Social Justice: Debt, Solidarity or Care?

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By Peter Dorman, an economist and a professor at Evergreen State College whose writing and speaking focuses on carbon policy, child labor and the global financial crisis. Originally published at EconoSpeak

Mozi: scholar and activist

How do we think about the obligation of social justice? The dominant American political culture is based on individualist values: you have a right to do whatever you want, and the main problem is how to prevent you and other rights-bearing individuals from getting in each other’s way. Without extra considerations, social justice in such a universe is a matter of taste and inclination, which is to say charity. You offer help to others when you feel like it.

But there is an important extra consideration, debt: our freedom in an individualist world is constrained by obligations to repay the debts we have incurred. This may result from a purely financial transaction like a mortgage or a student loan, but we also recognize what might be called social or moral debts, where one person has benefitted at the expense of someone else and therefore owes compensation in return. This might not be recognized in a court of law, but it makes an ethical claim that can cause people to feel a sense of obligation.

The you-owe-it-to-them argument is used on behalf of coffee-growers, for instance. Those on the sipping end of the industry, when they hear stories about how hard these growers work and how little they get for it, rightfully feel obligated to go out of their way to make amends. They buy fair-traded beans and patronize cafes that share, or seem to share, these same values. If you benefit by drinking, you are indebted.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I discussed in an earlier post, strongly pushes this framing of racial justice in America. White people benefitted from centuries of un- and underpaid black labor, and from racial domination in general, and in this way they have accrued an immense debt. Justice will not be achieved until the debt is acknowledged and paid back.

In fact, the “white privilege” language used to analyze racial inequality implicitly draws on this same notion of debt obligation. Inequalities are assumed to all take the form of zero-sum relationships, where some (whites) have more because others (blacks) have less. Thus the difference in outcomes can be understood as a debt that the better-off owe to the worse-off. It’s politically effective insofar as it appeals to this deep theme in our culture, justice as the retiring of debts.

The debt frame has considerable merit on an aggregate level. As a country, economically and politically, America drew much of its strength from racial and other forms of exploitation. This creates a historic obligation to reverse as much of the resulting inequalities as possible. The reality of slavery, for instance, and its contribution to American economic development, does obligate the country to adopt policies to make up for past injustice.

One problem with relying on debt repayment as a basis for social justice, however, is that it doesn’t work well at an individual level. America has an obligation to undo the ravages of slavery and the racial exploitation that still continues, but what about me? How much have I personally benefitted from this history, and which individuals should I compensate? There’s no way to answer this, because the debt is collective, not individual. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to promote just policies, but I don’t have calculable personal debts to other individuals. The fact that most racial inequality is not zero-sum pertains to this—indeed, if the divide-and-rule theory of class exploitation is correct, quite a few whites would be better off in a more racially equal society.

I suspect that a lot of the current unease around the politics of racial (and related) justice is due to the push to apply debt obligation to the daily life of individuals. There is a stream of discussion about whether one form of oppression is “greater” than another, as if to determine whether a given person is a net debtor or net creditor according to some moral calculus. The claim that you or I am personally responsible for and have benefitted from past historical crimes (whose existence I don’t for a moment question) is almost always fictitious, but doubting it is interpreted as an attempt to avoid paying up. Worse, debt obligations are mandatory. They must be repaid. The casting of social injustice as accumulations of personal debt gives rise to the morally coercive tinge that justice activism has acquired.

But unmodified individualism is not the only basis for thinking about our place in the world, and debt is not the only source of personal obligation. Here are two more framings for social justice, solidarity and equal care.

Solidarity is based on the view that our well-being largely depends on the outcome of class and other social conflicts; this is how we might obtain democracy, a fairer economy, a sustainable environment, peace, and respect for human rights. For most of us, our power is not in wealth or position but in numbers, so to work for ourselves we need to work with each other. This mutual support is what we mean by solidarity: I stick with you in the expectation that you will stick with me. Racial justice, from a solidarity perspective, is part of a larger set of commitments that span multiple inequalities—class, gender, and nationality, to name just a few. White support for blacks confronting unequal treatment would be premised on a shared ethic of standing together. This, like historic debt, works best at an aggregate level, but it also applies to many individual situations. If you and I are both actively engaged in an array of political or social conflicts, each of us can benefit from the other’s solidarity. (Note the difference between solidarity and allyship, as discussed here.)

