How do we think about the obligation of social justice? The dominant American political culture is based on individualist values: you have a right to do whatever you want, and the main problem is how to prevent you and other rights-bearing individuals from getting in each other’s way. Without extra considerations, social justice in such a universe is a matter of taste and inclination, which is to say charity. You offer help to others when you feel like it.
But there is an important extra consideration, debt: our freedom in an individualist world is constrained by obligations to repay the debts we have incurred. This may result from a purely financial transaction like a mortgage or a student loan, but we also recognize what might be called social or moral debts, where one person has benefitted at the expense of someone else and therefore owes compensation in return. This might not be recognized in a court of law, but it makes an ethical claim that can cause people to feel a sense of obligation.
The you-owe-it-to-them argument is used on behalf of coffee-growers, for instance. Those on the sipping end of the industry, when they hear stories about how hard these growers work and how little they get for it, rightfully feel obligated to go out of their way to make amends. They buy fair-traded beans and patronize cafes that share, or seem to share, these same values. If you benefit by drinking, you are indebted.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I discussed in an earlier post, strongly pushes this framing of racial justice in America. White people benefitted from centuries of un- and underpaid black labor, and from racial domination in general, and in this way they have accrued an immense debt. Justice will not be achieved until the debt is acknowledged and paid back.
In fact, the “white privilege” language used to analyze racial inequality implicitly draws on this same notion of debt obligation. Inequalities are assumed to all take the form of zero-sum relationships, where some (whites) have more because others (blacks) have less. Thus the difference in outcomes can be understood as a debt that the better-off owe to the worse-off. It’s politically effective insofar as it appeals to this deep theme in our culture, justice as the retiring of debts.
The debt frame has considerable merit on an aggregate level. As a country, economically and politically, America drew much of its strength from racial and other forms of exploitation. This creates a historic obligation to reverse as much of the resulting inequalities as possible. The reality of slavery, for instance, and its contribution to American economic development, does obligate the country to adopt policies to make up for past injustice.
One problem with relying on debt repayment as a basis for social justice, however, is that it doesn’t work well at an individual level. America has an obligation to undo the ravages of slavery and the racial exploitation that still continues, but what about me? How much have I personally benefitted from this history, and which individuals should I compensate? There’s no way to answer this, because the debt is collective, not individual. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to promote just policies, but I don’t have calculable personal debts to other individuals. The fact that most racial inequality is not zero-sum pertains to this—indeed, if the divide-and-rule theory of class exploitation is correct, quite a few whites would be better off in a more racially equal society.
I suspect that a lot of the current unease around the politics of racial (and related) justice is due to the push to apply debt obligation to the daily life of individuals. There is a stream of discussion about whether one form of oppression is “greater” than another, as if to determine whether a given person is a net debtor or net creditor according to some moral calculus. The claim that you or I am personally responsible for and have benefited from past historical crimes (whose existence I don’t for a moment question) is almost always fictitious, but doubting it is interpreted as an attempt to avoid paying up. Worse, debt obligations are mandatory. They must be repaid. The casting of social injustice as accumulations of personal debt gives rise to the morally coercive tinge that justice activism has acquired.
But unmodified individualism is not the only basis for thinking about our place in the world, and debt is not the only source of personal obligation. Here are two more framings for social justice, solidarity and equal care.
Solidarity is based on the view that our well-being largely depends on the outcome of class and other social conflicts; this is how we might obtain democracy, a fairer economy, a sustainable environment, peace, and respect for human rights. For most of us, our power is not in wealth or position but in numbers, so to work for ourselves we need to work with each other. This mutual support is what we mean by solidarity: I stick with you in the expectation that you will stick with me. Racial justice, from a solidarity perspective, is part of a larger set of commitments that span multiple inequalities—class, gender, and nationality, to name just a few. White support for blacks confronting unequal treatment would be premised on a shared ethic of standing together. This, like historic debt, works best at an aggregate level, but it also applies to many individual situations. If you and I are both actively engaged in an array of political or social conflicts, each of us can benefit from the other’s solidarity. (Note the difference between solidarity and allyship, as discussed here.)
But the view of social life as an interlocking set of collective struggles that underlies solidarity is not an altogether accurate representation of how we really live. Collective gains through conflict are only one determinant of our well-being—we do (and undo) a lot for ourselves individually as well—and the “people’s” side in one conflict doesn’t always match up with that side in others. Consider class conflict and the struggle for a better environment, for instance. In an ideal world it might be that the people fighting for economic equality and ecological values would largely overlap, but in this one they are often quite different. Returning to racial justice, I wouldn’t want to hold it hostage to first achieving a congruence between this and lots of other movement constituencies.
