Let’s get started. I read Justice first, but I’m going to begin by outlining School Choice and Social Justice. It’s simply a bit more concrete.
Let me offer a point about justice before I begin. I’ve heard on popular radio the outrage at—mostly liberal perspectives—use of the phrase “social justice.” I’m thinking Glenn Beck in particular here, but certainly other conservative commentators have made similar criticisms. The phrase is allegedly used to warrant significant redistribution in income, and we are supposed to be wary of anyone who uses the phrase “social justice.” After all, the Nazis used it! To me, this is absurd. Glenn Beck has a view about what social justice is. He may not use that word; he may instead say that redistribution is “theft”, “a violation of property rights”, “unconstitutional”, or “not what the founders intended.” But, these are all different ways of suggesting that redistribution of income is unjust. If you are offering a meaningful political philosophy that has prescriptive content, i.e., it tells you that the world would be better if it were this way, or that way, then that system will be based on your account on what you think is the most just set of social arrangements.
On to School Choice and Social Justice. I’ll begin with an overview of the book: what Brighouse’s project is and his philosophical background. Then, I’ll tackle each section of the book, discussing points I found philosophically interesting on the way. This book is about whether school choice mechanisms match up with our beliefs about the purpose of education as it relates to social justice. Brighouse believes that the purpose of education is to give children the opportunity to become autonomous citizens, the meaning of which I’ll discuss extensively. Call that view his theory of educational justice. Brighouse argues that school choice is, in fact, consistent with his theory and offers a specific program at the end of the text. Brighouse advocates egalitarian liberalism—a political philosophy that is based both with reference to J.S. Mill’s construction of liberalism and egalitarian notions of equality of opportunity. Brighouse frequently appeals to both Mill and John Rawls.
A quick comment here about Mill’s construction of liberalism, which is the one that I most identify with. While I identify as a classical liberal, I do not identify as a libertarian. I also think there are limitations on my liberalism (for instance, I support seat belt laws), but, in general, my thoughts start from a liberal perspective. [Note that I am using liberalism in the classical sense, not the modern sense]. One can divide liberals or libertarians into two groups, “thin” and “thick.” The main can be understood through a simple ethical question:
Should persons be able to sell themselves into slavery?
“Thin” libertarians or liberals believe that they should. In fact, anyone ought to be able to enter into any contract so long as both parties enter voluntarily. “Thick” libertarians or liberals believe that slavery is a violation of the individual rights and should not be permitted. Mill was the latter kind of liberal, and so am I. I believe there should be limitations on the types of contracts people are allowed to enter legally. Specifically, I do not believe that any contract that violates inalienable rights (as we have construed them) should be legally enforceable. I am unclear whether this is Brighouse’s view as well.
Brighouse begins with an overview of liberalism, beginning with ethical individualism. Ethical individualism is the view that the only thing that matters morally are individuals. When liberals talk about the good of society or whatever, they are really just talking about the aggregate good of persons. Social groups then, have no special moral consideration independent of the individuals that make them up.
We should contrast this with a few other kinds of “individualism.” Austrian economists and thinkers advocate methodological individualism. This is the view that the only thing that actually exists, metaphysically speaking, are individuals. That is, all explanations of social phenomena are reducible to individual motivations and behaviors.
Then, there’s an individualism that says that we shouldn’t consider an individual’s group identity at all. Take a particular argument against affirmative action. It says that affirmative action is wrong because it considers group identities and not individual identities. For example, how should colleges determine admissions? Those who advocate this view typically suggest that which group a person belongs to shouldn’t matter. It should be only their individual achievements and traits that should be considered.
Lastly, there’s an “individualism” that’s roughly equal to selfishness or self-interest. This view, though sometimes included in liberal theories, has nothing to do with liberalism itself, but is sometimes an extension of it. Liberals often posit, on the contrary, not only that individuals are not exclusively self-interested, but that other motivations (perhaps ethical ) significantly affect their actions.
Ethical individualism, then, is the only kind of individualism that is a necessary feature of liberalism.