But the view of social life as an interlocking set of collective struggles that underlies solidarity is not an altogether accurate representation of how we really live. Collective gains through conflict are only one determinant of our well-being—we do (and undo) a lot for ourselves individually as well—and the “people’s” side in one conflict doesn’t always match up with that side in others. Consider class conflict and the struggle for a better environment, for instance. In an ideal world it might be that the people fighting for economic equality and ecological values would largely overlap, but in this one they are often quite different. Returning to racial justice, I wouldn’t want to hold it hostage to first achieving a congruence between this and lots of other movement constituencies.

The deepest problem with solidarity, however, is that intra- and intergroup commitments often conflict, even structurally. The logic of collective action is that individuals need to feel they can rely on the support of others in the cause, but meaningful support is a costly commodity. One can feel sympathetic to an unlimited number of collective struggles but provide material solidarity to only a few. In practice, a solidarity ethic tends toward balkanization of activism, despite the noble vision of the most eloquent activists. For every cross-racial or cross-national labor mobilization, for example, there are many others in which solidarity was only one-dimensional. This is often blamed on the political or cultural shortcomings of the people being mobilized—with justification—but appeals to what sets a particular group apart, not what connects them to others, are often the most effective at eliciting mutual commitment.

And there is a third way to think about justice. For this we can go back to Mozi, the legendary philosopher, political activist and opponent of offensive war who lived in China in the years surrounding 400 BCE. As he looked at inequalities of power and wealth, Mo argued that the core problem was “unequal love”, that people cared more for those in their own family or other social group than anyone else. In an extreme form, this led to wars of domination or conquest, since the rulers valued the soldiers and the population of the regions they were attacking less than their own kin. War, he thought, was obviously mass murder, and yet it was viewed as glorious. His remedy was to promote an equality of caring; given this, he thought, injustice could not be possible.

I realize there have been many formulations of this universalism in the intervening 2500 years, with greater sophistication over time, but it’s relevant that the equality-of-care basis for social justice goes back a long, long way. Perhaps more activists have drawn on it than on any other frame.

When we think of the most powerful appeals to moral action, they typically rest on our potential to care equally for people who might otherwise be distant from us. The famous schematic of a slave ship, used effectively by early English abolitionists, invites us to imagine ourselves or our loved ones shackled body-to-body in a nightmare cross-Atlantic passage. The photo of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam works on us to the extent we see her as worthy as any child of our love and protection. Arguably, the proliferation of cell phone videos has had a profound impact on justice activism by making oppression intimate—close visually and ethically.

Here’s another example: consider the phrase “black lives matter”. It’s a bit ambiguous; you could interpret it in more ways than one. Its most persuasive interpretation, however, goes like this: over and over, black people are killed by police, and the official response is inaction. Black victims of violence are treated as if their lives are worth less than others, and this is unacceptable. Black lives matter! There should be just as much outrage over such murders as if the victim were rich, white and famous. If Mozi were among us today he would immediately recognize this demand, and no doubt he would be out on the streets in support.

There are two problems with the equality of care framing, equality and care. Humans (and other socially cognizant species) have a penchant for distinguishing between the groups they belong to and those regarded as “other”. Family, ethnic and national preferences are widespread. But we have also demonstrated throughout history the capacity to transcend these divisions, and over long spans of time the circles of respect and care have widened enormously. It may be that mediated forms of communication like writing and now audio-visual depictions provide a cognitive basis for a more universal sense of who “we” are.

Perhaps the tougher nut is getting people to see they have an obligation to care. In theory, individualism does away with that: you are obligated to care for you, and I’m obligated for me; anything else is extra. In practice, of course, we can’t exist without care: care for the young, for the old, for the sick, for those under attack, and for people who are just stuck in one way or another, because all of us have been and will likely be in that type of situation at some point. In the high theory of individualism—Locke etc.—this was sidestepped because an “invisible” class of people, women, were assigned the role of fulfilling care responsibilities. Today there is no excuse for failing to see that responsibility to care has a claim on us alongside individual choice. But it takes time for this awareness to sink in and redirect a culture based on what was always a mythical universalization of self-regard. In the meantime, some people are more care-conscious than others, which means social justice activism has a double task: getting people to recognize that care is not optional and then getting them to extend it equally across social boundaries. It sounds like a lot, but activists have been doing this for generations.