The deepest problem with solidarity, however, is that intra- and intergroup commitments often conflict, even structurally. The logic of collective action is that individuals need to feel they can rely on the support of others in the cause, but meaningful support is a costly commodity. One can feel sympathetic to an unlimited number of collective struggles but provide material solidarity to only a few. In practice, a solidarity ethic tends toward balkanization of activism, despite the noble vision of the most eloquent activists. For every cross-racial or cross-national labor mobilization, for example, there are many others in which solidarity was only one-dimensional. This is often blamed on the political or cultural shortcomings of the people being mobilized—with justification—but appeals to what sets a particular group apart, not what connects them to others, are often the most effective at eliciting mutual commitment.
And there is a third way to think about justice. For this we can go back to Mozi, the legendary philosopher, political activist and opponent of offensive war who lived in China in the years surrounding 400 BCE. As he looked at inequalities of power and wealth, Mo argued that the core problem was “unequal love”, that people cared more for those in their own family or other social group than anyone else. In an extreme form, this led to wars of domination or conquest, since the rulers valued the soldiers and the population of the regions they were attacking less than their own kin. War, he thought, was obviously mass murder, and yet it was viewed as glorious. His remedy was to promote an equality of caring; given this, he thought, injustice could not be possible.
I realize there have been many formulations of this universalism in the intervening 2500 years, with greater sophistication over time, but it’s relevant that the equality-of-care basis for social justice goes back a long, long way. Perhaps more activists have drawn on it than on any other frame.
When we think of the most powerful appeals to moral action, they typically rest on our potential to care equally for people who might otherwise be distant from us. The famous schematic of a slave ship, used effectively by early English abolitionists, invites us to imagine ourselves or our loved ones shackled body-to-body in a nightmare cross-Atlantic passage. The photo of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam works on us to the extent we see her as worthy as any child of our love and protection. Arguably, the proliferation of cell phone videos has had a profound impact on justice activism by making oppression intimate—close visually and ethically.
Here’s another example: consider the phrase “black lives matter”. It’s a bit ambiguous; you could interpret it in more ways than one. Its most persuasive interpretation, however, goes like this: over and over, black people are killed by police, and the official response is inaction. Black victims of violence are treated as if their lives are worth less than others, and this is unacceptable. Black lives matter! There should be just as much outrage over such murders as if the victim were rich, white and famous. If Mozi were among us today he would immediately recognize this demand, and no doubt he would be out on the streets in support.
There are two problems with the equality of care framing, equality and care. Humans (and other socially cognizant species) have a penchant for distinguishing between the groups they belong to and those regarded as “other”. Family, ethnic and national preferences are widespread. But we have also demonstrated throughout history the capacity to transcend these divisions, and over long spans of time the circles of respect and care have widened enormously. It may be that mediated forms of communication like writing and now audio-visual depictions provide a cognitive basis for a more universal sense of who “we” are.
Perhaps the tougher nut is getting people to see they have an obligation to care. In theory, individualism does away with that: you are obligated to care for you, and I’m obligated for me; anything else is extra. In practice, of course, we can’t exist without care: care for the young, for the old, for the sick, for those under attack, and for people who are just stuck in one way or another, because all of us have been and will likely be in that type of situation at some point. In the high theory of individualism—Locke etc.—this was sidestepped because an “invisible” class of people, women, were assigned the role of fulfilling care responsibilities. Today there is no excuse for failing to see that responsibility to care has a claim on us alongside individual choice. But it takes time for this awareness to sink in and redirect a culture based on what was always a mythical universalization of self-regard. In the meantime, some people are more care-conscious than others, which means social justice activism has a double task: getting people to recognize that care is not optional and then getting them to extend it equally across social boundaries. It sounds like a lot, but activists have been doing this for generations.
To sum up, there are different ways to make the claim that we are obligated to act on behalf of social justice. The debt-based approach has merit at a collective level, but it has been overused as a basis for individual obligation and is largely counterproductive. Solidarity has much to recommend it, especially in comparison to allyship, but there are many situations in which it has little practical force, while in others solidarities may be in conflict. The strongest basis is equality-of-care. It is ethically consistent and universally relevant. True, it struggles to overcome ancient parochialisms and the presumptions of an individualistic culture, and this forces us to supplement it with other appeals when we can, but it is the value that best defines what we mean by social progress.