "climate justice" is just the intersection of (social justice)*(climate change), et cetera. Possibly there's a deeper root in in the 1960s for this definition of 'justice', but either way - AIUI it's not any sort of general symptom of societal decline, it's just a signifier that you're talking about a topic from a woke point of view. Also a rhetorical tool, of course. ("Against? How can you be against justice?") But the existence of the social justice movement (or whatever you call it), and the fact that it uses a specific lingo, is not really new, and I don't think 'justice' is being used in that sense by anyone outside it.

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"Justice" is constructed of pure unobtanium. "Law" is the best we can do in this sublunary sphere.

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It is interesting how a phrase can resonate with someone so differently depending on when they encountered it and what they assume to be its origin.

I'm Catholic. Social justice for me is a Catholic concept. It comes out of Thomism (really the neo-Thomism of the 19th century carried on since at Louvain/Leuven), has been elaborated on by every Pope since Pope Leo in the 1890's, and is enshrined in Canon Law, that "The Christian faithful are ... obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources."

Thomistic theologians, Pope John Paul II, Canon lawyers - none of these people are the misguided and squishy-thinking activists Scott associates with the term and movement. Consequently, the negative associations and implications Scott draws from the spread of the term - absolutely none of them occur to me or resonate with me, at all.

As I said, I share Scott's low view of this framing by many of these movements. However, that's simply because I think the framing does not work or obscures more than it illuminates. I see nothing pernicious in it, for those movements or society as a whole.

Indeed, the effort of those movements is not hard for me to decipher and requires none of the speculation of this piece - I always presumed it was an attempt to add legitimacy to claims/pleas for help that the activists (mostly correctly) believe politicians and the electorate won't support on pure charity/sympathy grounds (it's reasonable to try to have an answer to the obvious critique of why should we help those people, who presumably could help themselves?).

The effort mostly fails, but that can be concluded/argued without the logical leaps of this piece, in my view - many of which, given the actual/other origins of these terms and traditions, are as unfounded and unwarranted as the arguments they critique.

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and we all know the other place where sainthood comes up


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Mar 18, 2022·edited Mar 18, 2022

cf. C. S. Lewis:

"Are the gods not just?"

"Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see."

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I get the irresistible nature of the rhetorical flourish, but want to assure people that unless I’m much more out of touch than I think, the laws of space and time are safe from encroachment by justice warriors.

It is more correct (if less rhetorically compelling) to say that spatial justice and temporal justice respectively *reference* space and time.

(The first concerns allegedly unequal/inequitable distribution of social goods as a function of location. The second, *not* by analogy, concerns unequal/inequitable control over one’s time as experienced by different categories of people (he typed, while waiting forever for A033 to be called out at the local DMV😊))

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"shoot for the moon, even if you miss you'll land among the stars"

our media is full of larger than life heroes and stories of success.

we can only ever fall short. you don't need the framing of justice for that to be the case.

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Excessive use of the word 'justice' in the naming of a cause should be a sign that the people using it are operating in bad faith. It's basically the same as calling one's views 'progressive', as if by definition their views are "progress" and opposition to "progressive" views is opposition to "progress". Perhaps its became so commonplace its not knowingly used in a bad faith way, but "justice" has not reached that stage and extreme scepticism is an appropriate approach to people who use it.

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During the Great Awokening, activists add the word "justice" to phrases to imply "white people must pay."

E.g., "Environmental justice" means race-based environmental compensation. For example, the Biden Administration wants to hand out money to neighborhoods damaged by pollution. But Biden is being criticized for using the term "environmental justice" while taking into account the amount of pollution in a place but _not_ taking into account the race of the people in the place. E.g., from yesterday's Los Angeles Times:

"Op-Ed: How can the White House fix environmental injustice if it won’t take race into account?


"MARCH 18, 2022 3 AM PT

"In mid-February, when the White House unveiled the beta version of its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, it was met by sharp criticism from environmental justice advocates: A mapping tool designed to identify disadvantaged communities neglected to use race as a criterion.

"The screening tool, when finalized, will govern President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which requires that at least 40% of federal investments in climate-change mitigation and clean energy benefit neighborhoods and communities that are, in the administration’s words, “marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution.”

"Working at the census tract level, the Justice40 screener sets vulnerability thresholds in eight categories. In general, if a community scores above an economic and environmental threshold in one or more category, it will be prioritized for federal aid.

"But race never factors in the tool’s calculus, an omission that runs counter to science. It turns out that the No. 1 predictor of whether you live perilously close to a polluting facility is race."


Or, you know, rather than _predict_ the distance from a polluting facility, you could just measure the pollution level.

