Welcome to the first ever Ethical Theory and Moral Practice discussion! We’re looking at Robin Zheng‘s new article, “What is My Role in Changing the System? A New Model of Responsibility for Structural Injustice”, which can be downloaded here. Maeve McKeown kicks things off with a critical précis, which appears immediately below. Please join the discussion!
Structural injustice is ‘ordinary injustice’ (Young 2011). When individuals go about their daily lives, working, consuming, renting or buying property etc., there are unintended, cumulative outcomes that result in the oppression of certain social groups. The problem is, as Robin Zheng points out, how can individuals be held responsible for this?
On Iris Marion Young’s “social connection model” (SCM) of responsibility, all agents connected to the injustice share political responsibility to collectively organise to struggle against it. But the SCM has limitations. By addressing these limitations, Robin comes up with a new model of responsibility – the Role Ideal Model (RIM). Robin’s paper is very detailed, rich and thought-provoking, and a welcome addition to the literature on how to establish individuals’ responsibilities for structural injustice. I’ll outline Robin’s argument and then explain why, ultimately, I don’t think the RIM improves on the SCM.
The Structural Turn
Robin understands structural injustice through the lens of “the intersectionality thesis,” according to which ‘different oppressions co-constitute and mutually reinforce one another.’ To rectify one form of oppression (e.g. gender inequality), we must also fight against other forms of oppression (racism, classism, ableism etc.). So Robin understands structural injustice as ‘the sum total of oppressions, and the ways in which they interact with and compound one another, taken holistically.’
Robin identifies a structural turn in recent political theory (Young, Haslanger, Lavin). This contrasts to two previous approaches. The “aggregative approach,” which understands individuals’ responsibilities for injustice in relation to their membership of collectivities (the state, military, corporations), and considers how responsibility is distributed among group members. The “individualist approach” takes a moral principle (complicity, unjust enrichment, duties of assistance) and applies it to individuals in relation to injustice.
But structuralists point out that all agents (including powerful agents) are constrained by social structures. They focus on the structures, which, Robin argues, has two advantages: it increases the objects of moral responsibility from discrete actions by individuals or collectives to background conditions, like racism and neoliberalism; and it increases the range of responsible subjects, rejecting the guilty/non-responsible binary, and considering how all agents can be held responsible. To do this, structuralists distinguish between different kinds of responsibility. They argue that responsibility for structural injustice is forward-looking, not grounded in desert or causation, and non-blameworthy.
Robin argues that theorists in the aggregative and individualist camps understand responsibility as attributability; as a metaphysical problem, which connects responsibility to agency, thus providing grounds for blame or punishment. Structuralists understand responsibility as accountability; as a moral or political problem whereby a community has to distribute the burdens of redress, regardless of who or what caused the injustice. For structuralists, the bar for acquiring responsibility is lowered.
The Role-Ideal Model of Accountability
Like the SCM and other structuralist approaches, the RIM does not replace the attributability model of responsibility. Instead, it establishes responsibility for structural injustice, while recognising that all agents are constrained by the structures. How it differs from the SCM, is that it grounds that responsibility not in “connection” to structural injustice, but in our pre-existing social roles.
All people occupy multiple social roles (job, relationship, carer, citizen etc.). Each role has a set of expectations that are predictive (beliefs about how a person will act) and normative (beliefs about how they ‘should act and be’).
These expectations depend upon the relationships the role-holder has with others, which are divided into “role-segments.” In each role-segment there are associated forms of behaviour and attitude. So a teacher has relationships with students, parents, superiors, the teacher’s union, policymakers etc. In the role-segment “teacher-student”, the teacher instructs the student on how to do academic work, she feels concern when the work isn’t good, etc.
The expectations are maintained by the role-holder and by others through sanctions, which can be positive/negative, informal/formal, internal/external.
Robin draws on two sociological theories about the relationship between social roles and structure. “Structural-functionalism” seeks to understand how society holds together. On this view, social roles enable the division of labour and facilitate the smooth, continuous functioning of the whole. Social roles are maintained by socialisation (internalisation of system requirements) and sanctions. Society is a ‘boundary-maintaining system.’
“Symbolic interactionism” recognises that social roles are necessarily open to interpretation because they will be occupied by different people. On this view, social structures grow out of interpersonal interactions which are continually negotiated and changed, depending on the people filling the roles and how they interact with each other. Expectations about roles can settle over time, but they are also constantly renewed. Each person sets up a “role-ideal” – their personal interpretation of how a role can best be performed. Individuals are motivated to live up to their “role-ideals” and, when they identify with the role, find it satisfying to fulfil the expectations. This is what enables the preservation of social structure.
Robin builds up the RIM from these insights. From structural-functionalism, she takes the idea that individuals bear responsibility for fulfilling their social roles, which specify a range of duties, and will incur sanctions if they fail. Performing these roles ‘enacts’ structure. Taking from symbolic interactionism, she argues that ‘it is this simultaneous psychological and normative force of role-ideals that connects individual agency to social structure in such a way as to ground moral responsibility.’ The RIM is thus distinguished from the SCM, because the SCM grounds an individual’s responsibility for structural injustice in ‘causal’ connection to the injustice, whereas the RIM grounds it in an individual’s re-enactment of structural injustice through their social roles. The RIM also has a psychological and normative foundation for moral responsibility for structural injustice in the form of role-ideals.
