The death of George Floyd and the ensuing focus on inequalities faced by black Americans and Britons has seen much discussion of ‘structural injustice’ or ‘structural unfairness’. The concept raises uneasy questions. That the UK is structurally unequal, against various groups, is indisputable. It is indisputable too that, as a decent society, we should investigate the causes of those inequalities so we can remedy them. But the assumption that our structural inequalities must be the result of some sort of endemic injustice is questionable. And the notion of a collective injustice, enacted through a structure rather than by morally responsible individuals, is itself an injustice – and, for those combatting inequality, probably self-defeating.
What is structural injustice?
Belief in what is currently labelled ‘structural injustice’ tends to assume that evidence of inequality is proof of an underlying structure of unjust prejudice. This involves conflating clear instances of injustice – for instance the killing of George Floyd – with statistical inequalities, for instance the disproportionate frequency with which members of a certain community are arrested.
It is asserted that the unfair event is merely one instance in a structure of injustice, which causes and explains the wider statistical pattern of inequality. This structure derives from the (indisputable) racism that characterised our society in the past. The disadvantages our predecessors unfairly and knowingly imposed on minority groups are inherited in the present day as cycles of poverty, and disbelief that meritocratic advancement is possible. Whereas the majority, even though they may no longer hold expressly discriminatory beliefs, inherit an ‘unconscious bias’ which perpetuates the cycle of unfairness.
The argument that structural inequality is caused by structural injustice ultimately relies, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the notion of some subliminal prejudicial malice or ‘force’. Indeed, it couldn’t be otherwise. There is in present-day Britain too little evidence of explicit identity-based malice to claim that it amounts to a structural problem. The only option is to point to the isolated instances of prejudice that do occur (and which indeed can be frightful) and postulate that they form merely the tip of an iceberg – they are the visible manifestations of a much wider, hidden of network of prejudice that underlies and shapes our entire society.
Inequality vs. injustice
Inequality needs to be distinguished from injustices such as racism or sexism. ‘Inequality’ describes a statistical fact, where goods are distributed unequally in a society. It is morally bad or unsatisfactory if a society is unequal. It is virtually certain that an unfair society will also be unequal, and it is often the case that unequal societies are also unfair. However inequality does not necessarily arise from some morally wrong act such as discrimination.
Injustice, on the other hand, is a moral wrong. It is the failure, for which some other person can be held responsible, to treat a person in accordance with their dignity. A society that deprives members of certain benefits – educational opportunity, legal fairness – on the basis of their ethnicity, or any other immutable characteristic, would be both unequal and unjust. Such a society would, moreover, be unequal because of its injustice.
So asserting that persistent inequality is an injustice has certain effects. It imposes moral (or even legal) liability on those treating others unfairly, who are in turn entitled to a remedy for their mistreatment. When the alleged wrong is ‘structural’, and enacted by society as a whole, how then can we know who should be liable, and who has been wronged?
Is justice ever ‘structural’?
It isn’t clear what ‘structural’ injustice is. Can justice be done ‘structurally’? Or does justice proper always concern the treatment of individual persons?
Consider a case where an individual had suffered unjust discrimination, for reasons of race or gender or sexuality. In weighing up the case, we would (one hopes) pay no attention to whether society is otherwise structurally fair to that individual and his or her group, or whether the mistreatment in question did anything to disrupt the overall structure of fairness.
Doing so would be simply bizarre. The treatment of others has no bearing on whether the individual in question has been wronged. The wrong to that individual cannot be mitigated or excused (or amplified) by appeal to wider trends, or to social ‘forces’ or structures. The treatment of the individual is the sole relevant measure of fairness.
The wrong may have had the effect of enforcing a social structure – by rejecting the victim as a despised ‘other’ alien to the majority. And the wrong may have been part of a trend whereby such wrongs are regularly committed against persons belonging to the victim’s group. But the wrong still consists in the failure to treat the victim with the dignity he was due – that measure of dignity does not change in light of how others are treated. It is inalienably his as an individual person, and only as such. Therefore it cannot be averaged down in relation to the group he belongs to, and nor can it be increased or decreased by virtue of his belonging to that group (as would happen e.g. in a caste system).
A utilitarian approach where fairness is measured in aggregate, according to the structural whole, risks serious injustice against the individual. We know where this leads – real wrongs suffered by individuals are dismissed as statistically trivial, and ‘structural’ wrongs are blamed on other individuals who may be entirely blameless.
We insist on the individual as the measure of fairness precisely because we know so well the brutality that ensues from utilitarian alternatives.