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Mar 19, 2022·edited Mar 19, 2022

I have some inside insight here. I was working as an environmental activist 8 years ago when some folks from the David Suzuki Foundation briefed us on their Environmental Justice project. Their motivation was this: every time they ever made any progress on the environment, they risked losing it later, and they had to do that same fight over and over again on each issue. If, however, they could convince governments to recognize the environment as having legal rights, then they could win once and for all.

I think it's this finality people are craving. If you say that something is a bad idea, people might always change their mind later. If you can establish that it is unjust — especially by official arbiters — then the question is settled.

The trouble with that, however, is that justice doesn't work well for subtle problems. It works best for simple "stop this" or "do this" propositions, such as "put this man in jail," or "free this man from jail." I always think of a car. Justice is good for solving simple problems like, "this car is illegally parked: put a boot on it" or "it is unjust that this car lacks gas: fill it up." It doesn't work well for, "we think this car might not be running because it has a broken sprocket, but it might be the alternator." Fixing a broken car is a matter of details and competence. Saying "it is unjust that this car is broken" doesn't fix the car.

The justice framing is great for social movements — when it makes sense — because it offers people a simple yes/no proposition to demand, something to yell in a crowd. The Civil Rights movement was successful framing problems in terms of justice because it was the kind of problem justice can fix: stop excluding people from bathrooms, buses, and jobs.

Addressing the proportion of minorities in science is a whole different kind of problem. Shifting societal CO2 emissions is a different kind of problem as well. I think Suzuki had things totally wrong trying to make the environment a justice issue. These things require attention to detail, competence, long-term pressure to improve systems, etc. When people try to frame things in terms of justice, it really is a problem, in my experience as an advocate. It forces people to try to simplify issues to a yes/no proposition, which means they resist discussing policy details.

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Caballistically this is an reflection of the relation between Gevurah (justice) and Chesed (doing something out of love/mercy, to help or save someone).

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I think the shift in frame is an acknowledgement of injustice, indeed - but I'm not sure thats bad? I don't read it as a "mea culpa" kind of guilt, more that "helping the poor" often is a lot of virtue signalling - ie the 19th century industrialist who is fine with employing children in terrible working conditions but every month he and his wife attend a charity dinner at the club to donate to the poor, unwashed masses (and also, of course, look down on them and feel superior). Framed as "economic justice" it becomes about saying "we live in a society where if you are born to poor, uneducated parents, you will likely end up poor and uneducated yourself, and thats unjust." And then, ideally, go and actually do something about that, because just saying it is just as much virtue signalling, but I digress. Point is, regarding the utopia/dystopia perspective - "helping the poor" adresses the symptoms, and is a net gain over not helping the poor, but to get closer to utopia, we need to adress the root causes and effect systemic change.

Now, there obviously is a lot more to both, from effective altruism to wokeness and the layers and layers of virtue signalling on every single step, on either side, but ultimately I think thats the gist of it - that its not actually all that virtuous to help the poor if you are merely giving back a small part of what you exploited out of them in the first place. That we need to change systems for the better if we want to progress toward utopia.

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If the system of law is still working, and relatively fair, it becomes the only way to obtain agency. If politicians and media are ‘influenced’ by the wealthy few, then only the law can hold the system to account. Not sure how long this will last as I suspect this path to agency is being ‘worked on’ as we speak.

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Only a few paragraphs in and he is already using a GDP to climate correlation in order to make an argument against justice? I had to stop reading.

A number like GDP is of little value to anyone unless they are making calculations about a state's sovereign debt. It is not useful to reduce entire nations to single numbers.

I am largely sympathetic to the point here about semantics. The framing of everything important in metaphors of cops, judges, or criminals portends only the worst, most sterile and bureaucratic outcomes.

However Scott and others in this space are so reliant on economics for every part of their discourse. They give superficial examples based on ideas like GDP without even cursory examination. If you are talking about language and framing, what is the point of using an economic metric? How is that utopian or idealistic? Isn't that more of the same creep you mean to critique ?

Why do we worry about Justice Creep but not Banking Creep? Concepts originally designed to help lenders have crept into every aspect of our lives. They are used to explain almost every larger trend that enters our purview. Banking logic has infected intellectual pursuits in a way that makes us all seem miserly and sad, especially when it serves no purpose.

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I've decided that instead of pursuing rationality by writing my own blog and gaining readers, I'll pursue "rationality justice" by convincing people to stop reading Scott. Shoo!

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Like Alfalfa used to say, "Justice chickens in here."