Five Desiderata: The SCM vs. RIM
Robin argues that the RIM is preferable to the SCM for further reasons. It can respond to five practical-theoretical problems that the SCM struggles with.
First, how can individual actions produce structural change? On the SCM, structural change can only be enacted through collective action. But Young doesn’t say much about what that would look like in practice, except to say that it involves ‘pressuring powerful agents.’ Robin argues that this is a limited answer, because powerful agents are also constrained by structures so can only effect partial change, and it is an individualistic approach.
By drawing on the sociological theories described above, the RIM has better answers. Structural-functionalism helps explain why societal transformation is so difficult: change in one sub-system (political revolution) will be counter-acted by pressures from other sub-systems (the global economic order). It also explains the intersectionality thesis; that changing one sub-system (gender) is merely change within the system, rather than of the system. Symbolic interactionism explains that roles can be transformative, as well as constraining. Within a role there is a bundle of expectations, but these can be changed. Structural transformation becomes possible when all individuals throughout the system ‘push the boundaries of their social roles.’ This either leads to incremental change towards a ‘new equilibrium’ or can ‘prepare the way for more ruptural changes.’
Second, if I’m not doing anything wrong, why am I, as an individual, accountable for structural injustice? On the SCM, agents with differing degrees of power have more or less political responsibility, so citizens’ responsibility involves pressuring powerful agents to act on their responsibility. But Robin argues that this isn’t good enough because individuals can continue believing that it’s up to others to make changes, not themselves. On the RIM, all agents in all social roles have to push their boundaries of their role, and it’s their job to fight injustice because that’s what it means to perform the role well.
Third, what actions should an individual take? Young offers four “parameters of reasoning” for political responsibility; an individual should act depending on how much power, privilege, interest or collective ability they have in relation to injustice. From an intersectional perspective, however, an individual can be simultaneously an oppressor and oppressed, thus having different degrees of power, privilege, interest and collective ability, so it can be impossible to know how to act. On the RIM, each role has an associated range of actions, so it’s more action-guiding.
Fourth, how much can an agent be held responsible for? Young’s parameters of reasoning don’t specify how much time or resources an agent should devote to challenging structural injustice. On the RIM, the specification is that individuals must perform ‘all one’s roles with a raised consciousness.’ This is demanding, but since the individual is already performing the work, it’s manageable.
Fifth, how can individuals be held accountable? On the SCM, Young argues that individuals cannot be blamed for failing to take up political responsibility or enacting it in misguided ways; but they can be criticized without blame. Young, however, doesn’t really explain what that means. On the RIM, each role has a range of expectations and if an agent doesn’t fulfil them, they will be held accountable, by being subject to sanctions, mandates from superiors, or reminders.
Robin addresses three objections to the RIM: a) that there are unjust roles, e.g. slave-owner; b) how do you know what it means to perform roles well, e.g. does a good citizen vote for Trump or Clinton?; and c) roles can be unfairly imposed, so why should a person perform the role well. But I want to raise four different objections, by way of which I will argue that the SCM is ultimately preferable to the RIM.
SCM vs. RIM
- Causal connection vs. enactment of structure
Robin argues that ‘On the SCM, individuals are responsible for unjust outcomes because of their causal contributions to structural processes. By contrast, the RIM maintains that individuals are responsible because their role performances are what constitute unjust structures.’ Thus, on the SCM individuals can avoid responsibility by denying causal connection, but on the RIM, because the individual performing their role in society is constituting that society, they cannot avoid responsibility.
A lot hinges here on causation. But Young does not define “connection” to structural injustice exclusively as causation. I identify four forms of connection in Young’s work: existential, dependent, and causal connection, and reproduction of structures through our actions. Indeed, in Responsibility for Justice (p.59-62), Young argues that structural injustice is constantly reproduced through the actions of individuals. I argue that “connection” ought to be understood as the reproduction of structural injustice through action: e.g. when I purchase clothes in a high street shop, sweatshop labour already exists; I don’t cause it, but I reproduce it (McKeown, forthcoming). Thus, Young’s SCM can be interpreted in such a way as to avoid Robin’s objection and to already accommodate the advantage that Robin ascribes to RIM.
- Pressuring powerful agents vs. boundary-pushing
Robin argues that the SCM amounts to individuals pressuring the powerful to change the structures, which in effect means that people avoid their responsibility. She writes, ‘It remains far too easy for individuals to believe that other people can and should do the work of promoting structural change, and that they are morally in the clear so long as their causal contributions are not blatantly wrong. If, say, a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied man does not have any personal stake or interest in combating these various oppressions, he may agree that these are things that are wrong with the world but not feel compelled to act on it, so long as he himself does not engage in overtly prejudiced, exploitative, or biased ways.’
