Eyas's Blog

Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1

I <3 Consent by Charlotte Cooper on FlickrCC BY-2.0

For liberal laypersons, our justification of progressive social policies, as well as our defense for social justice issues in general is often recursive. I discussed this previously, in “I am right, therefore…”—a common pattern of imposing our beliefs on others is often to presuppose that they are right; an unconvincing argument to the other party, but often difficult to detect because the recursive presupposition is often hidden or implicit.

I would like to explore non-recursive arguments for social justice; be it progressive social policies, or ethical arguments of how to deal with others. In academia, of course, the literature is full with sound arguments and in-depth readings into modern questions of social justice. These arguments often to do not make it to the mainstream.

In this part, I have two patterns I would like to establish: First, that social justice questions are questions of compulsion; when is it right to compel others to do the right thing (government policies), when do we say that victims of the regressive system are compelled to do (or not do) something. Second, that questions of compulsion in general ought to be discussed in terms of power: the balance and distribution of power, and its implications on justice for society.

An incomplete effort

This post is an incomplete effort at removing the recursive argument. For now, I am merely widening the recursive nature of the argument. From:

“Discrimination is bad, therefore, discrimination is bad.”


“The livelihood of a person ought to be independent of their status as a member of a protected class. An imbalance of power endangers the livelihoods of members of society. Compulsion is a product of an imbalance of power. Compulsion always exists in society and must be managed. It is sometimes acceptable to compel those holding positions of power over others from giving equal access to their resources. Such resources include public spaces, food, medicine, and services rendered.”

This argument is incomplete because it still implicitly presupposes: Who are members of a protected class and Why. In this post, I discuss some protected classes but do not justify the choice of these protected classes. This, in itself, is an important debate between progressives and conservatives: which classes are worthy of playing this important role in society? I will attempt to discuss that separately in the future.1

Social Justice as Questions of Compulsion

Compulsion is more often used by libertarians than social liberals, but I think it is indeed the most elegant way to discuss social policies. It is elegant because it grounds and humbles the liberal arguing for change, but, perhaps more importantly, allows us all to use the same language in defending our positions.

Libertarians often frame many government actions in light of compulsion. Taxation is compulsion; compelling individuals to give up their wealth (else they risk jail-time or other punishments) for social good—or worse—taxation is forced labor. Desegregation means compelling private business owner to admit people they do not wish to admit. Laws against discrimination in the workplace prevent employers from hiring and firing whoever they please.

Many lawmakers understand that, and attempt to limit cases of compulsion to enumerated cases. Protected classes, in anti-discrimination law, are enumerated. In the United States, these are often: Race, Color, Religion, National Origin, Age, Sex, Pregnancy, Citizenship, Familial Status, Disability, Veteran Status, and Genetic Information. Some states in the US include Sexual Orientation, and others also include Gender Identity (separate from Sex). It is understood that employers and business owner are allowed to discriminate against all other non-enumerated classes. The annoying, the loud mouthed, the rude, for instance, are un-protected classes that could be asked to leave a restaurant, or be denied a job.

Enumeration is powerful for many reasons, and is often better for protected classes than if they were not enumerated. Enumeration also admits that every time we disallow a private person from treating people differently (which we all do all the time), we are compelling them to change their behavior.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana should be viewed in this light. An interesting development in the continuing debate on compulsion for the sake of social justice: What are the limits of compulsion? What are the grounds for compulsion?

The liberal response is most effective if spoken in the same language.

Justifying Compulsion

Why do we justify taxation? How did we justify that it is right to compel a store owner of admitting people of all races?

I think the common thread tying all of these together is power and the distribution of power.

You see, when someone has so much power more than you, they in effect have power over you. Being denied power means that you become a victim of compulsion more and more often.

Compulsion is a two way street: compulsion takes place when a more powerful entity has control over a less powerful one. The Powerful Goverment™ compels the restaurant owner to admit people she doesn’t want to admit. Business owners, however, also have powers. Take restaurant and cafe owners, for example: they operate social spheres, areas where members of the public interact, network, manage and retain power, and seek it. Public and semi-public spaces are democratizing spaces. A pharmacy owner also has power over the health of her customers.

In a world of unlimited business-owner discrimination, compulsion is a clear problem. Think of the racist, segregated America of the 1950s. If you were part of an un-favored social group, then not only did you lose power (by losing access countless places with higher quality services), but you were often compelled to make choices you didn’t wish to do. Parties discriminated against are denied better livelihoods, and lose options that are entitled to others. They have worse medical options, worse transportation options, limited social spheres for networking, etc.