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Mar 23, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022

One of my favorite passages of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a timeless examination of the psyche of the justice-seeker, and seems quite relevant here: http://piratesandrevolutionaries.blogspot.com/2009/04/on-tarantulas-nietzsche-thus-spoke.html

The quintessence of wokeness was already captured by him 150 years ago:

Because, FOR MAN TO BE REDEEMED FROM REVENGE—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.

Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it. "Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance"—thus do they talk to one another.

"Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us"—thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.

"And 'Will to Equality'—that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!"


In all their lamentations soundeth vengeance, in all their eulogies is maleficence; and being judge seemeth to them bliss.

But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!

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"This is mostly a semantic shift - instead of saying “we should help the poor”, you can say “we should pursue economic justice”. But different framings have slightly different implications and connotations"

The framings are intended to shift the burden of action to a third party and away from oneself. "We should help the poor" means 'someone else should help the poor' and can be countered easily by "I help the poor, by [doing x]. What are you doing?"

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I think you're conflating things here.

I agree with your some of your criticism which can broadly be applied to modern movements, but I disagree with your idea that "justice" has this negative connotation.

"justice" implies fairness.

"Economic justice" isnt the same as "charity" it implies people are poor or wealth is uneven (or more then should be) because of unjust things.

I agree with this, and its hard to have any serious, honest ethical view of the world which says that people's relative wealth or poverty is purely a result of either their own actions or some neutral arrangement of things.

Does anyone seriously think that people in countries like Africa aren't poor at least partially because of things that would be considered unjust reasons?

"Climate justice" seems on the surface more iffy- but when you consider the negative impacts of climate change will far disproportionately affect poorer nations who have not by and large benefited from the carbon enabled economy to the degree rich countries have, "climate justice" makes sense.

Its saying "its not just that these things are bad, they are fundamentaly unfair, and thus unjust, and attempts to remedy them is just."

I don't really agree that this means people cant be heroes- but it does perhaps imply rectifying these things is a duty, not some special act of heroism.

Again, I think you are conflating the negative aspects of wokeism, like the absence of any positive vision, with something that is connected but not in the exact way you are expressing it.

They are not unrelated, but it's not a one to one connection, its more complicated.

The use of "justice" goes back before current times, the civil right movements talked of justice. Since the civil rights movement was both succesful and an inspiration, many people have repeated its language and its framing.

But many modern left movements depart from those in significant ways you mention.

Its a bit like how there was a successful campaign by feminists to alter more tolerant attitudes towards rape by the slogan, "rape isnt sex, irs violence."

By changing the way people think about things- poverty isnt just a bad thing, its an unjust thing- it does have effects on the way people respond.

Imagine there was an island that for some weird physical reason was surrounded by an invincibility forcefield, full of humans who were uncontacted by the outside world.

Lets imagine the field came down, and these humans were revealed to be very nice people but extremely poor- always on the brink of starvation, no resurces, living exposed to the elements, disease etc.

Now it would be a bad thing that they were poor, but it wouldnt be UNJUST.

No other people caused these people to be poor. Helping them would be a good thing, but it would be charity.

However, this is not the situation of any human living in poverty.

People are connected socially through globalism. Everyone's economic status is because of other people and actions and systems and previous actions.

Many people indirectly benefit from others lower status.

For example, Americans benefit from the poverty of other peoples by being able to compensate them substantially less for their labor in less safe and work local conditions.

This leads to more things being more affordable for more americans.

If you've owned anything with a computer chip prior to the last decade or so, the odds are prety good hey materials in that chip were mined by literal slaves.

Many people would say it is UNJUST to benefit this way from slave labor- particularly as there are complex degrees of responsibility in which entities, countries, corporations, have contributed to, directly benefit from, or reinforce those conditions.

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IMHO 'Justice" is gaining use because its opposite is unjust - it is addictive in use because it communicates the impossibility of disagreeing with the person speaking for 'justice' without being unjust aka evil aka bad.

It is a nice rhetorical moment that others anybody who disagrees with you when you speak for "<???> justice!"

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It's like we realized the aliens have come,

and they were us!

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It's all very Alinskyesque. The use of the term "justice" added the end of whatever cause is deployed to increase the rhetorical effect because of our ever-increasing appetite for "progress." (The arc of which seems to always bend leftward--a function of the narrative being controlled by one side for decades).

It's why every time there is some new victory in the name of [fill in the blank cause] the very next chorus you hear (from the right and the left) is "there is so much more work to be done." It would be terrible to be on the "wrong side of history," you see. When you ask, there is no end game, no vision of what "done" actually looks like, without massive redistribution, re-education, relocation, and ultimately death/violence.

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