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Young on Global Justice

Young’s book Responsibility for Justice came out this year, five years after her sudden death. Young’s book is one of the most important contributions to the debate of global justice. The main question that she addresses is ‘how shall agents, both individual or organizational, think about our responsibility in relation to structural injustice?’ (p. 95). Young distinguishes between the liability conception of responsibility and what she calls the social connection model of responsibility. The former is based on the legalistic notion of blame and guild, whilst the latter is based on a new conception of political responsibility, which is fundamentally different from legal responsibility.

In the beginning of the book, Young discusses the writings of Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead who assume that poverty is either to be traced in individual choice or in social structures, but not in both. They argue that any individual can potentially become successful within the realm of the liberal state since they have equal chances and opportunities. Hence, being poor according to Murray and Mead, is a personal fault, which imposes an unjust burden on others whose taxes pay for the welfare benefits of the poor. Young is opposed to this understanding of individual responsibility as independent to social structures. She argues that Murray and Mead should take ‘into account socioeconomic structures such as labour markets; investment patterns; a changing class mix in neighbourhoods, divorce laws and practices’ (p. 17). In other words, structures affect the opportunities that individuals have. Hence, provided that opportunities are not equal, the rhetoric of personal responsibility should be abandoned since it ‘attempts to isolate the deviant poor and render them particularly blameworthy for their condition, which then justifies the application of paternalistic or punitive policies to them’ (p. 23).

The most popular defence of individual responsibility is to be found in Ronald Dworkin’s Sovereign Virtue (2000), where Dworkin distinguishes between inequalities that derive from choice and inequalities that derive from luck. Dworkin tries to defend the welfare state by proposing a market-based approach to equality, where an average premium ought to be divided across the members of the society, hence spreading the risk across all citizens, in order to compensate for those who have the bad luck to bear costs that they are not individually responsible for. This argument, as Young rightly argues, is based on the assumption that ‘everyone faces the same level of risk of encountering such misfortunes’ (p. 30) which is not true, since it ignores that institutions and social interactions affect the options and opportunities that different individuals have.

The economist John Roemer makes a more structurally sensitive argument, where he uses (fairly advanced) calculations to divide society into categories with similar background conditions. Disparities within the categories are fair since their members have equal opportunities but disparities among groups are not, since individuals of different groups face varying initial conditions. As such, to use Dworkin’s ‘luck’ terminology, the members who are disadvantaged out of luck (being unlucky not to belong in the privileged groups) should be compensated for the unjust inequality that they face.

Young urges us to move beyond the after-the-event-compensation discourse of Dworkin and Roemer which is focused on the individual, towards a more forward-looking approach the can change the structures of injustice prior to the actual injustice. In doing so, she defines structural injustice as a ‘kind of moral wrong distinct from the wrongful action of an individual agent or the repressive policies of the state’ (p. 52). Structural injustice can be expressed as an objective constraint, what Sartre refers to as practico-inert, where past actions, policies and decisions affect today’s reality. Moreover, following Bourdieu, Young utilises the social relations amongst different individuals as a form of structural injustice. Class and gender for example assign social positions whose underlying duties and responsibilities might limit someone’s opportunities. Also, mixing Bourdieu and Giddens, Young argues that although actions might be individually oriented, in reality they are identical to other people in similar situations (pp. 59-62). These actions, whose motives might be strictly personal, have unintended consequences. This is what Satre called ‘counter-finality’, where ‘people pursuing their own ends create a structural system whose teleology runs counter to those individual ends’ (pp. 62-64).

Structural analysis has been ignored in the contemporary theories of justice. Rawls for instance, has distinguished between the principles that apply to individuals and those that apply to his basic structure. Philosophers like Cohen and Murphy disagree with this Rawlsian dualism and argue in favour of individual responsibility on matters of justice. Cohen for example, argues in favour of a social ethos that individuals should have. Young builds upon this sense of individual responsibility of social actions and distinguishes between ‘normative judgements that refer to structure from normative judgement that refer to individual interactions’ (p. 71).

She builds upon Hannah Arendt’s notion of political responsibility that was constructed in the post-WWII era to assess the responsibility of German people and German officials for their actions or inaction during the reign of the third Reich. Young takes Arendt’s use of political responsibility and differentiates it from responsibility that is defined in terms of liability, harm and blame. Arrendt argued that guild is a concept that applies only to the individual. ‘“Where all are guilty”, she says, “nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal”’ (p. 76). The distinction between guilt and responsibility is critical to Young’s thesis: guilt is for those who commit wrongdoing whilst responsibility is for those whose ‘active or passive support for governments, institutions and practices enables culprits to commit crimes and wrongs’. Therefore, as she suggests, ‘this distinction is a matter not of degree but of kind’ (p. 91).

In order to understand the effects of the structural injustice we need a different conception responsibility, based on our participation in social processes that cause injustice. The old account of political responsibility as a product of political membership no longer applies. Our responsibility according to Young, is a product of our collective action (not our membership to a polity) and as such, collective action is the only way to discharge this responsibility (p. 104).

With this new version of political responsibility, Young provides a forward-looking theory of justice. Since it is impossible to trace those individuals who are responsible for the unjust outcomes, our priority ought to be the amelioration of these structures instead of a ghost-hunt for blame (p. 109). Avoiding the language of blame, collective action is more possible because it does not produce what Nietzsche has called ‘a spirit of resentment’. Through Nietzsche sense of resentment and Derrida’s notion of responsibility for the future, Young suggests a sense of solidarity among people who ‘recognize and take up a shared responsibility in relation to the social institutions and practices they enact and support to make them just’ (p. 121).

This responsibility, contrary to theorists like Rawls and Miller, ranges beyond the borders of the nation-state. She uses the example of sweatshops to make her case. Sweatshops are factories in less developed countries with inhumane working conditions (p. 126). The structure of sweatshop production is so complex (and global) which makes direct (legal) blame of distinct entities, persons or countries an impossible task. Therefore, from a legal point of view, sweatshop production is a process that remains beyond the reach of the law, since the blame can easily be refused or shift to someone else. With the application of Young’s social connection model of responsibility, both individuals and organizations that sell or wear sweatshop products should take responsibility for these structural injustices even if they are not legally blameworthy.

As Young argues ‘for every structural injustice there is an alignment of powerful entities whose interests are served by those structures … and also a class of people against whose interests the structures operate’ (p. 149). Since it is not possible to charge someone specific as personally responsible for the condition of those disadvantaged by structural injustice, and since responsibility clearly exists, we need Young’s political conception of responsibility in order to direct collective action towards the amelioration of the unjust structures.

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