Counting the Cost of Social Justice

In his excellent book [1] on the subject of social justice, Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel provides a broad sweep of the various schools of thought which have emerged within Western society from Aristotle onwards on the subject of what constitutes the just society. It is clear from his exposition that there is no identifiable right answer to the question, although such has not deterred efforts in the direction of realising this elusive ideal over the years. The most recent and important school of thought to emerge is that of Social Justice Theory (capitalised to distinguish it from previous theories of justice). I have offered an appraisal of this theory and the applied postmodern worldview on which it is based in an essay last year on “The Quest for Social Justice?”.

I argue there that the (post)modern idea of Social Justice is founded on the use of dialectical reasoning to problematise and criticise Western (particularly Anglophone) society, including its history, locating the source of injustice in the power differential between oppressor and victim classes.

One of the key aspects of the notion of Social Justice in its (applied) postmodern guise is its privileging of dialectical forms of reasoning over any other form of discourse. This makes its core ideas very difficult to tie down and by that token its advocates difficult to engage in dialogue with and its arguments well nigh impossible to refute. This is because it is arguably a form of nihilism: it doesn’t really believe in anything, bar the validity of its dialectical reasoning as the sole means of achieving a just social order and societal improvement more generally.

C. Turfus, “The Quest for Social Justice?

I have further argued that:

In practice these days, the dialectical approach has, following its long period of evolution, given rise to a critical perspective which problematises normality, portraying the Western world (in particular) as maintained by structures of oppression which need to be exposed and systematically dismantled. 

C. Turfus, “Universal Values in the Postmodern Era

A common device used to support the advancement of a postmodern agenda is to to focus on the beneficent motivation of those proposing policies and inferring therefrom that those not in agreement must have a malign intention. In such situations, discussion about likely or possible consequences, good or bad, of the policies proposed is downplayed. By so privileging intentionality in moral discourse over empirical evidence and professing to be on the side of those deemed to be the oppressed victims, advocates of the theory assume the right to impose restrictions on the rights and freedoms of those who are members of classes they deem to be beneficiaries of the existing “oppressive” order. This is accomplished in practice through a number of methods such as diversity and equality legislation, institutional and regulatory capture, and Cancel Culture, resulting even in witch hunts. This is in contrast to earlier Marxian strategies to achieve social justice which have relied more directly on the agency of government.

Although a large degree of hegemony has been achieved by the proponents of Social Justice Theory through what Rudi Dutschke termed the ‘long march through the institutions’, it can in no way be claimed that any real consensus across society has yet emerged. Rather we find ourselves caught up in highly contested ‘Culture Wars,’ the dynamics of which I have discussed in a recent essay entitled “The Culture Wars and the ‘Right to Offend’” This begs the question how we decide in such disputes which side is “right” and thus whose prescription we should follow.

Given the disagreement, we might try to argue that what we are dealing with is ultimately a political question, to be resolved by a political process rather than through moral discourse. But this is where we run into problems because the applied postmodernist perspective explicitly prevents this, insisting that the matter be decided as a moral issue by considering the relative victim status of the two sides in the dispute on what is termed an “intersectionality” scale [2]. In this way such considerations about the consequences of deciding the matter this way or that as would be taken into account in most established frameworks for moral discourse are effectively excluded from consideration from the outset.

In the aforementioned essay, I considered the particular issue of whether there is such a thing as a “right to offend” or conversely a “right not to be offended.” The intersectionality approach would deny the former but claim that, if one party in a dispute purportedly has a higher rank on the intersectionality scale, they can claim a right not to be offended by those occupying a lower position. I argued that this requires us to view the issue through too narrow a prism and that a broader perspective needs to be taken, concluding that when an alternative engagement paradigm is employed in deliberations, whereby the impact in multiple realms of engagement need to be considered simultaneously, the greater nuance afforded means that no unequivocal answer can be given to the general problem; the particulars of each case need potentially to be taken into account. But more important are the ramifications for the consideration of what should be done as a consequence of the deliberations.