To sum up, there are different ways to make the claim that we are obligated to act on behalf of social justice. The debt-based approach has merit at a collective level, but it has been overused as a basis for individual obligation and is largely counterproductive. Solidarity has much to recommend it, especially in comparison to allyship, but there are many situations in which it has little practical force, while in others solidarities may be in conflict. The strongest basis is equality-of-care. It is ethically consistent and universally relevant. True, it struggles to overcome ancient parochialisms and the presumptions of an individualistic culture, and this forces us to supplement it with other appeals when we can, but it is the value that best defines what we mean by social progress.

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  1. Jamie

    An interesting overview of justice psychology. Usually when I comment I am critical of some specific, ill formed idea or expression. In this case, I just want to say, well done.

  2. MtnLife

    I think “Black Lives Matter” should be changed to “Poor Lives Matter” as it’s a more apt description of the problem. Yet it’ll stay BLM because TPTB are okay with divisive discussions of race but not okay with the underclass uniting. If it were actually solely racial (not saying it isn’t in part because it obviously is, while whites are shot more because they make up a larger portion of the population blacks are shot at a higher rate per capita) you would hear of a lot more wealthy blacks being shot and yet you never hear of any. While wealth doesn’t stop black men from being racially profiled it does seem to put a hold on the officers trigger fingers that being white while poor apparently doesn’t do.

    From HuffPo

    “The system has a class bias as well as a race bias. An investigation by Alternet’s Zaid Jilani revealed that in the first five months of this year, 95 percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family incomes under $100,000. There were no killings in neighborhoods with median family incomes of $200,000 or above.”

    1. Livius Drusus

      Yes the use of the term “Black Lives Matter” was a bad marketing decision. Once you make something a “black” issue then it sets off tribal alarm bells among non-blacks and people see opposition to police misconduct as a purely “black” issue and people will reflexively side with the police thinking that black people are just whining and trying to get special privileges or whatever. You can argue that it is wrong that people think this way but it seems to be true.

      BLM should have focused on police brutality and misconduct as civil liberties issues for everyone. Even if it can be shown that African-Americans disproportionately suffer from police misconduct the PR fallout of making it a “black issue” is damaging to the cause.

      As for making arguments for social justice, I think it is best to make your arguments as universal as possible. It is better to talk about “working Americans” and “working families” than the poor since unfortunately many Americans dislike the poor and think they deserve their misery. Even poor Americans will say that they are middle class because they don’t want to be associated with the poor. This also has an impact on policy. Means-tested programs are usually unpopular since they are often categorized as handouts for lazy people. Wealthier Americans resent having to pay for “those lazy bums” and working-class Americans who are struggling but not poor enough to apply for these programs feel like they are being left out and end up envying the poor, thinking that they are getting special privileges.

      You will never get everyone on board with a social justice program. The rich and those who are deeply into tribal politics will never support anything that they perceive as lowering their relative status or the status of their family or tribe/identity group. But many Americans are open to justice claims that are fairly broad in scope. This is one area where the left’s internationalism is a weak point. There is a strong opening today for progressives to capture the broad category of “American” that includes people from all racial, gender, and religious backgrounds, as in “protecting American jobs” from outsourcing and bad trade deals. But because of the left’s intense aversion to anything that sounds like nationalism they are ceding this strategy to right-wing populists like Trump.

      1. KTN

        Once you make something a “black” issue then it sets off tribal alarm bells among non-blacks and people see opposition to police misconduct as a purely “black” issue and people will reflexively side with the police thinking that black people are just whining and trying to get special privileges or whatever.

        Now would they think that? Because they’re so morally high-minded? Or because they’re racist?

        You will never get everyone on board with a social justice program.

        Can women vote, or not?

        There is a strong opening today for progressives to capture the broad category of “American” that includes people from all racial, gender, and religious backgrounds, as in “protecting American jobs” from outsourcing and bad trade deals.

        At least you got one thing right. But you left out ‘justice for all.’

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Yes, and the proof that Livius Drusus is wrong is that Black Lives Matter die-ins virtually without exception had more white participants than people of color. He also must not be old enough to remember that the civil rights movement had substantial white support. Would never have succeeded otherwise simply based on the size of the black population in the US.

