"The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident; any human being might have been born in any nation"
Martha Nussbaum, 'Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism' in For Love of Country (Beacon Press, 2002)

Monday, 12 May 2008

Relational and Non-Relational Approaches to Justice

I'm trying to puzzle something out in relation to the way in which I classify different approaches to distributive justice in the first section of my thesis. I've drawn a distinction between relational and non-relational approaches to justice (see earlier comments on this here). I make it following Sangiovanni, Julius, Nagel, Pogge, Caney and so on, but generalise somewhat from all of their accounts. I drew this distinction in the following way:

According to a relational approach, obligations of justice arise through association and relationships. Absent such interaction, considerations of justice are inappropriate. In other words, it is certain features of particular relationships and associations which make them justice-apt (which features of which types of relationship are relevant will vary). Accoring to the non-relational approach, by contrast, obligations of justice are not linked to interaction and associatin, existing prior to them and independently of them. considerations of jsutice are therefore appropriate even when no interaction has taken place - relationships and associations are not needed to make a situation justice-apt.

The distinction is relevan to global justice debates because it fundamentally alters the grounds of any kind of global justice. Rawlsian views are relational - they ground justice in relationships and interactions between people. On these views principles of (egalitarian) justice apply to the basic structure, and not before the basic structure exists. Competing (generally cosmopolitan) theorists of global justice, such as Kok Chor Tan, argue that egalitarian principles are relevant prior to and absent such interaction and insitutions.

I took these approaches to be differing answers to the question: 'How do relational facts determine principles of justice?' but I now see that this needs further clarification. The question they are answering is 'Are principles of justice relevant prior to or absent the existence or some kind of relationship or interaction between individuals?', or to put it in more person-specific terms, 'Can I owe any kind of egalitarian justice to someone with whom I have no interaction or relationship?' One, more general, way to understand this is, 'Are relational facts a relevant consideration when determining the scope of principles of justice?'. This is different, of course, the separate question ‘Are relational facts a relevant consideration when determining the content of principles of justice?’. To the first question the answer for the relational and non-relational approaches is clear – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively. To the second question it seems to me that both approaches can answer either yes or no, depending on other aspects of the theory in question. A further related but separate question is ‘Are relational facts a relevant consideration for departing from general principles of justice?’. Again, both approaches can answer yes or no to this question.

The upshot of all this, it seems to me, is that the non-relational approach is not necessarily committed to some kind of universalism, or 'impartiality thesis', about the content of principles of justice. The relational approach is therefore not necessarily any better placed to provide principles of justice which account for our intuitively stronger obligations to those with whom we are in relationships, or with whom we share institutions.

I might be wrong, and non-relational approaches might be committed to excluding relational considerations from questions about both the scope and content of principles of justice. If this is so, then presumably it's because the justification for excluding relational considerations from questions about scope also implies excluding them from questions about content.


fellow grad student said...

Just a fellow political philosophy grad student spending too much time reading blogs..

You seem totally right in distinguishing content from scope (and the relevance of relations to either/both). And it seems right to say non-relational theories need not be universal - there's certainly conceptual space for a non-relational relativist out there.

But, I'm not sure how we went from that to: "The relational approach is therefore not necessarily any better placed to provide principles of justice which account for our intuitively stronger obligations to those with whom we are in relationships" Certainly good Rawlsians can draw a tight conceptual connect between the scope of justice and strong reciprocal obligations. Absent a non-relational account in hand, it's hard to see what they could appeal to that would be more plausible and conceptually tight.

Maybe the idea might be that someone like Dr. Tan can adopt the importance of reciprocity in a non-relational account?

Megan Kime said...

Comments are always welcome!

Perhaps the way I phrased my point was a little strong - what I meant to say was that there is, as you say, conceptual space for a non-relational account of so-called special obligations. Given that this is often assumed to not be the case it seems important to point out. Of course, you're right that without such an account to hand (I hope to provide an attempt at some point) the relational approach has the advantage. But I plan to show that there are other problems with relational approaches which outweigh this advantage. How successful this will be I don't yet know!

cristian said...

I was wondering if you could clarify the connection between the type of theory and its content. Those who defend relational approaches--e.g.Nagel--are usually non-egalitarians (at least at the global level), while those who defend non-relational approaches are usually egalitarians. Is it possible to adopt a relational view and be an egalitarian at the same time?

Megan Kime said...

You are certainly right that the general tendency is that relational theorists are non-globalist (in other words they don't support global egalitarian principles) whilst non-relational theorists are often globalist (in that they support global egalitarianism). But I still think that content and type of theory can come apart - the content of several relational views is egalitarian, in that they support egalitarian principles of justice at the domestic level (I'm assuming here that the difference principle, for example can be read as an egalitarian principle). Because they are relational views however they restrict these egalitarian principles to within whichever relationships they consider to be justice-apt. But there is no reason why a relational theorist can't accept that the relationship in question pertains at the global level, and therefore that the egalitarian principles which apply to it also apply globally. I think that Charles Beitz's position can be understood in this way