Tag Archives: priority

Justice and priorities

We disagree about justice but we agree about this: if knowing someone’s race, gender or social background enables you to predict how their life will go, something is seriously wrong.

But we cannot change everything at once. Or, to adapt a phrase of Aneurin Bevan’s, if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we should find out which of gender, class or race is a greater disadvantage.

At the level of political philosophy there is no answer to this question. But political philosophy can help to identify the key issues.

A simple approach

We are going to aggregate sources of disadvantage. Let’s assume that gender, class, and race are independent sources of unfair treatment and that each is equally disadvantageous. To keep things simple we will stick with a binary set of attributes, i.e.,

1. Male or female;
2. White or non-white;
3. Middle-class socio-economic status (SES) or working-class SES;
4. Privately or state educated;

(Why 1-4? Because no one has any control over whether 1-4 is true of them.)

If you fall on the right side of any disjunction (the ‘or’) you are disadvantaged and you get -5. If you fall on the left hand-side you are ‘advantaged’ and get 0.

Simple enough. We then aggregate scores. The lower the score the less disadvantage you face.

Below is a ranking of some individuals by their score. (Each measure of disadvantage is emboldened. Anyone interested in the complete ranking should email me.)

Unsurprisingly (this is England) being a white privately-educated middle-class male puts you top of the class. Equally, unsurprisingly, being a non-white, state-educated, working class female is not good for you.

1      White, Male, Middle-Class, Privately-educated:                 Disadvantage score: 0
2      White, Male, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                     -5
2      White, Female, Middle-Class, Privately-educated                                              -5
3     White, Female, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                 -10
3     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, Privately-educated:                                      -10
4     White, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                             -15
4     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, State-educated:                                         -15
5     Non-white, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                    -20

What does this tell us?

This exercise is no more than suggestive but it does enable us to pose several important questions and draw a couple of conclusions. Questions first.

1. Is it correct that each measure is equally disadvantageous?

Perhaps being female should get -7 while being working class -5.

2. Are the measures independent? Is there dynamic interplay between them? Are disadvantages (what the sociologists call) ‘intersectional‘?

For instance, if you are female, does being non-white disproportionately exacerbate the problems you face? If so, we should not aggregate disadvantage. We might need to multiply it.

3. Is the opposite true for some measures? Can disadvantages cancel each other out or partially mitigate each other?

It has been put to me that, while being a white male is more advantageous than being a white female, being a non-white female is more advantageous than being a non-white male.

4. What other disadvantages are important?

One obvious candidate is physical disability. If you are unable to walk then many places – including University College London’s Philosophy Department – are inaccessible.

I don’t know the answers to questions 1-4 but they are important. To be more precise, anyone desigining policies to reduce disadvantage should have some answers to 1-4.


Finally, assuming that the analysis here is accurate, one point can be made: it might be wrong to prioritize gender as a source of social injustice.

For example, if the analysis is accurate, Alan Johnson (a white, working-class, state-educated, male and former UK cabinet minister) faced more difficulties in rising than did Harriet Harman (a white, middle-class, privately-educated, female and former UK cabinet minister).

The significance of this is that FTSE 100 companies, universities etc. currently seek to appoint more women to senior posts. But if gender is the only measure on which they focus, they may simply be helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females get level with their male equivalents.

Clearly this an improvement but, for those interested in social justice, is it a priority? There are two ways in which it might be.

The first is that giving the relevant females the same chances as their male equivalents is intrinsically valuable irrespective of any effects on other groups in society. The problem with this claim is that helping any disadvantaged group has intrinsic value so the priority question remains.

Second, is a kind of two-for-one argument. It might be that helping one group of females has beneficial consequences for other disadvantaged groups. Breaking down some social barriers might lead to others falling too.

But it is not obvious that it will. Advancing the interests of white, middle-class, privately-educated males does not seem to have helped non-white males very much. Why should helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females have different effects?

One reason might be that gender disadvantage is more severe than class or racial disadvantage.  If so, reducing gender inequality will knock down a higher social barrier. This point connects to question 1 above and illustrates how important the question is.

More generally,  if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we need to address questions 1-4 before we have much of an idea about social justice priorities, including the relative importance of appointing more women to senior posts.

**The actual quote is ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’.