      2. Oregoncharles

        Yes, I wish they’d called it “All Lives Matter,” which means essentially the same thing, if only to prevent the police from misusing the slogan, which has the advantage of being obviously true, on a moral level.

        There are actually two, interrelated problems. One is discrimination: racism or classism. The other, bigger problem, which affects everyone, is police impunity and a galloping gang mentality on their part.

        If we can address the underlying problem, the discrimination becomes, at least, much less important – they won’t be dying. Some recent cases in which appealing white women were the victims may have helped change minds, by revealing how universal the problem really is.

        1. Monica B.

          “Yes, I wish they’d called it “All Lives Matter,” which means essentially the same thing, if only to prevent the police from misusing the slogan, which has the advantage of being obviously true, on a moral level.”

          Except it doesn’t mean the same thing. Of course ‘all lives matter’, but that is a platitude, an obvious statement, something anyone can say with smile and then walk away from and never think of again. It is precisely that the completely innocuous seeming phrase “Black lives matter” is so controversial that makes it so important for all of us to say it. No one is saying ‘only Black lives matter’. No one is saying ‘Black lives matter and no other lives matter‘. Black lives matter. Boom.

          Also, no one used the phrase ‘all lives matter’ until some folks started saying ‘Black lives matter’. Telling in itself, no?

    2. Kevin

      I like this approach of “poor lives matter”.

      The wealth inequality here does not just affect one group, but many across many race and cultures. However, our politicians and the media have a vested interest in making sure all these various groups focus on hating and blaming each other – as opposed to directing that hate at our Do-Nothing Congress and their patrons.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Hate’s pretty useless. Anger and determination and a common direction are a lot more likely to effect change for what we mopes would consider the “better.”

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      No, you are wrong and you really need to get out more. Yes, white people get roughed up by stupid cops too but to compare what happens to them to what happens to whites is ludicrous.

      Nixon was explicit that the war on drugs was a war on blacks, to have them get more convictions on their record and reduce their level of voting. He intended it to be a form of vote suppression.

      Blacks get it the worst but people of color generally are profiled. Hispanics are also pulled over way more than whites.

      Blacks are also convicted at higher rates than whites for similar crimes and given harsher sentences.

      And your assumptions about class are incorrect. I recall reading a story of a black woman driving an expensive car, a Porsche or a Mercedes. She was pulled over and arrested because the cop maintained she must have stolen the car. She was in fact an executive.

      1. MtnLife

        Getting shot and getting “roughed up” are two different arguments, the latter I said nothing about. Not really sure how one can be killed worse than someone else when both are shot by police weapons and neither are aggressive. Of course black people tend to get treated worse but why ignore half of the police brutality whilst driving wedges in racial divides when you can say Proletariat Lives Matter and get it all while bringing people together?


        “While wealth doesn’t stop black men from being racially profiled it does seem to put a hold on the officers trigger fingers that being white while poor apparently doesn’t do.”


        “And your assumptions about class are incorrect. I recall reading a story of a black woman driving an expensive car, a Porsche or a Mercedes. She was pulled over and arrested because the cop maintained she must have stolen the car. She was in fact an executive.”

        I’ll chalk your misread up to your ridiculous work schedule. Seems I was right on point as she didn’t get shot, did she?

        PS this comes from someone who had to hide his white skin when visiting friends in all black neighborhoods so as to not get pulled over and harassed. I’m well aware of what happens there.

        1. John Zelnicker

          @MtnLife – Your distinction may be valid, however, you seem to miss the fact that in this society the poorest white people have better opportunities and more personal security than almost any black person. If it had been a poor white woman driving that Porsche or Mercedes, there is little chance she would have been stopped and if so, as long as she had registration to match her license, etc., she would not have been arrested. Even the poorest whites are almost always treated better than any blacks or Hispanics regardless of wealth. BLM was started mainly to be about police brutality in all its forms, not just cops murdering black folk. In terms of police brutality, the black community is in a unique position and BLM is a way to address that situation. There is a place for intersectionality and a place for organizations that address specific issues and groups.

          Bob, at 11:11 pm, makes a great point about white privilege. None of us white folk have any valid claim to say how the black community should defend itself.

    4. bob

      This thread is a great demonstration of privilege.

      Almost all of the above feel entitled to rename a cause that they clearly don’t understand and are almost certainly not any part of.

      Some then move onto making policy decisions, to make it more palatable. Marketing advice.

