03 August 2014

"Just Relationships"

You can go here to download an article co-authored by one of today's best thinkers on the broad topic of political theory, Hanoch Dagan. (You can read some earlier comments on one of his articles here, here, and here.) In a broad sense Dagan is a pluralist when it comes to matters of theory. In other words, it's a mistake to make a single principle, whether individual autonomy, utilitarian welfare maximization, or distributive justice, the ne plus ultra of theoretic thought about political arrangements. For what it's worth, I agree, as I observed here in connection with my piece, Principled Pluralism and Contract Remedies (which you can download here).

In any event, in this article Dagan and co-author Avihay Dorfman (did I mention that both are on the law faculty at the University of Tel Aviv?) conclude that neither of the most common standard account of political justice suffice and their conception of relational justice provides a necessary corrective:
We argue, contrary to [justice in terms of formal equality], that relational justice picks out relationships of substantive or genuine equality and freedom and, contrary to [democratic egalitarianism], that relational justice is not exhausted by the ideal of people interrelating particularly [i.e., solely] as citizens.
To summarize very briefly, justice implemented solely by the state and justice defined solely in terms of just individual interactions is incomplete. The former "takes individuals to be patients and holds state institutions responsible to respect them as such." Such infantalizing (my word) of persons is substantively unjust. 

Conversely, political egalitarianism (what I would characterize as autonomy theorists), presupposes that "every person is entitled to be respected as a citizen and therefore has the special standing to produce, on equal terms, the norms under which he or she lives." This approach is simply incoherent as the current culture (and legal) wars (here) over same-sex marriage and religious accommodations make clear. Egalitarianism also treats people only as individuals, something which is contrary to our actual lived experiences as members of multiple, inter-related social entities.

A just society, according to the authors, must treat its members "in terms of frameworks of relationships between self-determining individuals who respect each other as the persons they actually are." With such a goal they believe that the state can recede, at least a little, and "frameworks of relationships" (rather than naked individuals) can assume a more meaningful place.

Nice sounding, I suppose, but still state-centric for enforcement and autonomy-centered for its substance. The authors apply their reasoning to the rights of the disabled in the workplace setting but I see no principled end to their recognition of the rights of individuals-in-frameworks in private settings. In short, I conclude that this article does little work as a critique of contemporary socio-political expression. The conceptual move from either a patient-centered or individual-centered perspective is fine but has little traction with regard to the increasing hyper-legalization of contemporary Western life.

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