Compulsion is a balancing act. Whenever one sector of society amasses more power, it begins to compel sectors with less power.

Robert Nozick uses the Wilt Chamberlain experiment to argue against patterned, redistributive conceptions of justice. In the experiment, an initially “justly-distributed” society morphs into one that heavily favors Wilt Chamberlain, a famous basketball player, because members of that society all willingly pay to watch Chamberlain play basketball. Nozick claims that this configuration, which was caused by free actions, is inherently just, yet it differs from the initial distribution thought to be just. To ‘re-calibrate’ the distribution is to undermine the choices of the members of society, he claims, and it forces Chamberlain to give up money he rightfully received.

The experiment sounds unobjectionable because, in that example, we rarely see money as power. Some would argue against this example by replacing currency with weapons. If a number of individual free societal actions lead to Chamberlain possessing a military capable of compelling the rest of the (previously free) members of society to do anything he pleases, then clearly, we agree that the free exchanges did not lead to a just outcome. Compelling Chamberlain to give up his power over the rest of society, for many, seems like a just outcome.

Social Justice and the Balance of Power

The purpose of social justice, therefore, could be seen as the maintenance and restoration of the balance of power across the different social groups. Those advocating for social justice are basically saying that one’s race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, should not become a detriment to their position in society.

This has implications in the social justice story in two spheres: government regulations (non-discrimination, etc.), and social behavior (discussions of privilege, rape culture, etc.).

Social Justice and the Law

What do we think of the Indiana religious freedom law? Clearly, we want to retain the right of people to freely act (including to discriminate) to the maximum extent possible before it begins to affect the power position of others in society. This is where we get to sophisticated moral questions that I feel should be discussed more often: Will permitting a caterer to refuse service to same-sex weddings harm the power position same-sex couples? (It’s not obvious, though it requires more thought.) Will permitting a restaurant owner from denying entry to same-sex couples from their semi-public space harm their power position? (Likely.) Will permitting an employer from hiring LGBT persons harm their position? (Absolutely.)

Similar things could be said about reproductive rights. Women living in areas where the law does not guarantee access to contraceptives are on the fast path to losing power: health issues, unwanted pregnancies, limited livelihood prospects as a result of both, etc.

Social Justice and Personal Ethics

In addition to things that some believe should be guaranteed by the government, individuals believing in social justice issues also act as individuals. Discussions on privilege and rape culture and important examples of contributions in this area. Such discussions are widening perspectives and changing perceptions.

Public shaming, however, is one example of where our recursive logic has led us astray. I discuss this in more detail in “I am right, therefore…”.

Personal ethics questions are becoming interesting with recent developments on the internet’s attitude towards harassment. Free speech and harassment are being discussed as a trade-off. This is correct. Censorship is to the internet as compulsion is for governments.

By silencing reddit bullies at /r/fatpeoplehate/ and /r/transfags/, we are redistributing power away from them and to the people they bully. How much is too much? Or is it not enough? These are important conversations to have. “Internet libertarians”, however, need to understand that censorship, like compulsion, goes both ways: attacked groups are silenced every day. ‘Male rights activists’ and ‘male-centric gamers’ on the internet are beginning to see an outlash from feminists and feel silenced. It is important for them to understand that this is how women, LGBT people, and other minorities have felt often (and for longer) on the internet. Social justice on the internet is an attempt to manage how people feel silenced, to distribute it, to make it equitable and just. Some men might feel a little silenced, but in return women will be more comfortable to participate as a result.

Or perhaps, this is the wrong approach altogether. But this is the right language to discuss what the right approach is.

Tools for Better Conversations

Social justice is an important discussion that everyone (regardless of how much or little privilege they possess) must be a part of. People on all sides of the argument feel impassioned about this conversation and often talk past each other. It is important to possess the right tools to move forward in such a conversation.

  1. In the physical world, compulsion affects everyone and must be managed. Private individuals and business owners need to understand how their freedom often leads to the compulsion of protected classes. Those in protected classes will have their rights restored at the cost of these compulsions. The when, where, and hows of compulsion can become the language of this debate.
  2. In the virtual world, censorship affects everyone and must be managed. Private individuals on the internet need to understand how their free speech often leads to others being silenced. Those who do feel silenced will have their liberation restored at the cost of silencing others. The when, where, and hows of censorship can become the language of this debate.

Image credit:I <3 Consent” by Charlotte Cooper on Flickr; license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. For example, conservatives often say if you want to pick nationality as a protected class, why not also pick political opinion? They see denying someone on the basis of their beliefs to be as bad as denying someone on the basis of their national origin. We need a non-recursive formulation about why this divide exists.