      BLM should have waited to hear from ALL of you (MIC CHECK!), before they named themselves and decided on policy.

      “I want to speak to your manger!”

      I don’t think that would go over so well. At the same time it would disprove any claim to authority on any of the above, from any of you.

      We need to know real world results. Science! Try it. At the very least you may end up getting some humility, after some education.

  3. Temporarily Sane

    The author teaches at Evergreen State College. I wonder if he supported Bret Weinstein when he was pilloried (and threatened) by the very close-minded and extremely misguided social “justice” crowd there?

    Intersectionality, the philosophy present-day identity politics is based on, explicitly rejects reason and logic as a method of inquiry. It is difficult to imagine any real progress being made on the social/racial justice front until this changes.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      I cannot even read the phrase ‘social justice’ without recoiling. The darlings of academia, and the ‘woke’ intellectual left, have desecrated the idea behind it. And yet, real justice very much matters. But, as a discrete term today, ‘social justice’ is just a cheap bludgeon for identitarians. A maul to wield against whomever they want to bully this week. It’s a catch phrase for artistic dudes with man buns, and women who use gender fluidity as a tool in social dominance games.

      Meanwhile, ordinary Americans get ever poorer, even during brief good times like right now. But, they don’t know how to signal virtue well enough to engage the interest or respect of our ‘social justice warriors’.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thanks for that, brilliantly expressed. I feel like I should memorise exacty what you wrote there to use the next time I end up in a futile argument with one of those man bun wearers.

      2. makedoanmend

        It’s good to know that we can identify these male, leftist, identitarian, virtue signallers.

        Maybe we can now establish a method to ID females with these attributes.

        The question remains, however, that if we manage to marginalise these people will the plight of the poor improve?

      3. Nemo

        I’m with you there. Identity politics and the cultural wars has anthropomorphized that concept, co-opted by the least mature, intelligent and rational individuals of our political spectrum, and have turned it into an utter pariah, which is a great shame to the detriment of our country because America desperately needs justice from the blatant corruption and betrayal of trust its citizens have become desensitized to. Forsooth, ‘social justice’ has become a toxic term for those who value common sense, not because of the greater good it should inherently and literally imply, but because those with personal and political agendas have used it to force their own delusional brand of cultural _______ (Marxism, Fascism, Imperialism…fill-in the blank with whatever ideology du jour floats your boat) onto others.

        1. JTMcPhee

          “America,” that reified notion, won’t ever have “justice,” I would think. The literature on the nature of “justice” is vast, and consensus- and binding-conclusion-free, though lots of entertainment for the argumentative can be found in parsing it. “Justice,” as some use the term, appears to come from a distribution of power — yes, power and its concomitants, money and ownership and domination — that supposedly is “blind” and thus favors no person or group over any other. Not too much of that is apparent in “America,” or most anywhere else.

          As is often said, there are no “rights” in the absence of effective remedies, and most of the world including “America” seems pretty clearly to lack any kinds of significant enforcement of agree-upon norms and those “rights” which a recent commenter noted are hardly the base elements of “social justice,” rather a nod to a kind of diffuse libertarianism that probably can never lead to any kind of human-wide “just society.” Certainly not one that has, as a principal focus, simple survival of the species (especially in large numbers) without the slow-suicide consumption of all planetary resources.

          Absent some enforceable, attractive agreement on a fundamental organizing principle that starts with decency and comity as its root, what “we’ve” got, and what we are likely to get, is more and worse…

          1. Nemo

            Well said. ‘Justice’ should have been in single quotes as the notion of ‘justice’ is amorphous at best given your insights. What a sad testament to the state of jurisprudence in America; that the expectations of ‘justice’ may be grounded more in panen et circenses than quo warranto. At the current tipping point of American history, can I even simply expect good ol’ fashion shaming for the guilty?…not likely…unless, of course, you find yourself in the cross-hairs of Naked Capitalism :-)

        2. makedoanmend

          Yeah, I’ll take up your offer and add to:

          “…those with personal and political agendas have used to force their own delusion brand of cultural__________…”

          capitalism, neoliberalist-conservatism, common sense [whose sense, whose commons] and so on…oh, those people who represent a vast political vista that have actually brought us to this socio-economic situation and the people who voted and vote for them… and those people like myself who have sometimes been bamboozled by the shiny promises and socio-economic logic without thinking through the implications

          us and them, us and them

          1. Nemo

            As someone who has been bamboozled, conned and bait-n-switched myself, (like the vast majority of people around the world suffering the consequences of severely flawed global economic policies intended to create a permanent precariat-rentier-debtor class), by virtually all institution who claims to serve the public trust but function under false assumptions and an army of incompetent employees (CalPERS, anyone?), the list of FUBAR brainwashed ideologies that are appropriate to fill-in the blank are as ubiquitous as those institutions themselves. Fukuyama’s concept of trust is more mythology than reality now more than ever.