So if structural, or aggregate, injustice is irrelevant in fair assessment of whether an individual has been wronged, does it follow that it is always irrelevant because justice always, ultimately concerns individuals? I suspect it does follow.
It might be fairly objected that of course the measure of fairness in individual cases must be the individual him or herself, because his or her treatment is the issue at hand we are trying to resolve. However this approach can’t suffice when we consider unfairness against social groups as a whole.
Here too, however, the ultimate measure of fairness will, irresistibly, be the individual. Two specific reasons stand out. First, the alleged structures of unfairness are so unpredictable, and so inconsistent in their workings, that we can only tell whether they are at work by abandoning any assumption of a structure, and instead adopting assessing cases individually. Second, social groups only have moral status by virtue of the individuals that compose them.
When are structures at work, and how do we know when they drive our actions?
To give a rough domestic example – there are, no doubt, various inequalities between my wife and me, for instance in the division of labour around the house. These might be said to be manifestations of a structural injustice. If that is so, then what explains other non-structural inequalities in her favour – regarding salary, say? If the injustices between men and women are structural, then it is unclear what pattern the structure takes and what determines when the structure applies and when it doesn’t. The occurrences of injustice cannot be random, as then they would not be structured or ‘systemic’.
Now turn to a more contentious example – the killing of George Floyd. This was an example of two structural inequalities – the high rate at which African-American men are stopped or arrested by police, and the high rate of violence (including unlawful violence) used against them during arrest.
Only a court can decide the matter, but it seems beyond doubt that Floyd’s death at the hands of police was an injustice and a crime. The court will also presumably rule on whether the killing was racially aggravated.
However the officers’ suspicion that he had committed the crime of using forged currency, and the decision to arrest him, were not obviously motivated by racist malice – though, again, that may be for a court to decide. It seems at least arguable that officers would have suspected, and arrested, any citizen in those circumstances.
The ‘structure’ of racism seems to have operated unevenly – it cut out and cut back in again. The structure wasn’t ostensibly, or necessarily, at work in driving the officers to arrest him, but it probably was at work in motivating them to inflict unlawful violence. One instance of inequality (the killing) was almost certainly an injustice, but the other (the arrest) probably was not. The aggregated statistics – the details of the inequality – won’t get us anywhere in deciding whether there was an injustice.
Let’s say instead that the officers were motivated purely by racist malice in arresting Floyd, and by sheer luck it turned out that in fact there were legitimate reasons to suspect he had carried out an offence. Even so, we could not know this unless we had assessed the individual case and explored the officers’ motives – structural injustice theory errs by falsely presuming, without evidence, what we in fact do not know.
So even in the most flagrant example of injustice against a member of a marginalised group, we cannot assume that injustice underpins every inequality, or that the justice of the matter can simply be read off from aggregated statistics. The alleged ‘structure’ of unfairness is an unconvincing explanation because it is so unpredictable. It does not have the patterned regularity that we expect of a structure. If it really is the determining cause of inequality, then what explains the gaps in the structure where it does not produce the expected effect? There may well be something going on, and it may be unjust in some way – but the evidence is too patchy and inconsistent to infer the hidden, monolithic structure of injustice that social justice theory posits.
To say that an instance of inequality is an instance of injustice, we have to look at the individual case, not just the statistics. And having looked at the individual cases, we must then, and only then, ask ourselves if in aggregate they constitute a pattern or structure of unfairness. If they do, then our society is indeed structurally unfair. That case has not yet been made out.
Groups are not persons
The second reason for rejecting a notion of group justice – social groups only have moral status by virtue of the individuals that compose them.
To do justice is to allot to someone the treatment that is properly due to them – in accordance with their innate dignity as persons (i.e. their human rights), with their merits, and also with their actions (e.g. by way of punishment for crimes). But there is no fair way we could measure a group’s merits or wrongs ‘structurally’ such that we could reward or punish them according to their due. Any group reward or punishment would almost certainly result in undue, and therefore unfair, punishment or reward of certain individuals. Contrary to what justice demands, we would not treat like cases alike.
Leaving aside artificial constructs such as bodies corporate and other ‘legal persons’, we have no measure, either in law or morality, of what is due to a group of persons considered as an entity. Any attempt to protect a group’s human rights, or any other entitlement to dignity, would only succeed if it protected the fundamental dignities of the individual members of that group – only individuals can exercise such rights as freedom of expression, for instance, or choosing to participate in a protest, or the right to a fair trial. Any claim that the group’s rights or entitlements had been infringed could only be assessed fairly by individuating the claims.
