I’m sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street Movement—or what I will call the 99% Movement—as I can relate to some of their—or “our”—concerns. But much of my sympathy is due not to claims the movement has made, but instead (i) the fact that there are a number of people in the movement who are showing their own stories about hardships, despite their efforts in overcoming their obstacles and (ii) the fact that I have friends whose stories are similar to those part of the movement. In this short piece, I’m going to identify some epistemological problems that I believe would work well to really show that the movement is both representative of 99% of us and brings up concerns that violate basic, and shared conceptions of justice.
I’d like to reintroduce a distinction Robert Nozick makes, roughly put, between end-result principles and historical principles. (Consult his famous Anarchy, State, and Utopia; note that he also speaks of patterned principles, and that he doesn’t explicitly talk about “policies”. Any divergence in terminology will be okay enough to illustrate the distinction Nozick has in mind.) Utilitarian style principles and egalitarian style principles are end-result, in that the justice of some policy or some distribution of goods, services, and resources will be determined by whether or not the results of the policy or the resulting distribution maximizes utility (utilitarianism) or satisfactorily meets conditions of equality (egalitarianism). Great disparities in wealth can be deemed unjust according to some forms of egalitarianism, which is once again an end-result theory of justice. Nozick challenges us to consider how a policy or a distribution is unjust if it abides by certain historical principles—principles which emphasize certain conditions that have to be met in the process of deciding on and implementing policies, as well as the process by which any distribution results. In the case of assessing policies in democratic societies, the justice of the policy will not be (at least directly) assessed according to the results gotten, but instead by how well the process of policy making and implementation meets certain conditions necessary for genuine democracy. So, for example, if some set of policies resulted in a distribution of goods and services such that 99% of the population was barely above the line of poverty, whereas the other 1% each possessed millions of dollars, this would not necessarily be unjust, just so long as the policy was decided upon and implemented in a genuinely democratic way. This kind of assessment of the justice of policies is, once again, from the perspective of those who hold that historical principles are the appropriately fundamental principles of justice, not end-result principles.
Let me now motivate why Nozick’s challenge is relevant, I think. Some of the 99% movement have publicized their own stories, usually ones of being in considerable debt, either through educational loans or through mortgage loans. Often the stories are ones in which employment is not feasibly available, as they have tried for (in some cases) years to gain employment all without success. These stories are sad, and they, to me, indicate that something isn’t quite right about the plethora of national and state policies. Nevertheless, there are those who doubt the injustice of these results. Some of the stories do seem idiosyncratic, yet still sad. For example (I’m making this hypothetical), suppose the case of someone who is 24 years old and holds a B.F.A., but with $110, 000 school debt. She is also underemployed. She works 30 hours/week at $10/hr with no benefits. This is unfortunate and sad, and perhaps even something indicative of injustice. Nevertheless, there will be some who question how this person got into her plight. Explanations may lead to bad personal decision-making and not necessarily to corporate conspiracy for the sole purpose of profit-maximization. We could of course retort by quoting a claim by the “collective statement of the protestors in Zuccotti Park”, which reads “They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”
This retort is problematic, though, for a few reasons. First, the action/practice of “holding hostage” must be specified. The second problem concerns whether education is a human right, and more specifically, what the precise content of that right is, if it exists in the first place. It seems that in our society, each of us have a right to the education necessary to be informed, active participants of democracy. But it is not obvious that any given person has a right to study fine arts, if the only way to finance that endeavor is by forcing someone else to pay $110,000 for it. This then motivates the fairness of making a loan to the person pursuing the endeavor. Of course, there is a further worry of financing a loan to someone whose prospects of paying it off are slim (thereby incurring more debt to that person). The third, and most important, problem with the retort is that it doesn’t directly address what I’ve called Nozick’s challenge. Unless “holding hostage” is spelled out in a truthful way that is morally problematic (e.g., students are forced to purchase loans upon being forced or manipulated into attending college), it will be left open about whether the student’s resulting debt is unjust, just so long as we are concerned about historical principles, not end-result principles. If those of the 99% could flesh out their stories in such a way that certain violations occurred in their incurring of their debt, then this would be very helpful, if not much more persuasive, to those doubting the injustice of their plight.
There are, though, claims made by the “collective statement of the protestors of Zuccotti Park” which I think start from Nozick’s challenge. For example, we have: “They
Let me now contrast two other claims made by the protestors of Zuccotti Park, or who are alternatively called “the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square.” This first claim is this: “They
I’m going to end this essay by making explicit some of the epistemological observations, and which should then emphasize the primacy of debating and illustrating the issues in terms of historical, as opposed to end-result, principles. First, hearing stories of those with lots of school debt but with very limited job opportunities may at first compel some to think that something is wrong with the workings of our economic and political system. But according to some, the burden of proof is placed back on those sharing their stories. Historical considerations creep back up—How did you get into so much debt? What have you done in terms of trying to get a job? Etc. If the stories could be fleshed out in such a way that it becomes clear to the skeptic that historical principles have been violated, then the burden has been shifted into a sphere of how one’s injustice is to be rectified and compensated for. Second, our intuitions might not be reliable when broad, bold (and yet perhaps true) claims are made—e.g., the one that says that “They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.” We might at first think that this is true, but then as we reflect on it, we might realize that evidence has to be given which establishes this claim. Additionally, it is not obvious that such actions/practices are morally impermissible (or unjust) until more is said about how this is, in fact, true. Epistemically, the best approach is to provide lots of details and lots of context. These details will be of the historical sort, and then can be used to persuade those who aren’t initially persuaded (or who become dissuaded) about the end-results (such as significant debt). Finally, I hope that this piece has been helpful in refining the efforts of those of us who continue in this movement. And although the initial efforts of the movement have been perhaps necessarily bold and perhaps even courageous, this does not mean that the movement shouldn’t be responsive to the idea of making a detailed, epistemically friendly disclosure of the facts exposing systematic (historical) injustices.
Joel Dittmer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Missouri University of Science & Technology.