Thinking about fairness and inequality
there are broadly shared beliefs about what is socially just and unjust, and what is fair and unfair. Here is the basic problem: we observe some empirical case of social inequality : some people are better off than others or their lives are more fulfilling than others or they are healthier than others. These are observations. And we ask: is the observed inequality just or fair? Does the inequality violate some principle of justice? Now, some inequalities are simply cases of bad luck – one person gets hit by lightening, another does not. There is a dramatic inequality in their fates. And there is a sense, of course, in which one could say (as kids do): that’s not fair; the person who got hit by lightening “didn’t deserve it.” Such expressions reflect a deep moral intuition that most people have: people should get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This is why when someone gets struck by lightening we say “that’s so unfair, they didn’t deserve that.”
When we talk about a social injustice – not just the unfairness of bad luck – what we mean is that there is an inequality which is unfair and which could be remedied if our social institutions were different. Something could in principle be done about it. When we say that it was a social injustice for African-Americans to be denied admission to all-white universities before the end of racial segregation in America what we mean is that it was not just “bad luck” to be born black and thus denied admission, but that this grossly unfair inequality in educational opportunity could have been remedied by a change in social institutions. This does not mean, of course, that it was politically possible to remedy that injustice in the 1920s or 1930s. Racial segregation was always a profound social injustice, as was slavery before it, but the social forces supporting segregation were so powerful and cohesive that until the 1950s and 1960s they were able to successfully repress struggles against segregation and maintain those institutions. The claim that an inequality is unjust, therefore, can be seen as an indictment of the way in which existing configurations of power block the social changes needed to reduce or eliminate the inequality in question.
Discussing problems of social justice quickly becomes really complicated, since a diagnosis of injustice really requires two judgments: first, a moral judgment that an inequality is unfair, and second, a sociological judgment that this unfairness could be remedied by a social change. It’s not fair that some children are born with physical disabilities – they don’t “deserve it”. But it is not in and of itself necessarily a social injustice.1 What becomes a social
injustice is if there are things we could do to minimize the effects on people’s lives of the unfairness of such “bad luck” and fail to do so. The lack of curb cuts in sidewalks is an injustice for people in wheelchairs. The lack of affordable prosthetic limbs is an injustice for amputees. To insure that curb cuts exist requires a change in rules governing urban planning. To insure that everyone who needs a prosthetic limb can afford one requires a change in the rules governing access to medical services. Both of these constitute social changes. And since Being born with a disability could itself be a social injustice if the disability was itself the result of a social injustice, such as lack of access to good prenatal medical care by the mother. remedies such as these involve changes in the uses of resources, they almost inevitably trigger resistance and conflict from those who stand to lose from the social change. When there is an inequality that is also an injustice – that is, an unfair inequality that could be remedied -- we can expect there to be a set of power relations operating in the situation which block the necessary remedies. Injustices do not continue just because of some law...
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