A group does not have ‘personhood’ – it is not an entity that has identifiable rights and duties attaching to it that can be enforced. The group’s individual members do, however. Any attempt to assess properly and fairly an injustice towards a group will inevitably devolve into an assessment of how that group’s individuals are treated. If all or most of those members have their rights infringed, or are otherwise treated unfairly, then and only then can we talk of a structural injustice. Appeal to vague ‘structures’ of mistreatment might suffice in asserting sociological generalities, but they cannot suffice for determining moral and legal rights and wrongs.
Indeed, social justice advocates often seem to accept as much. The most vocal protests against alleged structural injustices derive much of their moral force from striking mistreatment of individuals such as George Floyd or Eric Garner. The rot sets in with the next, unwarranted shift in the argument – the claim that these indisputable injustices result from a hypothetical ‘structural’ malice, that the same malice causes persistent inequality, and that the privileged majority are therefore morally responsible for both in equal measure.
The social justice advocates may well turn out to be right – it could be that, if we recorded instances of individual injustice, we would see a clear structured pattern of unfairness towards individuals belonging to certain social groups. In that case, our society would indisputably be structurally unfair, and we should urge its reform.
So why not simply assume that society is structurally unjust, if that would be the likely outcome of any investigation into individual instances of injustice? The answer to that, I argue next, is because the consequences of such an assumption are repugnant, and harmful to the pursuit of fairness.
Fairness towards the majority
However distasteful it may seem, we must also be fair to the majority that is alleged to inflict structural injustice, whatever their alleged privilege. If we must presume that structural inequality is a structural wrong, then who is responsible? On what grounds is it fair to attribute responsibility? And will the attribution of responsibility ultimately further the aim of ensuring just treatment of all persons, including those alleged to be victims of structurally unfair treatment?
It is clear that structural inequality is not necessarily the result of wrongdoing that should be remedied and/or punished – or at least, that it is odd to treat it as such. Much democratic political debate concerns the reduction of structural inequalities – in education, income, access to resources – but political parties do not compete with one another by offering voters ever more generous ‘compensation’ packages or by pledging to punish the wrongdoers who inflict the inequality. Rather, they propose to undo the inequality by way of reform. It is an established principle of our political morality that we do not remedy social inequalities in the same way that we remedy wrongs done by and to individuals.
The structural injustice critique rejects that principle. Structural unfairness is both a social problem, and a moral wrong committed on undeserving persons by responsible persons. We must perform, and demand from others, penitence for the wrong of structural injustice.
We should apply the same principle that we apply in assessing whether a group has been treated unjustly – in the individual case, has someone done a wrong for which they should be held responsible? Any other approach would merely result in further injustice – the accusation of a ‘structural’ wrong would unfairly condemn individuals guilty of no malice, whatever the bad actions of some of their fellow citizens. Any demand that such individuals do penance, or suffer some detriment by virtue of their complicity in a structural injustice, would fall foul of the just prohibition of collective punishment.
It may be argued – and, in veiled terms, it sometimes is argued – that the injustice of a blanket accusation of structural injustice is a small price to pay for the injustices past and present done against marginalised groups. In purely commensurate terms, that may be true. But no argument that two wrongs make a right deserves to be taken seriously.
Problems of conscience
All sorts of problems arise when we say that matters of moral conscience are determined by subliminal social forces. Accusations of identity-based malice are extremely serious, so I should know when the ‘structure’ is driving my actions, and what I need to do in order to free myself from the structure. But how can I? If the malice manifests itself through ‘unconscious bias’, then can any conscious attempt at moral reflection and improvement help me, or will the structure just assert itself as a brute social force despite my individual conscience?
This is, I think, important. There is little point in trying to do good, if some overriding social force undermines my good intentions and curses me to complicity in some structural malice. What reward would I get for doing the right thing other than further shame?
Rather strangely, it seems those most willing to accept that they are corrupted by structural injustices are people who are scrupulously conscientious in their attitude to marginalised groups. Many of them have no doubt been schooled in the Jesuitical rigours of social justice theory, and can take in their stride the antinomy of being the best person they can while accepting that the original sin of structural injustice makes their efforts largely pointless. But what of someone who starts out as a bigot? There would be little point in the bigot changing his or her mind, and rejecting prejudicial malice, as they would anyway remain guilty of the unconscious bias that underpins structural injustice. If their bias is unconscious, can they even change their mind? And if his bias is the result merely of social conditioning, then why should he take responsibility for it and attempt to better himself? After all, it isn’t his fault.
