Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism and Its Critics: Preliminary Mediation
By Bryan Caplan
My complaint about the BHL, as may be obvious from the exchanges now
going on, is that they insist that social justice ought to be part of
libertarianism but are unwilling to tell us what it means. As far as I
can judge by observations of usage, “social justice” means “ideas of
justice that appeal to left wingers,” and its practical implication is
the rule that, with regard to any issue at all, the first question to
ask is how it affects the poor.
The only reason I can see why libertarians would want to adopt that terminology is to appeal to leftish academics. Fraudulently.
Jason finds David “obtuse”:
I think it’s weird for David Friedman to say he doesn’t know what
we’re talking about, since we’ve defined the term many times here. Let’s
define it again.
Here’s a rather generic definition:
Social justice is a moral standard by which some people
judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice
believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well
these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.
The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all,
including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.
I don’t speak for David, but I understand why he remains dissatisfied. Does “depends” mean “depends to some extent“? Almost every moral theory says the same – including, as David points out, old-school utilitarianism. Does “depends” mean “depends entirely“? That seems implausibly absolutist – especially since “serving the interests of the poor and least advantaged” is (a) arguably supererogatory in the first place, and (b) dependent on how deserving the poor and least advantaged are.
Jason’s last sentence is more specific – and sounds ominously close to the absolutist position. When as careful a philosopher as Jason includes the clause “must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society,” the natural interpretation is “if institutions are not sufficiently beneficial for the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society, those institutions are definitely not morally justified.”
If Jason and David will permit me to play the role of mediator, here’s where I’d start.
1. David, are you willing to grant that Jason and others have tried to tell you what “social justice” means?
2. Jason, are you willing to refine your definition for David? In particular, are you saying anything stronger than a utilitarian would accept?