The argument was framed with the intention of exposing inadequacies I perceived in the intersectionality approach to resolving issues of contested rights leading to suboptimal outcomes in terms of the overall levels of social justice attained, at least when all affected parties’ interests are taken into consideration. Such issues are proverbial grist to the mill of the Culture Wars. Since then I have been led to reconsider whether such assignment of blame is perhaps too one-sided. Rather, I would now suggest, there are problems with the framing of the problem within a generic framework of the assertion or denial of “rights” in the first place. Such is not something for which applied postmodernists can be faulted as it was quite central to much of the theorising of Enlightenment scholars such as Immanuel Kant, specifically his Categorical Imperative whereby rules could be universalised and rights conferred through a legal framework within which the rules can be enforced. For example a rule that everyone should have access to education could be supported by conferring on individuals a right of access to education. I previously commented in an essay on “Values and Identity” on the problems I see as implicit in the universalisation of rules, which problems Kant glosses over or was unable to foresee in his theorising, revisiting this theme recently in “Universal Values in the Postmodern Era“; see also Don Trubshaw’s Social Morality from Kant’s Categorical Imperative to Transcendent Individualism.

The problem with any rights-based approach to contested issues is that it tends to build in from the outset a winner-takes-all mentality: the two sides are motivated to assert the strengths of their own position and to paint their antagonists (and, if necessary, their arguments) in as negative a light as possible, obstructing them from getting a fair hearing for their arguments (“No platforming”) and ensuring that the debate, insofar as there is one, is conducted in the theatre of their choice which best showcases their own arguments. Those who have been involved at the sharp end of the Culture Wars will doubtless recognise this description.

So what would an alternative approach look like? To make this concrete, let us stick with the specific issue of the contested right not to be offended. As I said above, this, being contested, is by that token a political issue rather than a moral one, so should be addressed by defining a political or managerial process rather than a moral rule or “categorical imperative”. The issue invariably arises in practice when a statement made by a person or organisation is deemed to be offensive to a particular category of people. An attempt is then made to universalise a solution whereby the group affected can be protected in the future against any further such offence. But with a moment’s thought this can easily be seen to be overreach: it is assumed that a subjective claim of offence is serious enough to merit action and that it harms potentially all members of said group; that potentially all persons and organisations should be bound by whatever restrictions are proposed/imposed; and that all possible pronouncements which might give similar offence should henceforth be prohibited, whether or not the offending party was aware of the offence allegedly taken or whether indeed members of that group were being addressed.

Notice that at no point in the above is a process defined for determining the scope or the seriousness of the problem; or the likelihood of its recurrence; or for considering what would be a proportionate response; or for documenting any policy adopted so that its scope is clearly delimited; or for counterbalancing any benefits flowing from the adopted policy against harm done by limiting freedom and damaging reputations and potentially careers. Also, perhaps most seriously, it tends not to be clarified who has the duty and authority to enact and enforce such policy and in what way and by whom they are to be held to account for it.

All of these things would naturally be addressed as part of a suitable managerial process. This would start with the person claiming to have been caused offence making an official complaint to the relevant authorities. The basis of the complaint would have to be made clear and evidence provided to support it. Others who felt themselves affected could add their names to the complaint (but not “sympathisers” who looked to amplify the perceived scope of the problem), or else could raise their own separate complaint. Complainants would also have to state what redress they sought and why they thought this was proportionate. Such complaint would not in itself be deemed sufficient grounds for action to be taken: there would be no blanket policy against the causing of offence per se. (Such absence does not of course constitute the assertion of a right to offend.) Those accused would then be given the chance to respond. Responses could also be sought from representative members of the wider community who might find themselves affected by any proposed action or policy change [3]. Those responses, or a summary of them, could be communicated back to the original complainant(s) for a further round of discussion or with a final decision. This is essentially how HR departments across the world have long addressed such problems, or at least have professed to.

Now it might be argued that this is already what is happening in many cases, such as at universities where the opinions or course materials of teaching staff have been deemed offensive, and yet such has not prevented teaching staff from being unfairly ostracised and even dismissed when university administrators are pressured by Student Unions and other activist groups to go down this road. I would argue on the contrary that this is not what has been happening. Rather, as documented in [4], the processes which were followed leading up to documented dismissals of numerous university staff did not in any way approximate to what I have proposed above and on a number of occasions decisions were successfully appealed against.