Instead, on the RIM, all agents must push the boundaries of all their social roles. Robin gives the examples of a professor, who should encourage students to adopt gender-neutral language, or sign an open letter to university administration, thereby altering what can be expected of a person within that role. Or a parent , who should consider sending their child to a school in districts they wouldn’t previously have considered.
There are at least three problems here. First, Robin argues that RIM places the burden of promoting structural change ‘within a person’s role – they are burdens that she is already committed to shouldering.’ But it isn’t true that the person is already committed to the burden of challenging structural injustice. Promoting structural change places additional demands upon that role. In one’s role as professor, mother, consumer, teacher, friend, citizen etc. an individual has to add the component of researching structural injustice and the ways in which they can push the boundaries of all their various roles to promote change, and to implement that change. This is potentially a very demanding time constraint.
Moreover, why put that time into changing all of one’s roles, instead of focusing on the area where the individual can actually promote some change? This is where Young’s parameters of reasoning are useful. If the privileged male is in a position of power in relation to a particular injustice, say he works in a corporation of some sort, he can spend his time promoting gender or racial equality in the workplace or the supply chain. If the professor has collective ability as a member of the university, she can use that to push for university-wide changes. If the mother has an interest in integration in her local school, she can campaign on that. Being an activist for justice takes up time, energy, money and other resources. The RIM encourages spreading these resources thinly by trying to improve one’s performance for justice across each and every social role. The SCM encourages focusing on the social position one occupies from which one can most effectively promote structural change.
Second, what’s wrong with pressuring powerful agents to make changes? The professor signs an open letter to the university administration because the university administration can implement university-wide changes, thus implementing more structural change than the professor can as a lone individual. The parent could consider sending her child to a different school district, or the state could implement stricter rules about the distribution of school places and promote integration in the education system. Sure, the professor, the parent, or the privileged white male could shirk their responsibilities to push the powerful for change. But then they are not taking up their political responsibility.
Third, Robin argues that individuals pressuring the powerful to change is too individualised an approach. But the RIM is an entirely privatized and individualized approach to tackling structural injustice. The mother choosing to send her child to a low-income public school, instead of a typically middle-class school, is acting alone and privately. The professor encouraging students to use gender-neutral language is also acting as a private individual. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out, if an individual spends all their time and resources thinking about how they can expand all of their various social roles, they won’t have the time to engage in collective action.
But collective action is necessary. To use climate change as an example, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These corporations can do far more to promote environmental justice than any individuals choosing to go vegan, shop locally or use recycled products. Change won’t happen unless pressure is put on these powerful actors to change, whether it’s the corporations themselves or states implementing legislation, and pressure comes from collective action.
- The underlying theory of justice
The RIM relies on a tacit underlying theory of justice, which is an intersectional feminist theory. Robin argues that this is not the case; a theory of responsibility cannot tell us what our first-order duties are. Instead it forces individuals to critically reflect on what it means to be a “good X”, which will involve debating about this with others.
But as Robin notes, roles are open to interpretation. An individual’s interpretation of what it means to be a good X will depend on their understanding of justice. Take the uber-privileged man and say he works in a global garment corporation. He is a libertarian, so he thinks that sweatshops provide jobs to workers who want and need them. He thinks that being a good employee involves maximising profits and being accountable to shareholders. He thinks that he is performing his role well. Robin wants to disagree because he’s failing to challenge the intersectional exploitation of sweatshop labour. But he can simply disagree. Even after debating with others, he can hold fast to his capitalist-libertarian theory of justice. He can continue to promote his theory of justice, which will have very different outcomes to the ones Robin wants.
Young’s SCM has the same problem; how do you persuade non-leftists of their political responsibility for structural injustice? But Young has a theory of injustice to fall back on. For her, oppression is the systematic inhibition of self-development (Justice and the Politics of Difference, 1990). Robin defines oppression more vaguely as ‘the ways in which certain social groups exercise power over others.’
Also, Young separates out different structural injustices. So this garment employee might be actively participating in the perpetuation of sweatshop labour, but maybe he’s challenging some other form of structural injustice. He could be campaigning for, say, prison reform. But Robin understands structural injustice through the lens of “the intersectionality thesis,” whereby she understands structural injustice as the confluence of all oppressions. Thus, she can’t make these claims that people can be acting on political responsibility in relation to one form of structural injustice but not others. The “good X” must subscribe to intersectional feminism to fulfil the RIM.
- Virtue ethics over politics
Robin’s theory calls on people to strive to be the best that they can within each of their roles, with a view to challenging structural injustice. But isn’t this just virtue ethics? From a virtue ethical perspective, we should all perform our roles virtuously.
Young’s SCM generates “political responsibility.” The political dimension of “political responsibility” is certainly under-explored in Young’s account. But the call to collective action at least implies the political aspect of individuals’ responsibilities for structural injustice. By contrast, throughout Robin’s article, she discusses how the RIM generates “moral responsibility.” The role-ideal model is a moral theory, not a political theory. This may or may not be a problem, depending on your perspective. But for me, it begs the question: Where’s the politics?