Justice and the “Problem” of Friendship

Chiara Cordell has just published an article in Political Studies entitled “Distributive Justice and the Problem of Friendship.”  Here is the abstract:

Friendship distributes critical benefits across society and does so unequally. Income, levels of education and health vary dramatically according to the quality of individuals’ friendships. Further, friendships shape the motivations and aspirations of their participants. In light of these facts, this article questions whether and how egalitarian requirements should apply to personal friendship. I first show that existing theories of distributive justice, whether they are ‘outcomes centred’ or ‘institutionalist’, have reasons to consider personal friendship as a direct subject of justice. However, both fail to provide reasonable guidelines for how to apply the requirements of justice to friendship. I thus argue that principles of justice, in particular fair equality of opportunity, ought to assess and govern that part of the social structure that controls the production and distribution of friendship bonds across society. I theorise a ‘relational distributive structure’, mainly constituted by civil society associations, as the appropriate subject of justice.

The basic argument is that differences in friendships creates differential, and inegalitarian, opportunities and outcomes and so friendships become, as it were, a “subject of justice.”  And since those differences in friendships end up in helping some more than others, the state has an interest in acting so as to equalize the consequences of friendship.  To her credit, Cordell doesn’t suggest anything especially totalitarian such as the state directly regulating our friendships.  Imagine each of us being categorized along three categories on account of our being more productive of social and human capital.  “Ok, you’ve already got three Cat 1 friends.  Now, you need to register some poor shlub as a friend to balance those out!” Ghastly.

But her preferred alternative is only modestly less problematic.  She supposes, rightly, that many of our friendships develop within the associations and institutions of civil society and it is here that she wants to apply the power of the state, by giving tax (and other, I suppose) advantages to associations and institutions that are more inclusive and less to those that are, of course, less.  In this way, she would place the thumb of the state on balance of civil society to create “opportunities” for people to make friends across social divides and promote her preferred sort of egalitarian justice.

One can just imagine the parade of horribles that would, no doubt, accompany such a policy (especially the insider dealing and temptation to use such a system to “reward friends and punish enemies.”) But what’s especially striking is the way that when she notes those associations that are more “exclusive,” it’s always religious groups that show up, if only in parenthetical asides.  I don’t think the point of the paper is to go after churches, but those do seem to be on her mind.  In the US, however, as much as churches are segregated by race and social status, they are the place where Americans are *most* likely to encounter someone of a different social class/profession.  What’s more, the *most* obvious places where “same” sorts of friendships are cultivated that do, in fact, help perpetuate privilege–our most elite colleges and universities–hardly get a mention.  Maybe I missed it, but I’d think that if you really want to go after the institutions in the US that do the most to create places where people make friends with people “just like themselves” (even if they look different, if people believe the same sorts of things and act similarly, they’re not really crossing social divides), our elite schools are the places to go.  So what do you say, let’s revoke the tax-exempt status of the top-50 universities in the US and cap their endowments at, say, $2 billion.

What’s that?!  You say that would destroy those institutions?  You don’t say…


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