Before leaving this topic we should mention briefly the issue of reputational damage to the employer. Although it is not often made so explicit, this often lies at the heart of decision-making in such circumstances. Although a university might in the first instance look to defend one of their lecturing staff from undeserved criticism from students, when mobs start gathering on campus and attracting negative publicity, positions tend to shift and the students’ grievances come to be taken more seriously. Rather than what I would term a principled moral stance being taken, the member of staff concerned is on many occasions “hung out to dry” to pacify the mob and protect the university administrators from becoming the next target of their ire. In justification it is often suggested that the views of students need to be given weight on the basis that they are and see themselves as “customers” whose financial contributions in the shape of fees are vital for the survival of the institution. However it must be seen as a bit of a stretch to suggest that customers’ rights encompass having staff members with whose views they disagree sacked.

Such concern about financial loss or reputational damage potentially resulting from holding out against students’ complaints, may or may not be acknowledged as having influenced the final decision, but it invariably does. If it is so acknowledged, it is hard to argue at the same time that the process is treating staff fairly: which is the greater harm, to be exposed to views one deems offensive or to be dubbed a racist and hounded out of your employment or indeed profession? And if it is not so acknowledged, it is hard to argue that a process wherein the reason given for the final decision is not the real reason is morally sound.

I would look to mention briefly also another situation of interest, namely so-called positive action which, under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, allows racial and sexual discrimination to be legally practised, provided it is motivated by some “real, objective consideration“, by which is meant a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim deemed to be of greater importance than the adherence to non-discriminatory principles. [What were the lawyers who drafted this thinking?] This I have addressed in an essay asking the question “Is `Positive Action’ a Legitimate Means to an End?”. The act specifies stringent requirements which must be satisfied, for example for it to be demonstrated that the discriminatory action proposed is the only way in which the desired outcome could be achieved. Needless to say, these stringent requirements are virtually never met or even examined in practice: decisions to skew recruitment in favour of women and/or non-native races and ethnicities are routinely made with nothing more than a nod to a diversity policy or target, introduced usually by the same people who are advocating the discriminatory behaviour.

Here, the basis for a fair process which could be used to counter the rail-roading of discriminatory Social Justice policies, which bias recruitment and other processes in favour of recruits and employees deemed to rank higher on the intersectionality scale and characterise anyone who might have reservations about such policies as embodying a form of misogyny or racism, is already embedded in the legislation, were it actually to be followed. So here too a path is open to a fairer approach to be taken in areas where incompatible values clash, based on recognition of the immutably political nature of the problem rather than looking to resolve matters by privileging one moral framework of analysis over another.

In conclusion, my suggestion is that we should counter the claims of Social Justice Warriors to be occupying the moral high ground in their blanket defence of “victimised” groups by requiring them to demonstrate their commitment to a fair process with built-in accountability as a means of addressing purported grievances. The outcome of this would be fewer asserted rights and counter-rights being fought over in social media, on campus and in the workplace and more improvements to the processes through which the grievances were fruitfully addressed.

Rather than countering the claims of Social Justice protagonists taking up the cudgels in defence of offended minorities with counter-claims of a “right to offend” or a blanket assertion of unbridled free speech, let’s take the claims seriously and weigh them in the balance against the costs of implementing the actions or policies proposed as part of a fair process. The demonstrated existence of and adherence to such a process could then be taken as axiomatic of an even-handed model of social justice. In that way we might reach a more informed decision about whether or not the costs of proposed Social Justice actions in relation to alleged offence or other injustices outweigh the potential benefits; and we might see a new avenue for dialogue open up, for those willing to take it, and perhaps a route out of the Culture Wars.


[1] Michael J. Sandel. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do? Penguin Books, 1st edition, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-04133-9.

[2] Intersectionality is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.”

[3] The importance of confidentiality should be emphasised here. While it is known to be rare for academics to speak up in defence of colleagues who incur the ire of student groups in this way, it is notable that in an anonymous referendum initiated by Gonville and Caius College don Arif Ahmed three amendments perceived as empowering students to limit the freedom of expression of lecturers at Cambidge University were successfully removed, the votes in favour of removal being between 78% and 87%, a level which most commentators found surprisingly high. For more details see “The Myth of Progress” and references therein.

[4] Panics and Persecution: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age Eyewear Publishing, 2020. ISBN 9781913606824.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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