The view that we can conceive of a society organized on principles of justice and then move toward making this conception a reality is one of the historic wellsprings of social theory. It is also, I think, fundamentally mistaken. Plato’s Republic is probably the earliest and one of the most influential examples of trying to create through reasoning a mental image of a just set of social relations. Although a marvelous work of philosophy and literature, the Republic describes a polity that could never be realized. Perhaps even more seriously, this sketch of an ideal city-state was an outline of totalitarianism. As Max Beerbohm quipped, in a couplet on Plato’s and all other utopias: “Oh, is this utopia? Well, / I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.”
A utopia can be a thought experiment, with no goal bringing it into existence. When Thomas More coined the word “utopia,” he did not intend to design an alternative to the England of his day, but to fashion an imaginary land as way of thinking about his England. This was different, though, from the utopian schemes of late modern social theorists, who have portrayed their imaginary worlds as blueprints for building the right kind of society.
Of all the modern theorists of an imaginary world, none can equal Karl Marx in influence on the existing world. Marx’s speculations inspired the Communist regimes of the twentieth century, dictatorships that in the course of their efforts to engineer utopia became as hellish as anything that could be imagined by Max Beerbohm. More benignly, democratic socialist parties and governments grew out of versions of Marxist theory, although in their accommodation of socialism to democracy these quietly discarded visions of an alternative world in favor of taxation and governmental services.
While Plato had placed his visionary polity in the realm of pure reason, Marx found his in a prediction of the future. In the struggle of classes, a proletariat of growing size and intensifying impoverishment would seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie and establish an egalitarian system of social and economic relations. Political philosopher Eric characterized this belief that the future held an alternative world of heaven realized on earth as “the immanentization of the eschaton,” a secular expression of Gnosticism, in which disorder and imperfection could be transcended by thought and brought into being by policy.
So far in history, Marx’s predictions have turned out to be completely off. Advanced capitalist societies did not experience deepening poverty leading to revolutions, but entered a period of mass production benefitting nearly all. The middle classes, barely recognized by Marx, expanded rapidly. Even over the past three decades, as relative inequality has increased by most measures in developed nations, absolute standards of living have improved and are certainly far better than in Marx’s day.
Part of the answer to the question of why Marx’s predictions were wrong is that there were many developments he did not, and perhaps could not, foresee. For example, advancements in technology and corporate organization improved productivity so that profits in a competitive environment did not depend on pushing workers to produce more and live on less. Businesses knew that they needed buyers for their products, and a proletariat with no spending power could not provide these buyers. Shareholder owned corporations were much more complex entities than the privately owned factories of Marx’s day. In political systems based on elections, even if power is unequally distributed and voter may be misled about their true interests, political leaders find it difficult to survive if the situation of the electorate is continually worsening.
Beneath all of these possible reasons Marx’s vision did not come to fruition, though, lies one more fundamental reason: social theory is not reality, but a simplification of reality. Our theories can give us tentative descriptions of aspects of the world we live in and provide us with hypotheses that may explain specific events or relationships. A theory of a “,” an alternative reality created by thought, is nothing more than a fantasy.
The Alternative World of John Rawls
John Rawls was perhaps the most important political philosopher since the mid-twentieth century and certainly the most influential figure in shaping contemporary ideas of social justice. I’ve suggested in a previous article in another publication that “[s] version of his theory can arguably be found in most uses of the term social justice, even on the lips of those who have never read him.” Rawls was not a Marxist. He did not engage in class analysis or favor the seizure of the means of production by the working class. In some respects, Rawls was more similar to Plato than to Marx, since the twentieth century philosopher concentrated on how to define justice and not on instigating social movements. But Rawls shared with both Plato and Marx the imagination of an alternative world.
In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted to define justice by looking at what kind of society would be characterized as just. He argued that justice should be seen as a question of the fairness of the organization of a society and of its internal divisions. To address what would be a fair kind of social organization, he adopted a classical hypothetical ploy from social contract theory. He posited an original state of nature, outside of society, in which all are equal individuals. He did not suggest that any such original state had ever existed. This was a thought experiment, but not one that would simply serve the purpose of social criticism as More’s utopia had, but as a basis for guiding action and policies.
In the best-known part of the book, Rawls employs a “veil of ignorance” to approach how we might look at our own society from the perspective of a fictional original state of nature. If we existed outside of any society and were going to enter into one, and we did not know what places we would occupy, what kind of social organization would we rationally choose? Rawls claimed that our choice would be for the social structure that would benefit each of us most if we happened to land in the least desirable position. Achieving a just society, then, would mean moving toward one that bestows the greatest possible benefits on its least advantaged members.
