Theories of Justice at Work and in Marriage

The four theories of justice — conservative, socialist, libertarian, and progressive — approach basic questions of life, from work to love, very differently. We look at two examples: the opportunity for an apprenticeship and gay marriage.

Theories of Justice at Work and in Marriage
Photo by Russ Ward / Unsplash

In a previous missive, I offered four theories of justice: the conservative, socialist, libertarian, and progressive theories of justice. In what follows, I will explore how these seemingly otherworldly distinctions can help explain our competing beliefs about justice in society. We will consider two examples.

Example 1: The Apprenticeship

Should everyone have the opportunity to become a software developer, declared one of the very best of “The 100 Best Jobs” by U.S. News & World Report? If so, why? And what do we mean by opportunity?

Let’s test our intuitions with the following admittedly hypothetical case: Bill, Jill, Phil, and Will all want to be elevator installers and repairers. The trade pays well, and they all have unique reasons to pursue the trade.

Photo by andrew welch on Unsplash

Photo by andrew welch on Unsplash

Bill passed his apprenticeship entrance exams with a perfect score, and no wonder: Bill’s father has worked on elevators his whole life; indeed, he helped write the exams! Though Bill’s father didn’t share the test questions with his son, Bill profited immensely from his upbringing. His whole life prepared him for the tests. Starting the apprenticeship will set Bill on the road to becoming like his dad, whom he admires intensely.

Jill, by contrast, passed the exams, but she did not do as well as Bill. To her credit, though, she worked very hard; she simply could not overcome the advantage Bill’s upbringing gave him. Her parents, both personal injury lawyers, wanted Jill to go to law school. But her parents’ careers persuaded Jill that more work should be done to keep people safe, so they don’t get injured in the first place. For Jill, elevator work fits that description.

Phil failed the exams, but just barely. He suffers from an intense fear of heights, a fear he has had since birth. Given his strong interest in working on elevators, he tried diligently to habituate himself to heights, but he cannot afford the therapy that would really help him. He loves the machinery, its design and elegance, and he also delights in the puzzles each installation offers.

Finally, there’s Will. He failed the exams, too. He’s also scared of heights, like Phil, but he has a different story about the source of his fear. Will used to be a smalltime tightrope walker at the local circus, until he tried to show off for some friends after getting uproariously drunk one night. He survived the fall, but the incident left him with a profound fear of heights. That night was the last he walked the wire. Obviously, like Phil, he needs therapy to overcome his fears, and, again like Phil, he cannot afford it. For Will, working in the sky will be a great reversal, a kind of absolution.

So who should receive the apprenticeship?