      4. Grumpy Engineer

        Aye. These days the calls for “social justice” seem to be calls for repayment of “inherited collective debt”. Not only are you to be forced into debt peonage for the misdeeds of other people who happen to look like you, you are to answer for the misdeeds of people long dead who happen to look like you as well. Whether your actual position as an individual is one of privilege or of suffering is apparently irrelevant.

        As a matter of law, though, peonage has been illegal in the US for 150 years. Individuals aren’t legally liable for the misdeeds of others, whether living or dead or similar or different. Repayment for “inherited collective debt” will never happen. All we’ll do is yell at each other and be angry a lot.

        And meanwhile, monopolies will continue to form. Income and wealth inequality will continue to rise. And too many people of all stripes and colors will wonder why it’s so damned hard to make ends meet.

      5. Scott

        Questionable . . . this comment.

        Favorite part: “. . . even during brief good times like right now.” Wages still flat, corporate dominance absolute, norms and even just manners out the window, as the site’s muse and others point out with almost daily regularity nothing has been or is getting better for the vast majority of us post-recession.

        And yet, boy these brief good times are a relief.

      6. KTN

        Tellingly it’s the liberals who have rejected reason and logic and ruined the concept of ‘social justice’ by the widespread misapplication (ask the black woman who first used the term) of ‘intersectionality.’

        I once saw a CL housing ad posted by a presumably white professor (based on the town and subject), living in a nice place, who claimed that in his free time he was ‘down to talk intersectionality.’

        I’d rather live in a shitshack.

    2. Peter Dorman

      Here’s a recent post on the situation at Evergreen. Incidentally, the ruckus last year was not centered on Bret Weinstein; it seemed that way, since he got a lot of media play. It’s a much more complex and wide-ranging story that deserves a fuller account.

    3. Basil Pesto

      Intersectionality, the philosophy present-day identity politics is based on, explicitly rejects reason and logic as a method of inquiry. It is difficult to imagine any real progress being made on the social/racial justice front until this changes.

      I don’t doubt you, but do you (or anyone else) have examples of that explicit rejection? Just in case I’d like to bust them out when I feel telling someone that they reject reason and logic.

  4. Hurf

    over and over, black people are killed by police, and the official response is inaction.

    I think someone should do a statistical average comparison between inaction over white murders and black murders by police, with emphasis that the victims had no aggressive criminal history (murder, assault, rape, theft, burglary). Emphasis on aggressive as in deeds which lead to conscious physical danger to others, not stuff like smoking pot. I have a sneaking suspicion that there isn’t much difference, and that most of the inaction comes either as a form of incompetence (which we see in the arguments today that police need more digital control with the whole encryption topic since they forgot how to do live police work like the old league), or actual lack of evidence.

    There should be just as much outrage over such murders as if the victim were rich, white and famous.

    I believe the opposite with a twist. Culture of outrage is culture of disruption, and individual murders of all races whether rich or poor should not be covered at all by the general news media unless it is murder with political/economic consequences (high officials during reign, political speakers in the strictest sense, great innovators and thinkers), or genocide/group killing. This quote makes it seem as if BLM is asking for bigger marketing of individual black deaths. Marketing for all individual deaths should be stopped with very strict exceptions in my opinion, remember the league of psychologists and sociologists arguing to a mule that publicizing mass murder is often the root of mass murder. Converted into math:
    Crime is a human condition that can only be maintained and never solved, as even the most rigorous police states with Orwellian control over the populace prove. The most peaceful of the countries with higher populations still has a homicide rate above 200, and converting that number into outrage means society would be having chronic outrage and reducing lifespans for most of the year, with society in general being disrupted in function.
    There really should be a special murder map open to the public, maintained by experts and criminologists, which functions separate from the mainstream media and specializes in deconstructing murder and providing a rational summation as opposed to the mainstream media with parties seeking political fuel making a circus out of cherry picked murder and cherry picked details. Instead of specific races and genders, we will see a larger more diverse picture easier to eat for the masses.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Since BLM appeared, using a strategy of at least making a fuss and as much trouble as they can, there’ve been several cases of whites being murdered by police where the families and friends responded, in my opinion, much too trustingly. Rather than raise hell, which seems to be the only approach with any impact, it seemed to me they rested on their white privilege – and were betrayed by it. These cases get a lot of publicity on a man-bites-dog basis, but that doesn’t seem to help; it’s disruption in the streets that sometimes makes a difference. IOW, I think BLM has it right, for the obvious reason that they’re much worse off.