Or let’s take the less extreme example of a decent, liberal person who, following a training session, comes to realise all of her unconscious biases. That’s not to be sneered at – it might result in her treating others more fairly. However, could she ever be sure that she is ‘cured’ and no longer part of the structure of unfairness? The training received might be revealing, or educational, but it is not transformational. It doesn’t change her fundamental cognitive capacities. This person was reflective and self-conscious even before she underwent training – if she couldn’t previously understand her own mind and the forces that shape it, then why should she able to in the future? The self-awareness that she gains by doing the training will be as delusory as the self-awareness she possessed previously – the structure can still work its malice on her. If accused of complicity in the structures of unfairness, she would have little or no defence, as her accuser could defeat any claim of self-improvement simply by pointing to the insidious power of structures. What is the point of any attempt at self-improvement in the face of structural unfairness, if it will not result in real progress?
A ghost in the machine
It is unclear whether we could ever defeat accusations of structural injustice, even if our society were to improve dramatically. The charge of structural injustice could, I suspect, be levelled reductively, in any instance where inequality exists. The accusation can defeat any objection that our thinking is being misrepresented, or that we in fact lack the malice attributed to us, because accusers claim special insight into a ‘structural’ mindset that overrides our conscious selves.
Just how far could this be taken?
Imagine a future society in which, through some sort of scientific development, discriminatory malice had been wiped out – say the gene that causes it had been identified and switched off.
Such a society would nevertheless almost certainly contain some inequality between groups, simply because it is highly unlikely that every social good would be distributed in exact proportions to each demographic within that society. Diverse societies are highly unlikely also to be uniform. Some of those inequalities could feasibly become ‘structural’ – through custom, automatic thinking, choice etc., a pattern could be established, even in the absence of discriminatory malice, whereby a certain group would receive an unequal share of society’s advantages.
Even in such a society, the social justice theorist would still have no conceptual difficulty in asserting that the inequality was caused by structural injustice – that no change to our minds, even if wrought physically, could prevent the malign workings of the unconscious; that changes to individuals would do nothing to defeat self-replicating social forces of discrimination; that the legacy of the past, before discrimination was abolished, still determined our actions through inherited vocabulary and institutional structures.
This suggests that even enormous, real achievements in eradicating discriminatory malice could be dismissed out of hand simply by alleging that structural injustice is the cause of inequality. For the social justice theorist, the reality of moral progress and conscience can always be denied, simply because inequality continues to exist, and the ghost of structural injustice can always be conjured to scare away any notion that our society may have the capacity to become fairer.
Perhaps this is taking matters too far. Perhaps, indeed, I am being unfair, and social justice theory is not wholly baseless – it might require certain non-trivial conditions to be satisfied before an accusation of structural injustice can be well made. However, we should be aware of the dangerous overreach inherent in ‘ghost in the machine’ explanations, of which structural injustice is an example.
A ghost in the machine is a causal factor that is posited rather than discovered. An explanation of this kind claims to have identified some underlying cause, or ‘x factor’, that explains why things are as they are – for instance, the claim that structural injustice explains why our society is unequal, or the claim that the existence of the soul explains how we can exercise free will.
Ghost in the machine explanations hypothesise or assert an explanatory principle, which may be helpful in providing a neat and elegant explanation, but unhelpful in that the posited explanatory factor might not actually exist. Indeed, a ghost in the machine explanation might do no more than beg the question, by giving a name to the causal factor being sought, without actually identifying it or proving its existence. Seventeenth-century scientists seeking to explain why certain materials were combustible posited the existence of a fire particle, which they called ‘phlogiston’. They managed to provide an answer to the question ‘what makes certain substances combustible?’ However the answer – ‘phlogiston’ – simply meant ‘that thing which makes certain substances combustible’. It identified a man-made hypothesis, an idea, rather than the physical item that causes fire.
In some cases, ghosts in the machine are easily banished. Scientists abandoned the notion of phlogiston as the cause of combustion because eventually further empirical evidence became available – the existence of oxygen – and they no longer needed to rely on a hypothetical construct.
In other cases, these ghostly explanations can haunt us indefinitely, particularly where empirical evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis is unavailable – regarding the existence of the soul, for instance, or indeed the workings of structural injustice. These explanations may be unverifiable, but are difficult to dismiss because they are also unfalsifiable – perhaps some mysterious trans-mental malice does lurk in the unconscious minds of white heterosexual males, and this explains patterns of inequality? I can’t say I know for a fact that it doesn’t.
