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.