The Rawlsian approach has a clear bias toward redistribution, since inequality is only acceptable to the extent that benefits those at the bottom. It is not, however, necessarily a prescription for socialism. If some form of capitalism yields greater rewards to its most deprived citizens, then that is the most just society.
On inspection, this positional approach to justice seems to have some odd implications. In the traditional, Aristotelian concept of justice, justice is a matter of individuals getting what they deserve. A just society is one that rewards good actions and punishes bad ones. But there is no room for asking what individuals deserve as a consequence of their virtues or actions in the Rawlsian version. It does not matter if you are at the bottom of the society because of laziness, lack of ability, bad luck, family background, or mistreatment by others. Justice depends on how you are treated simply because of where you are.
While Rawls did at times voice support for equality of opportunity, he was notably ambivalent about the justice of rewarding individual talents that enable people to make use of opportunities. Behind that veil of ignorance, you do not know whether you will come into a society with intelligence, athletic ability, or interpersonal skills. Even more seriously, your skills and talents will probably not be entirely innate, but will be developed as a consequence of where you land in the social organization.
This problem of making personal virtue irrelevant to justice should make us suspicious of the claim that any rational person, existing behind the veil of ignorance, would choose to favor the least advantaged simply because they are the least advantaged. Because the state of nature is purely imaginary, we have no way of knowing whether it would be most rational to minimize our risks, maximize our possibilities, or base what we might choose on the kinds of people we might be after stepping through the veil.
The choice that Rawls thought he and any other rational person would make has the consequence of turning whomever is judged to be at the bottom of a social order into the only individual or group of individuals who matters in measuring the fairness of the order. This makes the interests of all others irrelevant, except insofar as they happen to coincide with the well-being of the most disadvantaged. Who are these people who serve as the metric of fairness for everyone else? While Rawls made relatively little reference to social categories such as the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, removing all identifiable individual characteristics through the heuristic veil of ignorance effectively reduces people to social positions, so that categories considered disadvantaged become a convenient way to define who will be considered the sole measurement of the extent to which a society approaches the ideal. This emphasis on relative disadvantage also lends itself to thinking about the categories in terms of oppression and victimization. Rawlsian social justice leads directly to a cult of victimhood.
The alternative reality Rawls proposed, the just society found by reflecting on what kind of world a Harvard professor would choose if he did not know that he would have the good fortune to become a Harvard professor, entailed ignoring human societies as complex, dynamic webs of institutions and relationships that develop and change over the course of history. Instead, an imagined world would serve as the moral pattern for the real world.
The most fundamental problem with this perspective goes beyond the delusion that we can judge reality by the standards of fiction. The just society found behind the veil of ignorance is a totality. Efforts at social reform are not attempts to change specific laws or practices that conflict with our ideas of fairness, but to reorganize the entire society according to a single moral pattern. In the ideal model of a society considered as just, there is no room for moral pluralism.
Pluralism means that a nation or a community consists of many different, often competing goods and interests. The political thinker Isaiah Berlin described this pluralism of values and goals as “incommensurability.” Individual freedom from political control and pursuit of economic equality, for example, often exist in opposition. When parents invest in maximizing the educational opportunities of their own children, they necessarily promote the competitive positions of their children beyond those of children in families less able to make investments.
Precisely because we have so many different individuals and groups pursuing varied interests, there is no overall pattern of a just ordering. Bringing social relations into conformity with a moral blueprint entails dedication to control and coordination. This poses practical problems because people tend to stubbornly pursue their own interests, whether or not those advance the cause of disadvantaged categories, even when they genuinely accept a social justice ideology. But it also produces a culture of conformity and intolerance.
In the contemporary version of Rawlsian social justice, those who claim to speak for “the marginalized” make claims to absolute moral authority aimed at re-ordering the whole of the society. Those who disagree with them or who fail to fall into the ideological line of formation cannot be seen as having a different set of legitimate goals or even as simply being mistaken. Any deviation from the cause of the redesigning society for the sake of the disadvantaged categories is injustice.
Because societies are not drawn up from the blueprints of planners but evolve from the complex interrelationships of people over their histories, the abstraction of a “just society” can never fit reality. It is a bit like the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels, in which clothes are made according to the geometry of abstract thought and therefore never fit their wearers. The difference is that the social justice tailor aims to cut the wearer to suit the apparel.