The ghost in the machine is doubly difficult to banish if denying its existence is blasphemous or, as in the case of structural injustice, might lead to denunciation, damage to reputation or even loss of one’s job.
That structural injustice theory is a false belief, or a fiction, is not necessarily harmful in itself – people are free to believe in fictions, and it is churlish to chastise someone simply because they hold an irrational belief when I think they should not. If a fiction is harmful, however, then its persistence, and its resistance to rebuttal, is a serious problem and a legitimate concern for us all.
Why this matters
This matters because structural injustice is a pernicious fiction. It is likely to harm us. It holds that social conditioning overrides our ability to reason about morality as individuals – that individual conscience is powerless before the depredations of subliminal social forces.
This is dangerous and wrong. It is demeaning to deny individuals’ capacity for moral agency and conscientiousness. If we are simply the programmable plaything of social forces, then we are less than fully human. It is beneath the dignity of each of us to accept the arguments of social justice theorists.
This is not to say that we do not at times think automatically, or accept received wisdom uncritically. It would be absurd to say that the unfair treatment of women in our society in centuries past resulted from a majority of men each deciding individually, by way of conscious reflection, that women should be treated as second-class citizens. That seems simply improbable. The lives of women improved, however, because members of our society – female and male – were not limited to the systemic, automatic thinking of their day. They defied accepted wisdom by changing their minds – they believed in, and effected, fairer laws and social customs.
Theories of structural injustice are harmful because they risk ruling out that possibility. They make social structures all-powerful, and encourage us to believe that conscious belief and moral reflection have no power to change them.
We need to believe, and ought reasonably to believe, that acts of conscience are efficacious and can change society. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, and indeed the Black Lives Matter movement, did not arise from some sudden surge in structural fairness. They came about because people changed their minds about what is fair. Members of those movements believed that acts of conscience could change the minds of others and could change the world for the better.
Reducing structural inequality is unquestionably a worthwhile and necessary aim for our society. It will enable more persons to flourish to their fullest extent, maximising the happiness of individuals and their contribution to our society’s success. Achieving that goal will require the belief, held in good faith, that we are doing the right thing – that actions from conscience can be effective, that minds can change, and that we are not the mere plaything of structural forces. The theory of structural injustice undermines all of those necessary conditions of making society more just.
Structural injustice is not a meaningless term. In apartheid South Africa, black individuals were systematically treated unfairly, in accordance with express legal requirements – a clear structural injustice. In Northern Ireland prior to the reforms of the 1970s, Roman Catholics were subject to systematically unfair treatment, not through expressly discriminatory laws but through discriminatory behaviour which, in its regularity and consistency, could be called ‘structural’.
If it can be shown that British society systematically treats individuals unfairly on the basis of their identity, whether by law or by convention, then we must conclude that Britain is indeed a structurally unjust society, and should advocate urgent reform.
Even if it could not be established that our society mistreats individuals in a structural or systematic way, Britain would undoubtedly be an unjust society if it tolerated recurring patterns of inequality and made no efforts at reform. In a society built on just principles we would never say that, so long as all citizens are treated equally by the law and given equal opportunities, we needn’t care about enormous disparities in quality of life between communities. Even if such inequality is not caused by injustice, indifference to such inequality and the suffering it entails would itself be a form of injustice. It cannot credibly be argued that Britain has made no efforts towards remedying inequality between groups. But we should keep in mind that, unless those efforts are sustained, then the charge of structural injustice will be hard to deny.
Structural injustice advocates have taken a different route, positing structural injustice as an underlying social force that drives inequality. Even though I do not find such arguments convincing, they are nevertheless understandable.
What if structural inequality in fact is caused by individuals being systemically mistreated on the basis of their identity, but we simply can’t prove it? It could be difficult, even impossible, to establish the facts about billions of decisions and social interactions, particularly in the absence of explicitly discriminatory laws and practices. Given that persistent inequality is an urgent problem, it is understandable that in response some people grasp at a hypothetical explanation, rather than wait indefinitely for an explanation that might never materialise.
In this instance, however, relying on a bad explanation is, however understandable, is likely to be more harmful than having no explanation at all.
We should take time to reflect on the problems of what is labelled structural injustice and, in my opinion, we should reject it as a concept. That rejection would not be an achievement in itself, but merely the necessary prelude to a more open-minded and patient investigation into why equality persists in our society.