      That said, I just saw a report that the Utah cop who arrested a nurse for doing her job was fired, and his supervisor demoted. However, in that case the victim made a point of driving the publicity; and of course, she’s a white PROFESSIONAL, as well as clearly in the right. Big mistake on the cop’s part. No sign of criminal charges, though; he’s very visibly guilty of kidnapping and assault.

  5. Disturbed Voter

    More generally … who is “us”, who is “them”. Then we think of “us”, we think of extended family. So to what degree are modern people supportive of their extended family, let alone the neighbors that they hardly know at all? Not much. Modernity destroys the extended family first, later the nuclear family. Once we have lost all sense of belonging, we are sheeple.

    In a traditional society, even if you were one of “us”, there had to be the authority of a pater familias with strong disciplinary powers protected by the State. To what extent are we willing to compromise our level of comfort with our presently disconnected and anarchic society?

  6. Elizabeth Burton

    It’s not that hard to calculate actual reparations for African Americans in a way that doesn’t require guilt. Sherman wanted to break up the huge plantations and give every freed slave “40 acres and a mule.” That had a very specific value in 1865—and the basic idea wasn’t all that bad unless you were one of the plantation owners. So, take that value, add to it an appropriate rate of interest…but you see where I’m going? Expensive? Oh, yeah. Might have to pass on a few F-35s.

  7. The Heretic

    The use of social debt argument is flawed; it ultimatley relies on the tools of shame, guilt and muddled thinking of debtors to accept the bonds imposed on them. The arguments for social debt is the same argument used by the EU to shackle Greece with the debts incurred through the machinations of its elite bankers and politicians… do we at NC agree to this?

    Compassion and social care, although they do not have the same powerful language as social debt due to injustice, does not suffere the moral or logical flaws of ‘social debt’ arguments. Furthermore they can extend to all persons and all groups in the present… i.e. the opiod epedidemic in small town USA are also worthy address now, even if the primary victims are white men. As a religious person i can say we all creatures, worthy in the eyes of God; so why do we not care for each other?

    1. JBird

      I was typing up a list of reasons. Instead, I am saying I think it can be reduced to the the refusal of seeing others as just like you, or at least close enough, and to truly make an effort to look at the circumstances of others, and at how you would (usually) do the same as they in the same circumstances.

      That takes the often hard work of clear observation, rational thought, and perhaps actually changing your mind and actions; it is much easier to just think of those people as lesser than you and so blameworthy and ignorable.

      Have you every seen that those who have life stomped on them, or been its chew-toy, or have had a very close viewing of that happening to others, are usually the ones who are the compassionate, the saints, the reformers? But I don’t know how to use that observation to change that self-centered ignorance, or arrogance. I wish I did.

  8. Disturbed Voter

    When you see the other, as yourself .. then you know what to do. Almost nobody has either the ability or will to do that … because we are competitive. We don’t want equality, we don’t want every NFL team to win the Superbowl the same season. Are you really willing to give up on competition? Only people who are completely broken, are complete losers in our secular society .. are even open to dropping competition.

    Mostly people who are complete losers fall back on luck at Lotto, because they can’t make “good” any other way. But what if people, not things, are what are valuable? Then what are we competing for .. to die with the most toys? What some of us want is a world of saints … but we know we won’t see that in this life, or maybe any life. This life is set up as a competition for survival.

    1. JBird

      Some societies try create, and maintain, connections between people and even groups. Our current civilization not so much. The various TPTB want to atomize society as that increases their power. Also a consumer culture is good for business, for corporations. That does f**** everyone else, but so what.

