how much of a theory of justice do activists need? (a dialogue)

Some students are on their way to occupy their university’s central administration building to demand a minimum wage of $17 for all employees. They are surprised to encounter the ghost of John Rawls (JR):

JR: I see your signs and determined faces and presume that you are engaged in an act of civil disobedience. What is your demand?

Students: Social justice!

JR: Hmm, what does that require?

Students: A living wage!

JR: Which is?

Students: $17/hour.

JR: Is that your ideal outcome? Does social justice entail that every employee be paid no less than $17? Every employee of this university? Every American? Everyone in the world? Is there a maximum just salary? For instance, does your college president make more than justice permits?

Students: Look, we don’t get to write the rules. We’re just trying to boost the take-home pay of some people in our community. We’d go higher if we thought it was realistic.

JR: Would you go higher if that required cuts in financial aid?

Students: We are just applying pressure for one aspect of social justice. Figuring out the right balance is not our job.

JR: OK, but you also have other jobs. For instance, voting. If you think $17/hour constitutes justice, you should vote for a moderate Democrat or perhaps a liberal Republican. If you want much more equity, you should join Democratic Socialists of America.

The ghost of Mohandas K. Gandhi [MHK] emerges, to the surprise of everyone except John Rawls, who is Gandhi’s roommate in Purgatory. (Everyone goes to Purgatory.)

MHK: Don’t let him to deter you with these questions about ultimate ends. None of us has sufficient knowledge, wisdom, or moral rectitude to know what social justice entails. Our job is to make ourselves the best agents of change that we can be.

You plan to put yourselves at some risk. That is good; as I’ve written, “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy.” However, you will also impose some costs and inconvenience on the university, and your demand might not be right. Are you sure that you have purified your own motives?

Students: Well, we’ve acknowledged our positionality and checked our privilege.

MHK: Awkward terminology, but it sounds like what I’d advocate. Have you created a group that represents all, and do you live together truthfully?

Students: Could you clarify?

MHK: For me, the main issue was making sure that the movement for Indian swaraj (independence, in the spiritual as well as the political sense) incorporated Muslims, Harijans, women, and others, and that we related to each other appropriately. If we organized ourselves right, we were already making the world better. The political consequences were beyond our control. As Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita, “Motive should never be in the fruits of action.”

JR: I’m Kantian enough to agree that a good action is one that has the right motives, not one that turns out to make the world better. But surely you need a North Star, a sense of what the goal should be?

MHK: Only in the vaguest sense, because–again to quote myself–“man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth.”

JR: Well, I agree with that and would leave much to be decided in a just society by deliberating citizens and their elected representatives. But surely we can propose provisional theories of justice?

Students: Um, this is interesting and all, but we have got like a building to occupy?

[Exeunt]

See also: Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; a real alternative to ideal theory in political philosophy; why study social justice?; Abe Lincoln the surveyor, or the essential role of strategy; and how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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