  9. witters

    I think distance matters morally – even spatial distance.

    I mean, is it true that the manifest need of the starving “round here” is, for me, no more stringent than the need of the starving “over there”? Why isn’t it true that a starving person on the door step has more claim to my assistance than someone else in equal need many miles away? Imagine one meets such a starving stranger on one’s way to post a food parcel to a distant nation. May not the stranger at the door justly reproach us if we walk past him and pop the parcel in the post on the grounds that the distant other is in just as much need? And surely to pause, and “remind” him that “sheer distance” is morally irrelevant, then to continue on to the collection point, exhibits a moral obtuseness, even brutality, our man on the doorstep might find as unpalatable as the nothing we leave him.

    So I think any account of social justice must make room for duties of immediacy.

  10. Anónimo 2

    “White privilege”

    By now you should have been able to realize that this talk about white privilege and racial inequality is just a divide-and-conquer tactic. The famous identity politics.

    I will tell you something: class and money do matter. Race does not. A poor black single mother has more in common with a poor white single mother than with obama or beyonce.

    “Black lives matter” : hey as long as they have enough money they do.

    But as someone has already said: poor lives matter?

    1. KTN

      A poor black single mother has more in common with a poor white single mother than with obama or beyonce.

      Granted, but she has the most in common with another poor black single mother.

      1. JBird

        The problem is that too often people focus on the racial discrimination. Yes, as one black comedian said “none of you want to be me, and I rich!” too close to the truth.

        Just that when I heard people whine about my “white privilege” when I was down at the DH&HS trying to get my general assistance, or when I step over another (white) crazy person marinated in their own filth, it made want to tell them drop dead.

        So yes, all things being equal a white person has privilege. However telling the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the lost, the losers of our American nation that they have white privilege is, at best, a insulting joke, or worse, a deliberate perversion of the meaning of the word “privilege.” It also gives strength to true racists, worse, white supremacists, and eugenicists, while mocking those who lived under Jim Crow.

        So, shall we work to better the lives of everyone, to give all true equality, or will we continue to count and compare our privileges and disadvantages as the powers that ( the truly privileged) be want us to?

        1. Lambert Strether

          > So yes, all things being equal a white person has privilege.

          That’s a useful formulation. I liked and linked to this article in Water Cooler exactly because it makes the “count and compare” point, and tries to fight through to a better way to discuss the issue (I’m not sure the article does that, but it has to be done, so points for trying).

  11. Oregoncharles

    I like a formula that combines “solidarity” and “care:”

    What kind of society (or ultimately, world) do you want to live in?

    It’s framed as an appeal to self-interest, but it’s really an appeal to caring: most people want and need to live in a world where they care for each other to at least a minimal degree. The truly evil or psychopathic are fortunately rare. For them, we have to structure society so that good behavior is rewarded.

    This impulse to care is backed up by self-interest. If we let people starve, not only is that an ugly sight, but they are unlikely to go quietly. A world in which we care for each other is more comfortable and safer for all of us – though there are certainly some that haven’t gotten that message, and desperation will drive people to desperate acts. That is so predictable that those who make them desperate share in the guilt for their criminal acts.

    And a quibble: I don’t see “solidarity” as depending on conflict. Rather, I see it as fellow-feeling, next thing to caring. Granted, it’s usually appealed to in a conflict setting, like labor actions; but it’s an essential part of social adhesion.

  12. David

    Just worth pointing out, I suppose, that traditionally philosophers tried to answer questions like “how should I live my life?” “how should we build a just society?”, “what is virtuous behavior?” and so forth. Since, roughly, liberalism , the question has been “how can I get mine?” This naturally leads to competitive claims against others on a zero-sum basis, supported by claims of real or perceived ill-treatment in the past. Coates et al are essentially playing the same game as ethno-nationalists in the Balkans or the Middle East, who at the least provocation grab you by the arm and lecture you on “our sufferings” long ago, and what needs to be done at somebody else’s expense to remedy them. The reality is that, whilst you can seek to create a just society, where individuals are treated fairly on an individual basis, “justice” between groups is effectively impossible, because groups are fluid, often self-defined and overlapping, and their demands frequently conflict with each other. Likewise, in a just society you extend your desire for justice even to people you don’t like, which cannot be the same for group based “social justice” movements.

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